Friday, October 15, 2010

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 11 (November 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
Phantom Sense by Richard A. Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross
Howl of the Seismologist by Carl Frederick
Outbound by Brad R. Torgersen
Zoo Team by Allen M. Steele
Contamination by Jay Werkheiser
The Deadliest Moop by Michael A. Armstrong

Science fact articles included:
Phantom Science: The Facts Behind "Phantom Sense" by Richard A. Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross

Full review: The November 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is a strong issue with a collection of well-written space stories, including an apocalyptic tale that is probably the strongest story in the issue, plus an interconnected story and science fact article and a decent Scooby Doo style story involving an earthquake sniffing dog. Overall, this is a strong issue, filled with good to very good stories.

The best story in the issue, and the last in placement is Outbound by Brad R. Torgerson, a story that begins with humanity's suicide and a desperate flight from Earth. Torgerson pulls no punches in establishing a mood of despair, surrounding the protagonist with characters that in a lesser story would become his companions in his flight to presumed safety, but in this story they are stripped away until the our hero must contend with complete isolation in a quixotic quest for a refuge that may not even exist. The story is at turns terribly tragic and powerfully inspirational as one might expect of a tale in which the deeply rooted flaws of humanity manifest in frightening ways, and individuals struggle against the consequences, refusing to yield without fighting against the night. In short, it is a very good story.

A slightly unusual feature of this issue is that the science fact article is essentially a commentary on the science that forms the basis for the lead story in the issue. The story and the science fact article are Phantom Sense and Phantom Science: The Facts Behind "Phantom Sense" both by Richard A. Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross, and deal with the idea of using insects with electronic implants to serve as scouts to gather military intelligence. The story is pretty good: in a near future world in which the military has adopted the technology with serious human consequences to those who use it a father suffering from the psychological problems associated with retiring from having the "sense" must repair the damage his service has done to his family and save his daughter. The story focuses on the very real human costs that the posited technology imposes upon those who use it, with a central character who is at turns supremely confident and pathetically debilitated and for whom the reader always feels sympathetic. The science fact article examines all the various technologies that would be necessary to equip someone with the "sense" that is described in the story, and evaluates how close we are to actually having that technology.

Featuring an earthquake sensitive dog, Howl of the Seismologist by Carl Frederick is an almost not science fiction story involving a group of postdocs working at the Tevatron. By a happy coincidence, a physicist, a neurobiologist, and a seismologist all meet up and their individual quirky theories about reality add up to a startling discovery just in time to avert a worldwide catastrophe. The plucky heroes circumvent bureaucratic obstinacy to save the day and the bad guy even gets his comeuppance. On the whole, the theory the heroes stumble across is kind of silly, and the plot is pretty basic, but it is a serviceable effort nonetheless.

Zoo Team by Allen M. Steele is a fairly standard space emergency story that takes the form of a moderately interesting engineering puzzle layered with an examination of the effects of long term space flight on the human psyche, and a modestly interesting take on what sorts of people might be best suited to live under such conditions. There's nothing really noteworthy about the story, but it is well-written and the characters are likable and funny. Contamination by Jay Werkheiser is also a space exploration story, but set in a more distant future in which two very different ideas about how to go about human colonization on other worlds clash, with potentially deadly results. Once again, there is a minor engineering puzzle to be solved, but the primary theme of the story is the conflict between two very different approaches to an alien ecology.

The Deadliest Moop by Michael A. Armstrong is a story that more or less imagines that the crews featured on the reality show The Deadliest Catch, instead of fishing for Alaskan king crab in the Bering Sea, were cleaning up satellite debris (or moop, for "material out of place') in Earth orbit. The crew of the Anna Marie (a name suspiciously similar to the actual crab boat Cornelia Marie) pull in a mysterious object that seems suspiciously unmarked, which turns out to be more trouble than the crew expects. Outside of the parallels the story draws between present day crab fisherman and the debris fishermen of the story, there's nothing particularly original here, but the story is still pretty good.

With no weak stories, and a couple of quite good ones, this is a strong issue of Analog. All of the stories fall squarely into the reasonably hard science fiction vein, which is what one should expect from this publication, so the typical reader will probably be quite pleased with this selection of stories. To sum up, this is exactly what one should expect of an issue of Analog, providing consistently high quality science fiction stories coupled with some good science fact writing.

Previous issue reviewed: October 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: December 2010

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