Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 9 (September 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made by Eric James Stone
Pupa by David D. Levine
Eight Miles by Sean McMullen
Spludge by Richard A. Lovett
Red Letter Day by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Flotsam by K.C. Ball
The View from the Top by Jerry Oltion
Sandbagging by Kyle Kirkland

Science fact articles included:
Bad Medicine: When Medical Research Goes Wrong by H. G. Stratmann

Full review: The September 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is another example of the overall good quality of this magazine. Although it is weighed down by a lacklustre science fact article and a couple of mediocre stories, the high quality of the remainder of the issue more than makes up for these minor missteps.

That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made by Eric James Stone is another entry into the odd field of Mormon based science fiction (seriously, what is it about Mormonism that seems to drive people to include it as an element in science fiction stories). In this story, an LDS member working on humanity's colony on the Sun tends to his flock of Solarian converts. The Solarians are the leviathan creatures of the title, giant hydrogen creatures that inhabit the insides of stars and who make interstellar travel possible. Humanity's attempts to convert these creatures to its faiths does not go unnoticed, and the conflict over religious freedom forms the core of the story. The story isn't bad, but it isn't particularly interesting either, falling back onto some fairly tired religious cliches in its resolution, although one character does point out that the main character has placed God into a no lose position with respect to the various potential outcomes, making the actions attributed to God less than convincing as demonstrations of God's power.

Pupa by David D. Levine is another story dealing with alien interaction with humans, this time told from the perspective of an alien who has to transcend the cultural and biological limitations of its species in order to ensure its own survival and the survival of its siblings. Humans in the story are looming giants, frightening and inscrutable, so the alien interacts with a child, albeit a fairly well-placed child. The only real problem with the story is that the humans the alien interacts with are so clearly intended to be members of Barack Obama's administration and family that the story probably won't age particularly gracefully. This is a shame, because the story concerning the alien and its culture is quite interesting and told quite well. Spludge by Richard A. Lovett is yet another alien contact story, this time told with a humorous bent as a long time practical joker figures out that the aliens who have landed may not be exactly what they seem to be. There's nothing particularly insightful about the story, it is merely a somewhat humorous interlude in the issue.

Probably the most memorable story in the issue is Red Letter Day by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which tackles the long pondered question of the morality of time-travel. In short, the story poses the question: if you could send one piece of information back to your past self what would you tell them? More importantly, would you tell yourself anything? And if you did tell yourself something, could it cause more trouble than the danger you were trying to warn against? The story is set in a world in which such time travel is a reality, and everyone is allowed to send one letter back to their high school self when they turn fifty years old. Of course, some high schoolers don't get a letter, but instead get the so-called red letter indicating nothing was sent for them. The characters in the story are a group of these students, as they deal with the implications of the absence of communication from their future selves.

Flotsam by K.C. Ball is an old-fashioned engineering puzzle story, as a crew of space salvage workers must figure out a way to survive an accident in space that has crippled their ship. Typical of these stories, the fun in reading them stems from watching the characters unravel the problem they are confronted with and coming up with a solution using the tools at hand in Apollo 13 style. The solution the characters in this story come up with is pretty basic, but would probably work, and the story on the whole is pretty satisfying, if unspectacular. The View from the Top by Jerry Oltion is also something of an engineering puzzle story, although less obviously so. In this story, an astronaut assigned to a tour aboard the International Space Station finds himself subject to uncontrollable fits of emotion, and must either figure out how to get them under control or be forced to end his time in space prematurely. I'm not sure that the cause and solution that the characters arrive at is plausible, but I don't know enough about the specific science involved to state that it is implausible either. Decent characterization and good story-telling make the story pretty good either way.

Sandbagging by Kyle Kirkland is a dystopian tale in which the best of intentions have placed humanity's future in peril. Having turned all decision-making over to an orbiting computer, humanity finds itself subject to some unpleasant decisions made by its new overlord. Having already had most power sources turned off, humanity faces the possibility of mass genocide directed by its supposedly benevolent computer ruler, and the characters in the story, a set of professors and graduate students at the "University for Advanced Research" must cope with this information as well as the continuing academic squabbles over research. The conclusion of the story reminded me to a certain extent of the conclusion in Stand on Zanzibar, and any story that reminds me of that book is a pretty good one. Coming from an entirely different, but equally enjoyable angle is Eight Miles by Sean McMullen, in which a balloonist in Victorian England is hired by a wealthy Baron to hoist an unusual passenger up to high altitudes. The story seems influenced in equal parts by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne, with plenty of Victorian gadgetry and planetary romance as well as a nefarious plot that the heroic protagonist must foil. Though it isn't anything more than a fun yarn, it is a really good fun yarn, and thus it is quite enjoyable to read.

The science fact article in this issue is Bad Medicine: When Medical Research Goes Wrong by H. G. Stratmann. Like most science fact articles focused on medical developments, it is fairly dry and bland. Put bluntly, although Stratmann does his best, there is almost no way to make an article that explores the failures of medical research as interesting as one concerning new discoveries in astronomy or developments in alternative energy. Still, the article is replete with useful factual information, and covers the intended subject fairly well.

Despite the dull and dry nature of Bad Medicine, and the moderately tedious nature of That Leviathan, the rest of the issue is quite good. Both Red Letter Day and Sandbagging are superior stories, and Eight Miles and Pupa are above average. Even the engineering puzzle stories are well-executed, making them enjoyable to read. Overall, this is yet another good issue of a good publication.

Note: This volume contains That Leviathan, Whom Thous Hast Made by Eric James Stone and Eight Miles by Sean McMullen, both 2011 nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

Previous issue reviewed: July/August 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: October 2010

2011 Hugo Award Nominees

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