Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXI, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2011) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
The First Day of Eternity by Domingo Santos
At Cross Purposes by Juliette Wade
The Unfinished Man by Dave Creek
Enigma by Sean McMullen
Stay by Stephen L. Burns
The Frog Prince by Michael F. Flynn
A Snitch in Time by Donald Moffitt
Some of them Closer Marissa Lingen
The First Conquest of Earth by David W. Goldman
Out There by Norman Spinrad
Non-Native Species by Janet Freeman
Probability Zero: Multivac's Singularity by Richard A. Lovett

Science fact articles included:
Other Earths in Space in Time by Kevin Walsh

Special features included:
Writing Fiction . . . About Yourself by Richard A. Lovett

Full review: I've said several times that the double issues of Analog and Asimov's often seem to be weaker than two of the single issues. Though I have no idea why this is, for some reason, when compiling a double issue it seems that the editors let a story or two that just isn't up to the magazine's usual standards slip through. Happily, the January/February 2011 double issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is, unlike some other double issues, full of a collection of stories that are all at least good, and has many stories that are very good. As with many issues of Analog, this issue seems to have a couple of unannounced mini-themes. In this case, the mini-themes appear to be "first contact", and "colonization", with three stories that could be broadly classified as falling into each category.

The issue leads off with an editorial by Stanley Schmidt about the difference between what he considers science fiction and what he considers alternate history and where the two intersect. Schmidt opines that although he enjoys all types of alternate history stories, an alternate history story that does not also incorporate a science fiction element simply does not meet the criteria for being included in Analog. He gives a clear and cogent explanation of the difference between alternate history and science fiction, while also providing one of the best descriptions of the parameters that serve as the boundaries of the science fiction genre that I have ever seen. I agree almost entirely with Schmidt's thoughts on the matter, which is probably one of the many reasons that Analog is my favorite genre magazine.

Stay by Stephen L. Burns is one of the quirkier stories in the issue, but it is also my favorite. Set in a future in which alien invaders eliminated humanity and replaced them by essentially uplifting the world's population of dogs to sentience, the story is both funny and thoughtful. The dogs, many of whom vaguely remember what the world was like before the aliens arrived, must deal with leftover problems from humanity's time dominating the Earth, as well as problems that they have created for themselves, although some of those problems stem from their slavish imitation of vanished humanity. The story is quite well-done, as the now human-like dogs still display very recognizable dog-like personalities, which gives a fairly serious story a very humorous angle. In the end, the story is about the power that a race's gods hold over them, but it is also about figuring out a way to let go of those gods and grow into one's own. Despite what seems like a goofy premise (and a fairly silly opening), the story is possibly the most thought-provoking in the entire issue.

The first mini-theme of the issue - first alien contact - kicks off with the first story in the issue, which also happens to be the story featured on the cover: At Cross Purposes by Juliette Wade. First contact stories are one of the classic subjects of science fiction, as the idea of humanity meeting and attempting to establish communication with an alien race seems to be one that is endlessly fascinating. This also means that new first contact stories need to attack the question from an unusual angle, and At Cross Purposes attempts to do this by throwing some cultural miscommunication into the mix. This is not a new wrinkle, it has been the theme of numerous prior stories, even appearing as an element in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, but Wade's is well-written, the aliens are interesting, as is their rather alien (but ultimately comprehensible) way of viewing the world. The story is pretty good, and fun to read. The most interesting first contact story in the issue is Enigma by Sean McMullen, which isn't really a first contact story at all, but rather a first non-contact story. A crew of explorers finds a planet covered by a world-girdling city, but with no sign of habitation, which is the enigma of the title. They stumble about trying to figure out who built this globe-covering structure, and only figure out its purpose after something of a catastrophe. One interesting twist to the story is the fact that all of the humans are modified with animal DNA which is intended to make them better at their assigned jobs, but an unspoken subtext of the story is that this interferes with their understanding of the nature of the enigma city until after one of them has done something fairly rash. The third first contact story is an alien invasion story played for laughs titled The First Conquest of Earth by David W. Goldman in which aliens show up to invade the Earth but surrender in the face of human resistance. It turns out, however, that conquering the alien invaders isn't quite as much of a boon as one might think. The story is humorous, but darkly so.

The other mini-theme in the issue is colonization of other worlds, with Some of them Closer by Marissa Lingen the better of two very strong stories. In Lingen's tale, a veteran terraformer returns to Earth after years spent transforming a colony world into a place habitable for humans. Due to the combination of the long years put in on the job and relativistic travel, she returns to an Earth much changed from when she left, and struggles to fit in. She forms a friendship with the only person who she feels comfortable with, and eventually decides to forge a new path in a decision that when made, seems like it was almost inevitable. There have been many stories dealing with the sense of dislocation that time-displaced space travelers would feel upon their return to Earth, but few have done as good a job as this one. Though not exactly a colonization story, Non-Native Species by Janet Freeman explores exactly what sort of damage introducing a new species into the environment might cause. Though the story has a little bit of an alarmist bent concerning the potential negative consequences of genetic engineering, the story itself is interesting, although the resolution is a bit too pat for my tastes. The final colonization story in the issue, and also the final story in the issue is The First Day of Eternity by Domingo Santos (translated by Stanley Schmidt) that follows the crew of the aptly named generation ship Diaspora as they set about colonizing a new world. What makes this otherwise fairly standard story about new colonists struggling to cope with an alien world and alien life is the fact that the ship was originally sent out by a Jewish organization in an effort to find and settle a new Zion. Over the generations, the Jewish faith has been morphed strangely as a result of the colonists living in a confined environment under the protection of a more or less omnipotent artificial intelligence. After living aboard ship without having to make any decisions of their own, the colonists are confronted with the possibility of life in the open and on their own. This, as one might expect, causes many of the colonists some serious consternation and leads to the more or less expected conclusion, although there is a minor twist at the end that seems both hopeful and sinister at the same time. Though the story leaves many questions unanswered, it is so good that one doesn't mind so much as one hopes that Santos will return to the characters and write more about them and their lives.

Not dealing directly with colonization, but rather on the subject to exploration is the very short Norman Spinrad penned piece Out There. In just two pages Spinrad captures exactly why humans are driven to explore and coincidentally, why people write things like science fiction stories. The story, though extraordinarily brief, is simply brilliant. As with most entries in the series, Probability Zero: Multivac's Singularity by Richard A. Lovett is also quite short, and provides a fairly humorous possible explanation for why humanity has not reached the much predicted "singularity", and why it may never do so. Also dealing with exploration, but adding questions concerning genetic engineering to the mix, The Unfinished Man by Dave Creek is a decent story about a visit between two genetically enhanced humans who meet when one checks up on the other's solitary exploration of a fairly hostile planet. With this potentially deadly environment as a backdrop, the interactions of the two characters are drawn into sharp focus and makes the epiphany the protagonist undergoes seem quite believable.

The lone time travel story in the issue is A Snitch in Time by Donald Moffitt, which also happens to be a murder mystery of sorts. Moffitt explores the potential pitfalls of using time travel to try to go back and solve a cold murder case. In the story, solving the murder this way proves to be fairly easy, but everything else proves to be a little more difficult, as using evidence gained in another time (and in the version of time travel used by the story, another reality) proves to be legally problematic. Things don't go quite like the protagonist of the story expected, but justice does prevail after a fashion. The story is an interesting twist on the science fiction murder story. Also something of a mystery is the espionage story The Frog Prince by Michael F. Flynn featuring the scarred agent with a fractured personality who first appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Analog in the story On Rickety Thistlewaite. In this story, the supposedly retired scarred man is captured by one of his enemies and is being transported to enemy territory for reasons that are only partially explained. The cat-and-mouse game between prisoner and warden takes place in the confined space of a small ship that serves as an improvised prison and paddy wagon. Though the story only has three "real" characters, since the scarred man has a half dozen personalities all swimming about inside his head, much of the action takes place internally as they debate among themselves how to escape their captor. This internal story is complemented by the external story as the scarred man deals first with his kidnapper and then with a somewhat unexpected wild card, and finally, with a deadly new element that threatens everyone on board the tiny ship. Full of intrigue and interesting characters, this is one of the best stories in this issue.

The science fact article in the issue, Other Earths in Space in Time by Kevin Walsh, deals with the ongoing issues concerning the recent discoveries of hundreds of extrasolar planets, and specifically with the possibility of discovering other Earth-like worlds out there. Walsh puts the possibility of such discoveries in perspective, pointing out that Earth has only really been "Earth-like" in the sense that most people today understand it for a very brief period of its existence, and that most of the "Earth-like" planets we might discover will probably be quite different from the benign and benevolent Earth that we are familiar with. Also included in the issue is the Richard A. Lovett penned special feature Writing Fiction . . . About Yourself in which Mr. Lovett gives advice to writers about how to make your writing more effective by inserting elements of oneself into your fiction. The article, which is a variant on "write what you know", is fairly good, and offers what seem to be pretty good writing tips.

Overall, this is a very good issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Unlike many of the double issues, which seem to sag here and there, this issue has no poor stories, or even any that I would consider below average. Despite having several stories that deal with two broad themes, the inclusion of a variety of other stories and fact that each of the theme-related stories attacks their "theme" from very different angles keeps the issue varied enough to keep it from seeming repetitive. Loaded with good story after good story, this is one of the best double issues of Analog that I have seen in a while, and well-deserving of a strong recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2010

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