Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, Nos. 7 & 8 (July/August 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
Doctor Alien's Five Empty Boxes by Rajnar Vajra
Bug Trap by Stephen L. Burns
Project Hades by Stephen Baxter
Fly Me to the Moon by Marianne J. Dyson
The Android Who Became a Human Who Became an Android by Scott William Carter
The Long Way Around by Carl Frederick
Questioning the Tree by Brad Aiken
The Single Larry Ti, or Fear of Black Holes and Ken by Brenda Cooper

Science fact articles included:
Artificial Volcanoes: Can We Cool the Earth by Imitating Mt. Pinatubo by Richard A. Lovett

Special features included:
The Seriousness of Writing Humor by Richard A. Lovett

Poems included:
Rondell for Apollo 11: Here Men from the Planet Earth by Geoffrey A. Landis

Full review: The July/August 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, like most double issues of the magazine, has a couple stories that below the typically high standard of the magazine, but on the whole, it is a very good issue. As with many issues, there is something of an unremarked upon theme to the issue, in this case there are two: there are several stories involving Lunar exploration, including some material paying tribute to the Apollo program, and there are several stories that portray dystopian futures (or in one case, a past that could have turned into a dystopia). As usual for Analog in recent months, the general quality of the stories is high, and the quality of the science fact articles and the special feature article is excellent.

Rajnar Vajra's Doctor Alien's Five Empty Boxes is set in the same fictional setting as Vajra's previous story Doctor Alien. In this universe, humanity has come into contact with an alien race known as the Traders, and Al, the Doctor Alien of the story, has earned an accidental reputation as a man who can treat alien mental problems. The Traders have set a clinic up for Al, and the governments of Earth find themselves so desperate for access to alien technology that they cannot refuse. The story involves several threads: Al dealing with an alien patient he cannot cure, his odd alien office staff, an attempt on his life, the resentment of his neighbors who don't want the alien center in their backyard, and an unexpected visit from a Trader bearing five boxes and a request for help. The story is somewhat silly, not quite as overtly comic as Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett would be, but clearly meant to be taken as light-hearted fun. And following Al about as he tries to solve all of the various problems is fun, and in the end, the conclusion is quite satisfying. Bug Trap by Stephen L. Burns also deals with unwanted alien artifacts on Earth planted by aliens to powerful to refuse. In this case, the protagonist takes the aliens up on an implied offer of sanctuary, choosing to leap into the unknown in preference to the known (and unpleasant) consequences of staying on Earth. He finds something of an anarchists fantasy, and as usual with such places, things aren't quite as idyllic as many ardent anarchists would have one believe such a place would be. It turns out to be not quite as anarchic as it seems at first, and the protagonist learns that the aliens have a job in mind for him that is not quite what he expected. Although not entirely lacking in humor, Bug Trap is not silly fun the way Doctor Alien's Five Empty Boxes, but is rather a fairly thought provoking look at the ways humans might organize themselves if they had minimal restraints on their behavior.

Project Hades by Stephen Baxter is another story with dystopian overtones in which an insane military commander commandeers a dangerous project to confront a poorly understood alien enemy. In a twist, the insane military commander in the Anglo-American operation is not an American, which is nice to see for once. The story is also set in an alternate 1960. However, the story follows a fairly standard script with courageous scientists aided by an implausibly well self-educated local boy desperately trying to convince the military not to misuse their technology or overlook a problem that could result in the extinction of humanity. Overall, Project Hades reads more or less like a Doctor Who episode, with Chapman Jones filling in for the Doctor, and Thelma Bennet filling in as the Doctor's companion. The story is a bit overlong - I think it would have been improved with fewer scenes concerning the plucky locals and the villain's diatribes - but on the whole the story does a good job of ratcheting the tension up from the calm opening scenes in a neighborhood pub to the high intensity ending.

Fly Me to the Moon by Marianne J. Dyson is one of three stories in the issue that deals with Lunar exploration and is the best of the bunch. In its future humanity has returned to the Moon and set down roots there. Unfortunately some of the denizens have a mishap that places them beyond the reach of rescue, but conveniently places them near a restored Lunar Exploration Module that serves as a monument to the Apollo program and sets the puzzle-solving element of the story into motion. The story is told from the perspective of a teenager who volunteers at a nursing home and who discovers that the elderly gentleman he spends much of his time with may be much more than he seems. The story is both a touching commentary on old age and an excellent tribute to the Apollo astronauts. As such, the story serves as a complement to the poem Rondell for Apollo 11: Here Men from the Planet Earth by Geoffrey A. Landis, which I found made me both inspired by the men who blazed the trail and angry that we abandoned Lunar exploration so long ago. Unfortunately, the other puzzle-solving story set on the Moon is not nearly as good. The Long Way Around by Carl Frederick is an attempt to make a classic science fiction style story involving a life threatening problem that intrepid space explorers have to solve using unorthodox engineering. The trouble with the story is that the technological device that causes the trouble in the first place is so ludicrous in design that it just seems implausible that it would be used at all. One of the most critical elements in the puzzle-solving type of science fiction story is that the reader has to buy into the problem as one that could happen, and that is just impossible to do here.

The Android Who Became a Human Who Became an Android by Scott William Carter is a noirish mystery story featuring a down on his luck detective, the beautiful and dangerous woman who did him wrong, and her wealthy husband who has gone mysteriously missing. This being a science fiction story, the woman has had multiple modifications made to herself (including the addition of a third breast, something that is supposed to make her sexier, but I just don't see how it would) and the missing wealthy husband is an android. Or rather, was an android before he had his consciousness moved to a human body, and then back to an android. The story is clearly intended to evoke a Dashiell Hammett-like sensibility, and it does, but as it is a science fiction story it raises questions about what rights one might accord to an artificial intelligence, and more broadly, who counts as human. An interesting subtext to the story is, if such sorts of standards are applied, would there be some humans who would fail them? The story is told with enough of a light touch that it doesn't get weighed down, and as a result, it is interesting while remaining fun to read.

The two explicitly dystopian stories in the issue both involve government interference in scientific endeavors, but they both seem to approach the issue from a different ideological bent. Questioning the Tree by Brad Aiken is set in a future in which the government has assumed full responsibility for running the health care system, right down to dictating how doctors go about diagnosing their patient's maladies. Doctors are required to use a specific battery of questions, the "tree" of the title, which in the context of the story proves to be fairly obviously inadequate to the task. Doctors who do not are subjected to criminal liability for going against the "tree". The protagonist, a doctor, must wrestle with how to work with the system, and whether to cast it aside for the benefit of his patients despite the personal risk of doing so. The story has moderately strong libertarian leanings, and while told with a heavy dose of hyperbole, seems to be something of a caution against too much regulation in a field as full of judgment calls as medicine. The other dystopian story is The Single Larry Ti, or Fear of Black Holes and Ken by Brenda Cooper, featuring a scary future in which the "World Science Court" passes judgment on inquiry and upon which four of the seven justices do not believe in evolution. The "single larry ti" of the title is a reference to a singularity: the central conflict of the story is a hearing held before the World Science Court involving a project to run a particle accelerator on the Moon and the supposed dangers that this might create a mini black hole (or singularity) and destroy the Moon and the Earth. The sign, and the protestor holding it, is an indication of the dangers of allowing superstitious fear to hold sway over science education, as is the entire story. Of the dystopian stories in the issue, this one is the most frightening because it seems most plausible.

The science fact article in the issue is Artificial Volcanoes: Can We Cool the Earth by Imitating Mt. Pinatubo by Richard A. Lovett. This article deals with the idea of offsetting rises in global temperatures by cooling the Earth by means of injecting particulate matter into the atmosphere to shade its surface. Geoengineering has become a much more widely discussed option recently - the lead article in the June 5, 2010 issue of Science News deals with the subject - so this article is very topical. In typical fashion, Lovett boils a complicated scientific issue down to its essential elements and makes it both understandable, and enjoyable to read. Lovett also contributes a special feature article to the issue titled The Seriousness of Writing Humor in which he discusses the difficulties of using humor in fiction, and the mistakes many writers make when the try to incorporate humor into their writing. As usual, Lovett is clear and effective even on a somewhat difficult subject like how to write humor.

Overall, with only one weak story and one mediocre story amidst a pile of good ones, this is one of the better issues in the past year. The unremarked theme of Lunar exploration, while unexpected, provided some quite good material that reminded me to be both happy that we had accomplished something so transcendent, and angry at the fact that we had thrown all that away so casually. Coupled with the often scary dystopian theme, this is an issue that could have been quite depressing. Fortunately, it is leavened with a healthy dash of humor that prevents the material from becoming to morose, although the humorous stories contain enough intellectual content to remain thought-provoking. Although the magazine as a whole seemed to suffer a bit of a dip with some mediocre issues last year (especially the double issues), the trend over the last couple months seems to be moving back to the high standard of quality that readers have come to expect from Analog. This is a trend that I hope continues, and it has resulted in an excellent issue that I can give a strong recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: June 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: September 2010

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