Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 5 (May 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
Page Turner by Rajnar Vajra
Hanging by a Thread by Lee Goodloe
The Day the Music Died by H.G. Stratmann
Farallon Woman by Walter L. Kleine
A Talent for Vanessa by David W. Goldman
Fishing Hole by Rick Cook
Teaching the Pig to Sing by David D. Levine

Science fact articles included:
Robots Don't Leave Scars: What's New in Medical Robotics? by Stella Fitzgibbons, M.D.

Probability Zero:
Quark Soup by Bond Elam

Poems included:
Skippy the Robot by David Livingstone Clink

Full review: This is an above average issue of Analog, with many very good stories, a couple of excellent ones, and only one that falls on its face. This sort of issue is the kind that keeps me subscribing, because even though some other issues are mediocre, every now and then you get one that is chock full of good stuff like this one is.

Page Turner by Rajnar Vajra is a wandery, disjointed, stream of consciousness tale told in first person perspective by a woman trapped in a building collapsed by an earthquake. To keep her mind occupied while she waits for death or rescue, she spins stories about the quirky denizens of the independent bookshop where she works, with each snippet of a story having its own bizarre elements. The story never really lets you know if the narrator is recounting actual events, or if she is making things up to entertain herself - there is even some ambiguity on this score in the eventual denouement to the story, but that makes the story in many ways even more interesting. The story is hard to follow, incoherent at times, and absolutely brilliant.

Hanging by a Thread by Lee Goodloe is a fairly standard engineering problem story. Like most such stories, the characters find themselves in an alien environment, confronted by some disaster that requires on the spot problem solving in which they apply basic scientific principles and good engineering to save themselves and others. The story, like the classic example of the genre, The Cold Equations, ends up requiring a substantial sacrifice from the protagonists, which should have injected a fair amount of pathos in the story. Unfortunately, the story isn't really long enough to become truly emotionally invested in the characters. If the story had been somewhat longer, with more fleshed out characters, I think it would have been more effective.

Farallon Woman by Walter L. Kleine is a story about a woman without a past has to figure out her place in the world. I figured out the identity of the woman in the story pretty early on, and spent much of the rest of the story wondering why her boyfriend was such a dope that he didn't figure it out despite living with her and also wondering why the government infrastructure that was supposedly hunting for her didn't find her. To a certain extent, this is a problem stemming from the format of the story - in such a short story pretty much everything introduced has to link together in some way so it is very difficult to have a "big reveal" moment that both works and is not merely their result of hiding the ball entirely from the reader. However, the "secret" in this story is framed so clumsily that everyone in the story simply comes off looking like idiots. The woman's story and her background make the story modestly good, but she really only ends up seeming smart because those around her seem so dumb.

A Talent for Vanessa by David W. Goldman deals with the popular disorder of the day - autism - positing a future in which people with severe versions of the disorder who can serve as idiot savants have become fashionable as entertainers at parties and other venues. In a twist, some people elect to have brain surgery in an effort to become disabled in this way and join the entertainment community, much as people now have plastic surgery to improve their chances of making it in Hollywood. The story revolves around a talent agent who handles this particular type of entertainer and an apparently air-headed socialite who is contemplating making herself more popular by undergoing brain surgery. The story wants to be deeper and more meaningful than it is, but it is decent anyway.

Fishing Hole by Rick Cook is a darkly funny story about seafood. Specifically the story is about trilobites being served in Seattle sushi restaurants and the hunt for the source that this engenders. The story ends up in a fairly unusual place, which, while still funny, has something of a horror movie element to it. I liked it, but it isn't anything other than a funny little story. Also darkly humorous, The Day the Music Died by H. G. Stratmann deals with the issue of songs that simply get stuck in one's head and won't go away. In this case, it is a song that is so infectious that it causes huge worldwide troubles told with a comic bent. Probability Zero: Quark Soup by Bond Elam is, as usual for this series, humorous. In this case, the story covers the question of intelligent design, and provides a cautionary message for intelligent design advocates that they may not really want what they have been asking for.

Teaching the Pig to Sing by David D. Levine is the central story in the issue. It describes a dystopian future in which engineered royalty rule over all of humanity and the efforts of the resistance to try to change this. It is an interesting story because it makes that staple of space opera - a hereditary aristocracy - seem plausible in a technological society (something I consider to be a hard sell to make), and it takes the time to demonstrate that the political set up imagined for this future, distasteful as one may find it, is not wholly without merits which makes the inner conflict of the viewpoint character that much more interesting and believable. The story is somehow both predictable and unpredictable at the same time, and is quite good.

This month's science article, Robots Don't Leave Scars: What's New in Medical Robotocs? by Stella Fitzgibbons, M.D., is a fairly routine report on modern medical robotics. It seems that medical robotics is in more of an evolutionary stage rather than a period of radical transformation, so there is not much truly exciting in the article. It is somewhat timely, given the recent debate in the U.S. Congress over health care, and there do seem to be some indication that robotic technology could cut medical costs. On the other hand, there is also the danger that cutting medical spending could result in progress in this area coming to a grinding halt. John Cramer's Alternate View column, discussing the distribution of water and ice in the solar system and what this might mean for future terraforming efforts is more interesting, but is probably little more than speculative fantasy at this point.

As I said at the outset, this issue is full of good stories and only really has one that isn't as good as the rest. That story, Farallon Woman, despite its flaws, is still not really all that bad, so there really isn't anything to dislike in this issue, and quite a bit to like. Consequently, this issue gets a strong recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: April 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: June 2010

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