Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 6 (June 2010) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
The Annunnaki Legacy by Bond Elam
Space Aliens Taught My Dog to Knit! by Jerry Oltion and Elton Elliott
Connections by Kyle Kirkland
Heist by Tracy Canfield
At Last the Sun by Richard Foss
A Time for Heroes by Edward M. Lerner
Cargo by Michael F. Flynn
Probability Zero: Light Conversation by Alastair Mayer

Science fact articles included:
Der Mann, Die Frau, Das Kind by Henry Honken

Full review: This month's issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact features stories about A.I.'s, MMOs, and nightmare dystopian futures. Like most issues, this one seems to have a mini-theme, although in this case there seem to be two: one features artificial intelligence, with a subtheme of artificial intelligence intersecting with online gaming, while the second deals with dystopian cautionary tales. overall, the stories in this issue are all fairly good, even the somewhat pedestrian cover story The Annunaki Legacy is decent. However the two science fact articles are merely average and Stanley Schmidt's lead editorial is so resoundingly awful that the entire issue gets downgraded from being slightly above average to merely average.

Normally, the editorial presented by Stanley Schmidt at the beginning of each issue is at most a mildly controversial affair, usually the result of coming at an issue from an unusual angle. The editorial in this issue, however, is so stunningly stupid that I feel compelled to comment upon it. Schmidt tries to argue a compromise position between advocates of scientific explanations of the universe and those who insist upon a religious one. He analogizes the explanations given to religion to simplified explanations given by adults to children when they ask questions like "why is the sky blue" or "where do babies come from". Essentially he takes the position that the religious answers were just stop gaps simplified to provide answers to humanity until it "grew up" and could handle the real explanations. Leaving aside the assumption that there was some sort of superior intellect (be it divine, alien, or otherwise) to provide this dumbed down version of the truth, the reason this argument is so astonishingly idiotic is that the various religiously based explanations are inconsistent with each other (each religion has its own version) and inconsistent with what we have discovered via science. In other words, they aren't "simplified" explanations, they are just wrong. It is as if when a child asked "why the sky is blue", instead of giving an actual simplified explanations like "because of the way the light from the sun interacts with the particles in the air", the adult instead said "because invisible fairies paint it that way". Furthermore, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, when an adult gives the sorts of answers Schmidt refers to, such as the stork explanation for infant origins, they are intended to discourage children from asking more questions. In an effort to show how religion and science can be "reconciled" in this way, Schmidt has fallen back on an explanation that results in the conclusion that, if God (or some analogy) exists, then he didn't want us asking questions, but to just shut up and be content with the blatantly incorrect answers handed to us. I don't think this is the message Schmidt intended, but it is the implication of the editorial. In addition, the editorial is astonishingly arrogant, implying that previous generations of thinkers could not have grasped the true answers for some reason, as if Babylonian and Greek philosophers were not merely hampered by poor tools, but were simply too stupid to understand reality and thus had to be handed simpler explanations. Frankly, I expect more of a man who is generally a smart and on the ball guy, so this editorial was a major disappointment.

The cover story of the issue is The Annunnaki Legacy by Bond Elam, the tale of a group of space explorers hunting for the elusive Anunnaki, an alien race that apparently took the form of Babylonian deities and raised humankind to civilization. The story covers the typical conflict between xenoarchaologists and xenobiologists trying to buy time to study a planet more fully while pitted against the evil mining interests that want to mine it for its resources. Like most stories of this type, the scientists stumble across an unexpected and paradigm shifting discovery and are able to put their thumb in the eye of the evil mining boss. The ending isn't entirely upbeat, meaning that this story isn't entirely a paint-by-numbers affair, but the ground it walks is pretty well worn.

Space Aliens Taught My Dog to Knit! by Jerry Oltion and Elton Elliott is the humor piece in the issue. The story revolves around a conspiracy theorist convinced that aliens have infiltrated the government who discovers that his worst fears are true. he struggles against the conspiracy and attempts to expose them, being confounded time and again, and in the end sets upon a solution that seems almost certain not to work. The story is pretty good, but like most humorous pieces it is pretty lightweight. Probability Zero: Light Conversation by Alastair Mayer is also an intended piece of humor about an intelligent slime mold living in the narrator's refrigerator. It is mostly goofy and little more than fluff. Connections by Kyle Kirkland also deals with the implications of A.I., this time in a dystopian future in which the government regulates everything and every character seems to be a member of the underground opposition. The story is ostensibly a murder mystery, but that's only more or less a framing story. I found this one slow at first, but it picked up substantially and I ended up liking it quite a bit.

Given the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill, At Last the Sun by Richard Foss seems to be extraordinarily timely. In this story, scientists studying the damaged waters off the coast of Louisiana stumble upon an unexpected discovery. Though the focus of their study is the deoxygenization caused by fertilizer runoff pouring out of the mouth of the Mississippi River and not the effects of an oil spill, thematically the story, concerning the effects of human indifference upon the environment, seems particularly apropos. Following on the "disastrous things humans do to themselves and their environment" theme is Cargo by Michael F. Flynn, a post-apocalyptic story in more or less classic form, with remnants of the collapsed modern society peeping around the edges of a primitive culture that has grown up scrambling in the rubble. The facts about the past has become mixed with myth, and taboos about forbidden technology have become entrenched. The story mostly explores how it is attitudes more than capabilities and resources that hold humans back and how thin the line is between the comfortable modern society we have today and a hardscrabble subsistence existence. Overall, this is the best story in the issue.

The science fact article this month Der Mann, Die Frau, Das Kind by Henry Honken covers a topic that crops up in Analog on a regular basis - the study of language. In this case, the study of gender in language ranging from English, which has almost no genderization of nouns, to exotic languages like Jul'hoan and Yimas (both real, the first from Namibia, the second from Papua New Guinea) that have dozens for gender indicators describing the gender of the object, its relation to the speaker, its relation to the listener and a variety of other attributes. It is decent enough, but I rarely find the language oriented science fact articles to be particularly interesting, since they generally cover mostly the same ground over and over again. There isn't anything wrong with this article, its just not very interesting. In Jeffrey D. Kooistra's Alternate View column, he complains about the negative reactions that his climate change skepticism has engendered, and promises to rhetorically "take the gloves off" when dealing with his critics in the future. Despite this, he does little in this article but talk about the science in Alfred Bester's classic The Stars My Destination and promise retribution in the future. Yawn.

Overall, the stories in this issue range from average to quite good, which would normally mean a positive recommendation from me. In this case, however, Kooistra's article is so petulant, and Schmidt's is so mind-blowingly stupid that by themselves they drag the whole down to being merely average. With the caveat that these two elements are truly bad and best avoided, I would give this issue a guarded recommendation.

Preview issue reviewed: May 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: July/August 2010

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