Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Volume CXXIX, No. 12 (December 2009) by Stanley Schmidt (editor)

Stories included:
To Climb a Flat Mountain, Conclusion by G. David Nordley
Formidable Caress by Stephen Baxter
Wilderness Were Paradise Enow by H. G. Stratmann
The Jolly Old Boyfriend by Jerry Oltion
The Universe Beneath Our Feet by Carl Frederick
A Flash of Lightning by Robert Scherrer

Science fact articles included:
Plate Tectonics, Goldilocks, and the Late Heavy Bombardment: Why Earth Isn't Mars or Venus by Richard A. Lovett

Full review: Overall, this is not a very good issue. With really only two decent stories and a bunch of clunkers, this issue seems even more disappointing coming on the heels of the less than stellar November issue of Analog. One weak issue once in a while is merely annoying, two weak issues in a row is a disturbing trend that I hope is reversed soon.

As the most famous author with a story in this issue, Stephen Baxter gets the cover illustration for his Formidable Caress. Unfortunately, being written by a famous author doesn't prevent the story from being fairly uneven in quality. While the setting - a collection of civilizations on interlinked layers each moving at different relativistic speeds, and thus experiencing a different flow of time - is interesting and well-laid out, as are the interactions between the inhabitants of the various layers, the artificial intelligence character seems to be fairly dim, relying upon the human protagonist for information about the periodic "formidable caresses". In the end, the "formidable caress" element of the story seems not particularly interesting and figuring them out seems like it should have been a trivial exercise for the artificial intelligence. The central mystery of the story, focusing on the nature of humanity's "effigies", ends up mostly unresolved and what resolution there is comes out of left field and is completely unrelated to any of the story that preceded it, giving the story a somewhat unsatisfactory feel.

The issue also contains the second half of G. David Nordley's two part To Climb a Flat Mountain. As I said in concerning the first half, a decent conclusion could raise the story from mediocre to good. However, the second half of the story actually moves the rating the other direction, as a somewhat interesting setting and moderately interesting opening is wasted with a "super powerful aliens save the day" twist. The story chugs along in fairly predictable fashion until aliens start resurrecting dead people, reveal that the cube world is indeed an artificial construct, and tell everyone they can go home or not, depending on what they want to do. And then they tie everything up with a big bow and give humanity a figurative kiss. Needless to say, I found the resolution fairly disappointing.

Also featuring super powerful aliens is H.G. Stratmann's Wilderness Were Paradise Enow, featuring the return of Katarina and Martin originally introduced in The Last Temptation of Katerina Savitskaya. Picking up right where the previous story left off, our intrepid explorers are now presented with an awesome choice by the aliens they encountered on Mars. To explain too much of the story would give everything away, so I'll just say that the shape of the future of humanity is at stake and the wrong choice could be fatal. The story is probably the best of the issue, even though in many issues it would be merely middle of the pack.

The Jolly Old Boyfriend by Jerry Oltion is this year's designated December Christmas story, and like most Christmas stories in Analog, the Christmas element seems fairly forced. Thankfully, this story about the return of an apparently dead boyfriend is fairly short, although it is highly predictable and not particularly interesting. Carl Frederick's The Universe Beneath Our Feet is told from an alien viewpoint and requires the reader to unravel exactly what is going on. It is a hard science fiction story, so it all makes sense and everything becomes clear in the end. There's not much to the story, and I would have liked more from the story, as it seemed to end just when things got interesting.

Richard A. Lovett contributes another excellent science fact article Plate Tectonics, Goldilocks, and the Late Heavy Bombardment: Why Earth Isn't Mars or Venus, which seems kind of apropos considering the nature of the fictional events in the background of Wilderness Were Paradise Enow. I have begun to wonder where Lovett finds the time to write as much as he does though: he seems to have a story or article (or both) in almost every recent issue of Analog, and all seem to be thoroughly researched and well-written. Seriously, the man must never sleep.

The combination of Wilderness Were Paradise Enow and Lovett's sceince fact article manage to rescue this issue from being a total loss. Baxter's contribution is also not a complete waste, although it clearly is not his best work. The rest of the issue is pretty much filler at best. Even the installment of Probability Zero is weakly executed. This was, in short, an underwhelming issue full of mediocrity.

Previous issue reviewed: November 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: January/February 2010

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  1. I just finished reading Formidable Caress and I didn't understand the ending at all. Could you share what you think was resolved concerning the effigies? How did you interpret this endng? Thanks

    1. @Angela: I think the main problem with the story was that the "effigies" mostly weren't resolved, leading to an unsatisfying ending.