Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXIV, Nos. 7 & 8 (July/August 2014) edited by Trevor Quachri

Stories included:
The Journeyman: Against the Green by Michael F. Flynn
Mind Locker by Juliette Wade
Who Killed Bonnie's Brain? by Daniel Hatch
The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale by Rajnar Vajra
Code Blue Love by Bill Johnson
Vooorh by Paula S. Jordan
Journeyer by R. Garrett Wilson
Valued Employee by James K. Isaac
Sadness by Timons Esaias
Crimson Sky by Eric Choi
The Half-Toe Bar by Andrew Reid
Hot and Cold by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Science fact articles included:
Spanking Bad Data Won't Make Them Behave by Michael F. Flynn

Special feature included:
Foreshadowing and the Ides of March: How to (Sort of) Hint at Things to Come by Richard A. Lovett

Poems included:
Digital Ghosts by John F. Keane
Star Song by Kendall Evans

Full review: Double issues of Analog are often extremely uneven, and the editors seem to struggle to fill the oversize installment of the magazine with enough content to make for a strong showing. As usual, there are a couple of good stories in the volume, a moderate helping of decent ones, and a handful of clunkers. Because of Analog's somewhat quirky (and in my opinion, annoying) editorial practices, there are a few stories contained in this issue that are not actually stories in themselves, but are really just snippets of larger stories started earlier and to be continued later. These apparent snippets of stories - Against the Green and Vooorh - are among the clunkers in the issue, as is the science fact article offered by Michael Flynn.

Analog has an established practice of having authors string together several chunks of text to tell a longer story and calling each chunk a "novella" or "novelette", even if each individual chunk doesn't actually amount to a story in itself. The Journeyman: Against the Green by Michael F. Flynn is in this category, following the  adventures of Teodorq who previously appeared in The Journeyman: On the Shortgrass Prairie and The Journeyman: In the Stone House. Unfortunately, this installment of the story illustrates that Analog has not really placed a priority on making sure that these "novellas" are actually novellas rather than simply incomplete snippets of a novel. There isn't really much in the way of a story in Against the Green, with the protagonist starting this portion of the story as a soldier impressed into the army of a nation he does not care about and asked to fight in a war that he has no interest in. There are hints of a larger plot in this installment, but that larger plot doesn't really seem to crop up in this one, nor does anything that happens in Against the Green seem to advance anything of note. In short, this novella seems to be little more than filler that exists mostly so that Flynn can have scenes in which he describes horse archer tactics. Quite bluntly, that's simply not enough to carry a novella.

On the other end of the scale from Against the Green, Journeyer by R. Garrett Wilson seems to try to pack too much information into its relatively brief tale. In a handful of pages Wilson tries to introduce an alien race, a problem that afflicts them, an arduous journey that is taken to solve the problem, and a maverick who has a new idea about how to make that journey. The story holds together, but only barely, and really could have benefited from some additional length. In general, it is hard to tell the story of someone who is upsetting the apple cart in a culture without first establishing the "normal" and giving a good explanation for why it is entrenched. In Journeyer Wilson is able to do this, but only through the simple expediency of telling the reader rather than showing them. The difficulty the aliens have - a condition caused by their molting that threatens their health - is also introduced in a rather hurried manner that detracts from the impact it could have had. On the whole, this is a decent story, but it could have been much better with just a slightly longer treatment.

Another story that could have used more development is Valued Employee by James K. Isaac, which also tries to pack far too much into far too short a story. Asha is the title character, a woman who has loyally worked for the Black Sphere company with the aim of returning to her home and helping all of the people she remembers from her childhood. After a harrowing initiation process, she gets her wish, but finds all of her loved ones resistant to the encroachment on their lives of what they regard as dangerous and alien technology. Asha mostly wanders through the story, and then the twist appears and seems to render most of what little she did irrelevant. I say "seems", because the story is decidedly murky on several points. I was left wondering exactly what Black Sphere technology was, what the villagers' objections to it were, what exactly a "geo-man" was, and why their appearance was significant. The story did a decent job of explaining Asha's motives, but gave only the most cursory explanation of the two sides in the conflict that she was being asked to choose between. Overall, despite a viscerally brutal opening scene, this story felt colorless and empty.

Despite having almost as much information loaded into it as the previous two stories, Mind Locker by Juliette Wade never feels overcrowded or confusing, which I take as an indicator of Wade's superior skill at storytelling. The story itself is a fairly standard cyberpunk tale with a poor but talented protagonist who goes by "Hub Girl" living in the slums and producing just enough tech miracles to keep her gang of friends able to pull off raids sufficient to keep them all fed. A complication has arisen due to the fact that slum where they live seems to have become the stalking grounds of a "mind locker" who shuts off the various pieces of tech that let those the locker targets contact the networks around them, effectively shutting them down in a society dependent upon interconnected technology. After a raid gone bad, Hub Girl puts her skills to work trying to track down the source of her gang's problems and uncovers an even bigger threat than she thought was looming over them. Like Against the Green, Mind Locker feels like it is part of a larger story, but unlike Flynn's offering, Wade's feels much more polished, with much better developed characters who seem to actually care about the events in the story.

Who Killed Bonnie's Brain? by Daniel Hatch is a murder mystery that isn't really about the murder mystery. Bonnie is (or was) a disembodied brain kept alive through advanced technology. Her life sustaining equipment failed and she died. The protagonist is Frank, a local reporter who decides to follow up on the story, and soon suspects that Bonnie's equipment failure wasn't accidental, but was rather sabotage. As Frank sets about questioning those who might have information that would lead to the culprit, the reader is treated to the real story: Hatch's imagined, somewhat dystopian, future. Almost every interaction Frank has with another person adds yet another window into the world that he inhabits: How people who can have moved into crowded but high-tech towers, how the suburbs have been abandoned to be inhabited by squatters, how personal vehicles have become so rare as to be frightening to ride in, and so on. The story devolves into some political talking points at times with short rants about the draconian food laws (which somehow still allow Frank to meet up with one of his interviewees for ice cream) and an entire side discussion concerning the "Tax Breaker" movement that doesn't really add much of anything to the story, but this only detracts from the story a little bit. The real weakness of Who Killed Bonnie's Brain is that the titular question is treated as mostly an afterthought. Even when the mystery is resolved, it is done so in a hurried manner that has almost no build up - the author seems to have decided it was time to wrap up the story and has his protagonist guess who the villain is and then have the culprit essentially confess on the stand. While the story gets high marks for world-building, the lack of care put into the actual plot of the story makes it less than satisfying to read.

Sadness by Timons Esaias is a very short story about the end of human freedom. The story doesn't say much, but implies quite a bit, building the picture of a world in which humans set about warring with one another until stopped by the "new people" who took over, placed humans on what amount to menageries, and began treating humanity like zoo animals. The plot involves a visit from one of the "new people" to Evor Bookbinder, a denizen of the New Hampshire settlement. As it turns out, the visit is to deliver some rather macabre news to Evor, which is what one might assume is what directly evokes the sadness of the title, but the story is merely a vehicle for the world-building in which Evor details how the "new people" have forced an unwilling humanity into adopting language, religion, dress, and even culture to suit their master's preferences. As one might expect from a story named Sadness, this is a dark and depressing story, but one which effectively creates an emotional response in the reader that befits its title.

Subtitled "A Golden Age Tale", The Triple Sun by Rajnar Vajra certainly tries to evoke a classic science fiction sensibility with the story of a trio of youthful miscreants who travel to a distant planet and solve a problem that has been vexing the experts for decades. The trio are cadets seeking to become fully fledged members of the Exoplanetary Explorers, and their rascally offense is getting into a barroom brawl. For their crime, they are assigned to a punishment detail instead of the normal cadet final assignment where they are to be sent to a distant planet to help close down the research base there after its scientists had unsuccessfully tried to establish communication with the apparently intelligent inhabitants. This being a Golden Age homage, it should come as no surprise that the cadets solve the mystery, which turns out to be remarkably easy to do, and even manage to get a little assistance from the natives. The story has some flaws - Vajra keeps raising the stakes in the story, which feels pointless, as it is fairly apparent to the reader that the cadets won't fail and the dire consequences that would attend failure simply won't happen. In addition, while the cadets are supposed to be bright, it feels implausible that on their third day planetside they manage to solve a conundrum that has stymied a team of experts for thirty years. One must assume that none of these experts thought to do the relatively simple thing that the cadets do, or even take a look into the mysterious holes in the ground that everyone knew existed. In short, the plot requires everyone in the story except the central characters to have acted like complete idiots for decades. This may have been part of the Golden Age homage - as this is a trope that crops up a fair amount in older science fiction - but it simply doesn't translate well into a story published in the current era. I must also admit that I was just a little bit put off by the fact that the "triple sun" promised by the title isn't really three suns, and doesn't really feature in the plot at all. All that said, the story flows nicely, with a snarky and sarcastic narrator, and is at least enjoyable despite its flaws.

Combining medical science fiction with an examination concerning artificial intelligence Code Blue Love by Bill Johnson is a strong story marred only by one minor misstep. Mayer and DeAnne are the last surviving members of their family, afflicted with a genetic disorder that causes aneurysms in their brains, which has killed all of their close relatives, and will soon kill both of them. They have embarked upon a risky plan to create a new medical stent incorporating artificial intelligence to help stave off their impending demises. Through some twists and turns the stent ends up in Mayer's head after a brief trip through DeAnne's head, resulting in a result that neither Mayer or DeAnn could foresee. One element that makes the story interesting is that for at least part of it  the tale is told from the perspective of the newborn artificial intelligence. While the story could have become a creepy struggle for control over one's brain, it instead becomes a paean to the love between siblings. The only real strike against the story is a gratuitous and entirely superfluous sex joke at the very end. Even with the let down at the end, the story is still excellent, and sets the standard for the entire issue.

An alien contact story set in the back country of North Carolina Vooorh by Paula S. Jordan sets up two warring factions of aliens and places a mountain farmer in the middle. Actually, the story starts with everything in place and moves right on to the rescue, chase, and conflict portion of the story. Vooorh feels like the sequel to another story - at several points the characters refer to events that took place before this story started, or refer to characters that don't appear in the story. Vooorh also feels oddly incomplete, as if it is a set up for a subsequent story yet to come. This could be another example of Analog's practice of having an author chop up a larger story into smaller chunks and spreading them out over random issues spaced over the course of a couple of years, but there is no indication that there was a story that went before this one, or that there might be a follow-up. Even thought it feels incomplete, the story is a decent read, with fairly well-thought out aliens and a relatively interesting extended interstate chase, albeit one that seemed to have a couple of irrelevant contrivances thrown in to extend the length a little bit. What there is of this story is good enough that I'd like to see the beginning and the end, but without those parts it is a beautifully flawed failure.

Mars and engineering fiction are popular subject matters with a long history in science fiction, especially science fiction found in Analog, and Crimson Sky by Eric Choi is an example of both. The story follows Maggie McConachie, a helicopter rescue pilot working on Mars as she heads out to save a wealthy record seeker whose balloon has crashed in bad weather. The story is mostly the technical details of the trip coupled with a little bit of "pioneering to advance humanity is done by the brave" rhetoric, and isn't particularly notable.  Crimson Sky is reasonably well-written, and the technical details are entertaining, which makes it a reasonably fun read. Another engineering fiction story, although only barely a science fiction story, The Half-Toe Bar by Andrew Reid takes place on a primitive planet inhabited by humans that is being visited by humans from Earth who are seeking to trade with them. While attempting to make an exchange with a local blacksmith, the expedition leaders are tripped up by a question concerning putting a half-toe sized hole in a half-toe sized bar. Luckily for them, their plucky field assistant knows enough about blacksmithing to impress the locals and then the story ends. A sizable chunk of the text is taken up simply describing the process the field assistant uses to accomplish her feat of iron working, which is a mildly interesting technical description but doesn't really add much to the story. The point of the story seems to be "think about problems from different angles", but there's so little to The Half-Toe Bar that it seems like almost a waste of pages.

Combining a big dumb object mystery with the story of a failing relationship, Hot and Cold by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro manages to be both bleak and somewhat uplifting. When a husband and wife space exploration team check out a strangely cold region of space, they discover a strange alien object that seems to contain two black holes. The object's mass disrupts their star drive, trapping them in its orbit. To make matters worse, their relationship has frayed over the time spent living in close proximity, and they are on the verge of splitting up. Or as close to splitting up as a couple can be while living in a cramped spaceship light years from anyone else. The pair try several options to try to free themselves from the object, which they deduce is an experimental heat engine made by an unknown race, all of which fail. As the engineering part of the story progresses, the relationship story does as well, but it progresses in an inverted manner - as the couple's prospects of escaping grow dimmer, their relationship improves. At the end, they are their furthest apart physically while being as close emotionally as they ever are in the story. The story ends on an ambiguous, but fairly dark note.

The science fact article in this issue is Spanking Bad Data Won't Make Them Behave by Michael F. Flynn, which is kind of underwhelming. In general Analog has a pretty good track record when it comes to providing interesting and informative science fact articles, while this one is both dull and fairly bland. Flynn writes the article like he is being decidedly contrarian, but his thesis - that measurements are limited by the instruments used to take them, a normal distribution isn't always the best way to model data, and unaccounted for factors will screw up your results - is so pedestrian that the tone just doesn't seem to fit. John Cramer's Alternate View column tackles the idea of a space drive, giving some information about recent developments in physics that make the idea at least somewhat plausible. The issue also includes the special feature Foreshadowing and the Ides of March: How to (Sort of) Hint at Things to Come by Richard A. Lovett, a relatively straightforward explanation of what foreshadowing is, how it can be done badly, and how it can be done well. The article is pretty much a "Writing 101" level discussion, but it is presented well and should be useful to anyone looking for basic tips on writing.

As is usual for double issues of Analog, this issue is remarkably mediocre. There are several good stories here - most notably Mind Locker, Who Killed Bonnie's Brain?, Code Blue Love, and Hot and Cold, but there are a lot of other stories in the volume that range from merely diverting filler to pointless wastes of time such as Against the Green and The Half-Toe Bar. There is enough here to read through it, but not enough to really get excited about.

Previous issue reviewed: June 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: September 2014

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