Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXIV, No. 9 (September 2014) edited by Trevor Quachri

Stories included:
Championship B'tok by Edward M. Lerner
Plastic Thingy by Mark Niemann-Ross
Beneath the Ice of Enceladus by James C. Glass
Release by Jacob A. Boyd
Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die by Lavie Tidhar
Artifice by Naomi Kritzer
Calm by Alec Austin and Marissa Lingen

Science fact articles included:
Saturn's "Jet-Propelled" Moon and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life by Richard A. Lovett

Poems included:
Haiku by Kate Gladstone

Full review: The September 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is a generally good issue held back only by the magazine's odd editorial policy of insisting on publishing incomplete stories without any real indication that they are incomplete. Serving as a counter to the sea anchor of a novella that threatens to capsize the rest of the volume, there are several fairly good stories contained herein, including one humorous story, a couple of thought-provoking ones, and one ambitious failure. The volume also includes a fairly formulaic story that is accompanied by a well-researched and informative science fact article.

The lead story on the masthead, but the last in order in the book Championship B'tok by Edward M. Lerner is yet another example of Analog's practice of snipping parts of longer stories into shorter lengths and publishing these incomplete story fragments under the inaccurate label of "novella" or "novelette". And as happens to most of these stories when they are sliced into snippets, Lerner's does not hold up very well after being dismembered in this manner. The story starts off in a promising manner, with a pilot sent to check on a mining ship that stopped broadcasting, but just when his journey becomes interesting, the action jumps to Uranus' moon Ariel where a colony of "snakes" has been set up as a sort of prison world following their unsuccessful invasion of human space. Shifting the action like this would normally not be an issue - stories switch back and forth between different scenes all the time, but Championship B'tok never returns to the pilot, simply dropping his story and leaving his fate unresolved. I presume that Lerner intended to pick this plot thread back up at some later point of the story, but since that part has apparently been sliced off, the reader is left hanging. The rest of the installment is mostly a collection of threads that started in earlier parts of the story, or threads that will be resolved later, and in many cases the parts that are not in this segment sound a lot more interesting than the parts that are. The snake invasion of human space and their subsequent exile to Ariel sounds interesting, but we only get references to it. The conspiracy created by the snakes to free themselves from humanity's grip is touched on a bit in this set of pages, but we are mostly in the dark about what is going on until the end, and the ending is a set up for the snakes to put their plans into motion, but that motion will take place in some later section. There is an huge epoch-spanning and star-spanning conspiracy brought into play in Championship B'tok, but it doesn't really go anywhere. It might lead to an interesting story in the future, but it is simply all background and little pay-off here. Chamionship B'tok could have been a decent story - if it actually contained the story. Sadly, it does not, and as a result, reading it is an exercise in futility and frustration.

Combining a little bit of humor with a little bit of handyman-style engineering, Plastic Thingy by Mark Niemann-Ross is a fun little story about a hardware store employee who more or less gets tricked into helping fix an alien spacecraft by a pretty girl. Roger is near the end of his work day when a young woman named Sara walks in and asks him to help her find the "plastic thingy". Expecting her to pull out a home improvement project gone awry or at least a photo thereof, Roger is disappointed when Sara can't explain to him any further what she needs other than it has to be red. After getting her to agree to join him for beers to peruse the company catalog, Roger gets swept off to a spaceship where he meets a chlorine breathing purple plant that Sara communicates with via interpretive dance. The story then devolves into troubleshooting via technobabble, but it is at least entertainingly written technobabble. Niemann-Ross does lay some heavy hints of a developing relationship between socially awkward video-game playing nerd Roger and pretty and quirky theater-loving Sara, but nicely subverts the trope at the end.

Sometimes a story tries to do too much, and simply collapses from its own weight. Release by Jacob A. Boyd is a military science fiction story told in the first person that seems to suffer from this problem. The centerpiece of the story is a space dogfight between human pilots and the forces of an insect-like race called the Tivhari, termed the "fleas of space" at one point in the narrative. The story then jumps back to "your" training, including a fairly bloody description of how the pilot-trainee had the skin of his forearms folded back for some kind of procedure that would allow him to pilot the fighter ship he would be sent out in. (I'm not sure if it is actually a trend, or just the fact that these scenes have stuck out to me, but Analog seems to be oddly slanting towards stories in which the protagonist is maimed as an initiation or training ritual in one of the early scenes). In any event, the story goes through the brutal training, a somewhat superfluous dinner scene, a patrol flight that leads to the dogfight, and then an extended description of the happenings when the pilot "pushes the button" as a last resort and traps himself and a Tivhari ship in a "zero bubble", hoping to outlast her as she starves to death. In the end, there is an understanding of sorts between the pilot and the alien, and they go their separate ways. The entire story is wrapped up with a confusing scene involving babies that simply wasn't set up well enough to be comprehensible. Overall, this story is a mess, with too many moving parts and not enough space to explain them or make the reader care about any of it.

Although the story is ostensibly about suicide, as revealed by its title Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die by Lavie Tidhar, this piece is actually about memory, and specifically what it means when we lose our memories. Vladimir is old. So old that he finds himself forgetting things, and even losing hours or days of time as his memory completely blanks out for extended periods. What distresses Vladimir the most is that he has forgotten the name of his late wife, and at that point he decides it is time for him to die before he loses more of his past. As he sets about convincing his worried son and sister of the merits of his decision, the point Tidhar is making becomes clear: Without our memories, who are we? If Vladimir forgets walking home with his son at night, his boy asking him to walk with him from pool of lamppost light to pool of lamppost light, is he really Vladimir any more? The story is a brilliant, melancholy reflection on what it means to die, and the fear that one will die before their body expires. This is, by far, the best story in this issue.

When a robot blurs the line between a machine and a human, how does one respond? This is the central question posed by Artifice by Naomi Kritzer, in which a woman getting out of a bad relationship decides to get a housekeeper robot that looks and acts like a new boyfriend which she names "Joe". Told from the perspective of her board gaming group with liberal references to Scrabble and Diplomacy, the story documents the first, hesitant reactions of the gaming group to the introduction of a robot to their circle of friends, but as time goes by and the robot adapts to social situations, the characters find themselves slipping into regarding it as a person and not a thing. In the end, Joe is discarded by his fickle owner who still views him as nothing more than an object, but seen very differently by the people whose lives he entered. The story doesn't delve very deeply into the issue, but it does raise interesting and somewhat disturbing questions.

Taking the concept of "uplift" and turning it around somewhat, Calm by Alec Austin and Marissa Lingen imagines a world in which humans are being guided by the Sophonts, an alien race that does not regard humanity as being fully sentient. Or rather, humanity is not fully sentient without the implanted "Proctors" to keep them from making irrational decisions. Marjan is a junior diplomat, assigned to aid her Sophont superior Pua'a in negotiating the entry of a new race called the Gammans into the Unification. The diplomatic talks go well until a complications arises - the Gammans are subject to unpredictable bouts of behavior known as "shornoth", during which they must retreat into isolation as they become unreasoning and violently destructive. When the Gammans flatly refuse to accept Proctors that would eliminate their interludes of shornoth, the talks come to an impasse. As Marjan is the main character, she has a flash of insight that not even Pua'a would have thought of - actually as is explained in the story, especially that Pua'a would not have thought of. The story is an interesting take on what "uplift" means and the fallibility of humanity, but also contains some indications that the imposed solution might not be entirely beneficial either.

The search for extraterrestrial life is the subject of Beneath the Ice of Enceladus by James C. Glass, a moderately near-future hard science story that follows astrobiologist Anna Hegel as she participates in the first under-ice exploration of the dark waters of Saturn's moon Enceladus. After arriving on the moon with only two weeks to perform her work, the story throws the usual set of complications and obstacles in her way - a difficult submarine pilot, a broken submarine articulator that needs extensive repairs, a first exploratory mission that comes up empty - and then just when it would seem the story would avoid the cliched, the second foray into the deeps locates something that is unmistakably alive. There is a final complication thrown in that threatens the lives of the submersible crew, but they overcome it and return with their prize. There's nothing particularly wrong with this story, and it is written engagingly enough, but it is pretty much a completely predictable by-the-numbers tale.

The science fact article in this issue, pretty clearly selected as a companion piece to Beneath the Ice of Enceladus is Saturn's "Jet-Propelled" Moon and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life by Richard A. Lovett, which tackles the subject of recent developments in the ongoing hunt for evidence of life elsewhere. Lovett focuses on Enceladus, one of Saturn's icy moons, and gives a background on its geography and the various missions to collect information about it and the icy plumes it emits. This leads to a discussion concerning the possibility of a salty subsurface sea on the moon, and the implications that could have for the development of life. The article doesn't offer anything new for anyone who has been paying attention to science news over the last couple decades, but it is a good write-up that collects a sizable amount of the relevant information about Enceladus into one place. Kate Gladstone's poem, titled merely Haiku is a pro-science pro-vaccine jab at those who adhere to creationism and yet still partake of the benefits of science that depends upon an understanding of evolution. In three lines Gladstone deconstructs anti-science myths with punishing blows.

In general this issue is fairly good, with no really standout stories, but several solid ones. Beneath the Ice of Enceladus is formulaic, and I think Release is kind of a muddled mess, but it is a mess that can be respected because of what it tried to do. On the other hand Calm, Artifice, and Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die are the definite strong points of this issue, and Plastic Thingy is amusing and mildly original. The only real leaden weight in this volume is Championship B'tok, which seems like it could have been the core of a really interesting story, but instead goes nowhere and leaves the reader wishing that the tantalizing table scraps it provided had actually been the full meal that seem to have been excised. Analog's persistent editorial practice of shredding stories like it did to Championship B'tok is one of the few black marks on an otherwise generally high-quality publication, and the weak story fragment that results is why I can only give this issue an overall lukewarm recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: July/August 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: October 2014

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