Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXIV, No. 10 (October 2014) by Trevor Quachri (editor)

Stories included:
The Jenregar and the Light by Dave Creek
Threshhold by Tony Ballantyne
Opportunity Knocks by Joyce Schmidt and Stanley Schmidt
Each Night I Dream of Liberty by Andrew Barton
Unfolding the Multi-Cloud by Ron Collins
The Hand-Havers by Mary E. Lowd
Chrysalis by David Brin

Science fact articles included:
Alien AWOLs: The Great Silence by Edward M. Lerner

Poems included:
Early Man by David Livingstone Clink

Full review: The October 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is a slightly better issue than the handful that immediately preceded it, mostly because there is no poor stories in this installment to drag the rest of the issue down. All of the stories in this volume are at least average, and several are quite good. Even the weakest story in this volume has a fairly good story and is only marred by a moderately confused tone in its world building. Adding this collection of good fiction together with a pair of strong science fact articles results in an issue of Analog that is well-worth reading.

Taking on the alien invasion story, The Jenregar and the Light by Dave Creek imagines an invasion by the hive mind race called the Jenregar, who land "mounds" in the middle of cities across the Earth, which then expand and consume everything in their path. The story follows the stories of two men - Kamau Kamathi, sometimes governor of Nairobi and scientist, and Mike Christopher, synthetic human and space explorer. Kamau is in his nineties, but he is still capable and gives up his position as governor of Nairobi to concentrate on researching the alien Jenregar in the hope of finding a way to communicate with this utterly alien threat. Mike is on his way to visit an old friend when his mag lev train is halted by the appearance of a Jenregar mound in a city on its route, forcing him and the other passengers to use the long since abandoned Chunnel to get from France to England. For the most part, the sections involving Christopher seem almost entirely extraneous to the story, more or less serving to fill up pages and either resolve or set up some story line set before or after the events in this novella. Kamau's part of the plot progresses fairly predictably as the researcher progresses from trying to find a way to negotiate with the Jenregar to trying to find a way to kill them. There is much made of Kamau's advanced age and the fact that this slows down his research, but the story never seems to have a sense of urgency, so there is no real crisis precipitated by Kamau's need to stop to eat and take naps on a regular basis. The story progresses about as one would expect, made slightly more predictable by the fact that the title gives away the most important plot point, and everything is tied up in a bow at the end. The story is reasonably interesting, but hampered by the fact that its two halves seem unconnected to one another, and one of the pair seems to be not particularly important.

Sometimes a story tries to show the villain's side in an ideological debate, trying to create ambiguity by showing that those who oppose the protagonist may have a valid point. Threshhold by Tony Ballantyne tries to be that kind of story, but falls short, which is somewhat disappointing. That said, I always appreciate a story that tries to do something difficult and doesn't quite accomplish it as opposed to a story that takes a safe path. In the story, Eduardo is hired as a guide by three women who say they want to explore the jungle on a planet where humanity has leased space from the technologically advanced by incredibly alien S. As soon as the group leaves the glass city that houses humanity, Eduardo's clients reveal their true intentions: They are not there to study the strange insect like life of the planet, but rather to try to kidnap one of the S with an aim towards provoking a war they believe will spark humanity out of what they consider dangerous complacency. The difficulty is that their points seem less than convincing, and their methods - threatening to murder Eduardo and his family - coupled with complete indifference to the fact that if they do spark a war it will almost certainly kill everyone on the planet, makes their side ring hollow. Even at the end when Eduardo is wondering if his treacherous clients have a point, the story feels flat.

Opportunity Knocks is a collaboration by Joyce Schmidt and former Analog editor Stanley Schmidt. The story is sort of like a first contact story, except that when the story takes place first contact has already been made. It is just that humanity's first contact was with a hostile renegade alien named Xiphar, and the new contact is an alien intelligence officer hunting for their escaped criminal. Serendipitously, the alien makes contact with Maybelle Terwilliger, who had been part of the group that had foiled Xiphar's plans, so the contact goes almost implausibly well. The story is cute, including costumed trick-or-treater and a candy bar pun, but I found myself wanting to read the story that came before, when Xiphar invaded the Earth, or the story that seems destined to come later when the agent's curious bosses come looking for him. Consequently, while this story was fun, it kind of felt like an interlude between other, more interesting stories.

Each Night I Dream of Liberty by Andrew Barton is a story that has an odd feel to it. The plot is a fairly simple story about an investigator tracking down reports of unsavory bioengineering experiments being performed and trying to bring the perpetrators to justice. The story is set on "Libertalia", a floating colony in the middle of the ocean beyond the reach of governmental power that is clearly meant to be a haven for libertarian ideals. Leaving aside the question of what a government agent is doing in such a place, the story seems to be unsure as to what it is trying to say. There are some points at which people, including the narrator, speak approvingly of the "dream" of Libertalia, but the society described in the story seems like it would be a nightmare to live in, which the story also acknowledges. The reader is not given any kind of real indication as to what sort of society exists away from Libertalia other than the Moon seems to allow for fairly unrestricted research, so there isn't really the sense that the inhabitants of this dystopic setting are fleeing from an even more dystopic situation. In the end, the story is decent, but the setting feels confused.

The one truly haunting tale in the volume, Unfolding the Multi-Cloud by Ron Collins, is told from the viewpoint of a woman slowly losing her love to his obsession with work and money as he slips further and further into the multi-cloud. Although the story is quite short, the pain and anguish is woven into almost every word, making the story brutally raw and effective. The interesting twist is that both of the individuals in this doomed love affair may be virtual constructs, although the text only implies this and doesn't come right out and tell the reader explicitly. Poignant and desperate, this is the best story in the issue.

Set in a world populated by aquatic creatures that use disembodied "hands" to manipulate objects, The Hand-Havers by Mary E. Lowd is a story of love, deception, and making the best of the cards life deals you. It is very difficult for an author to create a convincing truly alien race in a short story, but Lowd manages to pull off this feat and also tell an engaging story along the way. The story follows the relationship of Delundia, a one-handed youngster, and Ebbence, the six-handed inventor who lives next door. The pair fall in love, fueled by their shared love of discovery and invention, but Delundia never has any more hands, as she was never told that having sex results in additional babies, not additional hands. When she does discover this and discovers that Ebbence had been keeping this truth from her, the story turns creepy, as Ebbence refuses to take no for an answer. In the end, Delundia learns to accept that she will never have the multiple hands that she always desired, but settles for living through her offspring instead. The story is structured as a fairly standard tale of a mother's sacrifices, but the alien biology elevates it to being a piece of superior science fiction.

Somewhat hopeful and somewhat terrifying, Chrysalis by David Brin tells the story of two researchers whose studies into ways to create replacement organs to obviate the need for transplant donors lead them to the very roots of human evolution. As Professors Wang and Stimson delve deeper and deeper into the human genome, each step they take seems natural, and almost inevitable, but when one realizes where the story is headed, it transforms from science fiction into what is almost a bio-horror story. The story has some fairly clumsy information dumps, but that is probably a requirement for a story of this length with this much technical material packed into it, but it is still fairly intrusive. Even with the awkward elements, this is a creepy story with just enough actual science and inventiveness to hold together, yielding a satisfyingly disturbing experience.

This month's science fact article is Alien AWOLs: The Great Silence by regular Analog contributor Edward M. Lerner. As the title suggests, Lerner's article discusses the mystery of why humans have not yet found evidence of extra-terrestrial life. He starts with the Mediocrity Principle, the Drake Equation, and the Fermi Paradox, and from there goes on to discuss pulsars, panspermia, and the SETI program. Lerner does a decent job rounding up a wide range of information about how people have considered the question of extra-terrestrial life, and what researchers are doing to try to find evidence of it. Though the article stays fairly firmly within the bounds of science, Lerner does connect the issue to science fiction by pointing out how what we know and what we have speculated about has been (and could be) used in fiction. The end result is an informative, thought-provoking, and interesting article. Jeffrey Kooistra's Alternate View column discusses discoveries related to gravity waves and how this helps demonstrate certain models of inflationary expansion in Big Bang cosmology. The article is a bit technical at times, but is still engaging. Also touching on issues related to science, the poem in the issue is Early Man by David Livingstone Clink, and is dedicated to Robert Sawyer. A brief missive about the evolutionary path that led from the ancient hominids to us, the story combines humor and science to create an effective set of verses.

Overall, the October 2014 Analog marks an upturn for the magazine after several mediocre issues in a row. The standout stories in the volume are The Hand-Havers and Unfolding the Multi-Cloud, while Opportunity Knocks and Chrysalis are also quite good and provide a decent supporting cast. Even though Threshhold, Each Night I Dream of Liberty, and The Jenregar and the Light are each seriously flawed in their own way, they are well-written enough and still interesting enough that they are at least passable reads. This generally good collection of fiction combined with Lerner's interesting science fact article and Kooistra's dry but informative column thrown into the mix, gives the result of an above average issue.

Previous issue reviewed: September 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: November 2014

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  1. The reader is not given any kind of real indication as to what sort of society exists away from Libertalia


    I'm pretty much figuring it out as I go.