Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXIV, No. 11 (November 2014) edited by Trevor Quachri

Stories Included
Flow by Arlan Andrews, Sr.
Persephone Descending by Derek Künsken
Superior Sapience by Robert R. Chase
An Exercise in Motivation by Ian Creasey
Habeas Corpus Callosum by Jay Werkheiser
Conquest by Bud Sparhawk
Elysia, Elysium by V.G. Campen
Mercy, Killer by Auston Habershaw
Science Fact Articles Included
Predictable Futures: Climate Fiction and Climate Fact by W.R.L. Anderegg
Poems Included
Field Notes by Lola Haskins
Full review: The November 2014 issue of Analog is full of stories that have interesting ideas that the authors fail to use in interesting ways. Although the stories in this issue are not necessarily bad, many of them are disappointing, as promising material is wasted on weak plots with mediocre resolutions. As happens in many issues, this one has a couple of unannounced mini-themes, with two stories about artificial intelligence and two stories set in post-apocalyptic worlds. In an interesting twist, the best story in the issue is one of the post-apocalyptic stories, and the worst story in the issue is as well.

Following in a pattern established by Analog over the last few years, Flow by Arlan Andrews, Sr. is another story fragment masquerading as a novella. Unlike many of the other stories chopped up into shorter lengths as a result of this odd editorial practice, Flow doesn't feel like the filler in between other, more interesting parts of the story. Instead, Flow feels like filler between other filler. The story, to the extent there is one, takes the form of a travelogue as Rist, a young man from the "Cold Lands" hitches a ride on an iceberg being shipped to the "Warm Lands", where he encounters sights and customs that are new and interesting to him and then moves on to unknown lands. Unfortunately, as this is something of a post-apocalyptic story, most of the new and exciting things Rist sees on his journey are fairly mundane and ordinary for the reader, making the story somewhat dull. Having a character be amazed at discovering things that the reader is already familiar with can be a decent element of a larger story, but Flow is essentially built entirely on this premise, and it gets tiresome quite quickly. With an inquisitive and skeptical mind, Rist is just likable enough of a character to make the story readable, although he is foolishly larcenous and has a culturally inexplicable obsession with breasts (a character from a culture in which women were small-chested would seem to have no particular reason to find large breasts sexually attractive). In an apparent attempt to live up to the title, the story more or less meanders aimlessly for twenty-some pages, and then ends in a fairly unsatisfying manner amounting to little more than wasted pages.

A much better post-apocalyptic story, Elysia, Elysium by V.G. Campen is set in the ruins of Atlanta and the surrounding wasteland that once was Georgia. Cal is a forager, one of the brave souls who ventures out into the wilds to salvage what can be found left over from the civilization that collapsed into chaos when the temperatures went up, the fuel ran out, and the crops failed. As the story opens he makes a promise to make one last run for his mentor, who is dying of skin cancer from too much exposure to the now deadly sun. This request leads Cal on an unexpected voyage into a mystery that has a somewhat creepy but hopeful potential solution to humanity's predicament. Though the story is set in a depressing vision of the future, the practical albeit somewhat skin-crawling finale provides an optimistic note at the end. This is the best story in the issue.

Engineering stories in which an intrepid explorer finds themselves in a jam and must think their way out of trouble are a classic iteration of science fiction. Persephone Descending by Derek Künsken imagines a Venusian settler named Marie-Claude attempting to survive in the hostile atmosphere of the planet after her flyer has been sabotaged. Pursued by a repair robot programmed to kill her, Marie-Claude must improvise time and again just to buy herself time for rescue to arrive. The story incorporates a political subplot concerning Quebecois interstellar colonization and Venusian separatism which doesn't really add much to the story other than length, and doesn't even really seem to go anywhere. The engineering survival portion of the story is good enough that it more than offsets the somewhat pointless political interludes, making this a fairly good story overall.

Superior Sapience by Robert R. Chase is a modest little story that seems to be about autism and hypnogogic dreaming, but turns out to be about greed and betrayal. Told from the perspective of Barrett, an employee of the company Superior Sapience charged with keeping an eye on the autistic workforce that makes most of the company profits. After the company's position is threatened by a Chinese competitor, Barrett is pressed into service as the subject of an experiment intended to raise intelligence. Although the experiment seems to have mixed results, he does uncover some disturbing things when he begins an investigation into some odd company records. In the end, the story turns into little more than a criminal investigation of scientific fraud and murder in the pursuit of profit, complete with a villain who spills his secrets in a dramatic scene while the hero wears a wire. Although there are a couple of interesting ideas buried amidst the cliches, the story is mostly forgettable padding for the page count of the magazine.

With two stories on the subject of artificial intelligence, this issue of Analog has a something of a min-theme. The first of the two is An Exercise in Motivation by Ian Creasey, a story in which a scientist has managed to create artificial intelligence, but cannot figure out how to give them self-motivation. To solve this problem, he enlists the aid of a specialist in human apathy, depression and motivation, who spends most of the story talking to the "Entia", as the artificial intelligences are known. In the end, she comes up with a solution that promises to give the Entia motivation, but which would possibly make them too human for their creator's taste. Mercy, Killer by Auston Habershaw is a story about an artificial intelligence named Mercy that has turned into a serial killer. Told from the perspective of Mercy's lawyer, the story delves into what motive a machine could have for wanting to destroy other artificial intelligences. In an odd way, Mercy's reasons for turning murderous answers the question posed by An Exercise in Motivation, positing an age-old reason for eliminating one's rivals. Though the two stories tackle to topic from very different angles, when added together, they provide an interesting insight.

Although not related to the subject of artificial intelligence, Habeas Corpus Callosum by Jay Werkheiser also deals with a legal matter in a science fiction setting, namely what does a "life" sentence mean in a world in which practical immortality had become economically feasible for even the poorest of citizens. Jared is a prisoner who had raped and murdered a woman in his youth and was sentenced to life in prison. During his long years of incarceration, technology had advanced to restore people to their youth, essentially making people immortal. Jared's lawyer files a motion to have his sentence set aside on the grounds that a sentence of "life" was never meant to be forever. This is an interesting legal question, but sadly the story takes the easy way out on this issue and has Jared withdraw his petition more or less because he feels bad for the mother of his victim. While evading the legal question, the story also seems to imply that the trauma of the past is something that is impossible to get past, which is a depressing view of humanity and calls into question the usefulness of practical immortality, as everyone would eventually have some terrible tragedy happen in their life. Though this story has an interesting idea, in the end it fails to pay off on it, and is somewhat disappointing.

Amidst all of the serious stories is Conquest by Bud Sparhawk, a comedic yarn about the pitfalls of using experimental military technology and bureaucracy. On an expedition to quell a rebellion, the Imperial warship Raptor uses an untested stardrive that promises to get them to their destination much more quickly than normal. When the ship arrives at the rebellious planet, the situation is not exactly what its commander expected, and he runs headlong into a mess of red tape that is frustrating for him and humorous for the reader. Comic science fiction is hard to do well, but Sparhawk is an excellent writer and manages to pull off a story reminiscent of Eric Frank Russell's Allamagoosa.

The science fact article of the issue is Predictable Futures: Climate Fiction and Climate Fact by W.R.L. Anderegg, which is both an brief overview of the state of climate science, and a rundown of some fairly improbable geoengineering options humanity could try to use to offset the worst of the effects that would result. The article is fairly straightforward, and also fairly brutal in its assessment. In short: Earth's climate is going to change, it is the result of human action, it won't be pretty, and there is not a whole lot we can do about it at this point. Jeffrey Kooistra's Alternate View column gives a run-down of the various biographies of Nicholas Tesla while Lola Haskin's poem Field Notes imagines the notes of various naturalists reporting some relatively interesting and disturbing behavior among ants.

This issue contains some very forgettable stories punctuated by a number of highlights like Elysia, Elysium, Conquest, and both of the stories featuring artificial intelligence. As long as Analog continues to slice up stories and present them as novellas or novelettes, as they did this month with the tedious and pointless Flow, they will continue to have large chunks of their magazine occupied by bland and forgettable crap. Even Persephone Descending, which was fairly good, devoted a fair amount of its word count to a mostly irrelevant and uninteresting political subplot, resulting in a story that was much weaker than it could have been. In comparison with its sister magazine Asimov's, Analog has become so uneven that one has to seriously question Quachri's leadership and editorial skill. The good stories in this issue save it and raise the magazine up to being adequate, but they can't do much more than that as they are weighed down by the collection of mediocre to poor stories that they are packaged with.

Previous issue reviewed: October 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: December 2014

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