Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXV, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2015) edited by Trevor Quachri

Stories included:
Defender of Worms by Richard A. Lovett
Malnutrition by J.T. Sharrah
Just Browsing by Stephen Lombard
The Great Leap of Shin by Henry Lien
Usher by Jay Werkheiser
Ulenge Prime by Chuck Rothman
Long Way Gone by David L. Clements
Orion, Rising by Arlan Andrews, Sr.
The Yoni Sutra by Priya Chand
Why the Titanic Hit the Iceberg by Jerry Oltion
Fool's Errand by Judith Tarr
Samsara and Ice by Andy Dudak
Marduk's Folly by Sean Vivier
Unmother by Lex Wilson
Probability Zero: Space Bugs by Marianne Dyson

Science fact articles included:
Orbits to Order by Stanley Schmidt

Poems included:
The Secret of Cold Fusion by Bruce Boston

Full review: When Analog and Asimov's publish double issues, they are always something of a disappointment. For the January/February issue of Analog the problem is somewhat compounded by the fact that the magazine as a whole has been slowly declining over the last couple of years, like a proud ship listing as it takes on water. This issue is dominated by stories that aren't bad, but are rather mediocre. Almost every issue of a fiction magazine has a story or two that can be called "filler": Mediocre stories that serve merely to round out the page count for that month. These aren't bad stories, but they aren't memorable ones either. With a couple of notable exceptions, the stories in this issue of Analog are of the quality that one would expect from stories used as filler. The increasing prevalence of filler-type stories in its pages has been a problem for Analog for some time, but it has never been as readily apparent as it is here.

The longest story in this issue is the novella Defender of Worms by Richard A. Lovett, a continuation of previous stories featuring the A.I. Brittany, previously implanted in the spacer Frank, but now stuck inside former socialite party girl Memphis and on the run from the mysterious "Others". Much of what drives the plot in this story originated in previous installments in this series, including Brittany's relationship with Frank, the alien artifacts the two of them found, the existence of and conflict with the "Others", and Brittney's transfer from Frank to Memphis, but Lovett does a good enough job weaving background information into this story that someone who hasn't read any of the earlier ones shouldn't have any trouble keeping up with the action. The first portion of the story consists of Brittney and Memphis learning to survive by living off the land in the American west, hiding from the interconnected world so as to avoid the "Others" who pose a threat to both their lives. The pair slowly bond as they scavenge their way through the wilderness, until the story shifts when their nemeses track them down and send hunters to retrieve them at which point the story turns into a cat and mouse game of predator and prey, although at times it isn't clear who is the predator and who is the prey. As waiting out their enemies proves fruitless, the pair must make a desperate gamble by returning to the networked world to forge a deal with an old foe. Along the way, Brittney manages to reestablish contact with Frank, and the two come to an understanding while also batting around ideas for how to unravel the mystery posed by the alien technology they helped discover. The "worms" of the title are humans - so much slower in thought and so fragile in existence when compared to A.I.'s like the "Others" that they regard themselves as godlike beings in comparison. One of the major thematic elements of the story, however, is Brittney realizing that thinking like a human is sometimes an advantage, and then leveraging that knowledge to outwit those pursuing her and Memphis. The story is satisfying, with pretty decently developed character - even those who only show up briefly in the story are fleshed out enough to seem real - and it is one of the better stories in the issue.

Malnutrition by J.T. Sharrah is a decent story containing an interesting idea, but unfortunately the author simply doesn't do much of anything interesting with it. The story starts when Kadija, a high status member of the standoffish Umabari decides to visit the human trading station of Haven. The Umabari have a couple of cultural quirks, but the most notable is that they regard eating food to be a disgusting activity and have taboos against doing so in public akin to human taboos against defecating or urinating in public. Hardesty, the mayor of Haven welcomes Kadija and his interpreter, but the story takes a lethal turn when an assassin attempts to kill Kadija and succeeds in severely wounding him and killing his interpreter. With almost no information about the Umabari and entirely ignorant of their customs, the mayor and medical staff try their best to keep him alive, but unknowingly violate Umabari taboos concerning eating. After securing the aid of a piratical trader named Yulix, Hardesty discovers their mistake and learns that he may have given such offense to the Umabari that they would resort to war in retaliation if Kadija survives to tell the tale of his humiliation. Kadija does survive, which seems like it would produce a compelling story, but he almost immediately commits suicide, essentially wrapping up the problem and leaving only some fairly trivial loose ends to tie up. While Sharrah has inserted not one, but two interesting alien cultures into his story (the very courteous Ziduresh being the other), they don't really interact with the humans in any real meaningful way - Kadija spends most of the story unconscious, and dies almost as soon as he awakens, and the one Ziduresh who shows up basically appears only to say they wouldn't be so impolite as to try to kill an Umabari in human territory. What could have been an intricate story about navigating the vagaries of alien cultural practices devolves into a simple tale of power politics with a few aliens thrown into the mix. This isn't a bad story, but it is a somewhat disappointing one.

Another alien encounter story, Just Browsing by Stephen Lombard is almost as disappointing as Malnutrition. The aliens in this story are Cygnusians who have come to visit Earth somewhat surreptitiously. The protagonist of the story is a small town history teacher named Kelly who happens to be married (and separated from) Angela, a woman who works for the Department of Homeland Security. The aliens have asked to meet her at the small town library where Kelly lives, and she is unwilling to do so herself, so she asks him to fill in for her. When they arrive, the aliens turn out to be interested in the work of a mathematician who left his archives to the library. Along the way, Kelly teaches one of them to play chess, and then ends up teaching one of their children to play chess. The alien contact story seems to be building to something and then simply fizzles out as the focus hops over to the strained relationship between Kelly and Angela, which ends up with Angela declaring her desire to have babies. After giving the reader chess-playing aliens interested in obscure mathematics, leaving on that note is something of an anticlimax finishing the story in a decidedly unsatisfying manner.

The third first contact story, and by far the best, Usher by Jay Werkheiser presents the reader with some fairly alien aliens and a protagonist who is suffering from Usher syndrome. The Canadian government recruits Dave, a former chemist, now school psychologist because they have been entirely unable to establish contact with the inscrutable aliens despite trying a number of different approaches. As Renard, the government liaison to Dave, explains they approached him because of his visual and auditory impairments, on the theory that the aliens could neither see nor hear and perhaps someone in a similar situation could bridge the gap between humanity and their unexpected visitors. The story proceeds in a relatively orderly manner, as pieces of evidence are systematically uncovered and tested, leading to a potential solution. Not content with placing the characters on a deadline due to the impending departure of the alien expedition, Werkheiser feels the need to ramp up the tension by introducing the additional complication of a political fight between the Canadian government and the United Nations, but this proves to be a fairly minor plot complication. There is a bit of fairly improbable coincidence in the resolution of the story - the fact that Dave just happens to have been an analytic chemist with experience in spectroscopic analysis turns out to be somewhat critical - but the aliens are suitably alien and yet understandable enough that the reader isn't left adrift, and the mystery of how to communicate with them is well-handled, resulting in a superior story.

One of the most intriguing stories in the issue is The Great Leap of Shin by Henry Lien, which seems like something ripped from Chinese mythology and folklore. Told from the alternating perspective of "The Eunuch" and "The Boy", two antagonists in a conflict over whether the Empire of Shin would be allowed to complete a project involving using masses of men jumping in timed leaps to cause a massive earthquake. The plan is the product of the Eunuch Mu Hai-Chen's design, and is intended to knock over all of the buildings in Shin at a time when they are unoccupied so as to prevent them from collapsing in a future earthquake while people are in them. The plan is intended to save the lives of the people who would be killed in an unplanned earthquake. Opposing him is the youthful Master Tien-Tai and his two female allies from the island city of Pearl, who use a martial art based upon the sue of deadly skates and a mastery of maneuvering on the glass-like "pearl" substance for which the city is named. The viewpoint shifts back and forth between Mu Hai-Chen and Tien-Tai, sometimes quite rapidly, and is told in the first person for most of its length. This method of storytelling gives the story the immediacy and urgency of a first person narrative, while also allowing the reader to get inside the head of each of the main characters in the drama. Because of this, neither character is the "protagonist" and as a result neither is the "antagonist" either. As befits a piece of Chinese mythology, the ending of the story is brutal, tragic, and deeply ironic. Lien took a number of risks with the story, and they pay off beautifully.

Set in the last days of a dying dictatorship, Ulenge Prime by Chuck Rothman contemplates the price that might be paid for the exploration of space. Ulengi is the brutal dictator of Namibia who is imminently going to be deposed, so he takes his long suffering alienated wife Ifana and flees, but not to where she expects. One of the prime achievements of Ulenge's brutal regime was the construction of Ulenge Prime, a space station that many regard as a vanity project. The ruthless measures taken to build station are apparently among the primary grievances of the rebels against Ulenge's government, but the thorough preparations turn out to be Ulenge's apparent salvation as he forces Ifana to take a prepared rocket ship to the station with him. From there, the story turns around a little bit, as Ifana learns of the true reasons for Ulenge's reign of terror, and his ultimate plans. The technological elements of the story are fairly straightforward, but the questions posed about the sacrifices that might be required to make the dream of space a reality are chilling and thought-provoking.

Another story about a space station built as something of a vanity project, Why the Titanic Hit the Iceberg by Jerry Oltion imagines a future in which climate change has wrecked the Earth and the wealthy have built themselves an orbital habitat to retreat to. Tony comes to the station as a gyro technician, one of the support staff who are supposed to keep the place running from the bowels of the colony while the wealthy elite conspicuously consume resources in the sunny and well-manicured upper levels. Tony meets fellow support staff member Sandra right before he arrives on the station, and they strike up a friendship, and then a relationship. Along the way, Tony finds practices of the inhabitants that make hum angry, and anomalies in the systems that disturb him. In the end, the story is almost anti-Randian in feel, as it pretty heavy-handedly makes the statement that the true power in a civilization is in who keeps it running, and not in those who own the property, which seems to be a decidedly pro-proletarian message. The only real plot hole is that one wonders how the "wealthy" thought they were going to be able to maintain their wealth in a system in which they have no visible means of income.

Suffering from the feeling that he is an impostor, the protagonist in Long Way Gone by David L. Clements also has to deal with the fact that the supposed love of his life abandoned him. In Clements' story, humanity colonizes distant planets by copying people and beaming them across the void of interstellar space. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed man who made this journey, but when he is reconstituted he discovers that Anne, his work partner and lover, declined to do so as well. Feeling betrayed and lost, he comes to view himself as a reject, a cheap copy of the original without value. He falls into self-destructive habits until he meets Alice, who encourages him to take a different path and truly colonize the new world they have found themselves upon. In the end, the central character finds himself again, or, as the story suggests, finds what this version of himself truly is for the first time. It is interesting, but the central character is just a little bit too absorbed in wallowing in his own misery and the resolution seems to suggest that people with serious mental health issues just need to buck up and get a change of scenery to snap out of their doldrums, which seems like an incredibly simplistic and wrongheaded way to view such issues.

Both Probability Zero: Space Bugs by Marianne Dyson and Orion, Rising by Arlan Andrews, Sr. share a common theme related to American space flight, specifically NASA. In Dyson's story a pair of former NASA employees - Doc and Barbara - commiserate at a diner after the closing of the agency due to budget cuts. Doc brings up the subject of "space bugs": Gut microbes that give people in space a euphoric feeling and the two hatch a plan to reverse NASA's misfortunes by getting a Congressman in space. The story seems like it is missing the middle, as it skips from the introduction to the conclusion. Granted, it is a Probability Zero story, so it is necessarily quite short, but this doesn't seem like a short story so much as it seems like a truncated longer story that has been savagely cut. Andrews' story doesn't directly deal with NASA, but is focused on a group of old engineers as they grouse about the inefficiency of the new U.S. moon landing project which has taken sixteen years to come to fruition when the Apollo program had only taken eight. After kvetching about how private industry could have done the job quicker and less expensively, the story turns to reveal that all of the action has taken place on the apparently privately run moon colony and the U.S. effort is a feeble afterthought at this point. The entire story is more or less just a set-up for a punchline, and it is a pretty feeble one.

One of the best stories in the issue, The Yoni Sutra by Priya Chand imagines a future India in which women are implanted with chips that deliver a punishing shock to any man not related to them who touches them. The main character is Shalini, a young woman who gets married to the love of her life in the opening chapters of the story, never having been touched by him or any other man who isn't directly related to her. She dreams of a perfect marriage, but finds that her inexperience with physical affection results in some frustration. At her workplace, a new woman named Gayatari becomes an employee, and she hails from Mumbai, where implanted chips are not as common on women and does not have one. Through the story, Chand reinforces time and again just how isolating this technology is for both women and men, as even the slightest touch will cause severe pain, so brushing against a stranger on the street, or accidentally bumping into someone at work becomes an event of some significance. Soon, Gayatari's lack of chip and her attitudes regarding her unchiped status forces Shalini to question all of her assumptions about the benefits of the chips, although the author resolutely refuses to provide an easy answer one way or another about their desirability, showing both the risks of not having a chip, and the crippling limitations imposed upon those who do possess them, as well as the cultural web accompanying the chips that has built up around women to hedge them in and restrict their freedom. What the story does make clear is that a forced choice is no choice at all, and being able to choose for oneself makes all the difference.

Fool's Errand by Judith Tarr is a moderately charming tale of a woman named Marina working on a star ship who finds herself trying to figure out how to save a horse whose stasis capsule malfunctioned on the journey. In Tarr's fictional world, star ships leap vast distances in "jump space", and the transition from normal space to jump space is apparently dangerous for those without the right protection. The right protection for a horse would normally be being in stasis, but with that avenue foreclosed, Marina has to figure out how to shield the animal or it is likely to suffer moderate to severe brain damage when the ship transitions at its final destination. Layered on top of this story is the interaction between Marina and Dr. Nasir, the horse's owner and xenoarchaeologist, which just so happens to be the academic specialty that Marina got her doctorate in before lack of funding drove her to take up her job as a star ship crew member. After briefly giving up on the idea, Marina hits upon an unusual solution for saving the horse, and impresses Dr. Nasir. The story turns into something of a girl-and-her-horse love story, with some helpful coincidences to make the ending at least a little bit like a fairy tale. Fool's Errand is diverting, but it doesn't make much more of an impact than that.

A tale of old warriors locked in a futile combat that plays out over centuries Samsara and Ice by Andy Dudak speaks to the futility of war, and its unintended consequences. Hamish Omni "the Sleeping God", wakes up from hibernation roughly every three years to lay in wait for and kill Bataar Temuujin "the Dying God", whose resurrection technology reconstitutes him anew, just in time to be murdered. Around them, the diminutive "fey", who are actually genetically altered humans, have constructed a fertility cult religion around the two soldiers' periodic conflict, focusing on the oft-repeated death of the "Dying God". Tired of being killed time and again, Vataar tries to strike up a communication with Hamish, which only works somewhat as Hamish is conditioned to want to kill his opponent every time. In an ironic twist, as Hamish and Bataar communicate more and more, and the time between when Bataar instantiates and is killed stretches longer and longer, the fey religion depending upon the sacrifice of the Dying God grows darker and darker. Unfortunately, the story doesn't really go much of anywhere, taking baby steps when it does move along. In the end, the two combatants understand one another a little better, but are no closer to reaching any kind of rapprochement than they were at the beginning of the story, seemingly having decided to continue their lengthy struggle, at least in part, for the good of the fey.

Despite being one of the shorter stories in the volume, Marduk's Folly by Sean Vivier is fairly blunt with its theme. In the story Marduk, an alien from a high-gravity world in which the denizens must work together to survive, has some unorthodox thoughts when examining a strange star system. The strange star system bears an uncanny resemblance to our own, but that seems almost beside the point. The meat of the story is that when Marduk voices his thinking to his companions Lugh and Rhea, they are shocked to find he is not in "accord" with them, a serious taboo. The story really only works because we know that Marduk's guess is right and those who oppose him are wrong. The plot is essentially just an extended metaphor to say that social stigmas that prevent dissent so as to promote stability also prevent free scientific inquiry. Marduk does engage in one tiny act of subversion, almost like a cry in the dark, but ends up knuckling under and then the story ends. The message of the story is both fundamentally correct and fairly pedestrian, and the author doesn't really do much with it other than shove it out to the reader and let it sit there, which results in a story that hits most of the right buttons but still falls a little bit flat.

One of the most alien stories in the issue Unmother by Lex Wilson is at the same time oddly familiar. Told from the perspective of a microscopic creature living in a human brain, the creature is theoretically part of a collective colony of sisters under the guidance of their "mother". The only trouble is that our protagonist had malformed teeth, and since exchanging teeth with the mother is the primary way these creatures communicate with one another, she is shut out of most of the society of the collective: She is "unmothered". Everything comes to a head when the colony's "brother" damages the brain they all call home, triggering the imminent removal of the blood-brain barrier which will destroy the colony (and probably the brain as well). The unmothered protagonist interferes with the normal functioning of the colony by usurping the mother's position to use one of her sisters to insert her vital information into the mother's consciousness. This precipitates a crisis that results in a disorganized and frantic flight from their home in search of a new safe haven. Along the way, the "unmothered" organism assumes a role she never expected to, and her sisters find self-direction she never knew they had. Despite the odd setting and the alien nature of the creatures in the story, it has an oddly conventional feel with an outcast coming into their own and finding a sense of belonging as they lead their people on a journey of survival.

The science fact article in the issue is Orbits to Order by Stanley Schmidt, an informative essay about orbital mechanics that is, unfortunately, as dry as a bone. In an equation heavy article, Schmidt walks the reader through how to calculate orbits, using a geosynchronous orbit as his primary example. He then sets about how to calculate the effects of applying additional centripetal force to these orbits to move them higher and lower. There is a fair amount of information packed in the essay, but there is not much to the article other than the calculations. Jeffrey Kooistra's Alternate View column, titled Blast from the Past Part 2, returns to the subject of Nikolai Tesla, this time focusing on Tesla's own accounts of his work, as well as discussing the true nature of Tesla's work concerning beamed power transmission. The article attempts to separate some of the myths about Tesla and his work from the reality, and for the most part it succeeds. It is, obviously, too short to give anything but a tease concerning the subject, but that is its intention and so the column achieves its objectives.

Overall, the word that sums up the January/February issue of Analog is "adequate". There are some highlights such as Defender of Worms, Usher, and The Great Leap of Shin, and even a couple of intriguing stories that try for greatness and just miss the mark like The Yoni Sutra and  Unmother, but by and large the stories in this issue are just ordinary. The better stories in the issue are merely good: There are no stories in this issue that one could reasonably describe as great, or even very good. Even the poem in the issue, The Secret of Cold Fusion by Bruce Boston, is a fairly run-of-the-mill effort by the usually brilliant poet. Mediocrity seems to have become the new norm for Analog, and that is a fact that should make science fiction fans feel disheartened.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: March 2015

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