Review: Analog, January/February 2013

[January/February 2013 Analog cover]

The January/February 2013 issue of Analog contains one of the two annual "double" helpings of material consisting of eleven stories (two novellas, four novelettes, three short stories, and two "Probability Zero" vignettes) and seven more or less substantial articles (the editorial, a profile of an author, an "Alternate View", a book review column, a letters column, and an article each on science and science fiction). There are also stray bits of the usual items such as "In Times to Come" which details the next issue and, unique to the January issues, the index for the preceding year and the AnLab ballot. The usual newsstand price of an issue these days is $4.99 but the "double" issues cost $7.99. Still, 192 double columned pages with these contents counts as a real book at a real book's price so it's a fair deal assuming the quality is also fair. So, is it?

Stanley Schmidt's next-to-last editorial entitled "A Very Loud Ho-Hum" discusses the overuse of action in movies and the overuse of profanity in fiction and makes a plea for moderation, not on moral grounds, but on the grounds of efficacy. There's nothing really revolutionary here, but nothing objectionable either. But, speaking of efficacy, people can continue to plead and Hollywood and the media in general will likely continue to ignore them as long as the money keeps rolling in.

The "Biolog" page on the contributor Robert Scherrer is interesting but I actually prefer the Asimov's routine of including author snippets at the top of each story where Analog puts thematic teasers. A "Biolog" is less necessary then. "Brass Tacks" (the letters column) is a delightful continuation of a pre-Web institution. The book review column by Don Sakers is much like this magazine review intends to be: not a grand essay of literary theory but a "just the facts, ma'am" indication of whether you should part with your beer money.

Kooistra's "Alternate View" column takes up the special connection he felt to Larry Niven due to their common inspiration by Dandridge M. Cole and a book he co-authored called Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids which deals with the idea of hollowing those planetoids out for space habitats/starships and which takes on added interest with current commercial plans for mining them. Kooistra's article is also quite inspiring and there's even an odd connection for me in that Cole was also praised by one of my favorite websites, Centauri Dreams (on May 14, 2012), so his inspiration is definitely still living on.

Such are the regular departments. The featured non-fiction includes Michael F. Flynn's exuberantly told tale of contrarian history, "The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown and Down-and-Dirty Mud-Wrassle", detailing why the geocentric theory wasn't foolish given the evidence of the time in which it was most widely held, what it took to finally enthrone the heliocentric theory, and how Galileo wasn't exactly the prince popular history has made him out to be. Whatever the merits of the article's specific contentions, it does provoke much thought and inspire good ideas about how science, history, and politics often do work. The other featured non-fiction takes up how to write science fiction and in "Time, Place, and Wonder: The Use of Setting in Short Fiction", Richard A. Lovett discusses how to use (and not misuse) setting in science fiction, making excellent points, excellently using Heinlein as a main example of how to Do It Right.

All in all, a very stimulating, useful, and enjoyable batch of non-fiction.

To turn to the fiction, the magazine opens with "In the Moment" by Jerry Oltion, the cover story, which is ironically a rather short short story with some less-than-inspiring cover art by David A. Hardy (a depiction of some comet spray atop the moon atop a small telescope with two rather unattractive faces on each side of the 'scope). The art does convey the story, though: a tale of a young couple--an awkward man and a woman with a shared love of astronomy (that the man hopes could include a shared love of each other)--observing what may be the end of the world as a comet hurtles toward the moon. I don't quite see why it was honored with the cover but it's a pretty good tale (with one very funny line).

Next comes Brad R. Torgerson's "The Exchange Officers", which is my favorite story of this issue. It's a tale of an attempted Chinese takeover of a U.S. space platform and the Marine and Army officers who are "there" by proxy, have the only two tele-operated machines not taken out by the Chinese EMP, and must try to stop it. The action sequences are very well done and alternate with the history of the Navy ground control system that will pave the way for a U.S. space renaissance and how the Army narrator came to be a part of it. The one problem with the story is that opposing "triangles of narration" might have served better - a lot of background relative to current events early on, with the background narrowing and the current events widening as the story progressed. As is, the background scenes are always good but become almost frustrating distractions from the foreground action. Some people might be put off by what they might see as a dusting off of a Cold War space story but I see it as a continuation of a winning form with changed and updated circumstances and technological interests.

Then John G. Hemry (who's relatively recently become famous and best-selling under the pen name of Jack Campbell) keeps true to his roots by continuing to write short fiction for Analog. His "The War of the Worlds, Book One, Chapter 18: the Sergeant-Major" is a parody "lost chapter" of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds which takes issue with the novel's pessimism by showing how one British unit's very stiff upper lip could be a bit more inspiring. It's a fairly light tale but has a serious point and I found it enjoyable.

Harry Turtledove is another big name who contributes a small piece with "We Install" which is a truly delightful "Probability Zero" vignette that has an almost Dickian cosmic whimsy. I can't really say any more than that without spoiling things, I don't think.

The profiled author, Robert Scherrer, gives us "Descartes's Stepchildren" which was to me, a genuinely haunting tale about a neurological experiment which may reveal that a significant fraction of humanity is not actually sentient but are just "Blanks" or insentient automatons. The personal and sociological ramifications of this are played out well.

At this point I was reveling in the magazine but I suppose it would be unreasonable to expect the whole magazine to be that solid. Amy Thomson's "Buddha Nature" is almost the flip-side of the last story, being about a robot that has become sentient and, not content with that, wishes to achieve enlightenment at a Buddhist monastery in the northeast U.S. While I think this was very competently done and while I found "The Exchange Officers" to be fresh in fairly well-traveled ground, I couldn't really find anything in this that I hadn't read many times before and better. But the robot was appealing and some of the monks were quite vivid.

H.G. Stratmann's "Neighborhood Watch" is another basically comic short story like Hemry's and I'm not sure which I like better. I think Hemry's was funnier but Stratmann's tale of a solar system teeming with paranoid life was a great concept handled with vigor - you can't be half-hearted with a story this silly. I might give Hemry's the edge but this was quite enjoyable.

Edward M. Lerner gives us our second "Probability Zero" with "Unplanned Obsolescence" and it's hardly fiction at all in describing the annoyances and agonies of the computer age and the update treadmill that users of all systems suffer from to one degree or another. It has some nice touches and certainly strikes a chord.

Kyle Kirkland's "True to Form" took awhile to start impressing me and has one of those somewhat weak/somewhat clever "ah-ha"s that solve the plot but, in our third tale about sentience or the lack thereof, we take up the plight of a washed-out pharmacologist who is just trying to get by but gets entangled in a web of conspiracy and danger dealing with "mechs". Mechs are artificial persons who aren't supposed to be sentient but some of them may have been redesigned to be so. It came to be quite exciting overall and, as most of these stories are, was thought-provoking.

The last two stories are oddly sequenced, both being novellas and both dealing with time travel. As a disclaimer here, I have to say that I don't generally like time travel stories and aficionados of the sub-genre might want to trust my impressions even less than generally. Rajnar Vavra's "The Woman Who Cried Corpse" is a terribly named story which begins with personal trauma as the narrator's mother dies (for the severalth time) and moves quickly into impressively slam-bang action (as she is arrested for the murder of her mother and the collateral deaths of some others before unknown people attack the cops and more people die and much bloodshed and derring-do ensues) and then comes to a crashing halt almost exactly halfway through, ending with one very long infodump conversation about a fictional physics theory and time travel. This half is interesting enough if you enjoy the concept of time travel for its own sake but still leaves a broken-backed story and isn't particularly thrilling if thinking about time travel strikes you as an unnecessary headache.

Much better is Edward M. Lerner's second contribution to this issue, "Time Out". Possibly it's much worse in dealing with all its paradoxes but it seemed as (un)reasonable as most other time travel stories and was much more fictionally successful, drawing a couple of excellent characters and detailing their odd relationship as one of them struggles to invent a time machine and the other tries to deal with all the Bad Things that might ensue. Needless to say, the fate of the world hangs in the balance. I thought this put the protagonist into a fascinatingly cruel and tightly-packed jam and it worked very well for me, all things considered.

In sum, this was an issue without much true greatness but with a very high average of goodness, especially for those who like their SF written in a straightforward manner dealing head-on with specific regions of science and science-fictional ideas. This issue is particularly heavy on the sentience, time travel, and humor motifs and the protagonists or featured characters are often scientists, have an interest in scientific things, are soldiers, or are aliens, robots, or monks.

I won't explain the rating system in any future reviews but a word is probably called for here. I'm very stingy with "stars". Something like "Flowers for Algernon" would get five stars but that would almost never happen. 4/4.5 indicates something pretty extraordinary - year's best candidates. 3/3.5 is about all you can reasonably expect from a good, solid story - the kind of thing that might be reprinted elsewhere later. 2/2.5 is still quite good magazine material. 1/1.5 indicates that it has significant flaws and could be skipped. And 0 would be about as extraordinary as 5, indicating something inexplicable.

Summary Fiction Ratings (0-5 Stars):

3.5"The Exchange Officers", Brad R. Torgerson
3 "Descartes's Stepchildren", Robert Scherrer
3 "True to Form", Kyle Kirkland
3 "Time Out", Edward M. Lerner
3 "The War of the Worlds...", John G. Hemry
3 "Neighborhood Watch", H.G. Stratmann
3 "We Install", Harry Turtledove
2.5"Unplanned Obsolescence", Edward M. Lerner
2 "In the Moment", Jerry Oltion
1.5"Buddha Nature", Amy Thomson
1 "The Woman Who Cried Corpse", Rajnar Vajra

Final Word: You can live without this issue but shouldn't - if you can find a copy, I recommend picking it up.