Review: Analog, March 2013

[March 2013 Analog cover]

First of all, I want to thank Sandy Marlowe. Second of all, I want to clarify up front that this is an extremely belated review. Finally, I'll say that this issue of Analog is fine in terms of its contents, but has a special historical interest over and above them.

Non-Fiction

This is the final issue crediting Stanley Schmidt as editor and has an excellent editorial, "Time for a Change", in which he describes his lifelong connection to Analog, how he still feels that connection but wants to accomplish other things, and how he feels he's leaving the magazine in good hands, pointing the way to the future. The fact that this was over three years ago makes it odd to talk about now but it was truly an epochal moment.

The magazine must go on, though, and the science article, "Spoof Worlds" by Kevin Walsh is simultaneously fascinating and, ironically, a little dry. It's about the hunt for earth-like exoplanets, how detecting oxygen in their atmospheres would not be enough, due to the possibility of free oxygen produced from non-biological processes, all prefaced by a discussion of how aspects of our own atmosphere work. It is well-structured, leading to an effective lamentation of insufficient energies being devoted to this hunt and what rewards might come of such devotion. I said it's "dry" (the irony being that it spends quite a bit of time discussing water and water worlds) but it is enlivened with brief mentions of such things as the possible superstorms of those water worlds, what happened with Mars and Venus, and what is happening with HD209458b, a hot Jupiter orbiting so close to its sun that its atmosphere is being blown away like it's a comet. Regardless of the concrete imagery, the article describes a fascinating topic well.

This issue's Brass Tacks, the letters column, is almost a letter column, containing only one expression of perplexity regarding most of humanity's inability to reason and one very reasoned critique of the engineering in a Gray Rinehart story from November 2012, which the author manfully acknowledges.

I've been discussing John G. Cramer's Alternate View (this month's title being "How Al Gore and I Invented the Internet") and Don Sakers' Reference Library even though they've been available online at each issue's page but, from now on (meaning reviews written in or after July 2016) I'll pass over them more lightly. Suffice to say, Cramer's article on internet history and his (and Al Gore's) part in it is definitely worth clicking on the link.

Science Fiction

"Instinctive Response" by Bond Elam (novelette)

Two corporate scientists are exiled to a boring rock by a boss who's displeased by one of the scientist's hunting for evidence to prove or disprove panspermia or, as the boss calls it, hunting for "little green men." But, once they arrive at the planet, they encounter not one, not two, but three different derelict spacecraft and a mystery. This mystery deepens when they head to the surface and encounter survivors from one of the ships who have split into two factions, both of which are suffering from a strange disease. What's going on? Can the scientists figure out the problem - and a solution - before they are disemboweled by a vengeful red space lizard?

This story will not suit everyone as it's a very good example of "an Analog story": very heavy on the exploration, the aliens, the computer and genetic science, the social ramifications, and the storytelling; very light on the characterization and the flowery style and the navel-gazing. Even in the "science" part of the "science fiction" there are quibbles to be had - would most people have much luck even getting data off a 586 with a floppy drive to a laptop with nothing but USB ports without going to pick up some special items? So the magic of the humans being able to communicate with the alien computer is not satisfying. On the other hand, the author deserves a great deal of credit for explaining the character's construction of a translator in a reasonable way once the computer connection is granted at all. More important than such quibbles, the science mystery was very interesting and the background to this novelette hints at a vast scale of things mostly off-screen, especially with the final complication at the end. Good, fun, enjoyable stuff.

"It's the End of the World as We Know It and We Feel Fine" by Harry Turtledove (short story)

This story is hard to summarize as it is largely an exercise in narrative voice which hopes to hide a lack of any actual story. The narrator directly addresses you while telling you about an exemplary person of the future and his pet fox critter and the big climax comes when a throwback to our nasty, brutish, short times tries to take advantage of the exemplar.

This sort of satire or "careful what you wish for" depiction of a "utopia" has a core of an idea to it regarding "eugenics" but, if the tone is offputting to you (as me), I can't see how the story could work and, even if it appeals to you, it's still just seems like misdirection.

"The Paragon of Animals" by Andrew Barton (short story)

A breeder of alien slave animals has second thoughts about her vocation when one of the baby-talking "animals" creates a work of art for her.

This story has a fatal flaw for me in that I don't see how breeding inartistic talking "animals" to be worked, beaten, and generally abused is noble in the first place or why the artwork is supposed to be such a categorical distinction. It's possible I'm just being dense due to my initial distaste for the setup - the story probably just wants to make its symbolic point, but I can't accept its face value in the first place.

"The Radioactive Etiquette Book" by Marissa Lingen (novelette)

The head of a diplomatic team of an interstellar empire loses a trio of children in her charge as well as the hardcopy eponymous diplomatic bible which is never supposed to be seen by anyone other than the imperial diplomats. The bulk of the story involves the harried diplomat juggling many balls while trying to fix the two situations, which involves dealing with a variety of aliens.

This portrays an interestingly variegated milieu and, as near as I can judge, is constructed well enough and paced well enough if its sense of humor works for you but, except for rare moments, it didn't for me.

"Pre-Pirates" by Don D'Ammassa (Probability Zero)

A clever Probability Zero about the issues around a precognitive person posting authors' works which they haven't written yet.

"High Concept" by Barry Malzberg and Bill Pronzini (short story)

An epistolary story consisting mostly of exchanges between a writer and an editor regarding the author's pitch of a book which satirizes the wonderful aliens who have begun populating the earth, ultimately painting them to be bad characters.

While I can understand some perceiving this story as annoyingly metafictional and, well, "high concept," of course, it was oddly entertaining to me, with interesting resonances between the inner and outer stories in which the "same thing" in each perspective had very different aesthetic effects.

"The Snack" by Bud Sparhawk (short story)

A guy has a lot of aggressive gadgets and gizmos try to make him healthy because he thinks it will help him Get the Girl.

This ad-saturated consumerist story is very Pohl/Kornbluth in style and very O. Henry in structure (which should be compliments but, in this case, are not) and seems like other stories I've read over the past few years, including the story it's a sequel to ("The Suit," November 2007). It's more like a repeat of it than a sequel to it and mercilessly belabors its point, taking ten pages to convey 1-3 pages of necessary story to reach the obvious ending.

"The Firewall and the Door" by Sean McMullen (novelette)

Andy Harper, who is a British magistrate as well as our narrator, is watching the flyby of an interstellar starship past Alpha Centauri with his family when he's called to serve in part of a case against one of the crew. The ship had apparently been hit by a grain of dust at .9c and damaged but it turns out this was sabotage. The crew is actually on earth, with (hold still for some magic) quantum entangled virtual selves on board the ship. Jurisdiction is complicated, hence the British guy presiding over a partly American issue. In America, the legal system has been changed so that superweb "likes" and "dislikes" decide cases. And conditioning this case is the fact that there's been a large social change against "waste" and against interstellar exploration which even put the entire mission in danger of being scrapped despite being almost completed. Why the sabotage occurred, how this turns out, and what it means for humanity forms the remainder of the tale.

I'll be the first to admit that my synopsis ought to be better but I think its flaws partly derive from flaws in the story. This wants to punch SF fan buttons (or twirl our propeller-beanies) which makes it hard to dislike: it's got the Good Message (at least in part, though one element of the specifics may be questionable) but it's a cluttered tale whose parts either aren't all necessary and don't fit together well or whose connection I'm missing. The story could have been constructed purely as a trial story in which the whole tale comes out after the fact or it could have been an action story in which the tale is dramatized directly but, instead, it's a mix of couch-potato 3rd-party live "action" and some trial scenes and some other stuff. Now, part of the story's point deals with the "unsung heroes" of history, so maybe one could argue that some of this 3rd-party nature makes a thematic sense, but it seems a stretch. And, while the bass-ackwards "anti-waste" movement is vital to the story's point, I'm not sure I see how the timely (soon-to-be-dated) "future justice" motif is. I did find the story to be a very interesting and enjoyable read in most ways, but this overall architectural problem (in just a novelette) bothered me.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

Rating"Title" by Author (category)
3"Instinctive Response" by Bond Elam (novelette)
2.5"High Concept" by Barry Malzberg and Bill Pronzini (short story)
2.5"The Firewall and the Door" by Sean McMullen (novelette)
2.5"Pre-Pirates" by Don D'Ammassa (Probability Zero)
2"The Radioactive Etiquette Book" by Marissa Lingen (novelette)
1.5"It's the End of the World as We Know It and We Feel Fine" by Harry Turtledove (short story)
1"The Paragon of Animals" by Andrew Barton (short story)
1"The Snack" by Bud Sparhawk (short story)

Final Word: The particularly good Elam and a few other nifty stories make this worth picking up but the contents overall seem fairly average and not selected to make a "special farewell issue" or anything. If not for the historical nature, it's not an issue most people couldn't live without, either. Overall, and taken just for itself, I'm marginally positive towards it.