Review: Analog, April 2013

[April 2013 Analog cover]

The April 2013 issue of Analog is the first issue with editorial credit given to Trevor Quachri. This is a pretty momentous occasion as it marks only the sixth editor in Analog's history, the fourth since 1937, and the first since Schmidt took over thirty-five years ago in 1978. In the world of magazines you never know how long a Grand Vizier behind the throne has really been running things or, on the other hand, how much inventory from a previous editor a new editor has to work through, so it would be a bit foolhardy to try to draw significant conclusions from one issue to the next but this issue is, I regret to say, quite a bit worse than the last Schmidt I read[1]. But Schmidt had, and every editor has, his ups and downs. No cause to panic and no glaring structural changes yet.

The editorial begins with Quachri announcing his intentions towards our magazine. He seems like a decent young man and promises to have it home by 12. Seriously, the point seems to be to have the "same" Analog, but even more so. (Quachri is trying to allay the fears of long-time lovers of the Analog brand while trying to save some room for his own stamp and to interest people who'd like Analog to change at least a little.) And then he notes that he'll be turning the editorial pulpit over to guest editorialists for awhile. I'd have actually preferred a "show don't tell" sort of editorial in the sense that he could have written an editorial that declared his intentions through his attitude and might have something concrete to say in terms of specific things that would endure or were changing in this very issue or in the near future. This was a more generic hazy "some things some day" sort of editorial with a fairly un-Campbellian or even un-Schmidtian wishy-washiness. But he's in a tough spot with some big shoes to fill and it's quite possible that charging in and yelling could have come off as being presumptuous so I'll be a bit wishy-washy myself and say the editorial could have been better but was fine. Just not a famous bit of prose we'll look back on with nostalgia in the far future.

Kooistra's Alternate View department really is alternate this time, asking "Where's My Flying Car" and segueing into how we need a reactionless drive. Minor and strange, but interesting. Sakers has never met a book he didn't like, encouraging us to go out and buy another five out of five books. And Brass Tacks is less delightful and more cranky and cracked this month.

Edward M. Lerner gives us the science "fact" article which is really more of a science fiction article: "Alien Aliens: Beyond Rubber Suits". The science part comes from the scientific underpinnings of making realistic aliens but this is all in the service of using them in fiction so it's really a "how to conceive and describe credible aliens in your SF" article. Also, a cynical person might say it was an advertisement for Analog (copious references) and for Lerner's own fiction (major example drawn from there). But even if that's the case, it's an excellent commercial with interesting examples and really underscores the difference, not only between Hollywood rubber suits vs. print aliens, but between genuinely plausible and thought-out aliens vs. literary figures of speech.

Turning to the fiction, this issue deals primarily with biology in a wide sense. Brad Aiken's short story, "The Last Clone", suffers from a preachy moral righteousness in depicting its villainous title character but is structurally sound enough. An immortal reporter interviews the dying clone of an evil zillionaire and the catch-22 for the clone is neatly done - too neatly done, in fact. This is a story that feels like all its elements are set up to make its moral point - the scaffolding shows and it feels forced. Carl Frederick's novelette, "The Lost Bloodhound Sonata", is a somewhat bizarre blending of marine biology and olfactory research which starts awkwardly and ends predictably but acquires some sort of strength and vigor in the bulk of the middle. I do give this one points for being unusual and having interesting creature concepts, though. While not apparently aliens, the critters unearthed (un-sea'd, actually) by a hurricane are pretty nifty.

The best story in the issue also focuses on biology (genetics): Kyle Kirkland's novelette, "Altruism, Inc." This is also a story of blending in that it deals with alternative economics and its genetic concept and the blending feels odd but interesting at first and becomes seamless by the end. A somewhat tough "handle" (a private eye/problem solver) is hired to look into possible problems with a client's genetic modifications and, oh by the way, the client's wife would like him to kill someone. He declines but can't quite let go of the case. This leads him to the titular company and its vivid boss and curious doings and even into theories about far pre-history. There's an almost Heinleinian deftness in the exposition - the guy picks up a "brochure" from Altruism, Inc. but waits until he gets home "to activate it". Maybe I'm just old-fashioned but I visualized a paper brochure and was momentarily and pleasantly surprised. Similarly, we're plunged into the weird semi-money/semi-barter, everything-for-a-price alternative economy which is explained in small snippets as we go rather than with a single infodump somewhere in the story. So for creativity, pace, and exposition, I liked this.

Not all stories in this issue were particularly life-sciences oriented. Sarah Frost's "Launch Window" starts very well as a Clarke-ian "this is the way we travel in space" story as a woman tries to meet up with her sister for a last-ditch plea to convince the sister to stay on a dystopian earth rather than go off on humanity's first interstellar journey. However, while the closing sequence is conceptually explicable, it is not believably dramatized, in my opinion, particularly regarding the protagonist's psychological journey from point A to point B in zero seconds. But I won't spoil the ending in case it works for you. In a somewhat better short story, Jennifer R. Povey brings us "The Skeptic" which is a fairly fresh "first contact with a twist" story with a nice twist.

There is also Part I of IV of Edward M. Lerner's serial, Dark Secret, which is also about mankind's first trip to the stars. In "Launch Window", we're fleeing from dystopia. Matters are quite a bit worse in this one as we're fleeing from a gamma-ray burst that will basically sterilize the solar system and Lerner doesn't think that's enough trouble, so piles on scheduling difficulties which result in a basically impossible mission to Save Humanity. Six people and a batch of embryos aboard a half-finished and half-tested starship (converted from a "delivery truck" of a spaceship) hurtle into the void with no surveyed destination in mind.

I have numerous quibbles with this serial: Chapter One takes place in ~2220 before the rest of the story rewinds us 70 years. Given that, Chapter One should have been a "Prologue" or something, to prepare for the time-switch. Then it's supposed to be at least 2150 and one character is born in 2093 who makes reference to having one of those sliding number puzzles of, say, 14 squares in 15 slots. This is definitely possible but very unlikely since I'm not sure kids even these days know them. Worse, a much younger character gives the "twitter" version of some scientific information. More significantly, the nanotech specialist is an insubordinate, arrogant felon and, while they're clearly rushed for time, I have a hard time believing Job One wouldn't be to ensure as stable a crew as possible for the success of the mission and that there wasn't someone better who could handle nanotech. Conversely, how one protagonist gets his wife aboard while all four of the rest are conveniently unattached is improbable at best. More significantly still, the cover story for the embryo "theft" is nuts and there must have been a better solution. And most significantly, why does it seem like our current exoplanet hunt just stopped and such knowledge as we already have has disappeared? By 2150+, I expect we'll know everything about the gross composition of the Alpha Centauri system and much more. And, of course, this starship is handwavium-powered with a "dark energy drive" though, on the plus side, there is the nifty idea of detecting gravitational lensing from a super string outside the solar system and using that to "ride the cosmic rapids", so to speak. But, while the title comes from the name of the planet they eventually discover (not in the Centauri system thanks to said rapids) I expect the "Dark" secret may yet relate to the "dark energy", too.

Quibbles aside, a tale of interstellar exploration to prevent humanity's extinction from a gamma-ray burst apocalypse is a compelling scenario and the tale is told in such a way that none of the quibbles so far seriously interfere with the overall enjoyment of it and some of those problems may yet be explained or overcome.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

3"Altruism, Inc.", Kyle Kirkland
2.5Dark Secret, part I of IV, Edward M. Lerner
2 "The Skeptic", Jennifer R. Povey
2 "The Lost Bloodhound Sonata", Carl Frederick
1.5"Launch Window", Sarah Frost
1.5"The Last Clone", Brad Aiken

Final Word: Depending on how the serial turns out, this one can be skipped but is still worthwhile if so inclined. And, of course, if the serial is good, it would be required.

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[1] I was referring to the last issue I'd read at the time of writing this review, which was the January/February issue. I've now (2016-07-13) read the March issue. This issue was marginally better than that one. I said not to draw conclusions from one issue to the next. ;)