Review: Analog, July/August 2013

[July/August 2013 Analog cover]

The year's second double issue brings us an unusual amount of pessimism ("Tethered", "Quiet" (depending on how you look at it), "Cronus", "Negative Impact", "Thaw" (depending), "Ready, Set", "Avatars", arguably others) and technophobia ("Tethered" in at least part, "Quiet" (depending), "Avatars", aspects of "Chaplain") and romantic subplots ("Chaplain", "Tethered", "Love", "Bang", maybe "Avatars" and Dark Secret if you wanted to focus on parts). It also brings us too many short shorts and not enough novelettes, as usual. Eight tales of less than novelette length, with only two novelettes (and two novellas and the serial chunk). Even if the cost were fewer stories, I would still prefer more novelettes. They are the backbone of SF, while shorts tend to be pretty trivial - they're good for humor or light stuff (but I don't need an excess of that) and they're good when they're great - when they are genuinely brilliant economical evocations that don't benefit from extensive narrative. But to have several shorts in every issue, you're all but guaranteed to have a few pointless wastes of time in every issue. The only structural change in this issue (assuming it's not temporary) is that the thematic teasers are gone and the author's name is consistently surrounded by the separator bars. (This actually started last issue with some stories having the little blurbs and some not and those without just having a single separator under the author, which I didn't notice at the time.) If this is a permanent change, I like it. But I hope Mr. Quachri doesn't go messing with the features, departments, and double-columned type.

The proofreading disaster continues apace:

The editorial is incomplete, being part one of two on gun violence and the blame game involving video games. This is just the prefatory "they say" part of the editorial. Can't fault Quachri for being afraid of sensitive subjects here, though. But, given that "Chaplain" and "Avatars" basically blame video games (VR) for Bad Things, there's an odd disconnect between the editorial and the fiction the editor presents. If I follow John G. Cramer's Alternate View column, it's completely unconvincing. It asks (much like a certain story in the last issue, where the story and column could have been united) whether our "world" could be a simulation. It assumes the entire universe would have to be modeled down to the last subatomic particle, mistaking the map for the territory. All that has to be modeled is enough to serve as a representation and it certainly wouldn't take much to fool us. (See Asimov's "Ideas Die Hard" - if we ever did achieve interstellar flight, and so on, the model might break down.) Worse, it assumes that it would take more computronium than our universe could contain and that such a thing would collapse into a black hole but that's like a chess piece saying it's impossible for a bishop to walk in a straight line. The reality from which this simulation is run need have no limits this simulation has. (Note that I'm not arguing that this is all a simulation but only saying I'm not impressed with Cramer's arguments. The article is still interesting, though, exemplified by how much I've spent discussing it. Sakers once again encourages us to go buy five more books. One is actually a reprint I've read and can vouch for, though: I haven't read George R.R. Martin's fantasy, which is all the rage now, but I have read and highly recommend his Tuf Voyaging collection of connected stories. Brass Tacks is better than it's been lately, with a piece from Schmidt on Quachri and with some real give and take between the readers and the authors and columnists. This issue also gives us the AnLab results but, not having read any of the winners, I can only note the fact.

We have no Special Feature this double issue, but have double Science Fact articles. Fran van Cleave brings us "The Fabulous Fruits of Mendel's Garden". I'll allow that I'm not as fascinated by biology as some other things but I don't think that's the problem when I find this article merely fair. There's a chatty "personal interest with pat conclusion" style that I dislike. I want to say "Sunday supplement" for some reason, even though I don't know what that really means. And I'll allow that cosmology is the One True Science so I might be biased when H.G. Stratmann brings us the fantastic "Galactic Cannibalism: Who's on the Menu[?]" which, aside from an anthropomorphic and sensationalized title, is great. The scale detailed in the first section alone, is worth the price of admission. It reminds me of a National Geographic map I once had which showed something like the earth and moon in a cube with a pyramid extending from it - the point of the pyramid was a tiny dot in the next picture, which was of the solar system. That became a tiny dot in the next picture, which became a tiny dot in the next, and so on, until our galaxy was a tiny dot in the next and so on. The scale is inconceivable but even the hint of it is staggering. Anyway - this especially deals with how the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies are likely to collide in the near future - a few billion years. (Again, scale.)

There's also a poem by Geoffrey A. Landis.

For fiction, I scanned through the last installment of Edward M. Lerner's Dark Secret and, given that scanning, I'm not really entitled to comment on it but it seemed to end even worse than I'd imagined it would. It seemed to go for the obvious-yet-implausible ending with no real cathartic value much less any plain enjoyability. While some awareness of our exoplanet search was eventually displayed somewhere back there, I never did see where the "Dark Secret" tied into "dark energy" but, as I say, I didn't finish it. About as bad was "Other People's Avatars" by Howard V. Hendrix. This is yet another "evil VR" story that felt very Nth generation post-post-cyberpunk and was told in a very predictable, repetitive, maddeningly boring cycle. I didn't "skip" anything but I find it unlikely I read every word, either - I'm sure my eyes were skittering all over the page towards the end. Arlan Andrews, Sr.'s cover story, "Thaw" was not quite a "call a rabbit a smeerp" story but not far removed, filled with such deathless prose as: "My fathersfathersfather carved that when he first came to the Edge of the World, the ice was two hand's dim-march further warmward than now." (14b) It also is not quite an "Adam and Eve" story but, again, not far removed, but I won't "give away" the ending. Aside from the prose style, the primitivism, and the plot, it wasn't all bad, though. I believe the author was genuinely delighted with his milieu and that came through to the reader. I also found the characters' mentality and the concept of the "Reader" and his relation with his odd, clever son, to be well done.

There are a lot of short stories (and one Probability Zero vignette) in this issue. Again, I really wish there were fewer of them and more novelettes (see above). Rosemary Claire Smith: "Not With a Bang": I could have done without the "romance" subplot in this dinosaur/time travel story and the whole story didn't seem all that significant but I did like the central idea and I'll grant that the sort of throwaway vibe of the story lets that idea sneak up on you and maybe a more substantial story would have made the idea seem like a silly anti-climax rather than the nifty gimmick it is. Mary Lou Klecha: "Ready, Set": a vignette about waiting lists and lotteries to emigrate from the cesspool of Earth. Not original and seems almost to be one of those stories that say "don't dream". Alec Austin & Marissa Lingen: Milk Run: soldiers trade with pirates while a newbie learns the ropes in a story that tries to be funny for the most part and, for the most part, doesn't really succeed. Bud Sparhawk: "CREP d'Etoile": I guess this is "crap of the toilet". If you thought Mark Niemann-Ross talking about dirt in the last issue was bold, you'll find Bud Sparhawk's tale of a luxury spaceliner's recycled food to be far bolder. Alas, this story is a longish short story, yet has no substantial plot or conclusion whatever.

There are also some more intriguing, if not entirely successful, short stories. Jamie Todd Rubin's Probability Zero, "The Negative Impact of Climate Change on the Unusual Beasts of the World" is almost a throw-away fantasy and yet has a sneaky pointedness that delivers an actual, um, impact. Seth Dickinson: "Cronus and the Ships": an unoriginal tale of AI warships and alien berserkers, a la Saberhagen and the flood of New Wave of British Space Opera types. But it's very very short - what it takes some of the NWOBSO authors 2000 page trilogies to get across, Dickinson boils down to an evocative two-page prose poem. So I can see ignoring this story but it caught my attention and I liked it in a way. Rick Norwood: "Love": another not-terribly-original tale of an earthbound standard-time boy falling in love with a time-dilated starship captain but it's nicely and economically structured and I like the taciturnity of the last section - the story's as emotional as it gets, conceptually, so the author wisely doesn't slather it on still further. If I can do without the somewhat slapdash subplot in "Not with a Bang", I can obviously do without this story, too, but it's the point of this story and it's done well enough. Perhaps the most interesting short of the stories in this issue is K.C. Ball's "A Quiet Little Town in Northern Minnesota". It's the usual handwavium story of a computer system becoming sentient and has the usual romantic subplot but the AI is an interesting character/narrator and the story is a bizarre one, especially for Analog: I can't get into much without spoilers but, given the nature of the narrator, the nature of the ending and, indeed, the way the AI is portrayed, the gist of the story is unexpected. Either remarkable restraint on the part of the author or a bizarre theme.

More interesting than most of the short stories are the novelette and novella left to discuss. Haris A. Durrani brings us "Tethered". There is something in this story's tone and style I really do not like. It is also a very pessimistic story and could get points docked for being preachy. But it does deal with a very real and serious issue and is grippingly dramatized so I found it worthwhile. A tale of a couple of space workers sent on a mission to clean up some more of the space junk ruining near-earth orbit where things do not turn out to be what they seem. There is something disgusting about the evidence of stupidity and miserliness juxtaposed with what should be some of our greatest accomplishments thus far, which does lead to a jaundiced view, so I suppose the tone is not only fitting but almost unavoidable.

While it's perhaps got a bit too much of "Enemy Mine" to it and even a tiny dash of Return of the Jedi ("Let me look on you... with my... own eyes." - yet another slam at VR/tech), I really enjoyed the best story in the issue: Brad R. Torgerson's novella, "The Chaplain's Legacy". This is a sequel to a short story, "The Chaplain's Assistant" and, if you've read that, you might find fault with this, because I could sure tell where he was recapitulating so you could follow along if you hadn't. But, since I hadn't, it worked out fine for me. A species of cyborg mantis creatures has been busily, inexorably wiping out humans until, in the last story, a truce was forged by a scholarly alien's interest in humanity's spiritual concepts, which the aliens lack. (One of the more interesting things about this story is that I suspect atheists and devout alike could enjoy, or at least tolerate, the handling of religion.) In this story, the truce is about to fail and our chaplain's assistant is called back to help deal with the aliens. Again, I can't say much without spoiling things and since there are interesting perspective shifts and revelations throughout, I really can't say anything. Suffice to say this has some interestingly conceived people and aliens who go on a very interesting physical and psychic journey which moves in sometimes unexpected directions and in which I enjoyed the ideas and came to care about the characters. And it's very vividly told - there's something about the cast moving across the setting that lodges firmly in the mind's eye. Good stuff. (I have no idea how the best story in the issue is also a novella and a sequel and is not also the cover story.) Torgerson has registered on my radar now: he's published two stories in this year's Analog and had the best story in both issues.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

3.5"The Chaplain's Legacy", Brad R. Torgerson
2.5"Tethered", Haris A. Durrani
2.5"A Quiet Little Town in Northern Minnesota", K.C. Ball
2.5"Cronus and the Ships", Seth Dickinson
2.5"The Negative Impact of Climate Change...", Jamie Todd Rubin
2.5"Love", Rick Norwood
2"Thaw", Arlan Andrews, Sr.
2"Not with a Bang", Rosemary Claire Smith
1.5"CREP d'Etoile", Bud Sparhawk
1.5"Milk Run", Alec Austin & Marissa Lingen
1.5"Ready, Set", Mary Lou Klecha
1"Other People's Avatars", Howard V. Hendrix
0Dark Secret, conclusion, Edward M. Lerner

Final Word: This is very strange in that it's the worst issue of the year yet is a double, yet has one of the best articles and likely the best story of the year so far in it. If it wasn't for that, I'd say it was an easy skip. Given that, I guess it just depends on whether one is inclined to pay 4 bucks each for the good stuff and how much okay-to-bad stuff defrays that cost. Of course, if you subscribe, regular issues come out to $2.23 and doubles to $3.57 so that's definitely a better deal.