Review: Analog, September 2013

[September 2013 Analog cover]

The September 2013 Analog puts me in the uncomfortable position of being more negative than I'd like. I'm happy to say what I do and don't like but I'm naturally happier when the outcome is neutral/positive overall, as it has been in all my earlier reviews.

For many years it's been the case that Analog stories are almost never selected for the Year's Bests and almost never win awards (and those that do are usually the wrong ones) but it has the highest circulation of any SF magazine. Basically, there is a disconnect between most of the critics and "blogosphere" vs. the (partly silent) readership. While it's too early to declare a definite shift, it is possible the new editor, Trevor Quachri, might covet critical acclaim and awards more than readers though Analog might wind up with neither.

Non-fiction

"The Blame Game, Part II", Trevor Quachri (Editorial)

Quachri finishes last month's editorial in an unsurprising way. I'd hate to have been surprised this time (because that would have taken arguing for the "violent games == violent behavior" equation and the censorship of games) but, with the right subject matter, surprising editorials are often the best.

"The Evaporation of Worlds", Kevin Walsh (Science Fact)

"The Evaporation of Worlds" focuses on the hot planets from our recent flood of exoplanet findings. I'm "like a one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store" when it comes to exoplanets - it's all so theoretical, based on trace readings and extrapolation from little rock-solid (so to speak) knowledge, that I find it as frustrating as I do thrilling. I want FTL starships out there surveying for direct data but can't have it. But this article's depiction of magma worlds getting blasted into nothingness from raging suns is quite a bit of mind-candy.

"The Death of the Rocket Equation", Jeffrey D. Kooistra (Alternate View)

Kooistra's Alternate View again echos Centauri Dreams when it talks about Robert L. Forward's Mirror Matter. It's ironic that Kooistra complains about the flood of amateurish ebooks out these days, specifically citing the typos and other editorial lapses, when I've been jotting down lists of them* from Analog lately and there's one in the very next paragraph after the complaint. Anyway - Kooistra says that, if SF authors would just use Forward's mirror matter (more commonly called antimatter) they could avoid misusing the rocket equation.

"From Idea to Story (or Why "High Concept" Is Only the Beginning)", Richard A. Lovett (Special Feature)

The special feature is non-fiction on science fiction and talks about how, while SF is a literature of ideas, bare ideas are not literature.

The Reference Library, Don Sakers

It disturbs me that Sakers once again recommends four of four books and one of them seems to be a self-published work that, oh yeah, just happens to have been advertised in an earlier issue. If Ace or Tor advertises a book and a columnist reviews it, I wouldn't think to have a problem with it: it would likely be reviewed regardless. But for a reviewer to note an item like this (and positively) could give rise to an "appearance of impropriety". On the reviews in general, I guess Sakers adopts the "if you can't say anything good, don't say anything at all" methodology but I find this, naturally, one-sided. A reviewer can be useful even if you disagree with everything he says but you need to get a reviewer's likes and dislikes to know how your tastes may agree or disagree. But Sakers just talks about how great everything is and that tells me little. Aside from the (always positively spun) synopses, he might as well just rename the column to "Go Buy These" and provide a bare list of five books, freeing up space for more fiction. **

Brass Tacks

Brass Tacks is fine but one letter complains about the relative lack of artwork lately and Quachri promises there will be more which probably makes the letter writer happy, but not me - I'd rather have words than pictures. Cover art is enough and (barring the Jan/Feb issue and the fact that they otherwise never illustrate the cover story) the covers have been pretty good this year.

Science Fiction

"The Whale God", Alec Nevala-Lee (Novelette)

I'm sure I'll come across an explanation of this soon and feel like an idiot but I'm having a hard time seeing how this is science fiction. We seem to be in Viet Nam during the Viet Nam war when a whale beaches itself and a soldier attempts to get it back in the water. Meanwhile, he's feeling kind of weird and hallucinating a little. It's eventually explained in a technological way but, as near as I can tell, in a non-extrapolative way. Now, as far as we know, the events described never took place but they could have and we wouldn't necessarily even know it. So where's the SF vs. the "inserting tech into a theoretical past where it might actually have been"? That said, I thought the description of the character's internals were excellent, particularly his internal self-doubt vs. his external leadership. The plight of the whale(s) is well-drawn. The locale is fairly tangible. So it's fine... but to what end and why am I reading it?

"Full Fathom Five", Joe Pitkin (Short Story)

A woman is in a sub on a Jovian moon with a dead spaceship above her (there's been an accident and she's stranded) and she hallucinates a bit and is generally in a weird situation. She's found an alien shaped like - the author's own description - a giant penis which discharges whatever the woman may fancy and never loses any mass. Um. Okay, I guess we're being very symbolic here and aiming for lit'rature what with the Shakespearean allusions and all but, again, how is this science fiction? If our protagonist really is on a moon via a spaceship then it started as SF but a mind-reading penis that defies the law of conservation of mass isn't SF any more. If you've read Allen M. Steele's "The Days Between" or seen Moon, then the sort of isolated dementia will be familiar to you and it's evoked reasonably well but, again, why am I reading this?

"The Oracle", Lavie Tidhar (Novelette)

This is steeped in spirituality and hallucination, too, but I know why I'm reading it: it's aiming to talk about how AI is created and how it forms a secondary noosphere and how these "aliens" and their realm interacts with us and our realm and how they might merge. So it's got the mushy feel that much posthuman/singularity/AI fiction has but it's at least a recognizable species of SF. The irony is that this sort of story is often taken as being "cutting edge" when it's dealing with concepts and styles that have been dominating SF for easily 10 and, in a way, 30 years and doing so using an ill-fitting 19th century lit'ry prose style so that it feels very old-fashioned twice over - both the tech and the style. Charles Stross and Ted Chiang have been all over this in their separate ways and much better and, of course, I still see it as deriving from cyberpunk. As I've said in other reviews, I don't mind old-fashioned but it depends on which old fashion. If mystic AI fusions set in Israel and written in this way float your boat, it's an excellent story.

Example of style: "[The rains] lashed the old hill and the cobbled market, driving traders under awnings, robotnik beggars into litter-strewn alcoves, revelers into bars and sheesha-pipe emporiums. The smell of lamb fat, slowly melting over rotating skewers of meat, flavored the air, mixing with the sweetness of freshly-baked baklava and the tang of cumin, and strong bitter coffee served with roasted cardamoms." And, much later, "But the world had changed since the paranoid days of big oil and visible chipsets, of American ascendancy and DNS root servers. It was a world in which the Conversation had already began [sic], that whisper and shout of a billion feeds all going on at once, a world of solar power and RLVs, a world in which Matt's research was seen as harking back to older, more barbaric days...." Ah, the tang of cumin when the robotniks are in bloom. Those were the worst of times, these were the best of times. Call me Matt.

Note: this is a prequel/sequel to, at least, "The Smell of Orange Groves", which was originally published in Clarkesworld.

"Wreck Support", Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Probability Zero)

Even for a Probability Zero, this was short. I love Greek and Macedonian history and the Antikythera device is an amazing bit of tech and mystery so I find this trivializing vignette about a certain customer being dissatisfied with his "komputoros" (much like the relatively recent "Unplanned Obsolescence") vaguely offensive but that's just me. Trying to be objective, though, I still can't see this really thrilling many people - I doubt a whole lot of people would know what he was talking about and I imagine some who would would share my reaction to some degree.

"Life of the Author Plus Seventy", Kenneth Schneyer (Short Story)

Speaking of fashions of old, I can imagine, say, Kuttner doing this tale and making it a minor delight but this didn't work for me. It's intended to be humorous, yet isn't all that funny so, when it has the character do insane things for the sake of the plot it feels wrong rather than farcical. And, again, it's another story about being driven batty by evil technology. What the story calls an "AI" (but manifestly is not as it wouldn't even pass a Turing test) harasses a writer about an overdue library book with fines into the millions (when, as far as I know, library fines are capped at the value of the book in the first place) and he gets himself cryogenically suspended in an attempt to beat the AI and things get less probable from there. It would be a mistake to think you're getting a brilliant story on copyright law.

"Creatures from a Blue Lagoon", Liz J. Anderson (Short Story)

This is apparently a sequel to an earlier story about this "veterinarian to the stars". If Leinster's Med Service series seems like a thin idea for a surprisingly good series, this is a much thinner idea and I'm not overwhelmed with this particular example. The way the narrator not-so-subtly tells us she has green eyes and red hair (which is irrelevant to the story) is annoying and the "space slang" of "Are you nova?" (three times in one half-page and more elsewhere) and things being "fused" and whatnot is also kind of irritating. And it's really unappealing to be dealing with intestinal worms of giant alien animals. But at least there's a certain vim and vigor.

"Murder on the Aldrin Express", Martin L. Shoemaker (Novella)

Finally, I can criticize elements of a story I somewhat liked rather than try to find good points in stories I didn't like. The main problems are that it's extremely anti-climactic and that the captain (and his second) have major conflicts of interest, yet investigate the crime. A civilian man on a Mars expedition falls to his death and evidence is raised to indicate it may have been murder most foul. So the man's wife, the expedition leader, an ex-girlfriend of the second-in-command, and a doctor are suspects. The conflict with the second and the ex is obvious from my description but there is also a conflict in that the blunt domineering captain was originally supposed to be the expedition leader but couldn't get along with the dead man and his wife based on differences over how such expeditions should be run. But, otherwise, this murder mystery in space was something I could read without being annoyed or feeling like I was in the wrong magazine.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

2"Murder on the Aldrin Express", Martin L. Shoemaker
1.5"The Whale God", Alec Nevala-Lee
1.5"The Oracle", Lavie Tidhar
1.5"Creatures from a Blue Lagoon", Liz J. Anderson
1"Full Fathom Five", Joe Pitkin
1"Life of the Author Plus Seventy", Kenneth Schneyer
1"Wreck Support", Arlan Andrews, Sr.

Final Word: It dismays me to say it but, aside from some articles, I can think of no argument for getting this issue.

_____

* This month's errors:

** Aside from the review content, there is a lot of fractured history in the lead-in to the reviews: I don't really associate Poul Anderson with the Golden Age because he published his first story in 1947 and his first book in 1952 - this is very close, but you really need to break in before the close of WWII with a few pieces, at least one of which is significant, to be strictly "Golden Age". He talks about SF moving into paperbacks "in the 1960s" but Ballantine established their tremendously successful paperback SF line in 1953. In this context, he links Delany, Herbert, McCaffrey, and Silverberg as people who "still started their careers in the magazines" when he's wrong about the era of the last three (they began publishing '52-'54 (granted, McCaffrey didn't start publishing significantly until c.60)) and wrong about the type of start of the other. (Delany began in '62 with Ace Books, not with the magazines. He didn't publish his first story until '67.) Then he cites Brunner, Lee, and Pournelle as examples of people who began with books. This is true for Brunner in that his first published work was a novel but it was his last book publication for six years, during which time he wrote a few dozen stories and his second novel was serialized in the magazines. It's only true for Pournelle in a non-genre sense. For SF, he published his first story in '71 and his first novel in '73. Sakers says David Gerrold, Terry Nation, and Jerry Sohl "emerged in the wake of" 60s TV SF and I don't know if that's true or not but he amazingly includes Harlan Ellison and Richard Matheson in that group when Ellison had been publishing SF since '56 and won a Hugo in '66 which is hardly "in the wake of" Star Trek and Matheson started publishing in '50 and had written I Am Legend by '54. And on and on. Basically, do not rely on this Reference Library for your genre history.

Incidentally, Sakers discusses Silverberg's "Born with the Dead" and a sequel by Damien Broderick, whom Sakers mystifyingly calls "apprentice" in another bit of historical confusion (Broderick is about 69 and first published in 1963) and it's funny that he says the sequel "adds a sociological gloss by dealing with conflict between the societies of the living and the dead" and adds that it "fills a hole readers didn't even know existed". He should speak for himself as I noted that and many other flaws in a comment on the story: "[Silverberg] doesn't bother to detail the "deads" in any plausible way - making them purely literary - and the society of "warms" and the way they interact with this phenomenon is implausible, to say the least".