Review: Analog, October 2013

[October 2013 Analog cover]

The October 2013 Analog is a definite improvement over the last issue, though there is an excess of dubious themes and plots. There are at least two wars with China in this issue, two Mars stories and a Moon story, and at least three AI/computer/implant-type stories. All (unless maybe one or two) seem sufficiently science-fictional for Analog, though some may be a bit unusual sociopolitically.

Non-Fiction

"On Genre", Trevor Quachri (Editorial)

Quachri's editorial quotes Analog's own guidelines: "Basically, we publish science fiction stories. That is, stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse." Underlining that this month is kind of peculiar, given that last month's issue didn't always follow it to the letter and this very editorial otherwise seems to minimize it.

Quachri starts by talking about his early unconcern for genre and how there are advantages to this but then seems to reassure genre fans by coming back around to the importance of it before closing his editorial with a waffle back to how SF could become a closed loop if practitioners are not exposed to other genres. Frankly, all of literature is such a closed loop when not exposed to real life and scientific advances (new understandings of reality) and, as long as it has that, it can always be fresh. He closes by saying that the definition that "speaks most" to him is Pohl's (via Gunn) when Pohl was working at Galaxy: "any story he could publish in the magazine without having too many readers cancel their subscriptions". This is not Analog's definition and it's not very reassuring - it implies no intrinsic vision and presupposes a fundamental disconnect between the editor and his readership. It was presented as somewhat tongue-in-cheek and hopefully was just that.

"Alien Worlds: Not in Kansas Anymore", Edward M. Lerner (Science Fact)

Akin to April's "Science Fact" article which discussed exobiology, Lerner here takes up a bit of stellar formation and a lot of planetary formation for the science fiction writer interested in building good worlds. Along the way, he cites Clement's Mission of Gravity and other classic examples. It's one of my favorite subjects and an essential one for SF writers and Lerner makes an interesting and entertaining article of it.

"Planck: 'Big Bang Sound' in High Fidelity", John G. Cramer (Alternate View)

This month's AV is a heavy slog in a very short span but, basically, talks about converting the data of the Planck satellite (its measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background which reveal information about the nature of the Big Bang) into a sound file. (To avoid searching/typing, here's a link: downloadable audio files. It's not "Also Sprach Zarathustra" or anything, but it's interesting. The author recommends the 100 second version but it's almost easier to hold the oscillations in your ears with the 20 second version.

The Reference Library, Don Sakers

The Reference Library is very useful this month, discussing reviewers of science fiction and providing links to some of them. The column goes on to review Nebula Awards Showcase 2013 (among other things) as another great way to keep up with happenings in SF. I don't follow that particular series any more (and never did in a timely way) but I agree that some one or few of the various Year's Bests are useful - essential, even.

Brass Tacks

The letters this month mostly welcome Mr. Quachri and describe what the correspondents do and don't want to see in Analog in the future.

Science Fiction

"Sixteen Million Leagues from Versailles", Allen M. Steele (Novelette)

This is a tale of a precious Louis XIV vase that's on loan to a politically restive Mars. When the automated craft that's supposed to return it to earth crashes, a woman is sent from Earth to take part in the attempt to recover it while a couple of Mars guys are drafted to guide her. In reading a couple of Steele novels recently (OceanSpace and Hex), I seem to like his subjects and ideas but not his characters or their interactions and, with the "vase über alles" attitude of the woman and the reaction of the primary man, as well as his reaction to the secondary man (who was initially painted to be both more and less of a jerk than he was), I was afraid this was going to creep into his stories, too. While I never really warmed to any of the characters, it turned out to be no problem - they didn't harm the story. What did harm the story was the plot and the motivations and dynamics that dictate people's behavior. I just didn't buy that the (anti)climax would play out the way it did from several angles but I can't specify without spoilers. That said, it was a fairly enjoyable read otherwise.

Incidentally, this is the cover story and, once again, it's decent cover art except that it has nothing at all to do with the story. I guess commissioned cover art is too expensive given today's circulation figures but it really would be nice. I'd trade the two interior art pieces for a relevant cover.

"Putting Down Roots", Stephen R. Wilk (Short Story)

In terms of a thought-experiment, I will give this piece credit for making good use of some science articles that appeared in a quantitative spike not too long ago regarding non-obvious parasitic/symbiotic relationships, but there's no story here at all. There are no characters but only mouthpieces; there's no plot but only a single conversation; and, if you have no interest in micro-brewing and the like, it's initially completely uninteresting and never really engages. This is a good example of what last month's "From Idea to Story (or Why 'High Concept' Is Only the Beginning)" article was for.

"Things We Have in This House for No Reason", Marissa K. Lingen (Short Story)

This month's issue has an unusual number of stories and the reason for this is that, while it's missing a "Probability Zero", it has a couple of pieces of "flash fiction" (I hope I'm using the term appropriately), along with other fairly short short stories. The first extremely short piece is a wickedly clever bit of writing that's bigger on the outside than on the inside, primarily by making great use of the naive narrator - a Martian girl who just doesn't see the point in the "junk" her family keeps around.

"At the Peephole Palace", William R. Eakin (Short Story)

I'm not sure what to make of this second tiny story. This is kind of the poster child for the editorial, being a Galaxy-style bit of social SF which coincidentally relates to my point about closed literature (in this case, the "literature" of commerce and advertising) vs. the connection to the "real" world (in this case, the natural night sky). But, taken literally, I don't know how well the chronology works - I suppose the main character, the advertising magnate who apparently rules the world, could be rejuvenated and very long-lived but there's no real hint of that in the story. So it's fine in a metaphorical sense but doesn't work so well literally and the short-short form curtails depth and breadth, as well.

"Fear of Heights in the Tower of Babel", Carl Frederick (Short Story)

I'm perplexed by this one and perplexed about how to talk about it without spoilers. An acrophobic polylinguist AI specialist is invited to negotiate with a schizoid polylingual hostage-taking elevator by a rival professor with whom he shares a mutual hatred. The elevator is in Europe's tallest building. It just seems to me that the hostage plot is so clever it's stupid and the story doesn't seem to make the point it thinks it did. But perhaps I'm wrong. Still, I have to describe this as an interesting story that doesn't entirely work for me. I liked the story's pace, action, and handling of the acrophobic aspects, though.

"Conscientious Objectors", Jay Werkheiser (Short Story)

This is another "war with China" story (see "Exchange Officers", Jan/Feb 2013 and "Lune Bleue" below) and would have been better set on some generic planet rather than loaded with present day concerns that hurt the credibility of aspects of the story and add little or nothing. And it has a premise that "[m]ost people are horrified by violence" and I doubt this is true, at least in the sense of their being unwilling to commit it, however unpleasant it may be, if they see it as necessary. The story involves an exchange doctor coming to America from a defeated (apparently nuked) China. Their big tech is hypno injectors and they have a body taboo. Our big tech is neural implants. Naturally, this and a recent war causes some tension. The Chinese doctor is interested in "Beidelman's syndrome", as well as an American soldier who began to suffer from it while trying to save her (and himself) during the war. The syndrome mysteriously only affects Americans (specifically, those with the implants), causing them to become almost comatose, cut off from most sensory input, excepting only food tropisms and the like. A major problem with this story (not spoiling anything specific) is that it has baffled so many for so long yet has such a quick and simple explanation once our story begins. And, of course, the dubious theme. But it was a very well-told tale with tangible people and some good alternations between the present day hospital and the combat sequences of the past.

"Following Jules", Ron Collins (Novelette)

While there are many things about the "typical Analog story" that I like a great deal, one of the things I do not enjoy about them is that, when they try to deal with romance, sex, and powerful, vulnerable emotions, they tend to get quite awkward and embarrassing. This story is atypical in that it handles this element very well.

I also don't much care for retreads of cyberpunk video games and VRs - the SF in our tale is about the usual "massive multi-player online game" becoming more real than real and about the "better dying through consciousness uploads into cyberspace" motif. But it's not ruinous here.

And I prefer my stories to make some kind of ethical sense and I don't see how this one does. It seems so ethically bizarre that its plausibility starts to break down (and, to many readers, might fail entirely). But the ethical perspective serves, in this case, to make it stimulating, at least. A sort of "dangerous vision".

And my usual complaint is that stories are too long and, if anything, this was too compressed, sketching out a couple of vivid (if fairly familiar) characters who have a vivid (if fairly familiar) connection but hardly giving them time or room to breathe. But better this rare error than the more common opposite.

So, all in all, I found this tale of the rootless, charismatic Jules and her plainer, more sober friend to be pretty compelling and, in a strange sense, "enjoyed" it.

"Lune Bleue", Janet Catherine Johnston (Novella)

A man and women (trying to be Platonic and failing) go to the moon as a career move and encounter a crazy semi-permanent resident, leaky radioactive robots, mutant rats, and stranger things, all while war breaks out on Earth (China, again) and affects the moon. But this is all told much more soberly and dryly than such a synopsis would make one expect (and desire).

This is a strange story in that the byline says it's written by a woman but, while the female character is an AI specialist going to the moon, she and "the men" (as they're called) have very "traditional" roles. She doesn't seem to do a whole lot but keep house at the base and get frightened and scream a lot while they go out and do things. I was initially quite bored with this story (it's never good to start your novella with "Miriam Clancy leaned against the wall and listened to the familiar spiel of her section chief...This is boring the hell out of me, Miriam thought, twisting a ringlet of her curly dark brown hair around her finger." (That last bit reminds me of Liz J. Anderson's green-eyed redhead from last month's issue.) Also, her style in general becomes rather deadening with short sentences grinding into each other and operating on their level like multiple words beginning and ending with hard consonants might on theirs. (And, while it may be more on the editor* than the author, also note the odd prepositional misphrase, comma splice, debatable abbreviation style, extreme discomfort with metaphorical language, etc.)

The "garage" door opened. Miriam was suited up and perched on her scooter. She found her suit noisy, and it smelled of plastic. This was despite entering a bright realm of where there should have been no sound or smells at all. Even through their visors, after first emerging from the artificial light of the station interior, the reflected sunlight in lunar dusk made Paul and Miriam squint. They both hit the gas, metaphorically, at first traversing side by side. Soon, Miriam fell in line behind Paul, according to the safety protocol. Their first stop was eleven kilometers away. They couldn't go very fast. For one thing the top speed was only twenty-five kph, for another, hitting a natural ramp with excessive speed would send them airborne in the low gravity. Paul joked about wanting to try downhill skiing in the lunar gravity. She pictured a domed-over crater with artificial snow. A very exclusive ski resort.

It did get more interesting as the plot thickened and the stakes were raised but it couldn't overcome its initial sluggishness and its distracting style.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

3"Things We Have in This House for No Reason", Marissa K. Lingen
2.5"Following Jules", Ron Collins
2.5"Conscientious Objectors", Jay Werkheiser
2.5"Sixteen Million Leagues from Versailles", Allen M. Steele
2"At the Peephole Palace", William R. Eakin
2"Fear of Heights in the Tower of Babel", Carl Frederick
1.5"Lune Bleue", Janet Catherine Johnston
1"Putting Down Roots", Stephen R. Wilk

Final Word: This is a decent issue which arrests the three-issue slide and I can recommend this one. It's just unfortunate that the best story is a page long and the novella is not one of the best. But, still, the sum is greater than the parts (and the non-fiction almost always helps) and it was worthwhile.

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* More typos and questionable editing notes from this month's issue (if it would ever drop to a semi-professional two or three an issue (I could only dream of zero) then I'd stop noting them):