Review: Analog, November, 2013

[November 2013 Analog cover]

This month's issue brings us eight stories, many of which assume catastrophic climate change as an obligatory part of the background furniture while only one really makes it central. The others cover interspecies relations, medicine, time, space, and a cyborg plant on wheels.

I'm delighted to report that I only noticed a couple of proofreading/editing errors, so don't need to detail them.*

Non-Fiction

This month's non-fiction, while not bad, is consistently much less interesting than usual and, rather than express the negative reflections it inspires in me, I'll deal with it summarily: H.G. Stratmann, M.D. has the Guest Editorial with "Does Medicine Have a Future?" in which he tries to explain why medical care costs so much, describes some methods of paying for it, and tries to compel readers to be healthy. Thomas A. Easton's Science Fact article, "3D Printing and Dancing Bears", tries to catch us up on the current status of 3D printing and look to its future prospects. (The title relates to the old chestnut about it being amazing that a bear dances at all whether well or poorly.) In the "Special 15th Anniversary Edition" of his part of the Alternate View, Jeffery D. Kooistra interviews himself. In The Reference Library, Don Sakers reviews eight books that (with some stretching) can be filed under "Military SF". Brass Tacks brings us an essay critiquing June 2013's "Alternate View" about "sucking out inertia". There is only one other letter and it shows that the forces of political correctness have invaded even Brass Tacks' hallowed halls. (I wish the ideologues could read characters as characters rather than exemplars of whatever type the ideologue wants to reduce them to.) Finally, in "Motherhood and Apple Pie", Robert Lundy gives us a poem that, especially for such, overly literally burns the motherhood statement.

Science Fiction

"Bugs", Ron Collins (Short Story)

Tying in with the medically oriented guest editorial, Ron Collins' cover story, "Bugs", is titled after the nanotech medical repair devices central to it. There are at least two problem areas with this story, the most important nexus being the possibly impossible setup (can you get special approval for a procedure on a human when the FDA has put a stop to the trials because 3 of 10 have died from the procedure? - and this is a red herring besides), implausible melodrama as climax, and even less plausible and insufficiently paranoid resolution. The first one encountered is that, for all we know, the old man with heart disease who's on the transplant list may be a privileged jerk. While being at home after the special nanotech surgery he gets in lieu of the transplant provides the trigger to reflect on his life, it might have been better to move that up earlier in a cyclical present/past sort of structure. As is, the reader cares about him as a human being in a default way but it takes awhile before any specific reason is really given to be more interested. Also, stories like this inevitably invite comparison to "Blood Music" and the like and that's tough company to match, especially when you're not trying anything cosmic. Still, it was an interesting idea and ends up having an interesting protagonist and does a good job of portraying what things feel like and what you might think about - good slices of life - and, while it doesn't hold up as well under scrutiny, was a fine read.

"Make Hub, Not War", Christopher L. Bennett (Novelette)

This story, and especially its heavy-handed and somewhat YA humor, could really go either way depending on the reader. It's a tale of a couple of humans and their alien benefactor getting caught up in a smuggling ring via another alien, with one of the humans and the benefactor being oblivious and the other human initially thinking it's innocuous. The title derives from the milieu, which is a sort of galactic wormhole nexus which all traffic goes through and all species with any sense work together to preserve. It's not Great Art or anything, but it's Good Craftsmanship (which I respect) and I liked it. It does make some significant points under the humor and I found the "fox filters" (31) hilarious.

Incidentally, this connects with last month's "Lune Bleue" in that it shows how you successfully talk about a bored character: a hook sentence is followed by a description of goshwow space opera and then a bit of humorous tone as an alien with an alien boredom scale is bored (25), but your reader is not. Versus describing a talking head boss droning on and saying your character is bored... and so is everyone else. Alas, this has the same poor physical description methodology: "'Still quite a mess to clean up inside the shell,' Nashira told him, brushing her long, silky black hair away from her piercing dark eyes." (26) (The male character is handled similarly.) This sort of "nothing up my sleeves" description bothers me. Either come out and say, in narrative voice, "Eustacia Vye was the raw material of divinity," or make it dynamic and natural (poor example): "the reflection of the room's lights in her eyes were like stars in the blackness of space" which gives us cause for thinking about her eyes and lets us know they aren't green. Or, given that we know she's from Hong Kong, just let the reader's stereotypical expectation provide the description - you'd only need to say if her eyes were green.

It also connects with two other stories, being part of a series of "Hub" stories - I'm glad the editorial notes about series have returned after a brief absence. This story stands by itself but does feel like a series story.

"Deceleration", Bud Sparhawk (Short Story)

This is a time-lapse astronomy story about humanity's unfortunate ability to take the short view and procrastinate. As ideologically appealing as this story is to me and as short as it is, it's still too long for what it is. Also, while the general ending is obvious, the specific ending is not and, somehow, this was kind of a disappointing one. It'd have to be something along the lines of what it was for the theme but it just didn't give me much bang for my buck.

"Distant", Michael Monson (Short Story)

Okay, ya got me. I have no idea what this two page short-short is supposed to be doing. A bald panicky dude with a daughter is preparing to lift off from earth and speculates about infinity and almost falls asleep and so on. Then he lifts off. Tha-tha-that's all, folks.

Remoteness of spaceflight/detachment from earth as metaphor for interpersonal relations? Bleh, I dunno.

(Relatively trivial side-note: I do know that I don't like sentences like "Infinity gaped above Noah like a bottomless sea of star-speckled black, ready to drown him," which is worthy of Thog even if it does proceed to wander to "if you went far enough eventually you'd double back on yourself" which could be trying to be some justification of the preceding line but probably isn't. But that's all I can say about this story.)

"The Eagle Project", Jack McDevitt (Short Story)

Another small story from a big name as Jack McDevitt gives us a three page tale that has a barb in the tail. In a way, I don't like this, but it's nicely done. Years before the story opens, interstellar probes have been sent out and we've recently been getting all the negative returns, which threatens the prospect for an "Eagle Project II". I do like that it depicts a universe where life is rare, and maybe unique - just for variety, since that seems to be rarely presented in SF. A good mood piece with a real sense of solidity and I, at least, was genuinely engaged with the question of whether they'd find anything.

"Copper Charley", Joseph Weber (Short Story)

This story doesn't really go anywhere and, given the nature of the pleasant jerk of a "protagonist", I guess it couldn't and maybe that's even the point but it results in a flat effect. But over the course of the story, there are several funny lines (kept to a small proportion so the overall tone is reasonably sober), an interesting botanist, and an extremely memorable cyborg plant who gives the story its title. The white-collar criminal first-person narrator is having legal problems mining mountains and the principles behind Copper Charley may help him out. Or will they? I recently criticized a story for having what seemed to me to be a silly brilliant idea and this is certainly also that but somehow this one works. Less far-fetched and much more amusing and appealing.

"Redskins of the Badlands", Paul Di Filippo (Novelette)

I guess this is "ribofunk" or it's at least a biologically oriented cyberpunk that has a sort of happy attitude in its "dyscopianism" (coping with dystopia - ecological, in this case). A futuristic park warden with a fancy second skin and other toys has to deal with some high-tech squatters and vandals in the middle of his park. Paleontology ensues. From the word-selection to sentence structure levels, it's well written and, while you'd never confuse the prose with Bruce Sterling, it's somewhat Sterling-ish, as when a scientist introduces the protagonist to his sidekick, named "Proty":

The featureless lump of synthetic cells must have been able to hear somehow, for it stirred at its name. With remarkable rapidity, it morphed, assuming the perfect semblance of a chubby starfish, and maneuvered itself off its nest. As it crossed the tile floor, it assumed the protective coloration of the tiles, effectively going invisible. It reached Dr. Grigori, climbed atop his shoe, and began mildly humping the doctor's foot in snake-swallowing-its-prey fashion with what could only be interpreted as sincere affection.

In the larger structure, many words say relatively little so that, by the third of its five sections, it's gone on a bit too long. And then, by the fifth, I pictured Graham Chapman stepping in and calling for a halt due to its having gotten "too silly". The protagonist is also a bit of an ineffectual non-entity. But the story is not bad and a little different for Analog, while still being mostly science-fictional. I wouldn't mind seeing a little more (and better) like this.

"The Matthews Conundrum", Edward M. Lerner (Novella)

Edward M. Lerner seems to be to Analog what Albert E. Cowdrey is to F&SF - which is to say, a guy who pops up in most every issue. This issue brings a tale of history and mystery and myth and more, along with an interstellar multi-species group that's quite different, in details, from Bennett's "Hub" but is also part of a series and, alas, seems more like a serial component than an actual novella. I've somehow managed to miss all four previous installments (three stories and an overt serial) but had no problem meeting Joshua Matthews (interstellar historian) and Corinne Elman (reporter and celebrity) and becoming involved in their fascinatingly presented search to discover why Matthews had been kidnapped (he believes) and disgraced (the world believes) as our story opened. My only problem with the story through the bulk of it was with some scene transitions which were excessively abrupt and initially felt like non sequiturs. I also had frequent little doubts as to the plausibility of various things but Lerner did a good job of addressing them for awhile. But, ultimately, I just found it impossible to accept the literary (and other) theories presented. Possibly, later stories will be able to work around it but each story should stand alone, so I have to say it doesn't work. But it was a fun ride.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

2.5"The Eagle Project", Jack McDevitt (Short Story)
2.5"Copper Charley", Joseph Weber (Short Story)
2.5"Redskins of the Badlands", Paul Di Filippo (Novelette)
2.5"Make Hub, Not War", Christopher L. Bennett (Novelette)
2"Bugs", Ron Collins (Short Story)
2"The Matthews Conundrum", Edward M. Lerner (Novella)
1.5"Deceleration", Bud Sparhawk (Short Story)
1"Distant", Michael Monson (Short Story)

Final Word: I wish the non-fiction was up to the usual standards and that it had a "head and shoulders above the pack" great story but I still recommend that people go out and get this when it hits the newsstands on August 27. Six out of eight good reads is a good deal.

* I do have to mention that The Reference Library again includes a mistake on matters of fact when, in the discussion of A.E. van Vogt's Transgalactic, it says the Rull stories were released in book form as Mission to the Stars when, obviously, they (and the Ezwal and Yevd stories) were released in book form as The War Against the Rull, though Transgalactic does include the three pre-fixup tales of the non-Rull Mission to the Stars as well. Not stated is the primary point of the new van Vogt collection, which is that, rather than the modified book forms of these stories, this collection prints the original magazine versions.