Review: Analog, December 2013

[December 2013 Analog cover]

The final issue of Volume 83 brings us better non-fiction than last month's, primarily focused on interstellar exploration, and worse fiction that is not focused on much, though time travel (of sorts) occurs more than once and one of those is noteworthy. This review will cover it all and, at the end, also provide a note on Volume 83 (2013) overall.


The non-fiction begins with the second guest editorial in a row, with Edward M. Lerner providing "Hacked Off", about computer cracking threats to US security. It's an odd combination of doomsday dread and pollyannaish faith that somebody somewhere in the US knows what they're doing and is just being quiet about it. Otherwise, the unifying concept of the non-fiction is interstellar exploration. Arlan Andrews, Sr.'s Science Fact article is on "Homesteading to the Stars" and, while I can only hope he is never put in charge of an interstellar effort, disagreeing, as I do, with almost every sociological assumption in it, it is on a vital subject and is interesting.[1] John G. Cramer's Alternate View, "The 2013 Starship Century Symposium" is a recapitulation of the titular event which is part of a very exciting increase in organizations devoted to interstellar flight and the resulting increase in enough conventions and symposia to begin to fill an event calendar. And Don Sakers' The Reference Library even gets in on the act, because an immediate deliverable of these goings-on is Starship Century, edited by the brothers Benford, and including fiction and non-fiction by Dyson, Hawking, Landis, Baxter, Brin, Steele, Stephenson and more. Sakers also reviews seven other books, including the excellent Starbeast by Heinlein, The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection (also reviewed right here), and a couple of non-fiction books. Finally, Brass Tacks provides a letter on interspecies interstellar evolution uncannily like some Centauri Dreams-inspired thoughts I'd recently had, and a few other letters, including one wisely calling for more Chaplain's Assistant stories from Brad R. Torgersen though, unfortunately, no replies to any of the letters are provided.

There is also a ten line poem, David Livingston Clink's "A Conversation Between a Time Traveler and His Apprentice", which is almost clever but whose last couple of lines seem slightly off.

Science Fiction

"Lockstep", Part I of IV, Karl Schroeder (Serial)

This story comes closest to matching the non-fiction theme of interstellar exploration. I can't help but feel I'm being conned with the "ordinary guy who turns out to be a prince in hiding" and the "rebel ragamuffin crew" and the "cute space critters who will turn out to be central to the plot" and so on but, nonetheless, after a slow start, the fast-paced, colorful intriguing story kept my cynicism largely quiet. Seventeen year old Toby is in transit from Sedna to another distant icy world, in the near-interstellar region where he and his family are lonely homesteaders, on a mission for the parents and to get away from his dependent kid brother, when he awakens from cryogenic suspension to find that Things Have Gone Very Wrong. His ship is damaged, the power is almost gone, and he can do nothing but return to suspension to die. But the second time, he is awakened by others and is made to realize that 14,000 years have passed and finds that much has changed in 40 years. Turns out the various worlds are in "lockstep" and "winter over" (are frozen and dormant) most of the time, being awake rarely. Travel between the worlds occurs during dormant cycles so that the effect is to dilate time the STL way for all lockstep worlds and to make the vast outer reaches of the Solar system and even out to Alpha Centauri be effectively closer than they'd otherwise be. And in this long and brief time, the region has become quite populous and wealthy. I've read this idea more than once in a couple different varieties, but this is an interestingly committed take on it. The protagonist is sympathetic, and the previously mentioned trio of ragamuffin rebels are almost as appealing as their space-otter-cats. As the previous serial emphasized vigorously, things may go downhill very far, very fast but so far, so good. I can't wait for the next installment.

"Abridge Too Far", Carl Frederick (Probability Zero)

This takes the idea of an e-reader that can abridge works and makes puns about it for a page and a half.

"The Deer Girl Hitches a Ride", Sarah Frost (Short Story)

This three page tale includes mentions of ubiquitous drones and whatnot and deals with a plague and what may perhaps be some sort of bacteriophage-like mutant to try to convince us it's science fiction but that same "deer girl" comes off as a fantasy character and the tale feels like a medieval saint story or something. It is largely repellent but is conveyed with some conviction.

"The Chorus Line", Daniel Hatch (Novelette)

After an interesting but unspectacular opening, I grew to think I might be reading something special but I ended up being dissastisfied with the two elements of the story that, to me, failed to cohere. It is a sort of trans-temporal historical research fraud story unusually set in Djibouti. In a future where people can see the past and put it up on YouTube, one person puts up a video of ardipitheci dancing in a chorus line. An IT zillionaire is convinced it's a fraud despite being unable to find any sign of forgery in the video and heads off to Africa to try to expose the author. Both that storyline and what he finds are fascinating and quite thoughtfully told if not as correlated as I'd like. (And Hatch is playing in a highly speculative area of paleontology and anthropology - not to mention of chronoscopy, so to speak - so that this isn't a very hard SF tale, despite being directly about an area of scientific study.) Still, a definitely above average tale.

"Fear Response", Lesley L. Smith (Short Story)

In bulk, this four page tale has almost laughably trivial Hollywood-type "SF":

The ship was shaking so much it was difficult to focus on the holodisplays. We'd been slowly losing functionality since we went through the debris field. The FTL drive had died and now the inertial dampers must have gone, too.

But, in substance, it's really about alternate sociology with human-like aliens except for their exaggerated pack/dominance behavior and extreme fear of fear. Even in that aspect, it's somehow difficult to take seriously but seems to be intended very seriously. The simple sentence structure and (leaving aside the technobabble) grade-school vocabulary in the quote permeates the story, reads like YA, and produces an effect of little emotional depth in a story about emotions. Also, while one could argue on behalf of the author in an attempt to weasel out of the problem, the choice of narrative viewpoint, given the supposed conclusion, is inept.

"Oedipus at the Sperm Bank", Joel Richards (Short Story)

This is another story which seems to have a couple of odd parts. One is an exploration of why a clone might be created and what it would be like to be one. This is nothing new but I thought it was well done. The other is to make it an almost joking paraphrasing of the Oedipus myth and, while that has its clever aspects, it seems to sit uneasily with the clone aspect. Still, I was interested throughout and it was competently told with enough length (seven pages) and depth to seem like an actual story rather than a sketch or parable.

(Incidentally, if a recent letter-writer was displeased by Niemann-Ross's portrayal of female characters in "A Cup of Dirt" and hasn't cancelled his subscription already, he's going to have an aneurysm from this one. But I say again, it's no author's or editor's problem if any readers can't realize that some individual of every group may have what s/he sees as negative aspects and that such a character may be portrayed as an individual without being a, ahem, "(dis)credit to their race" or gender.)

"Ian, George, and George", Paul Levinson (Novelette)

Unlike "The Chorus Line", this is your usual time travel tale that doesn't seem to be about much besides time travel and seems to me to, as usual, mess it up. (George) Orson Welles has a heart condition for which he has been treated in the future so that he doesn't die in 1985, so goes back to 1970 to make sure he trades places with himself so that his younger self gets the futuristic treatment his older self has had. But his younger self will arrive after his older self, so when/how did his older self get it before his younger self arrives? There's more to the general story, involving telegraphs and, of course - don't they all? - H.G(eorge) Wells, but I didn't care at that point. There's been entirely too much time travel in Analog lately and there's too much of it everywhere.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

3.5"Lockstep", Part I of IV, Karl Schroeder (Serial)
3"The Chorus Line", Daniel Hatch (Novelette)
2"Oedipus at the Sperm Bank", Joel Richards (Short Story)
2"Abridge Too Far", Carl Frederick (Probability Zero)
1.5"The Deer Girl Hitches a Ride", Sarah Frost (Short Story)
1"Ian, George, and George", Paul Levinson (Novelette)
1"Fear Response", Lesley L. Smith (Short Story)

Final Word: Again, there's not much here besides a serial that, if it maintains quality, makes this issue a must-buy when it hits newsstands October 1. If the serial fails, this issue will turn out to have been a can-miss, though I did like Hatch's piece quite a bit overall.

Year in Review

Each year, Analog's readers fill out the "Analytical Laboratory" ballot in which they vote for their top three stories in each of the major categories. In 2013, Analog published eight novellas, twenty-one novelettes, forty-eight short stories (including six ineligible Probability Zeroes), eleven science fact articles and, of course, ten covers. (It also published a serialized novel, three special features, and three poems). With apologies to anyone who appeared in the March issue that I missed[2], my AnLab ballot will be:

This doesn't complete Quachri's first year of editing, since he officially took over in the third issue of the year but it's close enough. Over all, it wasn't a great year and many of my favorite stories seem to have come from the single Schmidt issue I read this year, but Analog seems to be surviving and several good stories have continued to appear. There have been too many short (especially short-short) stories published and not enough novelettes and novellas and too many stories have been about the softer sciences or even (gasp) no science at all, and especially too many have been time travel stories, but Analog is still a good (almost certainly the best) source for unvarnished capital-S science fiction.


[1] The beancounter philosophy in it especially does nothing for me but, if it convinces anyone concerned by such things, then that's great. But I am struck by a couple of phrases: "few societies - barring the threat of extinction - would risk economic survival only to establish colonies around other stars" and "[u]nless race threatening or other urgent reasons arise within the next hundred years, the primary motivation for interstellar exploration will be the outward urge of exploration." And that, folks, is the answer to the Fermi paradox, if other races were like we have been thus far. There is no need for any race threatening reason to "arise" because we are always under "the threat of extinction". All of humanity is already the largely irresponsible crew of a single "interstellar spaceship", riddled with disease and internal weapons of mass destruction with its civilization always on the brink of collapse, with life support systems (the environment) failing, traveling amidst a dense area of asteroids and debris in a cosmic shooting gallery. The dinosaurs didn't see any urgent threat arise, either. It is actually - as the article accidentally demonstrates - not all that easy to provide a convincing argument for "return on investment" in small-minded economic terms. It is easy to say that survival of the species, whatever the cost, is all the reason we should need.

[2] I've now (2016-07-13) read the March issue. The only difference might have been that I'd have picked Bond Elam's "Instinctive Response" for the last novelette slot but perhaps not. Hard to say at this point in time.