Review: Analog, June 2014

[June 2014 Analog cover]

Not that anyone's waiting with bated breath but, still, apologies - trying to organize my computer and catch up on books had me fall behind in my magazines. The June issue is the pseudo-science, AI, and war criminal issue.

Non-Fiction

The guest editorial "Popcorn Science", by David Bartell ostensibly argues that getting any science into sensationalized media trash that people will actually watch is a net good. (I'm being unfair to the tone but not to the basic logic of the piece - to quote: "even sloppy science can raise [public?] awareness [of real science?]".) But it really reads like either an apologia or an ad for some TV shows. Fittingly, if disturbingly, Edward M. Lerner's science fact article is on "Alternate Abilities: The Paranormal" in which he tries to make a case for using psi powers in hard SF because, with quantum mechanics, you can handwave almost anything. This magazine's fascination with psi pstuff comes from Campbell and he may have been genuinely and reasonably convinced by many apparently respectable scientists and their apparently valid experiments - even if not, it may be a product of his advocacy of contrary ways of thinking. This is all to the good, up to a point. We shouldn't close our minds to larger possibilities or we could wind up in the position of Lord Kelvin declaring that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible". But I still think that the odds of psi are so poor, the QM explanations so thin, and the "image" of the stuff so embarrassing, that this is not a good place to pick a contrarian battle and Quachri had better not be laying the groundwork for pumping up the circulation with quackery.

Jeffrey D. Kooistra's Alternate View of "Past Master of Electromagnetism" is a paean to Samuel Jackson Barnett and small-scale experimental physics. Interesting and congenial.

Don Sakers' Reference Library contains a mini-essay on AI and opens with an AI-related novel he liked orders of magnitude more than I did and closes with a non-fiction book about AI. In between are two unrelated books.

Brass Tacks includes a nice letter from the co-author of Mirror Matter, a nicely balanced one on the US and Canadian healthcare systems, and a nonsensical one decrying Analog's "must have science" submission guidelines, telling us to "remember that modern readers have no New Worlds to turn to" and asking for just a "small step toward the 'New Wave'". And just where the hell would readers of Analog then have to turn to? It's not enough to have Interzone, F&SF and Asimov's trying to be like New Worlds but Analog also must be like that? Analog is the only magazine of its kind in the English-speaking world (and probably the entire world). But it should change to meet this guy's "New Wave" urge in 2014? Preposterous. And why Quachri keeps printing letters of this kind when they have to be a tiny minority of the letters he receives and why he addresses them placatingly when they make no sense, I don't know, unless he's trying to pave the way for his own desire to "New Wave" Analog.

There's also a poem from G. O. Clark but, beginning in the second half of this year's issues, I'll no longer note poems unless I want to single them out for special praise.

Science Fiction

"Field of Gravity", Jay Werkheiser (Short Story)

This is a tale of future football and how the invention of devices to manipulate gravity affects it. It was also a very effectively written piece of game-time mystery-solving and strategy. It makes me think of "Bullard Reflects" or other Golden Age future sports stories and I expect it to be coming soon to such a themed anthology near you. My only complaint is that (as the story even mentions) it seems like the military, space, and other applications would be far more important but it's rare to get a good SF football story. (And I liked that our hero's (and heroine's) opponents were the Giants - the New York football Giants of our time also being known, of course, as the "G"-men.)

"The Journeyman: In The Stone House", Michael F. Flynn (Novelette)

This seemed to be a "primitive lost star colony" story with a bit of Western cowboys-n-injuns vibe (leading off with a Zane Grey quote, no less). Originally, I found the dialog (mostly missing rhythmically needed prepositions and articles and oscillating wildly from pseudo-heroic to slangy) and the occasional description (the chieftain was a "barrel-chested man with heavily muscled arms and hands that looked as if they could crush a man's skull. He wore a gown of delicate weave...") to be very off-putting. Between that and the primitivism, I didn't think I'd like it. But the dry wry humor of one character and the duel of a couple of others and the Burroughs-esque planetary romance aura eventually pulled me in. Alas, this story is just a middle - as the Grey quote says, it's the trail, not the end of the trail, but that's just a quote - not a good way to tell a story. Still - an entertaining diversion and I mildly look forward to subsequent installments.

"The Region of Jennifer", Tony Ballantyne (Short Story)

Zzzz... Whu-? I'm awake! Rather than read this story, just listen to "Pets" by Porno for Pyros - quicker and much more enjoyable. I hate "SF" like this - superciliously written sing-songy metaphors creeping about the stage in place of characters ("sugar and spice" and "snips and snails") all to try to disguise a simple science-less rant behind a slightly obfuscated lit'ry fable. Aliens take over the earth and we (mostly) like it 'cuz we suck.

"Survivors", Ron Collins (Short Story)

A Crab Nebula guy arrives on Earth thousands of years after his star went nova and, while drilling holes in people's skulls and taking up residence there (in the nicest way, of course) for a few centuries, he comes to think he's the last Crab until he finally meets one of his own kind. Or most of one. But, hey, we don't have to have kids - we've got each other. I dunno. Okay, but a little underdeveloped and a very familiar shtick.

"The Last Time My Computer Went Down", Kate Gladstone (Probability Zero)

Less than a page and (like an earlier short-short) I had three reactions to it. At first I was not thrilled at reading another "computers suck" Probability Zero. But then, somehow, the tale of her quantum computer "freezing" and "going down" got funny to me. But then I'd have sent it back, saying I'd accept it if she came up with another ending.

"A Star to Steer By", Jennifer R. Povey (Short Story)

Interesting that the article only a PZ before this started by referencing "a star to steer by" and closed with a twist on it and here it's the title of this story. And Sakers predicts in his review column that this issue would likely have an AI story in it and it does.

A shipmind suffers the ruin of her body and loss of her crew but makes it back to human indifference (save the admiral of the shipyards) and struggles with her pain and future fears before being conveniently presented with a Total Decision. I'm a sucker for AI stories and I liked some aspects of the depiction of the AI but the dramatization wasn't all that dramatic and the conclusion was - aside from its ex machina initiation - unsurprising.

"Forgiveness", Bud Sparhawk (Short Story)

This takes a good idea with interesting thematic applications - memory editing of war criminals - and wraps it in a predictable dunnwhoit plot with completely exterior characters other than a single (wrong) viewpoint character. So it comes off as pretty shallow and a lot of the action and dialog is awkward. And while I appreciate it not being tied to any specific Earth history, it's utterly vague - no explanation of "war crimes" or who was fighting or why or how the sides came to this "rehab" agreement or how the war criminal hunter squads still operate and so on - some of this may not be relevant to the "forgiveness" motif but at least some of it would be required to give some texture and emotion to the tale. Anyway - a woman who had a relationship with a one-dimensional jerk of a sheriff takes up with a "rehabbed" war criminal of some indeterminate nature to whom the sheriff takes an extreme dislike when the criminal hunters show up and the obvious ensues.

"The Homecoming", J. T. Sharrah (Novelette)

I don't understand the thinking behind putting this in the same issue with "Forgiveness", much less putting them back to back. This starts to create an interesting alien race and puts a Terran embassy and reporter amongst them but wanders off into a predictable dunnwhoit plot with almost completely exterior characters though the viewpoint character is reasonable for most purposes. The narrative strategy still distances one from the psychic core of the story, though. And this story would seem to blow a hole in my theory on "Forgiveness" being able to be strengthened by specifics, as this provides them and is still nearly as emotionally superficial. But I think the problem here is a mystifyingly inappropriate tone which is breezy and humorous (the "unbearable" wife is especially funny) and remarkably unconcerned about dead characters. A character complains about "noticing" things but failing to take notice. Similarly, the dead characters (just like those dead in the past from war crimes) are referenced and "lamented" but not felt. A villainous character is described as being on "diplomatic autopilot" when expressing condolences but so is the whole story.

But if you want, here is a second story about war criminals and a bizarre kind of (personally unacceptable) "forgiveness" with a not-entirely-dovetailed theme of how you can never step in the same river twice or, more pertinently, never go home again, in a story called "The Homecoming". This one was more detailed and creative than "Forgiveness", at least.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

3"Field of Gravity", Jay Werkheiser (Short Story)
2.5"The Journeyman: In The Stone House", Michael F. Flynn (Novelette)
2"Survivors", Ron Collins (Short Story)
2"A Star to Steer By", Jennifer R. Povey (Short Story)
2"The Homecoming", J. T. Sharrah (Novelette)
2"Forgiveness", Bud Sparhawk (Short Story)
1.5"The Last Time My Computer Went Down", Kate Gladstone (Probability Zero)
1"The Region of Jennifer", Tony Ballantyne (Short Story)

Final Word: I liked the football story and if you want to follow along with "The Journeyman" you'd need to pick this up but, otherwise, not so much.

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This issue was a borderline proofreading fail but there were enough (and so familiar) that I enumerate them again in a vain attempt to embarrass Analog into doing a better job.