Review: Analog, July/August 2014

[July/August 2014 Analog cover]

I didn't see much of a general theme or many interesting connections from item to item in this month's double issue but there are a dozen stories and some good ones, too.

Non-Fiction

Arlan Andrews writes the Guest Editorial on "Sixty Astounding Years - A Personal Retrospective" which discusses his sixty years of reading and otherwise being involved with the eighty-four-year-old magazine. The results of The Analytical Laboratory* are in. John G. Cramer's Alternate View asks "Is It Space Drive Time?" and talks about what amount to quantum Dean drives. Don Sakers' Reference Library does an excellent job describing the varieties of short story experience** and reviews five examples along with a couple of novels.

Richard A. Lovett provides an interesting Special Feature on "Foreshadowing and the Ides of March: How to (Sort of) Hint at Things to Come". This discusses the tricky writers' art of preparing readers enough, but not too much, and some of the reasons why it's important.

Michael F. Flynn has this month's Science Fact article, "Spanking Bad Data Won't Make Them Behave" (which could also be called "Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics"), in which he points out the slipperiness of statistics and some of the ways in which they can be misrepresented and misunderstood. All this is important and good (if long and dull) except that it's in the service of an agenda that only receives a passing mention until the end.

Science Fiction

"The Journeyman: Against the Green", Michael F. Flynn (Novella)

This story is more middle about our heroes from last month's story (and October 2012 before that). This installment details more of their not-entirely-voluntary service in the "foreign legion" of a minor ruler. It has a lot of armed conflict with a nod to Pyrrhus and, while not modeled on Agincourt, it made me think of it with its disparate weaponry on each side. If you don't mind the primitivism and the alternate history vibe (double moons and suns and such notwithstanding), this installment is about as entertaining as the last one.

(One complaint, though: a piece of dialog lacks its endquote on 14b*** and there's a more serious authorial and/or editorial lapse when the princess "arrives" on 15b when she was already there on 14b.)

"Journeyer", R. Garrett Wilson (Short Story)

A basically science-less tale that must be some sort of allegory. I can't help but take it literally, though. A being with camel aspects has to run out across a desert, despite being a puny female of a mere 450 pounds, in order to get a plant that helps her people not die when they molt. What biological advantage there is to dying from molting, I don't know. And why these people don't develop some tech like stored water skins at way stations across the desert, I don't know. Or why they couldn't develop caravans and all move to the much more hospitable locale, I also don't know. And so on. But yay for the female and her unorthodoxy and boo to the poor coaching from her fellow people-critters.

"Valued Employee", James K. Isaac (Short Story)

Another basically allegorical tale which is indubitably SF on the surface but whose tech is just from the standard trope-kit. Literally, such tech wouldn't have to be applied manually nor need such convoluted and implausible plot machinations but the story's all in the service of the theme, see? A woman gets a promotion in her high-tech Corporation and is sent back to her Luddite village as part of a scheme to bring them into the Corporate fold. Is the Corp good? Can you trust it? Can you do anything about it either way? Will you be shocked at the answers? Points for effectiveness of the evocation of the dark, oppressive, violent atmosphere but I recommend reading John Shirley's "The Incorporated" instead, which is gripping on a literal level as well as thematically definitive.

"Mind Locker", Juliette Wade (Novelette)

This is a tale of identity transference and time travel as it becomes something written by Pat Cadigan from 1981. No, seriously - this is a first-person streetspeak cyberpunk story of a vast conspiracy involving cyberware which our plucky band of streetkids must try to handle. Competently, if unspectacularly, done but... why?

"Who Killed Bonnie's Brain?", Daniel Hatch (Novelette)

This is a story about brains in boxes and how some people are in boxes of sorts already. But it takes the structure of a mystery in which the detective is a reporter while the cops are worse than useless. And the resolution of the "mystery" (complete with the "all the suspects in a room" scene) is completely underwhelming. There are several flaws in concept (contradictory legal status of disembodied brains) and in execution (faulty identification of characters and movements; red herrings) which don't seem fatal to a good read through most of the story but, with no payoff to excuse them, the story becomes less impressive in retrospect.

"Sadness", Timons Esaias (Short Story)

This is tricky to explain. Just last month, I complained about a story whose humor was incompatible with its subject matter. And in this issue I've already complained about allegories which have no sensible literal surface layer. So here's a dark senseless allegory with humor - and I like it. But here, we have either post-humans or aliens who are bending and twisting baseline humans culturally and psychologically and depriving them of their heritage (sense a theme?) and who sometimes do things like address chipmunks or emit four non sequiturs at once. The narrator relates this shorn of affect - he's intellectually capable of recognizing the incongruity but can't feel the humor. Unlike the other story, he is feeling the "sadness". So the humor emphasizes the seriousness rather than undercuts it. And our earlier allegories involved a species trying to survive and a corporation out for power. We expect these things to make sense in biological or machtpolitik terms. But our alien/posthuman "New People" are fairly inscrutable - they do make a sort of sense but the weirdness in this tale works, rather than undercutting the surface layer of our actual character's actual plight. Plus, the story is well structured with its opening line of inexplicable horror and its ending (no spoilers) which circles around to the same spot which yet looks and feels very different. I also like how the story explains its own being. So, yeah, I prefer nuts-and-bolts space adventure in a positive future and don't want a magazine full of this, but - regardless of agreement or disagreement with the thematic angle - this was good.

"Crimson Sky", Eric Choi (Short Story)

If the other short stories in this issue have been a bit too coy, this one is a bit too bald. A guy the heroine takes to be a rich stunt man crashes his blimp on Mars so she, being part of the Search and Rescue unit, takes her Mars-ified helicopter out to rescue him. She rather simply attains enlightenment. So this is the kind of thing I like to see in Analog but the execution leaves something to be desired. A nice read, anyway.

"The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale", Rajnar Vajra (Novelette)

Given that this is called a "Golden Age tale" and includes "a silver Venusian, a golden Martian and an Earthling" and some rubber science, this may be an example of retro-SF and I might be tempted to give it a zero. I'll assume these are engineered humans from Martian and Venusian habitats or some such. Even so, this tale of Explorer kay-dets getting into a bar fight and being punished by having to rescue a failing first contact mission is fatally flawed by having a character so smart he's stupid, your usual good-natured big galoot, and a leader (de rigeur female - that's not so Golden Age) who is no leader at all. And the story is too long - has too much "beginning". But it's otherwise well-plotted and told.

"The Half-Toe Bar", Andrew Reid (Short Story)

This seems to be an anti-egghead proletariat story disguised as a piece of technical writing. Terrans are renewing contact with lost colonies (or something like) and a team of eggheads and our heroine are conversing with a blacksmith when he makes the "half-toe bar" challenge (half-inch-ish bar of steel that needs a half-inch-ish hole in it) and our heroine bravely defies the clueless eggheads to try to save the day. A detailed exposition of blacksmithing follows that, despite being apparently clearly and cleanly written, was hard to follow anyway. This is not much to hang a story on and the anti-professor attitude doesn't seem very fruitful.

"Hot and Cold", Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Short Story)

This is a tale of a married couple in an FTL ship getting caught in Someone's Big Dumb Object, which involves black holes. It's a very neat idea but the story is fatally flawed by the couple being initially very cold and utterly unlikeable and, as they're the only two people in the story (aside from, briefly, an entity that's even worse) there's nothing here but the idea.

"Code Blue Love", Bill Johnson (Novelette)

I'm not quite thrilled with the ending of this one (good enough, but the bulk of the story had led me to expect more) and I was uncomfortably reminded of a dramatic SF version of the comic fantasy All of Me but this was otherwise a good story. A brother and sister (twins) return from the funeral of the last of their other siblings and contemplate their impending demise as they all suffer from the same genetic catastrophe. The story is full of black coping humor, desperate affection and details what happens when they activate the medical machinery and AI that they have both spent their lives creating in an effort to survive. Well felt, structured, paced and makes the medical magic convincing.

"Vooorh", Paula S. Jordan (Novelette)

This is a pacifist tiny-scale chase/combat story in the mountains on the Carolina/Tennessee border involving a mountain man, an octopus-like alien, and her ne'er-do-well teenage hoodlums of crab cousins. He finds the wounded alien, nurses it a bit, and they head out on their journey to meet up with more aliens. This is a very familiar story in broad outlines but I liked the details of the aliens and the human protagonist, the setting, and the effectively tense structure.

(Quibbles: by describing the wife as being "gone" in the way she does, the author gave me the impression the wife was either dead or taken until she suddenly pops up in the story. And I'm not quite the pacifist the story seems like it would have me be, but the theme didn't drown the storytelling.)

Summary Fiction Ratings:

3"Sadness", Timons Esaias (Short Story)
3"Code Blue Love", Bill Johnson (Novelette)
3"Vooorh", Paula S. Jordan (Novelette)
2.5"The Journeyman: Against the Green", Michael F. Flynn (Novella)
2"Crimson Sky", Eric Choi (Short Story)
2"Mind Locker", Juliette Wade (Novelette)
1.5"Hot and Cold", Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Short Story)
1.5"The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale", Rajnar Vajra (Novelette)
1.5"Who Killed Bonnie's Brain?", Daniel Hatch (Novelette)
1.5"The Half-Toe Bar", Andrew Reid (Short Story)
1.5"Valued Employee", James K. Isaac (Short Story)
1.5"Journeyer", R. Garrett Wilson (Short Story)

Final Word: This issue sags in the middle (despite a surge in the middle of that) but it begins and ends well enough and should be reasonably satisfying to most people. While not awe-inspiring overall, it contains the best novella of the year so far in a weak field and a couple of strong novelettes and a very good short story.

_____

* To provide parallax with my takes vs. the Analog readership as a whole, my 1/2/3 Anlab votes for novella finished 1/4/2 ("The Chaplain's Legacy" by Brad R. Torgersen being my favorite and the Anlab winner). On the other hand, the only novelette I picked which showed up on the final Anlab was my #1 ("The Exchange Officers" (Torgersen again)) which finished tied for #3 and I disliked the winner. (Both Torgersens are Hugo nominees this year, though.) Similarly, of the short stories, only my #2 placed (David W. Goldman's "Sentinel Chickens" at #3). For Science Fact, my 1/2/3 finished 4/2/1. So I wasn't a typical Analog reader at novelette/short story lengths but was fairly representative with novellas/fact articles. Whether that's good or bad I don't know, but maybe it'll help any readers get a better fix on my position and its relation to theirs.

On another note, my cover votes finished -/3/2 but I'm struck by Quachri saying the results "show a very strong preference for action and individuals...over spacescapes and stellar phenomena. Makes sense to me!" While he has access to all ballots and their comments, this may be a case of seeing what you want to see - or "spanking" bad data. There was only one cover that featured "spacescapes and stellar phenomena" in the first place (November) and it was pretty dull, so there's not much of a sample size there. On the other hand, there were six covers with "individuals" and two of them did not place in the top half and, of the four that did, three are illegible people in medical vats, stick figures around a ship, and the back of a dude on a bird. And I have no idea how the creepy "uncanny valley" play-doh cover of two faces (and a telescope and a moon!) placed as high as #5 but I doubt it indicates we want more of that and fewer space covers. The second of the two covers to actually feature a face (December) finished in the bottom half as did the one with a spacesuited figure who appeared to be burning up on re-entry. While it's a visually impressive cover in the abstract, if you stop to think about it, the wonder is that it was put on a cover at all, not that it didn't place highly.

** My only quibble is that I think the term "fixup" should only apply to stories substantially altered for the book - something "fixed up" - and a book full of essentially unaltered connected stories is simply that: a connected collection.

*** Double issue! Double errors!