Review: Analog, September 2014

[September 2014 Analog cover]

This month is the Enceladus and present tense narration issue. I don't care for the latter but I heartily approve of having companion science fact and fiction pieces. The good cover art can even be taken to be relevant!

Non-Fiction

Trevor Quachri returns with an editorial arguing that "These Are Not the Drones You're Looking For", meaning that drones are not categorically different from other technologies and the focus on them distracts from the underlying issue of how any tech is used and the transparency needed to know that. Kooistra's Alternate View discusses "Myers-Briggs and I (and You)", regarding the personality test and what type he is. I don't mean to pick on him (I thought about complaining about this with last month's guest editorial) but I'm seeing a lot of personal and historical stuff in Analog's non-fiction lately - anniversary Alternate Views and Reference Libraries and personal retrospective editorials and now this and any one of them is more than fine but all of them are a problem that's starting to annoy me. Regarding Don Sakers' Reference Library, I guess all things have to even out. After last month's excellent column on short fiction, this one advocates SF romances and/or romantic SF, during which he insults most of his readership by claiming that when a large segment of them complain about this genre-mashing, "it's not romance the reader objects to, but women". The multi-faceted ludicrousness of this is self-evident and doesn't even require rebuttal. He then reviews a couple of DAW books, a non-fiction piece, and three books published by entities which have established no "brand trust" with me and likely haven't with anyone, one of whose products is not a physical book at all. Every letter in Brass Tacks is devoted to Brad R. Torgersen's "Life Flight". All are naturally positive but Steve Gray does an excellent job of remaining clear-headed while also being aesthetically affected and points out some scientific sloppiness I confess to having mostly missed (being more focused on the psychology than the physics). Torgersen responds, excusing most of it but admitting to some sloppy calculating.

Richard A. Lovett has the Science Fact article on "Saturn's 'Jet-Propelled' Moon and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life". I don't care for the opening gambit of some "pseudo-fiction" - the brief fragment of dramatized science fact (science fiction) - in the science fact article and I wonder about the closing implying that it's "unexpected" when "science and wonder combine" but, regardless, they do indeed combine here as a case is made for the potential life-sustaining capability of Enceladus (one of several "moons of the giants" which have their supporters). I like the interesting tidbits along the way that never develop into full-blown digressions but which give color and variety to the whole article. And it's very easy to talk me into wanting to explore the solar system. Good stuff.

Science Fiction

"Plastic Thingy", Mark Niemann-Ross (Novelette)

A hardware store clerk meets a weird girl and ends up trying to repair a spaceship. This is told in the present tense which I don't really understand or like in this case, especially as it would have worked so much better for me in a mixed tense. Part of the story sounds like the narrator-protagonist is talking to me in present tense as well he might. And part of it is his narration of past events, still in present tense, which sounds wrong. Aside from that, the story is very funny but tries too hard and is a bit too pleased with itself even so. As an example of the funny, the alien is plant-like and speaks by motion and the weird girl is the translator and dances with the plant. The narrator describes part of this as "Sara does the watusi, a few steps from the hokey-poky [sic] and signals the runner on third to steal home." Good stuff. Back on the downside, I don't think Niemann-Ross should necessarily have gone for an unvarnished obvious ending but I also don't think the actual ending is that good or plausible. Something closer to the obvious ending might have been better. But, while it might not work for everybody, I found it an entertaining read overall.

"Release", Jacob A. Boyd (Short Story)

Oh joy - this is not only the second present tense story in a row but is in second person, too. At least I think I understand part of the reasoning, as this has the effect of putting "me" in the "protagonist's" shoes and makes me feel as autonomic as the protagonist apparently is but the narrative strategy and the absence of any dialog until the very end create a strangely slow and dull effect in this action-packed tale of human-alien space combat. For similar odd juxtapositions, it starts out like a 50s SF story with the protagonist flying around a planet named by a Roman numeral while locked in combat with a bug and using terms like "Liquid Interface Chamber" in capitalized italics. And that's in a sentence as badly structured as

You control your fighters' [sic] attitude and thrust with hand motions inside a Liquid Interface Chamber the size of a baby's incubator; the weapons, comms, and various other moving parts by touching fingertip contacts together in sequence.

But that same sentence shows it also turning into a more modern-feeling story in that there's no control stick in the X-Wing (no wings, either). Also, the incubator is dropped in as subtly as the LIC is clumsily. Similarly, there are some nice gritty descriptions but then there's the description of a planet:

It looks like a blue ball sneezed on by a giant who had a mouthful of islands.

Basically, this story may show a sort of promise but it's not ready for prime time. Anyway: space war story of species survival.

"Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die", Lavie Tidhar (Short Story)

I should recuse myself as reviewer because even if this was as good as Robert Silverberg's "Going" (or several other tales) instead of a far far lesser duller mutated snippet from it, I'd probably never respond to it anyway. Tidhar (and especially his Central Station stuff) and I just do not connect. I wanted Analog to mostly stay Analog but to recruit people like Greg Egan to its pages and suggested as much to Quachri in my Anlab ballot comments and instead he brings us Tidhar. Anyway: Vladimir Chong is suffering from a memory malfunction and... well... chooses to die. There is nothing catastrophically wrong with this story but nothing at all right, either.

"Artifice", Naomi Kritzer (Short Story)

In the future, most people get a stipend and produce art and play games rather than work and our retro board-game-playing group (and gossip circle) has a member who uses some extra art cash to buy a human-looking robot as replacement for her latest failed boyfriend-fixup project. We've also read this story a million times but this particular one ends up being more about the robot and the less repugnant members of the group than the owner. If it's your kind of thing, have at it.

"Calm", Alec Austin & Marissa Lingen (Short Story)

This is a traditional story of human junior diplomats in a negotiation with an alien species. It is non-traditional in that the human race has agreed to be implanted with cyberware which keeps us on an even keel in exchange for being saved from extinction by the species we're working for who are the senior diplomats working to bring the other species into their group. I find it particularly interesting that a strong case is made for the, um, "partnership" being necessary and beneficial but the iron fist of technological mind control of a subjugated species is hard to hide, no matter how thick the velvet of the glove. I think the story may have a particular interest in hormonal metaphors but I was most intrigued by this aspect.

"Beneath the Ice of Enceladus", James C. Glass (Novelette)

The initial exposition of this is somewhat awkward and, among other things, led to my thinking the interpersonal conflict didn't make any sense until I gathered that this was a somewhat ad hoc mission, rather than a planned, vetted mission with pre-selected crew. I still think that, in a "man against nature" tale of exploration in a spectacular setting, an interpersonal conflict, especially if not extremely well done, is an unnecessary distraction. I also find aspects of the story implausible but can't reveal them. That aside, this is a good tale of people exploring "beneath the ice of Enceladus" for geological and, hopefully, astrobiological purposes. It puts me in mind of the great movie, Europa Report - it's not as good, but should appeal to mostly the same audience.

"Championship B'tok", Edward M. Lerner (Novelette)

I should also recuse myself from any further comments on Lerner's "InterstellarNet" stories as I found part of "The Matthews Conundrum" ruinously silly and that part is amplified in this one. Aside from that and the fact that this is very much a middle (and annoyingly so) this was an adequate read until the (non-)end. A human guy and an antagonistic alien sometimes play an alien game called "B'tok" (science fiction apostrophe! Heavy metal umlaut!) and this very thinly treated element is used as an analog of a larger "game" of interstellar deception and conflict (but more just to give the story a title).

Summary Fiction Ratings:

2.5"Calm", Alec Austin & Marissa Lingen (Short Story)
2.5"Beneath the Ice of Enceladus", James C. Glass (Novelette)
2.5"Plastic Thingy", Mark Niemann-Ross (Novelette)
2"Artifice", Naomi Kritzer (Short Story)
2"Championship B'tok", Edward M. Lerner (Novelette)
1.5"Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die", Lavie Tidhar (Short Story)
1.5"Release", Jacob A. Boyd (Short Story)

Final Word: Basically, if you're in the mood for a decent read then this should suit. If you're in the mood only for greatness, this can safely be skipped.

2016-07-17: Edited to reflect that Quachri, in the December 2014 Brass Tacks, says "Championship B'tok" was miscategorized as a novella when it's a novelette.