Review: Analog, October 2014

[October 2014 Analog cover]

This month's non-fiction significantly outshines the fiction though there is an excellent piece of fiction, too.

Non-Fiction

It's back to the guest editorials this month, with Richard A. Lovett talking about those who are "Living in IndigNation" or what I think of (from Bloom County) as suffering from "offensensitivity". Not just about how some people are addicted to moral self-righteousness but about the Powers That Be using this to distract people from real issues and to substitute emotion for rational thought. A must read. John G. Cramer's Alternate View is on "Inflation and the Swirls of Gravity" telling us about some (very) preliminary results which supposedly confirm cosmic "inflation" due to possible detection of gravity waves. Don Sakers' Reference Library has a mini-essay on future histories and milieus (and doesn't do enough to distinguish the two quite different beasts) and reviews half a dozen books, one of which is relevant to the essay. Brass Tacks has someone threatening to quit reading Analog because it contained a liberal story. (Whuh?) Otherwise, it's a mostly gushing collection of letters, mostly about Karl Schroeder's Lockstep (December 2013-April 2014).

The Science Fact article is Edward M. Lerner's "Alien AWOLs: The Great Silence" which is another in the science-behind-the-fiction series. The price of this issue is already covered by the editorial and this article. It's wide-ranging but organized, covering everything from the Drake equation to the Fermi paradox to SETI and SETT and the stupidity (my opinion) of METI (which would itself explain the failure of SETI if other races are too smart for METI) to a great early-millennium Analog discussion between Zubrin, Bova, Schmidt, and Kooistra on to silences and filters and our possibly impending Easter Island doom and more. Another must read.

Science Fiction

"Opportunity Knocks", Joyce and Stanley Schmidt (Short Story)

The editor emeritus returns as the author he sometimes is. I'd love to give this a rave review but this tale of an alien cop hunting for an alien criminal who's already messed with Earth and been killed is a bit overly elaborately inconvenient to not much point. And I don't know how an alien can be familiar with the phrase "going native" from "our literature" yet not know about "candy" nor how he can know (not from our literature) how the leaves change in fall when he's only just arrived then. But it's a nice enough story as a wily grandmother and her grandkid negotiate with Mixipoxi, the alien cop, on Halloween.

"Threshold", Tony Ballantyne (Novelette)

This is a very frustrating story. It starts with a snippet of the ending, then rewinds to a guide taking three biologists on a tour of the planet outside the region humanity rents from alien AIs. He explains to them about the native "bugs" which are in distributed hives of various kinds throughout the jungle and it turns out that things are not as they seem. It's a very nicely realized alien world and an extremely nicely exposed complex milieu with minimal infodumping and just vague enough to intimate a great deal yet specific enough to mean something. But the warning signs are that the characters turn out to not be characters but mouthpieces for Philosophical Viewpoints - should humans enjoy the comforts of playing second fiddle to inscrutable aliens or should they rough it on their own? Still, I was willing to believe everything was fine until he completely blew the ending which, naturally, can't be explained without spoilers. Let it suffice to say that what might have been a superb story was cut to a good story by the "characters" and cut to a failure twice over by the ending.

"Each Night I Dream of Liberty", Andrew Barton (Short Story)

"I'm not an independent medical services provider but I play one in this story." That's what a doctor of sorts calls himself: an independent medical services provider. And that's just a hint of this story's "bad actor" dialog that I have to read in a loud off-time rhythm to make it come out at all. And it has no believable characterization at all and no real ideas that aren't lifted from Kress et al's Sleepless and Shirley et al's Freezone and so on. An engineered giant Chinese elf cop from the UN goes to an island libertarian dystopia to bust a purely evil capitalist criminal for illegal research. The aesthetic failure of this story bothers me, not the depiction of a place like this using rand currency, by Galt, but I have to give Quachri some respect for being willing to brave the number of canceled subscriptions he's likely to get. Or I would if the story were aesthetically worth philosophically annoying people.

"Unfolding the Multi-Cloud", Ron Collins (Short Story)

What we have here is cascading failure as each story's failures are resonating through the next. I originally thought this had to be narrated by a robot or some sort of gimmick, given the slow, stilted, stiffness of the narration. And this is another present tense, pseudo-second person story like last month's errors though at least it's explicable as this is basically a pseudo-epistolary story. But this is a story who's "scientific" idea (mind-cloud melded data mining) can be thrown completely out and then you're left with just a bald non-SF story about a dependent woman complaining about her overworked job-is-ego husband and their lost love. I hope I'm misreading this but that's all I see.

"The Hand-Havers", Mary E. Lowd (Short Story)

This is almost exactly the same as "Unfolding the Multi-Cloud" except somewhat better done. This time the metaphor regards non-superwomen's choices between work and family (in degree, not either/or) and takes the ingenious form of round aliens with multiple eyes and "hands" which are (hopefully) sub-sentient life-forms who turn out to be unfertilized productions while fertilized ones become "full" babies - but, "hand" or infant, they can only have six. Our protagonist is rather naive about this and I find her acceptance of an event in the story staggering (if a male had written this story the internet would shred him) but it's structurally reasonable. I ordinarily hate "fairy tale voice" but, in a fable such as this, that vague tone to the narration is not inappropriate. (I'm probably suffering critical failure by being too kind to this story to avoid being too unkind to this issue.)

"Chrysalis", David Brin (Short Story)

Fascinating. Both intrinsically and by comparison to "Threshold". This is structurally almost identical to the other - a bit of subjective reverie from the end of the story opening the telling. Much better characters who nonetheless are exemplars of ideas. Many might find this story even worse, in that "Threshold" is talky but in the context of traveling over an alien world while this is very talky in the context of lab work and notes. But this does not have the logical plot-hole or the emotional failure at the end and, perhaps more importantly, is about exhilarating scientific (biological) ideas front and center, rather than having an SF near-gimmick amidst a story about socio-philosophical ideas. (More exactly, it's about the proportion to which the SF element is there for its own sake vs. thematic purposes. Both serve both, as they should, but this is much more for its own sake.) So I find this tale (a) demonstrably superior and (b) much much more to my personal taste. It is about a former physical/emotional couple who are still a professional couple, doing research into regrowing human organs around 2023. This leads to another stage in which more secrets of "junk DNA" are revealed and explored* with potentially epochal results.

"The Jenregar and the Light", Dave Creek (Novella)

This sequel is better than its predecessor, "All Human Things", having, for instance, a less ruinous conclusion, but this tale of trying to fend off the invasion of an alien hive mind is otherwise basically the same.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

3.5"Chrysalis", David Brin (Short Story)
2"Opportunity Knocks", Joyce and Stanley Schmidt (Short Story)
2"The Hand-Havers", Mary E. Lowd (Short Story)
1.5"Threshold", Tony Ballantyne (Novelette)
1"The Jenregar and the Light", Dave Creek (Novella)
1"Unfolding the Multi-Cloud", Ron Collins (Short Story)
1"Each Night I Dream of Liberty", Andrew Barton (Short Story)

Final Word: The Brin and some of the non-fiction try to save an otherwise notably inferior issue. I really think the Brin is a pretty remarkable piece but the particularly thrifty might hope it would re-appear in some other item with more bang for the buck. But I also feel like everyone should read (and most would enjoy) the editorial and fact article.

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* One of the things I particularly liked was the reference to Crichtonesque mad scientists right when I was getting worried about Brin's mad scientist - in a bad story this can be a form of the declaration that "You Can't Fire Me, I Quit" but it actually can answer a reader's objections in a good story by just signaling, "Hey, I know what you're thinking - I know what I'm doing here."

Spoiler warning! for "Threshold". Go back! or (in graphical browsers, highlight the text and) continue:

The protagonist's master plan is to whip up a merged hive of flesh farming critters and have them attack, thinking he can somehow hang on through indescribable agony for days until he's rescued. Unless I missed something, both he and the author have forgotten that the protagonist has a kill collar on that needs to be reset by the equally disabled women every 24 hours. More importantly, in a way, than this plotting blunder, is the fact that the protagonist has a philosophical debate with himself over whether these women, who have imprisoned him and marked him and his family for death while trying to start an interstellar war, may be right while he's in this state of agony from having his flesh harvested by alien bugs. The psychological implausibility is bathetic.