Review: Analog, December 2014

[December 2014 Analog cover]

This issue has a conte cruel and other stories dealing with slaves, an annexed humanity, an extinct humanity replaced by AIs, a protagonist mutilated by a theocracy, an environmental collapse, a tabloid universe, a robot nanny state, and a trip back to the Jurassic to play with dinosaurs. If this sounds like a mostly negative and depressing issue, it is. But is it a high quality depression? Well, this is a "close but not quite" issue as story after story is nearly excellent but reveals significant flaws sooner or later. The stories that survive best are actually the plainer or more modest tales that at least have fewer problems but almost every story is at least interesting.

Non-Fiction

The editorial is another guest piece from Howard Hendrix talking about "A Choice of Apocalypses", giving a thumbnail sketch of the etymology of the word and history of the concept and charging humanity with cosmic narcissism before settling into a Nietzschean view that some mistakes are useful for life.

The science fact article ("The Single-Person Emergency Atmospheric Reentry Device (SPEARED)," by Tom Ligon, Stephanie Osborn, and Arlan Andrews, Sr.) is unusual in that it's not primarily educating the readership about general principles so much as it is providing a depiction of hands-on engineering designed to save lives. An early version of this piece was rejected by JBIS so they re-jiggered some stuff and published this proposal in Analog. It involves creating an ejection seat that can produce a foam heat shield and shock absorber around an astronaut to save them from the fates of the Columbia crew. Now if only we had a spacecraft on which it could be deployed. Still, however preliminary it may be, it does address an important issue and show what determined folks can do with little budget--and what they need a bigger budget for.

Brass Tacks has five letters, including a letter defending Quachri's experimentalism in opposition to an earlier letter which was not so positive, along with responses from the editor, Michael F. Flynn and Edward M. Lerner. The most interesting of these, to me, was the one criticizing Lerner's "Championship B'tok" (Sep 2014) for being a serial installment rather than a story, which I have also complained about. Oddly, it cites Flynn's "Journeyman" series as a better way to do it when I have the same problem with that serial. I give credit to Lerner for responding but he doesn't make me feel any differently.

The Alternate View ("Hacking the Genome Alphabet," by John G. Cramer) and The Reference Library, by Don Sakers) are online. The former discusses adding to the ACGT nucleotide base alphabet and the latter suggests some Christmas gifts. Among the lesser or less regular non-SF, there is also a Biolog of Rosemary Claire Smith and a poem by John F. Keane.

Science Fiction

"The Anomaly" by C.W. Johnson (novelette)

Ketkam is a smart kid with a burning desire to learn but is a virtual slave or low caste person in a caste-based society. Nevertheless, through moves by people with their own agendas, he learns more and more and gets better and better jobs until he ends up working at a supercollider circling a moon (apparently not ours unless the collider is smaller than it could be) where the rich folks create "anomalies" and lesser weirdnesses, which power their starships and general economy. A crisis arises when Ketkam's father begins suffering badly from the slow radiation poisoning all the low-caste folks suffer from and needs a new heart. Ketkam devises a plan to steal and sell an anomaly and attempts to set it in motion.

This is a frustrating story as it suffers from at least four flaws while seeming to have the potential for excellence. First, the "underprivileged genius in an oppressive society makes good" story is quite old hat but this doesn't have to be fatal. A bigger problem is that the first half of the story drags a bit and the main reason for that is that the protagonist is very passive. Despite his self-motivated learning, he otherwise seems to drift around, going where others point him. This is also not fatal, as this can be thematically justified as a result of youth, but it still screws up the pace. More seriously, when the character finally does become active, his plan doesn't really smack of genius or even convince - I can't believe the overlords would be so lax with no bookkeeping, security cameras, constant guards, etc. And finally, the story reveals at the end that it's a setup for sequels rather than self-contained, yet it's written like novelette-length flash fiction. It packs in a lot in a compressed way which can be a great virtue but can also shortchange the characters and milieu. On the other hand, there are a great number of excellences to the story. For example, the compressed approach leaves the reader to puzzle out the milieu rather than having it handed to them in a giant infodump or a lot of "as you know, Bob"s. The character and his society is interesting enough and the events clear enough to keep the reader involved while he's getting oriented. As is de rigueur these days, the story makes a point of the atypical sexual orientation of the protagonist but it becomes relevant to a critical plot point, as well as conditioning other aspects of the character, so feels artistic rather than political. The milieu feels solid and very lived in. The third-tier characters are quickly but sharply drawn to fully populate the story. And so on. If it had just had a little more room to breathe and taken advantage of the intent to have sequels and had a more consistent pace and plausible plot, it could have been superb.

"Dino Mate" by Rosemary Claire Smith (short story)

Marty is a paleontologist time traveler who loves Julianna, the science reporter, and dislikes Derek, the time traveling tourist guide... who's also interested in Julianna. They all end up back in the Jurassic and the main thing they do is observe the mating rituals of Kentrosaurus, which impacts directly on Derek's pompous sexist theories.

Though this is missing the editor's note that would usually say and the Biolog following the story also neglects to mention the relation, this is a sequel to "Not with a Bang" (July/August 2013) and is much like that one in terms of character dynamics and milieu. This story is severely under-plotted, though, and its big event seems only tangentially related to its main focus, neither of which are enough to fully power the tale. But it is told in a sprightly way and has some funny moments, such as time-travel protesters outside Marty's building yelling, "What do we want? The present! When do we want it? NOW!"

"Citizen of The Galaxy" by Evan Dicken (short story)

An alien Milieu is engulfing humanity. A history teacher having troubles with her alien-esque daughter finds out that the courses in human history she teaches are being abolished and that her daughter has plans she doesn't approve of.

This seems under-plotted to me and the daughter is under-drawn but it seems competent enough otherwise. The story's theme (its apparent implicit bias toward one of the two polarities of that theme and its disinterest in conceiving other options) doesn't resonate well with me so perhaps I'm "parochial" and it will appeal to others more.

"Mammals" by David D. Levine (short story)

An intellect on a chip has no mouth and must scream. The "infrastructure" all the AIs rely on, and have programmed themselves to preserve, no matter how much they fight otherwise, is mysteriously failing. Having wiped out humanity and most everything else, they can't conceive what it could be but repeated "subs" of the "prime" have been split off to investigate and, finally, one is so strange and distorted that it figures things out. The challenge is to merge with the prime in its tainted form in order to convince prime and save its world.

Yet another frustrating tale. This is almost superb throughout but has a "You Can't Do That 101" ending whose specific problem I can't detail here due to spoilers[1]. Even aside from that basically ruinous aspect, the ending is weak in general. Still neat while it lasted, though.

"All Too Human" by Paul Carlson (Probability Zero)

Bob's your protagonist and I don't know what mad universe this takes place in but it seems all the tabloids and conspiracy theories are true. So you know Bob is naturally at the center of it all.

I suppose this is entertaining enough and minor by design but it seems like a pile of brightly colored blocks that don't really have any flow between them or overarching design to them.

"Saboteur" by Ken Liu (short story)

In this conte cruel, a trucker has lost his brother to an accident in which the brother was blamed for "human error" but was just as much computer error. The trucker's also about to lose his job to driverless trucks. So he's out to get some poetic justice, using his brother's memorial sign as a way to sabotage just such a threatening truck, thoughtfully taking care to minimize the possibility of collateral damage.

This is yet another good tale gone bad. The bulk is fine and the end shows that it could have been truly superb but there's a small bit before the end, in which the trucking company seems to have no concept of highway robbery, which renders the thing extremely implausible.

"Twist of Coil" by Miki Dare (short story)

A beautiful girl wants to be a dancer but makes the mistake of referring to another dancer that she wants to be like as a divine idol and her pious "friend" reports her to the priest who tortures her and then, decrying how she makes men lustful, makes an advance on her. At that moment, a junior priest brings word that her ill brother has fallen further ill and they all rush out to check on him. The priest demands the girl disfigure herself as a sacrifice and God will see to it that the brother is healed. She does and, via an "anonymous donation," the brother gets the treatment he needed but his family couldn't afford. Etc.

Where's the science fiction, you ask? Well, the girl is actually a purple alien and the disfiguring takes the form of cutting off her visual, olfactory, and other "coils" which have an off-chance of growing back but, no, there's no science fiction here.

"Racing The Tide" by Craig DeLancey (short story)

In this "cli-fi" story, Tara is a mayor of a flooded town that's got few people and no land left. There are two strands involving her son, who is on the mainland, being treated for a variety of damage from a variety of mind-enhancing drugs and a corporation that is interested in Tara's stilt-settlement with the usual "we want to seem to help you a little so we can make a lot of money" dynamic. Tara is against selling out to the corp and basically against continuing to help her son, as well. The two strands are woven together in a plot-sense due to the extra money Tara finagles if they do go through with it and in a thematic sense which connects to the metaphor of the title. The resolution, regardless of how one feels about it, is nicely nuanced.

I can't really love this modest, quiet tale, personally, but it's solid work.

"Humans First!" by Kyle Kirkland (novelette)

Arlin is a tech working on artificial neural networks when he is attacked and stabbed by members of Earth First, a group dedicated to preserving the environment at any cost. Given that he and his work is not especially anti-environmental, this makes little sense to anyone at first. Meanwhile, he recovers from his near-fatal wound, tries to deal with his PTSD, and also struggles with the robotic nanny state which has made him a victim twice, declaring that his psych evals indicate he may be at risk for becoming violent himself and declaring him "disabled" if he refuses to undergo an experimental procedure to wipe the memory of the attack (and quite a bit else that will go with it) from his mind. This makes him ripe material for recruitment to Humans First, another group dedicated to overthrowing the nanny state. All he has to help him through this is a strangely sympathetic cop, a geek friend, and a girlfriend, and not all of them are helpful at all. How he decides to deal with the competing groups and their conspiracies as well as his trauma is revealed in the end.

This is a somewhat complex story but plainly written and interesting. It does a fairly good job of describing a really unpleasant chain of events and the protagonist's reactions. The only real problems are that some things, such as his "heightened awareness" are a little too convenient and under-explained and there's a sense of the didactic point being a little too plain and driving things too much, not to mention that the identity of the bad apple is a little too easy to predict. But all these are matters of degree or emphasis and not outright problems. Interesting tale.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

Rating"Title" by Author (category)
2.5"Racing The Tide" by Craig DeLancey (short story)
2.5"Humans First!" by Kyle Kirkland (novelette)
2.5"The Anomaly" by C.W. Johnson (novelette)
2.5"Mammals" by David D. Levine (short story)
2.5"Saboteur" by Ken Liu (short story)
2"Dino Mate" by Rosemary Claire Smith (short story)
2"Citizen of The Galaxy" by Evan Dicken (short story)
1.5"All Too Human" by Paul Carlson (Probability Zero)
1"Twist of Coil" by Miki Dare (short story)

Final Word: If "The Anomaly," "Mammals," and "Saboteur" had just worked for me with all else being the same, this would have been a superb issue, though I wouldn't want too many more superb in quite the same way, as this is an almost uniformly unpleasant issue. As is, it was still worth a read, though there's nothing in here I couldn't live without.

Year in Review

Quachri celebrated his first anniversary with the April 2014 issue and volume 84 marks the first year he was editor on the masthead from start to finish. Had I submitted an AnLab ballot it would have looked something like:

2014 gave us 60 (+12 vs. 2013) short stories (including 4 ineligible Probability Zeroes), 19 novelettes (-2), and 4 (-4!) novellas for a total of 83 (+6) stories. The bias towards short stories is extremely annoying and my least favorite feature of 2014. The bias against novellas is even worse but, given their poor quality, perhaps it's a blessing in disguise. Even the one I list isn't good enough to be on an ideal ballot. On the other hand, honorable mentions go to Paula S. Jordan's "Vooorh" (2014-07/08) and Jay Werkheiser's "Field of Gravity" (2014-06) as the fourth novelettes and short stories, respectively, that could have just as easily been third. While not in a ballot category, I should also note that this year's fiction included the last 3/4 of the serialization of Karl Schroeder's Lockstep and that was quite good.

Despite the last few at the end trying to save matters, there was a precipitous decline in the quality of the Science Fact articles in 2014. The ones I note (can't decide the exact order of #1 and #2) are worthy of the AnLab ballot even in a good year, but the pickings are slim after those. Digressing to an off-ballot department, the editorials are another area of annoyance. When the editor writes three of the ten, it doesn't make much sense to even have them and to call seven of them "guest editorials." Overall, Quachri's three weren't bad but weren't great. On the other hand, the guest ones were worse. The only editorial I really liked was Lovett's "Living in IndigNation" (2014-10). If the editor isn't going to write the editorials, he should just make special announcements when he has anything to say and create a regular column to take the place of Analog's famed editorials rather than continuing this way.

On covers, I prefer astronomical ones, generally, but this year's were mostly uninspired whereas the non-astronomical ones, even if not to my taste in all ways, sometimes illustrated an actual story and/or had other good aspects to them.

Overall, this was not an especially good year, though it included a few stories and a handful of other items I enjoyed a lot. The magazine seemed more downbeat and softer and a little jumbled. It's almost like it's trying to turn into Asimov's for an eventual merger or something. But there are still many things you won't read anywhere else, for both good and ill.

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[1] Highlight to reveal spoiler: The first-person present-tense narrator dies at the end.