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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Analog -- September 2011

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Analog, Sept. 2011

“Energized” (Part 3 of 4) by Edward M. Lerner (not reviewed)
“Therapeutic Mathematics and the Physics of Curve Balls” by Gray Rinehart
“Helix of Friends” by Carl Frederick
“Hostile Environment” by Emily Mah
“The Chaplain’s Assistant” by Brad R. Torgersen
“Asteriod Monte” by Craig DeLancey

Reviewed by Sherry Decker

“Therapeutic Mathematics and the Physics of Curve Balls” by Gray Rinehart

Those who don’t fit standard pigeonholes must make their own . . .

I’ve known a couple geniuses so far in my lifetime, and there always seems to be a trade-off, a limitation, a freakish burden they struggle with. In this story Joey struggles with a physical deformity of his cranium. His skull is misshapen due to a softball-size tumor.  His parents both died while Joey was young, and Joey’s unsympathetic Uncle David sold him to Fineas Ferguson’s Fabulous Freakshow at the tender age of ten. Now, Joey is almost twelve years old.

Joey has been compensated for the deformity by his mathematical genius. Joey entertains himself by solving math problems, using advanced calculus, physics and statistics all accomplished inside that malformed head, no paper and pencil required. His secondary but no less amazing gift is his ability to read minds. Without their knowledge, people within a certain distance share their thoughts with Joey. But this secondary gift causes Joey intense pain. The calculations dull the pain so he flips back and forth between math and clairvoyance, depending on how long he can tolerate the agony.

Perhaps the inoperable tumor stimulated Joey’s genius, or perhaps stunted it. It’s difficult to speculate what Joey might have accomplished had he been born normal—normal meaning someone people admire, people listen to or spend time with, instead of shunning. Being normal is Joey’s dream. He remembers playing baseball with his father and he wants more than almost anything to attend a major league baseball game. 

Joey’s only friends are the other freaks in the show while Fineas Ferguson is a cruel taskmaster. Sometimes Fineas beats Joey with a cane. The one time Joey attempted to escape, the beating was severe. Joey suspects Fineas will take his wrath out on his friends if he attempts a second escape.  But the lure of a major league baseball game is too much temptation—Joey plots a few hours of free time as a gift to himself for turning twelve.

At the game Joey tries to screen out the barrage of thoughts from people around him in the stands.  It’s a challenge and he rests by concentrating on math. A man two rows behind him is absorbed by an urgent, complex math problem. The man is a frustrated scientist, struggling with his own limitations while leading a government-sponsored science program. Joey is fascinated, intrigued and caught up in the difficult math problem. The scientist never realizes that Joey inserts the elusive answer into his brain. The scientist, believing he has solved the problem himself, leaves the stadium. Joey follows, tempted to catch up to the man, to reveal their common passion, to beg to be allowed to join the amazing project. Joey would be so happy there, doing what he loves. One foot inside a yellow cab, one foot outside, Joey is torn with indecision. 

“Hey buddy, what’ll it be?” the cabbie asked. “We goin’ somewhere today?”

Does Joey run after the scientist or return to the freak show and protect his only friends?  It’s an agonizing choice.

This SF/F story takes place in the early 1940s, right about the time J. Robert Oppenheimer’s involvement in the Manhattan Project succeeded in changing the world forever. Who, other than Gray Rinehart ever imagined solving the final equation was due to the genius and youngest member of Fineas Ferguson’s Fabulous Freakshow on his one, lonely, stolen day? 

Sensitive character creation, believable atmosphere, clever conclusion. Well done. I enjoyed it.

“Helix of Friends” by Carl Frederick

This story takes place, I think, in present time. Two boys of similar age have a tormented, long-distance mind-link relationship. Neither one knows where the other boy is, or who the other is. One is named Adrian and the other is Eric. Adrian claims Eric always leads him into a nightmare. Eric claims Adrian is the one who pursues the link.

Adrian’s father, Gary and Gary’s best friend Mark try to help Adrian break this unhealthy mind-link. Mark taps into the link with his own special abilities, but becomes trapped in Eric’s mind, while Mark’s body slumps into a coma. Eric shoves Mark’s intruding presence into a back corner, so to speak, and at first refuses to communicate. But Mark perseveres and convinces Eric to link with Adrian again. 

Gary believes Eric is nothing more than Adrian’s imaginary friend. Mark’s theory is that once Gary believes Eric exists, Eric will vanish. In a way, that theory is accurate. Once Gary and Mark prove Eric exists, Eric is gone. Sort of.  Eric has grown up.  The boy no longer exists. 

Long story short, Mark is released and shoved back into his comatose body. Not only is this a parallel universe tale, it’s time travel. There is some confusing narrative. I’m not sure I succeeded in following the tale with the accuracy a reviewer should, due to too many baffling details. One important detail is, Mark reclaimed some of his own suppressed memories during his entrapment in Eric’s mind. He remembers his mother’s suicide when he was just three years old. Her suicide was labeled mental illness, but Mark now realizes his mother also traveled through parallel worlds.

One thing is for certain, no one in this story does anything without doing it unnaturally, softly, tentatively, wildly, suddenly, ritually, instinctively, similarly, keenly, intently, simply, wordlessly, noncommittally, fully, slowly, painfully, clearly, gingerly, perfectly, particularly, obligingly, impatiently, audibly, warily, dumbly, awkwardly, scornfully, normally, fearfully, clinically, tightly, seriously, emphatically, merely, thoughtfully, or recently. Many of those adverbs were repeated more than once, or even twice, and I probably neglected to list a few. The words clearly and actually appeared so many times I considered counting them, but was so weary from reading them I lost interest.

Clever idea. I believe the writing would have appeared stronger were it not for all those weak-kneed adverbs. Not an easy story to imagine, compose and deliver.  Kudos, minus the obvious dependence on adverbs

“Hostile Environment” by Emily Mah

Hang on readers—we’re on Mars and we’re in Mala’s point-of-view, I think. It’s difficult to tell:

“You have to get off, Jasraj,” she told him. Even though he wasn’t listening to her, she swung the vehicle around and aimed it at the low rise they’d been arguing about.”
 
How would Mala know Jasraj wasn’t listening? We’re in her thoughts, not his.

I think this story was meant for eight-to-twelve year olds. The protagonist is Mala, age sixteen. Her brother, Jasraj, is twelve. Childish activity dominates the first couple pages. Mala and Jasraj race across the Martian landscape on the base’s smallest class of transport unit: “An ATV with four wire mesh wheels and two seats that the riders straddled.” They are being reckless and we learn this is nothing new for Mala. She has a reputation for trouble and was already blamed for blowing up the sewage system by flushing thermite.

Can’t ignore this line: “Mala ignored him and helped her brother to sit up, surreptitiously dabbing the tears from his eyes in the process.”  Surreptitiously.  Gag me with a spoon.

The antagonist is the base commander’s son, Jason. Jason is behind the pranks, leaving Mala and her brother to take the blame. As punishment for their foolishness, Mala and Jasraj will not receive the treats their grandmother sends on the next supply shuttle. As additional torment, Jason sips root beer in front of them. Jason explains it’s just root beer mix combined with clean, dry ice. We know there’s more to it than that.

The mystery is, what caused the explosion following Mala’s and Jasraj’s racing around on the ATV?  The explosion destroyed the weather station. Mala, Jasraj and their father are reprimanded by the base commander. The family feels humiliated.

There are dry ice beds nearby, just beneath the surface. Mala’s father agrees with her theory that the dry ice could have exploded after some kind of sudden warming, and he agrees to investigate. Mala’s father is a good dad.

There is a fair amount of stage direction in the second half of the story. Plenty of turning, glaring, ducking, peering, and during all this static action, Jason’s treachery is uncovered.  The bottle caps on Jason’s latest batch of root beer were too tight. They exploded inside a cabinet, ruining a lot of lab equipment. 

The danger now is the supply shuttle is planning to land, and the heat from its thrusters might cause another, even more destructive explosion because the dry ice bed is right next to the landing field. Thanks to Mala the base is saved, just in time.

If this was written by someone, say eighteen or younger, I’m impressed. 

“The Chaplain’s Assistant” by Brad R. Torgersen

I blew my official adverbs lecture on a previous story, so I’ll take a break here. Let’s just say this story delivered more than its fair share of unnecessary verb wannabes.

We find ourselves inside a church on the distant planet Purgatory. The local humans were adventurers, explorers, colonists, and now they are prisoners awaiting execution by the indigenous species, the mantes. The humans are corralled inside a mountain valley by a deadly, transparent mantes Wall. Our protagonist is never named, but he is the former Chaplain’s assistant. The Chaplain has died, and the assistant feels an obligation to maintain the nondenominational church for anyone wanting to converse with God, whoever that person imagines God to be. The assistant doesn’t feel qualified to teach or preach.

In comes a mantis. The mantis explains he is a professor and that he is curious about religion. He doesn’t understand how there can be communication with a god, without language or speaking.

“I hadn’t seen a mantis in a long time—the aliens didn’t bother with humans much, now that we were shut safely behind their Wall. Like all the rest of his kind, this mantis’s lower thorax was submerged into the biomechanical “saddle” of his floating mobility disc. Only this one’s disc didn’t appear to have any apertures for weapons—a true rarity on Purgatory.”

The assistant learns the mantes consider humans pests. The mantes plan to annihilate them, the same way they erased two earlier, unwanted species. Angry, the assistant refuses to enlighten the mantis regarding religion, but later reconsiders, hoping any kind of communication might lead to a stay of execution. A week later the mantis returns and asks more questions. He says he’s been traveling about, visiting the various Christian denominations, and inquiring at Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples, and speaking with Mormons, and Hindus. He wants to bring his students and learn as much as possible before the annihilation.  The assistant says,

“Why should I do this for you, when your people plan to destroy my people?”

A testy argument follows, but by the end of their exhaustive exchange, the mantis agrees to speak for the humans before the Quorum of mantes.  No promises are made.

The assistant expects little. He doesn’t pray. He has no apparent faith in prayer himself. Time passes but he doesn’t believe it indicates anything positive. In fact, he believes destruction might happen at any moment. And, as if pessimism has power, the deadly Wall begins to close in. The evidence of doom is upon them.
 
“When the Wall was visible from the doorway of the chapel, people were giving themselves up to it on a regular basis. My parishioners, others from around the valley, anybody who’d just gotten tired of the waiting and decided to end it. I began to be able to tell who those people were. The pews would be packed, and someone would just stand up and slowly walk out, a look of remarkable calm on his or her face. They’d keep going like that—calm, quiet, no running, right up and into the Wall. Flash. One moment a human being. The next, a cloud of carbon, decaying to submolecular nothingness.”

Just as things seem futile, the Wall halts its encroachment on the human settlement. The professor arrives with eighty of his young mantes students. There is no guarantee that the Quorum will remain benevolent, but the annihilation has been postponed at least until the students’ research ends, and that can be many, many years away.

A few awkward sentences like: “I began to be able to tell who those people were,” and a somewhat insipid ending dampened my impressions of this otherwise entertaining story. If one has the courage to write about religion, one should be brave enough to conclude with something more dramatic than:

“His wings fluttered again. And that’s when I felt it start to bubble out of me. Laughter. Clean, pealing, exuberant laughter. So much that I had to bend over and drop to all fours, gasping. I finally recovered and, wiping my eyes, got back to my feet.
“Come on,” I told him. “You kept your part of the bargain. I have to keep mine. You should come and watch this.”
I led the professor back toward my chapel, and my flock.


Come and watch what?  If the assistant has decided to step-up and blow everyone’s socks off with a fire and brimstone sermon, we’d like to know that’s what he plans to deliver.  But we’re left in the dark.

“Asteroid Monte” by Craig DeLancey

This is a futuristic story about the defense of evolution in the far reaches of space.

Amir Tarkos is scheduled to be court-martialed. He’s killing time in a cocktail lounge, a place reminiscent of the famous Star Wars bar scene. Tarkos is dreading his comeuppance while waiting for his transport, when a recruiter introduces himself and convinces Tarkos to enlist in a covert branch called the Predators.  If he agrees, the recruiter will intervene in his behalf.  Deal.

Amir Tarkos’ partner in the Predators is—“a Sussuration, a race of fierce bearlike carnivores evolved from predatory pack animals, only a century ahead of humanity in entering Galactic Culture. And she was named Briaathursiasaliantiomethessess.” Tarkos begs permission to call her Bria.

Bria has seniority. Their problem is another species is seeding a sensitive area of the galaxy with pods of their own kind, using a cloaked ship and a method known to most card sharks as distraction. Because Tarkos is well versed in wickedness and crime, he’s the perfect candidate for the job of hunting down these villains, exposing their methods and stopping them.

I enjoyed the humorous dialogue, the individual personalities of the several characters in this tale, the descriptions of distant space and the great mysterious sun known as the Green Disk—but do writers no longer care about the quality of their own writing? Aren’t we, the readers, supposed to be impressed? And not just by the clever plot or the quirky characters, but by the writing?

There were point-of-view lapses. Starting out we’re in Amir Tarkos’ POV, yet we read, “Bria leaned over the console intently, eager now to be on the hunt.”  In order for us, the readers, to know Bria did anything intently or with eagerness, we’d have to be in her POV.  Some will claim that’s being nit-picky. Okay, but there are other, more precise, more accurate, more creative ways to write it. Why not look into that?

Weak writing:  “I looked up, suddenly afraid.” That’s the best way to write that? Really? Instead, how about, Instinct kicked in, driving chills beneath my hairline. My knees wobbled. I felt a sense of dread and looked up. 

Sure, that’s longer but this is a novelette. There’s room. I’m sure if one tried one would come up with something much better than my version. Mine was off the top of my head without taking much time or effort.

Some good dialogue, some curious characters, good basic idea.