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

Analog, March, 2009

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"Cavernauts" by David Bartell

“Madman's Bargain” by Richard Foss

“After the First Death” by Jerry Craven

“Lifespeed” by Carl Frederick

Wake (conclusion), by Robert J. Sawyer

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

While the conclusion of Robert J. Sawyer's latest serialized novel takes up the bulk of the space in this issue, Tangent is concerned with the short fiction, so as has been our long-standing custom, we pass on a review.

David Bartell's tense novelette “Cavernauts” gives us quite an adventure, as an astronaut attempts the rescue of one of his compatriots lost in the bowels of one of Jupiter's moons, Callisto. Such is his selfless dedication to one of his fellows, that he has left Earth to attempt his heroic gesture just when his wife is about to give birth. He finds that the female cavernaut he has come to rescue has tragically died, trapped in the labyrinthine caverns of Callisto, and has become trapped himself and is near death, for one of Callisto's frozen lakes has been artificially stimulated to melt in order to reveal one of its most precious secrets. How he avoids drowning and what he discovers about strange diamond shards deep in the womb of Callisto, form the emotional backdrop for his own personal story. Some of the imagery is awe-inspiring, and once again reveals that the wonders of the universe are beautiful as well as deadly, and are eternally of a more fantastic nature than we can ever imagine.

Computer scientists are having a heck of a time with their new computer Artificial Intelligences going insane and devolving into catatonia and they can't figure out why. In “Madman's Bargain” Richard Foss has us follow one bright scientist figuring out that the problem must be something so endemic, so fundamental to human nature and the way we communicate, the very nature of how we think—how our brains are constructed to analyze the outer world--that it somehow drives the AIs mad because of they way they are forced to process the information we give them—that regardless of what we take into account while programming them we will forever be missing some vital element. The solution is well thought-out and says something very basic about the way humans, by our very biologically constructed nature, interpret the outer world, thus dictating how we communicate and how it may not be so easy to transfer this to a computer, even our most advanced AIs. Well done and perfect for the length. It is speculations like this that may eventually help us construct true Artificial Intelligences while learning something deeper about ourselves and the way our own mental processes function at the same time. The implications on both ends I find terrifically exciting.

In Jerry Craven's “After the First Death,” an exploratory team has been sent to the “Clicks'” world in order to decipher their language, and learn as much as they can of the alien Clicks' social structure and belief systems. The advance, first-wave team hasn't been heard from since an early report and are presumed dead. On a follow-up mission, one team member, Claybourne, soon finds himself hunted by a small pack of the aggressive Clicks and fighting for his life. He soon enough discovers, after besting one of them in a fight, that their notions of immortality and killing are quite different than ours. What Claybourne discovers of the advance team's true fate (are they still somehow alive?), reveals the horror embodied in the Clicks' philosophies of life-everlasting and death...as humans understand the terms. As hundreds of stories in the pages of Analog have shown its readers over the eight decades of its existence, communicating with alien life-forms—regardless of their outward appearance—may be more difficult than we can ever hope to imagine, more deadly if provincial, anthropocentric assumptions are made, and especially when an alien's cosmic world view is at opposite ends of the spectrum from our own. Language is but the first barrier in understanding another culture, as this frightening little cautionary tale shows us, when the terms Life and Death mean very different things to aliens.

I found Carl Frederick's short story “Lifespeed” to be an intriguing speculation as it explores how special mirrored neurotransmitters might have a profound effect on how we view Time. It's an inventive marriage of two seemingly disparate ideas, and Frederick runs his nifty idea out using the sports motif of fencing. A physicist and chemist, both fencing enthusiasts in their private lives, are vying for a qualifying spot at the Olympics. For some inexplicable reason, the chemist always wins their head to head matches; he is just a bit faster, nimbler, quicker. The physicist then has the disturbing thought that maybe his chemist rival may be using steroids, so filches his sweat-soaked shower towel and has it tested. It comes back negative, but with the oddest trio of—purely naturally occurring—neuro-transmitters, though they are somehow reversed, and in their mirrored state give the chemist an advantage. The physicist has a friend synthesize these anomalous transmitters and injects himself with them after lab trials on rats prove them harmless. What he discovers, about his heightened senses and his new internal relationship with the concept of Time and its possible relationship to Life Extension, asks the reader to play along, to imagine what it might really be like to live as such a one imbued with this very special perspective on Life. I found the speculation fascinating, and Frederick works it all out at just the right length. A nice, tight bit of speculation here.

For those with insatiable curiosity as part of their intellectual makeup, who relish exciting new ideas at the forefront of computer science, or genetic anomalies giving rise to fascinating possibilities, or who admire a different take on such traditional themes as some of the obstacles, wonders (and alien viewpoints) we may discover while venturing into space—adding another little brick in the wall here and there toward our understanding of the universe and its possible inhabitants--then I recommend this issue of Analog.