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

Analog, June 2009

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"But It Does Move" by Harry Turtledove

"Chain" by Stephen L. Burns

"Monuments Of Unageing Intellect" by Howard V. Hendrix

"The Affair Of The Phlegmish Master" by Donald Moffitt

"Solace" by James Van Pelt

"The Cold Star Sky" by Craig Delancey

"Attack Of The Grub-Eaters" by Richard A. Lovett

 

Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

The June Analog gives us three novelettes and three short stories. Whether you'd call yourself a "hard SF" fan or not, there's no denying that Analog, going all the way back to John W. Campbell, has always given us consistently competent, and often downright great science fiction. As someone who has watched what we'd usually call "genre" writing morph from mostly science fiction to mostly fantasy over the last half a century while still keeping its essential "not mainstream" character, I applaud Analog's consistency. That makes it a touchstone in our world.

And thank Ghu that we're not mainstream yet, eh? Look at what mainstream has done to genre movies. We've lost the cheesy special effects of the fifties, but if anything, the plots, characters and settings have become even cheesier. And most of the written SF (and here I mean genre writing, not just science fiction) that has been accepted by the mainstream is usually hackneyed at best. Many mainstream authors claim that the future has overtaken SF, and SF is no longer relevant or necessary. Again, Analog continues to prove them wrong.

The first novelette, Harry Turtledove's "But It Does Move," (and I can bet that most Analog readers already know that this is a translation of Galileo Galilei's deathbed statement) takes another look at the famous astronomer's trial and asks "What if Sigmund Freud had been a Catholic cardinal in 1633, and the Inquisitor responsible for examining Galileo's heresy before he is formally charged with heresy? Turtledove likes to write alternate histories that question modern assumptions, and here he's written a doozy.

Freud (name here given in Italian translation as Sigismondo Gioioso) is sent by the Church from Vienna to Rome to examine Galileo to see whether his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is deliberate heresy; if it is, Galileo can be put on trial himself for claiming that the Sun, rather than the Earth (as said in Holy Scripture) is the center of the solar system, and that the Earth rotates around the Sun rather than the other way around. This examination is done by what is to us familiar Freudian means, i.e., talk.

"Tell me about your father," Freud says. "Do you ever wish he were out of the way so you could have more time with your mother?" If the stakes weren't so high, we would probably all laugh at this parody of the well-known Freudian couch chatter. There is more of this, as the humor is an integral part of bringing Freud into contact with Galileo, including "sometimes a planet is just a planet"—but Turtledove reminds us that Galileo's life and work are both at stake here. In the end, as in our world, Galileo stands condemned by his own writings, and must recant… but Freud has his way, and Galileo ends up doing some unwonted self-examination. A nice little story, and very cleverly written, with a nice kicker at the end.

"Chain," by Stephen L. Burns concerns Sentient Autonomous Android Constructs, or Saccers. We've all seen stories about The Robot (or Android) as Slave maybe a hundred times or more; how easy could it be to find something new to say about the treatment of sentient, yet subservient beings? Not that easy, no, yet Burns manages.

If Asimov's Three Laws apply here, they seem to be a subset of a much larger set of laws designed to keep these uppity saccers in they place, so to speak. A SAAC isn't even allowed to ID a human without permission, although if a person maltreats a SAAC too much, that person is socially or legally required to pay cash for the privilege.

A SAAC has free will, but not too much free will. We wouldn't want the natives getting restless, now would we? Unlike Battlestar Galactica's Cylons, these 'bots don't have enough spirit to rebel against their masters. Or the desire. Why would they? They have their quest for "Perfection" to keep them quiet. You start with Tin, when you're freed. Ultimately, you can gain enough merit (if you do your work and keep your shiny metal… uh, nose… clean) to become Diamond. (To the religious—honk if this sounds vaguely familiar…)

Our protagonist, Seven J 9867654322 GHO, or Groucho for short, is perhaps the only, but certainly one of only a few SAACs with a sense of humor. (We would find the joke he reacts to a painfully old one, but then, SAACs don't have a lot of humor to compare it with.) As such, Groucho becomes a test case for a group of "robot freedom fighters," if you will.

On the National Mall in Washington, specifically on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it all comes to a head. Groucho is given the chance to learn if the search for Perfection is the robots' own invention, and a worthy goal, or just another way to keep 'em pickin' and grinnin'. And the use of Lincoln is a very conscious symbol, by the way. The parallels here are obviously drawn, and I think maybe Burns is trying to make some people think about their own Quests for Perfection. It may be lacquered on a bit thick, but I kinda liked it.

"Monuments Of Unageing Intellect," by Howard V. Hendrix, concerns immortality and the price we may pay for it. If memory serves, Howard is an early "find" by the Writers of the Future and, whatever one thinks of Scientology and its bedmate Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard's founding and funding of WoF has been a Good Thing for the field, IMHO.

In the future, "moteswarms," or what we would call nanobots, keep the human race in a constant state of medical repair, which means virtual immortality for human beings (for reasons not explained, it doesn't work for nonhumans, meaning dolphins and the like). Virtual immortality and limitless energy mean a near-paradisaical future for the human race; relieved of the burden of work and age, most choose to spend their time in art, sport, exploration, or even to invest 40-plus years in education and getting a degree.

Oh, there are deaths by accident (a moteswarm can't reconstruct you if you're burned to a crisp, for example) and some rare deaths by choice, but the majority of people choose one of the aforementioned pursuits. And more than one pregnancy is viewed by the moteswarms as detrimental to health, so the population explosion simply implodes.

We've seen this before. It's been done over and over, and surprisingly enough, there is still something new to be said about this scenario. Hendrix says, and quite rightly, that unending good health coupled with unending material wealth will lead the human race to a kind of neoteny, an unending adolescence concerned only with more and different sensation, a hunger for the new and unboring. Hendrix asks what happens when adolescence starts to pall? When there is no new sensation, no new skin color you haven't tried, no new fashion, no sport, no Solar System planet you haven't explored? Is there a future for the human race after adolescence? (One thing he doesn't touch on is, would immortality also be the death of innovation and invention?)

A good story, and a worthwhile successor to all the other stories of human immortality, but not something John W. Campbell would have enjoyed, as it suggests that perhaps when immortality palls there will be no future.

"The Affair Of The Phlegmish Master," by Donald Moffitt posits that we can travel back in time, we just can't travel back in our own timeline. Every time we visit the past, we visit an alternate past. A nice little way to avoid paradoxes and yet write a time travel story.

Because of the title, I was expecting a bit of a shaggy dog story, or even a full-fledged Feghoot (yes, I know this is the wrong magazine for that), so it came as a nice surprise that the story is a straightforward, yet humorous, account of a rich man's attempt to have Vermeer paint a portrait of his (Harry Brock's) current trophy wife. The story also touches on what happens to the value of fine art masterpieces when you can go to an alternate timeline and get "new" ones.

And to do that well, Moffitt has to give us enough detail about 17th century Delft and about Jan Vermeer and his place in the art world to ground us thoroughly while at the same time not boring us out of our skulls. This is a skill all genre writers should have; most Analog writers can do this as easily as breathing, and it's one thing that distinguishes the pro from the amateur.

Because my mother was a fine artist as well as an art teacher, I thought I knew a thing or two about Vermeer, but I learned a few interesting things in this story. But the story isn't about education; it's about greed, and power, and human relationships, which haven't changed a whole lot in the centuries between Vermeer's time and ours. Harry Brock gets his portrait, the world gets a new Vermeer, and even Vermeer gets something he wanted. A fun little romp. (One small cavil, and it's directed at the editor or proofreader, not the writer—a character was "in the whole for 8 million"? Come on! It's "in the hole," dammit!)

"Solace," by James Van Pelt, concerns an old SF trope that goes back to at least Robert A. Heinlein's "Destination: Universe" (if not further back)—the long voyage. If there's no such thing as hyperspace, a hyperlight drive, and wormholes aren't passages across the universe, how do we get to other stars, especially ones 4000 light-years away? Heinlein solved the issue with the "generation ship"—but Van Pelt uses another trope, the "long sleep" of cryogenics.

At present we believe that cryogenics won't work in the same way Heinlein posited in "Door Into Summer"—and Van Pelt addresses some of the issues in this story: the onboard doctor thinks some of the medications they use (painkillers especially) to soften the transition to wakefulness may be harmful, so when the crew members, like Meghan, awake every 200 years or so, they hurt a lot. (And there's a bit of humor here too: "Doctor, I'm 200 years late for my period.")

The question arises: can we build a ship that will last for the 4000 years between Earth and Zeta Reticuli? Have we even built technology that has worked continuously for 200 years yet? What are the problems that will arise in such an endeavor? How will the 200-year-long sleep/wake cycle affect the crew, both physically and psychologically?

Van Pelt addresses the latter by creating a link between a nineteenth-century miner named Isaac and crew member Meghan; she owns a candleholder that was once Isaac's property, and his difficulties mirror hers, in a way. He needs to live through a severe winter that he has never experienced before at the head of the mine; she needs to live through a 4000-year-long voyage and keep the necessary plants and seeds viable throughout an unprecedented length of time. And without knowing, Isaac provides solace for Meghan in her journey.

I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of the two characters' situations. I would unreservedly recommend this story to any SF fan.

"The Cold Star Sky," by Craig Delancey, is about Tarkos, an engineer from Earth, sent by the U.N. to aid Gurk the Greete in rescuing his fellows from the gas giant Purgatorio. Seems their ship stopped sending radio messages, and they may be trapped in the "matryoshk" layer on Purgatorio.

Gurk is a be-tentacled yellow 20-meter blimp with a big mouth surrounded by lots of little golden eyes, and comes equipped with a pet (a "loon,” short for balloon), a smaller and less intelligent blimp that's fully capable of swallowing a space-suited human. Like his fellow Greetes, Gurk has no respect for humans and only uses them when he must. Humans are the "new kids" in the galaxy, and have yet to earn galactic trust due to their/our "bitter" history. Gurk very much reminds me of someone Keith Laumer might have written, as he continues to insult the very person he's dependent on for the rescue.

The gas giant Purgatorio is home to the matryoshka carbon molecules, which like the Russian dolls which inspired the name, have "complex and nested carbon shells, coming in thousands of shapes but most with carbon-60 balls at their core" and are used in making the "computronium used in our AI program. Some shapes acted as ideal isolators for q-bits; other shapes served as one-electron transistors. Different shapes could be assembled together like building blocks to form nano-scale Turing machines or q-machines." All that's necessary is to mine the matryoshk and separate out the proper shapes to build whatever's needed.

But as Tarkos and Gurk find out, at least some of those shapes are self-replicating; the captive vessel is locked in a shell made of these self-replicating carbon forms, and can't get free. Their challenge is to free the other Greetes without succumbing to the matryoshk themselves, and that's the core of the story. How the Greetes attempt to take advantage of the humans is another part of the story that Delancey resolves quite satisfactorily, though not quite the way Laumer might have done it, in the end.

"Attack Of The Grub-Eaters," by Richard A. Lovett continues another old SF tradition, that of the story told entirely through a correspondence exchange. Of course, since we're living in the 21st century, this correspondence is on an online forum. A garden forum, where the protagonist ("Garden Warrior") has moles and wants help in eradicating them.

It's very true to life, in that there is the usual batch of idiots posting non sequiturs and smart-alec totally unhelpful advice, but the story emerges nevertheless. Something has crashed to earth in Iowa, and it's making mole tracks in Garden Warrior's lawn. Only these mole tracks are very solid, and they're slowly taking over the state. What makes them, we're not sure, but it appears they live in a methane atmosphere (or similar) and the tracks are tunnels to contain their atmosphere.

How Garden Warrior overcomes the moles is the turn of the story, and it's extremely well done. In lesser hands, this could have been a shaggy dog tale, or worse, but Lovett carries it off. Humorously done and just the right length.

It seems this issue of Analog is rather full of humor; fortunately for us, it's all intended, which makes us fortunate readers indeed. I look forward to the next Analog.