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

Analog -- November 2013

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Analog, November 2013

“The Matthews Conundrum” by Edward M. Lerner
“Make Hub, Not War” by Christopher L. Bennett
“Redskins of the Badlands” by Paul Di Filippo
“Bugs” by Ron Collins
“Deceleration” by Bud Sparhawk
“Distant” by Michael Monson
“The Eagle Project” by Jack McDevitt
“Copper Charley” by Joseph Weber

Reviewed by Louis West

Edward M. Lerner’s “The Matthews Conundrum,” reads like a murder mystery, except without the dead body. Instead, Joshua Matthews loses an entire month of his life, and no one believes him. All think he escaped into a binge drunk to avoid his new responsibilities as Historian for “the Interstellar Commerce Union, which has authority over all aspects of trans-species technology import and export.” At first, Joshua evokes pity. Disgraced and humiliated, he tries to slink into obscurity while his family seeks to convince him that he needs psych counseling. Then a celebrity journalist, Corinne, hungry for a new angle on the 175th anniversary of the ICU, tells him she believes him. Together they struggle to determine who benefits from Joshua’s disgrace and why there is absolutely no evidence of his existence anywhere during his missing month. It takes Corinne’s research and encouragement, the dispassionate and unrelenting support of his best friend, the AI Tacitus, and consultation with the alien Centaurs to transform Joshua back into a man driven to understand the present by application of the lessons of history. Ultimately, what they stumble into threatens to undo the fabric of civilization, since they find that Joshua had been kidnapped by beings who have influence over, not just all the neighboring star systems, but also a reach back into time that boggles the mind.

An interesting tale with thought-provoking ideas, although I found the constant (but necessary) interweaving of this world’s complex backstory too often slowed down the pace. Recommended.

Christopher L. Bennett’s “Make Hub, Not War” is a light-hearted, almost mocking tale about three adventurers currently operating out of the galactic Hub. The Hub is a “mysterious cosmic anomaly that connects all points in the greater galaxy,” making it the only known means to achieve FTL. Rynyan is a Sosyryn, one of the oldest, longest living and richest races in the galaxy—read “bored.” His culture is focused on who can out give all of their fellow beings in charity, and more giving means more status. Of course, “charity,” or “helping to ease the suffering and toil endured by the poorer races of the galaxy,” translates into taking vicarious enjoyment in watching said poor, suffering beings. Thus, entertainment is realized and boredom eased. Presently, his two playmates are the human male, David, an altruistic, bordering on extremely naïve, young man trying to understand the science of the hub in order to improve the lot of all humans, and Nashira, a cynical interstellar ship pilot, who has no desire to ever return to Earth and finds herself frustratingly attracted to David. Frustrated because David seems clueless at recognizing when a woman is interested in him.

Exploration of a charitable giving opportunity takes the three adventurers to Earth, where virtual-reality proxy wars rage between those who want interstellar trade and others denying the very existence of aliens. Upon returning to the Hub, Nashira discovers that Rynyan’s “charity” allowed a multi-modal nanovirus to sneak through Customs and render an entire prolific species sterile. And the same “charitable givers” have their eyes set on sending similar such trade goods to Earth. Beware those bearing gifts.

Cute, in a rambling sort of way, and I found the story somewhat entertaining, but prefer more substantive work.

In “Redskins of the Badlands,” by Paul Di Filippo, people wear ruggedized full-body second skins that maintain their health, provide a variety of sensory enhancements and can be programmed to appear like any kind of clothing the owner prefers. Ruy works for UNESCO helping protect various landmark sites. He’s tasked with removing trespassers who are tagging unique artificial, carbon sequestration rock formations at the Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada. Equipped with a synthetic bio Proty drone, Ruy goes hunting, but is captured instead. Held as a prisoner, he is forced to watch the trespassers complete their true mission—to resurrect a T-Rex from the rich fossil fields of the Park. But carnivorous dinosaurs have a mind of their own, and things don’t go quite as the trespassers planned.

A fun read with lots of intriguing bio-tech possibilities. Recommended.

In Ron Collins’ “Bugs,” when John’s failing heart leaves him with no other options, he consents to recently approved implantation of a plethora of nanodevices that will repair and maintain his damaged heart. “Bugs,” he calls them, as they itch inside his chest. “Phantom itch” he’s told. The full procedure lasts three weeks, and each day he must take a programming pill that gives the bugs their marching orders. But the bugs start changing more of him—he’s smarter, stronger, has more libido than ever before. All great, until they start emerging through his skin.

An easy read with a hard-charging start that plays upon the common fear of what invasive tech might do to us. Recommended.

“Deceleration,” by Bud Sparhawk, traces 5,000 years of humankind’s intermittent observations of a mysterious stellar object that is only detected every hundred years or so. Blue-shifted, it appears to be approaching Earth but at a decelerating speed. Centuries pass. It’s observed again and the theories fly as to what it is, then forgotten since it’s still hundreds of years away. Until it finally does arrive and everything changes.

A straight-forward read, factual but lacking tension, although I did take exception to the phrase “a small dwarf of about ten solar masses” since, by definition, a “dwarf” star is smaller (or no larger) than Earth’s sun.

Michael Monson’s “Distant” is, well, um, confusing. Noah, all set for launch into orbit, experiences lots of doubts and uncertainties. Then the launch succeeds, but all he can do is continue to think about shuttle disasters. He attempts to leave a message with Ground Control for his daughter, but changes his mind. End of story. It all seems pointless to me since no context is presented from which to understand the basis of the astronaut’s (assuming he is one) fears.

In “The Eagle Project,” by Jack McDevitt, the best line of the story is the last one—it’s a gut wrencher—and this, to me, is what sets this story apart. Earth launched swarms of nanoships 134 years ago to explore all 17 of the nearest stellar systems for life. Nothing. And the initial images from the last system show nothing as well. Life is a fluke. Earth is alone. Tony has been dispatched by the U.S. President to squelch any attempts by NASA personnel to suggest an Eagle II project. Then an artificially constructed large tower is discovered, and the world demands further exploration. But something about the image of that forlorn tower really disturbs Tony. This story is a must read.

Joseph Weber’s “Copper Charley” tells the story of a cyborg plant that grows copper wire after extracting it from the soil. It’s a brilliant solution for a coal company being sued for flooding out an entire town after its slurry ponds overflowed in a heavy rain. Grow trees on the carved-off mountaintop. Switch to extracting copper from digging coal. Use the cyborg plants to hold mirrors, not just to enhance their own light gathering but to also acquire energy to feed into the power net. Brilliant, except when the bio-engineered plants self-evolve into something different. A definite read.

Louis West. Sub-atomic physics, astronomy, biophysics, medical genetics and international finance all lurk in Louis’ background. He’s fond of hard SF, writes reviews for a variety of Speculative Fiction publications and volunteers at several New England SF&F conferences. His own SF writing explores both Nanopunk and Biopunk genres.