Analog, April 2004

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"Tea With Vicky" by Pete D. Manison
"In Spare" by J. Brian Clarke
"Dibs" by Brian Plante
"The Liberators" by Scott William Carter
"The Aztec Supremacist" by Sheralyn Schofield Belyeu
"Misunderstanding Twelve" by Carl Frederick
"Camouflage (Part II of III)" by Joe Haldeman

ImageThe April 2004 issue of Analog includes the second section of a three-part serial by Joe Haldeman; as usual, this will be left unreviewed by Tangent. The rest of the issue includes four short stories, all fairly brief, two novelettes, and the usual assortment of science articles.

The issue leads off with Pete D. Manison's novelette "Tea With Vicky," an interesting tale of alternate realities that doesn't quite do justice to its conception. Jessica Tengler is a university researcher, part of a team working on a "TransReality Viewer," a device that allows one to both observe and communicate with alternate realities. By day, Jessica trolls other realities for useful technologies, such as AIDS vaccines, new power sources, and the like. Every Thursday evening, however, Jessica sneaks into the lab and talks to her daughter Vicky.

More precisely, her daughter from another reality, for in Jessica's reality, Vicky never existed. Pregnant at seventeen, Jessica had an abortion, and has regretted the decision ever since. With the development of the TRV, however, she has found a way to compensate. Her Thursday evenings with Vicky become the center of her life, and when her surreptitious use of the TRV is finally discovered, the thought of losing Vicky again may drive Jessica to make yet another fateful decision.

The idea of the TRV, while not original, is an interesting one, and Manison uses it effectively to explore an otherwise inaccesible facet of Jessica's character. The story makes good use of sf's unique capacity to open up to examination aspects of life that are inaccessible in mainstream literature.

The first of two stories here that aim at humor is J. Brian Clarke's "In Spare," in which Harrison Chuff discovers that his boss, the Deputy Undersecretary for Extraterrestrial Affairs, is herself an alien. Florenzia Higgins, a "huge woman in a blue too-tight pant suit, overdone makeup, and meticulously coiffured white hair," is in fact a slender humanoid resembling the offspring of a squirrel and a chimpanzee, who merely wears a human suit. Flo has chosen to reveal her secret to Chuff because she has received a mysterious threat and, rather than risking herself, wants Chuff to take her place in the human suit. With little choice in the matter, Chuff goes along, and soon finds himself embroiled in an off-world political mess.

The story begins promisingly enough, but once Chuff has taken Flo's place, its energy flags, and what should have been exciting is rather routine. Chuff never seems in much danger–his travails are more frustrating or annoying than actively threatening–and the reader is given little to care about. There's some potential in the relationship between Flo and Chuff, but the two are not onstage together long enough to bring much out.

"Dibs" is the best story in the issue, though Brian Plante's short story falters a bit at the very end. "Dibs" is sf of the pure strain: posit a single innovation, and explore the consequences. In this case, the innovation is the existence of a nationwide database matching those needing organ transplants with potential donors. If there is a match, the potential donor will be told they have a "dib" on them. With one or two dibs, nothing will happen to you, and the dibs will usually go away within a few days, either because another donor has been found or the patient has died. With three dibs, however, the doctors come and cut you up.

When David Danila gets two dibs on him, panic drives him to a desperate plan. He will use his position at the National Tissue Registry Service to track down who put the dibs on them, and then kill one of them. There's a dib on his heart and another on his liver and gall bladder, and he persuades himself that the patients must be unworthy, probably "a fat old bastard who clogged his arteries with too many cheese fries, and the other with liver failure, no doubt from years of drinking himself into oblivion." Unfortunately, once David finds the patients, his hopeful ideas are shattered.

David's change of heart on discovering who has dibs on him may seem a bit sudden, but, considering that within hours of finding out he had two dibs, he was ready to commit murder, he seems a bit mercurial. Plante avoids one dangerously sentimental ending by plumping for grim realism, but the final paragraphs were a bit too "movie of the week" for my taste. I might have liked a bit more investigation of the social effects of the "dibs" system, but perhaps Plante will set a longer story in this world at some point.

Scott William Carter's "The Liberators" is a military-sf tale, a genre which I have read little of beyond the ur-text of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. It's interesting enough, though like many stories it clings a bit too slavishly to the Fiction 101 structure wherein Our Hero is faced with a dilemma. Major Vince Steed is a member of LS-37, a liberation squad tasked with freeing planets that have been conquered by the Dulnari, with whom the Unity Worlds are at war. What seems a routine mission soon becomes more complicated, as Steed is faced with the possibility that everything he has believed is a lie.

Despite the superficial appearance of moral complexity, there really isn't much here. Steed's choice, once he is aware of it, is simple; his dilemma is not a moral one, but rather a choice of whether to accept reality or not. The sides are too black and white; I would have preferred a few more shadows. Carter does do a good job evoking a claustrophobic atmosphere, and the tension between Steed and the other characters, notably his brother and his ex-lover, add some interest to an otherwise fairly routine tale.

"The Aztec Supremacist" is a brief time-travel story, so brief that some of it seemed to be missing. I'm not entirely sure what Sheralyn Schofield Belyeu was aiming at here, but what we get is a brief vignette in which two time-travelers pursue another time traveler, the titular "Aztec Supremacist," in a desperate bid to prevent him from changing history by convincing Christopher Columbus that sailing west would be a waste of time. They fail, the timeline is changed, and that's that. All a bit too depressing for my taste.

Carl Frederick gives us another story in the time-honored tradition of wacky misunderstandings between humans and aliens in the appropriately-titled "Misunderstanding Twelve." Alas, this is not a particularly wacky story, though I did smile at a few touches. Roger is a Junior Cultural Liaison, helping Duncan Frye, the AngloTerran Trade Commissioner, negotiate a trade agreement with the Nriln. The Nriln language uses nasal tones to indicate the degree of agreement with a concept; for example, one tone used with the concept "badgood" means very, very bad, while another tone means very, very good, and a third would indicate neutrality.

This linguistic quirk has created some difficulties in negotiating with the Nriln, and Roger is supposed to clear these up. Instead, Roger ends up insulting the Nriln through several inadvertant gestures, and is challenged to a duel. Only after one of the Nriln inadvertantly lets an important trade secret slip are Roger and Duncan able to come to terms with the aliens.

The linguistic idea behind the story is interesting, but it doesn't serve as much more than an opportunity for humor. The Nriln themselves don't seem particularly alien, but come across as humans with eyestalks and nasal tones. Neither Roger nor Duncan is a particularly vivid character, and while I did find a few touches here and there funny, on the whole the jokes fell flat. Overally, this was a mildly entertaining but forgettable story.