Analog, April 2005

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"Company Secrets" by Kyle Kirkland
"Her World Exploded" by David L. Burkhead
"Reinventing Carl Hobbs" by James C. Glass
"Standards of Success" by John G. Hemry
"Letters of Transit" by Brian Plante

ImageThe April 2005 issue of Analog was my first direct exposure to the magazine.  As a fan of classic hard sci-fi, I was eager to see how a leading genre publication defined it today.  The issue's accessible, science-driven plots confirmed my expectations, but I was surprised to find myself disappointed by most of the offerings.

The lead story, "Company Secrets" by Kyle Kirkland, explores how a society's dependence on electronic information exchange can dehumanize its members and even expose them to psychological manipulation.  Its futuristic setting features a global economy in which downsizing has reduced corporations to single individuals, thereby marginalizing billions.  The twenty-something protagonist—Merv Dunn, Inc.—is an "infomeister," or information broker.  At the outset, his only goal is to collect a bounty by reporting a business merger as a violation of anti-trust laws.  While investigating his target, he dodges physical danger and discovers a sinister social engineering plot.  Along the way, he finds his moral compass, and he abandons his own ambitions to defend ambition itself.  The story culminates in a lively turning of tables.

Unfortunately, this long piece tends to drag.  It suffers from weak tension; the context of the conflict is explained at length before the nature of the conflict is even clear.  Information is often relayed in the form of contrived, expository dialogue or thought tangents that interrupt action.  In this reader's opinion, the love interest that threads through the story distracts from its core and fails to carry its weight.  Nevertheless, readers who follow the story to the end may be rewarded with a satisfying twist in the dénouement.

The psychological focus of this piece is fascinating—and frightening.  However, "Company Secrets" should not be taken too seriously.  It describes social and economic extremes that border on satire, and the first-person storytelling is full of wry humor.

In "Her World Exploded," David L. Burkhead creates an engaging protagonist faced with a confounding mystery.  Victoria Schneider, a successful businesswoman from a famous family, returns to her private island—an interstellar asteroid—only to watch it explode before she can land.  When her insurance company refuses to compensate her for the loss, she takes an active role in investigating the incident.

Unfortunately, the solution to the story's mystery is partially predictable, thanks to a hint delivered early on.  A couple of story elements—possibly red herrings—appear to lead nowhere.  Also, this reader would have preferred the protagonist's actions to factor more heavily into the resolution.  All that aside, this story examines some interesting physics, and it is worth reading just to experience Miss Schneider's multifaceted personality.

In "Reinventing Carl Hobbs" by James C. Glass, a benevolent film star tries to help her android bodyguard become more "human" while she fields death threats from a demented fan.  At first, this story seems contrived and predictable, but a revelation during the climax recharacterizes the entire premise and forces the critical reader to reassess her assumptions.  Still, Carl's robotic psyche and his "reinvention" are not explored in enough detail to engage a reader emotionally.  Description and setting development also receive short shrift in this piece, and this may disorient some readers; one scene, for example, has no stated setting at all.

John G. Hemry's "Standards of Success" is a short spoof about NASA bureaucracy.  Structured as a series of news articles, it details the agency's successes and failures in controlling the movements of the astronauts themselves during the first "manned" mission to Mars.  The absurd premise is amusing, but the novelty wears off fairly quickly, leaving the reader wanting more.  The moral of the story is obvious and rather heavy-handedly delivered, and the ending fails to surprise.  The publication of this piece may also be badly timed; despite the high-profile failures of the past, the recent success of Cassini-Huygens makes NASA an unlikely subject for satire.

Brian Plante engages the reader in mental gymnastics in "Letters of Transit."  This piece consists entirely of letters exchanged between a spacefaring astronaut and his earthbound fiancée.  Their means of communication is the wormhole through which the astronaut is traveling.  It also functions as a kind of microscopic crystal ball: the fiancée can receive letters from the astronaut before he even writes them, and she can echo his future to his present.  Their correspondence, however, is monitored by censors determined to prevent temporal paradoxes.  The tension peaks when a paradox becomes the only way the astronaut can secure a future with his beloved.

The wormhole's interaction with relativity is baffling, and the author admits as much through the voices of both characters.  The editor even warns: "And you thought the twin paradox was complicated!"  Some readers may find it easiest to simply suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

Some of the "dialogue" in this piece is rather sappy, and the fiancée does not always exhibit the intellect one would expect of a Princeton-educated prodigy.  Nevertheless, several moments do convey a genuine sense of loss.  Furthermore, the story ends with a jaw-dropping development that invites the reader's imagination to complete the picture.  Ultimately, this is a satisfying read.

This issue's fiction offerings conclude with the final installment of Jack Williamson's "The Stonehenge Gate."  As is Tangent's policy, we will leave it unreviewed.