Analog, December 2004

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"Baby on Board" by Kenneth Brady
"The Fruitcake Genome" by Carl Frederick
"The Bambi Project" by Grey Rollins
"The Test" by Kevin Levites
"Savant Songs" by Brenda Cooper
"Small Moments in Time" by John G. Hemry
"A Plague of Ruins" by Joe Schembrie
"What Wise Men Seek" by Mike Moscoe

Analog, December 2004After reading yet another disappointing issue of Analog, I stand by my remarks in previous reviews about the magazine. Many of the stories in Analog, in issue after issue, simply fall flat in comparison to the competition (namely: Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and SCIFICTION). I had to reach a bit to find nice things to say about some of the stories found in the pages of this magazine. There were several flawed attempts at humor and adventure. In many of the stories, the plot was good, or even great, but then the story faltered with weak characters. By the end of the reading, I felt there was only one excellent story in
this issue.

Kenneth Brady's "Baby on Board" started with many more promises than it ended up keeping. I thought Brady opened well, but the Alan character quickly became a caricature, and his discovery of the sinister conspiracy did not seem compelling. The "cause" of liberating stifled SUV AIs by letting them glory in "off-roading" is muddled, considering Alan is a supposed environmentalist, and many "tree-huggers" oppose "off-roading!" Christine, Rock, and Timmy seemed like authorial tools, not characters, and I found the ending unsatisfying. Brady wrote well enough to get me into the story initially, but then seemed to neglect realism and character development, with the result being a lack of verisimilitude, and my total ambivalence to the fate of the characters. For this story to work for me, it would need a major rewrite.

Carl Frederick's "The Fruitcake Genome" is a huge improvement over the previous story in this issue. The protagonist, a SETI scientist (also named Alan), is struggling to decipher what might be an extraterrestrial signal while trying to gain the cooperation of his exacting boss. Frederick uses humor and science effectively in this short and solid tale. While researchers puttering in labs tend to make for dry stories full of material that is far from pulse pounding, Frederick does manage to pull this story off, which is a huge credit to his writing skills. [Editor's note: Carl Frederick has an interesting commentary to make about his story, "The Fruitcake Genome."  Click on the link to read more.]

"The Bambi Project" by Grey Rollins was not funny, scary, or believable to me. The sentence flow and the imagery in the story are fine, but the plot and characters did not work for me at all. In the tale, two trespassing hunters are savaged by genetically modified killer deer–deer altered by a mad scientist, no less, who even delivers a stock anti-hunting rant (just like at the end of a Scooby-Doo episode) before the story ends. I have to assume that Rollins was going for some kind of dark humor here, but it fell completely flat for me.

Kevin Levites elicited a knowing grin from me with his one page humor short, "The Test." Any other computer user might find the short amusing as well.

Now, for the only story in the issue that I feel was excellent: Brenda Cooper's "Savant Songs" had a dreamlike quality. Cooper's writing is luminescent. Here are her first few lines: "I loved Elsa; the soaring tinkle of her rare laughter, the marbled blue of her eyes, the spray of freckles across her nose. Her mind." Cooper's language is dynamic and flowing throughout this tale about a savant scientist and her smitten assistant as they try to penetrate the membrane between alternate universes. A third character, an AI named PI, assists the researchers. "Savant Songs" is rife with imagery, lovely visuals, and sadness. The story, a literary work about love, regret, and hope, is the best story of this issue.

"Small Moments in Time" by John G. Hemry asks the old moral question, "Is it acceptable to sacrifice the good of a few for the good of the many?" The questions seems to have been answered "yes!" by a future utilitarian-thinking society, which has sent an agent to murder millions in the past in order to save billions in the future. The temporal interventionist hero of the tale discovers the plot, and being from a timeline that benefited from the murderous revision, must decide whether to oppose it. I felt this was a well-written twist on the time-travel trope, and the moral questions added depth to the story, depth that is normally hard to find in Analog. Hemry's visuals were also effective. The hero's final choice did not seem a terribly difficult one (to me, at least), which robbed the climax of some steam. But the tale was a success overall.

In "A Plague of Ruins," author Joe Schembrie pits a tiny scientific expedition to a post-apocalyptic alien world against the ravenous survivors of the final war that wiped out the aliens. Schembrie builds tension effectively, slowly exposing the reasons for the fall of the aliens, and offering glimpses of the carnage to come at the hands of the surviving predators. My only complaints were about the characters. Helen seemed too unrealistic, throwing off my suspension of disbelief, and Andrea seemed a stereotypical "weak" woman who needed a heroic male to save her. I think those female characters could have been drawn more effectively in order to enhance the story and support the strong plot.

The last story of the issue, "What Wise Men Seek" by Mike Moscoe, describes a cosmic case of misunderstanding. Moscoe has again ventured into Catholic territory. The last issue of Analog published his controversial "The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Ann," which might have been a story, but might have also been a strange tract about abortion or in-vitro fertilization filled with overtones of theologic condemnation. "Wise Men," in this issue, in which Jesuit priests serve as diplomatic and spiritual envoys to the prickly (and murderous) alien Kri'ronkis, steers clear of the abortion issue. The stakes are high for the Jesuits. For success: technological innovation, war prevention, and spiritual conversion. For failure: death. Moscoe's alien world is well described, and he unfolds the puzzle of the Kri'ronkis as patiently as a mystery writer. I did not identify with the religious protagonist, but I felt the character was drawn well enough that a more spiritual reader might enjoy the character. Many of the plot points seemed to depend too much on Kri'ronkis' mystery weapons, miracle somic weed, and a mysterious force that destroys human technology, but I still felt the story succeeded on some levels.

In summary, this issue of Analog was in line with the trend of moderately readable tales that the editor seems to pick. I still feel that Analog fails to come close to the excellent stories in competitor magazines. Humor and adventure are available in many stories, but the flaws in those tales are likely to drive away highly critical readers.