“Formidable Caress” by Stephen Baxter
“Wilderness Were Paradise Enow” by H.G. Stratmann
“The Jolly Old Boyfriend” by Jerry Oltion
“The Universe Beneath Our Feet” by Carl Frederick
“A Flash Of Lightning” by Robert Scherrer
Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk
Analog has been a part of my life since its beginning. (No, I’m not talking about Astounding, the original name of the publication—I’m not that old!) I was a preteen reading Harrison’s serialized Deathworld, when the magazine changed (I seem to remember that in December 1959 it was Astounding, and when I bought the January issue it had a new name, Analog over Astounding, and a new logo. My father was in the Air Force and we were stationed in Panama City, Florida. I had to ride my bike to the base PX in the rain, 35 cents clutched in my sweaty paw, to buy the magazine that month.) Memory has layers, and Analog is pretty near the bottom layer of my SFnal memories.
And in the Stephen Baxter novelette, “Formidable Caress,” the lead novelette in the December issue, it’s not memory that’s layered, it’s time itself on Earth. But this is not our familiar Earth, this is a very far future Earth; what’s left of humanity lives in one of several places: on the Lowland at the slowest layer; on the Platform with the intelligent Buildings (in what appears to be “normal” time—only about a thousand live here); on a Shelf on the cliff above the Platform; or, and this is the very fastest time, in the sky (in balloons and aircraft).
Telni was born on the Platform; his mother, Ama, tried to get into one of the Buildings so that he could not be inhabited by an Effigy, but the Buildings reject live people who want to give birth. But at age 6, Telni became an orphan. He was visited at birth and is visited every few years by The Weapon and its servant, a little boy named Powpy, who serves as the mouth of The Weapon, connected by a silver umbilical and acting at its behest. The Weapon, like the intelligent Buildings, is an evolved machine from Old Earth long ago before the Formidable Caress that changed everything. It and Powpy live on the Lowland, and their time is so slow that a year of Telni’s time is a couple of weeks of Powpy’s.
If you can follow all that, then you’re definitely an Analog reader, because stories published in this magazine require reader participation: there’s no sitting back and watching a story unfold; you have to read, think and infer to “get” most Analog stories. And in my not-so-humble opinion, that’s a Good Thing.
Throughout the story, we see Telni’s life evolve; he is born, becomes six, then 25, then an old, dying man—while Powpy, as the servant of The Weapon, stays about the same—but above Telni, and the Platform, the people of the Shelves fight a years-long drawn-out war that is hundreds of their years in the past when Telni is only 25. Above them all, the sky is blue-shifted, because the scientists of Old Earth drew a “blanket of time” over the Earth to keep the planet from some threat like the titular Formidable Caress. I won’t say much more than this about the actual story, as I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. And there’s enough science, math and speculation here to satisfy most hard-core hard-SF readers.
In some ways this story echoes Olaf Stapledon’s Last And First Men and its grand sweep of time. It’s a follow-up, according to the magazine, to Baxter’s previous (2006) story, “The Lowland Expedition,” but it’s not really necessary to have read that one to enjoy this. I thought, given the density of the story, that more explanation would be given by the ending of the story, which is my only complaint about it. If you’re not familiar with Baxter’s previous story, you might be a bit baffled, as I was, by the end. Otherwise, it’s a thumbs-up from me.
“Wilderness Were Paradise Enow” by H.G. Stratmann is not, for me, up to the standards of the first novelette. The title, like the opening quote, is from the Fitzgerald translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. The title also hints at what the human protagonists of this story should have been content with. (“A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou…”)
Set on Mars, in approximately 2036, the story concerns Martin Slayton (probably a nod to Donald “Deke” Slayton, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts) and Katerina Savitskaya, Earth’s first astronauts sent to Mars. Mars and Venus have been moved closer to Earth by aliens, for what purposes nobody knows, and Martin and Katerina have been sent to find out what’s going on. Be aware that I’m going to throw some massive spoilers at you from here on in, but it’s necessary in order for me to fully discuss the story and what I think is wrong with it.
The aliens give Martin and Katerina some godlike powers—“mastery of space and time,” so to speak—and the whole of the story is devoted to how they use these powers. Unfortunately for me, I found the whole middle section so rife with cliché that it was hard to read. Even though the author acknowledges his sources (those being Forbidden Planet, Green Lantern comics and the like) it’s hard for me to read, because quite frankly, there was very little I agreed with, and absolutely nothing new.
Martin and Katerina argue and fight nearly to the death at one point; Martin makes all sorts of benevolent changes to improve things back on Earth (he’s got the kind of power that enables him to read and change from one to every mind on Earth at once); he saves individuals with life-threatening diseases and injuries, changes weather patterns and causes crops to grow in drought areas, stops tornadoes in their tracks; heck, as far as I can tell, he probably saves a kitten or two up in a tree! But all these changes rebound and cause other bad things to happen, just like in Forbidden Planet, Green Lantern, et al.; and Katerina, who is a Russian Orthodox believer, and feels that humans don’t deserve and couldn’t properly use godlike powers, feels justified in her beliefs, which is why they fight, even though they’re deeply in love and affianced.
See, Katerina screws with Martin’s mind so he thinks a lot of things have happened, and the old “it was all a dream” cliché happens not once, but twice in the story. Then after he nearly kills her (literally) and they kiss and make up, they tell the aliens (at her insistence) that they refuse the powers because “man was not meant to…” and blah de blah de blah and “we only improve by striving” and more blah de blah de blah. Then to make matters worse, we get the old “it was all a dream” for a third time!, when the aliens reveal they never really had these powers in the first place and it was all a test to see whether humanity was “worthy” or some such tommyrot. Because the aliens created the Moon by crashing Mars into the Earth, and seeded the nascent Earth with various biotic meteors so life could arise and then basically had to create life themselves as it wouldn’t arise spontaneously even with all that help, and they moved Mars and Venus into the habitable zone and yada yada frickin’ yada.
And get this—we fail the test by refusing the powers. Yes, Martin and Katerina are representing the best of humanity, and the aliens are so ticked off that they decide to crash Mars into the Earth again and wipe us out. So there. Yes, two people are so representative of (by then, I’m sure) 10 or 11 billion people that we’ve gotta be wiped out.
Forgive my crudeness, but this whole story is a fraud and a pile of dung. I don’t believe that people would behave the way they’re portrayed in this story—at one point Martin tells everyone on Earth at the same time that “war and violence are wrong,” and in revulsion humanity destroys itself—I can’t believe that would happen. I can’t believe any part of this story, even for “willing suspension of belief,” and so for me this novelette is an utter failure.
Moving on to the short stories, we begin with Jerry Oltion’s “The Jolly Old Boyfriend,” an odd little tale about Gina, who goes to bed one Christmas eve with her boyfriend, Todd, and is awakened by a translucent visitor stumbling around in the living room, in the dark. Yes, he’s dressed up as Santa Claus, but is he in fact that “jolly old Elf”?
No spoilers this time; the story’s cute and it all hangs together and doesn’t pop my sense of reality the way the previous novelette did, but it kind of felt rushed. It seems more like the sketch of a story than the story itself, so for me it was a bit disappointing, but maybe your mileage will vary. I’d say it was okay, rather than good or great.
“The Universe Beneath Our Feet” by Carl Frederick is another typical Analog-type story; it will come as no surprise to anyone that it’s about intelligent aliens under water, and the ending won’t be a surprise either. The story is about Jerik and his friend K’Chir, who are six-legged beings with some sort of click-sonar, and who are both students. K’Chir is at least one form farther advanced than Jerik (K’Chir is in Fourth School; I think Jerik’s in Third) and is beginning to question the religious world-view advanced by High Priest Harshket.
There’s not much new here, but it’s well written in its own way; by the end of the story we’ve found out what we pretty much knew already about what Jerik and K’Chir are and where they are. It’s a small story, but I liked it nonetheless. It’s very much in the tradition of Hal Clement.
And the Probability Zero in this issue is “A Flash Of Lightning” by Robert Scherrer, which completes the fiction for December. In another magazine, at another time, it would have been called a Feghoot, after Reginald Bretnor’s Ferdinand Feghoot.
Back in ’33, it seems, one Jason Weiser invented the Weiser field, which powers the chronotron and allows time travel. (The only Jason Weiser I could find on Google that seems relevant hasn’t invented anything yet; he reviews SF and Milhist books on Amazon.com, and doesn’t seem to know the difference between “its” and “it’s”—but ’33 is still 23+ years away, so give him time.) Mr. Schonfield’s Applied History 101 takes full advantage of the Weiser field to demonstrate that time is changeable.
Terri Bradbury (yes, the name is deliberate, and relevant) is taking the course, and she and the other students learn in one short lesson what can be changed in time. I won’t spoil the Feghoot, but you’ll have guessed it before the end anyhow. Short but predictably cute. I do love the idea of using low-yield (10 kiloton) nuclear devices to prove a point in a high-school class.
Another good Analog, but a little weak overall.
Postscript—I did some research to find out the exact months Deathworld appeared as a serial, and it seems it was serialized in the Jan/Feb/March 1960 issues, which conflicts with my vivid memories. Then I realized that of course the magazine comes out in advance of the cover date. So I would have had the January issue in December (and even possibly in November)… I’m sure that as a 12-year-old, I didn’t pay that much attention to which issues they were. I just remember the name change over the Christmas season. So there you are. Memory does serve, occasionally.