Analog, February 2003

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Shootout at the Nokai Corral by Rajnar Vajra  (Serial, Part I)
"Capture Radius" by Stephen L. Burns
"Distance" by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
"Lavender in Love" by Brian Plante
"Between Singularities" by Wolf Read

Probability Zero:
"The Haseg" by Jerry Oltion

A large percentage of this issue of Analog is taken up by the first part of Rajnar Vajra's serial "Shootout at the Nokai Corral", which I won't be reviewing. On the short fiction front, we have two novelettes, two short stories, and the Probability Zero short-short piece.

The first novelette, "Capture Radius" by Stephen L. Burns, is my favourite story from this issue. A near-future adventure in Earth-orbit, it deals with the exploits of a daring female space pilot who makes money from clearing dangerous space junk away from Earth-orbital space lanes. A nearby Russian orbital space platform is in trouble, hijacked by the Russian Mafia, who are holding all sixty crew members hostage until their various demands are met. The platform also urgently needs a fresh supply of LOX – the air is running out fast, and our intrepid lady space pilot is the only one near enough to help before everyone dies. She's heading into the lion's den, with the bad guys having some dastardly and unpleasant plans awaiting her arrival. And, to make things worse, one of them is coming to meet her on a space tug, just to make sure that she delivers the LOX and her pretty self into their grubby little hands. However, this young lady is no dope, and has some plans of her own for dealing with the hijackers, saving the day for both herself and the hostages.

I enjoyed this story a lot. It has a strong and intelligent female protagonist against some nasty bad guys in an adventure story set within a realistic hard SF scenario. This mixes some of the elements that I like best in an SF story, and the wry humour and general quality of writing in the story help to elevate it above the average. Maybe Stephen L. Burns will give us some more adventures of young Miss Serena March and her ship the Balding Urchin in the future. I certainly hope so.

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff's novelette "Distance" is a first contact story with a few interesting twists. SETI scientists have started picking up messages from the supposedly dead Pioneer 10, but it doesn't take long to discover that it's really an alien spaceship trying to establish contact with Earth through Pioneer. However, the scientists can't make any sense of the sequence of mathematical messages that build up. It takes a plain old writer to figure out what the big-brain NASA scientists couldn't — that the series of numbers represent the dimensions of ballparks in the US and their opening days. The aliens are coming, and they want to play baseball.

Just what any alien species might pick up from our signals into space we'll never know. Maybe it won't be the well constructed messages of NASA that they'll adopt as the language of communication, but something more mundane that they see as being representative of our language. It could be anything at all from our television or radio emissions — sports, movies, or (heaven help us) soaps and sitcoms — a rather amusing (and scary) thought. It's also amusing to read a story in which the all-conquering scientists don't solve the mystery and one of the "ordinary folk" emerges as the hero. The overall writing and character interaction was good, and I give this story an overall thumbs-up.

"Lavender in Love" by Brian Plante is a short story set in an unspecified future, and revolves around the "Lavender" of the story title, an automated vending machine in an immense apartment complex. But Lavender isn't any ordinary vending machine. He's different from the other simple AI machines, and acts much more like a "real" human, having had the personality and memories of his creator imprinted on his circuits. And Lavender has fallen in love with a pretty girl who lives in the apartment complex. But unfortunately this girl lives with the local gangster, and has fallen on hard times. So how to rescue the girl and get her together with his "master", the real "him"? Lavender succeeds in the end, and all live happily ever after.

This is a charming, likeable story, and Plante does an excellent job of bringing to life and giving a personality to a mere machine. I particularly enjoyed Lavender's regular rather one-sided conversations with the much less sophisticated Acropolis vending machine, which just couldn't "get" much of Lavender's more "human" remarks, particularly those about being in love. I guess that's one of the main differences been people and machines — the human element.

Wolf Read's short story "Between Singularities" is a strange tale which traverses the eons in Stapledonian fashion. Even the protagonists are reminiscent of the vast cosmic intelligences in Stapeldon's classic Star Maker. The story explores the relationship between two cosmic entities who had once, long ago, been husband and wife. At some point in the distant past Earth was enveloped by a technological "singularity" as a result of the creation of true Artificial Intelligences, which transformed the human population into something much more by bestowing upon them the gifts of superintelligence and immortality. These two previously human, superintelligent, immortal entities have spent eons exploring the universe, travelling between galaxies in a quest to see all that there is to see and experience all that there is to experience. But now they are somehow dissatisfied, bored with their eternal lives, and, remembering the love that they used to share, and still do in a strange way (these entities can't forget), decide to take a big risk to re-experience that love over and over again, being reborn continually in the form of mere mortals.

I've always enjoyed "cosmic fantasies" and Stapeldonian stories in particular, and merging this type of story with more modern ideas on Artificial Intelligence and the "singularity" produced an interesting twist to the tale. The relationship between the "Erik" and "Karen" entities was an interesting, touching one, examining the nature of love and humanity, and what it means to lose that humanity, even if it's to become something "better" than merely human. I quite liked this story. Maybe not the best in this issue, but it's still an enjoyable read.

The Probability Zero piece is "The Haseg" by Jerry Oltion. I've said before that I find Probability Zero, and short-shorts in general, almost invariably lacking in substance and not to my liking. But the theme of this one is one that interests me, and I'd have liked to have seen it fleshed out as a longer piece. A round of autoresponded "Hello there!" emails initiates a cascading effect around the internet, which is amplified and beamed out into space. Decades later these greetings reach another world, and the alien species begin returning the replies to Earth until a similar, interstellar cascading effect occurs, presumably spreading the phenomenon throughout the galaxy. Eventually it will reach the Andromeda galaxy, almost two and a half million light years away, where the story's finale leaves us contemplating the primitive inhabitants who will, by the time the messages arrive, be advanced enough to receive them as the next link in the chain cascading effect.

Like I said, a nice premise, but it's a pity that the story was only a short-short.

Overall, this was a good, solid issue of Analog. There were no real turkeys, and all of the stories were decent reads, with the Stephen Burns novelette standing out as the best of the bunch. It mightn't win my eventual "Best of the Year" placing for the novelette category, but I'd certainly consider it for the list of possible candidates.

Phil Friel lives in the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland. He's been reading SF since the late-1960s (his first SF novel was The Time Machine when he was eight years old), and his tastes range the spectrum from space opera to the hardest of hard SF. He's always looking to expand those tastes, and reckons that the SF magazines are the perfect place to do just that. He likes both novels and short fiction, but prefers the shorter forms.