Analog, Jan/Feb 2009

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

Doctor Alien” by Rajnar Vajra

“The Recovery Man’s Bargain” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

“Zheng He and the Dragon” by Dave Creek

“To Leap the Highest Wall” by Richard Foss

“Small Business” by Edward M. Lerner

“Rocks” by John G. Hemry

Excellence” by Richard A. Lovett


Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

Once again Analog kicks off the year with a lengthy double-issue. This one contains seven pieces of short fiction, many by authors familiar to regular readers of the magazine.

The first is Rajnar Vajra‘s “Doctor Alien,” which deals with the complications that arise in an attempt at interspecies communications. Varja adds a layer of additional complexity to the familiar premise by having his human protagonist dealing with aliens (the Tsf “Traders,” whom he meets aboard their ship in space) who are themselves coping with three first contact situations of their own with species even more exotic than they are. This complexification of the situation, and Varja’s compelling development of the different species his hero deals with, help sustain interest, though in the end the twenty-five page novella runs a bit on the long side for the story it has to tell.

In Dave Creek‘s novelette “Zheng He and the Dragon” a chronicler of the famous fifteenth century expedition commanded by Zheng He recounts a story the explorer told him off the record–his encounter with a dragon in the “Western” (Indian) Ocean. As the reader might guess, this is not a turn of Analog to the fantasy genre, but something altogether different: a twist on another well-known variant of the “first contact” theme–the collision between the self-confident representative of a culture convinced of its centrality in the universe, and an exotic but more advanced intelligence.

I do not know enough about Zheng He and his period to vouch for the plausibility of the situation as Creek handles it, but the story does succeed in being entertaining.

Richard Foss‘s novelette “To Leap the Highest Wall” is a Cold War alternate history, which by itself is enough to make it noteworthy (for reasons I discussed at some length in an essay last year, “‘Two Dooms’ and the Memory of World War II in Alternate History” {}). In this one, the Soviet Union was the first to land a man on the moon–but its mission there runs into trouble on the way home. The story’s focus is on the crisis as it unfolds from the perspective of NASA’s Mission Control.

The technical detail is impressive, and did much to hold my attention, but the story also seemed anachronistic. In particular, the jingoism of the characters in this “flag-waving wish-fulfillment of a story” (as critic Jim Steel described it) is colored by a complacent certainty of American triumph over the Soviet Union that only really came after the fact. Just as there was a tendency to put down the Soviets during the Cold War, there was also a tendency to acknowledge and even exaggerate their strength in certain areas, particularly space technology. (I discussed a notable example of this, intelligence analyst Peter N. James’s influential 1974 book Soviet Conquest From Space, in the Space Review. That this element is so totally absent from the outlooks of not just one, but all, the men in Mission Control struck me not only as a departure from historical reality, but a failure to fully exploit the dramatic possibilities of the premise.

Moreover, it is not entirely clear that the story’s ironies are always intended. While the joke about a Chinese space program comes across as knowing, the sneering at the Soyuz seems more ambiguous–especially in light of that system’s enviable safety record in the years since then (something that, in all fairness, would not have been predictable from the late 1960s in our own timeline).

A final note: readers who find such a contingency interesting might want to check out this item at the web site, discussing “What Would NASA Do If a Soyuz Landed in America?” .

John G. Hemry‘s “Rocks” begins with the impact of the “rock” that killed the dinosaurs and cleared the way for the rise of the mammals, then presents a sequence of brief vignettes depicting moments in the development of military technology. As might be expected from the title, it begins with a rock–and ends with the same, though not in the way Albert Einstein famously predicted. While it is a one-joke tale, Henry’s handling of the idea is breezy enough to make it work.

In Richard A. Lovett‘s story “Excellence,” a runner who was not quite good enough to make it as a pro, now in middle age without ever having found a place for himself in the world, concludes a scientific version of a Faustian bargain with a shady scientist. The deal: he gets an illegal therapy that will give him the musculature to achieve world-class performance for two years, after which his body can be expected to go into rapid, intractable decline.

The story is narrated after the event, so the matter of what will happen is not the main source of interest. Rather, it is about what already happened, what it was like, and why.

Readers easily put off by sports stories might not find “Excellence” quite to their taste, since unlike many of Lovett’s other pieces using the running theme, this one is almost entirely about the protagonist’s athletic career. However, even they will find that Lovett skillfully handles a complex and problematic form of technological extrapolation convincingly, and does so without either descending into “Frankenstein complex” territory, or losing the essential poignancy of his protagonist’s personal story.

In Edward M. Lerner‘s novelette “Small Business,” a small group of “revolutionaries” move from fulminating to acting against the international “Syndicate” controlling nanotechnology–and with it, the diamond-hulled spacecraft that give them a lock on space development by running any other design into the ground. The technical detail gets a bit thick at the climax, but otherwise the story is coherent and well-paced, and its viewpoint may surprise those accustomed to getting the conventional wisdom on intellectual property rights.

The last, and longest, piece is Kristine Kathryn Rusch‘s “The Recovery Man’s Bargain.” Rusch’s novella centers on one Hadad Yu, a “Recovery” man who specializes in shady, illegal and frequently dangerous acquisitions of items for his clients in a future where Earth is one planet in a larger interstellar civilization. When a deal with an employer who is spiteful in her disappointment goes south, Yu is forced to take on another, even more dangerous deal to salvage his fortunes, which proves to be a turning point in his life.

“Bargain” is not an adrenaline story, but it certainly has its share of violence, betrayals and nerves, and the bleak, solitary, hard existence of a man at a dangerous game for far too long comes through quite clearly (though a greater touch of humanity, perhaps some sense of who Yu was before his present life, might have thrown it into starker relief). The milieu, almost novelistic in the depth and breadth of its development, also has a Golden Age vibe I found appealing. On the downside the story’s conclusion felt hurried, moving as it does from its rather effective “showing” to just “telling” the reader what came of all this, but by that point this does little to mar this impressive tale’s overall effect.