Analog, Jan./Feb. 2010

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“Neptune’s Treasure” by Richard Lovett
“Thus Spake the Aliens” by H.G. Stratmann
“The Possession of Paavo Deshin” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Simple Gifts” by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
“Shame” by Mike Resnick & Lezli Robyn
“On Rickety Thistlewaite” by Michael F. Flynn
“Rejiggering the Thingamajig” by Eric James Stone
“A War of Stars” by David Clements

Reviewed by Carl Slaughter

Half the eight stories in the January/February issue of Analog don’t belong in a hard science fiction magazine.  Three are pretty high schoolish.  One is baffling.  Fortunately, four have a sophisticated plot and sophisticated character development.  The one light piece is delightful.  The best stories are “The Possession of Paavo Deshin,” “Neptune’s Treasure,” “Simple Gifts,” and “Rejiggering the Thingamajig,” in that order.

“Neptune’s Treasure,” by Richard Lovett, is about a male human and his female sentient implant.  Both tell their story through diary entries.  They talk about space travel, long distance education, mining, geophysics, hiking, depression, death, aliens.  And each other.  The accidental death of her friend and his business partner gets her to thinking about the purpose of her existence, human nature, and what she might have done to prevent her friend’s death.  In the first half of the story, very little said in these diary entries is interesting and even less said is original or profound.  A little over half way through the story, they discover and explore a giant alien spaceship that landed on Triton hundreds of millions of years ago.   Skip to that part of the story and you’ll enjoy it.  When a love interest enters, the story takes a completely different direction.  If you like AI stories, you’ll like this one.  

In the first part of “Thus Spake the Aliens,” by H.G. Stratmann, the author treats us to a poetic opening scene, hits us with the news that super-powerful aliens have entered into judgment against the entire human race, and tantalizes us with the idea that the humans responsible for making such a bad impression might be able to redeem themselves.  But then he tries to update us with an awkward infodump conversation that includes extremely long sentences and convoluted grammar.  Next he naps us through 4000 words of launch, flight, crash, and lost scenes.  All four of those scenes are full of tedious technical procedures, contain little or nothing futuristic, and could be completely scrapped or summarized with a few paragraphs.  When the humans finally arrive at their destination and we think surely the author is about to grant us some mercy, he subjects us to these laughably hokey expressions:

“Just because the aliens didn’t electrify their other artifacts to zap us like Emperor Ming tried to do to Flash Gordon in the third serial doesn’t mean they won’t do it this time.” He calmed himself by imagining he was the Golden Age superhero Doctor Fate preparing to walk through the wall of his sealed tower in Salem.  “Let’s hope the aliens didn’t get the idea for that artifact from one of the 1950s monster movies in my collection.”  “No telling why the aliens made their artifact in that shape, but I hope they haven’t been reading early Heinlein lately!” “You’d think the aliens would put a few cheap fluorescent lights from Galaxy Depot in their artifacts.” “If I strike out, there’ll still be one last out in the bottom of the ninth for you to try hitting a home run for our team.”

Next is a predictable, melodramatic debate over who will enter the alien artifact.  Once inside the artifact, the humans encounter spectacles and danger, but no aliens.  Four fifths into a story about aliens and still the reader has not encountered aliens.  Meanwhile, the author seems obsessed with old science fiction movies and keeps interjecting references to these movies.  An enormous amount of space is wasted on the humans exploring the artifact.  Meanwhile, descriptions of the artifact go on for paragraphs, but serve no apparent purpose.  Exploration of the artifact turns into a rock climbing episode.  They have no plan, but the humans talk endlessly about saving the human race.  When they aren’t talking about saving the human race, they are debating who should sacrifice their life.

Eventually, it becomes obvious why the aliens let the humans into their artifact.  Fast forward and guess the ending.  Hint:  You’ve seen it in old science fiction movies.  The last line is so intriguing, it almost makes you forget the pain of reading this amateurish, cumbersome, boring, excessively long story.  I won’t spoil it.  

“The Possession of Paavo Deshin,” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is a moving story about a very special boy.  Paavo is exceptionally intelligent, extremely emotionally sensitive, and not playfully active.  He also had links put in his head much earlier than other children.  And he sees ghosts.  The parents, the shrinks, the school principal, and Paavo don’t know the explanation for the repeated appearance of the “ghosts,” until the “ghosts” arrive in the flesh.  When Paavo freaks out, his mother goes into motion.  So does his father and the principal.  Then the detective and the lawyers get in on the act.  Each of the main characters are determined to handle this situation their own way, so it’s a race against time.

The author does a very, very good job of delving into the psyche of a very scared child and his very scared mother.  The story is much more moving anytime the focus is on these two characters.  Later, the author offers convincing motivation for the behavior of the other characters.  An unnerved principal, a curious detective, an indignant lawyer, an angry father.  And a couple of determined “ghosts.”

Something else the author does well is tell the story with minimal dialog and minimal action.  According to current literary correctness, show is inherently better than tell.  This story proves otherwise.  The author also sets up a legal mystery that keeps the reader guessing.  This is much more of a character oriented story than a technology oriented story, but the science element explaining the “ghosts” is blended into the story well.  Most of the main characters, especially Paavo and his mother, are vividly and engagingly portrayed, so you’ll appreciate their various roles.

I expected the ending to tie a lot of subplots together with courtroom surprises.  Instead, three or four strong subplots, well developed and full of anticipation, simply dissipate.  Lots of lost opportunities there.  As for the legal mystery that kept the reader guessing, since the ending fizzles, there’s nothing to guess about.  

Despite my disappointment with the conclusion, “The Possession of Paavo Deshin” is a masterfully crafted story.  Definitely don’t miss this one.

The opening scene of “Simple Gifts,” by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, is a long and torturously generic conversation written to serve as an infodump. This is an abbreviated excerpt.  The full conversation goes on for 1,700 words.  It does not bode well for the rest of the story.

“Need I remind you, that I don’t work for you any longer? Or, more accurately, for the Tanaka Corporation.  I’ve heard nothing but complaints from you since Vince Tanaka retired.” “Actually, that’s the problem. Vince’s retirement. Ever since Harry Reinhold ascended the throne, I’ve thought more often about resigning. In fact, I thought about it when you quit, but I guess I thought I could still do some good.” “I’m sure you have.” “Maybe. But without you to keep the operatives honest . . .” “That was your job, wasn’t it?”  “It is, but I’m not nearly as clever as you are at managing the situation on the ground. In fact, Reinhold won’t allow me to manage the field teams directly at all.  Every time I try to adjust a contract to distribute the benefits more fairly Napoleon and Josephine override me. Reinhold’s trained attack lawyers.  They came in with Reinhold. My hands are tied. Now I’m mandated to let the advance teams operate without influence from my office.” “Why the change in management style? Tanaka was a successful company—if it wasn’t broke.” “The change of style has been a big surprise to all of us. Reinhold came highly recommended. Apparently when they looked at his track record, they failed to examine his methods.”  “I’d’ve thought you were in line for that job.” “Vince backed me, but the board wanted fresh blood.”  

Fortunately, the rest of the story is much better than the opening sequence.  A corporate negotiator with scruples tries to prevent a callous executive from taking advantage of a developing sentient race.  Their planet has an abundance of naturally occurring alloys.  They seem to have no great need for these alloys, but their technology is developing rapidly and the negotiator foresees they might need them in the near future. So his task is to strike a deal that is lucrative for the corporation but keeps the locals in control, all without the executive having a clue.  To accomplish this, he must share his vision with the locals.  As the humans view the situation, the locals don’t know what they have.  Meanwhile, they seem to be economically and linguistically primitive.  So he must add translator and anthropologist to his job description.  The author creates an elaborate culture for the locals and has the humans explore that culture.  Of course, the alloy most valuable to the corporation is well blended into the local economy.  The negotiation team is divided about how to accommodate everyone.  Not surprisingly, not all is what it seems with the locals.

Skip the ongoing, all too classic debate between the negotiator and a team member on the pros and cons of helping the locals improve their technology.  Skip the long and tedious descriptions.  The plot is intriguing and the story is well worth reading.  But one could argue this isn’t science fiction.  Suppose the Furry species was an Amazon tribe and suppose the alloys were resources available on Earth.  This story is more about the various ologies than the various sciences.  Throw in a healthy dose of business culture.   Poetic justice ending.

“Shame,” by Mike Resnick & Lezli Robyn, is not a science fiction story.  If you can take the science element out of a story and still have a story, it’s not a science fiction story.  Change the Skeletons to terrorists, change the alien to a foreigner, change the intergalactic officer to an FBI agent, change the spaceships to planes, change the planet to Earth, and you still have a story.  Even if it was true science fiction, you’d want to pass on this one.  Two reasons.  The first is that it’s told in a folksy style.  The second is that it goes on for a multitude of paragraphs before introducing anything resembling a science fiction element, and saying very little in the meantime.  Combine the style with the lack of content and the story will put you to sleep long before anything significant happens.  The whole approach is pretty sophomorish.  Very disappointing..  

“On Rickety Thistlewaite,” by Michael F. Flynn, starts as a science fiction story.  The planet Thistlewaite is known for its earthquakes.  There’s an exploration of cultural linguistics built around Thistlewaite skyscrapers.  Suddenly the story starts reading like a fantasy/legend with strange characters and even stranger nicknames.  The harper, the scarred man, Hound of the Kennel, The One Man, etc.  The style is oral storytelling, so there’s a lot of changes in the verb tense.  Meanwhile, the grammar and punctuation are like a hard to follow dialect.  I don’t have the slightest idea what this story is about.  I couldn’t make any sense whatsoever of it.  This one’s a real head scratcher.

“Rejiggering the Thingamajig,” by Eric James Stone, is a delightful tale about a Tyrannosaurus sapien who gets stuck in a teleport station.  Sharing even one detail would spoil it.  With stories like these, it’s a toss up who had more fun, the author writing it or the fans reading it.  Based on the rest of the story, I was convinced the revelation of the thingamajig and why it needed rejiggering would be a treat.  I was disappointed.  The ending is good science fiction and good literature, but it’s a bit ambiguous and doesn’t have the delightful note I anticipated from the rest of the story.  Nor is there a confrontation at the end, even though the main character is confrontational and even though there are numerous confrontations throughout the story.  Meanwhile the identity and nature of the thingamajig is not clear.  But even if the ending isn’t very satisfying and isn’t consistent with the rest of the story, almost all the story is still fun.  Don’t miss this one.  

“A War of Stars,” by David Clements, is about partially intelligent clones, grown for one mission, sent to destroy a star where genocidal criminals are hiding.  Of course, the clones are just a backup for the plane’s automated system.  Of course, the automated systems all get destroyed.  Of course, all the other pilots get killed.  Hardly a sentence without physics/flight lingo, hardly a paragraph without technology for the sake of technology.  Toward the end, it degenerates into heart tugging philosophizing about the nature of humanity and the future of the human race.  We never discover who the real bad guy is. Science wise, it’s certainly more sophisticated than a space opera.  But look past the overdose of science elements and all you’ll find here is a basic space fighter pilot story.