Analog, July/August 2005

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Image"Of Kings, Queens, and Angels" by Rajnar Vajra
"In the Loop" by Brian Plante
"Endeavor" by Robert R. Chase
"The Keeper’s Riddle" by Joe Schembrie
"The Time Traveler’s Wife" by Scott William Carter
"Prayer for a Dead Paramecium" by Carl Frederick
"The Pain Gun" by Gregory Benford
"Climbing the Blue: A Tale of Old Earth" by Stephen Baxter
"Telepresence" by Michael A. Burstein
"July Fourth, 2213" by Peter L. Manly
"Chandra’s Pup" by Bud Sparhawk
The July/August Analog is a double issue.  It includes several offerings which are sequels to others previously published in the magazine.

The issue leads off with "Of Queens, Kings, and Angels" by Rajnar Vajra.  It is set on a futuristic cruise ship capable of navigating multiple universes, courtesy of powerful aliens known as the Deta or "Green Angels."  Individual Deta facilitate such tours as a service, and each cruise begins with a certain number of prepaid "deeds" to cover the Detan’s efforts in transporting the vessel and responding to danger.  Significantly, the Green Angels never work on credit.

The Detan assigned to this ship, Moelqai, is particularly powerful and capricious.  His extra-physical being encompasses the entire vessel, affording him the power of clairvoyance.  His visible presence suggests a giant, angelic Apollo, and it can usually be found in the casino.

A string of unintentional adventures leaves Captain Cauless, the protagonist, desperately short of deeds and his ship stranded in an unfamiliar frozen wasteland.  He suspects the arrogant Detan of trying to sabotage the cruise and destroy the vessel, though he can’t imagine Moelqai’s motivations.  When alien creatures converge on the ship and begin to crush the hull, Cauless literally gambles with the lives of everyone on board to win back enough deeds to save them.

Vajra creates a colorful and fascinating antagonist in this piece, and the mystery of Moelqai’s motivations sustains a good underlying tension.  The story begins with an irresistible hook, and many of the descriptive details are exquisite.  The conflict adds imaginative and intricate detail to the David-versus-Goliath formula.

Like many Analog novelettes, though, this piece reads overly long.  One might say that the author also overplays his hand in this story.  The complexity of the plot tends to overwhelm, and much information is withheld until the very end, when it is difficult to absorb all at once.  In addition, Cauless derives his plans for challenging Moelqai from a poem framed in his quarters, a convenient contrivance that is quoted liberally and often.  The Captain’s sappy, near-perfect relationship with his wife adds little to the story, but it may distract some readers and test others’ suspension of disbelief.

In Brian Plante‘s "In the Loop," a recent college graduate accepts a job at the Shady Rest, a virtual reality retirement home.  Its residents are physically deceased, but their personalities and memories live on in simulation.  The employee, Dave, acts as a "disrupter"—a "wild card" who introduces variation into the residents’ environment so they will not become stuck in repetitive routines or "loops."

The protagonist begins as the stereotype of a cynical slacker.  He whines constantly about money and women through the story’s first-person telling, and some readers may find him an unsympathetic loser.  Dave begins to evolve, though, when he falls for a fellow disrupter, an unpretentious young woman he has met only in VR.  He also encounters two unhappy residents, one of them a child, who were placed in the Shady Rest by their grieving relatives.

Much of this story focuses on the particulars of the Shady Rest, as if its goal is simply to give the reader a tour.  The conflict is understated and slow to manifest, and this results in low dramatic tension.  Nonetheless, while the repetitive details of Dave’s "real life" are dull, they serve to underscore that he is stuck in his own "loop."  The story’s emotional payload builds in the background and may sneak up on a reader, but the ending is poignant enough to leave a lump in the throat.

In the past, a number of other Analog stories have explored the idea of "backing up" human personality and memory.  Like "In the Loop," though, they do not address the question of consciousness.  Plante does not explain why someone would pay for a virtual reality "existence" after physical death if his consciousness would not survive, or if in fact it does.

"Endeavor" by Robert R. Chase is a tale of spaceborne struggle.  The crew of the starship Endeavor rescues a stranded group of "Genenhu" from the vicinity of Betelgeuse just before the star goes supernova.  This is a controversial move for several reasons.  The Genenhu, a species engineered from humans to serve as slaves and fighters in space, waged a war of liberation that ended only recently.  Even though the rescued individuals did not fight in that war, they are still inherently dangerous, and many of the human crew members distrust them.  The extra bodies also place a strain on the damaged Endeavor‘s resources.  With supplies running low, rescuers and refugees must work together to synthesize new cold sleep capsules to reduce the pressure on the system.  Agitation arises, though, as each side sees the other as a threat to survival rather than the only hope of it.

In the meantime, the chief rescuer lies in sickbay, immobilized by neutrino sickness.  Alex Raymond is not unconscious, however, nor powerless.  One of the Genenhu has rigged him into an elaborate biofeedback system, and unbeknownst to his crewmates, this enables him to traverse the ship and its systems like a technological ghost.  The story begins in Raymond’s point of view, but it soon switches to others—the captain, an astronomer, the chief of the Genenhu, and others.  It will be obvious to readers early on that the author is holding Raymond in reserve.

"Endeavor" reads a lot like a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and not just in terms of setting.  The story begins with an engaging teaser, and the climax hinges on a tried-and-true race against time.  It features a diverse ensemble cast and emphasizes the importance of cooperation and racial harmony.  Dialogue is often peppered with techno-speak.

While the story is reasonably satisfying, its telling might confuse or disorient readers.  The stage is crowded with too many characters, and it is difficult to keep them all straight.  The constant point-of-view switching from one scene to the next is jarring, and rather than improving characterization, it dilutes it.  The somewhat predictable climax does not justify the story’s length, and the denouement, while vivid and tense, feels tacked on.

"The Keeper’s Riddle" by Joe Schembrie is sure to delight readers who love word puzzles.  Joshua Wang captains an interplanetary salvage vessel, and at the story’s outset he agrees to investigate a straying derelict space station.  In this future, the asteroid belt is full of colonies, some established on natural foundations and others wholly constructed.  All have political affiliations, and the derelict station is a refugee from a spacefaring neo-Nazi alliance.  The government that employs Joshua rightly fears that it might be a Trojan horse.  Mysteriously, the station’s "keeper"—its artificial intelligence—is continually broadcasting a baffling riddle.

Joshua and his crew board the station and find their suspicions confirmed—it was indeed a laboratory for sinister bioweapons research.  Furthermore, there has been an accident on board.  When a neo-Nazi ship arrives to destroy the evidence, our heroes must work with the station’s innocent survivors to solve the keeper’s riddle and evade doom.

This is a tight story with good pacing, crisp characterization, and an ideal ratio of dialogue to narrative.  The riddle is clever, and the solution does not disappoint.  Schembrie does a good job of describing the interiors of rotating cylinder-cities and doughnut-shaped stations, settings which can be a challenge to visualize.  Sometimes it is difficult, though, to keep up with changes in lighting levels.

A few minor aspects of the story do strain credibility.  Joshua’s tense relationship with the government representative seems like a contrived vehicle for expository dialogue.  The failure of government crypto-analysts to solve the riddle is not very believable; while it’s not a straightforward puzzle, Analog readers themselves stand a decent chance of deciphering it before the characters do.  These flaws, however, do not detract much from an otherwise solid story.

"The Time Traveler’s Wife" by Scott William Carter is a heartwarming parable about a woman whose husband disappears into the future.  Yolanda Green is a traditional housewife who would like nothing more than a house full of children.  For her ambitious husband, however, research is a priority.  His life’s work culminates with the invention of a time machine, and he volunteers for the first manned test.  When he does not return, Yolanda holds on to hope.  She never remarries or has children.  However, she plunges herself into study and becomes a champion for pacifism even as a war rages.

Despite its brevity, this unforgettable story packs a solid emotional punch.  The poignant ending delivers a beautiful lesson and may move sensitive readers to tears.
"Prayer for a Dead Paramecium" by Carl Frederick is pure epiphany fiction. The science is peripheral. You could easily translate this story into any era, any level of technology, and the core story would not change. Not that I mind, really; I’m all for an over-inclusive definition of science fiction. But because the science is peripheral, the story’s success hinges entirely on the epiphany’s believability.

I wonder when SF writers discovered epiphany fiction. You know the type: in a futuristic setting, some sequence of events leads the main character to a higher degree of self-knowledge. Nowadays, you can’t turn around without bumping into a tale like this.

The phenomenon snuck up on me. The short stories and novels I read as a kid back in the ’70s focused on the science, the action,  the story. Characters weathered world-shattering revelations with little inward change. Dune by Frank Herbert, of course, was a remarkable exception to the rule, but Paul Atreides’ personal growth arguably took a back seat to the story itself.

In "Prayer for a Dead Paramecium," brothers Ralph and Alex decide to pass a hot summer’s day in The Small World Aquarium, a place where nifty optics and 3-D holographic projectors have turned pond scum protozoa into macroscopic zoo animals. We learn early on that these boys have lived through some sort of family tragedy, and that 8-year-old Alex has bounced back faster than his 12-year-old brother Ralph. Somewhere, a newspaper’s-distance away, a war rages. Heightened security at home shows up as metal detectors and chemical sniffers at the Aquarium entrance. Frederick quickly creates a sense of foreboding which contrasts well with the brothers’ youthful perkiness.

The story’s main conflict arrives when Alex bonds with a paramecium, naming it "Parry." Meanwhile, Ralph is at the arcade, waiting for a chance to play ZoaZap, a game where kids shoot miniature lasers to destroy real-life microorganisms. Soon, the story becomes a meditation on values: is it wrong to kill even something as tiny as a paramecium? Is it wrong to turn killing into a game? And how do we defend our willingness to swat mosquitoes, stomp spiders, or eat hamburgers, when emotionally we would prefer to renounce killing altogether?

These are worthy questions. A discussion between Ralph, Alex, and the zookeeper leads to epiphanies for two of them, and a new sense of empowerment for the third. That’s an ambitious task for any story, and I’m afraid it doesn’t come off without a hitch in this one. The zookeeper’s transformation is, I think, the most important one in the story, but the fact that the story is told from Ralph’s point of view is a handicap. Ultimately, I found the zookeeper’s change of heart unconvincing. I also had difficulty with the kids themselves–they both struck me as too childish for their given ages.

Ralph, however, is the main character, and Frederick has done a fine job illustrating his personal growth. For this reason, the story ends on a strong note. I can’t help but wonder, though, how much different the story would be if Frederick had told it from the zookeeper’s point of view.

"The Pain Gun" by Gregory Benford showcases the use of non-lethal weapons technology in a hypothetical near future.  The protagonist is a cynical lieutenant stationed in a Middle East devastated by a nuclear exchange with Israel.  He and his peacekeepers are charged with minimizing casualties during confrontations with the natives—a directive that remains difficult with an enemy still inspired by jihadic ideas.  To address this issue, the lieutenant’s superiors bring in a non-lethal weapon.  Using microwaves, it generates intense pain—but no permanent damage—in targeted individuals.  The "pain gun," however, is not as well suited to the combat theater as it could be.  The lieutenant offers his background in cellular installation to enhance its range and effectiveness.

This gritty tale is the darkest story in the issue, but on another level, it’s a fairly straightforward case study in technological leap-frogging.  The first-person storytelling is casual and conversational, almost to the point of distraction.  This may contribute to the initial ambiguity of the immediate setting.  Weapons enthusiasts will appreciate Benford’s attention to detail in describing the use of armaments, but others may be put off by the protagonist’s callous point-of-view.

Though technically science-fiction, Stephen Baxter‘s "Climbing the Blue" feels more like a marriage of fantasy and folk tale.  In a world recovering from a natural catastrophe, a young idealist named Celi decides to pursue medicine to beat a deadly disease.  His unlikely inspiration is a "natural philosopher," HuroEldon, who visits his village mainly to advise on construction.  HuroEldon hails from a region where time runs more slowly, so he is very old in terms of Celi’s reckoning.  His wisdom, however, is tarnished by arrogance and haughty pragmatism.  The plot focuses on Celi’s struggle to overcome the doubts HuroEldon plants in his mind.

The setting of this piece is more interesting than the story itself.  On "Old Earth," time is stratified according to altitude: time runs more quickly the higher one climbs.  Lower areas glow red, and the stars above are "blue-shifted."  There is no sun; the red glow from the lowlands reflects off of clouds to illuminate the world.  It is a setting that truly excites the imagination.

Unfortunately, the story does not stand well on its own.  The plot unfolds in an almost linear fashion, and it lacks tension.  The piece reads like an episode of a larger tale, which it may very well be—it is set in the same world as "PeriAndry’s Quest" from the June 2004 issue.  Rather than complementing the story at hand, some details seem to be laying the groundwork for one or more sequels.  In particular, some readers may not know what to make of the creationism-versus-naturalism debate featured so prominently early in the story.

The theme of virtual reality returns in Michael A. Burstein’s "Telepresence."  The protagonist, Tony Louis, is the "principal" of a nationwide private school conducted in virtual reality.  In addition to offering diversity, flexibility, and quality instruction, it promises safety in the midst of school security worries.

Telepresence stands on the verge of expansion as Tony pitches the technology to the California public school system.  At the same time, though, a teenage girl dies of fright while hooked into it.  When Tony and a colleague determine that her death was the result of a deliberate attack, Tony enters the system himself to track down the malicious hacker.

Burstein creates a very sympathetic protagonist in this piece.  As a black man, Tony is something of an underdog in a future still struggling with racial tension.  He is a success in spite of this, though, and his passion for teaching quashes any racial angst.

The story’s imaginative premise is complemented by clear prose and brisk pacing.  The author may be forgiven for the long "info-dump" in the second scene, given the compelling subject matter.  The protagonist’s fondness for "classic" movies allows a smattering of modern pop culture references, most of which are quite endearing and humorous.

"Telepresence" is a homage to teachers and teaching, and the author never lets the reader forget that.  The long, sentimental denouement delivers a lesson about equality in education, almost in a lecturing manner.  The message would probably have been just as powerful if woven a bit more subtly into the main story line.  Still, those who sympathize with it will appreciate the author’s emphasis.

Most issues of Analog include a "Probability Zero" piece, a very short story that delivers a twist ending with a light tone.  This issue’s offering is Peter L. Manly‘s "July Fourth, 2213."  It is structured as an audio program segment in Paul Harvey style commemorating the return of Halley’s Comet.  The narrative consists of a history lesson that includes past and future events and personalities.  The delivery is more rehearsed than conversational, and it’s easy to get lost in the forest of facts.  The ending surprises, but it expresses the moral of the story rather heavy-handedly.

The issue concludes with "Chandra’s Pup," a novella by Bud Sparhawk.  The title and the accompanying illustration suggest tranquility, but this sequel to last year’s "Clay’s Pride" is packed with action.  It begins with several attacks on military starships stationed at a colonial outpost.  The aggressors are alien objects of unknown origin, often called "icebergs" due to their spiky, irregular shapes.  When one such object is damaged during an encounter with a Fleet vessel, samples are collected and found to consist entirely of glass.  Dr. Chandra Sushmarajopori, a glass expert and vocal pacifist, is brought from Earth to analyze the fragments.

She clashes immediately with Simon Clay, the newly reinstated commander of one of the colonial Fleet vessels.  A year before, he engaged and destroyed one of the same alien objects, losing thirty of his crew in the process.  Chandra berates him repeatedly for initiating hostilities instead of pursuing peaceful first contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species.  Clay insists that he acted properly, but doubt and guilt still nag him.  The story emphasizes the ideological tug-of-war between these two characters and shows how they each gravitate toward the middle as they learn more about the aliens.

The novella begins with a great deal of bickering and heavy-handed characterization.  Some readers may wonder why the characters are acting so petty and immature.  Others may find themselves confused about what happened during which alien encounter, especially since the story references events that occurred a year in the past.  After Chandra begins to study the alien fragments, the tale shifts into Simon’s point-of-view for a stretch, and readers have to wait to learn what Chandra discovers.

This story hits its stride around the middle.  With the characters, setting, and conflict established, the narrative embarks on a whirlwind of space battles and discovery.  Recalling Star Trek yet again, the tale is reminiscent of Star Fleet’s early encounters with the Borg, particularly in terms of setting, tension, and tone.  While certain aspects of the plot are predictable, it offers enough twists to keep the reader engaged and guessing.  The central mystery of the aliens’ nature is second only to the mystery of their motivations.

In the end, "Chandra’s Pup" is a worthy read even though it runs a bit long for the story being told.  Some readers may be tempted to skim the minutae of bridge operations, especially during the battle scenes, but the author’s attention to detail should be lauded nonetheless.  The ending delivers a satisfying jolt.  Not all of the loose ends are tied up neatly, so Analog readers will likely see a sequel to this piece in the near future.

As a post-script, speculative fiction writers may want to read Stanley Schmidt‘s thought-provoking editorial "Inevitable Clichés."  His thoughts on the future of hard science fiction offer interesting insights into writing for genre markets.  Also, the issue’s book reviews include a discussion of Atlanta Nights, the infamous manuscript used in last year’s PublishAmerica sting.

(Reviewed by Brit Marschalk except for "Prayer for a Dead Paramecium" by Carl Frederick which was reviewed by Douglas Hoffman.)