Analog, June 2003

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"Of the Zornler, by the Zornler…" by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. "The Power of Visions" by Charles E. Gannon
"By the Rules" by Edward M. Lerner
"Sam and the Flying Dutchman" by Ben Bova
"Working Alone" by Henry Melton
"3rd Corinthians" by Michael F. Flynn
"Punctuated Equilibrium" by Pete D. Manison
"Aloha" by Ken Wharton

Probability Zero:
"The Word Mill" by Don D'Ammassa

This issue we don't have any serials or novellas, but we have got no less than four novelettes, four short stories, and one Probability Zero short-short.

The first of the novelettes is Lloyd Biggle, Jr's. "Of the Zornler, by the Zornler…", the latest in the continuing adventures of the Interplanetary Relations Bureau (IPR) and their amusingly fruitless efforts to covertly impose democracy on a pseudo-medieval feudal society which finds the entire concept alien and beyond their understanding. It was fun watching the IPR agents struggle to help the natives try to understand even relatively simple elements of democracy such as voting to elect candidates to certain civic posts.

As amusing as this story is, it also carries a very stern warning to those in the western democracies who, in the current unstable world situation, are still so convinced of the "rightness" of their cultures, religions and political systems that they would impose them by force on other cultures that don't want (or need) them. One size does not fit all.

"The Power of Visions" by Charles E. Gannon is the second novelette of the month, a chilling tale of terrorism and counter-terrorism in a mid-21st century US, where an attempted attack by Arab terrorists on a US nuclear plant is foiled by security forces and a mysterious "someone else". Further investigations track down the mysterious "benefactor", who is found to be nothing of the sort, and the first information is revealed on the existence of a secret fanatical Muslim "super-terrorist" group that views al-Qaida and the 9-11 attacks as merely the earliest faltering steps towards their vision of a far greater and more devastating conflict with the west and anyone else who isn't a fanatical follower of Allah.

I found this to be a truly frightening look at terrorism with the added warning that "extreme" is a relative concept. We think al-Qaida are "extreme", but if the current conflict continues, we'll find out to our regret that no matter how extreme we view current terrorists, violence breeds even greater violence, and they will always be supplanted by yet more extreme groups who will view even the Twin Towers atrocity as merely a start in the right direction.

The third novelette, "By the Rules" by Edward M. Lerner, starts with a drunken prank at a birthday party that leads to a student undertaking detailed research into internet chatrooms devoted to ufos and ufology. During his research he discovers some very unusual patterns, and with the help of two friends he digs even deeper until they discover incredible evidence of an alien AI which has been infiltrating the internet for years, posing in multiple chatrooms in various guises as a "skeptic" who tries to convince everyone to disbelieve in the existence of extraterrestrial life. But what do they do about it? Keep quiet or reveal the truth and cause widespread chaos with the revelation that "We Are Not Alone"?

"Sam and the Flying Dutchman" by Ben Bova is the last of the four novelettes this month. It's the latest in Bova's "Sam Gunn" series of stories, a nice fusion of space adventure and detective fiction. The famous space explorer turned space PI, Sam Gunn gets involved in a dramatic mission to the asteroid belt after a beautiful woman walks into his office and asks him to deliver a very important message to a man who doesn't want to be found. A dangerous trip follows during which they are shot at by various parties and pursued by Sam's bride-to-be who is determined that he won't wrangle his way out of their upcoming wedding by disappearing in the asteroid belt.

This story is good, fun entertainment, with none of the heavier moralising and concepts of some of the other stories. Just a nice, old-fashioned exciting space adventure with several likeable lead characters to round it out a bit, something I found quite refreshing.

"Working Alone" by Henry Melton is the first of the short stories, a tale of two solitary workers in deepest space. One is a writer who has taken a job as a shuttle pilot of a door-to-door delivery service out in the asteroid belt ferrying food, supplies and mail to workers in the belt. He's taken the job to get solitude so he can do his writing (a bit extreme – I could think of many easier and less dangerous ways to do that here on Earth). The other man is a welder on an asteroid who has taken the job out of sheer financial desperation (he just has to get himself and the wife the hell away from the mother-in-law – the tragic story of the human male throughout history), and now finds his marriage to be near breaking point because of that decision (young wife doesn't like him being away for so long, and that darned interfering mother-in-law again, spreading her poison).

When the writer's geriatric ship gives up the ghost and he's cast adrift without power, and in danger of freezing and/or suffocating, the welder saves his life, and after repairs to the ship the writer returns the favour by taking a very important letter back home, one that might just be a marriage-saver.

"3rd Corinthians" by Michael F. Flynn is, if I'm not mistaken, the latest in a series of stories by Flynn set in an Irish pub and based around the concept of time travel (it seems that after Spider Robinson's "Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon" and Larry Niven's "Draco Tavern" stories, everyone wants a series set in a pub). A priest and a number of other customers sit around the bar discussing recently uncovered evidence that one of the most important figures in the early Church wasn't the man we thought he was. A new letter of Paul to the Corinthians has been found, one that seems to sully his name beyond all hope of redemption. But the priest insists that it's nothing but a clever forgery, created with the help of time travel, and designed to discredit the Church. Someone obviously hated the Church a lot to go to such lengths, but they've totally forgotten one little mistake that ruins their nice little plan…

Pete D. Manison's "Punctuated Equilibrium" gives us an interesting view of sociological perspectives in this tale in which a team of scientists are working on a project to preserve all the knowledge of mankind, in order to pass it onto any potential future civilization that finds it. Our own civilization has entered a period of extreme social and environmental instability, and faces potential collapse in the near-future. The "reboot" stash of all human knowledge will be stored in a shielded vault inside an asteroid which will return to the vicinity of Earth once a century, broadcasting on all radio frequencies, until it eventually discovers a civilization with radio technology, which will then be able to receive all the secrets of the earlier civilization.

One major potential problem is that if it was to return during a period of instability such as the "current" one, instead of the knowledge saving civilization, the information overload would be the catalyst which would cause that civilization to collapse. And just by coincidence, something is approaching Earth, broadcasting on all wavelengths. It seems our civilization wasn't the first to think of this idea…

In "Aloha" by Ken Wharton, the last man in the universe ponders the remainder of his life and the recent loss of the woman he loves to the cruel universe which will soon also claim him. I found this to be a fascinating, intelligent look at causality and determinism in the final stages of the life of a universe ruled by the rigid and uncompromising laws of physics. I particularly liked the "temporal mid-point of the universe" concept, where time reverses and entropy does a back-flip once the universe winds down, and begins to wind it up again, with everything happening in reverse. The protagonist's continued discussions with the time-reversed double of his lost love were quite poignant, and clearly illustrate the question of just how there could be any hope of a coherent conversation in such a situation.

The Probability Zero piece is "The Word Mill" by Don D'Ammassa, an amusing but slightly far-fetched short-short story. I'm sure that more than a few writers have sometimes dearly wished that they did have the power to bring down civilization, but the fact is that writers are just not important or powerful enough, especially in societies that can censor or suppress their work as the authorities see fit. However, the idea of an AI that will do all your writing for you, and under multiple styles and pseudonyms, is certainly my idea of a nice Christmas present. This was an enjoyable, solid issue of Analog. There were no real turkeys, and even my least favourite among the stories were decent reads. Honourable mentions go to Ken Wharton's "Aloha" as my favourite short story, although I also quite liked the other three short stories, and Charles E. Gannon's "The Power of Visions" as my favourite novelette, although, once again, I also greatly enjoyed the other three novelettes, particularly Ben Bova's "Sam and the Flying Dutchman" and Lloyd Biggle Jr's "Of the Zornler, by the Zornler…", once again showing my personal preference for the longer forms over short stories.

Phil Friel lives in the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland. He's been reading SF for almost thirty-five years (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.