Analog, June 2005

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"The Policeman’s Daughter" by Wil McCarthy

"Working on Borrowed Time" by John G. Hemry
"Improbable Times" by E. Mark Mitchell
"This Little World" by Carl Frederick
"How Bears Survived the Change" by Uncle River
"NetPuppets" by Richard A. Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross
This issue of Analog is dominated by longer works—one novella and two novelettes versus three short stories.  Readers may notice a slight emphasis on time travel, both literal and figurative, and an unusual profusion of lawyers.

The issue opens with Wil McCarthy’s novella “The Policeman’s Daughter.”  The protagonist, Carmine Douglas, inhabits a future in which a person can literally be two places at once.  A competitive lawyer, he often generates temporary copies of himself to help him multi-task; these copies are soon “reintegrated” with the original, mingling consciousness and memory.  The same technology is used to render people forever young.  In one sense, McCarthy has taken several high-profile transporter “accidents” from Star Trek and created a universe that reproduces them deliberately.

One day Douglas’ old friend, Theddy, comes to him with a unique dilemma.  He has tried to reclaim the spunk of his distant youth by integrating with an old backup copy of himself.  The result is an angry and determined duplicate who wants to retain his own identity permanently—and erase all trace of the contemporary Theddy.  Douglas agrees to defend the legal interests and physical safety of the “later version.”  Meanwhile, the “earlier version,” citing a drunken promise from decades past, demands his own counsel—an early copy of Douglas.  The lawyer restores one of his own backups, a young, energetic man with an obsession.  Almost as soon as he is “created,” the copy darts off in search of Douglas’ former lover—the policeman’s daughter.  To pursue him, Douglas must confront an uneasy past, and the journey raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of self.

Despite their important roles, the story’s supporting characters never really came alive for this reader.  Though the narrative rests deep in the protagonist’s POV, we never learn why he loves the policeman’s daughter, beyond visceral attraction.  Douglas obviously cares for his friend Theddy, but a reader may not; the threat posed to him by his earlier self doesn’t generate as much tension as it could.

Ultimately, “The Policeman’s Daughter” is an imaginative and challenging piece with a strong sense of theme.  McCarthy paints vivid images of his protagonist’s universe, including evocative visions of Antarctic and lunar settlements.  The plot itself, though, runs long and failed to engross.  This piece may best be described as a character study woven through a rich array of settings.

John G. Hemry comes on strong with “Working on Borrowed Time.”  The protagonist is a “time interventionist,” a traveler who gently tweaks the timeline at the behest of legitimate clients (such as museums).  One day, a call from a friend and a growing sense of disorientation alert him to a very serious “intervention”: in this new reality, London was destroyed by a meteor impact in 1908.  He immediately “jumps” into the past to investigate.  There he discovers a sinister Nazi plot devised in an alternate future.  With the help of a fellow time-traveler, he races against the clock to save London—all the while running from a trigger-happy super-blonde.

This story is a thinking-person’s action/adventure saga.  Hemry maintains excellent tension and a brisk pace, and he even manages to sprinkle in a little romance.  He handles the looping course of events through time in a way that will not turn a reader’s brain into spaghetti.  Some of the dialogue is expository, but such explanation is usually welcome where it appears, and it helps ward off confusion.  The narrative does ring repetitive in places, but the distraction is fleeting.

The climax of the story contains a very satisfying surprise.  Many readers, particularly long-time Analog fans, will probably see it coming; those who don’t will kick themselves.  Either way, it’s a clever apex worthy of such an intelligent story.

“Bill knew there was trouble when he found a live trout in his briefs.”  Thus begins E. Mark Mitchell’s “Improbable Times,” a hilarious romp through a universe collapsing at the quantum level.  Our hero—another lawyer—learns that his physicist friend is working on a machine that may allow observers to predict the “perfect outcome of any given choice” by applying probability theory.  Unfortunately, his research has led to some unintended consequences in the immediate vicinity—including the spontaneous generation of trout.  Together the friends attempt to undo the damage, and all the while the world around them becomes more improbable.  They must dodge a fierce Mongol horde and endure other inconveniences before realizing that they, as the observers of a quantum system, inherently influence it.

It’s tempting to see this story as a deliberate homage to Douglas Adams.  After all, it features improbability, a dead fish with personality, a hideous pink brocade couch that shows up at every turn, and two guys muddling through it all just trying to find normality.  The author’s humor certainly approaches the standard set by Adams—a difficult feat—and Mitchell’s writing is better.  The physicist character spouts plenty of quantum theory and drops famous scientists’ names like crumbs, but laypeople can rest assured that the lawyer will help them work through any mental struggle with that content.  Though the ending falls a little flat after such a colorful adventure, this story is bound to please readers who simply want to have a good time.

Overall, "This Little World" by Carl Frederick is a good read. Frederick presents us with some likeable characters (and one villain, the protagonist’s boss), trapped in a dire, yet plausible, situation. This story delivers a good narrative flow, dialogue, and imagery.

We meet an actor who quotes Shakespeare under pressure, the glory-hogging boss from hell, and a reality show filmed in zero-g. It’s all good, and I thought the concept of the "little world" was a real treat. The only incongruous note is a reference to the video-game, "Pong."  I can’t help but think of this as anachronistic, and it is highly unlikely someone in our future would know of a video-game from the 1970’s. Nitpicking, I know, but it’s the only negative point to be found in this tale.

The basic science involved in their escape is handled capably, and an appropriate level of tension is maintained throughout. Frederick’s story is character-driven, and he provides just enough conflict to make you care about his protagonists.

“How Bears Survived the Change” is a friendly retrospective tale by Uncle River.  It relates how during the years preceding a human-induced global catastrophe, several bears made friends with humans who had made friends with aliens.  Though the subsequent disaster obliterated many species, including bears, the humans’ ursine buddies avoided the whole mess, thanks to the aliens and their own animal instincts.

This piece reads like a folksy origin myth rather than a canonical story.  It is dominated by the voice of an unknown narrator whose storytelling recalls oral traditions and campfires.  Some of the dialogue is presented in “interview” style, as if the characters are speaking directly to the narrator or audience.  The narrative tends to ramble, and it includes many specific details that seem extraneous.  Clearly, it is meant to be understood in the context of a fictional future culture.

Because the format is relatively unusual, some readers may find the story confusing.  Others may find it uninteresting because of the low dramatic tension.  That being said, it will likely charm readers who enjoy traditional folk tales or exercises in world-building.

The June issue closes with “NetPuppets,” an ambitious novelette by Richard A. Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross.  Dennis Brophy, an underutilized tech-support engineer, stumbles on an old website called “NetPuppets,” apparently the abandoned project of a psychology student.  It allows users to create simulations of families and monitor and influence them in real-time.  Dennis and three of his co-workers create a dysfunctional couple, Ricky Ray and Hillary, and try to nudge them back on the track to success and happiness.  Over the course of many months, the simulation grows into an obsession, and the couple’s fortunes become more real to the employees than their own empty lives.  The perception of power also begins to erode their ethics.
The premise of this piece is complex, imaginative, and fascinating.  The narrative also includes several examples of particularly fine writing.  Unfortunately, the plot fails to live up to its full potential.

During the first half of the piece, the tech quartet do not even suspect what is happening “behind the scenes,” but most readers will figure this out early on.  While the characters’ ignorance is realistic, its persistence may try the patience of some readers or even cause them confusion.  A point of view shift in the middle of the story accelerates the pace and raises the stakes, but in the end, the climax is rather anti-climactic.  Overall, the piece imparts a light tone, but some of its elements are quite “dark”; it is not clear whether the authors intended this to be a satire or a cautionary tale.

The cast is crowded with eight major personalities, each with his/her own distinct motivations.  Sometimes it is difficult to tell the four tech-support engineers apart in a conversation, even though one is a woman.  The protagonist himself is mousy and uninspiring, despite his role in the plot’s resolution.  The characters in the simulation, it turns out, are far more engaging than their “puppeteers”; perhaps, though, that is the whole point.

The next issue of Analog will be a double issue, featuring fiction by Brian Plante, Joe Schembrie, Carl Frederick, and many others.

(Reviewed by Brit Marschalk except for "This Little World" by Carl Frederick which was reviewed by Jason Fischer.)