Analog, June 2010

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“The Anunnaki Legacy” by Bond Elam
“Light Conversation” by Alastair J. W. Mayer
“Space Aliens Taught my Dog to Knit!” by Jerry Oltion and Elton Elliott
“Heist” by Tracy Canfield
“At Last the Sun” by Richard Foss
“A Time for Heroes” by Edward M. Lerner
“Cargo” by Michael F. Flynn
“Connections” by Kyle Kirkland

Reviewed by KJ Hannah Greenberg

With good reason, Analog has long been touted as one of the more significant speculative fiction publications of the generations. Consider, for example, the offerings in the June 2010 issue. The writing is both skillful and original, and unlike other sets of narratives, this collection features only work that is satisfying in scope as well as in execution.

Dwell, first, on “The Anunnaki Legacy” by Bond Elam. This novelette suggests that in order to experience personal growth, it’s sometimes insufficient to be marooned on an uninhabitable planet and to receive the lethal scorn of greedy individuals; one might have to negotiate the displeasure of unfathomably compelling aliens, too. To wit, this story’s main character gets stranded, almost gets snuffed out, and, finally, is forced, by the exotics, to appreciate the puniness of human prowess. All of these experiences occur just so that we readers can be taught that even humble people are self-seeking.

Alternately sinister and hopeful, this story begins by pitting a scientist against a corporate mercenary. When the main character and her research partner are “left behind” on a hostile world, they discover that sphere’s possibly sentient organisms. Deliberately “benevolent,” those scholars rescue the “powerless” critters. The former never suppose that the latter are a dormant form of a highly sophisticated species as well as never envision that it was the latter who brought about the humans’ survival both on the orb and, later, on a space vehicle infested with the fiduciary antagonist’s henchmen. More problematic, though, is that the sentients’ patrons realize, long after the aliens have left the Earthlings behind, that the creatures they had befriended were the very race of advanced beings that all of humanity was seeking.

The irony of this story, that a girl valiant thwarts bureaucrats only to learn that her own axiological assumptions are grandiose, is interesting, but it is not the tale’s strength. “The Anunnaki Legacy” succeeds because Bond Elam ably professes the modern and postmodern periods’ deficit of modesty, hence handing us a useful moral lesson.

Next, the witty, rather sublime, Probability Zero piece, “Light Conversation,” by Alastair J. W. Mayer, gives audiences reason to smile and to search the web for others of his work. In this story, the main character has to go a few rounds with intelligent slime.

As a narrative about the growth in, colonization of, and relinquishment of a refrigerator, by alien mold, this piece can not be anything other than funny. Even though this bit does not necessarily concur with Stephen Hawking’s new pronouncements that all invading foreigners will necessarily be detrimental to our well-being, Mayer’s story does suggest that not all denizens of quarters unknown will want to or will even be able to cuddle.

More sophisticated than slapstick, while concurrently being better lubricated than most continental wit, this particular telling smirks as it explores why and by what means otherworldly visitors might attempt the requisition or the outright conquest of our kitchen appliances. As such, this sweet brief ought to receive professional accolades. Clever without depending on being self-referential and urbane without being gauche, this delight of a story is worth repeated readings.

The fun continues in the next novelette, “Space Aliens Taught my Dog to Knit!” by Jerry Oltion and Elton Elliott. Paradigms about social power get tumbled in this charming story about a Ouija Board-loving main character and his sidekick, a wizened detective, who is privy to secrets about government agents and extraterrestrials.

Once the main man begins to uncover truths about suspect federal agencies, the hijinx begin. Beyond the politicos, movie executives, too, are easily identified as being in cahoots with the residents of extremely foreign climes. The main character’s main problem is that none of those big wigs want their experiences publicized. Hence, the central figure must escape the lures of lunar real estate and expensive space toys and must prevent himself from getting murdered. Only in the last few paragraphs of the story does he manage to commandeer a spacecraft and steer it to Earth, where he hopes to champion conspiracy theorists and to command attention as a national hero.

Even if other narratives reference print rags as the most reliable source for honest reporting, “Space Aliens Taught my Dog to Knit!” makes that leap with a tongue-in-cheek tone. Readers will snort, rather than cringe, as they watch Jerry Oltion and Elton Elliott’s victor dodge deadly force in the name of truth, justice and questionable alcohol. Because this novella does not take itself seriously, it is many times more entertaining than most blockbuster films.

“Space Aliens Taught my Dog to Knit!” is followed by yet another amusing story, the short work, “Heist,” by Tracy Canfield. This tale advocates the rights of all perceptive beings, including intelligent software. In “Heist,” a trio of sophisticated programs manipulates the main character into physically shipping them to Finland, where they can attain the legal status of personhood. The programs achieve this end through a combination of virtual reality games, tapped phone lines, compromised transportation systems, and the partially successful manipulation of the main character’s feelings. In spite of the fact that, by the story’s end, the main character fails to yield to his base human qualities, such as greed, he has already proved himself to be an attentive servant by his kowtowing when the programs stimulate his feelings of compassion.

Since it is as likely that our washing machines will take over the world as it is that our software will teach itself to exploit us, the inventive quality of “Heist” is what makes this tale merry reading. Jigging through the computers’ artificial world of Realms of Daelemil and fantasizing alongside the main character about the nature of a society governed by “sensible” source code is entertaining.

It’s a good thing that we can smile about our electronics, because we will soon be frowning at our dinner plates. Calamari, for example, will stop seeming appetizing to readers who bite into “At Last the Sun,” by Richard Foss. This seagoing adventure positions the keen crew of a commercial fishing vessel, whose livelihood, shrimp harvesting, is being eroded by environmental pollutants running off into waterways, from megafarms, and a handful of scientists, who want to study the fauna at the bottom of the sea, against a resident of the depths, an anaerobic monstrosity, heretofore unknown to man, that seeks information about life on the surface and that has suddenly become able, given the deep water’s chemically-enhanced oxygen depletion, to swim a path toward man and sunlight.

Although “At Last the Sun” could be a friendly tale of sailors sipping spiked coffee and of academics suffering from sunburn, it is actually a disturbing telling. More cautionary than leisure, this narrative posits that our unmitigated use of toxic agents adversely impacts our agriculture, our aquaculture, and our entire social system.

Philosopher kings will enjoy that “At Last the Sun” integrates alarm and plot. Casual readers will appreciate the story’s suspense and unresolved conflicts. All audiences will value the “what if” questions raised artistically here.

Horrible, hypothetical, organisms aside, man remains the worst of brutes, as shown in Edward M. Lerner’s “A Time for Heroes.” In this well developed tale, a game tester attains his personal wish fulfillment when he is permanently uploaded into a new class of virtual play. Unfortunately for him, the software architect, to whom he “sold his soul,” wrote a program consisting of nothing but loops. To that end, the developer gleans fame and fortune by selling a game with great verisimilitude, at the same time that the main character stays behind in the mock reality.

“A Time for Heroes” is powerful in its deconstruction of our contemporary fascination with “fantastic experiences” offered by convergent media. Lerner wakes readers up to the actuality that such immersion is temporarily wasteful at best, permanently dangerous at worst. His message is marred, nonetheless, since he attractively paints his battle scenes. “Heroics,” which are less than plainly portrayed, fail to reveal the compensatory workings of fractured egos. Such funhouse games are not worth triumphing and are not even worth approaching given their high costs.

Some values, however, as alluded to in “Cargo” by Michael F. Flynn, are worth defending to the death. In this futuristic tale of an aging man torn among fealty to family members, fealty to community, fealty to ambition, and fealty to truth, the main character’s decision not to stick up for an unpopular interpretation of history eventually costs him and a younger, beloved relative their lives. True, their existences would have been forfeited had he protected collective integrity instead, but at least he would have died as a martyr rather than as a coward.

“Cargo” functions as a wonderful allegory on social ethics. Besides working as a symbolic lesson, this tale draws readers’ attention to the ills of consumerism, the evils of racing to attain social status and problems inherent in allowing tradition’s significance to dwindle. I would like to see this piece reprinted at least in sociology and in business ethics texts.

Last, whereas it is tiresome to read stories only about social supermen and their fiendish antagonists, which also focus on personal loss, retain utility. A case in point would be the novelette “Connections,” by Kyle Kirkland.

In this work, a gifted young chemist attempts to revenge both her father’s allegedly untimely demise and her own residual childhood unhappiness by toppling the powers that rule society and by toppling the powers that mean to usurp the rulers. Unfortunately, the lass in question suffers both from megalomaniac and homicidal tendencies, as discovered early and often by the main character. The main character’s foresight, combined with his honed sense of human psychology and a stiff dose of luck, enable him, at this tale’s end, to evade the brilliant villainess’ traps and to sidestep the punishments, which both the officers of the hegemony and the rebels direct at him.

“Connections” works as interesting fiction because its characters are their own worst foils and because human mindfulness, not machines with bells and whistles, nor super powers with immense potentials, provides the main character’s escape. It’s tough not to like a narrative full of “can do” attitude.

The inner reaches of the mind are far more worrisome than is any dark hole in space or than is any oceanic labyrinth. Yet, the readers of the June issue of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact will not have to choose among these settings for speculative dilemmas since this issue contains all three. Chock full of expertly constructed, highly imaginative contributions, this issue maintains the magazine’s branding by presenting a marvelous fiction.