Analog, May 2003

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"The Immortality Plague" by Steven Bratman
"The Monopole Affair" by Ken Wharton
"The Death Addict" by Larry Niven
"The Day the Track Stood Still" by John C. Bodin & Ron Collins
"A Good Offense" by Don D'Ammassa

Probability Zero:
"Get Me to the Job on Time" by Ian Randal Strock

This month we have the conclusion of Rajnar Vajra's serial "Shootout at the Nokai Coral" (which I won't be reviewing, in accordance with Tangent policy), two novelettes, three short stories, and a Probability Zero short-short.

The first novelette is "The Immortality Plague" by Steven Bratman, an interesting story involving genetics/biology and scientific and political espionage. A science professor finds his computer has been hacked into and used to steal all his university's genome research, and the extremely confident hacker contacts him personally for a heart-to-heart conversation. The hacker doesn't even seem very concerned when the FBI get involved, going head-to-head with them in a "back off, or else" approach involving a number of threats to unleash various genetic deterrents (mini-plagues). The hacker turns out to be an ex-student of the professor's, a woman with whom there is more than a little negative history, but also some strong personal attraction.

The professor tries to help her out, but after unleashing a series of relatively harmless "warning" plagues (before the Big One) that merely enrage the authorities, the young lady has dug herself into an extremely deep hole. The final plague, which will make everybody immortal, will cause worldwide chaos, but has also aroused the interest of some of the most powerful in US society; corrupt, immoral people who very much like the idea of being immortal. They decide to get rid of the woman (if they kill her the plague will automatically be released) and set up a "shoot-out" using the FBI as their stooges. However, the massive FBI attack doesn't go quite as planned, as the young lady shows a lot of guts and ingenuity, not only escaping but giving the FBI a bit of a whipping in the process.

Five years go by before the woman re-establishes contact with the professor, revealing she'd released the Immortality Plague the day after the "shoot-out", but now regrets that decision and now has an antidote for it, which she can release at any time. The two get together in person for the first time in fifteen years, and all looks well for the future both on the personal and general fronts. Overall, not a bad story, with a bit of a warning about biological weapons as the future weapon of choice of terrorists. The only thing that bugged me is that the girl is portrayed a bit too much like those "super-scientific" genuises we often see in cinema or novels. She seemed to be an expert at everything.

"The Monopole Affair" by Ken Wharton is the second novelette, and strangely enough also deals with a scientific discovery and espionage perpetrated by those who want to conceal that discovery at all costs (did we have a deliberate choice of a "common theme" among the novelettes this month or was it by accident?). A scientist who has recently published on the web a relatively obscure and (so he thinks) unimportant physics paper on cosmic string theory finds himself besieged on all sides by parties trying to bribe or threaten him to remove the paper from public view. Striking up an unofficial partnership with an attractive blind woman he meets in a bar and for whom he's developed a severe case of the "hots", the two search frantically for a way out of the mess, and for what exactly it was in his physics paper that has so many people trying to silence him.

This is a nice story, very similar (maybe too similar) in feel to the first novelette but replacing biological science with physics. I particularly liked the relationship between the scientist and the blind woman, which I thought was nicely handled. However I do think that the scientist was portrayed a bit "thick" and that the woman seemed to spend most of her time "connecting the dots" for him on matters in which he should've had the superior knowledge. I also believe that the FBI would be a lot less delicate and forgiving if the finale to the story had been played out in Real Life, and that the man with the gun would've shot the scientist in their earlier encounter once he'd done what he had to do (leave no witnesses). Have these guys never heard of silencers? There was a full-scale party going on outside, fer crying out loud. They wouldn't have heard a thing.

Larry Niven's "The Death Addict" is the latest in his "Draco Tavern" series of short stories. The usual bunch of human and alien suspects sit around the bar having a right old chin-wag. This time the subject is "fear". What are you most afraid of? It was interesting to note the vast difference between the short-term fears of the humans and the much longer term anxieties of the more mature alien species, many of which are long-lived or immortal. In particular we get a look at an alien daredevil who travels around the galaxy performing death-defying stunts on many different worlds. This alien is immortal and will never die of old age, although he can be killed by unnatural causes, something he fervently hopes will happen. His greatest fear is that he will never die, and that he'll survive until the eventual death of the universe. Most humans would say "Yes" if given the choice to be immortal, but a being like this knows that it's a curse in the long run. Hell, I wouldn't mind living for a few hundred years (three score and ten is rather short), but to live forever, never to die? Scary. I'd say most people would be begging for death after a thousand years or so, and would go totally insane if they couldn't die.

"The Day the Track Stood Still" by John C. Bodin & Ron Collins is a nice change of pace from all the doom 'n gloom, a fun short story set around car racing in a futuristic Indy 500. A champion driver is racing his AI controlled car against a bunch of shady aliens — the prize being the car itself, which the aliens are after for some devious reason revealed at the end of the story. The aliens have an ace up their sleeve and think that they can't lose, but the car in question has ideas of her own and things don't go quite as the aliens had planned in an exciting finale that will keep car racing fans on the edge of their seats. I enjoyed this one, in particular the ever-present sarcastic humour and banter between the driver and the car, which has a jealous, possessive female character imprinted on its AI. Definitely the most memorable "character" in the story.

Don D'Ammassa's "A Good Offense" is my favourite short story of the month. Diplomacy between humans and aliens will doubtless be a very complex matter, especially as there are bound to be many incredible differences to overcome. We can't even overcome most of the relatively minor differences between members of our own species, so what will it be like if/when we meet something really different? The problem to be overcome in this story concerns an alien custom that humans find totally repulsive and unforgivable — the widespread slaughter of their abundant offspring (an evolutionary safeguard against overpopulation) and the even more abhorrent (from our POV) ritualised feast at which the butchered offspring are the main course.

Human revulsion towards this practice and the fact that the aliens are quite touchy about aliens' opinions on the matter seems to be an insurmountable stumbling block which threatens to end relations between humans and the alien visitors, with the quarantining of Earth from further outside contact being the most likely outcome. The human protagonist must find some way to breach the barrier that exists between him and his alien counterpart (who will have the final say back home in the final decision) and overcome this major cultural hurdle if Earth is to remain open to contact with the aliens. How he solves the problem is quite interesting, and to say that the final line of the story is unsettling is an understatement.

"Get Me to the Job on Time" by Ian Randal Strock is this month's Probability Zero short-short, and deals with a man who has discovered time travel, but puts it to a rather more mundane use than most of us would. It's a nice twist on the time travel theme, and although I'm not much of a fan of short-shorts I think this one isn't too bad an example of the form.

This was a solid issue of Analog, with no really bad stories and several above average tales, in particular the two novelettes and the Don D'Ammassa short story, although the Bodin & Collins and the Niven short stories were also well worth a read. The only criticism I have is that the two novelettes, although good, were too similar in feel (forbidden research, scientist and girl on the run from the FBI and shady entities trying to benefit from the research, etc), and in my opinion shouldn't really have been in the same issue of the magazine.

Phil Friel lives in the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland. He's been reading SF since the late 1960s (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, although he tends to prefer more "traditional" stories to the "experimental" variety. He's always looking to expand his 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.