Analog, May 2010

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“The Page Turner” by Rajnar Vajna
“Hanging by a Thread” by Lee Goodloe
“The Day the Music Died” by H.G. Stratmann
“Farallon Woman” by Walter Kliene
“A Talent for Vanessa” by David Goldman
“Fishing Hole” by Rick Cook
“Teaching the Pig to Sing” by David Levine
“Quark Soup” by Bond Elam

Reviewed by Carl Slaughter

It’s brain month at Analog. And the three brain stories are easily the best of the litter.   Two of the other stories are typical examples of having all the trappings of science fiction with no real plot or a not very original plot.  Go through your back issues of Analog.  Find all the stories by Carl Frederick, a prolific Analog regular who consistently offers hard science blended into authentic fiction.  Those stories are the minimum standard for hard science fiction.  

“The Page Turner,” by Rajnar Vajna, is a rambling story about an employee of The Page Turner bookshop.  The main character invites us to guess which parts of her story are invented.  She also keeps us guessing about how she got into the predicament that led to her telling us a tale.  The story degenerates into the eccentric personalities and behavior of a writers group that meets in The Page Turner.  Then it degenerates even further into an investigation of a fish that turned up on The Page Turner’s doorstep.  Then an adventure story about leprechauns.  About half way into the story, we are treated to some pretty fancy physics.  Black holes, quantum entanglement, teleportation, etc.  At this point, it’s obvious that teleportation has something to do with the main character’s predicament.  Just when we think the story has finally settled into a serious exploration of science, the author wanders off into one of the characters revealing her past as an abortion clinic counselor.  Then some amphibious fantasy creatures.  Finally, the full explanation.  Hard science fans will enjoy about a dozen paragraphs of speculative super science.  Otherwise, this one’s wacko.  Definitely pass.  

“Hanging by a Thread,” by Lee Goodloe, is a garden variety research station story.  In this case, a water station on a landless planet.  The story has the standard characters, the standard dangers, the standard worst case scenario, the standard tension between professional classes.  It also has generic discussions and generic explanations.  Examples are below.  The presentation is Verne-like  —  cumbersome and slow, with most of the enjoyment in the exploration of each individual science element.  You’ll be disappointed to discover that nobody researches anything in this story.  No revolutionary inventions or discoveries.  No encounters with intelligent aliens.  Just struggles against the elements.  The story is almost over before anyone actually suits up and steps into the environment  —  and the person who suits up isn’t even a researcher.  Ultimately, very little unique to the new planet determines the fate of the people in the story.  With a slightly altered plot and a current timeline, the disasters and tragedies suffered by the characters could easily be the same things they would suffer on an Earth ocean.  So depending on your definition, this might not qualify as science fiction.  

“Nanobots do pretty much everything. But they need direction—marching orders. And that’s what we provide. And every now and then they get in a bind and we have to go fix it. So there’s a fair amount of hands-on, too. You can’t just send out the nanofabs and expect everything to be fine on your arrival.”  “You all know intellectually Teresa’s hazards. That’s not enough. You need to know them in your gut, too. They’ve got to be second nature, like breathing. This planet”—he waved out the window—“is the most deadly environment you’ve ever been in. Space is downright benign in comparison. Usually, you don’t die painfully in space. You always do here. And it’s usually very quick in space. It usually isn’t here.”  “Now.  One last thing. Many of you are probably a bit queasy from the sloshing. Welcome to an ocean environment. There are always waves, and sometimes they’re worse than at other times. And they make most people seasick. It’s like space sickness, only worse. But it goes away in a few days. And if you’re really in bad shape, the space sickness meds work just fine. The good news is that no one ever dies of seasickness. The bad news is they wish they could.”   “ ‘Ecology. Macroscale ecology. It’s the first new natural example since Earth! And in Settlements we’re always interested in closed ecosystems. What about you? ‘  ‘Oh, biology, I guess. Macroscale. Organism level. I did some field trips on Earth, but they were on land.”  “ ‘He never gave up. It was a job to him, but that’s what it involved. Standing on a pitching deck in a sea of acid to help save people who couldn’t save themselves. Makes . . . it makes worrying about a thesis seem pretty petty. Why is someone like that wasting time on someone like me, who doesn’t even know why she’s here? ‘  Becca ventured to say something.  ‘Amy, none of us knows how things are going to work out. We just have to do what we can. Maybe you’ll make a life-saving discovery or something.’  She paused, ‘I don’t want to talk about higher purposes or anything like that. I just don’t know. I do know, though, that it’s not your fault. And I’m sure there’s a reason for you to be here, as much as there is for any of us.’ ”

Here’s my favorite example of generic syndrome in this story:  “I’ve got to implement full emergency procedures. All personnel fully strapped in, all loose objects tied down or enclosed, all drawers, doors, cabinets, and so on fully latched. And all hatches battened down so that we won’t take on any water. It could get extremely bouncy.”  A famous line from the original Star Trek series comes to mind:  “Try auxiliary power.”  Or a line from a Deep Space 9 episode:  “I want a full analysis.”  Remember this one from the original Star Wars movie?  “Enemy fighters coming your way.”  If it sounds like I’m being cruel, it’s because a story in a hard science fiction magazine needs to talk Up to readers, not Down.  Fans deserve first rate science and first rate fiction, not something any high school geek could crank out.

In “The Day the Music Died,” by H.G. Stratmann, sinister forces use music to paralyze brains all over the country, spreading like a virus through radio, concerts, etc.  The guys in Washington in charge of security are clueless.  A scientist comes to the rescue.  Namely the scientist who did the initial research.  He never imagined that terrorists would use research designed for medical purposes.  The hero is uniquely qualified for the task in more ways than one.  In the opening paragraphs, nearly every sentence is crammed with descriptions.  Major case of adjective/adverb overkill.  Bear with it.  The rest of the story is worth the gauntlet.  A feast for neuroscience fans.  One scene contains a major plausibility problem:  Moments after the scientist shares his theory with top security officials, they allow themselves to listen to music.  We never discover the identity of the terrorists.  Great surprise ending, accompanied by awesome tragic irony.

“Farallon Woman,” by Walter Kliene, isn’t about an alien humanoid woman whose ship crashlands on Earth.  It’s about a scientist hired by SETI to investigate her ship.  I’m afraid there’s not much plot.  Most of the story is taken up with meeting, falling in love with, speculating about, and romanticizing about her, or puzzling over her ship.  Scene after scene of non-graphic sex between alien and Earthling.  Until the last scene, the evidence that she was on board the ship is circumstantial, so the reader has to live with the possibility of a disappointing surprise ending.  Other than some advances in circuitry, she doesn’t have any affect on our species.  We get a detailed description of the ship, but the secret government research team never cracks one mystery about it even after 10 years of fiddling with it.  Nor can she repair or fly it, since she wasn’t a scientist on her home planet.  So what we’re left with is a really mellow story about the feelings and experiences of a guy who loves an alien.  

“A Talent for Vanessa,” by David Goldman, is more colorful than the neuroscience story above.  It also covers more territory of the brain and more implications.  But it’s not as touching.  Dr. Hornblatt removes a small part of the left anterior temporal lobe.  The operation releases special talents, but destroys social skills.  Because the operation is risky and because results aren’t guaranteed, Hornblatt sends potential patients to Mr. Pennybacker to talk them out of surgery.  Plenty of them opt to become savants anyway, but this strategy protects Hornblatt from lawsuits.  If the surgery is successful, Pennybacker’s talent agency dispatches the savants around town for a sizable fee.  As he briefs Ms. Kortright-Kingston on the benefits and dangers, he senses something different about her, but can’t quit put his finger on it.  Nice little surprise ending.

Bivalve, arthropod, cephalopod, trilobites, chitin, carapace, benthic, saltwater faunal assemblages, Ordovician, ammonite, rudist, teleost.  If this whets your appetite, feast on “Fishing Hole,” by Rick Cook.  The opening sequence is an overly long sushi restaurant drama.  In the second scene, the author gets down to hard science.  After throwing terminology at each other for a while, the characters go on a detective hunt.  At this point, experienced science fiction fans are guessing that someone is using DNA from fossils to recreate extinct species to make a fortune as a restaurant supplier.  Wrong.  No plot spoiler, just a hint:  the mysterious supplier is not human.

“Teaching the Pig to Sing,” by David Levine, is yet another brain story, and is easily the most intense of the three mentioned above.  With civilization on the brink of collapse, self appointed guardians create a royal class to lead and protect the human race for its own good.  The world’s problems are solved.  Except that humans yearn for freedom.  Resistance movements periodically arise and are promptly put down.  A familiar scenario in science fiction stories, but this one gets very personal.  Combining genetic engineering, communication technology, conditioning, indoctrination, and physical training, the royals are bred to be highly qualified for the task.  A strategic royal is kidnapped, dewired, and deconditioned.  Reindoctrinating him proves to be the more difficult of the tasks.  His captors present him with an ultimatum:  join the resistance or die.  His deadline is three days, during which he plays a game of verbal cat and mouse with the resistance leaders.  The stakes are high for him, the resistance, the royals, the guardians, and the human race.  Upping the ante is that his sister is the Queen of North America and a notorious suppressor of the resistance.  “Teaching the Pig to Sing” is an excellent weaving of science, philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics, and history, as well as a good blend of action, detective, and drama, topped off by a classic ending.  Definitely don’t miss this one.  

This issue’s Probability Zero, “Quark Soup,” by Bond Elam, is an imaginary hearing with Senator Malachi Jones and Professor Hawkins.  I assume Malachi refers to the Book of Malachi in the Old Testament.  The last chapter of the Book of Malachi refers to The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, i.e., The End.  I also assume Professor Hawkins is a very thinly disguised Stephen Hawking.  The conservative senator wants to know why the articulate professor objects to Intelligent Design being taught to children in science classes.  The professor offers evidence that the universe is actually a computer, that the designer is actually the computer user, that He didn’t calculate us into His plans, that we therefore are not designed, and that our existence is causing His computer to overload.  With the explanation, we are treated to pi, Holographic Universe, Plank scale, particle speed/position calculation, fine structure constant, electron mass, quarks, and other science delights.  In the end, The End is calculated by a quantum computer.  The answer is on your keyboard.