“The Doctrine of Noncontact,” by Catherine Shaffer
“The Wrong Side of the Planet,” by Joe Schembrie
“Infinity’s Friend,” by Dave Creek
“Smiling Faces in Hog Heaven,” by Stephen L. Burns
“The Time Pit,” by Stephen Baxter
“Zero Tolerance,” by Richard A. Lovett
“Entropy’s Girlfriend,” by Robert J. Howe
The issue begins with Amy Bechtel’s “Language Lessons,” the latest in her series of Analog stories focusing on veterinarian Michael Clayton and his unique patients, the sea monsters. In this novelette, Dr. Clayton deals with one annoying pet owner after another while coping with the sickness of his favorite sea monster, Curious. He has a personal problem, too. His assistant, Tegan, with whom he has fallen in love, has taken some personal leave time, and it’s looking more and more like she’s never coming back. Dr. Clayton is not having a good week, and with the arrival of an inspector from the state veterinary board, it’s not getting any better.
Bechtel handles the veterinary exam room scenes with such confidence I was certain she had firsthand experience. The humor is almost painfully sharp (as, for example, with the dog-owner whose injured greyhound has an arterial bleed, and yet the owner balks at Dr. Clayton’s emergency fees). These scenes had me laughing out loud a number of times.
Better still is Bechtel’s focus on Dr. Clayton’s romantic life. It’s refreshing to see such a close examination of a male protagonist’s feelings of loneliness and cravings for love and companionship.
So: Who can handle communication with an alien life form better than a veterinarian? (A pediatrician, perhaps.) Yet Dr. Clayton initially struggles to diagnose Curious, and must find instruction in the lessons he learns from his patients. The ending is satisfying, though not as entertaining as the journey there.
“The Doctrine of Noncontact” by Catherine Shaffer explores the conflict between a senior researcher and her graduate student over the proper handling of first contact situations. Michaela commands a forest expedition on a planet with two sentient species: the Ypsithra, with whom humans made contact some years ago, and the lesser known Thacneri. The goal of this expedition is to map out the perimeter of the Thacneri’s domain in order to avoid future contact.
Michaela remembers the disasters of previous first contact situations, none of which have ended well. One million Ypsithra died of disease as a result of their first meeting with humans. With this in mind, Michaela herself championed the doctrine of noncontact. The younger generation (embodied in Robin, Michaela’s graduate student) longs for the excitement and fame of a new first contact. When the expedition wanders too close to a Thacneri settlement, the stage is set for a confrontation.
Shaffer’s characters are well drawn, and she takes enough care with the underlying policy debate that we can understand both Michaela’s and Robin’s outlooks, even though their approaches are worlds apart. I found myself more sympathetic to Michaela’s position, but I wonder whether other readers will see it the same way. The outcome of their showdown was both surprising and inevitable, a great combination.
When Earth emigrant Eric Toshimi finishes his two-year stint as a platinum miner on Mars, he decides to celebrate by taking a road trip, and loneliness, nasty sand storms, and a fugitive murderer won’t slow him down. Joe Schembrie’s “The Wrong Side of the Planet” has plenty of action, a few interesting characters, and a rich setting, the partially-terraformed Martian surface. The story’s heart comes in the form of a question: Why do some individuals leave home to tackle the hazards of a hostile frontier?
Schembrie has other things on his mind, too, such as the way the wilderness plays on the human mind, pushing it in the direction of paranoia or violence; or how it forces some to take responsibility for their actions, and others to deny it. All in all, this is a thoughtful piece, with enough action to disguise that fact.
Dave Creek’s “Infinity’s Friend” centers on the rescue of an Aquatile, a sentient denizen of planet Welkin. Welkin is mostly oceanic, something that interests explorer Matt Christian. He’s busy investigating volcanic activity when he is contacted by his friend, the Aquatile Sarbin, who has beached himself while stargazing.
The body of the story consists of Matt’s fevered race to save Sarbin from death by dehydration. He’s in constant communication with the Aquatile, and does his best to keep him alive by telling him stories. Matt has a ghost in his past, a trauma he deals with as the story unfolds.
Some readers will delight in Matt’s journey; who wouldn’t want to ride a supersonic skimmer? This story also presents a man of faith in a positive light, without apology. Unfortunately, I felt there was little true suspense here. Once I understood the setup, I could predict the denouement and the ending, and I wasn’t wrong. For me, this predictability detracted from the story’s other, more positive features.
Rippingly good satire is what you’ll get in Stephen L. Burns’s “Smiling Faces in Hog Heaven.” Burns scores so many good hits that it is hard to know where to begin, and I’m loath to reveal any of the jokes. American society’s avalanching slide into theocratic hypocrisy, the institutionalization of racism, the lardification (how’s that for a word?) of the supersized fast food-craving public: these are only some of Burns’s targets.
Hog Heaven manager Jamal Warren comes to work one morning and can’t get in. The fast food joint’s AI, Clem, won’t let him or any other employee through the doors. Jamal knows that every Hog Heaven has an AI named Clem, and they’re all in communication. He guesses correctly that what’s happening here is happening (or will soon happen, as the sun rises) at Hog Heavens across America. If he can get to the bottom of this glitch and solve it, he’ll be that much closer to promotion up the corporate ladder, perhaps to the Big Barn itself.
Jamal’s argument with Clem holds echoes of other human-AI conflicts. Forget HAL 9000 or Captain Kirk’s silly sophistries (“You’re being illogical, so you must self-destruct!”) No, I was reminded of Robert Silverberg’s “The Iron Chancellor” and John Varley’s “Bagatelle” (available online at scifi.com, incidentally). “Smiling Faces in Hog Heaven” compares favorably with both of those classics. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more stories by Stephen L. Burns.
Readers of Stephen Baxter’s previous Old Earth stories (such as “Climbing the Blue,” July/August 2005) will be familiar with the bizarre setting: an Earth in which time is stratified, running faster with increasing altitude. This issue’s short story, “The Time Pit,” begins in the thick of the action. The Mechanists, who believe that “the world [is] a product of blind natural processes,” are at war with the Creationists, who hold that the world has “been shaped by mind.”
The Creationists are losing. Belo and Tira decide they will not fight this battle out to the end, but would rather live to fight another day. They escape the fray by leaping into a time pit, which carries them to the Lowland, where time moves more slowly.
The beginning and ending of this tale depend heavily on the unusual nature of Baxter’s stratified world, but the middle—the world Belo and Tira encounter—is far more conventional. They find themselves in a band ruled by a brute named Teeg, on a desolate plain where floating killer machines roam free. The puzzle here is the relationship between Teeg, the humans he dominates, and the machines. If Belo can figure it out in time, he might turn the situation to his advantage; if not, Teeg will sooner or later kill him.
This portion of the story held my interest but didn’t grip me. It had a well worn feel to it and I never doubted the outcome. However, Baxter still had one surprise in store for me with the final paragraph, a vicious twist that kept me thinking long after I’d finished reading.
Richard A. Lovett’s “Zero Tolerance” has a great opening line: “The dragon at the door had the voice of a sorority girl.” This sets the mood for a fun (and funny), imaginative story about the rise of intolerance in society.
Here we have a well characterized protagonist dressed as Harry Potter for a Halloween costume party. Though obviously over twenty-one (“Sadly, I’m more the Dumbledore type”), he can’t get past the front door because he forgot to bring his ID. It’s a full moon tonight, made spectacular by an exceptionally bright aurora borealis, and he’s stuck out in the cold.
What follows is, at first, a bit of a shaggy dog story (the tip-off comes from one of the other characters, a young man dressed as a werebear), but before long, Lovett’s plan is evident. People are acting weird—weirder than usual—and that light show in the sky (the product of a powerful solar storm) has something to do with it. The protagonist struggles to figure out what’s going on before the same personality changes happen to him.
The first person point of view works well for this story. What better way to convey the protagonist’s growing anxiety than to trap us inside his head? That he’s such a likable fellow only adds to the effectiveness. “Zero Tolerance” is thus a fine tale of urban paranoia reminiscent of the best Phillip K. Dick stories.
This issue concludes with the novelette “Entropy’s Girlfriend,” by Robert J. Howe. A strong sense of setting and character drive this SF mystery about the apparent murder of a University of Oregon physics professor. Before her death, Dr. Linda Szabo had been studying LEDs, or “Localized Entropic Disturbances.” She had conducted her research alone and at home (perhaps she was primarily a theoretician?) and had not published her findings, so her work is something of a black box to her colleagues in the Physics Department, and her private life was even more cryptic. Professionally, Dr. Szabo was loved by her students and respected by her colleagues. Why would anyone stab her in the chest and leave her to die in a ruined hovel of an apartment?
This mystery and its resolution are solid enough, but the real gold in this novelette lies in Howe’s two main characters and their budding relationship. Larry Kirwan is a cops reporter for the Eugene Register-Guard. He’s the product of a recent messy divorce from which he escaped with his car, some clothes and books, and his beloved dog, Gus. Starr Banner-Bende is the police detective called in to investigate Dr. Szabo’s death. She’s smart, genuinely funny, and she takes an early interest in Larry Kirwan. As these two help one another in the investigation, they meet up with a number of interesting characters, and their relationship deepens in a believable way; nothing feels rushed or unnatural. They seem so right for each other. And, yes, this is science fiction, since the Professor’s research plays a key role in the denouement.
Howe has done a fine job recreating Eugene, Oregon, and his characters are first rate. Larry and Starr make a great team. I hope Howe has other adventures in store for them.