Double Review–March 2010 Analog

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Tangent Online, as it has done numerous times over the years, here offers two separate reviews of the same publication. This time it’s the March 2010 Analog. In no particular order, Carl Slaughter offers his perspective and Maggie Jamison follows with hers.

“Of One Mind” by Shane Tourtellotte  
“The Hub of the Matter” by Christopher L. Bennett
“Narrow World” by Carl Frederick
“Encounter at Yellow Wood” by Bud Sparhawk
“Locked In” by Brad Aiken
“Dr. Skenner’s Special Animals” by David Simons
“Ten Thousand Monkeys”  by Tocho Ligon

Reviewed by Carl Slaughter

In “Of One Mind,” by Shane Tourtellotte, terrorists nuke Washington.  The President uses neuro technology to study and alter the brains of the perpetrators.  Then he increasingly expands his definition of a dangerous person.  Two secretly dissenting neuro scientists try to sabotage his effort.  The author delves deeply into the psyche and emotions of the relentlessly traumatized main character.  Otherwise, the standard plot elements are here.  The story is well crafted, but not well presented.  If it won a Hugo or Nebula award, I wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.  But the drudgery of getting through it  –  the excessive length, the slow pace, the mundane details, the large name count  –  kept me from enjoying it as much as I should have..   

No hard core science fiction fan could resist the premise of “The Hub of the Matter,” by Christopher Bennett:  “I’m going to figure out how the Hub works.”  “I can tell you that.  It’s at the center of mass of the dark matter halo that encompasses our galaxy and its satellites, and it connects to every point within that halo, so long as you know the right entry vector. All you have to do is dive in at the right speed and angle and—”  “I know that part.  I mean I’m going to figure out the part nobody else has figured out yet.”  “You mean the relationship between the Hub vectors and the exit points?”  “Right. I’m going to find the pattern. I’m going to make it possible to go anywhere in the Galaxy by choice, not just by trial and error.”  “If there were a way to predict the relationship between entry vectors and exit points, somebody would’ve done it already. It’s what they call an NP-complete problem—there’s no way to solve it in a finite amount of time.”  The characters are irresistible too.  So is the humor.  Biting dialog is icing on the cake.  Intrigue.  Misadventures.  Culture clash.  Sexual clash.  Personality clash.  Very few science fiction stories are this much fun.  

The first fourth of “Narrow World,” by Carl Frederick, is a jail escapee survival episode.  While this episode is vivid and makes us sympathize with the main character, it’s way too long and the science fiction element is only a fraction of it.  The next scene is a discussion among three boys about where to camp.  While it contains a couple of clues to impending disaster, this scene is almost expendable.  Finally, almost midway into the story, at an emergency epidemiology meeting, we get a full fledged introduction to the science fiction element, the storytelling intensity level shoots up, and the plot interlocks all the characters.  A very long highway median is flanked by multiple lane, high speed traffic.  This means the median develops its own ecosystem, including adapted species.  With new species come a new disease.  The escapee and the boys meet on the median, then bureaucratic mismanagement takes over.  Carl Frederick is known for blending hard science into a credible plot and this is no exception.  But “Narrow World” is more character driven and subplot driven than usual, so some of his fans might not appreciate this one as much.

“Encounter at Yellow Wood,” by Bud Sparhawk, opens with a discussion about the politics of waste disposal.  Not a good way to get your reader interested in your story.  Next, a technical discussion about an artificial extraction/evaporation process versus using trees.  Unless I missed something in the technospeak, we’re 1400 words into a 5000 word story without knowing what product the technicians are taking out of the ground, except for a reference to “liquor.”  Next, a generic rehearsing of typical issues.  Development versus preservation, natural versus genetically enhanced, immediate effect versus long-term benefits, eminent domain versus private property, restore later versus don’t harvest at all, environmentalist versus engineer.  You can get most of this from a newspaper article.  If you haven’t already guessed that the environmentalist and the engineer were lovers in college, this is the first piece of literature you’ve ever read.  So add ethics versus romance.  Midway, we finally discover the function of the worker trees.  They absorb and sanitize pollutants from garbage compost.  Then the trees are harvested for the chemicals they absorbed.  The remaining garbage is harvested too.  In the future, society finally converts to complete recycle/reuse.  The trees redeem our mistake.  A credible, well rehearsed science premise, even if it arrived late.  A satisfying, compelling conclusion.  50-50 on this story.

The title of “Locked In,” by Brad Aiken, refers to a medical condition.  The patient is paralyzed.  He is conscience, but can only blink.  In the first scene, the author vividly describes the main character going into paralysis in the middle of a board meeting and being poked on at the hospital.  Meanwhile, he’s haunted by decades-old images of the wife he killed in a car accident.  Next, his brain gets hooked up to a computer so he can speak through a voice synthesizer and achieve some mobility with a robotic arm.  This is a time consuming, tedious process.  Finally, a wheelchair.  Think Stephen Hawking.  About mid-way, I was afraid it would become just another adjust to the technology/lifestyle story.  But the author pulls the story out of the valley as the main character wheels into the boardroom to outmaneuver his opponents during a crucial vote.  In the boardroom duel, both sides use the new found technology.  This one’s worth reading.

So many authors fail to grab the reader’s interest in the opening sequence, so many authors fail to introduce the science fiction element in a reasonable amount of time.  In “Dr. Skenner’s Special Animals,” David Simons doesn’t fail at either task.  A screeching U-haul and heavily equipped delivery men get our attention, an engineered dragon introduces the science fiction element.  You might guess from the title that Dr. Skenner is a lab researcher, but he’s a veterinarian.  Failed experiments are brought to his doorstep.  He can’t say no.  You’d think a guy who neglects his regular business to deal with mysterious customers and treat rare species would ask for some upfront money.  There’s a backlash against these creatures, complete with government agents making surprise inspections and vigilante gangs making surprise raids.  So operating a vet hospital for freaks of science is risky business.  This constant danger is in addition to discovering what went wrong in the lab.  When he offers a diagnosis, the problem seems so obvious, but it doesn’t occur to anyone else before it comes out of his mouth.  In addition to a dragon, his collection of patients includes a minotaur, a mermaid, a centaur, and three unicorns.  If the description and treatment of the animals, the plight of the vet and his patients, and the vet’s defense strategies don’t keep you reading, the frequent humor might.  Thumbs up for this off beat story.

This month’s Probability Zero, “Ten Thousand Monkeys,“ by Tocho Ligon, is about cats or monkeys accidentally typing something intelligible if they play with keyboards long enough.  It’s called Infinite Monkey Theorem, but the author has a fondness for cats.  The process could take millions of years and won’t include proper capitalization and punctuation.  The author sites fiction by a couple of famous names.  “The Coming of the Quantum Cats” by Pohl and “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls” by Heinlein.  He also mentions a couple of researchers, Schrodinger and Borel, as well as NASA.  He also delves into a series of stories by a much earlier author, Don Marquis, involving a cockroach and a cat.  Finally, the author confesses that this review was not written intentionally.  It was the result of Ligon playing around on a keyboard, leaving proper capitalization and punctuation to Ligon’s editor.  Please note that my review of this column was not written by me, but by my cat, leaving proper capitalization and punctuation to me.  My cat is a highly intelligent alien, but takes after E.E. Cummings.     

“Of One Mind” by Shane Tourtellotte
“The Hub of the Matter” by Christopher L. Bennett
“Narrow World” by Carl Frederick
“Encounter in a Yellow Wood” by Bud Sparhawk
“Locked In” by Brad Aiken
“Dr. Skenner’s Special Animals” by David A. Simons
“Ten Thousand Monkeys” by Tocho Ligon

Reviewed by Maggie Jamison

To say that Analog is one of the front runners of science fiction magazines is an understatement. For many authors, getting published in Analog’s delightfully paper pages is a badge of honor that marks a serious up-tick in a science fiction writer’s career. Needless to say, Analog has its pick of the litter when it comes to authors, and the March 2010 issue is no exception. Strength of concept is found in every one of these stories, and any reader picking up this issue of Analog will find something to his or her liking.

Shane Tourtellotte’s novella “Of One Mind” begins the issue with a hard-hitting, character-driven bang. Dr. Lucinda Peale is a neural overlay specialist, called in to serve her nation after Washington, D.C.—as well as most of the government—is annihilated in a nuclear attack. But when stopping terrorism expands to stopping anyone who disagrees with the current head of state, Dr. Peale faces the possibility of having her own brain subjected to an overlay, until an unlikely ally gives her a reason to keep fighting.

“Of One Mind” may not have the most original core: the idea of governmental power using a new science to crush its detractors isn’t particularly new. However, Tourtellotte’s characters are so alive, and his plot is so driving that despite this piece being the longest of the presented fiction in this issue, the pages fly by in a rush of good old-fashioned storytelling. “Of One Mind” will make readers smile, and it will undoubtedly make them think, too.  

“The Hub of the Matter” by Christopher L. Bennett takes place on a vast space-transport station at the only point in the galaxy from where any single destination can be reached instantaneously. David LaMacchia has come to the Hub not as a simple traveler, but because he hopes to discover the mysteries of the Hub’s inner workings, and, by doing so, raise the esteem of the human race in the eyes of the other alien species.   Teamed up with an overly doting Sosyryn and a spunky, jaded Hub scout pilot, David runs into trouble, but perhaps that’s just the sign he needed.

Bennett’s tale is light and humorous, with good banter between the trio of characters that may occasionally make the reader laugh aloud. While the ending may strike some as verging a little too close to cheesy, the space-travel concept, the society that has risen around it, and the little world-building details Bennett adds makes for a satisfying read. In fact, one word alone could make this story worth the read: quantelopes. That’s all I’m going to say.

“Narrow World” by Carl Frederick gives us a singular idea:  imagine if—due to intense traffic flow—a highway median became an isolated ecosystem, with its resident species evolving and adapting without influence from either side of the road? The story of “Narrow World” is constructed around a collection of characters, from the semi-guilty convict who flees his litter-duty troop on the median, to the government agencies concerned with what has developed in that slender landscape, to the three boys who decide to hike there one foggy afternoon.

“Narrow World” was a bit of a disappointment. The idea is one that could have been fascinating, but tucked inside this particular story, it fell short. The characters were flat, and the plot of the evil government agency feeling even remotely threatened by something it doesn’t fully understand—while perhaps realistic—is a bit worn and lacks any new, shiny patches to make it seem fresh. But the idea of an isolated ecology on a highway median! It’s just fun to think about. I only wish that Frederick had explored it with more passion.

Bud Sparhawk’s story, “Encounter in a Yellow Wood,” gives a brief look at the complications of long-term verses short-term conservationism. The story itself follows Gus, a specialist on the use of genetically modified trees to tap the recyclable liquefied waste of submerged landfills, as he comes to a fork in his career road. His heart is with the more natural worker trees, but the future may become cleaner with new flashy metal pumps that will soon surpass the ability of the trees to clean up what remains of the junk beneath the soil. Faced with his own reservations, and a flame from his past, Gus must decide what he really stands for when he says he wants to fix the environment.

“Encounter in a Yellow Wood” is a sturdy story with a lot of tech talk that hard SF fans will enjoy and appreciate. Gus and his situation are very realistic, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how relevant the story is to the times. The weakness in this tale comes more from Gus’ old flame and her tired-out arguments that don’t seem quite worth the extensive, torturous deliberation Gus seems to need to make his ultimate decision.

“Locked In” by Brad Aiken brings us Troy Adams, a high-power executive of a multi-billion dollar weaponry-development company. When a stroke leaves him nearly paralyzed, Troy must come to terms with his new style of life and the technology that can allow him to once more hold the reigns of his company, and its moral dilemmas.

“Locked In” is a fine story with a strong voice and a very plausible conflict. Aiken has crafted a realistic near-future world in which the merging of man and machine is not as seamless as we might like to imagine. The ending felt a bit over-dramatized compared to the stalwart, voice-driven pacing of the first two-thirds of the story, but overall “Locked In” was a pleasant read.

The last of the short stories, “Dr. Skenner’s Special Animals” by David A. Simons gives us a witty, bitingly humorous tale about what would really happen if genetically merging animal DNA became something anyone with enough cash and none-too-many brains could do. From Dr. Skenner’s sarcastic perspective, we meet a cast of hilarious if pitiable mythological-styled animals who by all biological standards do not function well in real life. But in taking pity on these poor creatures, Dr. Skenner risks losing his legitimate veterinarian practice as the agents for the government’s Bureau of Genetic Enforcement (Bogeys) close in.

The shining gem of this issue, Simons delivers a tight, laugh-out-loud story that will undoubtedly make many a reader call in a friend or a spouse just to hear part of his tale. The prose is tight, and the characters are inherently lovable. On top of that, “Special Animals” will make you consider the many health complications dragons, minotaurs, mermaids, unicorns, and centaurs would have…if they really existed.

“Ten Thousand Monkeys” by Tocho Ligon tops out the fiction in this issue in the Probability Zero section. Ever wondered if there might be a better choice of animal than a monkey to accidentally hammer out a draft of Shakespeare? One that might take a little less than infinity to do so? Tocho makes a solid argument for just what animal would be the most likely to accidentally write something coherent, and does so with flair. I suspect many writers—and readers—will agree whole-heartedly.