"Mandy" by Roxanne Hutton
"Enter Sandman" by Jeff Carlson
"The Moon Rabbit" by Michael H. Payne
"New Fallen" by Todd R. Supple
The official mandate for Tangent Online is to cover short fiction, and this I will do. However, seventeen years of work in the trenches of high school and junior high school teaching cannot keep me from observing that this magazine really, really ought to be in every single high school library, if not junior high as well.
Roughly half of each issue is devoted to science articles that relate to some aspect of space exploration. In this issue, Henry P. Cate, Jr. writes about the "Junk Man's Ladder," one way of constructing a sling to reach the moon. As I read this nifty article, and tried to parse the quick math sketches, it occurred to me that if I'd read it while in high school, I might have done a whole lot better in math, because it would have sparked a reason to sweat all those equations. Applying your math and science knowledge crops up again in Daniel Hatch's excellent article on the hypothetical "Spacebiz, Inc." which addresses the numbers involved in space enterprise. And when Allen M. Steele says in his article about how successful or unsuccessful science fiction has been in predicting the future technological leaps, "What science fiction does well is to create a multiverse of different paths for humankind to follow. Some may be intended to be realistic, while others may be self-consciously absurd . . . and the beauty of it is, you don't know which one to trust." Bingo! Thought I. This is exactly the sort of magazine that really must be in easy reach of all those bright young science geeks-in-the-making out there, the ones who will be putting up that sling in twenty or thirty years, or building Spacebiz, if something inspires them enough to try that that career path.
But my job here is to review the four fiction stories, which incidentally would get no parents' knickers in a twist due to inappropriate content. These stories are good adventure stories of the sort often called Analog stories; the appeal is broad enough to attract young readers as well as old.
My favorite of the issue is the lead-off story, Roxanne Hutton's "Mandy." The time is 2084, the place one of the stations out around the planets serving the mining and farming supply ships. Life seems to be a high tech equivalent of a frontier town; adequate, but not yet settled enough to draw the wealthy luxury-lover. There are rumbles of trouble: space pirates, who have not just hit the occasional loner ship, but are now attempting stations. The story opens with a wry definition of what is, and is not, an AI, given by an AI named Sprite, who has befriended a young woman named Mandy. She's a popular barkeep in the Limpet, liked by everyone because she likes everyone. She meets and connects with a good guy named Harmon, an ordinary spacer off a ship, and Sprite looks on in approval and watches in disapproval when a guy named Ferdy, ostensibly another spacer, tries to hit on her a little too hard. Hutton does a deft job with the kind of man who will not take no for an answer; we do not like Ferdy, and consequently are not surprised when the Limpet is hit, and he turns out to be one of the pirates in command. Hutton does a good job veering between Sprite's problems with computer warfare and trying to follow and protect Harmon and Mandy, the latter being one of Ferdy's targets. Good action sequences followed by a wryly told ending makes this story a strong and engaging opening to the issue. Hutton does not spend a great deal of time on her characterizations, but her people are far from cardboard; she takes the time to slide in realistic observations about real human behavior that manage to make the people interesting, and Sprite's tone is both humorous, engaging, and vivid.
"Enter Sandman," by Jeff Carlson, is next. Space pirates are one trusty staple of Analog stories; futuristic sports are another. Carlson opens in medias res, skillfully depicting a smashball game, while conveying enough of the rules, and the visuals, to clue the reader to a kind of electronically enhanced null-g racketball. The game is being watched on an illegally obtained vid by Gerold Sandifer, an up-and-coming player, and Anne Ramey, his trainer. Ramey is older, taller, and bigger than Sandifer, obsessed with the game in the manner of the athlete who was forcibly taken out in her prime by injury. Of late, Sandifer observes, she's become obsessed with him as well, about which he feels ambivalent at best. Sandifer and Ramey think they might have seen evidence that the current smashball champ of six years, Jake Bolt, is cheating. They have to prove it and before Sandifer, whose competition name is Sandman, faces Bolt in a game. They see their evidence, decide what to do, and it becomes Ramey's job to see that Sandifer and Bolt face one another in a fair game, despite what appears to be crooked dealing in the supposedly tech-refereed, and thus totally fair, game. Unfortunately, this story, which could well have been a novelette, is compressed into a too-familiar structural mode: action at either end, flashback and then exposition taking up most of the middle. Ramey doesn't quite come into focus as a character, but that could be because we are deeply in Sandifer's POV, and there really isn't much story-time spent with her. Sandifer himself is interesting, surprisingly complex for a character presented in so short a piece; what's more, the ending is not neatly tied off. I found myself wishing not only that this story had been longer, but that there would be more stories about Sandman; there is much potential here.
Michael H. Payne's "The Moon Rabbit" moves between two points-of-view, that of a little girl named Kaya whose mother has just been dispatched to the moon to ready it for the first colonists, and Lou Taylor, a brilliant but careless screw-up who basically got his job through nepotism. He's told he has to go up the moon to adapt the security/communications interface (K-2); when he tries to get out of it by claiming that the K-2 won't work with children, who will just ignore its warnings, he's told that he has to design an interface that will work with kids–Or Else. We return to Kaya's POV when she is informed she will be the first child on the moon, since her mother has an important job there. And she's given her own interface box with a vid pickup, called the Moon Rabbit. She's delighted with the Moon Rabbit, she loves the shuttle, but whoa, just before they land, her daddy and all the other adults are mysteriously put to sleep, leaving her the only one awake–that is, she and the Moon Rabbit: Taylor, in establishing his children's interface, had had to punch holes through the security system in order to lay down his parallel interface for kids. We switch back to Taylor to find out that some mysterious group named the Lunar People's Revolutionary Front has introduced a virus and taken over the systems made possible by Taylor's having messed up the system in order to install his interface. It's up to Kaya and Taylor, who is imprisoned behind a lockdown but with vid connections to Kaya's unit, to try to save Mommy, Daddy, and the moon people. I think this story would have worked a whole lot better if it had been from Taylor's POV; his sections rip along in an assured voice. Payne is unerring in his depiction of a careless bright guy who means well but has screwed up before, and knows his ass is in a sling big-time. The voice is interesting, the tension high. Kaya's sections reduce the tension to TV show language and reactions; sometimes she sounds like she's four and others like she's a teen (she doesn't know right from left, but she can estimate 100 meters through a helmet she's just wearing for the first time, on the unfamiliar territory of the moon); the only consistency is the tendency to opt for the safe clichés of TV-kid behavior in reporting her reactions, especially at the end.
Todd R. Supple's "New Fallen," in contrast, contains a seven year old boy named Jason, but we stay strictly with his father, Richard, who is depressed over the fact that Jason, born and raised on the moon, has never seen snow. There's a nice moment early on when Richard goes outside and tries to sweep the prints out of moon dust in order to simulate a new-fallen snowy field, but fails due to the problems of atmosphere. He returns inside to ask his wife, Jill, to consider a trip home. She is practical: why put their child through six months of draconian readjustment training just for two weeks of gravity? And that doesn't even take into consideration the expense. Richard is questioned about his odd behavior by his boss, who is worried about the low morale generally in the colony. He explains, she understands, but there's nothing that can be done. Richard takes his problem to his cousin, Carter, currently piloting the huge transport vehicle that will be put out of business as soon as the great sling finishes construction. Carter is adamantly against Richard's idea of a little jig over the city, and a few seconds of thruster application to the dirt, just to blow over fifty years of prints and make it all smooth again. What if something goes wrong, and a hundred-million-kilogram transport crashes into the bubble? No way, he says . . . The story moves to its conclusion with controlled flare.
Four solid stories that rely heavily on tech to drive the plots, but whose characters are, for the most part, interesting and real. Add in Dan Kimmel's interesting overview of science fiction films, the science articles, and you have a good, solid magazine that should have broad appeal to everyone of any age who likes plenty of science in their science fiction.