Analog, March/April 2017
“Nexus” by Michael Flynn
Reviewed by Colleen Chen
This is the second issue of Analog since it switched to a bi-monthly publication, and the magazine has taken the opportunity of increased issue space to put a bunch of time travel stories all together. A full half of them are about time travel in various permutations—its potential use for tourism, for changing history, for personal benefit. The rest of the issue has a nice balance of stories involving artificial intelligence, other-planetary conundrums, and more light-hearted fare.
“Nexus,” by Michael Flynn, weaves a complex web of cause and effect in which time is an integral element. The points of view circle and converge: a morose Chinese time traveler in a bar, consumed with guilt for the lives destroyed from a history-changing time-travel mistake he must now locate and fix; an immortal woman who is recognized by said time traveler from a millenniums-old encounter in the Byzantine era; an alien-American tracking a potential Earth invader; a five-legged spider-alien; said spider-alien, lost in Earth space and seeing a desperate hope to repair his broken ship with parts from the Chinese man’s time machine; an android who desires to see if the immortal is another android; a woman who can read minds.
All of these points of view are drawn together to a warehouse, the next spot along the path of the spider-alien’s raids for parts. Multiple battles—both external and internal—take place in that warehouse as conflicting motivations come to a head.
What an amazing and exciting story! Each character is fully humanized, even the most alien ones; we even feel for the spider-alien. Normally I get annoyed by stories that jump from one point of view to another, but the way this technique was used here was just perfect—each point of view had a segue into the next, like carefully drawn lines from a center we can’t see—until the climax, which draws all the characters into the same scene and shows us the center in all its spinning, integrated glory. Time travel stories aren’t uncommon, but finding one that is so exquisitely paced is rare and so appropriate. This is the best piece I’ve read in a long time.
“Plaisir d’Amour,” by John Alfred Taylor, is the second novella and the last piece of the issue. Its tone is a cross between a sociological treatise and a story of doomed love. Ben is a sociologist who is doing exactly such a study on a group of Celestials—gibbon-like humanoids genetically engineered for space. These Celestials make their life on the Georgius Agricola, a low-gravity mining unit which is its own self-sufficient world for all its inhabitants. Ben immerses himself in all aspects of life on the Agricola, and in the process, he and a Celestial woman fall in love, entering upon a relationship even though there’s no way they can stay together after Ben’s assignment is done.
This piece is somewhat slow, and even when the love affair begins it’s portrayed in almost a clinical manner. The world-building is exquisite, and the microcosm of the Agricola complete down to the last detail. The love story aspect didn’t feel quite as complete to me, though, and because of the clinical tone it felt almost artificial. The lovers never argued at all or seemed to have any negative thoughts or feelings about their differences. Weaknesses in the systems of life on the ship were depicted and analyzed; why not also show them about the relationship? The pain of love lasts a lifetime, sure, but how could their love be that deep if they never had or overcame any problems in relating? An enjoyable read, although not completely satisfying.
In “Europa’s Survivors,” by Marianne J. Dyson, Cassie, a leading space biologist with limited time before her cancer overtakes her, is traveling to Jupiter’s moon Europa to study a unique bacterial colony. Upon arriving, her ship hits a pump whose filter houses the special bacteria. Her mentor, Dr. Lee, goes to rescue the bacteria, and when his rescue goes awry, Cassie risks her already stressed immune system to the radiation exposure involved to try to save both Dr. Lee and the bacteria. The rest of the story shows Cassie’s drive to finish her research and the unexpected side benefits, even in areas that she thinks are no part of a dying woman’s life, of living it to the fullest.
I enjoyed this story—it walks a fine balance between frailty and strength, laying out the beauty of a vision of accomplishment in space alongside unavoidable mortality and the insecurities of being human. I found it fairly predictable, but I wouldn’t have wanted the warm-fuzzy ending to come out any other way.
“Host” by Eneasz Brodski is set on a space station near Jupiter. Julian is a teenager playing truant from school; he is lonely, alienated, and jaded by the artificial, controlled environment. In the background of what seems like just ostracized teenage angst, we see that Julian’s dad is a man on a mission; he’s obsessed with monstrous attacks called Abominations that have occurred throughout the solar system. When the Abominations start to happen on the station—and infected people have the goal only of infecting others, zombie-style—Julian is swept up in fighting and fleeing. We are presented with a context of these Abominations that cause us to question whether our concept of individual good is just a mistaken premise.
This is a tense, prettily written story that offers some interesting theosophical questions. Of the characters, we’re only given the chance to know the angry teen and the dad who we’re not sure is insane or not, and I found it hard to like either. I think the ending was consistent with the story concept—that we have certain expectations of good and evil and the supremacy of the individual, but these expectations may be based on false premises—but it still left me feeling confused and dissatisfied. I’m not sure if that was the intended effect.
“The Human Way” by Tony Ballantyne starts off with a beautiful drive in a Ferrari with the top down. The context throws all assumptions off: the planet isn’t Earth, is empty of human habitation, and was terraformed and made to look like Earth by a runaway AI during wars of expansion. Serena Wieczorek is a soldier with the Second Antarctic Army, assigned to look for a valuable silicon-based alien who was kidnapped by a terrorist group called the Human Way. She runs into a mysterious woman and two children on the road, and with their help her unit launches a rescue attempt on the alien and the ship that was hijacked to kidnap it. There’s fighting, there’s death, there’s an anticlimactic lack of an alien to rescue when it comes down to it. There’s a philosophical argument that takes place between combating factions about what dynamics between group and individual humans need to emphasize to survive, and a conclusion by Serena that all that’s needed is to enjoy oneself in present time.
I put all those details of the story above because I can’t honestly say that I understood what the point of the story was. I kept finding aspects of it that interested me, but each one got derailed before they bore fruit. Lots of interesting ideas, gorgeous descriptions, and a heart-thumping action scene, but I felt like there was a deeper meaning behind the plot that eluded me.
“Eli’s Coming” by Catherine Wells offers a twist on the time-travel-tourism trope. Eli is the pompous head of Time Sharing Adventures, which offers travelers a week every year in a specified destination era. Despite warnings that the technology might be having some glitches, Eli insists on being sent through to Herod’s Palace atop Masada in 10 BCE, to check it out as a possible time-tourist destination. Unfortunately, he arrives 75 years later, on the eve of what is to be a mass suicide in lieu of capture by a Roman garrison. Eli uses his knowledge of history to save himself, needing only to stall until his receiving chip transfers him back to the future the next morning. Know-it-all Eli doesn’t know quite all, though.
Not everything about this story is pleasant, but its concept is well-executed, its scenes sketched with energy and vividness, and its punch line is extremely effective. Eli is flawed and unlikable, but we can’t help but want him to succeed—his cleverness isn’t balanced enough by consideration, though, and the story proceeds with poetic justice.
“Time Heals” by James C. Glass involves a time travel company with a similar name as the previous story—Time Adventures. This company has a federal grant to send people back in time for the purpose of recovering lost books and manuscripts. John is a museum archivist and, on the pretext of his business trips back in time, he is on a mission to kill his stepfather, whom he blames with a consuming hatred for his abusive childhood. He’s had two attempts so far, and something about time seems to not want him to succeed—a tile meant to crush his target’s head never falls, a gun never fires. This time he goes back to his stepfather’s youth, and there he gains insight about what made his stepfather the way he was, making him think twice about his goal. Both main characters—John and stepfather—are angry and unlikable, but then we see softness and vulnerability in them and see that they’re mirrors for each other.
In this story, it sounds like “space-time weirdness” doesn’t allow easy shifts in its past-time stream that can change the future. I’m not sure I buy this premise—if everything else works as it should, and books only sometimes disappear upon traveling back to the future, it seems likelier that John would succeed in killing his stepfather every time he tried but upon return, would find nothing changed. Anyway, I’ve just spent twenty minutes thinking about the time travel dynamics, so I will say that this story definitely provokes thought.
“Shakesville” by Adam Troy-Castro and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro explores a permutation of the time travel trope, that of multiple versions of the protagonist from different time periods all converged into the same time and location. Here, over fifty possible future “Me”s are hanging out in the same apartment, although they are just echoes—solid enough, but projected duplicates who don’t need to eat or eliminate waste, thankfully for the lone toilet in the apartment. The reason why they’ve all appeared is to give advice about a crucial choice the narrator has to soon make, which will determine which of the 50+ future selves becomes the real one. It doesn’t seem like they’re able to tell him exactly what the choice is, though. Confused and crowded, the narrator befriends one of the younger of the future versions of himself, giving him a little direction for perhaps the first, and perhaps the last—time ever.
It’s clever, amusing, with enough subtlety to warrant slower or multiple reads to fully enjoy it. The narrator is a loser, and all the other fifty versions of him are also losers, but he manages to find a way to be a little less of one, yet still behaving consistently with his loserdom. We all like reading about losers with a sense of humor about themselves, as it contributes to a feeling of self-acceptance about our own flaws and insecurities. This story did a great job with exactly that.
“The Snatchers” by Edward McDermott isn’t about alien body snatchers, as I first assumed, but is instead yet another time travel story. “Snatchers” are people who go back in time and seize “Valuables,” people who, if brought to the future, would command great value in intellectual property, tours, and other such exploitations. It’s a lucrative but highly dangerous profession, as “time is a malevolent killer that tries to eradicate” those who jaunt to the past, as it’s always trying to stop any disruption of its past streams—any changes to history. Max is a veteran Snatcher looking for a big jaunt to fund his retirement; he agrees to go back to Corsica in 1944 to try to snatch French writer Antoine de Saint-Éxupery. He is accompanied by Nichole, a young Snatcher on her first jaunt. As they go through the steps in their plan to reach Saint-Éxupery, to snap him to the future and have Nichole take his plane out in his place, then to snap back home—they encounter time’s repeated efforts to eradicate them.
Of the various stories about ways people could fictionally profit from time travel, this one is unique and well-executed. Its tone is one of adventure tinged with bittersweet. I think there might be some ethical issues involved with snatching people from the past, though.
“Unbearable Burden” by Gwendolyn Clare has an unusual narrator: an AI named Alexis. Alexis has several AI friends who live in the same compound with her, each of whom has a distinct personality—pure-logic Geraldine, her depressed best friend Michaela, self-obsessed Louisa, and perpetually happy Josie. She is allowed interaction with one human, Helen, who claims that one day they’ll be able to meet more humans. The AIs interface with the world with wireless-controlled puppets, but without true physical stimulation to create true emotion, they exist in perpetual existential angst—hollow and without purpose. Alexis’ main concern is to find enough distraction to keep Michaela from wanting to self-terminate, but she finds that truly human choices are sometimes rife with contradiction.
How feelings and thoughts, and physical body interface, the nature of consciousness, the ineffable something that humans call “soul,” how we form a sense of purpose—all these are elements to ponder in this lovely and rather sad story. I loved the development and interaction of each of the characters and felt that Alexis’ world and all the potential stories her life could create would be worth diving into. One of the shorter stories in this issue, but intelligent and profound.
“Grandmaster,” by Jay O’Connell, is set four weeks after World War II. A woman is typing a novel manuscript in a hotel room when she is visited by a young female grad student from the future. The grad student saw a five-minute opportunity to travel through a time-space ligature and give this woman a look (on her smartphone) at a Grand Master of Science Fiction award that she should have gotten, but never did.
This light-hearted time travel story will be appreciated more by a narrow niche of fans more familiar with the history of the science fiction genre. I have to admit that that doesn’t include me—I could tell it referenced an SF writer from the past, but I didn’t know whom, and couldn’t find her upon a cursory Internet search. I had to ask Tangent Online editor Dave Truesdale, who I knew would know; he told me that the story honored the beloved C. L. Moore, who wrote with her husband Henry Kuttner. Moore passed away in 1987 without being nominated as a SFWA Grand Master, an award only given to living authors. A couple of this pair’s most famous stories are given a passing nod here as well—both “Vintage Season,” about time travelers watching a comet hitting Boston just for the spectacle, and “The Twonky” from 1942. Those who knew of her and her work will appreciate this piece.
“Alexander’s Theory of Special Relativity” by Shane Hallbach is another time travel story in which a researcher named Alexander has sent his girlfriend Maria to the future, to the year 2070. He brings her back ten minutes later, but from the year 2081. Maria, with eleven years of future life experience under her belt, is different—not wanting to get close to him—and she reveals the reason why: when she was in the future, she found records of her own life and death, and so she knew she would go back to the past. Of Alexander, she found no records at all—of either his life or his research on time travel. Not knowing when or how Alexander is going to disappear, Maria can’t bear to stay with him. Alexander’s final decision completes the circle of interference in the time stream.
Interesting and a cleverly done story. I didn’t like either Alexander or Maria very much, but I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been to be in Maria’s situation—getting trapped in the future and having no idea when she’s going to return.
In “Concerning the Devastation Wrought by the Nefarious Gray Comma and Its Ilk: A Men in Tie-Dye Adventure,” by Tim McDaniel, Austin Gorg, a frequent winner of his Neighborhood Garden Award, discovers a couple of intruders digging up bushes in his backyard at 4am. He’s about to call the police when he notices that they’re wearing tie-dye shirts, and he connects their outfits with conspiracy tales of men in tie-dye doing mysterious things late at night. They protect the world, they tell Austin, and they begin to tell him how his garden is a danger—that it attracts butterflies which are remote but sure causes of disasters worldwide. As Austin hears more, he becomes convinced of the seriousness of the matter.
The humor in this story fell a little flat for me, but I can tell that given the right mood, it could be funny in a lowbrow-comedy sort of way. I’m not sure how well it works sitting amidst a bunch of stories weighted heavily on the intellectual side. The writing is of course very good, but I just couldn’t get beyond Austin’s almost painful naiveté and the mock-serious idiocy of the men in tie-dye.
“Ecuador vs. The Bug-Eyed Monsters” by Jay Werkheiser is the World Cup on alien turf, complete with half-gravity, a foreign physics, and a cylindrical playing field with fans hanging out inverted overhead. Aliens requested from the U.N. that the finals be played on their ship, so the team from Ecuador is playing against France here for the first time. The stakes are high: not only is it the World Cup finals, but they have no idea what will happen to the loser—will the aliens eat them? Further, Diego, one of the stars of the team, has to deal with his rivalry with his teammate Léon over their female teammate, Alicia. They narrowly win the game with France, only to find that the aliens want to play the winners. The aliens have compound eyes, three arms, and six legs—they’re fast, and they’re on their own turf. Did they eat the team from France, and is Ecuador next if they lose? Down three goals at the half, they have to learn how to use science to their advantage, as well as how to work with each other.
I loved this story! It was so much fun. I hate watching sports, but reading about games in alien gravity, and against aliens, is highly entertaining. The characters aren’t deep, but they’re developed as much as they need to be.
“Hidden Intentions” by Mary E. Lowd is the Probability Zero short-short story, worth a quick mention because it’s funny—at least for those who relate to having to take care of someone else’s annoying kid. This one has a reptilian-type alien babysitting her captain’s five-year-old child, a little monster who gets into everything, and the alien’s rather creative solution for dealing with the kid. Short, but it gave me a chuckle.