Special Double Review
by Harlen Bayha & Clancy Weeks
Analog, June 2014
Reviewed by Harlen Bayha
“A Star to Steer By” by Jennifer R. Povey examines the inhuman humanity of the virtual intelligence installed on an interstellar warship mangled in battle and dragged back for salvage after losing all human crewmembers. From this fatalistic beginning, we learn a bit about the war, a bit about the culture of warrior VIs, and a bit about the humans responsible for the care of our VI creations. I wondered, if we can’t treat our own artificial intelligences with the respect they have earned, should we just let the aliens win after all?
The philosophical and psychological choices laid out toward the end had real pull, each right and compelling in their own way, yet the ending had a foregone feel to it that fit with the theme of warriors down through history. An enjoyable read.
“Field of Gravity” by Jay Werkheiser makes a bootleg run on American football’s future and the possibilities if we incorporated gravity-changing technology to loft the players up or drag them down on every play. Snow, rain, and mud not enough for fans? Dial up the gravity to 2-g’s, or down to 0.5 and see how they do. The way the teams dealt with the challenges and opportunities allowed by the technology appealed to my sporting spirit. I’d love to see this game built and played.
Not all futures seem possible, though. One of the pro-level characters was female (and not notably genetically enhanced or doped-up). Despite my belief that women should be allowed to do whatever they want, I doubt many women would play pro-ball alongside gorilla-sized men in arguably the most dangerous sport on earth, now in a far more advanced and challenging environment. My ordinary you-go-girl attitude turned to benign disbelief pretty fast, but I liked the intention, nonetheless.
The diverse strategies employed by the team coaches and the human tendency to take ethical shortcuts drove character conflicts through to the end, but the thick football terminology may leave non-football fans skipping paragraphs detailing the play-by-play. Not your typical tear-jerker underdog drama by any means, this story feels more like a long, entertaining logic problem.
“Forgiveness” by Bud Sparhawk puts a woman into the role of judge and jury over the two men fighting for her love. Only problem is, Mira cannot be sure whether the man she has chosen is a violent war criminal, because his memory has been wiped. While the story has a somewhat futuristic bent with the memory tech, it also feels like a post-Vietnam coming-home story because it’s set in a small town, complete with a jerk sheriff, and takes place mostly in a diner attached to a motel where our heroine works as a server. The characters fell into typical seventies-style love triangle roles, and I felt Mira was a little thick-headed, so I didn’t like her much. Due to my disinterest with the characters and some plot convolutions at the end, I didn’t feel the full force of Mira’s choice.
“Survivors” by Ron Collins examines the character of two aliens living on Earth who share the burden of knowing their home planet has been destroyed, and they are likely the only remnants of their people left in the universe. Love and companionship become the overarching themes, how in our meager lives, brief moments of togetherness anchor our emotions and sense of self. I had to excuse some unlikely circumstances that brought the survivors to Earth, but I appreciated the combination of joy and sorrow in their story.
One thing I didn’t understand was that the main character chose to inhabit the body of a college student. If I could take over other people’s bodies, I would choose someone young, with some saved income to burn, but that’s just me.
“The Homecoming” by J.K. Sharrah worked for me because of what it became by the end, not how it starts at the beginning, so as you read, enjoy, and keep your eyes open for details. It globetrots around an alien planet that reminded me of 1940s America in one place and a busy Arab port city in another. The aliens have ludicrously believable religious practices, and the newspaperman feels like he should be wearing a fedora with a little bit of paper sticking out that says ‘press,’ despite being a futuristic human with the option for implantable technology. In all, a nice blend of old and new themes, but also a mixture of redundant explanations and entertaining flourishes of prose.
The novella transitions awkwardly a few times, notably during the exposition to convey a complex war history of an unfamiliar planet and its nations. For my sleep-deprived brain, the effort to remember the five warring nations’ interactions seemed almost herculean. Also, at the beginning, an important event happens to a character that is hinted at and implied circumstantially, and I had to look back a few times to make sure I didn’t miss an important paragraph. It doesn’t get discussed directly for a long while. Still, I stuck with it and enjoyed it by the end.
“The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn hit me in one of my soft spots--I enjoy rediscovery-of-ancient-technology stories. This one integrates some charming linguistic choices and two main characters that grew on me with their brash but friendly banter as they spy upon a castle fortress and scheme on how they’re going to get past it to continue their journey east. Their plans fall together completely coincidentally, but the real story lies in the reasons they’re traveling east, and whether they can survive their time in the stone house. I appreciated the swordplay, the exploration of post-technological cultures, and the uselessness of the fancy tech they encounter outside of the culture that made and used it.
I do have one beef with a section where a warrior praises a battle won from ambush that created an advantage judged unfair by other characters, but which he totally stands behind. Yet, a moment later he demands a fair fight with another person he could have recommended killing without risk. Pragmatic on one side, and honorably hypocritical on the other. Perhaps the character didn’t realize the irony. I also sense this is an episode of a longer story, though it stands solidly on its own. Highly recommended.
“The Region of Jennifer” by Tony Ballantyne thoroughly depressed me, because it’s a bitter, hard-hearted look at the human tendency to follow and to be okay with following, despite the consequences. Randy, an idealist and disgustingly-dirty rebel, confronts his childhood friend, Jennifer, now a gracefully offensive woman happy with her place in the world, at a pivotal decision point in her life. Their culture seems crazy in a throwback way, with antique roles of women as child-rearers reinvigorated and sexuality commoditized for the rich few. The whys and hows of the game don’t get explained thoroughly, but the allegory remains the important part, and the allegory stings. It’s not a world I want to live in, but it is one I live in today, at least a little bit. A thoughtful piece that deserves a read.
Harlen Bayha believes someday humans will populate the stars, and the stories we craft today will become our heritage, our religion, our ethical guidance. He also loves shooting digital aliens, reading graphic novels, watching Asian action films, fabricating flamboyant lies, and irony.
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Analog, June 2014
Reviewed by Clancy Weeks
“A Star to Steer By” by Jennifer R. Povey is a wonderful tale of the nature of duty, honor, and humanity. As is often the case in SF, such lessons are taught by non-humans—in this case, Ai Weiwei, a warship’s computer. The computer’s name is no accident of random selection. Ai is a contemporary Chinese artist and political activist; and in China, both of those can be dangerous occupations. As the ship’s computer, Ai has just returned from a lost battle in defense of Earth with all hands lost. Scheduled to be decommissioned, she is instead transferred to a new ship due to the military’s great need. As an advanced artificial intelligence, Ai has feelings, emotions, and memories, and is as traumatized by her experience as any soldier returning from battle. As a piece of hardware, however, she is expected to get back to the fight as soon as possible. Her sister ship, Jellicoe, had committed suicide when she calculated that the war was unwinnable. Herein resides the crux of the story: Ai also knows the war is lost, the aliens will soon conquer Earth, and the only hope she can see for the future of humanity is to take her new crew and run, deserting in the face of the enemy. As a being of conscience, her final resolution is both greater and lesser than either of her options.
While some would argue that the sport of football will be dead on the professional level long before the events in Jay Werkeiser’s “Field of Gravity,” this story is still a great take on the way technologies are adopted in the area of sports in general. Markus Greene, a middle linebacker, has just remembered a very old rule: where there is competition, cheating will follow. Football, you see, now has the advantages of heads-up displays, new uniform materials that absorb impact and stiffen to provide joint support, the ability to increase blood O2 levels on the fly, and, of course, the ability to raise or lower gravity at selected locations on the field. There are rules, as always, but rules are made to be broken. Players now have to take into account the level of the change in gravity as coaches apply a pre-snap amount to affect an advantage for their own team. Every aspect of the game is changed—especially the trajectory of a thrown pass. One of the aspects I like so much about this story is it portrays the players as not just doers, but thinkers as well. Most people see athletes as dumb jocks, but to play at this level requires a high degree of intelligence. In this future it may even require a PhD in physics.
Ron Collins’ “Survivors” starts out almost as yet another alternate Superman origin story. Thankfully it runs from that rather quickly, and what remains is a tale of unrequited love—or what passes for it in the mind of an eight-thousand-year old alien—and the futility of the unexamined life.
Before it even begins, “The Journeyman: In the Stone House,” by Michael F. Flynn gives the reader a huge hint about the nature of the story in the opening quote from Louis L’Amour—“The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail.” Anyone looking for a clean ending to a good story should look elsewhere, as this entry reads as a set-up for a much longer novel. Indeed, this may well be the case, but without a clear “to be continued” tacked onto the end the story can be taken only for what it is: a basic sword-and-sorcery tale, where ancient technology replaces the sorcery. While there is much to like here, it takes so long to get a feel for the world described that it is hard to get into the flow of the narrative. The protagonists, Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand (a mouthful, that) and Sammi o’ th’ Eagles, have an interesting relationship, with Sammi acting as Tonto to Teodorq’s Lone Ranger. And that’s a problem for me. While the banter is funny at times, it is entirely too Tonto-ish for my taste, as that character has become the stereotyped sidekick for all he-man adventurers. The problem stems from the broken English employed by the “savage”—something we don’t see from the other characters here.
However, all that being said, this story managed to hold my attention all the way through, even with all the mysteries piled atop one another, and even with the non-resolution at the end. There are a large number of questions that beg to be answered, and most of them involve the back-story, though some of them arise from inattention to detail. For instance, the implication throughout is that the people of World are the survivors from a great battle in orbit around the planet on which they currently live, and there is reason to believe that there was no human colony present there prior to the landing of what were most likely escape shuttles. And yet there are passages in the story describing horses, large cats, eagles, etc. Did they bring these animals with them when they escaped their warships? Or is it possible they are merely names given to the closest analogs found on arrival? Either way, it is a conundrum that is not addressed, and it threw me out of the story on more than one occasion. Still, there is good writing here, and is worth the reader’s time.
“Forgiveness” by Bud Sparhawk is less about forgiveness and more about the nature of debt payment. Specifically, when is a criminal’s debt to society actually paid? What about war crimes? The premise here is that soldiers have their memories of their actions during a war wiped clean before returning to the world. Does the simple act of forgetting allow for the kindness of forgiving? Unfortunately, the questions are never really answered here, and the story’s end is telegraphed far too early to make it meaningful. There are some great issues raised with “Forgiveness,” and some good writing, but the application falls short.
J. T. Sharrah’s “The Homecoming” continues the theme of “forgiveness” found in most of the stories in this issue. In this case, though, it is the absence of forgiving from either end of the dispute that outlines the conflict. At its most basic, “The Homecoming” is a murder mystery, but that mystery is actually ancillary to the larger issue of the long con. Greg Baldwin is a reporter/editor for the Izmur Herald, located on the island nation of Izmur on the planet Bukkar, and he finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation that leads him through a twisting plot involving conflicts from decades past. Weaving a tale involving war crimes, longevity experiments, murder, intrigue, alien history, and action into a coherent whole is not an easy task, but Sharrah manages it with aplomb. There are only two issues which mar this story, and they both have to do with underestimating the reader. The first is that I managed to unravel the plot long before it was made clear—though I admit this is not a large concern—but the second is more egregious: the “wrap-up” that is so common in murder mysteries. No stone is left unturned in this long narrative, and it demeans the reader by describing every little twist and turn in both the mystery and the con. It is as if the author assumes we never read the story at all, and undermines what was, until then, a great story. My advice is to skip chapter 16 and enjoy the tale.
With “The Region of Jennifer,” by Tony Ballantyne, this issue finally gives the reader an allegory worth sinking their teeth into. Jennifer and Randy are friends on opposite ends of the class spectrum, with their places in life determined not only by breeding but by choice. The freedom to choose, however, is, as always, a beautiful illusion created and maintained by the elite. Choice, you see, is only free if the options are unlimited. On Abraxas, humans have not only sold themselves into slavery, but they have done so willingly in the misguided attempt to secure better lives for themselves and their children. It seems that there will always be a reason for the free surrender of a person’s freedoms, either by programming or natural desire. This is the heart of SF—the peeling back of the layers of society to lay bare the fundamental human motivations that produce them, all under the guise of metaphor.
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