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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Analog, Jan-Feb. 2007 Double-Issue

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"Emerald River, Pearl Sky" by Rajnar Vajra
"Numerous Citations" by E. Mark Mitchell
"Super Gyro" by Grey Rollins
"Double Helix, Downward Gyre" by Carl Frederick
"The Face of Hate" by Stephen L. Burns
"Radical Acceptance" by David W. Goldman
"Exposure Therapy" by R. Emrys Gordon
"The Taste of Miracles" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"The Unrung Bells of the Marie Celeste" by Richard A. Lovett
"If Only We Knew" by Jerry Oltion

The January-February 2007 double-issue of Analog contained ten short stories, for the most part up to the magazine's usual high standard for hard science fiction, with a few pleasant surprises.

Rajnar Vajra's "Emerald River, Pearl Sky" takes Arthur C. Clarke's observation that "any technology we don't understand is magic" to its logical end.  In the setting of "Emerald River," genetic engineering, "strong" artificial intelligence, microwave energy transmission, and other such technologies have been exploited in ways which enable their users to produce seemingly magical effects.  Animals like turtles and bears come with command circuits, enabling wizards to control them with their minds; those who have the "talent" can conjure imps to do their bidding.  However, the massive, largely invisible technological infrastructure underlying all this seems to be breaking down in a future which only remembers the creators of all these wonders as "the Ancients"—and aging wizard Vincas Apollo, on his way to a wizard's competition, finds himself in the middle of the resulting crisis.

The idea of a future where today's (or tomorrow's) technology has become the "magic" of a distant future isn't new (Alfred Coppel did it memorably in his 1950 "The Rebel of Valkyr," for instance), nor is the idea that the inhabitants of a techno-paradise might lose the ability to operate it (H. G. Wells did it in The Time Machine).  Still, Vajra's execution is compelling, "Emerald River" details a bright and interesting world.  The resolution is equally satisfying, making the piece the molecular age myth it clearly aimed to be.  I found myself wondering about other directions the author could have taken the story in, perhaps telling a tale from the middle of this era, or maybe offering a different view on the old question of whether human beings are suited to actually living through golden ages, but that's more a testament to the attractiveness of Vajra's land of emerald rivers and pearl skies than anything else.

E. Mark Mitchell's "Numerous Citations" is the longest and most complex of the short stories in this double edition, tracking a broad cast of characters through a years-long technological revolution.  (The focus, however, is predominantly on two of them, ex-convict Manny Gonzalez and Senator Bernard Woodsley.)  That revolution is one familiar to longtime readers of speculative fiction, centering on the growing role of an emergent machine intelligence in governing human life, a theme most famously treated by Isaac Asimov in his "Robot" stories in the 1940s.  Here, though, the line between human and machine is considerably fuzzier and the "human touch" more evident, partly because the technology is invisibly embedded in human bodies (networked brain implants) rather than the sleek, metallic frames of modernist robots, and the depth of the characterizations is most striking in the beautiful closing scene.  This feel is also a product of the story's course, which is not simplistically utopian, but does not succumb to the "Frankenstein complex" of which Asimov was so critical, a delicacy which emerges as a real strength.

In science fiction it's fairly standard for the protagonist to be someone on the very edge of science's frontiers.  The scientists who fill this genre the way knights populated Medieval romances aside, the characters tend to be present at The Moment When Everything Changes, if not as discoverers, hapless inventors or other history-makers, then at least as guinea pigs or witnesses.  Failing that, they're usually figures who would be colorful in any setting—warriors, spies, cutthroats.

There's plenty of reason for that.  The Moment When Everything Changes is certainly worth writing about (as the two stories discussed above both demonstrate), and the characters populating such stories have an inherent interest.  Still, I often find myself wishing we saw the future less from the standpoint of the people making it and more from that of the people who go on to lead perfectly ordinary lives after the fact, in which The Moment is just something in a history book (which is how we all experience what was once the "Future").

Grey Rollins's "Super Gyro" offers exactly that, the Gyro of the title being the fast food outlet at which his anonymous protagonist (we never catch a name) toils.  He's one of those in the middle zone between the back streets of the cyberpunks and the sleek, gated communities of the cyberpreppies, where the "New Economy" means being lucky to land an ill-paid service job where you wear a paper hat.

Personally, I suspect those jobs too will be automated before long, but the milieu Rollins portrays still seems intuitively right to me.  Much of what we were told the Future had in store for us simply never arrived, after all.  The leisure society, a cure for cancer, democratic world government, space colonies, all exist only in yesteryear's tomorrowlands.  The disappointment over the failure of these things to materialize has gone from joke to cliché, epitomized in an IBM commercial from a few years ago in which Avery Brooks wonders aloud where the flying cars are.  We can only dream of flying cars as we sit in traffic jams—but we have cell phones which take pictures.  We were promised Dean Kamen's next invention would change the world—and it turned out to be the Segway scooter.

Genetic engineering, the main source of speculative interest here, is no exception to the rule.  For all of the hand-wringing about its implications, it turns out that designer children are less the first generation of posthumanity than an object of unbelievably stupid conspicuous consumption.  The "good stuff," like "looks, intelligence, and freedom from disease" proves to be out of reach for geneticists, so wealthy parents settle instead for children with "body hair that grew in zebra stripes, or cute little angel wings."  They can also purchase "powers" for their offspring, but the ones you're likely to encounter are less X-Men and more Mystery Men—like glow-in-the-dark-fingernails.

Rollins skillfully keeps these things in the background (apart from a page and a half of exposition which didn't really mar the narrative flow), the speculative details minor points in a fairly conventional story of street crime and romance in a fast food nation.  In the case of this piece, the very conventionality of the plot is an asset.

Carl Frederick's "Double Helix, Downward Gyre" is about Niels Pederson, a professor who has just been denied tenure.  Capping off an already great day, he just found out that his father has a Genetic Component Disease.

This would all be bad enough, but it's made far worse by the time and place in which this is all happening.  The story's great irony is that the United States is in the grip of an inward-looking, conservative government which simultaneously rejects the theory of evolution while throwing the weight of "Fortress America's" police state behind a eugenics program.

Both are a problem for Pederson.  He happens to be, of all things, a professor of embryonics (the reason he never got his tenure)—and under the Genetic Patriotism Act. he is almost certain to be subject to a government-ordered sterilization on account of his father's condition.

For a few moments after that it looks as if "Double Helix" is about to become a straight thriller, but Frederick opts for satire instead, with even the fugitive-chase stuff being a source of gags.  In one scene, Pederson frantically searches for a pay phone and realizes that "he didn't know if pay phones still existed."  (In this case, the future is now: I remember spending a frantic hour the same way not too long ago.)

Still, despite some over-the-top touches, like embassy-restaurants and the Cold Waresque shenanigans of New Zealand's secret service, that satire is well-grounded in current realities, which is what gives the story its political and comedic punch.  "Double Helix" is a reminder about the importance of privacy and the danger of complacency—not just about the future of American science, but the limitless possibilities for abuses of power in the name of national security under bills with the word "patriot" in the name.

Stephen L. Burns's "The Face of Hate" is about the aftermath of a first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, the Draconians.  Like the Overlords of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, they resemble devils, though Burns's use of this device is even more audacious than Clarke's, totally inverting the image before the story is through.

Burns's tale takes place years after the critical events, photographer Carl Brown meeting Marlene Jennings—the woman who, because of a picture Brown took of her, became the symbol of the hate-filled reaction of many humans to the Draconians.  The exposition, for the most part, comes out in their dialogue, a device commonly attacked as amateurish, but it made a great deal of sense in this context.  In the end, the story succeeds in taking its old premise in a different direction.

David W. Goldman's "Radical Acceptance" is, like "The Face of Hate," about humanity's first contact with an advanced alien race—and their judgment of human kind.  Compared with Burns's dark, somber piece, "Radical Acceptance" is a much lighter read.  The alien is a talking otter, and he's sitting in a hot tub in Malibu with a Hollywood producer.  What do they discuss?   Nothing less than Humanity's Fall—and what believing in it may mean for the future of Earth.  Flip as it is, there is nonetheless an idea here well worth consideration.

R. Emrys Gordon's "Exposure Therapy" is about a xenopsychologist (Serafina Klein) forced to deal with a phobia because of the role she is playing in a first contact situation.  While the narrative is well-written overall, and the story is initially intriguing, the drama fell a bit flat because it devotes too little time to the key conflict and because that conflict hinges on a problematic element—the always risky revelation of "the alien."  The storyteller's audience may be clamoring to see it, but all too often, giving them what they want kills the effect, making the whole thing seem preposterous.  In particular, I remember how M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (which I rather enjoyed for the first hour) went downhill for me the moment one of the invaders actually appeared on screen.  "Exposure Therapy" didn't come off as badly as that, but that underdeveloped conflict hinged on exactly how the extraterrestrials looked like, undermining an already diminished effect.

Kristine Kathryn Rush's brief "The Taste of Miracles" is less a story and more a meditation as two friends sip hot chocolate and reflect on Christmas memories—while performing the once miraculous act of piloting a spaceship from the Earth to the moon.  Rush's piece is what it promises, a cozy holiday interlude.
 
Richard A. Lovett's "The Unrung Bells of the Marie Celeste" concerns Wynsten James's flight aboard the Marie Celeste 7, a hyperdrive-equipped ship on which hopes for a "golden age of space exploration" have widely been pinned.  There is one problem, however: any passenger much more sentient than a mouse tends to disappear by the time these fully automated ships reach their destination.  (Even cats and dogs are "iffy.")  James, for whom the decision to be a test passenger aboard the Marie Celeste is not too far removed from an act of suicide, finds out why exactly that is.  To say much more would probably give the story away, but it suffices to say that the accent is on the human beings rather than new physical principles or original machinery.  James didn't quite work for me as either an Everyman like Rollins's fast food worker, or a figure of exceptional intrigue, but his adventure held my attention nonetheless, and the story's conclusion on a note of wonder and possibility was effective.

At the center of Jerry Oltion's "If Only We Knew" is Robert, an employee in a bookshop who has just found out that he has a six-chambered heart, as well as other seemingly inexplicable physiological idiosyncracies.  He was adopted and so knows nothing about his biological parents, who might have offered some explanation as to all of this.  At the same time, he is terrified of being pursued by government agents (which might have happened in a pulpier piece of science fiction).  Instead, however, the focus of Oltion's narrative is Robert's coping with this discovery about himself and the question of whether, in the end, it really makes any difference at all.

[Editor's note:  Readers may be interested in Nader Elhefnawy's supplemental article to this review which examines the nonfiction pieces in this issue of Analog, two of which were written by the author of "The Unrung Bells of the Marie Celeste," Richard A. Lovett.]