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

Analog -- July/August 2018

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Analog, July/August 2018

A Stab of the Knife” by Adam-Troy Castro

Until We Are Utterly Destroyed” by Frank Wu
Generations Lost and Found” by Evan Dicken
A Simple Question” by Kris Dikeman
The People vs. Craig Morrison” by Alex Shvartsman and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Potosí” by Joe Pitkin
Eulogy for an Immortal” by James Robert Herndon
Welcome to the Arboretum, Little Robot” by Mary E. Lowd
New Frontiers of the Mind” by Andy Duncan
Here’s Looking at You, Cud” by M. Bennardo
Render Unto Caesar” by Eduardo Vaquerizo, translated by Rich Larson
Extracts from the Captain’s Notes” by Mary Soon Lee
Open Source Space” by C. Stuart Hardwick
Priorities” by Jacob A. Boyd
A Crystal Dipped in Dreams” by Auston Habershaw
Left to Take the Lead” by Marissa Lingen

Reviewed by Colleen Chen

I have to confess I was somewhat disappointed by this issue. Before Analog went to double issues, I’d always love at least half the stories. In this July/August issue, even with sixteen stories (novellas, novelettes, and short stories), for the most part I felt uninspired, with no desire to re-read. I noted no themes amongst the spectrum of moods and settings except perhaps “Technology will advance even as people remain infantile in their maturity levels,” or, more simply, “The future will be depressing.”

I will say that the quality of wordsmithing is as high as usual and the read did bring about a couple of interesting conversations regarding “is that possible, is that likely to happen?” namely—is it conceivable that one day a law could be passed and upheld banning manual driving? and, could/would the Catholic church really institute a program for getting men pregnant?!

A Stab of the Knife,” by Adam-Troy Castro, is the sole novella of this issue and contains characters seen in other stories by the same author. It takes place in New London, on a civilized cylinder planet within the universe of the Confederacy of worlds. One of these characters, Draiken, is a sort of a spy on a vague personal mission to follow the trails of long-ago torturers who now are working on a dangerous science of mind control, which he wants to see destroyed. He has targeted for surveillance Andrea Cort, a suspiciously high-ranking counselor, who is always accompanied by the Porrinyards—two attractive, spiky-haired bodyguards with cybernetically fused personalities. Draiken suspects connections between Andrea and those refining the mind control technology.

An assassination plan is underway, but the target is unclear. Draiken follows leads, trusts no one, and finds himself in the middle of a soap-operatic tangle of conflicting interests only peripherally related to his original goal. As reader, I felt as blind as Draiken himself as to where the story was leading. When the climax unravels, he is sent on a new trajectory that we don’t know will bring him any closer to finding peace, but we are left on a hopeful note.

I suspect this novella would be more satisfying to those who are already familiar with some of the characters from this universe. I felt like I was looking in on characters I should care about because of some missing back story. I was unclear of any of the characters’ motives or desires. It was more like a day-in-the-life snapshot of the life of a spy rather than a story with a point to it. I feel that the characters should have been interesting, but weren’t. Still, the writing was fast-paced and skilled enough that I kept reading hungrily, waiting for something that I just never found.

In “Until We Are Utterly Destroyed,” by Frank Wu, Asha Ashalooloo is a scientist and theologian of his race of segmented, multi-legged, clawed creatures. Based on an earlier scientist’s discovery that their race had an odd sugar in their genetic material based on five carbons, Asha theorizes that their race is distinguished by the gods for being the only one with this special sugar. Then they see something from the skies—from Heaven—crashing to the ground. Amidst frenzied worship and fear-based rioting around the temples, Asha and a few others go to a fallen ship of the gods. Asha discovers a horrifying secret revealing the truth of the gods and the very purpose of the existence of their race.

I found this story hard to get into for its foreignness, but with some patience it had a pretty neat payoff. For about half the story, I had no idea what was going on. Then it started to dawn on me, and I found myself enjoying it. The characters, who all have such juicy names I had to say them repeatedly under my breath, manage to evoke an echo of relatability despite their repellent and alien appearances. As their world comes crashing down around them and we learn that their new goal is to arm themselves and attack the “gods” who are their human creators, we feel free to enjoy their intense emotionality without caring about any of the destruction.

Generations Lost and Found” by Evan Dicken offers a twist on the tale of humans sent on a long voyage with the intent of colonizing a faraway planet. Here, after centuries, the ship has finally reached its destination planet. During those centuries, the ship inhabitants have evolved and been augmented as circumstances have dictated—developing multiple, specialized, or retractable limbs or sense organs, segmented bodies that can spiral for warmth, lungs that are suited for air of a constitution far different from what humans as we know it breathe. As Maro, the Chief Scion-Engineer, regards the planet with its nitrogen-oxygen rich air and open spaces, he realizes that he and his family and all those who have brought the mission to its completion were never meant to survive. His ship is slated for deconstruction to build the colony, and in their evolved form he and his shipmates are only suited for life on that ship. He is faced with a hard decision between his purpose and a budding vision of another life.

As in “Until We Are Utterly Destroyed,” this story creates emotional identification with alien-in-appearance creatures who have in essence been created by humans, but now whose lives and wills have developed to oppose humans’ intended purpose for them. The desire to survive and to protect one’s children are apparently not traits that would be bred out from generations of traveling.

This story offers an interesting experience for the reader with its viscerally uncomfortable descriptions of what the evolved bodies have become used to—the tight spaces, the smells, the cold air with its minimal oxygen. It caused me to wonder at the choices that would propel people to augment their bodies into mutations of what they once were, simply to survive. I can’t quite stretch my brain to comprehend that, but this story does a good job of posing that question.

A Simple Question,” by Kris Dikeman, was a welcome relief from the bleak plots of most of the rest of the issue. There is bleakness here too, but it’s balanced out by a dark humor that works well. The scene is set with two colleagues, Laura and Carl, trapped in the glass-walled break room in the center of a laboratory where all the scientists have been infected with a spore that zombifies them into “fungal mold monsters” who sprout threads and throw themselves at the glass in an attempt to get at the humans in the break room. Thankfully the glass is strong, so after a while their pattern is to break open and die. Laura and Carl are trying to survive by eating vending machine food while they think about ways to get out.

Carl has a distinct sort of irritating personality that will likely resemble at least one person we know. Laura is more passive and internal, but her deadpan reactions to Carl are hilarious. An entertaining and satisfying story with a great punchline.

In “The People vs. Craig Morrison,” by Alex Shvartsman and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Craig Morrison is the wheelchair-bound protagonist who has become the symbol of the “freedom to drive” movement, opposing the anti-manual-driving movement in a court case that’s gone up to the state supreme court. Craig, who suffers from old war injuries and associated PTSD, finds driving one of the few remaining activities he enjoys, and precious memories of his father are caught up in cars and the feel of the wheel in his hands. Still, as he nears the end of the battle, he finds that in becoming the symbol for freedom, what he’s been fighting for feels as empty as the rest of his life.

This story has what I would call a lot of “male energy.” It’s all about a man’s obsession with cars and the emotional release that comes from driving them. The only female character in the story, the opposing attorney, is really annoying, as she wants to stop men from playing with their cars. I’m not sure I find it plausible that any court in a world resembling our current one would take away the right to manually drive a car, given the difficulty we have in passing laws to restrict weapons—far more people seem to need the emotional outlet of road rage and passive-aggressive driving—but this story does a good job of provoking that debate (which I actually had with someone). Aside from that, it offers an authentic portrayal of a helpless man who’s forced to adapt to new circumstances.

Potosí,” by Joe Pitkin, takes place in a future of massive corporations and countries trying to lay claim to resources—this time, in the expanded field of outer space. Magus is a corporation that sends out a team of four on a twelve-month mission to confirm that an asteroid it is attempting to lay claim to is of nearly pure platinum, and thus of immense value. Solomon, an African man with a wife and daughters he misses immensely, is one of the four, along with an Australian man and two women, one likely Indian and one white. The races are important in this story, as they represent how power dynamics have changed in this future. The white woman is a secretive communications specialist who her colleagues suspect might be part of a terrorist organization composed of white people of American descent who espouse old values typical of rednecks and “white trash.”

The mission goes well until betrayal occurs from within their team, and things continue to go south as it appears that the existence of Potosí is no longer a secret. Solomon finds himself in the middle of a greed-driven race to own the asteroid and its resources.

More depressing stuff, this time about a future in which the rich-poor gap has only grown, and nothing has changed in a world of corporate greed and nationalist pride that objectifies everyone save those close to us. What did I like about it? There’s a pretty great scene with a shootout in space.

In “Eulogy for an Immortal,” by James Robert Herndon, Billy finds his father dead in his cabin, seated at his workbench holding a carving knife and a hot brick of plastic. Billy reminisces over his father’s obsession with carving plastic, in particular making plastic flowers containing miniscule amounts of glucose from his dead wife’s blood. It had something to do with plastic lasting forever. Billy knows that his father wanted something similar to be done to himself, and so Billy takes the diabetic test strips containing his father’s blood and undertakes to create a memorial for his father that would do him justice.

This story is a reminder that all the plastic junk we generate in immense quantities daily is going to far outlive us. This is a sad thought, but here we see the near-immortality of plastic in a whimsical light, through a perspective of love, the sublimation of grief, and the determination to keep someone alive in memory and beyond. I’m not really sure how I feel about this story, but I know I’ve never read anything like it.

Welcome to the Arboretum, Little Robot,” by Mary E. Lowd, is as cute a tale as it is short. It’s about a robot who, waiting for its mistress to finish her shopping, discovers an arboretum and gets its sensors so fascinated that the groundskeeper thinks it’s malfunctioning. There isn’t much more to this day-in-the-life of a curious robot, but it was enjoyable to read and to experience how a little robot might process the world.

New Frontiers of the Mind,” by Andy Duncan, explores the idea of telepathy in this story of a psychology professor, Rhine, and a prodigal student, Campbell, who seems to have tapped into something as he repeatedly beats the odds at guessing symbols that appear in Rhine’s “Zener deck”—a deck of twenty-five cards bearing five symbols. Campbell and Rhine both get excited about the implications of apparent telepathy going on, but then they begin to hit a bunch of walls. Aside from not knowing what to do with the evidence of Campbell’s ability, Campbell’s personal life begins to suffer, and then he goes into an inexplicable losing streak in which he is no longer able to correctly guess the cards better than the odds. We are left with more questions than answers—or perhaps the intimation that some things can’t be figured out, only lived.

This story does a good job of laying out the frustrations of science attempting to understand concepts that can probably not be tested within a truly controlled environment. It’s a far more accurate portrayal of the ambiguity of telepathy, the thin line between it and coincidence, than the many stories in which mind-to-mind contact is clear and obvious. Would that it were so simple as a Vulcan mind meld. Overall, this is a skillfully constructed story that does well with its non-chronological and point-of-view-jumping story line.

In “Here’s Looking at You, Cud,” by M. Bennardo, the narrator is a federal agent charged with enforcing the America’s Heartland Water Preservation Act, which means he has to bust places that are serving burgers made from real meat, as opposed to the “cultured beef product” made in labs. His current assignment is to out the illegal beef operations at the roadhouse of his ex-girlfriend Judy. With him is his partner Daggett, who he disdains for her youth and her never quite looking “real” in her disguises. Judy, on the other hand, is all real, and he’s sure her beef is real. This is contrasted to Judy’s observation that his world is built from lies. As readers, we see the painful effects of this dichotomy of desire for truth vs. the narrator’s inability to be true to himself.

The unreliability of the narrator is skillfully laid out, highlighting a character who everybody sees as an idiot except for the narrator himself. I also really wanted to try some cultured beef product after reading this.

Render Unto Caesar,” by Eduardo Vaquerizo, translated by Rich Larson, begins with a warning that some readers might find its content disturbing, so I was prepared for something horrible. What I found was a story about a priest, Father Augustine, who has frequent nightmares about children—stepping on children’s skulls, children chasing him, biting him with sharp teeth. He’s suffering from a number of physical ailments—swollen ankles, nausea and vomiting, an uncomfortable gut—a lot like the symptoms of a pregnant woman, actually. When he tries to go to a journalist to tell his story, we discover he actually is pregnant, as part of a program instituted by the Catholic Church that’s aimed at increasing unwanted pregnancies in order to funnel in orphans born from the bellies of priests, to be raised as priests and nuns.

I’m much more disturbed at someone thinking that they needed to warn the readers that this content might disturb them than I was disturbed by the content. The story is definitely very different, and it presents some interesting ideas. With the warning at the beginning of the story, and the behavior of those around Father Augustine, I was left pondering, “Are people really so judgmental?” How much are we willing to stretch our minds to accommodate different ways of perceiving a situation, and to suspend our own limitations around what disgusts us? Lots of food for thought in a story that does challenge some sacred cows and tiptoes on the edges of political correctness.

Extracts from the Captain’s Notes: First Crew to Saturn’s Moons,” by Mary Soon Lee, is a short and humorous set of observations about interactions between a crew of five over the course of five years. It’s like only a few running jokes are taken from the notes so we can get a taste of this voyage. In a few words—body odor and annoying couples. It’s a quick and light read.

In “Open Source Space,” by C. Stuart Hardwick, Kylie and Dean crowd funded an attempt to bring home via solar sail the probe-turned-space-tugboat named Snoopy, a remnant from the Apollo 10 dry run for the lunar landing. They lose contact, but eight years later they’re contacted by NASA with news that Snoopy has reappeared and is headed for a Chinese lunar base, causing international turmoil and threats of war. Kylie and Dean turn back to their open-source contacts and cobble together a mission to save Snoopy.

A story of courage and little individuals collaborating to save the world from bumbling government interests, I have to admit I found most of it hard to swallow—that missions into space could be crowd funded by people around the world, and that a woman would pop into a second-hand space suit and be able to go into space on the overnight planning of some random overweight genius in a Hawaiian shirt and figure out how to deflect a missile. She does this all with unrelenting pep and fearlessness. Reading this story, I felt the same urge to gag as when I watched Armageddon or some similar all-American-individual-vs-massive-odds-and-serious-people kind of movie. She and Dean even kiss at the end of the story, watched by millions. A well-written tale of adventure and true love, perhaps, but not to be enjoyed by jaded people such as myself.

Priorities,” by Jacob A. Boyd, takes place in a future where every new conceived child requires an asteroid to be mined for raw materials to support its gestation. Barigin Tom is the new steward of Asteroid A-432, but as he begins the mining process, he’s already in crisis as something knocks him down and his pressure suit starts to deflate. He seals the hole and calls the equivalent of tech support at the Oort Base where he’s from. He is forced to trust a person he refers to as The Voice, who is located on a toxic Earth 93 million miles away, to talk him through his issues and save his life.

This story is a metaphor for calls we have to make to tech support to people in third world countries who somehow know exactly what we need to do with our computers and who can actually take them over remotely. Clever and entertaining, and Barigin Tom is endearingly flawed in his panic, unlike Kylie in the previous story.

A Crystal Dipped in Dreams” by Auston Habershaw explores a lawless desert dystopia in which people today are considered the “Ancients.” In this future, the air is so dry it sucks water from one’s lungs, and lakes are made of glass. People hunt for salvage, barter what they can find, and sometimes consume human meat and blood to survive. Goss visits desert ruins to search for salvage and finds a strange crystal. A woman named Dane takes it from him at gunpoint, then takes him for a traveling companion. As they journey, Goss discovers that the crystal has the ability to transport him to a virtual reality of pleasure, devoted companions, and abundant food and drink. When they reach a trading post, the peddler recognizes the crystal not for being a Wonder, but for its ability to bring people to their death as they come to trade with him and he kills and eats them. Goss finds, on the other hand, that the dreams offered by the crystal have woken in him a curiosity that births in him a desire to live.

This story, aside from making me want to drink a large glass of water, uses a number of familiar elements from science fiction dystopias of late, among them deserts, water scarcity, and cannibalism. It mixes these with virtual reality to show those future people what it was like in these times. This story doesn’t offer anything particularly unique, but is effective for what it is and creates a lot of uncomfortable aftertastes for those who like a virtual experience themselves when reading a story.

Left to Take the Lead” by Marissa Lingen features another character from the Oort cloud. Holly is indentured to work on an Earth farm to pay off her education bills. Earth isn’t in quite as bad shape in this story as in the other Oort-featured piece, but climate change has still resulted in more frequent blizzards and tornadoes and thus it’s common for Holly to hear the sirens that send her to the tornado shelter. Holly has a family spread out over the galaxy, which were separated during a Collapse that caused her uncles to lose their ship, and she hopes to someday reunite with them and own a ship again. Unfortunately, Holly’s reliance on her family to make those dreams happen slowly dies, until she realizes that only she herself can bring her family back together. As she matures, though, she realizes that family can be more than just people related by blood.

This is a nice coming of age story with a unique setting. Life doesn’t really change even if the backdrop is different.