Analog, May 2005

Sunday, 27 March 2005 06:44 Brit Marschalk and Dawn Burnell
“Footsteps” by Shane Tourtellotte
“Death As a Way of Life” by Grey Rollins
“The Inn at Mount Either” by James Van Pelt
“Much Ado About Newton” by Carl Frederick
“Tainted” by Jerry Oltion
“Tomorrow’s Strawberries” by Richard A. Lovett
“Smiling Vermin” by Ekaterina Sedia and David Bartell
“High Moon” by Joe Schembrie

ImageThe May 2005 issue of Analog includes a wide variety of science fiction.  Several of the stories ask disturbing ontological questions, while others are almost silly.  Most have a relatively soft scientific focus, preferring character struggle to technical lectures.  All exhibit the approachable clarity that Analog readers have come to expect, making them easily accessible to the layperson.

The lead story, Shane Tourtellotte’s “Footsteps,” inspires this issue’s intriguing cover.  This lunar murder mystery begins with the discovery of a man’s unsuited body in the vacuum outside the colonial domes.  The case presents a challenge to the jurisdiction’s sherriff, a conscientious woman with big outvac boots to fill.  She investigates the death in the searing spotlight of professional and amateur media alike, and along the way she must confront her own motives and question her ambitions.  In the end, she is willing to take the ultimate risk to solve the case, fearing that the very security of lunar life is at stake.

Tourtellotte’s protagonist is well-developed and sympathetic.  Female readers in particular may find her a welcome departure from male-dominated hard sci-fi.  The author also succeeds in bringing a dead landscape to life, though the indoor spaces receive shorter shrift.

The plot unfolds very logically, leaving no loose ends.  Its length notwithstanding, the story reads at a steady pace, unhindered by extraneous detail.  Some readers may solve bits of the puzzle long before the protagonist does, but that, to a degree, is the nature of mystery stories—the reader gets to play detective, too.  Also, the resolution includes enough complexity and surprise to deliver a satisfying read.  Fans of mysteries and true crime may particularly enjoy this piece.

The investigative theme continues with Grey Rollins’s “Death As a Way of Life,” a spoof of classic private detective sagas.  A performer who has made a killing by dying weekly on reality TV—and returning in a cloned body for each new episode—has finally ceased to exist due to a malfunction in his personality backup.  His mother suspects the unit was sabotaged.  The private eye, who is himself on his second “incarnation,” sets out to make the case for murder.

Rollins’ protagonist is immediately unlikeable.  The character’s chauvinism, which permeates almost every interaction with a woman, approaches misogyny.  Even he has to admit to his lame sense of humor, and it occurs to this reader that he’s not particularly bright, either.  Nonetheless, explorations of his character frequently interrupt the plot.  He converses often with an electronic copy of himself, and while this is novel at first, it wears thin after a while.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself rooting for the “bad guys.”

Some aspects of the story simply don’t make sense to this reader.  Most importantly, the author never explains whether the personality backup process can capture consciousness, or whether people believe that it can.

“The Inn at Mount Either” by James Van Pelt takes the reader on a colorful and surreal odyssey.  A man becomes separated from his wife during their stay at a unique mountain resort.  To find her, he attempts to navigate multiple parallel realities, and he soon becomes lost somewhere in a chain of thematically distinct inns.  Fearing retribution from the hotel staff, he tries to find his way back alone, all the while searching for his wife.

Of all the stories in this issue, this one most deserves to be labeled a “page-turner.”  The protagonist’s journey is vivid and intense.  Some readers may find themselves disappointed with the ending, but not due to any lack of authorial skill.  Rather, they may find themselves troubled by lingering questions about why we love, and those small details that make literally a universe of difference in our relationships.

“Much Ado About Newton” by Carl Frederick is a punny story about Isaac Newton, Science Fiction, and America's judicial system.  Frederick pits high school physics teacher, Paul Ratchet, against Judge Zeno Weevil in a Mass. (ha) Courtroom.  The story is filled with math, science, and legal puns.  Sure to delight anyone who finds such word games enjoyable, though I felt it never overcame the energy potential to be truly enjoyable.

“Tainted” is a bittersweet tale of exploration and loss by Jerry Oltion.  The protagonist is a conscious, plant-like organism, and the only sentient being on his home planet.  Blessed with botanical immortality, he hones his intelligence through the ages, producing many inventions.  Eventually, he develops spacefaring technology and sets out in search of other sentients.

Oltion’s protagonist is easy to identify with, despite his alien nature.  His ideals, in this reader’s opinion, represent humanity’s highest aspirations, and his loneliness recalls the theme of the movie Contact.  The author peppers his journey with humor while delivering a serious message.

Unfortunately, this story feels incomplete, and some readers may find the ending abrupt or unsatisfying.  Moreover, the story’s lesson about self-destruction feels somewhat dated.  Nevertheless, the perspective is fresh, and it begs us to cherish our differences.

Richard A. Lovett’s “Tomorrow’s Strawberries” is perhaps this issue’s darkest offering.  The futuristic setting features an Earth which is almost completely developed, except for vast fields of black supercrops.  This is the result not of human overpopulation but of trade with an alien hegemony: humans have exchanged territory for incredible extraterrestrial technology.

Lovett’s protagonist, a former astronaut named Bill Johnston, helped usher in this new world.  Now he enjoys a quiet existence, in which he tends lovingly to his balcony garden.  His life changes, though, when he wins a twenty-four-hour pass to the Ten Thousand Acres, the planet’s last remaining expanse of wilderness.

This story is well-written and features some intriguing technology, biological and otherwise.  However, Bill’s journey is sentimental and gloomy, and his destination is all too clear.  The narrative contains absolutely no character interaction or dialogue, and one can almost see the author’s fingerprints where he steers the story away from such interruptions.  It’s an interesting approach, but the result is a plodding pace and a rather flat literary landscape.  Fans of experimental fiction may enjoy this more than casual readers.

“Smiling Vermin” by Ekaterina Sedia and David Bartell features Gus and Jessie, the married couple from March’s “Alphabet Angels.”  In this story, a bioengineered anniversary present leads to unintended consequences, despite the creator’s discretion.  Though the accompanying illustration is rather creepy, this is a cute tale with a tone as light as a feather.

The relationship between Gus and Jessie is poignant without being cheesy, and their friendship is refreshing and realistic.  Unfortunately, the story itself lacks dramatic tension.  The title and hook essentially give away the climax, and the plot meaders quite a bit on its way to the resolution.  Early on, the stage is crowded with characters, and it’s difficult to keep them all straight.  Some of the story’s dialogue seems thrown in just for fun—and some of it is quite funny—but pacing and focus suffer as a result.

This issue ends the same way it begins—with a story set on the moon.  Joe Schembrie’s “High Moon” is an amusing tale of corporate espionage played out among various lunar mining businesses.  The protagonist, one of the last employees of his failing company, performs his job by interfacing with a robot the size of a toaster oven located on the moon.  His colleagues—and his competitors—operate similarly, using machines of varying sizes and capabilities.

The absurd twist is that the robot proxies behave as if the moon is the Old West.  Most of them even wear cowboy hats.  Though the protagonist himself shuns such affectations, the story unfolds just like an old Western, complete with a villain, a hero, an incompetent sherriff, a spunky saloon mistress—and a showdown.

This story raises several issues which are not resolved to this reader’s satisfaction; a narrower focus may have produced a stronger work with fewer words.  Also, the central act in the climax is rather predictable.  That being said, several moments in this piece are laugh-out-loud funny.  It’s not Hitchhiker’s Guide—what is?—but fans of Douglas Adams may want to keep an eye on Schembrie’s future work.  Sci-fi readers who also love Westerns may really enjoy this piece.

In addition to fiction, the May issue includes several thought-provoking articles about privacy in the age of terrorism.  It will be interesting to see the Letters to the Editor that result.

(Reviewed by Brit Marschalk except for "Much Ado About Newton" by Carl Frederick which was reviewed by Dawn Burnell.)