Analog, September 2010 -- Two Views

Monday, 23 August 2010 21:18 Carl Slaughter & Rena Hawkins
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"That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone
"Pupa" by David Levine
"Eight Miles" by Sean McMullen
"Spludge" by Richard Lovett
"Red Letter Day" Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Flotsam" by K.C. Ball
“The View from the Top" by Jerry Oltion
"Sandbagging" by Kyle Kirkland
Reviewed by Carl Slaughter

"That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made," by Eric James Stone, is a mixture of very impressive and very unimpressive, very original and very unoriginal.

The opening sequences contain a very common technique among science fiction writers.  Makes you wonder if there's a science fiction editor who isn't duped by this kind of jaded science fiction and pseudo science fiction:  

"As beings made of plasma, swales couldn’t  attend church in the chapel, of course, but a ten-foot widescreen display across the back wall showed a false-color display of their magnetic force-lines, gathered in clumps of blue and red against the yellow background representing the solar interior. The screen did not give a sense of size, but at two hundred feet in length, the smallest of the swales was almost double the length of a blue whale. From what I’d heard, the largest Mormon swale, Sister Emma, stretched out to almost five hundred feet—but she was nowhere near the twenty-four-mile length of the largest swale in our sun."   

"A wall screen similar to the one in the chapel showed pods of swales moving through solar currents  …  Since the actual names of swales were series of magnetic pulses, they took human names when interacting with us  …  Your lifetime is but an eyeblink to her, if she had eyes that blinked."  

"I worked as a funds manager for CitiAmerica, and being stationed here gave me an eight-and-a-half minute head start over Earth-based funds managers when it came to acting on news brought in from other star systems through the interstellar portal at the heart of the Sun."

Also makes you wonder if there is a science fiction writer who can resist the temptation to wow us, or rather attempt to wow us, with this kind of, well, jaded science fiction and pseudo science fiction, the type that wowed our grandparents in the 30s, 40s, and 50s:  

"After getting clearance from Traffic Control, the computer spun up the superconducting magnets for the Heim drive and we left the station  …  On a monitor, I watched the computer-generated visualization of our shuttle approaching the energy shield that protected us from the twenty-eight million degrees Fahrenheit and the 340 billion atmospheres of pressure. I held my breath as the shield stretched, forming a bulge around the shuttle. Soon we were in a bubble still connected by a thin tube to the shield around the station. Then the tube snapped, and our bubble wobbled a bit before settling down to a sphere  …  The energy shield is not going to fail. It’s a self-sustaining reaction powered by the energy of the solar plasma around it."

We have the typical discussion about species differences, the typical debate about cultural interference, the typical contrast/comparison of sexual practices, the typical banter between the typical hard core skeptic and the typical hard core believer.  What we don't have is a legitimate and essential integration of the alien's nature and activities into the plot   Change the belly of the sun to the belly of the jungle, change the aliens to members of a tribe, change the sexual practices to polygamy and wife swapping.  Is the story still science fiction?  Pause while writers and fans alike research the definition of true science fiction.  Or better still, just check the submission page of, guess which magazine,  Analog.

Ah, but the plot gets refreshingly intriguing when the oldest and largest alien claims to be a god, the original life form, the creator of [all?] other life forms.  Then it gets refreshingly ominous when the self proclaimed god squares off with the Mormon, his alien convert, and their competing god.  At the end, we get a good blending of plot, character development, and theme.  Particularly impressive is the way the author gives Mormon religion an engaging role in the outcome.  

Ironically, what leads to the discovery of the god's claim is not a search for meaning or a search for truth, nor a search for a new source of energy or a search for a new life form.  A Mormon layman leader just wants swales to stop forcing their sexual affection on the swale members of his congregation and he hopes the oldest known swale can persuade the other swales to honor his request.  

Anyone who has read more than one piece of fiction in their life will have serious reservations about continuing after reading this laughably archtypical dialog in the opening sequence of "Pupa," by David Levine:

“You should have realized that you wouldn’t be able to maintain this deception forever.”
“Don’t do this. You can stop this madness now, before any permanent harm is done. I’m authorized to offer clemency if you halt the operation immediately and surrender.”
“Clemency. You’ll have to offer far more than that to make abandoning this operation worthwhile.”
“Think. What you’ve done so far is only a level three offense, but harming an agent of the Grand Nest means death by suffocation. And if I don’t check in, there will be an investigation.”
“Oh, you will check in tomorrow, at twelve past the hour of waking, just as you have been doing every sixthday. Yes, we’ve been monitoring your communications.  And we’re able to reproduce them as well. You won’t be missed until after our job here is done.”
“A bad clutch of eggs always hatches a bad swarm. One of your compatriots will betray you to the Grand Nest in exchange for leniency.”
“None of my compatriots would ever betray me! This nest is as one  …  The Grand Nest is mired in tradition.  We are the future. What we are doing here may be prohibited today, but the children who hatch from eggs not yet even laid will hail us as the saviors of our species.”

But don't give up just yet.  The author doesn't elaborate on the dissident's plan, nor does that part of the story ultimately affect the plot or the outcome.  But the rest of the story is worth struggling through the corny and irrelevant part.  The author delves deeply and vividly into the heroine's agonizing but determined efforts to save herself and her younger siblings against overwhelming odds after they witness their mother's murder.  Turns out her mother was a spy.  So she not only needs to survive herself and protect her remaining family, she needs to contact the home planet about her mother's death and the conspiracy her mother uncovered.  Meanwhile, her body is on the verge of pupating.

The dissidents have built a portal and are trading with another species.  The other species turns out be to us.  So we get a fascinating glimpse of Earth and humans through the eyes of an intelligent insect.  We also get to witness an adorable exchange between a juvenile human and a juvenile insect.  The dialog is through a crude translation device.  The result is very rough translation.  Solving the translation puzzle is half the fun.

The juvenile human is treated as important because its parent is important.  The juvenile insect is treated as insignificant because members of its species do not have status until after they pupate.  The contrast and symmetry as the friendship develops play heavily in the character development and eventually the plot.  

This is a classic and very touching story.  You won't forget it.

"Eight Miles," by Sean McMullen, is set in 1840.  It involves a hot air balloon and a female "werefox" captured in India.    Low altitudes have a drugging affect on the werefox.  By 1840 travel methods, India is too far from London to leave his business unattended for so long, so her custodian needs the balloon to take her to her native altitude.  At that height, he can discover her true condition and hopefully communicate with her.  Plenty of chemistry as the balloonist struggles to get the balloon to a height safe for the pair of humans.

Midway, the story begins to evolve to ambitious levels.  First it switches from science and adventure to intrigue and detective.  Next it turns extraterrestrial, then history lesson, and finally war machine.

The presentation is Verne-ish, with a lot of dialog and a lot of details.  These type of stories seem to be one of the staples at Analog.  I suppose there's a significant market for them.  This one is plenty sophisticated and plenty enjoyable.  But why are they always so long?!

"Spludge," by Richard Lovett, is about pranks.  A former prankster turned journalist realizes newly arrived aliens are playing a prank on the President of the United States.  It's the old growing turtle trick.  Give your landlady a turtle, then secretly swap it for a bigger one the next day and an even bigger one the second day.  After several days, your landlady is convinced the turtle is some type of mutant.   Every day, the LGM give the President a baby alien, then asks him to care for it and take it back the next day.  They take the baby into the spaceship the next day, pretend to inspect it, and pretend to bring it back.  They say they plan to evaluate interspecies relationships based on how well the President cares for the baby.  The journalist knows the babies will eventually start getting smaller, then the aliens will laugh or declare war or whatever they're up to.

He races against time to outprank the aliens with a media hoax about "green cancer"  -  a fake prion that allegedly preys on organisms with green pigment.  Of course, the LGM hightail it off Earth.  But will they be back?  And did they know it was a hoax?  If so, did they pull another prank on us after they left?  If so, have the alien pranksters outpranked the human prankster who tried to outprank them?  Or did they retaliate with something sinister?

The story shines in the second half.  The first half could have simply been cut with no loss. This romp tries to be delightful rather than hilarious.   For fans of mischief.

"Red Letter Day," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is a time travel story about warning your past self to avoid disaster.  Time travel has mindboggling implications, so it is strictly regulated and narrowly focused.  You can time travel only once in your life and only by writing a letter on your 50th birthday to your former self, delivered on high school graduation day.  If the letter does not have the desired effect, i.e., creating an alternate timeline with a better outcome, the person who receives the letter on graduation day tries again on their 50th birthday.  The process continues indefinitely or until the person trying to change personal history either succeeds, gives up, or dies before their 50th birthday.

The story is written in first person and contains an awful lot of pondering.  Pondering about the main character, pondering about the major characters, pondering about high school graduates, pondering about society, pondering about time travel, pondering about the red letters.  The result is that nothing significant happens until 90% of the way into the story.  But when something finally happens, it happens with a bang as the time travel scenario is revealed.  Revealed but not settled.  The major character who sets the scenario in motion is still alive, which means the main character can still change the behavior of the major character.  Instead, she resigns herself to ignorance and inaction:  "My future, whatever it is, will be the mystery it always was. The mystery it should be. The mystery it will always be."

A fresh, solid, entertaining take on time travel and a well written story.  But unless you like slow burn character development, skip to the last scene.  

"Flotsam," by K.C. Ball, is just another astronaut emergency story.  Crew members struggle against body injury, ship damage, and corporate treachery.  With some makeshift mechanics/physics and some Sfnal chemistry, they snatch survival from the jaws of hopelessness. Many sentences suffer from concept, verb, and tech term overload, resulting in grammar fatigue and therefore reader fatigue.  Strictly for NASA junkies.

"The View from the Top," by Jerry Oltion, is 4000 words.  I can save you at least 3000.  An astronaut has trouble controlling his emotions and bursts into joyful tears when he sees something wonderful.  Astronauts have to maintain emotional control in a crisis.  Meanwhile, moisture floating around and landing on just the wrong spot in a space station can cause major mechanical problems.  So he has to get control or evacuate and be grounded indefinitely.  Except for a bit of character development and character interaction and except for a bit of childhood background hinting at the origin of the problem, the first 75% of the story will put you to sleep.  Finally we get a very scientific cause and a very scientific solution, followed by a very anticlimactic ending.  

"Sandbagging," by Kyle Kirkland, is about a computer AI that is given control of the world, then brings civilization to a halt.  It plans to kill off half the population through DNA deactivation, saving the other half from starvation.  Or is that the real plan?  One theory is that it will use enforced evolution, the strong killing off the weak in the struggle to survive.  Another theory is that the AI understood human behavior well enough to trick the ones hindering civilization into killing each other.

Character development is strong, most of the story is devoted to the grad student protagonist squaring off with his grad student nemesis, squaring off with his treacherous professor, or sneaking around campus.  An enormous word count is devoted to describing lights and shadows.  Other than the AI, the only futuristic science in the story, the one studied by our grad student protagonist, is never fully developed and therefore never used against the AI. The author could easily have had a human global dictator accomplish what the AI did without including any science in the plot.  This is a human behavior story, not, by traditional definition, a science fiction story.  

Another example of a great premise ruined by a bad story.


***

"That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone
"Pupa" by David D. Levine
"Eight Miles" by Sean McMullen
"Spludge" by Richard A. Lovett
"Red Letter Day" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Flotsam" by K.C. Ball
"The View From the Top" by Jerry Oltion
"Sandbagging" by Kyle Kirkland

Reviewed by Rena Hawkins

Mormons in Space?  Author Eric James Stone gives us just that in his novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made.”  Harry Malan is the Branch President of the Sol Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  His membership includes forty-six swale, a race of gigantic plasma beings comprised of males, females and neuters.  At the beginning of the story, President Malan immediately lusts for, then clashes with, Dr. Juanita Merced, who studies the swale and doesn’t appreciate Malan teaching “human myths” to the aliens.

To complicate matters for President Malan, one of his swale members, Neuter Kimball, has been forced to have sex by a much larger swale female, an act that isn’t a crime in swale culture.  Determined to defend Neuter Kimball and make the swale understand that coerced sexual activity is wrong, President Malan contacts the oldest and largest of the swale, a female the scientists have named Leviathan.  In the course of their debate, Leviathan informs Malan she is “the original life,” then stuns the humans by ordering Malan to bring Neuter Kimball to meet with her in person.  Since I don’t want to ruin the ending, I’ll only say that humans aren’t the only ones who must deal with issues of pride and faith.

Eric James Stone manages to combine religion and science in an entertaining, well-plotted tale that doesn’t come off as overly preachy.  I enjoyed this story very much.  

The second novelette is “Pupa,” by David D. Levine.  Ksho is a juvenile member of an insect-like race preparing to pupate for three months to become an adult.  Dealing with the pain and discomfort of her changing body is hard enough, but when she walks in on the murder of her parent by a traitor, she suddenly must overcome deeply ingrained cultural conditioning and her own self-doubts to save herself and her remaining siblings from certain death.

Ksho travels through a portal linking her location with The White House to seek food and help from the alien humans.  Here, she meets Ah-lec-sa (the child’s name is never spelled out in the story), a little girl who bears a striking resemblance to an Obama daughter.  Ah-lec-sa befriends Ksho and relates the history of dark-skinned humans and their struggle not to be considered inferior.  Ah-lec-sa sings to Ksho a famous ancestor song and makes Ksho repeat over and over, “I am significant!”  To me, this entire section feels very heavy-handed and forced.  

While I understand the author’s use throughout the story of large patches of untranslated dialogue (especially the song) to convey alien thought, it became tedious to read.  If everyone has a translator, can we please use them?

A good story overall with a couple of problem areas.

The third novelette is “Eight Miles,” by Sean McMullen.  Let me say up front this is my absolute favorite story of the issue.

Set in London of 1840, “Eight Miles” is the tale of Harold Parkes, a slightly down-on-his-luck hot air balloonist.  Lord Cedric Gainsley, a wealthy Englishman, hires Parkes to take him and his strange female companion named Angelica on some very unusual balloon rides.

Steampunk fans will love the descriptions of how the story’s many invented machines are constructed and function.  I greatly admire Sean McMullen’s ability to make the mechanics seem plausible without overwhelming his readers with too many details.  

Wildly inventive and wonderfully entertaining, I won’t be at all surprised to see “Eight Miles” on some “Year’s Best” lists.  

The first short story of the issue is “Spludge,” by Richard A. Lovett.  “Spludge” introduces us to William Whilmer, a confirmed practical joker who attempts to hide his penchant for the absurd behind a serious writing career.

When little green men land on the White House lawn and present the President with a little green “baby,” William immediately recognizes the giggling green men as fellow practical jokers.  But what to do about it?  William racks his brain to come up with an ingenious way to beat the alien practical jokers at their own game.

“Spludge” is an offbeat story that fans of science fiction humor should enjoy.

In “Red Letter Day,” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, we’re asked: what if time travel is possible, but strictly controlled so that everyone is allowed only one contact from their future selves in the form of a letter received on the day of their high school graduation?  Would your entire life change based on what your future self reveals?  Even worse, what if you receive no letter at all?

The story is told in the first person by a special counselor at Barack Obama High School–-a woman who counsels the few kids who don’t receive letters.  It was only after my second reading of the story that I realized we never learn her name.  The counselor is in the perfect position to understand and sympathize with her distraught students–-like them, she didn’t receive a letter from her future self on graduation day and has lived her entire life wondering why.

While it starts slowly, “Red Letter Day” builds to a disturbing, if not completely unforeseen, climax.  At the heart of the story is an intriguing moral and philosophical debate; can we, or should we, attempt to change our own fate?

“Flotsam,” by K.C. Ball, introduces us to the crew of the salvage ship Mary Shelley.   Quin is the new kid and he can’t seem to figure out how to gain acceptance by fellow crewmates Jill and Zoe.  When micrometeors damage the ship and critically injure Zoe, things look hopeless unless the crew can put aside their differences and make the needed repairs so the ship can splash down back on earth before they freeze to death in space.

My problem with this story is I feel I’ve read it before.  The framework is a very common science fiction scenario; we have the overworked, underpaid crew, the unfeeling boss who cares more about profits than lives, the seemingly hopeless situation with death as a sure outcome, and the amazingly ingenious ideas that save the day.  There's even a predictable happy ending.   "Flotsam" is a likable, well-written story, but doesn't do anything new with a very old idea.   

Michael Bebe is thrilled with his appointment to the International Space Station.  So why can't he stop crying?  We find out in "The View From the Top," by Jerry Oltion.  

I'm on the fence about this story, finding it in turns both amusing and annoying.  A bawling astronaut is an original idea, but I'm not sure I buy into the explanation for his fragile emotional state.  A light science fiction tale that will likely entertain many readers.

The last short story of the issue is "Sandbagging," by Kyle Kirkland.  Quinton and Mark are rival grad students in the biophysics program and through eavesdropping on their professors, discover the AI now in charge of running Earth has decided to do away with half the population to conserve scarce resources.  

To me, this entire story was constructed as a buildup to the clever ending, the "sandbagging" of the AI from which the story gets its title.  Frankly, I didn't find it all that clever.  The biggest surprise in the story is that humans are dumb enough to put an AI in charge of running things.   Did we learn nothing from 2001: A Space Odyssey?

This is a strong issue of Analog, well worth the price of admission.