Analog -- July/August 2012

Sunday, 22 July 2012 07:40 Daniel Woods & Dario Ciriello


Analog, July/August 2012

“Red Rover, Red Rover” by Howard V. Hendrix
“The Mutant Stag at Horn Creek” by Sarah K. Castle
“To Save Man” by H.G. Stratmann
“The Conquest of the Air” by Rob Chilson
“Nightfall on the Peak of Eternal Light” by Richard A. Lovett & William Gleason
“Zeitgeist, Inc.” by Carl Frederik
“The Song of the Uullioll” by Gray Rinehart
“The North Revena Ladies Literary Society” by Catherine Shaffer
“Sam Below Par” by Ben Bova

Reviewed by Dario Ciriello and Daniel Woods

“Red Rover, Red Rover” by Howard Hendrix
“The Mutant Stag at Horn Creek” by Sarah K. Castle
“To Save Man” by H.G. Stratmann
“The Conquest of the Air” by Rob Chilson

Reviewed by Dario Ciriello

Let’s kick off with a pair of animal stories.

Howard Hendrix’s “Red Rover, Red Rover” is the story of Cogzie, an augmented dog, and his old master, a retired astronaut who’s chosen to live out his final years in splendid isolation on Mars. But the science advisors on Earth have persuaded the man to slip pineal gland enhancers into Cozie’s food to research neuroplasticity and cognition in the lucid, speaking pooch.

Before long, Cogzie’s dreams turn to nightmares, as he dreams himself one of a series of dogs which fall victim to ill luck, compounded by the conviction that to humans, the victim was "only a dog." Before long, Cogzie becomes convinced that he’s been cursed by the Egyptian Cat-Goddess, Bast, and he may be right. An unusual and interesting piece.

In “The Mutant Stag at Horn Creek,” Sarah K. Castle gives us an intriguing, near-future story. Climate change has rendered the Southwest so wet that water builds up in the old mine workings in the Grand Canyon area, leaching out dangerous minerals, among them uranium. While hiking in Horn Creek, Sue, a Park Ranger, sees a stag with a bizarrely mutated rack and a carnivore’s teeth. When, decades later, she returns to the park with her niece for a last patrol, what she discovers is stranger still...

A good story, leisurely paced but with fine setting detail (it’s clear that Ms. Castle is a hiker) and some nice character work, although I found the protagonist's diction just slightly unconvincing.

And now, switching gears, a brace of first contact stories.

“To Save Man” by H.G. Stratmann has it all, but not in a good way. Stiff prose, clumsy infodumps, handwavium by the kilo, a bizarre, drastic tone change a few pages in as the author appears to toy with the notion of making the story a satire and then thinks better of it, and a final, turgid slide into heavy-handed preachiness and moralizing as it turns out that humanity’s whole problem is to do with our sex drive, especially the male one.

“The plan is working, Reverend Mother.”

He raised the black sensor rod in his hand. “The readings I made on the human female indicate the process is well on its way to completion.”

Except for the mentions of genitalia and anal probes, this one might have come from Horace L. Gold’s slushpile via a pinhole in the space-time continuum. Possibly the worst story I’ve ever seen in a professional publication.

Happily, Rob Chilson’s “The Conquest of the Air,” is fresh, witty, and highly entertaining.

When human ships after quick mining profits arrive on the metal- and rare earths-rich worlds of the Bonanza system, Chanarong Chalmers’ main concern is getting the hold filled with refined ores fast enough to keep the company’s veep, anxious to show the investors a quick return, off his back.

Meanwhile, the planet’s native sentients, fishoids of high intelligence and admirable ingenuity, have realized that what they initially thought were simple (albeit mysterious) "airbubbles" are actually not natural phenomena at all but evidence of landwalkers.

So when the intrepid Shellshaper the Bright Dreamer and his companion Wheelmaker Airswimmer, a couple whose lifelong dream has been to conquer the Air, show up on Airbubble Beach in a yellow submarine largely made of organic materials that emerges from the waves and crawls up the beach on wheeled tracks, the stage is set for an exciting confrontation.

A flat-bottomed capsule five bodylengths long, it was, pegged to a frame that rested on ten axles. Observation domes fore and aft and along the sides, domes in the overhead for the airpumps, an open pond for the sewage-treatment garden. This last was a small raft-mounted clump of weed, into which the bilgepumps emptied.

Four standard capstans of the largest size, with their gears, were delivered last—even after the big tracks came from the rope walk.

They assembled the ship in the hangar, in great haste, urged on by Thrasher.

Finally the day came for the first trials. The navy provided sixteen great muscles, each as big as but much more powerful than a person. Bright Adventure was too narrow for them to go nose to nose, so they were offset. The Stalwarts overlapped, each half within its capstan. Unlike the People, fish lack the great driving fins; they thrash wide tails up and down. An excellent motion, easily converted to rotary in a capstan.

A clever, marvelously original tale that delights and surprises the reader, expect this one to make some Year’s Best and Recommended lists.

“Nightfall on the Peak of Eternal Light” by Richard A. Lovett & William Gleason
“Zeitgeist, Inc.” by Carl Frederik
“The Song of the Uullioll” by Gray Rinehart
“The North Revena Ladies Literary Society” by Catherine Shaffer
“Sam Below Par” by Ben Bova

Reviewed by Daniel Woods.

“Nightfall on the Peak of Eternal Light” by Richard A. Lovett & William Gleason

Drew Ziegler is out of places to run. Nowhere on Earth is safe, and now as his shuttle docks at Luna C, he knows it's his last chance for survival. Stick to the cover, find a job. Disappear. But even if he can finally escape his past, living on the Moon means it's just a few inches of nanoweave between you and the cold vacuum of space: life in lunar gee is dangerous, and only the smart ones survive. For the colonists at Luna C, knowing who to trust can keep you alive, or get you killed.

Although its title may evoke a scene from some high-fantasy romp, Lovett and Gleason's piece turns out to be a gritty portrayal of “frontier living,” and an exploration of the Moon as a symbol of escape. The piece is about isolation, loss, being trapped, and employs a number of romanticised themes pertaining to the Moon to achieve its tone; just as the Moon is trapped in the Earth's orbit, so Drew is never quite able to break free from the influence of his birthright, etc. There is a good sense of scope here – three distinct plots become entwined as the lives of the colonists are tangled together. While some characters are more fleshed out than others, all are plausible, and a few – particularly Raz, the hardboiled security chief with a past – are really quite emotive. Drew's internal conflict is also handled well, as we watch him battle against his desire to drop the cover story that keeps him alive.

There are elements of the noir to this story, perhaps to compliment the characters' descent into “darkness." Admittedly, this can leave things feeling melodramatic (again, particularly Raz and his mother, the crackerjack whore), but the piece is full of nice touches – the “loonies,” the assassin and the hare, the “gwipp.” With lines like “... on the crater rim, sunlight etched brilliance—a wire-thin slice of heat and light,” the prose itself occasionally shines, and the result is a piece that is easily the best of the selection. True, it breaks no new ground for the genre, but an engaging narrative and a genuinely exciting end sequence make “Nightfall on the Peak of Eternal Light” a solid read.

“Zeitgeist, Inc.” by Carl Frederik

The world of the high-tech startup business is a cut-throat affair. Investors pour money into the company coffers, but beneath the smiles lie calculating minds, and meanwhile your competition needs to see you fail if its own ventures are to survive. Who do you trust when lies, dirty money and industrial espionage are part of everyday life? Conradin has one advantage. As the founder of Zeitgeist Inc, it is his technology – his idea – that sits at the heart of the “geists” (robots that bring to life the essence of any present-day culture). The VCs want him gone, and millions of dollars are at stake. Conradin needs allies fast if he is to secure his own position.

“Zeitgeist, Inc.” is a story about human nature, and the hidden agendas upon which we all operate. Aside from the all-purpose “Omni” tool (neatly stolen from Mass Effect), Frederik's piece has some interesting, original ideas. In essence, the geists are a personification of culture, and as they get closer and closer to being “real” people, it begs a difficult question: just how “individual” are we all really? As Conradin puts it, My god! The simulation is simulating me! […] How fantastically recursive. A scene in which two geists take the simulation too far and come to blows (i.e. two nations punching each other in the face) illustrates the point rather well. And I admit, I had to laugh when a robot personifying China naturally crouched down into a style-of-crane fighting stance. When the issue is a nation's perception of itself, “reality” becomes a bit subjective, arbitrary even.

The story itself is not overly gripping. When you boil it down, Frederik's piece is your basic “whodunit” search for the corporate spy, and although little touches like Dolfy the talking dog make it entertaining, the mystery is a bit bland. Conradin is a well-written character, but a weak man prone to generic dissatisfaction. “Zeitgeist, Inc.” won't sweep you off your feet, but it will leave you with some new ideas to ponder.

“The Song of the Uullioll” by Gray Rinehart

In the vast expanse of the salty-wet, from the warm stills where the pods go to mate, to the darker currents and the cold deeps of the feeding wet, Uullioll dreams of the bright-hot. As he drifts alongside his pod, and longs to be closer to the light that hangs above him in the dry-clear, his sad song echoes through the wets, ignored or mocked by the creatures who hear it.

Rinehart's piece is the sad tale of Uullioll, a whale whose obsession with the sun eventually endangers his life. The name is meant to be onomatopoeic, with the looping, elongated calls of whalesong traded for extra vowels; my best guess at pronouncing it is “YOU-lee-ol.” The idea is only partially successful in my opinion, but Rinehart uses a multitude of similar techniques to help us experience Uullioll's world through a whale's eyes: the casual “dumbing down” of the environment, the air as the “dry-clear,” the seabed as the “hard below” and so on. It does get a bit predictable, but also it gets the job done.

There is a bleak emptiness to Uulliol's world, the endless lonely sea, and when you realise what is going to happen (Uulliol makes one final attempt to reach his beloved bright-hot), it is actually quite poignant. The whales have a kind of reverse-evolution mythology of land-to-sea species migration, and events take an oddly religious turn – the upright crabs begin “ministering” to Uullioll, while he prepares a hymn to sing to the bright-hot. The ending comes with an unexpected twist, and I was impressed by how adroitly Rinehart was able to play with my expectations. This is no The Old Man and the Sea, with its occasional moments of empty poeticism (“for an instant and an eon Uullioll hung there”), but “The Song of the Uullioll” is an atmospheric tale with an endearing protagonist. For that alone, it is worth a look.

“The North Revena Ladies Literary Society” by Catherine Shaffer

Beth enjoys a quiet life these days. Once a week, when not looking after her husband and three children, she meets the ladies of North Revena to talk and relax. But when a drive-by shooting shatters the calm of her book club sanctuary, Beth's old survival reflexes kick in, and she begins to wonder if the past is catching up with her at last.

Shaffer's piece opens with a rather stale book club scene (older women and mothers who need a distraction), which is then cut to pieces by the absurd insertion of drama. Exploding windows, gunfire, all slipped quietly into the story for shock value. It's an old tactic; we're supposed to recoil from the prose, having been lulled into a stupor by the banality of the situation and then scalded awake again, but the technique is so heavy-handed here that it negates itself. True, I didn't see it coming, but I was almost annoyed when it did.

Sadly, things go downhill from there, and the piece quickly becomes the most frustrating story of the issue. Beth, as you will immediately suspect, is an “ex CIA operative” (read: secret agent), and starting with an undisclosed conflict in Kuwait (read: insert foreign, hostile-sounding country here), Shaffer piles on the eclectic plotlines. Pretty soon we've got a drive-by shooting, a psychotic child, quantum mechanics, secret agents, a stolen mobile phone, glow-in-the-dark bullets, a whole bunch of “intense looks,” a little bit of mind control, and absolutely no idea what's going on. The award for the most infuriating story component, however, has to go to Beth herself, who despite being a secret agent seems to possess the mental faculties of a goldfish.

In fairness to Shaffer, the story takes an unexpected turn at the halfway point. Its one saving grace is the semi-plausible “seeing into the future” premise that emerges, but this in no way redeems the piece. From the exasperating stupidity of its main character, to the unlikelihood of brain implants in that oft-overlooked technological golden age “the '90s,” to a secret organisation that “[was] secretive and shifty,” to some distinctly uncomfortable overtones of racism and xenophobia (look out for a particular line involving “Iraqis and Arabs”), this is a piece that can – and should – be avoided.

“Sam Below Par” by Ben Bova

“A golf course?” I asked, incredulous. “Here on the Moon?”

Charlie Chang is a noted golf course architect, but an angry ex-wife and an angrier mother-in-law have conspired to ruin his career. Alone, friendless, and on his way to jail for crimes he didn't commit, things are looking bleak for Charlie until Sam Gunn whisks him off to the Moon. Sam Gunn, infamous entrepreneur, has a plan for expanding his lunar entertainment complex, and unless Charlie wants to go back to the police waiting on Earth, he'll have to play along.

The second lunar tale in this issue of Analog, Ben Bova's piece is really the story of Sam Gunn's latest get-rich-quick scheme, even though it is ostensibly the tale of Charlie's escape and redemption. The premise is right there in the first line, golf course on the moon, and this may cause some readers to be a little wary. It sounds a little ridiculous; will I be able to follow it if I don't really like golf? Happily, the piece is more love story than golf story, and Bova's writing style is charming enough to get you past any doubts about the opening gambit. Just look at “[the] dinner club called Dante’s Inferno (staffed by Hell’s Belles, no less),” and you'll see what I mean. The puns are bad, but they still make me smile.

Charlie's ex-wife woes are a little stale, and the prose does suffer from occasional slabs of just-so-happened-to-be exposition, but it actually isn't a bad little story. A tiny bit hackneyed, with a too-neat ending, but Charlie is a likeable character (honest, if desperate), and I enjoyed this piece by the end. Sometimes it's nice to see that people can live happily ever after, and I honestly wouldn't mind reading another story about Sam Gunn's next big scheme. He's like a space-age Del Boy, only more successful. Give this one a look for some light, feel-good SF.