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

Analog -- September 2014

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Analog, September, 2014

Championship B’tok” by Edward M. Lerner
Plastic Thingy” by Mark Niemann-Ross
Beneath the Ice of Enceladus” by James C. Glass
Release” by Jacob A. Boyd
Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die” by Lavie Tidhar
Artifice” by Naomi Kritzer
Calm” by Alec Austin & Marissa Lingen

Reviewed by Louis West

Championship B’tok,” by Edward M. Lerner, is the SF spy thriller sequel to “The Matthews Conundrum” (Analog, November 2013) and continues the story about the Intervener Conspiracy: An unknown alien race, which interfered in the evolution of life on eleven disparate planets a half billion years ago, still observes and intercedes seemingly to block development of certain technologies.

A Hunter (bipedal “Snake”) enclave exists on the Uranian moon of Ariel, settled by survivors of an unsuccessful Sol system incursion” twenty years ago. Carl Rowland, who was part of the force that stopped the Snakes, is now United Planet (UP) Liaison. He’s monitored the Snakes for two decades, both in their progress toward peaceful self-rule and for evidence that they are redeveloping military capabilities. His opponent, the Snake Foremost (leader), Glithwah, has engineered a series of local disasters to distract UP reps from discovering that she has indeed built a robotic army and space fleet of her own. Corinne Elman is a world-class journalist who’d gained her reputation by reporting on the Snake invasion and destruction of their captured starship. She thinks the Snakes are up to something and wants to uncover it. As these three protagonists engage in this real-life strategy contest akin to B’tok (a 4D, ever-changing Snake version of human chess), Carl also tries to identify who may be Intervener moles, what kind of tech they use, what tech development they want to prevent and how far they’ll go to get what they want.

This story is well written with compelling characters, settings and plots. However, considering how information-dense it is, it took some work to read and understand. It also took me much of the tale to infer (it’s never actually explained) what the purpose of the first scene was. I was disappointed to learn that this sequel is only a middle story with more episodes pending. Still, I recommended it, but suggest you read the initial episode in this series first.

Mark Niemann-Ross’ the “Plastic Thingy” is a fun, light-hearted tale about Roger who works at a local hardware store and grouses about not having a girlfriend. One evening a strange, perky girl, Sara, comes in asking for a plastic thingy, but can’t tell him what she really needs other than it has to be red. Unable to figure out the correct parts, Sara transports Roger in a container box to an orbiting spaceship where he has to help an intelligent, chlorine-breathing plant creature, that loves Earth theatre, diagnose and fix a key part of its spaceship before it crashes to Earth. All the while, Sara acts as translator, interpreting the plant’s body movements and dancing her answer back in return. Success grants Roger a choice: join the ship or get sent back home. Recommended.

In “Beneath the Ice of Enceladus,” by James C. Glass, Anna is the 3rd generation of women in her family that have hunted for life in the solar system. She’d failed to find anything on Titan and now heads to Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, for a dive into the under-ice methane-water bodies there. Living in a station cork-like hammered into a volcanic vent, Anna’s days vary from totally bored to frightened out of her wits. But the discovery she finally makes around deep-water smoker-like structures changes everything. A good, speculative read, with plausible characters and situations, about the possibility of life on Saturn’s moons and how it might finally be discovered. Recommended.

Jacob A. Boyd’s “Release” is a weird, disconnected SF tale, but then it’s about a pilot who’s been cloned and bred to do nothing but fight the insect-like Tivhari. The story follows the pilot through brutal training, isolation and augmentation procedures straight into a death fight with aliens as they seed yet another planet in their near-mindless consumption of entire star systems. It portrays the harsh existence and narrow purpose of these starfighter pilots, but I never cared what happened to the pilot nor understood his alleged breakdown and transition to caring for newly birthed clone replacements.

Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die,” by Lavie Tidhar, is about a man whose memories are slipping away. It’s told in his POV, which makes it particularly scary as his attachments to reality and the past jumble and fade. He suffers from Weiwei’s Folly where nodal interfaces allow him to possess all the memories of his parents and children and they in turn his. But the nodal filaments are invading his body, drowning him in the weight of memories that make no sense any more. He has reached the point where he believes that “I am, already, memory … but memory is not me” and it’s time to end it all. Except he wants his going to be memorable, and indeed that’s what he achieves, shouting out his exaltation as he finally remembers his wife’s name after having forgotten it for so many years. Exceptional. Anyone suffering from or with a friend or relative suffering from Alzheimer’s could identify with this tale and the wish for a meaningful end with memories and self intact.

Naomi Kritzer’s “Artifice” is about people and housekeeper robots, the sometimes aggravation of human relationships and the occasional wish that a robot companion would be better. Mandy and her friends play board games, not the full-immersion VR type but the meet in person and eat chips together type. She’s tired of men, having broken up with yet another boyfriend. As a change, she upgrades her housekeeper robot into a boyfriend analogue she calls Joe. She enjoys her compliant partner, until she gets bored with its perfection and once again sees her partner as a project. But no amount of tweaking can replace the real thing. Except her friends really had come to enjoy Joe as a fellow board game player. A casual story with an ending that fell flat for me.

In “Calm,” by Alec Austin & Marissa Lingen, Marjan is an uplifted human working with Sophants to evaluate new sentient species to see if they’re qualified to join The Unification. Typically, all new entrants must wear embedded Proctors, devices that monitor and control hormonal spikes that lead to destructive and irrational behaviors. Marjan is part of the team interviewing Gammans for Unification membership. However, it turns out that all Gammans sometimes experience periods of extreme, violent stress they call shornoth, and that they value the jump in creativity such episodes can generate in an individual. The Gammans refuse to consider shornoth as a behavioral problem, and the Sophants won’t allow the Gammans to join without them wearing Proctors. It looks like an impasse until Marjan and her fellow human diplomatic counselor, Luis, come up with a unique solution that appeases both species. An exploration of the positive role of hormonally-driven behavior but not a particularly compelling SF tale.