Tangent Reviews

Analog, July, 1996

from Tangent #16, Summer 1996

Reviewers always worry that they won't find anything interesting to say about a magazine. In this regard, the July "Special Double Issue" is a reviewer's dream, sparking ideas and notions, even critical epiphanies. Everything that makes Analog Analog is in surfeit here, as if editor Stan Schmidt had set out, flow chart and parts list in hand, to create the quintessential Analog issue.

To begin with, the issue immediately shows a finely tuned mathematical balance. There are four novelettes and four short stories, and they break down into four fun stories and four serious ones. More patterns will become apparent later, but first to the fun stuff.

Don D'Ammassa's short "Thoracic Park," is a parody of exactly what you think it is. In the far future, insects have managed to reproduce the long dead humans and one particular entrepreneur has a kind of theme park in mind... The story lacks the convulsive energy that propels the best parodies, but with so broad a target, dozens of shafts find their mark.

From the title to the last page, Bud Sparhawk's novelette "Sam Boone's Appeal to Common Scents," has energy to spare. I was irresistibly reminded of Keith Laumer's Retief yarns of beloved youth, except that Sam Boone is an interplanetary arbitrator rather than a diplomat. The requisite sets of comic aliens are well represented, perhaps to a fault. And when you set up your own impasse between imaginary aliens of your own creation, there's little suspense that your own negotiator will find a solution. And like all the novelettes in this issue, it is much too long, as I discovered around page ten when I metaphorically stopped to check my watch. Okay, so it's not Retief. Turn off your brain and have fun with it, anyhow.

More energy, at least a good chase scene, pumps the action in "Threat of Stars at 912 Main," a short by Alicia Glynn Latner. Its hero is an artist who manages to foil a very unusual set of art thieves and win the girl in the process. (Pattern watch: The two stories by females have male protagonists, while two of the stories by males have female protagonists.) The tone is light, the characters fun to be with, and the story overall well-crafted. (Although I can see no good reason for these thieves to give up when they do except that the plot demands it.)

I could just say that Pauline Ashwell's "Boneheads" is a classic Analog problem story and leave it at that. But then I would have failed at conveying my irritation at a contrivance level that makes Sparhawk's story look like early Raymond Carver. It's the year 2089, at least that's from where a scientific team has been sent back 90 million years. The imaginary time machine has been carefully jiggered so that it "would Displace ... somewhere between four and five tonnes." And then "the thing did not work any longer." Got that? Can't Displace too much or people won't be able to get back. As a kicker, the whole colony would in ten years time be re-Displaced 5,000 years. So you would think that would really, truly limit things. Wrong. Ashwell limits only what the story demands. There are 29 members of the team, along with food for the first comers, a rocket-gun, hand-lasers, all sorts of stuff. But not tools (because they would have to be made of metal[!]). Or radios. Or location finders. Or matches. A year 2089 that has time machines but not one single piece of miniaturized, ultralightweight electronic equipment of plastic or even a fire-starter to replace what has to be a heavier and less efficient burning glass reduces the story to an artificial absurdity. Worse, virtually none of this contrivance is necessary to the working of the story. As it stands, it is a clever nonfiction article about anthropological survival in a jungle, but a failure as fiction.

To the serious side. Doug Larsen's novelette "The Alicia Revolution" gives itself away early when the narrator asks herself, "Why had I come to [the country of] Thusbammanna in the first place?" and answers, "I had no idea." A graduate of any good writers' workshop knows this as a red warning flag that the author will proceed to push wooden props around a chessboard in service of a plot, which describes the story to a tee. Said plot, by the way, involves having the American (read smart Earthling) tell professionally paranoid resistance movement members (read idiot aliens) that computers can be used against them. Everything works out in Hollywood fashion.

Jeffrey D. Koonistra's "Snowball" is a sequel to two previous Analog stories, knowledge of which is not required to enjoy this one. Enjoyable it is, with quietly pleasurable writing and the indefinable sense that I call assurance: the feeling that the author knows the characters and the story so well that you are in good hands from the opening sentence. As with the other stories set in the here and now, "Snowball" spends several pages creating atmosphere before getting to the sf, always a fine line to walk before the reader gives up and searches out a story with more immediate oooph. The reward comes from those who spend that time creating believable, detailed scenes and people. Few more so than Koonistra's retired pastor, alone on Christmas Eve, who discovers a mysterious animal who, of course, proves to be more than what it appears. A moral dilemma is additionally involved, and I'm always a sucker for such stories.

I thought at first that Schmidt's flow chart had gotten creased when he followed "Snowball" with Joseph H. Delaney's novelette "Partners." For it also is a here and now tale that slowly builds atmosphere and in which the protagonist discovers animals that prove etc. And Delaney includes a moral issue of a very similar kind. The writing has equivalent strengths, with a succession of those well-chosen small details that brings stories to life.

After that long opening, though, things turn around very quickly. (In truth, this story is exactly the wrong length, with the beginning stretched out much too far and the ending drastically compressed.) That "Partners" has the kind of anti-Big Government rant that suddenly pops up in several stories as unexpectedly as a kumquat in a souffle should not surprise. But one looks in vain for some redeeming irony when, in a section that includes a screed against "Big Brother," "history... for the next millennia" is determined by a single town meeting without the consent or even the notification of those affected.

And there can be no irony intended in the story's concluding lines: "Man was the alpha. That was the way things were meant to be." John Campbell's ghost does not merely walk; it stomps.

Tom Ligon's review follows, but first a word here about my critical epiphanies, as they apply equally to him. Analog writers are known to resent that more literary types consider their stories to lack characterization, and I can understand why, as the majority of people that inhabit this issue are well-sketched, with the histories and feelings and warts and quiet heroism that make readers identify. But they lack one crucial detail. Relationships. Except in character studies (a description that fits none of these stories) characterization in the literary sense is classically determined by the interaction of characters in relationships with one another. Obviously, in an action-oriented field like sf, many other forces may drive story plots. But when 8 of 8 stories in an issue lack the one thing that would belie a stereotype, my critical antennae rise.

But even if these stories do lack literary characterization, they must at least have the virtue of defending Analog's status as the last bastion of stories apotheosizing true speculative science. Well, although all the familiar sf tropes from aliens to genetic engineering to time travel to parallel worlds litter the issue, their use here is no more rigorous than in any of their less stringent competitors. The stories from D'Ammassa, Sparhawk, and Latner are entirely science free; Ashwell's and Ligon's depend entirely on current scientific abilities (they would be pointless otherwise), and Koonistra's, despite some offstage handwaving, could equally be fantasy. Only Delaney's and Larsen's contain any extrapolation worthy of the name, and the latter's is slight at best.

One more story is left to cover, last to review though the first story in the issue, given pride of place because it is, yes, the quintessential Analog story. Tom Ligon's "Amateurs" is less a classic problem story a la "Boneheads" (to which it might otherwise be compared) than a deliberate attempt at fictionalizing a feature article intended for a technical magazine (and in fact an article explicating the subject follows). Packed with deliciously enticing engineering detail (here about creating a cheap reusable rocket), devoid of anything resembling a true plot or even suspense, and centered around a world in which the individual entrepreneur is morally triumphant over government action, the piece hits every button. I enjoyed it tremendously for what it was, and then bowed down and give it triple obeisances, for it inadvertently gave me a powerful insight into Analog's nature.

The "other side" in the story is represented by a guy at a government-subsidized satellite firm, who snidely insists that "I'm not ready to try any unproven launch system with a cockeyed new engine that hasn't been used successfully at least ten times, and preferably more like a hundred. In the second place, I don't buy from amateurs." Hence the title. And hence the listing we thereupon get of amateurs who "had rejected the ancient designs offered by 'professional' aircraft companies, and opted instead for higher performance at lower cost, using modern materials and aerodynamic theories."

Before we all cheer and boo in exactly the right places, consider this: doesn't the mere existence of classic, let alone quintessential Analog stories prove that they are ones written after models that have run in Analog at least ten, and preferably a hundred times before, as each and every one of the stories in this issue has been? Can it be less than meaningful that Analog stories deliberately eschew the risks of any modern storytelling techniques or modern attitudes toward science and engineering? Although most stories, taken individually, may be well done, the effect they create as a whole is fairly constricted, even stifling. (A caveat: This issue's glitz may all be provided in Starplex, Rob Sawyer's novel excerpt, which is outside the scope of this review, with the other stories deliberately chosen to give balance.)

There's an old saying to the effect that we each turn into the thing we most hate, and the ultimate Analog bugaboo is NASA, the cautious bureaucracy whose hidebound inability to innovate cost them the stars. As I read these rather staid, overly worldly, sense-of-wonderless stories that could not, as Analog stories once did, conceivably draw the younger me into the worlds of science, of the future, of imagination, of the stars, I could not help but think that Analog has turned into its own personal NASA. It plays it safe while the world, and the amateurs, may have passed it by.

Analog readers should understand that, despite my qualms, they will get and presumably enjoy exactly, exactly, what they have come to expect from the professionals at Analog. The question that they must answer: even under their own terms, is that still really such a good idea?

Copyright 1996 by Steve Carper

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