Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Steak Tartare and the Cats of Gari Babakin

Novelette by Mary Turzillo

The citizens of Gari Babakin station are all infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that is altering their personalities. They are happy with these personality changes, but their corperate owners think it is a public health hazard, and worse, cutting into profits. And they're willing to kill any number of adorable kitties to do it.

A fun, quick story. But while I didn't want to stop reading it, I also didn't enjoy it overmuch. Partly because the station seems to be a little too French: the main characters are Jean-Marie, Lucile, and Benoit and their culinary mastery is focussed entirely on wine, cheese, and pastry, the only other industry being fashion; it just seems a bit too close to France for me. The author is surely aware that the French population has an 80% toxoplasma carrier rate and wanted to riff off it, but it doesn't work for me.

But the main thing that puts me off is the SCIENCE! Now I know this is a light, unrealistic fun story, but there are certain things I just can't get past. I wouldn't mind if the station had a pet unicorn, but getting details about parasites wrong is unacceptable. I suspect this is because they feel like research failure rather than deliberate innacuracy for the sake of humor. Birth defects are brough up over and over, but toxoplasma doesn't cause birth defects except in mothers newly infected around the time of the pregnancy. There is no reason you would rapidly become serum-negative for toxoplasma after being cured, espcially after years of infection. That is the whole point of memory B cells. I could go on, but these are the kind of things driving me crazy. And the whole story would have gone over better if just once she had thrown a line out there about it being a special SPACE toxoplasma that caused greater personality changes on Mars, rather than the implication that this is the standard presentation. But maybe I'm just being testy and paranoid because of my own latent Toxoplasma infection. Didn't really work for me, 2 out of 5.


Novelette by Mark Rich

A humorous piece about a bureaucrat sent to be the Face of Efficiency for a settlement on Mars. He has no idea what this entails, but knows that 16 people have been fired from that job in the last 30 years. He decides he can't possibly succeed, so might as well get it over with ASAP. But while trying to get fired, he accidentally does his job far better than any of his predecessors. This left me smiling afterwards, but the premise was stretched a little too thin at times - I don't think a reasonable person could have believed they were still failing miserably after a point about halfway through, and yet he keeps trying to "fail". Makes a good point about efficiency though. 3 out of 5 Martian settlements could do without a F.O.E.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Novelette by Tom Ligon

An alien civilization launches a weapon to destroy Earth's sun. In an earlier story, this weapon is defeated. Now Earth debates what the response will be. The U.N. Secretary General is the main character and seems to be the only one opposed to a violent response. The complication here is that it will take 40 years or more to respond, and even longer to know if we accomplished anything.

Issues of mutually assured destruction, turning into the monster you're fighting, etc. all come up, and are dealt with well, but the main thrust of the story is the majority in a democracy lusting after a suicidal option when logical analysis would tell them they are wrong. But emotions rule us in the end and you can't win a fight against a massive public opinion backed by all the major powers. This is really a long series of people having conversations with the Secretary General, with history references sprinkled in (Mr. Ligon even discusses the great Zheng He, but is apparently unaware of the Admiral's first contact experience.) The conclusion is a rather clever bit of politics, and is the sort of compromise I wish more real life politicians were smart enough to make. There is negligable "action", lots of talking, and yet this was one of the most interesting novelettes of the year; 4.5 out of 5.

Amabit Sapiens

Novelette by Craig DeLancey

The story is how Lyta Sumaran is abducted and tortured in South America, interspersed with her memories of growing up being groomed for a mysterious something by her father. The science is oil-eating bacteria. Bacteria are underrepresented in SF stories, are very well done here, and are slightly ahead of brown paper packages in any list of my favorite things. The ethical conundrum is about short-term versus long-term risks and exactly how far one should go in compromising the short-term for the possibility of greater long-term good. Best of all, none of these aspects of the story are delivered via lecturing. An exciting, thoughtful, valuable piece of fiction, I'll remember this one for some time. 4.5 out of 5.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Bear Who Sang Opera

Novelette by Scott William Carter

A cyborg hybrid grizzly bear has lost his singing voice, but he doesn't know who stole it since his memories have been tampered with. So he hires a hardboiled private detective who then travels around the galaxy talking to people who don't know anything and seem innocent. There is also a naked woman in boxing gloves. This is a cartoonish little story that is pretty good as far as it goes, but there is nothing really revolutionary about a bizarrely comedic SF/noir detective story. There are options for new ground here, but this story doesn't go into them. Still it was good, light fun. 3 out of 5.


Novelette by David Bartell

Story of a search & rescue operation of a cave explorer beneath a mining base on Callisto. This was suspensful, but the degree of petty bickering between the two main characters, who had been working together for years seemed too much. Especially withholding important safety information for no reason I can fathom other than to add suspense. The final major problem in this story, and the climax were both solely due to the narrator's stupidity. A generic adventure story, well written but I really don't like protagonists who are too dumb to live. 1.5 out of 5.


Novelette by Shane Tourtellotte

Andrew and Alice are adults whose parents engineered them to stop physically maturing during childhood. They have traded adult bodies (and sexual maturity) for extreme longevity and mental agility. But the rest of society has done a typically poor job of accepting this new minority group. Andrew is a civil rights activist when he isn't at work, while Alice lives and works from home with her parents, who shelter her, perhaps too much. They become romantically involved, and each try to change the other. Andrew thinks Alice is naive and childish, Alice thinks Andrew overcompensates for his young appearance and provokes conflict. Andrew is about as good with women as I am, which is to say: not.

On the long end of novelette length, this is maybe 2 pages shorter than the shorter novellas. So there is sufficient room to explore the changes that have been made to the world in great detail through the story of Alice and Andrew's relationship. In addition to social prejudice, sexuality, pedophilia and rape are dealt with, so this is rather un-childfriendly although not graphic. But it is very emotional and the ending is sweet. Almost entirely human interaction, all of it with a rare degree of warmth makes this an uncommon SF story. 4.5 out of 5.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Last Resort

Novelette by Alec Nevala-Lee

A group of eco-terrorists trade in their "eco" for an extra dose of terrorism. Two Forest Service personnel try to figure out what happened, and wonder about their own "virtuous sense of helplessness" about trying to change things as compared to the obvious harm the terrorists cause, inadvertently or otherwise. They also spend an odd amount of time being questioned, bullied, and ordered around by a ski resort employee. I don't care how much construction you oversee, I don't think you're allowed to confiscate phones off of government agents. The amount of shit they took from this guy Frank actually distracted me from the mystery, right before it was solved in a big infodump. And the ending was bizarre; I would not be as easily satisfied with life as the protagonist, and I certainly would be more upset about a dangerous psychopath putting my children and others at risk. And should I for some reason have my cellphone confiscated by some random construction overseer during an emergency, I'll have the bastard arrested. Still the story draws you in and is good as far as mundane thrillers go. 2.5 out of 5 people have heard the herpetology joke at the beginning before, but laugh anyway.

Shallow Copy

Novelette by Jesse L. Watson

I see a deep, interesting AI story off in the distance across some harsh terrain. So I hop up into my Disbelief model dune buggy, with its brand new suspension and off I go. Now keep in mind, this thing has the MST3K mantra painted on the side in Big, Friendly Letters, and has been over some pretty hazardous terrain before. But Mr. Watson has planted a bunch of goddamn landmines; by the time I reach the beginning of the actual story the suspension is a smoking pile of debris under a dune buggy with all of its paint and most of its bits blown completely off. And I've replaced one of my mutilated legs with a machine gun.

I've made a lot of rant posts in the past few days, and there are several good rants here, but I'll skip all that in favor of hyperbolic metaphor and the comment that once you get past it, the story isn't bad, although it is fairly obvious. The ethical issues are good though. 2 out of 5.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Cold Words

Novelette by Juliette Wade

Rulii is an alien councilor who has befriended Parker, a human linguist. The two of them are pushing for the establishment of a human spaceport on the planet, specifically in Rulii's district, which will help gain wealth and prestige for the minority population to which he belongs. Then Hada, a new negotiator for the human alliance shows up and complicates things. Also, Rulii has a drug problem.

Warning: The huge difference in the alien speech patterns was obnoxious at first and seemed overdone, but I would urge everyone to give it a few pages and not give up. The weird speech is heaviest early on, and it stops bugging you after a few pages. This story is definitely worth the effort.

This is one of those rare 14 pagers that feels like I read a whole novel worth of development by the end. I know he has big teeth and whatnot, but I love Rulii and just wanted to hug him during some scenes. This is not my standard reaction to a weird talking alien, but I was much more emotionally invested in him than in most humans I read about. The politics at the climax were clever, but the vast majority of the story was not as politically focused as the premise would lead you to believe. The characterization, drama, and everything come together perfectly here; 5 out of 5 easily.

Formidable Caress

Novelette by Stephen Baxter

This novelette takes place is a very complicated world that has been extensively developed in Baxter's other works, none of which I have read. I assume the story would work better had I read some of these at least, but the last time one was published in Analog was April 2006.

Anyway, Telni is born to a mother who rebels against the sentient machines who have been selectively breeding humanity. Since the machines fear they are accidentally breeding out traits like curiosity and initiative, they take a special interest in him. Telni becomes a scientist measuring the strange time distortion between the 3 layers of his world, fails at love, and survives to a bitter old age, but is able to figure out things the machines cannot.

All the missing background I haven't read doesn't bother me until the end. Some bits are confusing and I know I'm missing something, but context gives us all the important things and the unseen richness of the world makes the story better.

Minor gripe: I can't see how having his hopes dashed with a girl Telni knew for a day really ruins his chances at happiness forever, but it may be the complaining of a bitter old man who never met anyone else intelligent enough to keep up with him.

So the story is quite good, up until the conclusion. Because of not having read the earlier works, I don't understand at all the "solution" to the biggest mystery that has been threaded throughout, despite the probably not-that-subtle revelation of it at the end. Really, THE CONCLUSION JUST LEAVES ME CONFUSED AND FAILS TO SATISFY. The central mystery is left unresolved unless one has read the previous works, and perhaps it wasn't meant to be a mystery at all and should have been obvious to those with the background. Besides the conclusion, this was an excellent story, but the ending falls so flat I can't give it more than a 3.5 out of 5.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Zheng He and the Dragon

Novelette by Dave Creek

Zheng He, a 15th century Chinese admiral sees a spaceship crash into the ocean and proceeds to "capture" a "dragon" which curiously enough wears boots and clothing. A nice historical first-contact, both the alien and Zheng He are well fleshed out and their interactions are great, which is good since that is the whole point of the story. The ending is particularly nice in that the scribe writing this all down after-the-fact takes entirely the wrong lesson from Zheng He's tale. Or perhaps the right one, in the eyes of the Chinese admiral. 4 out of 5 water dragons wish they had boots as sweet as Merabor's.


Novelette by Stephen L. Burns

Sentient robots have been programmed with a religion designed to keep them from working towards their own civil rights. Against their will, a human offers them a path to freedom but at the expense of their religion, and at the risk of the life of the most psychologically developed robot.

The ending is touching, but on further reflection doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I realize it is about the media battle, but there had to be a better way of "setting him free". And the heavy-handed civil rights movement references get a bit old. But then again the programmed religion angle is done interestingly enough. 3 out of 5 robots would be better off without a Path to Enlightenment.

Monuments of Unageing Intellect

Novelette by Howard V. Hendrix

A complex story about how most of humanity has become immortal, but at the same time, by stopping themselves from aging they have lost something in emotional and psychological development. There is a lot to this story, and it is certainly worthwhile, but a month after-the-fact it doesn't stand out like a really great story would. 3.5 out of 5.

The Affair of the Phlegmish Master

Novelette by Donald Moffitt

Peter Van Gaas is an historian and Dutch translator. A millionaire hires him to go back in time with him to help commission a painting of his trophy wife from a famous painter. But the art community is worried that importing new paintings from alternate pasts will decrease their value, so they put a plan in place to stop him.

The conclusion of this story is actually a surprise, and I like it, but overall I have to say it didn't stick with me all that well. But I did enjoy reading it, and wouldn't anti-recommend it. 3 out of 5.

But It Does Move

Novelette by Harry Turtledove

Galileo Galilei is subjected to psychoanalysis by an inquisitor from Germany a few centuries before Freud. This is interesting in that it goes into great depth about Galileo's psychology, but it is a bit depressing and although he has a bit different state of mind than I think the real Galileo did at the end, I can't see that anything in the history of the world was really changed. So while it was certainly a well written story and managed to hold my attention throughout, as an alternate history, it doesn't really succeed. 2 out of 5 psychologists would have made good inquisitors.

Futuropolis: How NASA Plans to Create a Permanent Presence on the Moon

Analog Fact Article by Michael Carroll

Best fact article of 2009. A look at NASA's plans to build a long-term base on the moon that would serve as a staging area for a lot of other expeditions. Goes in depth about new rovers, what sort of habitats you would have to use, and how all of this compares to the McMurdo base in Antarctica. The last couple pages are devoted to the reasons why we need to set up a moon base if we really want to succeed in Mars exploration.

This article dealt with the current state of affairs at NASA and provided a lot of information that hasn't been out there much before. The author is writing an entire book on the subject, and based on the quality of writing and informational content of this article, I will seriously consider buying it. The article covered several major areas of current research/development and even touched on the long term expansion of such a base. But with all the things it dealt with, all in sufficient depth by the way, Carroll managed to do something I've been noticing is all too rare in these fact articles: HE STAYED FOCUSED ON HIS TOPIC without wandering off into less interesting, irrelevant tangents.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

From Token to Script: The Origin of Cuneiform

Analog Fact Article by Henry Honken

The origins and early history of written language, comparing Sumerian, Egyptian, and Akkadian to Chinese and Japanese. A bit about logographic writing systems in general in the begining as well. And the article ends with a discussion of the current problems in linguistics and archeology and how the record is spottier in the 4 other places where written language developed independently. Are there any universals to language evolution?

It turns out there is decently good archaeological evidence for the theory that tokens used for commerce eventually evolved into written language with clay tablet stamping as an intermediary. This was an extraordinarily information dense article that manages to hold the attention and not get too dull.


Analog Fact Article by Kevin Walsh

The first half of this article is about the habitability of world that are tide locked to their star. It turns out that based on some mathematical simulations, if you have enough ocean on the sun-side of such a planet, there is a "ribbon" of habitability just a bit sunward of the terminator. This part of the article is really neat and I would have liked to see it expanded upon more.

Sadly, the final half of the article is just a waste of space: a laundry list of inhospitable planets, and some information about where brown dwarfs might be and how solar flares affect life. These are interesting topics, but they deserve enough depth to get their own articles, and they certainly need to NOT BE SERVING AS SPACE-FILLER IN THIS ARTICLE ABOUT A MORE INTERESTING AND UNRELATED TOPIC. I'd have been happy to see more climate simulations on ribbonworlds or speculation about how life might work on such worlds, rambling about brown dwarfs and the fact that we used to think such and such a star was a binary system but it turns out it isn't, not so much. A great start, then a great disappointment.

The Large Hadron Collider: A New Era

Analog Fact Article by Dr. Don Lincoln

A nice, informative article about the LHC, what we hope to discover, what results would indicate what, and the importance of looking out for non-specific discoveries. The diagrams were good, and despite having read a decent amount of this before, there was a very good description of "curled-up" dimensions and how this would make gravity behave differently on a small scale. Most important though, was the graph of what we would expect to see for Higgs-boson decay, I haven't seen a popular article with this graph before, and it makes me really happy. A very nice science article overall, and written by one of the actual physicists involved.

Preserving the Memory

Analog Fact Article by Janet Freeman

An over-broad summary of Alzheimer's research and our current state of knowledge and treatment options. Besides being very dry, new terms were introduced throughout and there was not enough depth on any one topic, instead taking an overview on everything. There was 0 editorial content to this article. You'd be better off reading review articles on PubMed.

The Calculus Plague

Short Story by Marissa K. Lingen

A very short, very scary story about the development of virally transmitted memory. This one will be staying with me for a long time. And the point the 'antagonist', if you can call her that, makes at the end is all too true. 4.5 out of 5.

Duck and Cover

Short Story by Don D'Ammassa

A low-level military intelligence guy in Vietnam begins to investigate one of his fellow soldiers who just isn't quite right.

This is almost entirely a Vietnam war story with all the SF content implied rather than outright stated. And it is creepy. Also very well written, but not a whole lot happens, so just sort of a spooky war story. 3.5 out of every 5 soldiers are named Elmer Colby.

From the Ground Up

Short Story by Marie DesJardin

NASA's astronaut programs are completely eliminated for budget reasons. Carrie, a would-be astronaut goes back to the spot where she first decided to go into space and decides to gamble her reputation on one last shot at funding.

A nice, hopeful little story that comes in at 3 pages. And I wouldn't add or subtract a word of it. 4.5 out of 5.

Starship Sofa Episode #114

Not much to this episode, just one article, the story, and an introduction to the story.

First up is Science News with J.J. Campanella:
Australian Deep Sea Life Survey Discovers New Species Of Shrimp, Sells Naming Rights On Ebay
Marijuana As Substitute To Ween Patients Off Harder Drugs
Contagious Emotion Silliness
Caterpillars Tricking Ants Into Feeding Them
Loss of Heterozygosity May Be Worse For Cancer Than Lacking Tumor Suppresser Genes Altogether
Rating: A

The bit on why the Contagious Emotion study is ridiculous is the most valuable thing in this episode, this bad science has been getting a little too popular and I wish more scientists, much less the news-consuming public could understand one simple concept: CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION. 100 thank yous to Mr. Campanella.

The Caterpillar study is one of the more interesting things I've learned in some time, and the cancer study is worth watching where it leads in the future. One of the better Science News pieces.

Next up, Jeff Carlson's Introduction: WHITE GUYS IN SPACCCEEEEE
A bit of patting himself on the back about having a black woman who is brilliant and sexy in his story and how stupid it is that some people got angry that this (and this alone) made the story sooooo liberal and politically correct. It's a point worth making. Also a Star Wars joke.
Rating: B

Then the story, A Lovely Little Christmas Fire by Jeff Carlson, narrated by Amy H. Sturgis.

I already recommended the story when it was in Asimov's, to the tune of a 3.5, and Sturgis is a good narrator for it. The editorializing by the author was a bit longer than it needed to be, and wasn't all that interesting, although it was worthwhile, I guess. Honestly I think the highlight of this issue was Science News. As a whole, I give the issue a B.


Short story by James Van Pelt

Meghan is a hydroponics engineer on a 4000 year long trip to another planet who only wakes up for a few weeks every hundred years. Technology isn't really tested over such a long period and everything that gave her any comfort eventually vanishes while nothing on the ship works quite as well as they'd planned. Interlaced with this is a Jack London style story of a miner trying to survive a harsh winter in an isolated cabin. The miner leaves a sort of message-in-a-bottle that Meghan ends up with.

The two are tied together very nicely and there is an enormous amount of sadness and tension through the whole thing. The imagery is wonderful, especially at the end where, as the title implies, Meghan finally finds peace. Each thread is a good story in it's own right, but the juxtaposition of the two really works. A wonderful 5 out of 5.

The Cold Star Sky

Short Story by Craig DeLancey

A human engineer has to help an extremely obnoxious alien rescue some other aliens on a gas giant. It turns out there is a sea of buckyballs or something and the alien ship has been covered by a layer of them that seem to be self-agglutinating. The reasoning that leads to the solution is good, in the Heinlein "surprising yet obvious" sense. I particularly like the ending with the alien trying to take credit. At some points the writing dragged the story down like the alien ship, but overall it was pretty good, and the aliens were so obnoxious I wanted to punch them in the face, so caricature-ization achieved! The solution and the ending definitely made it worthwhile, although a lot could have been improved on: 3 out of 5.

After the First Death

Short Story by Jerry Craven

An akido master from the sixties fights off aliens, then makes peace with them and joins in a native ceremony that threatens to turn him into a tree. Moves further into the surreal as it turns out the first team are now all trees that meditate for eternity, except for the one that is a giant parrot translating psychic language from space. Claybourne barely manages to cure himself of the parasite that would turn him into a tree and then wonders if he would have just died, or if he'd have been missing something.
"An alien mega-parrot," Claybourne whispered. Amazing.

The ending is fairly strong in its ambiguity, but the rest of the story is weak. For one thing, the whole tale sounds like it is from the 60s and I can't help but imagine the protagonist as a young William Shatner as he beats up a bunch of aliens empty-handed. The dialog is more wooden than the trees, and distractingly jumps between different modes of speaking for the same characters. Then there's the protagonist's constant spewing out his odds of survival, which I have several problems with: it distracts from the story, seems misplaced because he is clearly no math whiz, and HOW IN HELL IS HE CALCULATING ODDS, they just seem really inconsistent, then the random change from percentages to fractions is just additional frustration, because who comes up with a system for calculating the odds of everything but just changes units at random like that. Must have been the hallucinogens.
"What happened to the woman I once loved and who tried to convert me to a mystical religion?"
"Nothing bad happened." Margery's thoughts felt like her voice, a creamy alto, rich in feminine nuances, just as Claybourne remembered her speaking. "I remade myself, and I'm in heaven."
"You're a tree, Margery, a tree rooted in foreign soil on an alien world."

If only the author could have approached the rest of that story with that same sense of resigned exasperation. The mystical crap spewed out by the trees and parrot for half the story just doesn't do anything for me. Asshole linguist Ramex (we're back to naming people like pharmaceuticals in this future) turning into asshole giant psychic parrot Magus-Of-Stars really could have used...something. Yes this whole story is surreal and crazy, but a reason or any kind of explanation of why he is so different that he is a parrot instead of a tree would have been nice. And the fact that I just typed that sentence really says it all. 1 out of 5 sentences in this story made any damn sense.

Madman's Bargain

Short Story by Richard Foss

A sad story about an AI going insane. One scientist wants to lobotomize it, because if it doesn't feel emotion it might stay sane. Deals with ethical issues of forcible changing the mind of sentient computers and "death with dignity". The ending is thought provoking, but comes out of nowhere, the narrator must really be brilliant because I didn't see a whiff of evidence for the scenario he lays out in the last page. It is a good ending to the story though. 3.5 out of 5.

The Invasion

Short Story by H.G. Stratmann

This is a humorous story with essentially 3 acts. In the first the President and her Cabinet debate whether or not to make contact and there is some amusing dialog there but it isn't great. The second is absolutely hilarious where they actually do make contact with some aliens who may have been Nigerian princes in another lifetime, and the third is a bit of a letdown after the first two, but contains the main idea of the story, which is sort of funny, but could have been done better. This was a fun story, and I'll certainly be recommending it to some people but it doesn't leave me all fuzzy afterward. With a different ending and smoother prose it could have been perfect. 3 out of 5

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Short Story by John G. Hemry

A series of disjointed scenes about rocks, and their utility in killing people through the ages. Starting with the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and ending with rail guns and bits of metal dropped from orbit. The changes in voice between scenes are neat, but some of them feel a bit off and most of them are distracting. This is the first Analog short story I've read that I wanted to stop reading part way through. The punchline is good but doesn't really make up for the suffering I went through to get to it. This one hit rock bottom for me: 1 out of 5

The Universe Beneath Our Feet

Short Story by Carl Frederick

An atheistic, sentient crab-thing tries to bring about the crab-thing Enlightenment. The ending isn't really a surprise, but it is sort of a neat tie-in to this not just being a novelty story that could have been done with human characters. And Frederick manages to make the whole ground-is-ice-surface, sky-is-depths-of-sea thing not seem gimmicky as it could have. 4 out of 5


Short Story by Carl Frederick

I'm strongly resisting giving this story extra points because it is the ideal wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. If only these damn fencers would take up chess instead, they could put this extra time to good use.

A chemist and a physicist compete for a spot in the Olympic fencing team and talk about the speed at which people experience time, and maybe it is genetic. The chemist finds an all too simple way to change his own "lifespeed" to match that of the physicist, then has moral issues about whether or not it is cheating and gets all emo about how boring weekends and normal people are. It is a well written story exploring the idea, but I don't really care as much about the cheating plot. The perfect length, although I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel from Frederick here. 3.5 out of 5

Teddy Bear Toys

Short Story by Carl Frederick

A student records his every thought into a computer program that will attempt to simulate him, and ponders the old "Am I Real or just a simulation"/free will question. Various events happen and it is a very good story on the subject which most importantly doesn't end in a never-ending chain of simulated versions of the protagonist. This is a story to think about, but with the toy store scenes it isn't too dull either. 4 out of 5 philosophy majors would be better off switching to computer science.

The Hanged Man

Short Story by William Gleason

A short horror story in space. And it is scary, but it jumps a bit and while I appreciate some surrealism in a horror story, I think the story was hurt a bit by the amount of time I spent at the climax trying to figure out why the narrator was no longer in his office. Really, the opening should have been more clearly marked as a flashback and it would have been very good. 2.5 out of 5 because the horror just didn't get across like it should have due to my trying to figure out where the hell the narrator was.

The Author has this to say about the above issue:

I think it is worth taking into consideration the circumstances under which the 1st-person narrator was writing, something that isn't clear to the reader until the end, but which had to be taken into account during the writing of the story. This is by no means an excuse for any of its shortcomings, but our narrator, who was not a professional writer, was highly motivated to prolong the tale while writing in horrible conditions at the behest of the worst and perhaps least patient editor imaginable. I think this accounts for what Mike and others have commented on regarding its abruptness and disjointed transitions. Of course, there is also the question about how Dr. Hedge might have revised the final manuscript before releasing it into the universe.

The Jolly Old Boyfriend

Short Story by Jerry Oltion

A delightful, fun story with one of the most bizarre premises ever. I was grinning for a long time after reading this. It is a light, romantic story though, not a heavy, sciency, deep story. 4.5 out of 5 ex-lovers get lumps of coal from ghost-Santa.

Foreign Exchange

Short Story by Jerry Oltion

Two astronauts are stuck on Mars when their return craft brings an alien back to Earth. The ending of this story seemed like a setup to a longer story that couldn't be told because then the title would be less cleverly tied into everything. It wasn't a bad setup, and I suspect the author was correct not to expand on it any more, but I also won't remember it a month from now. 2.5 out of 5

A Jug of Wine and Thou

Short Story by Jerry Oltion

Two horny, high-tech teenagers crash their hovercar and have to survive a night in the wilderness. An okay romantic story, but merely okay. 3 out of 5

Monday, December 21, 2009

In the Autumn of the Empire

Short Story by Jerry Oltion
Available online for FREE thanks to the National Science Foundation
Published in Analog October 2009

The Emperor of a formerly very advanced civilization is infallible. And unlike the Pope, if he gets something wrong he has the tech to fix reality so he never was. The Emperor isn't too good with science.

At a hefty 2.5 pages, this one manages to be funny, meaningful, and the kind of story I'm bound to force many people to read over the years. This could have been written by Asimov; 4.5 out of 5, a perfect example of the story it is trying to be.

Attack of the Grub-Eaters

Short Story by Richard A. Lovett

An internet gardening help forum helps repel an alien invasion. Now it is a somewhat serious story, but keep the title, the premise, and the fact that it is told through a series of forum posts in mind. This is a fun story, not a heavy one. 4 out of 5 forums are monitored by the CIA, but they should really pay attention to that other 20%.


Short Story by Richard A. Lovett

A middle-aged runner trades his long term health for one last chance at athletic glory with an illegal muscle treatment. Not about cheating-and-getting-caught or the Dangers Of Steroids, this story is actually just a bittersweet last-chance-at-being-young tale. It falls short of excellence, but isn't bad; 3 out of 5

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thanksgiving Day

Short Story by Jay Werkheiser

Colonists on new planet lose their ability to make food and find out all the local stuff is toxic. Scientists try to solve the problem, deal with marital issues, and prevent grunt-worker upheaval. Success! Time for a Thanksgiving Feast!

Okayish story, but the science (biochemistry) was confusing. Not anything wrong with it, just had to read it a second time to get what it was they actually figured out and why that mattered. And I still think they could have solved the problem without realizing the science here if the toxicologist had just used a wider variety of samples. But he was under a lot of stress so I shouldn't be too mean. The civil unrest problems of the colony are the real meat of the story despite the science focus and this is done well enough. 2.5 out of 5

Accounting For Dragons

Short Story by Eric James Stone
PodCastle audio version read by Steve Anderson (FREE!)
Originally published in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show

Financial advice for dragons: this will save you thousands of ruby-encrusted bits of jewlery, or if you happen to be a small, delicious human it could even save your life.

I read this as a transcript after listening to it, and it is definitely funnier out loud. So an excellent job by Steve Anderson, his voices and intonation add a lot of additional humor to this story.

Pretty funny, better with the voices, much like the dragon's voice this story is smokey-fresh. 4 out of 5 dragons could save money on their tax returns by not-eating an accountant.

Attitude Adjustment

Short Story by Eric James Stone

A group of space tourists try to save their sabotaged ship. Fortunately they have a petulant kid with a working computer, a pilot with a good understanding of physics, and an old man with a good memory of classic Solving-Our-Problems-With-Physics SF stories.

This story is quite well written and makes the excellent decision not to focus on why the ship was sabotaged, just on solving the problem. My classic SF knowledge is far from exhaustive, but I've never seen the solution to this story used before. Makes me want to get back to my mission to read the Feynman Lectures on Physics all the way through. Also pun titles are always good. 3.5 out of 5.

The Final Element

Short Story by Eric James Stone

A nanofactory technician helps the police solve The Case of the Perfectly Copied Stradivarius. A clever, very short mystery story. 3 out of 5. Worth the time considering it will take you 5 minutes.

Where the Winds Are All Asleep

Novella by Michael F. Flynn

A team of scientists descend deep into the earth through a series of caves and make some amazing discoveries. When they're done updating Journey to the Center of the Earth for a modern audience they get involved in a bit of a horror story and vow never to go back. But then the survivors have to go and present their amazing findings without evidence, refuse to get any evidence (wouldn't be tough), and resign themselves to telling the story in a bar. Now that is just bad science.

The central discovery here is a REALLY cool concept, and Flynn does an excellent job holding our attention with just the curiosity of Science. The reader can guess some of the science and still be surprised by the extent of it. Furthermore the action at the end of the story makes it impossible to stop reading. That said, this excellent story is bookended by scenes in Generic Irish Pub that detract from the whole and manage to add very little. The first bar segment had some funny bits that were more than canceled out by introducing characters who have absolutely 0 relevance to ANYTHING. The ending bar scene serves as a vehicle for wild, too-far speculation, trying to add additional horror elements that just aren't there to be had; and the central bar bits just distract from the action and save us a touch of As-you-know-Bob that I'm sure could have been worked in some other way.

Still, if we ignore the bar bookends this is one of the best stories of the year and there isn't enough good SF-horror out there anyway. This will definitely see a place near the top of my AnLab ballot. 4 out of 5 scientists could have that Nobel Prize if they would only go back and collect a little goddamn evidence.

Seed of Revolution

Novella by Daniel Hatch

On a planet where genetics works on some 4x4 matrix I've spent way too long thinking about, mammalian life has evolved to look like anthropomorphic dogs, pigs, porcupines, etc. These talking animals have their civilization altered by a human survey team, and proceed to change their government while lecturing each other about philosophy and economics.

Now the economics, and the spreading memes/genes theme are food for thought, but don't think this story takes itself too seriously. The police inspector is a dog named Mag'Rrrruff, one of the revolutionaries goes by Porkle'pi, and a scene at a bar named The Maltese Frog starts off a series of film noir references. And unlike some novellas, it turns out this story was part of a series and I didn't even notice; it worked perfectly by itself.

The ending to the murder plot did sort of come out of nowhere, but the investigation of the murder was more of a device to drive the plot than it was a plot itself, and it worked well as such. I found myself oddly much more drawn into this non-serious world than is common for a comedic story, I just got caught up in the revolution. I'm not sure exactly where on the seriousness spectrum it should go, but either way it gets a cool 3.5 out of 5.

Failure To Obey

Novella by John G. Hemry


On the one hand, it isn't actually a bad concept and the first 1/3 or so of the story is some very well written military SF. On the other hand, the other 2/3 of the story are the trial, which drags on, and on, and on, and on, ...

I have to say that it wasn't that impressive of a courtroom drama either. The verdict was obscenely predictable, I never thought for a moment that it would go the other way once the trial was started. Just no tension at all. And once they started getting into the evidence, it became clear that all the charges were just specious, and the only reason it had been brought to trial at all was a misguided quest for revenge and the vagaries of bureaucracy. Additionally, he takes the dead horse message of "unquestioning obedience to orders is wrong" and beats it into a bloody equine pulp.

Finally there are a ton of references to books I haven't read. Not earlier Analog stories, NOVELS. I'm not going to buy a novel to understand the 1.5 out of every 5 pages you spend talking about things that have no relevance on the story.

Gunfight on Farside

Novella by Adam-Troy Castro

Long introduction about how historical events become mythology and most depictions of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral are complete bull. Then moves into how the only shootout during the colonization of the moon has likewise been distorted. The narrator is an IRS agent who gets curious about why the government gave said shootout perpetrators lifelong tax immunity, investigates, and discovers a huge, mostly unrelated secret.

Well written, surprising, and much more interesting than the above summary might lead you to believe. I enjoyed this story, but not quite as much as seems to be consensus. I guess partly because it reminds me of Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, which is tough to live up to. On the other hand, hey it reminds me of the Martian Chronicles and I have a cat named Bradbury. 3.5 million dollars of tax revenue were lost to moon hermits in the past year.

Doctor Alien

Novella by Rajnar Vajra

A comedic SF novella about a human psychiatrist that aliens bring up to their spaceship to diagnose other aliens that they have been unable to understand. The biggest issue anyone can have with this story is that our protagonist solves all his cases with dumb luck and lucky guesses rather than brilliant psychiatric insight; but I'm willing to forgive this because a) he is very aware of it, and paranoid he won't be so lucky in the future, and b) that isn't even remotely the point. Comedic heroes are exempt from the normal superhuman competency requirement of protagonists.

Anyway, I love the main Tsf alien traders, they have a delightful sarcasm and the based-on-old-tv/radio translations are pure gold. Several laugh-out-loud moments. Take 3.5 asprin and call me in the morning.

The Recovery Man's Bargain

Novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This was a 42 page novella that at the same time flew by, and felt like it had the content and development of a full novel. I stayed up late to finish it, and yet this was my least favorite Analog novella of the year. Imagine that at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is trying out his new robo-hand when 2 dozen storm troopers show up out of nowhere, gun down the medical droid, and then are defeated by the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sort of ruins the whole movie doesn't it?

The illegal flower retrieval mission that got me interested in the first few pages ended abruptly, having served only to have the titular Recovery Man's employer act over-the-top irrationally in order to plot-shoehorn him into a mission many reasonable people would have taken just for the money. Oh, and to give him a CHEKOV'S GET-OUT-OF-JAIL-FREE CARD, guaranteed to be used by the end of the story or your money back.

So we drop one mission, and are given another, the plot progresses well enough, and it makes a pretty decent story. But then we're supposed to be feeling sorry for the victim of all this, who I can only describe as a complete monster. She has 0 empathy of her own, is guilty of genocide and a gristly murder by her own hands, and show 0 remorse. Yeah, I pity her having been taken from her cushy job to answer for her crimes. Now things do go a bit wrong for everyone towards the last 1/3 of the story, but I really have trouble buying the epiphany our anti-hero is supposed to be having here.

And then, out of fucking nowhere in the denouement, we have a big pointless conflict, that get's resolved by that foreshadowed deus ex machina. I guess when you write yourself an out that good, you can't not use it. Here's an idea: DON'T WRITE IT IN THE FIRST PLACE.
Despite the rant, the middle of the story was okay, so 2 out of 5.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Analog May 2009 Wrap-Up

So that is absolutely everything in the May 2009 issue reviewed, not a bad start for half a week.

The short stories rank pretty easily:
A Story, with Beans was far and away the best.
A Measure of Devotion was in the middle, and
The Brother on the Shelf is the bottom of my barrel.

The Novelettes were a bit harder to rank. They were all at least decent, but the top slot is close between Rendezvous at Angels Thirty and Quickfeathers. After some deliberation I have an ordering:

I'm a bit worried my scale isn't sufficiently sensitive to measure the differences, but it makes me waste less time on pondering out exact scores. I'll stick with it, but just keep a grand, unified chart of story rankings going henceforth.

Noisy Signals

Editorial by Stanley Schmidt

On the importance of voting and trying to be the best informed you can be despite the high amount of bullshit in any given political campaign. It is tough to pick out the true signal from the noise, but worth the effort.

Short, well written, and completely true, but rather generic.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Geology, Geohistory, and "Psychohistory": The (Continuing) Debate Between Uniformitarians and Catastrophists

Fact Article by Richard A. Lovett

Lovett looks at the theory that the Minoan civilization on ancient Crete was wiped out by volcanoes or an "earthquake storm" rather than slow decay of civilization. He also writes about J Harlon Bretz's struggle to convince other geologists that the scablands of Washington state were the result of a giant flood. It is a rather sad story how other scientists treated him, but Bretz's flood eventually became the accepted view (an enormous glacial lake formed by an ice dam in Montana drained all at once).

The theme of the article is that scientists, in this case geologists and archeologists, tend to latch on to an over-broad idea and then ignore evidence to the contrary, even if it is one contrary case that wouldn't disprove the idea. He compares Asimov's Foundation series and Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder"in order to link the discussion to scifi, and then does a little hedging at the end as to his own like of gradualism.

The information in the article was interesting, but I have a few problems with it overall. The science fiction references were unnecessary, besides the point, and dragged the article out for no reason. The conclusion I thought he was leading up to: that Chaos Theory (Vibrating String History, etc) type ideas can be a sort of middle ground and are generally more correct than sticking blindly to the idea that either catastrophes don't matter or gradual trends don't matter, is something I heartily agree with, and where most of the article seems headed. And then in the last line, he takes back everything interesting he said: "Scientifically, I like grand unifying theories like gradualism. In fiction? Give me a little bit of vibrating-string chaos, any day." I mean come on, grow a pair Dr. Lovett. So you prefer your science blinkered, but at least Ray Bradbury was a good writer, and Asimov wasn't stupid. How insightful.

Rendezvous at Angels Thirty

Novelette by Tom Ligon

Gerald "Hellfire" Doyle made a fortune in the stock market, and uses it to collect and fly WWII fighter planes. His great-great-grandfather was a pilot whose entire flight mysteriously vanished on a mission over the Nazi occupied Netherlands. So Hellfire commissions a quantum snapshot into the past of his ancestor and his surroundings at their last know location. From this they reconstruct the whole mission and replicate the consciousness of Gramps' and his fellow pilots. Hellfire flies the simulated mission with them and solves the mystery, but runs into moral dilemmas about just how real the minds of the pilots are.

I hate to describe a story as "action-packed", but that is really the best phrase, in a good way. Ligon obviously has extensive knowledge of WWII aircraft, and did a lot of research besides. The story has lots of edge-of-your-seat dogfighting, but it is more about Hellfire getting to know his great-great-grandfather than about killing Germans. The final page or so is incredibly moving; this is a much superior take on the simulation-that-becomes-real story. 4.5 more Messerschmitts painted on the fuselage.


Novelette by Alexis Glynn Latner

Human colonists flee Earth's ecological problems and try to colonize Planet Green. A planet mysteriously free of the large life forms or resources that were expected on a world covered with plant life. It seems everything was mined out millennia ago by the same advanced species that moved the planet's moon. They discover an ancient cave with a giant fossilized bird. It turns out these birds were sentient and on the walls of caves they discover a written history of the bird people.

The ship's quirky AI (possibly damaged by the long journey) translates the ancient writing into a fanciful tale with dragons, trolls, and witches. The story primarily follows the protagonist's attempt to decipher the history of the bird people from this odd translation and what history the scientists on the expedition can piece together.

It is quite a good fairy tale. A bird named Wander, and a bird of a different species named Quickclaw set out from their home which is being destroyed by a rising ocean (thanks to the aforementioned moon-movers). They fly over the mountains in search of a new home and then have to return and help their people survive the journey. Parallels to the colonists' situation abound.

Between excerpts of the fairy tale/history we learn about the colonists struggles to survive and find enough resources to set up a real civilization. There is a lovely little lesson about cooperation and not recklessly disregarding other species, set against one of the more complicated backgrounds I've ever seen for a frontier-type setting. 4.5 sentient birds were harmed in the making of this fairy tale.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Measure of Devotion

Short Story by Shane Tourtellotte

A down-and-out physicist wants to make a comeback and help defend the space program from politics so he signs up for a public debate and makes a mess of things instead. It turns out the sacrifices he made for the program years ago have left him effectively brain damaged and unable to help save it now. A good story that stays focused on the tragic protagonist rather than the issue of protecting science from defunding (an important issue, but it's best not to over-preach). Sometimes you can only give so much for your cause: in this case 3.5 out of 5.

A Story, with Beans

Short Story by Steven Gould

A group traveling through the post-apocalyptic American Southwest sits around a campfire with a can of beans and are told a story. And it is a pretty good story about religious nutbags persecuting a book dealer for trying to sell books to women (gasp!). Doesn't come off as preachy in the least and is actually quite touching, and a bit scary. And the metal-seeking, flesh-eating insects are great. This story is very complex for its 5 pages, and I can't do it justice without ruining it, but highly recommended. 4.5 out of 5 women learn to read from traveling book salesmen.

The Brother on the Shelf

Short Story by Philip Edward Kaldon

A little boy has his brother go off to war. He gets old and his grandkids want to hear about it. Very short, pretty well written, not terribly interesting. The alien Enemies could just as well have been replaced by Germans and this story could be in a lame middle school literature textbook. And the only other scifi element has been done much better by Rudy Rucker. This story was sad but dull and gets a sad 2 out of 5.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Radioactive Decay and the Earth-Sun Distance

Analog's "The Alternative View" non-fiction column by John G. Cramer

6 months before my 0th birthday, physicist Ephriam Fischbach (of Indiana) proposed a fifth force (in addition to strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravity) based off some reanalysis of old experimental data. He got a bunch of media attention, and then was throughly disproved.

Now based on some reanalysis of other old data, he finds evidence that radioactive decay rates are effected by the varying distance between the Earth and the Sun, or possibly the neutrino impact variation caused by it. They don't really propose a mechanism, and their vague suggestions are dismissed by professor Cramer (a physicist). The observations are statistically significant, but Cramer points out some possibilities in the experimental data collection that would explain them without having to create new physics. Also that NASA should have strong evidence of this effect from some of their probes that has not been reported.

I think it is good that Professor Fischbach and others investigate old experimental data for things other researchers have missed, but it is important to realize that data in old experiments was controlled for factors the original experimenters were worried about, but when you are using that data to look for something else, you need to think about what else you would need to control for when examining your entirely different hypothesis. Experiments should be performed to test this, but I feel that Cramer does a public service by encouraging skepticism and looking for more mundane explanations first.

On the other hand, if this turns out to be true it would provide the mechanism for the artifact in Probability Moon by Nancy Kress, which is a book I definitely recommend.

Among the Tchi

Novelette by Adam-Troy Castro

"Whenever hostile novelists encounter one another in unclaimed territory, the author of the most cutting witticism is awarded dominance."
Adam-Troy Castro needs to find some unclaimed territory and start an empire. This story is my favorite in some time and I'm not sure what the noise I made at the last sentence was, but I'm going to call it a guffaw. A bunch of arrogant human novelists are sent to an alien planet of pretentious, asshatted literary critics who spend a year ripping their best work to pieces. The hero strikes back. So the plot isn't that complex, but it is funny. There are a few sections of writing that seem a bit hackneyed but I choose to believe they are there deliberately for comedic effect, they work much better than they would work if written by the sort of writer who did these things indeliberately. The author's thoughts on literary criticism and the sort of wankery that goes on in college English departments mirrors my own, but I'll resist getting into my feelings on James Joyce and the thousand theses written on him every year. I was amazed at how fast the pages of this story flew by. Four pretentious critics out of five.

The Sleeping Beauties

Novelette by Robert R. Chase

Scientist tries to throw away his chance to make a name for himself so he can marry his jazz singer fiance, she breaks up with him for his own good and he goes on his 5 year mission to go where no man has gone before. Once in orbit, she confesses via email and they decide to work it out. She goes into long stasis periods coinciding with his, against the wishes of her agent. He doesn't struggle all that hard to avoid the feminine wiles of an extremely bitchy crewmate, who ends up sleeping with the head scientist to sabotage his chances at accomplishing anything. Through dumb luck he instead ends up being the only one to make any significant discovery; he and his fiance get famous and live happily ever after. Good love story, but first third is a space soap opera akin to ABC's Defying Gravity that strained my eyelid muscles. Last part is much better, although predictable. Worth reading, I wish I could meet a hot, Jazz singer/Ochestra composer who pushes me into making huge scientific discoveries. Where does one buy tickets to that lottery? 3 astronaut chemical castrations out of 5.

Asimov's/Analog Marathon

So I didn't stop reading scifi magazines, but I stopped writing about my reading. I also never made a decision, short story magazines are like pokemon, gotta catch 'em all.

But 2009 has been a busy year and I haven't had much time to read. The only magazine I've kept up with was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, so I guess that was the de facto winner of the previous failed attempt at Science.

In 3 months (Feb 2), submissions for Analog and Asimov's Reader Favorite stories polls are in, I want to have well thought out votes. So I'm going to read 20 magazines in 3 months (4 of them double issues). I've read some scattered stories, but in effectively 2 years worth of publications, it is a very small amount. So I'm going to post a brief spoiler-light summary and review of EVERY STORY IN THE PAST YEAR in both Asimov's and Analog here, as I read them, over just 3 months. That is 8 single issues of magazine per month. Doable, but barely.

At the end of every issue, I'll sum up the results so far, Issues will be in a particular order that will seem random to anyone not me, don't bother trying to figure it out. Starting with Analog May 2009: