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: