Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Analog July/August 2011

An issue pretty much carried by Richard Lovett

Energized, Part II of IV by Edward M. Lerner: NOT REVIEWED

Coordinated Attacks by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: 2.5

Jak and the Beanstalk by Richard A. Lovett: 4
One Out of Many by Kyle Kirkland: 2.5

Short Stories:
Probability Zero: ... Plus C'est La Meme Chose by Arlan Andrews, Sr.: 3.5
A Witness to All That Was by Scott William Carter: 1.5

So Long, Proxima Centauri by Kevin Walsh: B

Schmidt's editorial is a decent enough read, and The Alternative View is better than it often is, but the reviews in this issue are absolutely awful. Painful to read as well as useless.

One stand-out story in Lovett's "Jak and the Beanstalk", one stand-out article in Lovett's "Narrative Voice". The articles are mostly better than the stories, being 3/4 enjoyable, although aside from "A Witness to All That Was", the lesser of the fiction is never really bad. A lot of it is unimpressive, but only one story really bothers me.

Not a great issue of Analog, but not without its merits either.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Fish of Lijiang

Short Story by Chen Qiufan (Text & Audio online)
Translated by Ken Liu

The Narrator is an office worker, frequent employee of the month, and on track to become Assistant Manager.
"I have a car, a house — everything a man should have, including erectile dysfunction and insomnia."
He isn't exactly happy with his life, but he likes being a workaholic. When he is diagnosed with a stress-induced illness, he only goes to the rehabilitation center/resort in Lijiang because they force him to. An interesting character development mentioned a few times but never dwelt on is that our narrator apparently used to be an artsy type, before he got into business.
Ten years ago, I had nothing and no care. Ten years ago, Lijiang was a paradise for those who liked to exile themselves from civilization. (Or, to put it less pretentiously, that was where young people who fancied themselves "artists" slept with each other.) Ten years ago, I carried everything I owned on my back (still had some muscles then).
But the ancient city isn't as he remembers it. Everything is fake. Artificially controlled sky kept a perfect blue, robot bands poorly playing traditional music. Before he can despair too much, he meets a woman, they hit it off, and before things go down the predictable woman-shows-him-the-error-of-working-too-much route, the whole story takes a Philip K. Dick-style twist. The world is more fake and less pure than even he imagines, and the government and large companies are collaborating in some very Science Fictional research.

The whole story ends up quietly depressing, much like the narrator's life. I really liked that about it. I was expecting a happy, lesson-learning sort of story, and it turns out that this story is more what you'd get if Philip K. Dick were writing in modern day China. Like a Dick story, though, there are a few too many abandoned threads, half-themes mentioned poignantly once, and never brought up again. They do all add to the feeling of the plight of the modern office worker though.

I'm glad Ken Liu took the time out from writing his own brilliant stories to write a translation of this one, and I'm very much interested in finding more translations of Chen Qiufan's work. If anyone who reads this knows of any other English translations of Chen Qiufan stories, please post a comment.

3.5 little red fish out of 5.

Originally published, in Chinese, in Science Fiction World, May 2006

Conservation of Shadows

Short Story by Yoon Ha Lee (Text & Audio Online)

A retelling of the Sumerian mythology of Inanna's Descent into the Underworld, narrated in the second person, as some sort of Ereshkigal/GLaDOS hybrid speaking to one of several Inanna clones.

From what I can gather, Sumerian culture was still dominant when Earth began to colonize space, and people wanted to send out copies of their gods, to reenact myths and ensure that other planets properly experience seasons and whatnot. Or something.

Honestly, I've read and listened to this story five times, and I like it less each time. The first time it didn't make a ton of sense, but I was pretty sure that I liked it. The fifth time, I'm pretty sure that it makes no sense at all, besides trying to justify Lee's mythological conceit, and I dislike the story. The climax in particular annoys me, because I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, and from what we're given, it just doesn't make any damn sense.

So I'm not a fan of this story, but I must admit to loving the writing. Where it fails as a story, it entirely succeeds as a sort of incomprehensible prose-poem. Yoon Ha Lee never fails to provide haunting, beautiful imagery and poetic description. "Ghostweight" remains my favorite, both for the story, and for descriptive poetry, but "Conservation of Shadows" is well along that track for description. The problem is that the only story is a less-comprehensible version of a pre-existing myth. Some good ideas, like the inventory slots of a video game, and the clones reenacting stories, but they don't really go anywhere, and the more I think about them, the more I think the actual work of fiction in question isn't good, just beautifully done and full of distracting half-ideas.

With the second person narration and retelling of mythology, I was at first reminded of Rachel Swirsky's "A Memory of Wind", which put me in quite the mood to enjoy this story. Sadly, it didn't pan out, and felt more like weirdness for weirdness sake (and because you can't just repeat a myth straight and get it published), with an unconventional POV more to add to the weirdness than to the story.

2.5 empty inventory slots out of 5.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Other Articles: Analog July/August 2011

More than Plot and Character: The Story-Telling Secrets of Narrative Voice
Special Feature by Richard A. Lovett

Lovett discusses the danger of taking the "show, don't tell" dictum too seriously. "Telling" is what constitutes a lot of narrative voice and style. I do find it odd that he worries some SF readers are afraid of/opposed to the very concept of "style" in writing. I'm not sure if he is underestimating SF readership or I'm overestimating them. Anyway, with several examples, most useful of which is a before-and-after bit of editing from a story Lovett collaborated on, he shows how sentence length, and variety among sentence lengths can be used to achieve various different voices. A very specific advice article, refreshing in that most narrative voice advice is vague to the point of being useless. By being extremely specific, Lovett gives everyone some useful advice, and limits himself to a scope achievable in a magazine article.

Rating: A

Science Fiction Imagines the Digital Future
Special Feature by James Gunn

Not worth reading. I'm not sure how, but this article took me 45 minutes to read. I just couldn't stay focussed on it. Gunn comes across as more curmudgeonly and old-fashioned than I'd have expected. I think his take-away point, that we should all expect that some future outcomes will be unpredictable, is a good one. As is his advice to writers to look at technological advances in terms of what unintended negative side effects they cause, rather than the more predictable benefits. But these are both sort of things we've heard before, and that a lot of people know, and Gunn doesn't add much besides a lot of words.

Rating: D

The Deficiency of Black Holes at the LHC
Alternate View Column by John G. Cramer

Simple reportage on a paper stating that no black holes have thus far been found at CERN in the LHC, a short review of the physics of why we might expect black hole to form, and paraphrasing the paper's discussion of what this means (that if gravity behaves in extra dimensions than the other 3 forces do, and thus the minimum black hole size is lowered, it must be greater than at least certain numbers). Pretty much straight reportage with a bit of background.

Rating: B

Division of Labor
Editorial by Stanley Schmidt

Thoughtful as usual. Schmidt gives us the history of the term "multitasking", its rise in popularity and possible origins in the "MultiFinder" application for early Mac computers. The whole editorial seems to be brought on by recent studies contradicting earlier ones and psychologists making sweeping, unfounded statements (as psychologists are wont to do) about Multitasking Is Bad, mmkay. This a reverse from it being the best thing ever in the 90s. Schmidt argues that the question we should be researching are "when, how, and for whom does multitasking work?" A couple engaging autobiographical anecdotes and he ends by pointing out that everyone is different, so we should beware employers and pushy parents coming to demand multitasking if it is better understood and cycles back into popularity. SF story idea, check. Thoughtful, but not his most thoughtful.

Rating: B-

The Reference Library
Book Reviews by Don Sakers

The reviews this month are all anthologies. Of this I approve, since I prefer short fiction to novels. But the page-and-a-half introduction to the reviews confuses and annoys me. First, Sakers explains the merits of the short story. Fine, I guess, since he admits he is preaching to the choir, and he is introducing a bunch of short story collections. Then he gives us a history of SF anthologies as a publishing form, which is vaguely interesting, but overlong and not actually relevant (I thought I was done with the fact articles). Finally, he closes by defining a 'novelette' as a "long short story". Thanks Don. The readers of Analog, with 2 NOVELETTES IN THIS VERY ISSUE weren't clear on that term. And besides pissing me off with unnecessary condescension, I don't think you need to know the difference between a novelette and a short story in order to appreciate either one of them.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2011 ed. by Kevin J. Anderson: Sakers explains what the Nebulas are, and that this anthology contains short stories nominated for these mysterious "Nebula Awards."

Dark Futures: Tales of SF Dystopia ed. Jason Sizemore: Sakers doesn't seem to like dystopias, but "enough variety here to keep the various dystopias from becoming too oppressive." Not a helpful review at all, but I guess this is either positive, or damning with faint praise. I'd be better able to tell if Sakers weren't mostly talking about dystopian stories in general.

Welcome to the Greenhouse: New Science Fiction on Climate Change ed. Gordon van Gelder: Most of the "review" on this book is a discussion of how it's okay if you don't believe in climate change. Very little about the actual book, aside from it being about climate change. Sakers does give a recommendation to the anthology, but it almost gets lost in all the talking around how he doesn't believe in climate change. I know Analog's readership tends to the conservative, but I didn't realize you had to spend most of a book review on whether or not you believe in climate change. I'd have bought this anthology on Gordon van Gelder's editorship alone (F&SF being his main project), and Sakers doesn't do much to enhance or diminish what I get from the title page of this book.

By Other Means ed. Mike McPhail: Finally a real review, a positive recommendation with enough detail to know I probably won't be interested.

Golden Reflections ed. Joan Spicci Saberhagen & Robert E. Vardeman: Theme anthology in honor of Fred Saberhagen, a good history of how this anthology came about, what inspired it, and the contents. A positive review I probably agree with.

Jar Jar Binks Must Die ... and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies by Daniel M. Kimmal: I really liked having a themed review article, too bad Sakers couldn't stick with the theme and reviewed a collection of essays about movies. A positive review.

A good concept for a review column that ended up profoundly unhelpful and actively annoyed me to read.

Rating: D-

So Long, Proxima Centauri

Analog Fact Article by Kevin Walsh

A tad bit dull, but still an interesting discussion of Brown Dwarfs, the mission of the new WISE orbiting telescope, and what sorts of stars and planets WISE is capable of discovering. Also included is a lot of information about the potential for life on such planets, and what sort of conditions would be needed to get life-supporting planets in orbit around a brown dwarf.

Rating: B

Before You Get to String Theory

Analog Fact Article by C.W. Johnson

A look at physics history, and a walkthrough of the development of physics from Relativity to String Theory. Obviously this can't go into enormous depth, and it covers some of the same ground as many popular physics books (Brian Greene's in particular), but that is pretty good for a magazine article. The physics discussion is interesting and I learned something from it. But more important is the writing itself, I found myself taking notes. Maybe it's just nostalgia for college or something, but not all fact articles have me taking notes in a notebook.

Besides the physics itself, Johnson gives readers some crucial advice:
"A Theory of Everything isn't everything. As a scientist, I prefer process over product, and am more interested in the logic and experimental evidence behind a theory than in the final equations. I am always taken aback when I meet students who profess a desire to be String Theorists and yet exude indifference with the story behind string theory."
"What we really need is not more theory but more experiments and observations. Experimental discrepancies led to the blooming of general relativity and quantum mechanics. The clues to the Next Big Theory likely lie hidden in the experimental topics of the Higgs boson, proton decay, neutrino masses, and non-baryonic dark matter. String theory may be the dead end of the quantum-particle-exchange paradigm. Or it may indeed be the fabled theory of everything. But for physicists it's not the Final Theory that matters, but every step of the puzzling, frustrating, and thrilling journey, wherever it may lead us.
It's not a complicated graphic, but the highlights of the article, for me, were the Dirac Sea diagrams as well as the various older ideas from the 1930s that you don't see much discussion of in modern physics texts.
Rating: B+

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

...Plus C'est la Meme Chose

Probability Zero Flash Fiction by Arlan Andrews, Sr.

The title comes from the French proverb: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" or "the more things change, the more they stay the same." And that pretty well sums up this story.

Matter Transmitting (a la Star Trek Transporters) is a emerging technology, and Choppers are the logical descendants of modern hacking culture. Shenanigans like transporting fossils to the moon to confuse scientists are mentioned in the background of this Chopping competition. The winning entry is pretty funny, and remarkably unsurprising when you think about it. Funny and short, Probability Zero is often one of the highlights of an Analog issue.

3.5 second-order Monty Python references out of 5.

One Out of Many

Novelette by Kyle Kirkland

Neuroscience detective story. Tad is a government science regulator, and one day a criminal kidnaps him to force him to look into NeuroFac, a new street drug that has been approved for over-the-counter use. Several dull and overexplained neuroscience infodumps later and Tad is on the run for his life while trying to solve the mysteries of who is trying to kill him, why the gangster wants him to look into this drug, and what exactly he's expected to find. He finds love along the way, and discovers some neat things about consciousness.

The science behind the story is interesting and fully explained. But Kirkland has a tendency to overexplain these concepts, with more jargon, longer sentences, and several more details than really needed to get the idea across. And he spends too long on these details, and comes back to them too close together, so that it is really hard to keep reading the first part of the story.

On top of that, some background details seemed unbelievably stupid, like government agents not being able to do more than one search a day, or print anything out from the database, and hot air balloons and sailboats for long travel. But these don't make up much of the story, and the gondola/logboat style public transit system is pretty cool. The point is, this story takes a while to get going, it draws you on partly through reveals that everyone but the reader is already aware of, and it jars your suspension of disbelief a bit too hard. The resolution almost went into Philip K. Dick territory, and I would have been happy with that, but it loses courage at the last minute and the whole thing resolves neatly with a scientific discovery and a few big reveals in which our hero has very little agency. I'd have actually liked this story, despite it's other flaws, if it could just take a chance, either with severe long-term effects from the drugs, either on our hero's perception of events, or using split-personalities to better effect for betrayals. As is, this story takes no risks, less risks than the stories it most reminds me of.

2.5 logboat-trains out of 5.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Death and Dancing in New Las Vegas

Short Story by Ernest Hogan

Teodoro Arango a.k.a. Paco Cohen and his band are travelling through the purple landscape of terraformed Mars to a big festival in New Las Vegas. There, a running background theme of corporate greed and cultural appropriation moves to the foreground and tries to ensnare Paco personally. He's too much of a rebel, so he insults the big Mars-owning corporation in song, then runs offstage and flees the city with his band.

This rebellious mocking of tourism and entertainment industries carries a side-plot related to Paco's daughter and her desire to sing with and rescue a mermaid, but the draw of the story isn't its frantic anti-corporate plot so much as the bizarre extrapolation of a purple Mars where people and animals are randomly transformed by nanohudu, purple canal mermaids may-or-may-not be mutation or tourist trap engineering, and AI corporate logos have a threatening sentience of their own. It's a crazy world and a fast moving plot, apparently a sequel to Hogan's April 2001 Analog story: "The Rise and Fall of Paco Cohen and the Mariachis of Mars." I haven't read the earlier story, but I'm not sure it would make the world any less delightfully crazy.

Paco's lyrics aren't that great, although I guess they fit within the Las Vegas mariachi framework. The story is like the lyrics: strange, exciting, danceable, rebellious, but ultimately empty cultural calories. Fun but forgettable.

3 dancing purple yetis out of 5.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Witness to All That Was

Short Story by Scott William Carter

I should probably remark on style more often, but in much of the SF I read, style floats under the radar. I whine about Kristine Kathryn Rusch's plotting or serialization addiction, but the fact is, she's a competent stylist and I never mention it. This is true for a number of my negative reviews, and sometimes my positive reviews are pushed up half a point further because I'm impressed with the style, but I don't always mention that either. Style is something we take for granted. A few writers, your Zelaznys and your Kij Johnsons stand out as excellent. Most SF writers are decent, not bad, not superlative. This is one of those stories that makes me realize what I'm taking for granted.

The poor writing is about the only thing that stands out about this unremarkable, sentimental short story. A bitter married couple fight in a spaceship. He's an uncommunicative idiot, she's pretty shrewish herself, and they're both mourning the loss of a child. Their marriage falls apart on a desolate little planet where they find a robot, who talks to them and gives them hope. The forward momentum is made entirely from misleading flashbacks/flashforwards between this and another storyline. Cheap tricks from the author make the two threads seem connected. It turns out they aren't and then it turns out they very slightly are. But the curiosity about what exactly the author is doing with this other story thread is the main driving force of the story, and as I said earlier in this very issue of Analog, that is not a good thing. The writing isn't downright awful, my complaints also extend to a nothing plot, artificial narration tricks, and unearned sappiness. On the other hand, I'll forget this one by tomorrow. No harm, no foul.

1.5 space-divorces out of 5.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Jak and the Beanstalk

Novelette by Richard A. Lovett

The Beanstalk is a colloquial name for Earth's new space elevator, and Jak was born in the year it first went up. Partially inspired by the classic tale, Jak latches on to a love of climbing and never lets go. He dreams of climbing the Beanstalk, and in college, with some physics classes, he realizes it might just be possible. The first third of the story is Jak's life up to that point, neither Jak nor the story do anything but prepare for the climb. It's just an athletics or exploration achievement story.

The physics are well thought out, and Jak's solution to the problem is rather clever, but that isn't really what I read fiction for, although I must say I'm impressed by the thought Lovett obviously put into it. The real story begins once Jak is well into his climb, and becomes introspective about just why he is climbing in the first place. A childhood dream becomes a dream of fame and book deals, and history-making. "Because it's there" transitions into a feeling of "because I have nothing else". Jak looks back on the life he wasted preparing for something that no one is even going to notice, and the life he can't have because he's locked into his dream.

Two-thirds of the way through the story, Jak reaches what should have been the climax, and it's deliberately anti-climatic. He gets to the station at the top of the Beanstalk. Jak's thought upon arrival sums up much of the story: "Earth was also the past. Climbing had been the present. and now, unprepared, he was in the future." Jak doesn't know what to expect, but he tries to build a life, and essentially learns that the journey is more important than the destination.

Now I've outlined the plot pretty thoroughly, but there are still some twists, and although I'm not revealing the ending, this story is most worth reading for the path it takes to get there. I've outlined the themes, but the planning and execution of the climb are actually pretty interesting, and the major surprise to this story makes it a bit harder hitting. It's an extremely lonely story about a man so wrapped up in his obsession that he lets the whole world pass him by without leaving a trace. And maybe that's okay.

4 giant Beanstalks out of 5.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Coordinated Attacks

Novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Another forgettable Rusch novella. It takes place in the Retrieval Artist universe, but I haven't read enough of those to notice much significance to this. Nor do I particularly want to. Rusch isn't a bad writer, but I don't think she's terribly consistent. A bit too caught up in making everything into a never-ending series to really get the most out of some of her ideas. This one is set on the moon in the future, but it doesn't feel like the moon and doesn't need the SF setting for anything besides getting a few more Analog novellas out of it. The presumably fit protagonist also struggles overly much with an uphill climb and lifting an injured woman considering moon-gravity. This annoys me, almost as much as my suspicion that the setting is there only to serve a more arching multi-novella plot I'm not that interested in.

Anyway, it's a competent pair of police procedural stories, an investigation into a developing series of terrorist attacks interspersed with flashbacks of a murder investigation from four years ago. The terrorist case is never solved, ending with a crisis averted and a lead to follow in the next novella. The murder case is frustrating in that all the clues observed turn out irrelevant, and aren't dealt with at all, merely resolving the mystery with the guilty party attacking the cops and thus establishing guilt. These aren't so frustrating if we look at the story as a character study of Detective Bartholomew Nyquist, but his transition from disaffected grumpy detective to heroic slightly-grumpy detective is left largely unexplained, details presumably to be filled in with the undoubtedly upcoming novella about an attempt on his life which Rusch mentions about ten times, but refuses to elaborate or give any detail. He is an interesting character, if a bit standard-issue, but Rusch seems to be saving a lot of the interesting bits of characterization to dole out in three or four more novellas.

Despite all my complaining, this is a decent thriller. I was unable to stop reading, even when my primary interest, if asked, was what connection the two mysteries had in common to justify their presentation as one story (not enough). The sort of story you can't put down, but once finished, wonder where your forty pages went. I honestly can't remember what took so many pages, or figure out how I failed to notice or get bored. But the fact is I wasn't bored. I just doubt I'll remember this story six months from now when the first of infinite sequels is published. And I'm a little bitter about the obviously serialization-induced name dropping, excess characters, and lack of detail in backstory, in case you didn't pick up on that. Still, not awful to read, just not worth your time unless you love all Rusch's work indiscriminately. And this is still legitimately more interesting and suspenseful than some.

2.5 assassinated moon-mayors out of 5.