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Tuesday 16 October 2001

Recent Treats from Analog

Reviewed by Rich Horton
(Special to Locus Online)

Magazines have personalities, composed both of some sort of gestalt sense of the style of stories they publish, and of the additional tics represented by the features—articles, book reviews, editorials, illustrations, even, sometimes, the ads. In addition, the history of a magazine is, at least for me, a factor in my enjoyment of it. In recent years I have often been less than fully happy with the fiction published in Analog, but I retain an abiding fondness for the magazine, based partly on a fondness for its history (reinforced in my case by recently reading a run of 1950s issues of Astounding), and partly on a fondness for its overall personality, still, in some senses, a legacy of John Campbell. That personality is rooted in part in the semi-contrarian editorials of Stanley Schmidt (which often read as if he wants to be as provocative as Campbell, but has too much common sense to go quite as far as his model); and in part in the often far out, not to say kooky, scientific ideas espoused both in the monthly articles and in the Alternate View essays; and, in great part, of course, on the characteristics of the stories.

Analog stories are often overtly technophilic. They tend to be boosters of space exploration. They tend to be optimistic both in the small sense (happy endings) and the larger sense (expansive futures). They feature engineers and scientists as heroes (and often these engineers and scientists find themselves suddenly attractive to just the right member of the opposite sex)—and the heroes solve problems in the pages of the stories. Sometimes small problems, but sometimes very big problems. Of course there are stories in every issue of Analog that run counter to these trends—but I think these trends certainly describe the typical Analog story. And I have to confess a soft spot for stories with those characteristics. But where Analog has gone wrong on occasion is in having too many such stories, and stories which fail on grounds of internal logic or writing prowess, and which seem to have no virtue but their "Analogness". Where, then, does this leave Analog? In the sad absence of Amazing, it is the most venerable of SF magazines. It is also the best-selling SF magazine, and but for occasional interludes, has been so for decades. But though I remain fond of the magazine, sometimes I strain to find stories that are better than run of the mill.

There are still fine stories published in Analog, though, and I'd like to mention some recent stories that I liked a great deal indeed. In particular, the December issue is one of the best issues Stanley Schmidt has put together this year. I found three of the stories particularly enjoyable. Some of them are what I have called "typical" Analog stories, and some are not.

Sean McMullen is an Australian writer who has attracted quite a bit of attention with an intriguing pair of novels, Souls in the Great Machine and The Miocene Arrow. (A new novel in the same series, Eyes of the Calculor, is just out.) McMullen has also published some interesting short fiction, mostly in Analog and in Interzone. "Tower of Wings" is a novelette set in England in 1303. It is represented as a "secret history", but it deals with scientific advances, albeit advances in the context of the 14th Century. Baron Raimond has come to the title tower to take it over for his King, Edward Longshanks. The Tower is held by one Lady Angela, who is a remarkable scholar, and as a result, vulnerable to the charge of witchcraft. Moreover, the Baron is intrigued by her, but his exploits have failed to attract her interest. Both characters hold our interest and sympathy, particularly Lady Angela, of course, as she is a forward thinking woman of genius stuck in a decidedly prefeminist society. But the Baron has a trick up his sleeve, as well. As with many historically set stories, the main characters gain our admiration partly by holding more present-day attitudes than plausible, but if we swallow that cliché, the rest of the story is exciting and enjoyable, with a nice twist, and with that frisson of sadness that seems all but inevitable with a secret history—for the history has remained a secret for a reason, of course.

Rick Shelley died late last year at a fairly young age. He had established a modest career writing unpretentious SF novels and short stories, many but not all in the military SF subgenre. Analog was one of his regular markets. "First Contact National Monument" is presumably one of his last stories. It's set in a severely economically depressed United States, towards the middle of the 21st Century, 50 years after aliens came visiting briefly, then departed, leaving behind a robot to gather data. Woody Clayton is obsessed with the possible return of the aliens, partly because he was born five years to the day after their arrival. We meet him struggling to find a way to the First Contact National Monument, built around the place in remote Kentucky where the spaceship landed. On the way he meets a young woman, also headed that way, in her case partly because the tourist industry built up around the Monument offers hope of a job. After the two form a guarded pairing, they meet up with the alien robot, who also decides to head to the First Contact site. Woody has some hope that the aliens will return on the 50th anniversary of their coming. The story is very subdued, its arc fairly clear from the outset. There won't be any miraculous return of the aliens, and that's the lesson that Woody, and by extension perhaps the entire population, needs to learn. It's a very modest piece, but involving and affecting. It's notable that its future is indeed a depressing future, though the story ends on a note of subdued hope.

And finally Fran van Cleave, a fairly new writer, offers a story that seems almost an archetype of current Analog fiction. "Navajo Moon-Bird" is a novella that engages in some pretty straightforward space boosterism, and which features a young protagonist just realizing that she is pretty, and attracting the attention of a rugged hero type. The several van Cleave stories I've seen mark her as quite noticeably influenced by Heinlein, particularly by Heinlein's juveniles, and by and large the stories have been engaging and fun to read—capturing at least some of the magic that makes Heinlein's juveniles so good. Van Cleave's pieces are lesser works, not great stories, not particularly memorable, not particularly original, but nonetheless they are satisfying. "Navajo Moon-Bird" fits right in. Pandora Yazzie is a high school senior on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. The reservation is sponsoring Selene Development Incorporation as it attempts to begin a moon colony, and the first manned flight to the colony is planned in a few days. Pandora and one of her friends are fascinated, and she finds herself juggling school, the attentions of a local boy, and her parents' needs with her desire to help at the launch site. But not everybody is in favor of the space project—and a variety of sabotage attempts imperil the launch. Naturally, Pandora ends up with a chance to save the day. The story isn't perfect: the villains are portrayed too one-dimensionally, and Pandora's love interest is developed in an unconvincing fashion; but it's still exciting and rousing, and Pandora is a nice character.

Recent months have featured some other stories that I think worthy of attention. The big July/August special issue included a short story by J. R. Dunn which really impressed me, "The Ground He Stood On". In some ways it is as pure an Analog "space booster" story as one might want—it features an heroic individual entrepreneur, trying to claim an asteroid for his own, and trying to fight off the machinations of the bureaucrats of the Resource Exploitation Office, who want to make sure the established big corporations keep control of things. The basic plot, and indeed the central message, would have fit pretty well into a 1950s issue of Astounding. But the story is very well done—told a bit slant, from the viewpoint of the bureaucrat who is assigned to find a way to cheat the asteroid miner out of his rock—and I found myself convinced by it, and moved. Very solid work.

Also well worth reading is a story by one of the newest of Analog regulars—one of the newest members of what is sometimes jocularly called "The Analog Mafia". Shane Tourtellotte has published more than a dozen stories in Analog since 1998. I've found his output quite variable in quality—a few stinkers, and a couple decent efforts. He had a fine short story about nanotech enhanced boxers earlier this year ("Nanoweights"), and in the November issue he offers what I believe to be his best story to date, "The Return of Spring". This is the story of Joe Dipano, an aging man who, we soon learn, has just been cured of Alzheimer's Disease. The story chronicles his recovery period. Tourtellotte looks unstintingly at the problems such a cure might leave behind. Simply curing the disease is hardly going to solve all Joe's problems: he faces years of lost memories, a still aging body, the suspicion and at times outright dislike of those who remember him best as a sick, irrational, mentally damaged man. The characters are excellently portrayed, and Joe's situation is honestly and affectingly set out. Only a slightly convenient ending mars this story, which on the whole is an excellent example of using science fiction to look at the social and personal effects of new technology.

Rich Horton's other reviews of short SF and novels can be found on Tangent Online and SF Site. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.

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