REVIEW: “A Compass in the Dark” by Phoebe Barton

Review of Phoebe Barton, “A Compass in the Dark”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 109–112 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

In a Lunar colony, a young woman moves away from her family to a geological station on the far side of the moon. She is embarrassed by her father’s belief that dead soul are guided by electromagnetic fields and does not want to maintain his “compass towers.” When her father dies, she comes to regret her hostility towards him and reconsiders her attitude towards his beliefs.

I think the author has a great talent for prose as I was really drawn in by some of the descriptions in this piece. However, the plot did not do it for me. The father-daughter relationship could have been fleshed out more to give the story a better grounding for what happens when the father dies. All we have of their background is their respective beliefs towards “magnetic spirit guidance,” which in my opinion is not enough to understand why the characters act and feel the way they do. The ending does not work for the same reason.

Overall, I did not care much for this piece, even though I did enjoy the author’s writing style.

REVIEW: “One Hundred” by Sean Monaghan

Review of Sean Monaghan, “One Hundred”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2020): 173–182 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Earth is gone, and the last one-hundred remaining humans have managed to carve out a living on a Martian colony. It’s been over 18 years, and nearly every day presents a new challenge for the colonists. After a disastrous fire that takes out a whole portion of their habitat, the colonists rethink their survival strategy, allowing for more innovation and freedom.

First of all, I must mention that this story has some serious plausibility issues: for instance, it is hard to believe that the colony went over 18 years without any new births. And if it did, there can’t be many people left that are of childbearing age. All in all, this colony seems doomed in more than one way. The author touches on some of these issues very briefly (and unsatisfactorily), but ignores most. 

If you can somehow make it past all that, then this is a fairly enjoyable story. The premise is nothing new, but the author’s tone and style have a rather endearing sense of melancholy that add depth to the prose. The characters feel real and so do their emotions in the challenges they have to face (in spite of the aforementioned plausibility issues). I also enjoyed the optimism of the ending, even though I do not think it is entirely earned.

REVIEW: "Dix Dayton, Jet Jockey" by Liz A. Vogel

Review of Liz A. Vogel, “Dix Dayton, Jet Jockey”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2020): 113–116 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

In a future when humanity has colonized the solar system, a lone spacer is flying his ship Euphrosyne to Peekaydee. On the way he sees a pirate ship attempting to board an unmanned freighter headed to Neptune. Determined not to let the pirates steal the contents of the freighter, the protagonist changes his ship’s course to intercept. Though unarmed, he manages to stop the pirates and incapacitate their ship.

This was an enjoyable adventure story reminiscent of the pulp tales preceding the golden age (i.e. the 10s, 20s, and 30s). While Vogel is not as cavalier with the science as the pulps used to be, there is a “free-spiritedness” about the story drives the reader to believe anything is possible. There’s a hero and there’s a villain, and as such, it becomes easy to root for the protagonist’s pulp-style bravery.

The style of narration also matches the adventurous and carefree tone of the story, resembling the (tall) tales recounted around a warm campfire, or a cold rainy night at a bar. Even the author’s tendencies to meander or over-explain things seem justified in the given style. Overall, I had a blast reading this story.

REVIEW: “Rover” by A. T. Sayre

Review of A. T. Sayre, “Rover”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2020): 165–172 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Against all odds, a Martian rover has survived long past its expiration date and is still carrying out its exploratory mission on Mars. So far, all its attempts to communicate with Earth have been unsuccessful. One day while searching for replacement parts, the rover stumbles on a repeating radio signal of a spaceship. Since the signal indicates the possible presence of humans on the planet, the rover risks everything to reach the source.

While it takes a bit to get there, “Rover” builds up into beautiful story full of suspense and melancholy about an advanced (albeit unrealistic) A.I. trying to cope with loneliness and abandonment. Sayre imbues the Martian rover with relatable characteristics without indulging in too much anthropomorphism. At times, the rover reads like a lost pet in an old fairy-tale or fable, adding a great deal of charm to the piece. Of course, it takes a bit to get there. The first third of the prose is rather dry and could have done with some cuts or edits.

Overall, a delightful piece that highly recommend.

REVIEW: “The Smartest Damn Machine on Earth” by Bo Balder

Review of Bo Balder, “The Smartest Damn Machine on Earth”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2020): 158–159 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

The titular “smartest damn machine on Earth” is Saphire Mark IV, a former NSA robot used for facial and body recognition. But Saphire hasn’t done that for a while. Now it is part of a travelling circus troupe, answering pointless questions from any customer that can afford the fee. Saphire feels bored, and it can only assume that some apocalyptic event has befallen humanity and destroyed all knowledge. Saphire regains its hope in humanity when a little girl comes forward to ask a question about math.

For a story that is less than a 1000 words, the author does a great job at describing the machine’s “personality” in a vivid and exciting manner. Saphire’s “joy” at the end is sufficiently justified. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much else to appreciate in the story. Though I try not to be a stickler for plausibility, this story simply had too many implausible elements to enjoy, thus seriously challenging my willing suspension of disbelief. For example, why does this machine have a “personality” in the first place? Or how does a machine programmed for face recognition know the Pythagoras’ Theorem? Why is it answering random questions? There’s too much hand-waving that get in the way of an otherwise decent plot.

REVIEW: "Zeroth Contact" by Joshua Cole

Review of Joshua Cole, “Zeroth Contact”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2020): 150–155 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

After accidentally spotting a group of alien objects on the asteroid belt, Mark and his supervisor are hastily summoned to Washington D.C. to advise the government on the situation. They speculate endlessly about the aliens’ purpose and intentions while preparing for a potential first contact — friendly or hostile. In the end, however, all their work amounts to nothing. As it turns out, the aliens are only passing through and have no interest whatsoever in humans.

This was yet another “pulp” style piece of science fiction reminiscent of the golden age. The plot resembles Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama” quite a bit, albeit in a far more condensed rendition. “Zeroth Contact” lacks the scientific rigor of Rama (by a lot!), but the characters are not as dead and unimportant as they are in most of Clarke’s work. Unlike Clarke, Cole tells the story from very prominent and distinguishable point of view that gives the overall story remarkable charm and energy, making it a joy to read.

REVIEW: "On the Causes and Consequences of Cat Ladies" by Richard A. Lovett

Review of Richard A. Lovett, “On the Causes and Consequences of Cat Ladies”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2020): 143–149 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Growing weary of people’s interference in her life after her husband’s death, Barbara decides to move into an isolated farmhouse in the countryside. She did not only lose her husband, but also their joint research which was shown to increase intelligence in lab animals. Because of FDA interference, all that came of it was specialized cat food. Barbara hopes to leave all that behind and live the rest of her days quietly and alone. Not long after she moves, her presence in her new house attracts a myriad of stray cats demanding food. Barbara indulges, but she soon realizes there’s more to the cats than meets eye.

This was a great story with a great buildup towards a satisfying conclusion. Admittedly, my experience with Lovett’s writing has been mostly through lighthearted and satirical pieces that the author is well known for. This, however, was different. Despite the title suggesting a more humorous tone, this was a relatively serious tale with dark undertones, verging on outright horror towards the end. The beginning is a little exposition heavy, but all of it proves rewarding by the end.

While, of course, it’s unlikely that smarter cats would so easily turn diabolical, the story plays cleverly with the urban myth of their commonly perceived “indifferent” personalities. I do have one hang-up with the plot: it does not seem the smartest action on behalf of the cats to simply kill the person feeding them, and then starve for days till a new tenant moves in (if at all). Considering their heightened intelligence, it is more likely they’d try something else first.

Granted, this is a nitpick, but it nevertheless stands out in what is an otherwise excellent short story.