REVIEW: “Nanoscopic Nemesis” by P. K. Torrens

Review of P. K. Torrens, “Nanoscopic Nemesis”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 106–107 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

The story is told from the perspective of a medical nanobot performing a tumor excision surgery on a patient. Realizing that the tumor has metastasized, the nanobot proceeds to find its source and eradicate it.

Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the “AI with a personality” – or “AI with attitude” – types of stories, especially when the AIs in question are depicted in a fairly realistic manner (as they are here). Certain lines like “I want to crack a beer open because that’s what my programmer does” or “My processor purrs” or “The liquid nitrogen washes over my RAM like a cool wave over a scorching beach” feel out of place in a story like this. Such a style is superfluous to the narrative.

That aside, I really appreciated the detail with which the author treated the hypothetical subject of nanobot surgery in the story. The author clearly knows his stuff and does a great job at delineating (in just enough detail) the innards of a technology that will quite possibly exist in the future. Medical nanobots are perhaps the first truly tangible “miracle drug” that science fiction has conceived, and well-crafted stories about them are always welcome.

REVIEW: “Lowlife Orbit” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “Lowlife Orbit”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 94–95 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Earth is slowly dying, and in an effort to provide a new home for humanity, the governments of Earth have started terraforming Mars. Unbeknownst to many, however, this process will take a long time: up to 1000 years. That is why a team of smugglers – uncle and nephew – have decided that it is OK to steal some of the terraforming materials in low-Earth orbit and sell them in the black market for profit. The uncle has no moral qualms about the operations since he believes the Mars terraforming project is nothing but a pipe dream. On the other hand, the nephew is more apprehensive about the future. However long it takes, he argues, one day Mars might be the new home of Humanity.

A thousand years means nothing to the human brain […] We evolved to deal in seconds. Minutes. Days. Years. A millennium, we’re not equipped to imagine that.

Despite its brevity (~1000 words), “Lowlife Orbit” is a story with a lot to unpack. It simultaneously deals with human shortsightedness, as well as the human tendency to ignore the problem at hand. In Larson’s version of the (near) future, Earth is presumably ravaged by climate change and humanity has given up trying to fix it. Instead, they’ve piled all their hopes on the possibility of a habitable Mars. At the same time, the protagonist of the story can’t help but point out the futility of that hope.  Whether it is because of indifference, pessimism, or simply pragmatism for the present, he resigns into a sort of unhealthy apathy that satisfies neither side of the argument. As usual, Larson is able to imbue a lot of personality into his characters in a brief and concise manner. The story ends with a glimmer of optimism, before circling back to the same status quo.

REVIEW: “Aboard the Mithridates” by Sean Vivier

Review of Sean Vivier, “Aboard the Mithridates”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 86–89 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Aboard the generation ship Mithridates, the passengers are slowly adapting their bodies – through training and gene therapy – to survive on the planet Hephaestus, the atmosphere of which contains large amounts of sulfur. Zarah Ngata is coping well with these changes, but not all kids at school are handling it as easy. One young man, Gavin, is having a hard time as his lungs seem unable to process the increased concentration of sulfur in the air. Zarah speculates that he won’t survive the next stage of the adaptation process. She’s determined to do whatever she can to help save the life of her less capable schoolmate.

In “Aboard the Mithridates,” Vivier presents an interesting take on the popular science fiction trope of the generation ship. Many stories such stories are often focused on the breakdown of the generation ship’s society, whereas here, the ship’s inhabitants remain focused on their goal. Vivier also comments on the unpredictability of the offspring and the real possibility that they’re not fit for the harsh environment of a generation ship. I was happy the story addressed these issues. Running at approximately 2400 words, the story does not have the chance to dive very deep into its themes, but it does, nevertheless, raise some interesting questions regarding the communal lifestyle that would be required in a generation ship. Is individual sacrifice acceptable if it benefits the rest of the community?

There are some plausibility issues, however. For example, I find it unlikely that Gavin’s health issues would be totally ignored by everyone except another child. It’s also unlikely that a society capable of building generation ships would not have some way of easing his pain. A respiratory aid, perhaps.

REVIEW: “Rite of Passage” by Jerry Oltion

Review of Jerry Oltion, “Rite of Passage”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 99 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

After graduation, Roshi prepares for his first solo moonwalk in his new 5-piece space suit.

There’s not much happening in this story other than the titular “rite of passage”, which presumably is the act of putting on the new suit. There’s a brief moment of tension (if one can call it that) when the character almost forgets to put on a helmet, but otherwise there’s not much plot to speak of. The story is simply a 460-word description of someone putting their space-suit on.

REVIEW: “Calm Face of the Storm” by Ramona Louise Wheeler

Review of Ramona Louise Wheeler, “Calm Face of the Storm”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 119–131 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

In a planet orbiting twin suns, Bret is a flying man that has strayed away from his home while chasing a strange looking lizard. On the way, a violent storm almost kills him, knocking him unconscious. Bret wakes up in one of the lighthouses that populate the edge of his people’s territory. There he finds out that the lighthouses are maintained by a set of “transparent” flying people, not as technologically advanced as his own culture, living a more natural way of life. Bret falls in love with Mornell, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper, and with her help, adopts their way of life. However, he soon realizes that he can’t stay with them forever and must return home.

I always try to not be a stickler about “genre purity,” but I was nevertheless surprised this story was included in Analog. While it has some elements of science fiction (twin suns, spaceports, possibly aliens, etc.) it reads a lot more like a fantasy story — or at the very least, a convoluted hybrid of the two (I could not stop thinking of Avatar). It doesn’t matter so much, since most of the story takes place inside the main character’s head, but it is nevertheless something that stood out to me.

Genre nitpicking aside, I was rather disappointed with the story. The world that the author creates, while rich in detail, is nothing new or original, drawing on many preexisting tropes. At times I was impressed with the author’s prose, but much of it felt padded with one unnecessary description after another, making the story rather painful to read. Similarly, the plot offers little more than a standard coming of age story with the addition of some serious holes in its logic. For example, Bret comes from a somewhat technologically advanced society, yet nobody knows what lies just a few miles outside their city. This sounds highly implausible to say the least.

Overall, I found very little to enjoy in “Calm Face of the Storm.”

REVIEW: “Net Loss” by James Sallis

Review of James Sallis, “Net Loss”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 107–108 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

The protagonist is unfairly sent to jail when a  “smart” TV hears an argument between him and his girlfriend and calls the police. From then on, his life takes a serious turn for the worse. After he gets out of jail, his girlfriend leaves him, his landlord evicts him, and his name ends up on a sex offenders list. As such, he decides to give in and turn into a real criminal.

Except for the “smart” TV that calls the cops, there’s hardly any speculative elements in the story, so its place in Analog may be questionable. That aside, it was a pleasant read. The prose is written in stream-of-consciousness style, which makes the rather sardonic twist at the end (if one may call it that) work surprisingly well. It felt like navigating through an unstable mind, which I imagine is what the author intended. However, I’m not sure what the title “Net Loss” refers to in the story.

Overall, this was an enjoyable piece of flash fiction.

REVIEW: “Candida Eve” by Dominica Phetteplace

Review of Dominica Phetteplace, “Candida Eve”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 96–101 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Susana is the last surviving member of a terraforming expedition to Mars. An unexpected fungal pandemic claimed the rest of the crew while on flight, in addition to claiming millions of lives back on Earth. Despite the tragedy, Susana must find the courage and will to carry out her mission and create a new home for the future of humanity.

The story’s subject matter — i.e. a deadly pandemic — certainly makes it a relevant read at the time of publication (I’m guessing that is why it was included in this issue). There are startling similarities between the plague in Candida Eve and Covid-19. I’d be very surprised if all of it was just a coincidence.

Aside from that initial impact, however, “Candida Eve” leaves a lot to be desired. The prose is clear but relatively dry, making for a less than engaging read. Almost half the story consists of info-dumping about the details of Susana’s mission and the unexpected pandemic that devastated humanity. There’s little that actually happens in the story, and by the end, little gets resolved in a satisfying manners. There’s little sense that Susana overcame any of the challenges of her mission as she displays very little agency throughout the story.

REVIEW: “To Persist, However Changed” by Aimee Ogden

Review of Aimee Ogden, “To Persist, However Changed”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 105–106(Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

A sentient moon crashes into a planet and discovers another sentient form of life there. The story is told from the perspective of the moon-consciousness as it prepares for the crash.

Billions of light-sensitive organelles orient to the brilliant patch of sky, and magnetosomes orient along familiar field lines. The diffuse awareness of the Moonmind comes to an agreement: Soon.

I must confess, I’ve never been keen on stories that describe an alien consciousness through the physical and chemical interactions that make it up — which seem to be popping up rather often lately. They always strike me as rather contrived. After all, consciousness is an emerging quality. Human thought-processes do not involve moving ions and chemical imbalances, even though it is such events in our brains that make thought possible.

From a fictional standpoint, however, it is a rather effective tool at conveying the “otherworldliness” of an alien mind. The author manages to successfully filter a different kind of consciousness through familiar scientific concepts, and does so clearly and concisely. Moreover, the author did a relatively decent job at maintaining a clear and readable prose, which is crucial for these kinds of stories.

Ultimately, I still don’t think it works, but I can appreciate the effort.

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.