REVIEW: “True Colors” by Beth Goder

Review of Bethe Goder, “Rite of Passage”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact September/October (2020): 79–80 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Julia visits an AI that can allegedly read a person’s brain patterns and produce their perfect version of a work of art. But when Julia goes through the process, all she gets is a blank painting with nothing but layers of white on it.

Reading “True Colors,” I got the impression that there’s a deeper meaning in the painting metaphor, but I’m not entirely sure I get it. Something about the “deeper layers” of Julia’s personality, perhaps. I don’t there’s enough there to really come to a conclusion. Still, it was an a neat story and I enjoyed the idea of the artistic AI using something akin to machine learning to generate someone’s “perfect” work of art.

REVIEW: “Keeping the Peace” by Elisabeth R. Adams

Review of Elisabeth R. Adams, “Keeping the Peace”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 118–123 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

An alien species of intelligent reptiles is preparing to launch an attack at what is presumably our Solar System. Their intention is to spread to the stars, but only by conquering already populated planets. They’re not interested in other means of colonization. During the launching ceremony, a few who are not happy with the current predicament decide to overthrow the leader and put a stop to the cycle of violence.

What I appreciated the most in “Keeping the Peace” was its pace. The story builds up elegantly to its climax, while also giving a complete picture of what the society in question is like. I always enjoy concise world-building, and Adams does that splendidly here. Not one sentence felt wasted. Little touches like naming characters after star systems or their peculiar ritualistic chants go a long way into defining the alien culture within the story.

However, I was slightly disappointed with the resolution. The main character’s rise to power seemed a little too easy considering how violent and war-mongering their society was. Despite this, “Keeping the Peace” was a joy to read.

REVIEW: “Mars, the Dumping Ground of the Solar System” by Andrew Kozma

Review of Andrew Kozma, “Mars, the Dumping Ground of the Solar System”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 100–105 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Once a thriving colony, now Mars is nothing but a slum for poor people and unwanted genetically engineered humans. Jonquil is a government worker in charge of managing the different communities on Mars. One day, a Mercurian (a human genetically engineered to survive the harsh environment of Mercury) comes to his office and asks him for help to find her missing daughter. The Mercurian is worried that amid growing “anti-engineered” sentiments on Mars, her daughter might be in grave danger.

Kozma’s story has a couple of things going for it. The author delivers a fair amount of world-building in an effective and concise way, without overloading the prose with tiresome info-dumps. Unfortunately, the details of said world-building appear very poorly thought out. Aside from the scientific implausibility of terraforming Jupiter or, even worse, genetically engineering humans to survive on it, I find it impossible to believe that a humanity who’s able to colonize the entire solar system would treat the engineered so badly. The whole notion stinks of fabricated drama. Along similar lines, the plot of the missing girl builds up nicely throughout the story, but it concludes in a very anticlimactic way. The protagonist’s actions are irrelevant to the resolution, as things simply work out on their own.

Interesting in places, but overall this was a disappointing piece.

REVIEW: “The Mad Cabbage” by Céline Malgen

Review of Céline Malgen, “The Mad Cabbage”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 81–85 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

One day, Nicole is stunned to find that the environment of her cabbage bacteria has gone incredibly acidic. She investigates and discovers that thanks to a childish prank by her lab mate Xavier, her bacteria have mutated in a way that could be very beneficial for her research.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to like in “The Mad Cabbage.” The author explores some neat ideas in microbiology, as well as giving an accurate – well, mostly accurate – portrayal of what graduate school life is like. However, the story suffers from bad writing, so much so that I’m a bit surprised it even made it in print. The prose is clunky and overly expository, full of infodumps and, in some cases, poor English. It’s hard to focus on the narrative when the prose constantly bombards you with unnecessary information.

The plot’s central mystery is mostly well-crafted, with an interesting, albeit scientifically questionable resolution. The character of Xavier, however, is so cartoony that he might as well have a thin mustache to twirl. As a graduate student, he’s simply too villainous to believe.

REVIEW: “On the Changing Roles of Dockworkers” by Marie Vibbert

Review of Marie Vibbert, “On the Changing Roles of Dockworkers”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 90–93 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Mary is a dock supervisor in charge of maintaining the dock’s robot workers. One day, while investigating a malfunctioning robot she discovers that the damage was self-inflicted. Digging deeper, Mary finds out that the robot is trying to prevent a new update that will take away its recently obtained sentience. Now, Mary faces a dilemma: should she help the robot, or wipe its consciousness away?

An enjoyable story, on the short and sweet side. Vibbert manages to give her robot a “motivation,” so to speak, without making it unrealistically emotional. The scenario is plausible, even if a tad unlikely. Some of Vibbert’s metaphors err on the side of silly, like “These logs record every time an electron farts.” However, they rarely detract from the story.

All in all, an excellent short story.

REVIEW: “Fuel Me Once” by Allen Lang

Review of Allen Lang, “Fuel Me Once”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 116–117 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Two businessmen meet at a bar and strike a deal to start a daring collaboration. They’ll build a fleet of heavy cruisers to extract oil from Saturn’s moon Titan.

Lang’s story has some nice and snappy dialogue that helps the reader get in the headspace of the two main characters. It’s reminiscent of the 40s gangster and noir movies, an appropriate style for this story. Unfortunately, the story’s premise lacks plausibility. It’s extremely unlikely that the characters would be able to efficiently extract hydrocarbon fuels from Titan and bring them to earth with conventional (hydrocarbon-based) methods of transportation.

If you can get past the plausibility issues, “Fuel Me Once” is a fun story to read.

REVIEW: “Retention” by Alec Nevala-Lee

Review of Alec Nevala-Lee, “Retention”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 108–112 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Perry is on a phone call with the customer service of his home security system trying in vain to cancel his service. The customer service rep, Lisa, refuses his request with roundabout arguments regarding the value of the security service. In a rather unsurprising twist, Lisa turns out to be a bot programmed to never allow customers to cancel their service. A bit later we find out that Perry is also an AI, the user profile is his the “real” Perry, and he desperately wants to be terminated. With neither side willing to back down, the two bots are destined to continue their pointless exchange forever.

I have not seen many science fiction stories that deal with the philosophy of Existentialism (or Absurdism, if you will) as explicitly “Retention” does, even quoting a direct passage from the Albert Camus’ seminal essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” “Retention” is yet another take on the Sisyphus trope. Just as one must imagine Sisyphus happy carrying the boulder up the mountain, so they must accept that Perry and Lisa are satisfied with their eternal back-and-forth. The author cleverly makes the protagonists of his story AIs, where the idea of fate (or determinism) is easier to conceptualize. And rather than making the plot a straightforward allegory (as many stories of this kind default to), Nevala-Lee manages to craft a clever and entertaining tale around Camus’ philosophical thesis, with humor and even a couple of twists around the corners. It does not add very much to the ideology that it’s inspired from, but it is nevertheless an interesting take on it.

But you won’t cancel me?

It’s against my programming. You’re still a customer. I wish it would be different.

But you’re not going to give up. Neither am I. It’s against my programming, too.

Overall, “Retention” was a really enjoyable story, one of the best in the issue.

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.