REVIEW: “The Acheulean Gift” by Matthew Claxton

Review of Matthew Claxton, “The Acheulean Gift”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2021): 60–68 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

In “The Acheulean Gift,” some children have been genetically modified with DNA from pre-“Home Sapiens” humans, hoping that this will reduce some of humanity’s most descriptive tendencies. The program didn’t work as expected,

I found the “Acheulean genetics” program described in the story rather implausible, in more than one way. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief for this one, though if you are able to, then it is a pretty good story. The writing is competent, the characters were well-crafted, and I particularly appreciated the little touches the author put on the brother-sister relationship (like their playful rivalry in the ax throwing exercises).

Overall, there’s a lot to like about “The Acheulan Gift,” even though I personally could not get past the premise.

REVIEW: “It’s Cold on Europa” by Filip Wiltgren

Review of Filip Wiltgren, “It’s Cold on Europa”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2021): 42–48 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

The protagonist is stuck on Europa on a mission to collect ice for Mars, with no one to keep her company but a coworker and her wife’s “construct” (essentially an android with a downloadable personality that needs to be updated periodically). She becomes concerned when her wife’s construct begins to behave unusually strange. Is it her wife growing cold towards her, or is there something wrong with the construct?

The premise of collecting ice from the outer part of the solar system and send it to Mars is nothing new (e.g. Asimov’s “The Martian Way”), although the idea of “constructs” as described in the story is fascinating. The main character’s paranoia is described with great skill and ample tension. The author is really able to get in her head with some delicious internal monologues. The ending felt somewhat rushed, however, and perhaps a little disappointing. What started as a great psychological examination of protagonist life in deep space ended with a simple “brawl in space” – an ending more suited to a typical pulp adventure tale than something like this.

Despite that, this was still a very enjoyable read.

REVIEW: “Second Hand Destinies” by Marie Vibbert

Review of Marie Vibbert, “Second Hand Destinies”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2021): 139–145 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Tatiana is troubled young woman living with her brother and grandmother on a battered space-station that barely works. She is not the real Tatiana, but a tentacle creature – a symbiote/parasite – that has taken her form. Her brother and grandmother know this, but are happy to have her in their lives. One day, a damaged spaceship carrying a royal fugitive lands on their station, bringing all sorts of trouble for the unorthodox family.

Vibbert is great at establishing mood and this story is no exception. There are a few great moments in the story that create a rich and complicated universe in just a few paragraphs (or a few line of dialogue). However, after a rather tense climax, the author opts for a conveniently “happy” ending that doesn’t quite land, in my opinion. Still, this is very much a story worth reading.

REVIEW: “The Pond Who Sang” by Charles Hand

Review of Charles Hand, “The Pond Who Sang”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2021): 132–135 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Due to a plane crash, a scientist’s revolutionary neural network device falls into a pond where it interacts with the local flora and fauna to become sentient. A perplexed musicologist who lives nearby attempts to understand the sounds that are coming from it.

“The Pond Who Sang” has a poetic quality about it that I enjoyed very much, even though I don’t think the artificial neural networks described in the story are accurate at all. Otherwise there’s little that stands out about this piece. It’s a nice little tale about nature, AI, and the fateful convolution of the two.

REVIEW: “I have loved the stars too fondly” by James Van Pelt

Review of James Van Pelt, “I Have Loved the Stars Too Fondly”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2021): 129–131 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Earth (or perhaps America) is starting to colonize the Moon, and the homeless are among the first to get there. It’s a chance to start fresh, though not everybody believes in this chance.

A thoroughly enjoyable story, even if it does not necessarily have a sense of direction. It feels more like a snapshot of a hypothetical future, rather than a proper narrative. Nevertheless, the snapshot that it presents is very compelling and the story makes a strong case for the humanity of its characters (e.g. the references to old poems by the main character, etc.). Despite the story’s brevity, there’s a lot of depth in Gregory’s character, whose optimistic view of the future leaves the reader hopeful. Much like a lot of us in these difficult times, he can’t help but see an end to his struggles in his new endeavor.

REVIEW: “THH*SH*THHH” by Aimee Ogden

Review of Aimee Ogden, “THH*SH*THHH”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2021): 78–79 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Teller attends the funeral of a member of a near-immortal species, who died unexpectedly as result of of an accident. The rest of the species have a hard time coping with that being’s death.

The author employs a variety of linguistic tools to emphasize the “alieness” of the “THH*SH*THHH” species (such as different pronouns), which I found more distracting than immersive. By the end, the story doesn’t offer much to help the reader empathize with the alien’s struggle to accept death.

REVIEW: “If a Tree Doesn’t Fall” by Jerry Oltion

Review of Jerry Oltion, “If a Tree Doesn’t Fall”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2021): 69–74 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

During a camping trip in the woods, Vance discovers an antigravity device up on a tree. Thinking it as humanity’s solution to the climate crisis, he risks his life to collect it.

This is a simple and straightforward story, effective without relying on many bells and whistles. Vance’s excitement about the antigravity device and his herculean attempts to recover it from the tree are conveyed excellently by the author and create enough tension to make the reader care about the outcome. I’m not sure if Vance’s optimism about the device is warranted, but I doubt the author intended for the story to have any prophetic value. Overall, a delightfully entertaining read.

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.