REVIEW: "Birds of Feather" by Gregor Hartmann

Review of Gregor Hartmann, “Birds of Feather”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact January/February (2020): 152–158 (print) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Frank, a distinguished astrophysicist at the local Institute of Technology, has a developed a new kind of telescope that will revolutionize space exploration as we know it. The theory is sound, but there has not yet been any experimental verification of Frank’s ideas. Unfortunately, neither the Space Agency nor Frank’s own department will approve the deployment. With the aid of Rivo, his carefree brother, Frank must resort to more illicit means to get his revolutionary telescope up in space.

It’s always nice to read an author who has a distinct and recognizable voice. Hartmann certain fits the profile. His sense of humor and casual-yet-precise style of narration stands out in most of his stories, including this one. In “Birds of Feather”, the plot has a few moments that are a bit hard to swallow and seriously test the readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. For example, the obstacles placed in the way of Frank’s research are not particularly believable — and neither is his extreme reaction to them. However, as the story focuses mainly on the relationship between Frank and his brother, I find the aforementioned flaws rather easy to forgive. Especially since the main characters are so well realized.

Overall, it’s an enjoyable story even though it’s not one of the author’s most memorable.

REVIEW: “Around a World in Ninety-Six Hours” by Wendy Nikel

Review of Wendy Nikel, “Around a World in Ninety-Six Hours”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact January/February (2020): 145–151 (print) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Polly Wynne is on a scientific mission on Venus, while her brother, Casper Wynne, is on a similar mission millions of miles away on Mars. Fueled by a healthy dose of sibling rivalry, the two place a friendly wager: whoever can complete a full revolution around their respective planets the fastest wins a free dinner. While the first 24 hours look very promising for both parties, the excitement does not last long. A violent wind storm knocks Casper’s communications out and leaves Polly uncertain of his fate. Polly must now use every tool in her arsenal to figure out a way to help her brother.

The story was more or less a middle-of-the-road piece for me: an interesting premise (e.g. flying airship on Venus) brought down by a not so interesting execution. The author structures the plot cleverly enough to maintain a well-balanced thread of suspense throughout the story, keeping the stakes high until the very end. On the other hand, I found the prose clunky and filled with unnecessary exposition. I can’t help but think that another round of editing would have benefited this story greatly.

Lastly, I’ve never been one to nitpick the science in science fiction, but there are a few things here that might make the reader raise an eyebrow or two. For instance, why did the Mars rover have to resort to Morse code to send its distress signal? If the mic was broken, couldn’t they have send a written message? Or shouldn’t the rover have a dedicated — and separately powered  — SOS system? The use of Morse code instead does not seem sufficiently justified.

REVIEW: “One Lost Space Suit Way” by A. J. Ward

Review of A. J. Ward, “One Lost Space Suit Way”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact January/February (2020): 138–144 (print) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

This is the story of a self-aware space suits that journeys through a strange and surreal future for over one-hundred years. It goes on to witness the worst of history as humanity tries to make a life in a hostile new world. More than a hundred years later, with what is left of its energy and working parts, the space suit returns to the farm it escaped from and writes down its life’s story.

I really liked the premise of a self-aware “smart” space-suit along with the author’s surreal — almost like a fable — tone of the story, but unfortunately not much else appealed to me. For the most part, the story consisted of large chunks of dispassionate prose describing a rather vague and generic dystopia. I did appreciate some of the quirks the author imbued on the space suit — like the hoarding of forest animals — but at the same time it felt as though it was only a small part of a larger, incomplete metaphor that went nowhere.

Overall, I found it a dull read. However, the premise is original enough that I look forward to reading the author’s future publications.

REVIEW: “All the Turns of the Earth” by Matthew Claxton

Review of Matthew Claxton, “All the Turns of the Earth”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact January/February (2020): 132–137 (print) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Narrated in the second person, this story features a  young child mysteriously catapulted into prehistoric times.  There, the child finds the abandoned egg of pterosaur and raises it into adulthood. The two forge a strong relationship with each other, but before long, the child falls back into the present day. She grows up grows up wondering if she’ll ever see the pterosaur again.

First, I must confess a personal bias: I don’t really like stories told in the second person. More than often I find second person stories contrived and gimmicky, adding little or nothing to the core of the narrative. That said, Claxton manages to avoid the usual distractions of second person, creating a rather engaging little yarn. The prose is elegant and poetic, and even though at times it verges on the “purple,” it goes a long way at making the scenery come alive. I particularly enjoyed the description of the transition from the past, back to the present:

You stumble, and skin your soft hands on the asphalt.

The story might feel a bit out-of-place to regular readers of Analog, as it belongs more in the realm of fantasy or magical realism than anything remotely resembling hard SF (Analog’s usual cup of tea), but I nevertheless enjoyed it while it was there.

REVIEW: “The Greatest Day” by Eric Choi

Review of Eric Choi, “The Greatest Day”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact January/February (2020): 92–103 – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

In this story, Eric Choi imagines an alternate past where the damage that brought down the space shuttle Columbia does not go undetected, but is instead caught on time by an eager and highly motivated ground crew. Once they confirm the damage on Columbia’s left wing, ground control works diligently to plan a suitable rescue mission to bring the ship’s crew safely back home.

“The Greatest Day” offers little in the way of originality, but it is nevertheless a well-written tale full of suspense, excitement, and bureaucratic tension — as well as tons of delicious detail regarding NASA’s internal operations. The author does a great job at keeping a crisp pace so that the plot does not get bogged down in technical minutiae (of which there are plenty). The simple and straightforward prose, organized by dates and locations, adds greatly to the realism of the piece, which at times reads like a governmental report. All in all, an entertaining read.

REVIEW: “The Grass Bows Down, The Pilgrims Walk Lightly” by Izzy Wasserstein

Review of Izzy Wasserstein, “The Grass Bows Down, The Pilgrims Walk Lightly”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact January/February (2020): 125–131 (Print) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

The Klevish are an alien civilization who despite their advanced technological status, appear to lead a rather mystic lifestyle. They agree to share some of their knowledge with Earth, provided a human representative can overcome one of their challenges. This time they’ve chosen Erika, a biologist, as Earth’s negotiator for a genetic reclamation technology. The puzzle she must solve is simple: why does a particular species of a tall grass bend as the Klevish pass by it?

This is an excellent example of concise storytelling, covering a lot of ground in only a few paragraphs. There’s a simple, yet powerful poignancy about the world and characters that Wasserstein unfolds throughout her non-linear narrative, adding to a pleasant feeling of melancholy. Erika’s struggle, despite its science fictional backbone, is immensely relatable to anyone who’s had to choose between more than one path in their lives. The sadness that such a choice entails comes through clearly in the story.

Unfortunately, the ending does not quite hold up to the excellent build up, as the Erika’s solution to the Klevish puzzle seems like a hand-wavy attempt to bring the story to a hasty close. It works, but I can’t help but think that cleverer solution exists somewhere out there, one that does try to force the metaphor quite so much.

REVIEW: “Hive” by Jay Werkheiser

Review of Jay Werkheiser, “Hive”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact January/February (2020): 82–92 – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

A group of space travelers encounter a planet where the predominant form of intelligent life – The Hive – communicates by chemical signaling rather than speech. Neither species can quite figure out the other as communication between the two is all but impossible. Hive has to worry not only about the Humans, but also their ongoing conflict with another species, Methyl, while the Humans remain entirely clueless of the whole affair.

“Hive” is a solid hard SF story. The narration alternates between the human and alien points of view, presenting two vastly different and incompatible worlds to the reader. Though a bit dense to start with (the alien POV segments can seem intentionally cryptic), it flows seamlessly once you understand what it is about. No doubt, this is a story intended for those who are willing to be patient with their SF. The underlying concept seems plausible enough provided one doesn’t dig to deep into the ideas presented. For instance, while complex communication through chemical signaling is not that far of a stretch, any intelligence arising from such a system requires further consideration. The author still needs to use language to convey the aliens’ thoughts to the readers.

Overall, I strongly recommend this story.