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.

REIVEW: “Falling Through” by Steen Comer

Review of Steen Comer, “Falling Through”, Escape Pod Ep. 725– Listen online. Reviewed by Kat Samp.

This story hit a chord for me, because I recently had a moment where I saw a protective wall near my house that I had never seen before. It looked old and worn, but I had never noticed it despite walking by it at least hundred times. Was it just a fluke of memory, or had I woken up in a parallel universe where everything was the same except the wall?

A phenomenon like the “Mandela Effect” becomes an interesting and compelling complication for the main character, a ‘shifter’ who is constantly falling through parallel realities. The format of the story is a journal, where he documents memories of past universes even as he shifts into new ones. The confusion of memory, the questioning of reality, and the search for human connection were strong threads throughout.

What worked for me: The author offers an excellent inner look into how shifting through alternate realities would affect the human psyche. It is fascinating to hear how the main character navigates personal identity, dreams for the future, and above all, making (or fearing to make) meaningful human connections. His loneliness and doubt, but also hope and determination, make this an emotionally fulfilling read. Additionally, I liked how the author keeps listeners/readers on their toes with details that contradict earlier statements, signalling that a shift has happened.

What didn’t work (spoilers): I was surprised and disappointed by the ending of the story. It felt like the work that the main character did to reach out and make connections, despite his fear and apathy in the face of an uncaring and constantly universe, was completely undone. Some readers might prefer this (mostly) sad ending, but I felt a bit thrown off-balance by how it veered off from the tone in the first half.

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 Sniper and I” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “The Sniper and I”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 299 (March 12, 2020): Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Rich Larson is one of the field’s best and most prolific writers. Fans of his work and military sf more generally will almost certainly find this story appealing. As its title implies, “The Sniper and I” is primarily about the relationship—often clinical, sometimes adversarial—between a nameless narrator and an unnamed sniper amid a seemingly endless war with no apparent purpose. The nature of the sniper and the motivation of the narrator are what the story revolves around; to say anything about either would get us into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that it’s a dark story made even darker by the discovery of which of the two characters is the more cold-blooded.  

REVIEW: “The Glassblower of Galilei” by Katrina Smith

Review of Katrina Smith, “The Glassblower of Galilei”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 298, February 27, 2020: Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This is the final, and arguably the best, story in the first of Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ double-sized Science-Fantasy month celebrations. It takes place on a planet whose ruling class years before waged a genocidal war against a race of “fierce winged termagants.” The war was won largely through an unprecedented combination of science and magic undertaken by the “silver tongued liar” Master Damon. Since then, Master Damon has spent his days using that same mix of science and magic to create creatures whose only purpose is to serve him and others among the ruling class. Creatures like his current apprentice, Dimwit (or Dim, as he is sometimes called). Dim is anything but, however, and the rebirth he experiences and eventually bestows on others like himself, is the main focus of the story. Along the way, we see Master Damon—whose hubris far outweighs his remorse—get his comeuppance at the hands of a mysterious woman whose desire for revenge is not hard to understand. 

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.