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Young Geoffrey

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Reasons I Love My Mailman (#1) [Nov. 5th, 2006|08:20 pm]
Young Geoffrey
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(In which the author discusses his preference for one good magazine over another; digresses briefly on the value of short fiction; and argues that you should subscribe to one or both, if you care about the long-term survival of popular short fiction.)

10 times a year I open my mailbox and am rewarded with the latest issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Briefly, I hop up and down like a 5 year old on Christmas morning when I feel the centimetre-thick package then, with excited reverence, I pull the gift from the slot and press my lips to its mylar wrapping.

Less often, I will pick up Analog's sister magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction from one of the rare newstands that actually carry such low-volume, awkwardly-sized and probably not-very-profitable publications.

This month was one in which I read both current issues and so this seems a good time to discuss them both, and why it is that I prefer one over the other.

                

Analog has the longer pedigree as periodicals count such things. Established in 1930 under the name Astounding Stories of Super Science, it is science fiction's lone survivor of the pulp era.

Asimov's was founded in 1977 and - if the Hugo Awards are anything to go by; its editors have won 18 for best magazine during that time, while Analog has won precicely zero - quickly became the prestige magazine in the field. There is certainly no denying that Asimov's regularly presents more "literary" stories, with arguably better writing and definitely a greater emphasis on psychology, imagery and mood than Analog's "nuts-and-bolts" approach.

Why is it then, that I subscribe to the latter and only occasionally pick up the former? The question becomes even more pertinent when I think about the (very) few forays I have made into writing science fiction; my own work would definitely be a better fit with Asimov's than with Analog.

And so it behooves me to examine the December 2006 editions of both publications.

For the purposes of this essay, I have chosen my subjects well. Both are fairly average issues, highlighting each publications' strengths and weaknesses. The vagaries of surface mail being what they are, I picked up the December Asimov's a couple of weeks before Analog found its way to my mailbox, so I'll start with the former.

The issue begins strongly. Editor Sheila Williams for once eschews her normal, bloglike musings with an essay on American copyright law and the ways in which it serves to limit what has historically been the conversational nature of art, ie, that quoting from another work is not necessarily theft, but building on ideas from the past. (The science fiction field itself is very liberal in this regard; as a single fer'instance, I have seen Ursula K. LeGuin's faster-than-light "radio", the ansible, used by more than one writer.)

Regular columnist Robert Silverberg discusses and highly recommends a book about the history of science fiction magazines. A major writer in the field for decades now, Silverberg's article is too personal for my taste, but certainly of interest to people who care about the field and its history.

Finally, in terms of the articles, Peter Heck's book column was entirely forgettable to me, and I don't have the energy to re-read it for this essay. (The issue also contains 4 poems about which I will also remain silent; probably sadly, I don't do poetry as a rule.)

All right then, what about the fiction?

The first story, Paolo Bacigalupi's "Yellow Card Man" is a strong, dystopian story set in a post-global warming Thailand. It is a story of a former Malay Chinese businessman reduced to penury in a harsh new world. Well-written, it is nevertheless too typical of "literary" SF in that it is, first, depressing and second (and to my mind,more importantly), it addresses a situation that could as easily have been set in any present-day country experiencing an influx of unwanted refugees.

Simarly, and although it is set in a much stranger, more "science fictional" place and time, Robert Reed's "Plausible" is an engaging story, a coming-of-age tale, of sorts, but one that ultimately could as easily have taken place here and now. It is a story of luck, coincidence and the kindness (and meanness) of strangers as experienced by a young boy who loses himself, for a while, at a parade.

Calgary's Susan Forest's "Immunity" is actually set in space, on a mining colony of a moon orbiting one of the solar system's outer planets (I don't remember the precise location). It is a powerful story of a mother's love in conflict with her responsibilities to the colony of which she is administrator as a plague breaks out. It is also a story of guilt and forgiveness, with personally tragic undertones as Trine, the protagonist, is unable to forgive her self for a decision all others understand and have forgiven. "Immunity" is a very good story, though it too could - with not much re-working - have been set in the modern world with no loss of thematic meaning.

Brian W. Aldiss' "Safe!" comes close to being a story that is science fiction in the sense it could not take place in the modern world. A satire of sorts, it concerns an astronaut on a one-way mission to Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, and the repercussions of his hitherto unrevealed madness. En route, he murders his fellow astronaut and upon landing, proceeds to develop the "Laws of Psychospheres" which, we are assured, will forever change life on earth. Aldiss' story is written with the practiced hand of an old master, is engaging and sometimes funny, but still feels like something the writer tossed off, rather than a fully-realized work.

Christopher Priest's "A Dying Fall" is not science fiction at all, to my mind. One can read it as fantasy or as psychological fiction, but it is the sort of story that seldom interests me. It is well-written, with a reasonably engaging protagonist who undergoes a near-death experience after being pushed onto the subway tracks but - like most fantasy - the story's arbitrary fantastic elements left me cold and mildly frustrated because of that by the tale's end.

Ian Creasy's "The Golden Record", on the other hand, is more to my taste. A story that opens with the recovery from deep space of Voyager 2 by one Andrew Pitt, of Houston Spaceflight Museum, in 14 pages, "The Golden Record" offers commentary on the state of our world, a race in space, an encounter with a terrorist and a possible (and pathetic) future for the United States, along with a strong argument in favour of the idea that humankind owes it to itself to reach for the stars.

Finally, Michael Swanwick's novella, "Lord Weary's Empire" seems to me to exemplify everything that is right and wrong with Asimov's Science Fiction.

To be fair, it is not a stand-alone story, but a sequel to one that appeared in Asimov's 2 or 3 years ago. That said, if I read its predecessor, I don't remember it, and so must judge "Lord Weary's Empire" on its own.

Written with the literary flair and confidence of a writer in full control of his craft, "Lord Weary's Empire" is by turns moving, exciting and intriguing. It is also a cheat, as at the end, we learn that nothing that happened before was true - rather, the protagonist, Will, is victim to an illusionist. This is much like ending a fantasy with "and then he woke up"; the last writer to get away with it in my books was Lewis Carroll.

All of which is to say, if you like this sort of thing, Asimov's is an excellent place to find it. But if fantasy and slice-of-life fiction are not your cup of tea; if you prefer extrapolation plain philosophy instead, you would be better off having a look at Analog.

Like the December Asimov's, the current issue of Analog is fairly typical of the magazine, neither extraordinarily good nor bad.

Editor Stanley Schmidt opens the issue with an editorial questioning the purposes of public education. In a tradition decades-old, he does not offer prescriptions for any particular current problem, but rather asks his readers to think, to consider what should, and what should not, be part of a public school's curriculum.

The December issue's "Science Fact" article discusses the scientific probability of the existence of "float worlds", planets entirely covered by water and the likelyhood they could develop complex life. As usual, it contains graphs and scientific notation; not written for scientists, it nevertheless presumes its readers are not liberal arts majors with no grounding in physics or mathematics.

The second article, part of the ongoing The Alternate View, takes a German PhD Students dissertation and explores the cutting-edge of quantum physics and the possibility of sending messages into the past.

Analog's regular book reviewer, Tom Easton provides a typical run-down on recent books - brief synopses and his opinion as to whether or not the books under discussion are worth his readers' while.

As for the fiction, as I have said, this issue of Analog is pretty typical, its strengths and weaknesses both on display.

The opening novelette, "Imperfect Gods", by C. Sanford Lowe and G. David Nordley is one of a series, a type of story Analog often runs. Not quite a serial, the stories in these kinds of series will nevertheless often end up collected in a book, featuring reccuring characters and, often, a single narrative thread.

"Imperfect Gods" takes place on a cold world, in the early stages of terraformation, the process of using technology to change a planet (Mars is the classic example) into an earthlike sphere capable of sustain human life.

"Imperfect Gods" is not, however, "about" terraforming. That's the background. The foreground is a long-term, very difficult experiment, and the conflict between the scientist charged with overseeing it and a government that has become influenced by a religious movement that claims the experiment is too dangerous to allow to come to fruition. Nordley and Lowe do a good job of admixing thriller, romance and human weakness into a story that, arguably, could only be told as science fiction, no matter that the political and religious elements clearly echo trends and events of our own world.

Grey Rollin's "Double Dead" is another installment of a series, in this case an entertaining but ultimately forgettable hybrid of film noire and tongue-in-cheek SF. I enjoyed reading it, wanted to find out what happened next - but a month from now, I won't remember a thing about it.

Craig Delancey's "Openshot", on the other hand, is a lovely example of why I kiss Analog on its arrival, as well as read it.

The conceit is as follows. A competition modelled on the X-Prize (which recently saw the launches of a reusable Earth to orbit (privately built) spacecraft), has this time instigate a return to the moon.

One ship, piloted by the "crippled" former test pilot, T.J. ("Colonel Bianco" to her enemies), was built on the open source model, the other by a private company.

The plot is fairly simple. The private space-craft has experienced a catastrophic technical failure and is in need of help. Its open-source competitor is (of course; I don't think the story provides a specific date, but it could plausibly be set 15 years in the future) the only ship that can rescue it. Of course, despite much bitching, T.J. does rescue her competitor (and is betrayed by him), but the heroes are nevertheless triumphant.

There is a long-standing libertarian tradition in (particularly) American science fiction in general and in Analog in particular, as exemplified by such writers as Robert A. Heinlein and, more recently, by John Varley.

What I find exciting about "Openshot", beyond that it is a good story, is the way in which it engages with - and advances - an ongoing discussion within science fiction (and, it should be needless to say, in the rest of the world). That is, how do we best organize the world? Collectively or privately, or in some combination of the two?

Delancey has taken something new from our world - the open-source movement - and extrapolated a way in which it might function in the near future (and very expensive!) world of space exploration. That Analog, which has long been home to the laissez-faire political point of view would publish this contrarian piece speaks volumes about why I so often enjoy it.

Jerry Oltion's very short story, "Diatomaceous Earth" is a cute but forgetable stroy of an archeologist who is more interested in his side-line as a plant-breeder than his (non)place in history as the man who completely altered human civilization.

Similarly, Wil McCarthy's "The Technetium Rush" is briefly entertaining, and a mildly interesting take on fraud and science - but I won't remember a thing about it come next issue.

The December issue's penultimate story, on the other hand, is at once touching and intriguing. The place: somewhere in northern North America. The time: a long ways into the future. In Catherine H. Shaffer's "Long Winter's Nap", the earth is in the midst of another ice-age, and LittlestOne is suppose to retire with her family for winter's hybernation. But she doesn't want to sleep; she wants to see Santy Clawr, who (she believes) comes during the deepest cold of winter.

So she stays awake while the rest of her clan falls into a deep sleep and creeps out into the cold, only to be "rescued" by people who have clearly not been bioengeneered to survive the brutal ice-age cold. Only 8 or so years old, her "saviors" ignore her when the 8 year-old tells them she has to return to her family.

A "christmas story" of sorts, "Long Winter's Nap" is also a coming-of-age tale with a lovely hint of sugar but not an iota of sacharine.

Finally, there is the 3rd instalment of Toronto's own Robert J. Sawyer's latest novel, Rollback.

Sawyer is a prolific and, I believe, a very popular writer and is certainly an Analog mainstay. This is far from the first of Sawyer's novels it has serialized (an archaic but, to my mind, charming practice which only Analog among the SF magazines continues to do on a regular basis.

Rollback in many ways is the quintessential Analog story, in every way.

On a "literary" level, Sawyer is a terrible writer. His prose is clunky, his characters nothing but sketches, and Sawyer - always (in my limited experience; did I mention that Sawyer is prolific?) as the omniscient author - tends to digress to a degree that would embarass even one as prolix as myself.

And yet ...

And yet the man knows how to tell a story. And he tells stories that could only be science fiction stories.

Rollback is set in the mid-21st century. Donald Halifax, a retired journalist with the CBC, is married to the Sarah, the woman who decrypted the first message received from an alien race, in 2009. In 2048, the aliens "write" again and a billionaire backer of the SETI project, offers Sarah a new lease on life, so that she can continue her work: a "rollback" of her age. Sarah accepts, but only on the condition that her husband Don also gets the treatment.

This being dramatic fiction, Don's treatment works, but Sarah's does not.

And so the reader is offered two stories. The first, the mystery of the aliens' message, which 87 year-old Sarah struggles to decode. The second, Don's reversion to a physical age of 20 or so, with a newfound libido to match his full head of hair.

A gentle page-turner, Rollback is nevertheless as frustrating as it is intriguing. Sawyer's understanding of human nature is strong; his ability to show it, rather than to tell you about it, is almost non-existent. Sawyer is an old-school science fiction writer, taking as a starting point, "What if ...?" and the following the assumption to its logical conclusions. (What if someone was able to scientifically prove the existence of a soul? What if Neanderthal's had survived; what sort of society would a species strong enough to break ribs with a single punch develop? Or, in his latest, what if a loving 87 year-old husband was suddenly given the body - and hormones! - of a 20 year-old, while his (also) 87 year-old wife was still alive?)

Needless to say, I can't comment on how Sawyer ends the novel, since December's issue contains only part 3. I'll have to wait another couple of weeks for the finale. But whatever my complaints about the prose, I'm looking forward to the conclusion, as I'm sure Sawyer will surprise me, at least a little.

(A side-note, particularly for you Canucks and especially for those who aspire to write commercially. Almost all of Sawyer's books are set in Canada, feature Canadians and Canadian places. Yet he is published in the States, and not only in Analog. There is no need (or at least, not much need) to pander to the geo-prejudices of the Yanks, if you tell a story that people will want to read.)

The December 2006 issues of Analog and Asimov's are both exemplary editions of the magazines. If you prefer dystopian slice-of-life, poetic prose or quasi-fantasy, subscribe to Asimov's. If your mind is more attuned to politics and philosophy, Analog will more likely be your cup of tea.

But if you enjoy good fiction, especially good short fiction and SF in any form appeals to you, for god's sake subscribe to one of them. Magazine economics are such that if even 10 of you do it, you'll make a difference towards deciding whether these forums for up-and-coming (and established) writers survive.
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