- “Go Random, My Love” by Bill Johnson (novelette)
- “Optimizing the Verified Good” by Effie Seiberg (short story)
- “A Surprise Beginning” by Gregory Benford (short story – reprint, not reviewed)
- “When the Rain Comes” by Ron Collins (short story)
- “The Unnecessary Parts of the Story” by Adam-Troy Castro (short story)
- “The Pendant Lens” by Sean McMullen (novelette)
- “…And He Built a Crooked Hub” by Christopher L. Bennett (novelette)
- “Shepherd Moon” by Premee Mohamed (short story)
- “It Came from the Coffee Maker” by Martin L. Shoemaker (short story)
- “Nevertheless” by Elizabeth Rubio (short story)
- Probability Zero: “The Plaything on the Tesseract Wall” by Larry Hodges (short story)
- “Off-Road” by Harry Lang (short story)
- “Trapezium” by Tony Ballantyne (novelette)
- “Black Shores” by Darren Speegle (short story)
- “Impetus” by Shane Landry (short story)
- “Harry and the Lewises” by Edward M. Lerner (novella)
Most of the stories in this issue of Analog try to be science fictional and are readable, with few either exceeding or falling short of that mark. The most remarkable thing about this issue is that it tops Analog‘s usual excess of short stories with a staggering eleven of them, leaving room for only one novella and four novelettes, two of which are little longer than short stories, themselves.
One of the shorts is a reprint and four are under five thousand words. The best of these very short tales is “Coffee,” in which a smart-aleck AI, restrained by Asimov’s Three Laws and doomed to be a coffee maker, laments its lot but also describes its clever way to be more. “Rain” is a sort of “Rose for Emily” with climate change and a minimally AI robot. “Plaything” is the Probability Zero piece in which a young 4D being “plays with” (torments) a 3D being until Learning Better. Speaking of “Learning Better,” there may be more than Heinlein’s “three plots” but this Analog both intentionally and accidentally stays very close to some very basic ones. Intentionally, “Unnecessary Parts” is a metafictional conventionally convention-mocking “story” of a “parasite and a disease” which takes the “Black Destroyer”/Aliens-type story and turns it into a pitch black “joke.”
Moving to the longer stories and presumably accidental examples, “Impetus” reads like a serious version of South Park’s “Asspen” (“we’re gonna need a montage!”) complete with a jerk whose only purpose is to torment the protagonist. But its race car-like exoskeletons beat skiing, at least. Similarly, “Nevertheless” involves an overweight protagonist who’s denied her dream of working outside her generation starship but persists and, when disaster strikes, completes her plot template. “Off-Road” similarly puts a pair of Martian truckers in a life and death situation but doesn’t so much try to valorize its protagonist as to have him realize, from dear old dad’s example, what’s really important in life. As that story could have been a good hard SF adventure but is really a relationship story, so “Shepherd,” which sends a woman into space to retrieve the dead body of an ex, is more interested in the psychological side but, more like “Impetus,” tries to valorize the protagonist. Unfortunately, the protagonist is portrayed (accidentally, I believe) as fundamentally incompetent, which makes it all unbelievable. To return to the AI/robots of “Coffee” and “Rain,” “Optimizing” is an allegory about acting for or against one’s own self-interest, especially in violent competition, using gladiatorial battlebots to convey the sociopolitical moral. Finally, “Black Shores” is also a metaphor for life, the universe, and everything when a couple of humans and a native get shipwrecked on the Forbidden Isle populated by the dark cousins of the alien who practice a bloody art before an “anti-Monolith” (2001: A Space Odyssey) sort of object.
Turning to the novelettes, “Random” is another “life or death in a hostile environment” tale like “Optimizing,” “Shepherd,” and “Off-Road.” It has some Null-A and (literally) “Cold Equations” resonances as it describes a man trying to save a frozen woman from hostile alien critters who are even colder. While no editorial note identifies it as being in a series, the background seemed rather sketchy and it feels like it assumes you’ve read something else, but the major elements became clear enough and it became somewhat exciting as the story progressed. “Trapezium,” like “Parts,” feels like a lesser “Black Destroyer” as a small crew invite an aggressive biomechanoid alien on board as part of a trade deal and then try to keep it in check and not become its prey. The science elements of this seem weak but the dramatic aspects aren’t bad. The latest “Hub” story is a sort of bedroom farce with a safe, a “hotel,” and a spy, with people of various species and genders and states of undress running around and being silly as all the multi-dimensional doors of the tesseract suites get screwed up until all things “work out” in their ways in the end. “Pendant” is one of the two “retro” stories of the issue, being set in France in 1794, so that we can learn about Robespierre’s very limited time (viewer) machine through the eyes of the Englishman brought in to repair it with death as the alternative to (or perhaps even consequent of) success. There’s really no SF here – the device may be some piece of secret history or translated from the future or dumped off by aliens but it’s basically magic despite efforts to make it at least proto-steampunk-like but the protagonist and his ambiguous female “friend” are well-drawn and the “period” part of it is readable enough.
While set in the present, “Harry” is steeped in the Lewis and Clark expedition from which everything in it derives. The protagonist is an interesting combination: ex-history academic turned tabloid reporter. The woman who sets him on the trail of his great discovery is a similar mixture, being a smart and capable woman with the money-making public persona of a ditz (and she’s also the boss’s daughter). Due to the story of one of her ancestors, she wants to find out more and our hero is up to the task (with sufficient extra funds from her). What follows pulls in a staggering number of threads to create a conspiracy theory of truly vast scope. It has at least a couple of downsides. In internal fictional terms, it’s weakly held together and contains many contradictory elements that are supposed to be proofs. In contemporary social terms, I don’t know that this sort of story is helpful. Still, a lot of work went into this and it was quite interesting, so (like “Coffee” and its humor) I have to note it.