This is not only my first ever post on WordPress and my first ever entry for Last Short Story, but it’s also the first post for 2011 LSS short story reading year. As the newbie of the bunch, I thought I’d get in early as the LSS crew are putting together their recs for 2010.
Talking about firsts, this is also the first time I’ve read Analog cover to cover. There was some trepidation to begin with. I call myself a Science Fiction fan, but like a number of SF fans out there I seem to read more rubbery SF or fantasy than the real hard stuff. Since I was young and had my first taste of Arthur C Clarke, the hard stuff – or what I’ve considered the hard stuff – has done my head in. As someone who failed year 10 maths (and was forced to do basic maths in year 11), I’ve found all that stuff about singularities and quantum entanglements and linguistic variations (whatever that means) to be a bit intimidating.
But I thought, bugger it, if I’m going to LSS properly this year then I should face my Hard SF fears and give Analog a go.
(I’m sure a number of you long time Analog readers are having a private little giggle thinking that Analog isn’t that hard at all… and maybe you’re right, but as far as I’m concerned, compared to the other major short fiction mags, Analog is the home for SF that’s not slip-stream or steampunk or something else that fiddles on the fringe of SF).
Anywho… where was I before that tangent? Oh yeah, first time reading Analog. So, it just happens that 2011 starts with a special double issue, including 11 stories split into 1 Novella, 5 Novelettes and 5 Short Stories. And what I can say about these 11 stories is that not a single one of them is unreadable. For all my fears that I’d find some of the pieces impenetrable, filled with equations and talk of cosmic strings, it never really eventuated. There were a couple of stories that hurt my brain a little, especially Michael F Flynn’s piece, The Frog Prince, which is sequel to a previous story and so fails to provide important bits of detail about the world its set in. But for the most part I enjoyed the reading experience.
What I didn’t expect was how samey the stories were. Of the 11 pieces on offer, 6 of them were about first contact with aliens. Now they’re all different stories – and it’s a credit to the writers (and the editor) that each take a slightly different angle on the trope – but with so many in one issue I started wondering whether this was the norm, whether Hard SF was currently going through a first contact phase.
I also found that the stories, as entertaining as some of them were, lacked a certain spark. As I said, there was nothing terrible in this issue, and even my least favourite stories like The Unfinished Man by Dave Creek, which feels as unfinished as its title and Norman Spinrad’s Out There which feels like the start of a joke… an Astronaut, a Project Director and an SF writer walk into a pub… but lacks an actual punchline, were stories I was able to finish. But even the better stories had a soapy texture. Enjoyable enough while I was reading them, but forgettable once I was finished. Maybe that had something to do with all the First Contact stories, but I also felt that on a sentence by sentence level there was something uninspiring about the writing on show.
Wow, that’s a bit bitchier than I intended to be.
All that said, there were a couple of stories that came close to getting the hallowed Last Short Story 4/5.
Australia’s own Sean McMullen’s Enigma gives us a story about a mysterious uninhabited city that’s drawn the interest of a bunch future humans. It’s the sort of piece that has a genuine sense of wonder about it. Those first few pages, that set up the mystery of the city, really get the imagination going – which is precisely what great SF should do. It’s a shame that the resolution of the mystery isn’t as interesting as the set-up, but overall this is exactly the sort of story I imagined reading when cracking open the covers of Analog.
Non-Native Species by Janet Freeman is a first contact story that works because of its original setting – a story set in the outback where the alien meets an Aboriginal female biologist. The actual SF element, an alien comes to Earth to find away of stopping a genetically engineered monster, is interesting and dramatic even if it does get a little obvious toward the end.
And finally there’s the cover story by Juliette Wade, At Cross Purposes. Again, it’s a first contact piece taking place on a planet that’s being terraformed by a human corporation. Unfortunately, the arrival of ostensibly peaceful aliens leads to tragedy and disaster. This story about cultural differences and miscommunication and the purpose of humanity, is both inventive and told with some style. It’s a shame that there’s one particular idiot character that undermines some of the cleverness of the piece.
As part of LSS, my intention is to read this years run of Analog. Not a big deal, really, there’s been people doing the same thing for years. But for me it’ll be interesting to see the type of stories are told and whether they vary a little bit more than this issue did. I’ll also be interested to see if I do come across that one story that really does my head in.