For a reader who hasn’t been down these paths in a long time the first question was whether the strange odour in the air when opening the pages of the latest issue of Analog (Vol. CXXVII, no. 11 – November 2007) was the whiff of nostalgia or the tang of formaldehyde?
The issue’s featured novella is by Barry B. Longyear. “Murder in Parliament Street” is the third recent Longyear story to appear in Analog featuring the unlikely detectives Jaggers and Shad and the other denizens of Exeter’s Artificial Beings’ Crime Division (ABCD). New reader won’t be completely lost but there is some catching up to do.
The lead characters are not, for example, simple detectives. Jaggers bears more than a passing resemblance to Basil Rathbone (most famous for his portrayal of a certain great detective) and Shad is a duck and something of a celebrity, famous for appearing as the mascot in an advertising campaign. Also in the ABCD is Parker, a large silverback gorilla with unfortunate bowel control problems and a history of embarrassing the police force.
The artificial beings in “Murder in Parliament Street” are categorised as amdroids (animal bodies) and biomechs (machines) and the conscious minds of humans can flit between these creatures. This talent is not restricted to the detectives. In Exeter old people are used to inhabit the bodies of amdroid pigeons and sent out to control the city’s bird population. But someone has it in for Exeter’s pigeon squadrons and artificial beings more generally. The body in Parliament Street (the narrowest street in the world, you know) leads to the discovery of a Chinatown-esque conspiracy, with bigotry, lies, and intrigue all uncovered through the courage and bold determination of Devon and Cornwall’s finest.
Well, sort of.
What actually happens is that the heroes fumble about for a bit through an increasingly feeble selection of slapstick encounters and toilet humour until the whole plot unravels.
“Murder in Parliament Street” commits three great crimes.
First, it fails to give any sense of the strangeness of its character’s lives. This story sees Jagger slip from a human-like body to a high-tech snooping device described as a “flying lipstick” and then into the body of a pigeon. But Longyear makes no attempt to describe how Jagger’s perception of the world might be altered during or after these changes, which makes the remarkable technology seem rather bland.
Second, the background setting of Exeter is poorly used. This is a cardboard cut-out city, reduced to a set street name routes between places of interest and the insertion of occasional travel-guide nuggets, such as: “the illuminated, columned gingerbread of the medieval Exeter Guildhall [was] still the oldest working municipal building in England…” (p12)
It feels unconvincing and, in places it is downright clumsy.
But, finally, it is the way the story reaches its denouement that really sinks “Murder in Parliament Street.” The success of crime stories, even light-hearted ones, absolutely depends on the degree of satisfaction the reader gets from second guessing the author and the extent to which the author can surprise the reader while still being honest. “Murder in Parliament Street” fails in this respect. The plot suddenly unravels in a blur of new and previously unmentioned witnesses and remarkable discoveries which arrive without any foreshadowing or, for that matter, any sense that the central characters deserve their sudden good fortune. Much of the action is actually reported second-hand in a perfunctory round-up.
Longyear’s writing is slick and perfectly serviceable but how much you enjoy “Murder in Parliament Street” may well depend on how funny you find a gorilla in a nappy.
The issue’s next story is better. John G. Hemry’s novelette “These are the Times” is a zippy, enjoyable, time-travel lark, though a harsher critic might take Hemry to task for the casual cultural bias on display. Set in the days leading up the Battle of Lexington (18 & 19 April, 1775) and the start of the American War of Independence, Hemry simply assumes that these events will continue to have the same profound cultural, political and historical resonance for far future humanity as they do for a modern American citizen. Implicit in this assumption is a special place for America’s domestic history above those of other nations and a continuation of US hegemony.
But Hemry’s adventure is too light to be the subject of such criticism and too much fun to treat so harshly. It takes a little while to get going, but by about the half way mark the story is in full stride and only a curmudgeon could fail to be rooting for the protagonists. “These are the Times” is hokum but it is fun and it gallops towards an obvious but still satisfying conclusion involving the obligatory solving of a long-standing historical puzzle.
It is difficult to know quite what to make of “Yearning for the White Avenger.” Carl Frederick’s story about Conradin, an abused young boy who longs for escape, has only the flimsiest fantasy element and a preposterously happy ending. The sf/fantasy element, such as it is, sees Conradin and his friend attempt to teach a specially trained parrot to translate for a specially trained dog. This work may, or may not, play a part in the story’s denouement, but it is hardly crucial to the story.
But other problems with “Yearning…” are more serious.
Conradin’s drunken, brutal father is hopelessly one-dimensional. There are, no doubt, nasty men out there doing horrible things to their children – but they are too often used lazily by writers as casual plot hooks that need no justification or fleshing out. A stereotype, even one with a grain of truth in it, is still the enemy of engaging writing and this is a particularly poor example. But it is in the resolution of “Yearning…” that Frederick’s story that is most baffling. It manages to be nauseatingly sweet, unintentionally creepy and utterly unrealistic in a single swoop. This is a tremendously naïve treatment of a serious issue and “Yearning for the White Avenger” is the weakest story in this collection.
Bud Sparhawk’s “The Suit” is another weak story. A man has let his life become ruled by crappy, intrusive technology that resides in his suit, in his kitchen, in his bathroom and even in his shoes. By luck he finds the love of a good woman and they cast off their crappy tech to find happiness together. Everything in this story has been done before, done better, and done more convincingly and “The Suit” adds nothing to the works that precede it. Sparhawk’s characters seem stupid enough to deserve the crappy time they’re having, so why should we care what happens to them?
The heart of H.G. Stratmann’s novelette “The Paradise Project” is a pacy and smartly told flash story longing to be set free. Sadly, however, it finds itself weighed down by fleshy infodumps on (the largely irrelevant) geopolitical situation in the near future and sidetracked by (entirely unnecessary) contemplations on the sex lives of the lead characters. None of this serves to advance the plot or to cast significant light on the final reveal, instead it simply slows everything down and obscures the point of the story.
That said, Stratmann’s core idea is strong enough to survive this mistreatment and if the final scene does feel like a throw back to the old-fashioned stories of pulp sf’s heydays, well “The Paradise Project” is none the worse for that.
The final story in this issue of Analog is “Permission to Speak Freely” an intelligent and engaging story by David Walton. This is more a fiction about science than a science fiction story, but it is by some distance the most intellectually interesting tale in the magazine.
However, the story is not straightforwardly engaging. The gizmo that drives the narrative (a “sympathology rig”) is unconvincing. The device purports to allow a “sympathologist” to experience a patient’s pain and is touted here as a breakthrough in diagnosis. Whether, as occurs in the opening few paragraphs, a sympathologist having inflicting upon himself perhaps the worst headache in history would then be able to state with authority: “brain aneurysim, frontal lobe, left side” – as though simply experiencing the pain ruled out all other possible diagnoses – seems doubtful in the extreme.
Fortunately the sympathology device is a maguffin. Walton uses it as a means to place his protagonist – a scientist overseeing the clinical testing of sympathology – in a moral dilemma.
Peter is under pressure from his university, from business sponsors, and from his friend – the device’s inventor – to approve the gizmo as a potentially revolutionary breakthrough. Moderate fame, financial security, and enhanced job prospects all await. All Peter has to do is deliver a favourable report. But Peter has doubts. There are anomalies in the data. They are small, but they might be significant. They might be crucial.
Yet delaying things by demanding more tests will put Peter’s job and his future prospects at risk.
“Permission to Speak Freely” is a smart and relevant story that deals with the role of “disinterested” science in a realistic and convincing way. The story’s moral complexity is let down only by an ending that allows Peter to have is cake and eat it.
Also worth noting in this issue is Richard A Lovett’s science fact article on the difficulty of identifying the origins of man’s domestication of horses. “The Search for the World’s First Equestrians” was a fascinating read on a subject that turns out to be surprisingly interesting.
On the whole this issue of Analog contained as many hits as misses amongst its fiction offerings but it is the uncomfortable misses that remain longest in the memory. Analog reads like a magazine determined to keep very firmly within the genre’s comfort zone. Many of the writers here will be cosily familiar to Analog regulars with Hemry (14th appearance), Frederick (19th) and Stratmann (14th) being frequent contributors. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and perhaps Analog, with its long history, can fairly ask “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” But, then again, maybe it wasn’t the whiff of nostalgia on the way in after all.