Category Archives: Science Fiction

Alistair1918

Alistair1918 came up in my Amazon Prime queue this week, a found-footage movie with a science fiction (specifically time travel) theme.

The story concerns a social work student making a video on homelessness for her master’s program, who encounters a strange man who claims to be a British WWI soldier. At first she and the friends helping her film dismiss the guy’s claims (quite understandably) as the delusions of a mentally ill man. But there is something about them that compels them to dig further and to help him out. Ultimately they come to the conclusion that he actually did travel through time, and set about finding a way to help him get back to 1918.

An interesting SF premise. And the writer (and lead actor) Guy Bartwhistle actually does a somewhat decent job with it. But…there were a few problems that I saw with the genre elements and the storytelling:

  • Alistair is a compelling character mainly because of Birtwhistle’s portrayal, but as written simply wasn’t believable as an Englishman transported from 1918 France to 2018 Los Angeles. He was entirely too matter-of-fact about a situation that would have been bizarre bordering on incomprehensible to someone actually in that situation. He doesn’t marvel about plastics or aluminum or television or assorted technologies that we take for granted with which a man from 1918 would have been completely unfamiliar. Even modern versions of technology like telephones and cars and Google Maps he accepts and uses without wonder or confusion – indeed, from the very beginning he’s completely at home with the film crew pointing modern digital cameras and microphone booms at him, with an anachronistic understanding of what they’re doing and how it might help him. One could on the other hand focus too much on the fish-out-of-water aspect of the character’s situation, but that element needed more explanation than simply stating that he’d been 2018 for 30 days already to account for his easy acceptance of the strange new world around him. I don’t recall him even once responding with wonder to any of the infinite number of things that to him should be marvels verging on magic.
  • Likewise, his manners and views were jarringly anachronistic. A randomly-selected middle-class Englishman from that time ought to have been openly religious, especially one freshly plucked from the front line of the Second Battle of the Marne. His telephone etiquette would have been more formal than was shown (think of how different it was before cellphones, when one actually answered the phone with a greeting rather than a grunt). When one character (inevitably, because Hollywood) casually reveals that she is a lesbian, he has no reaction to that revelation at all, nor to the fact of that same character (platonically) sharing a bed with another character who is pining for her. Nor to the fact of that same character inviting him to sleep on her couch. For an ordinary middle-class Englishman of that period, such things should have seemed inappropriate, but Alistair accepts them without comment (apart from not wanting to impose) exactly as a contemporary man or woman would be expected to respond. It’s not that he’s biting his tongue, or cautiously withholding judgment of these future-people and their unfamiliar ways – it’s that he doesn’t appear to notice them at all.
  • The science fiction element of the wormhole is handled poorly (and, this being a low-budget flick, the special effects involved are terrible). I liked the concept of naturally-occurring wormholes moving around unseen and waiting for the right conditions to be opened, but the technobabble tried too hard to explain things and ended up cringe-inducing. A better appreciation for the genre conventions would have kept the exposition to a minimum and left more to the imagination. It would have made things a little more believable had the scientist in question already been aware of the wormhole that brought Alistair to 2018 through sensor data or the like, and that this natural occurrence serendipitously confirmed and corrected elements of her theory, allowing her to finally understand the phenomenon well enough to manipulate it.
  • I did not like the first attempt to manipulate the wormhole phenomenon. If it was going to fail, it should have failed utterly with no visible effects at all, making the scientist look just as delusional as Alistair appeared to be. Like Alistair with modern technology and mores, the modern characters accept this holographic blob appearing above a swimming pool far too readily. There is no wonder or apprehension at this unfamiliar apparition before them. Far better for us and them to see nothing, Alistair makes his leap based on blind faith in what she thinks she is seeing based on instruments alone, and the whole thing fails as shown and they’re all disillusioned. Then later, when they try again and it actually works, then you give the characters and audience some sort of visual indication as confirmation that this time she got it right. And because this is a low-budget film using the found-footage gimmick, that visual indication can occur partially or wholly off-screen, with the characters backing away in awe and caution from the wormhole that’s just materialized before them, the steadycam whirling around as they flee and only getting a fleeting, overexposed shot of the phenomenon itself and Alistair disappearing/having already disappeared into it.
  • The French scientist was a missed opportunity for some brilliant writing. She should have been an older woman, perhaps in her early sixties, whose grandfather (vs. great grandfather) fought in WWI, told her his stories personally, and introduced her to his war buddies. She would then have had a personal connection to men with direct personal experience of the war, allowing her to more believably recognize Alistair’s shell-shock and other subtle tells. Being from the area where Alistair fought should have been milked for clues that he was telling the truth (at least about having been there) – she could have served as an unexpected confirmation of details of his story that he couldn’t possibly have fabricated.
  • Related to this, one detail that I didn’t see exploited correctly was the distinctive cut on Alistair’s wrist. This injury was presented as a Chekov’s Gun early on in the film, a clue prominently set up for later use, but never (that I noticed) delivered on later in the story. Imagine the scientist, at first doubting Alistair’s story of time travel, but gradually growing suspicious over the subtle, uncanny details that remind her of her grandfather and his friends. She comes to recall a hazy memory of an elderly Englishman, visiting her grandfather when she was small…a man with a distinctive scar on his wrist, who told her one day she would meet a man with an incredible tale and help him return home. (I should note here that we do something similar to this in Ghosts of Tharsis, inspired by my tripping over a ladder and not by this movie.) This would also have been a more effective way to twist the plot, with the moderns seeing him up to that point as a fascinating lunatic whose deep and detailed delusions have as-yet-unrevealed mundane explanations (he’s a history buff/reenactor, for example), and after that point accepting that he was telling them the truth all along. As presented, though, the ambiguity of whether Alistair’s predicament was real or delusion was drawn out well past where the story called for it to be decisively resolved.

It’s not the greatest movie, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking despite its many flaws. At worst, it’s another entry in the long list of genre movies whose script I wish I had been asked to review before filming started. So much potential right there, already in the mix, just not realized.

“Look How Smart I Am!”

Thinking back on what I read in Analog over a twenty year span (as I’ve done a few times here recently), another all-too-common tropes that comes to mind is the use of some obscure scientific idea in a manner contrived to show off just how smart the author thinks he is.

There’s obviously going to be some element of science in science fiction (otherwise it’s space romance or space opera or fantasy or some other “soft” genre). It may be pseudoscientific, it may be totally fabricated but handled consistently as established knowledge for purposes of the plot, but central to the plot will be some element of systematic inquiry into natural phenomena or speculative technology or the like. The problem is not science in science fiction, it’s what science is used and how it’s handled.

What differentiates this kind of science fiction from others is the author’s selection of an obscure concept or theory which they then elaborate on to excess. The tell is that the story is more about this concept than its effects on the characters involved, more a demonstration of the author’s brilliance or cleverness in finding and relating the concept than an exploration of its consequences or potential.

I don’t have the time to delve into the 50-year collection and pick out specific illustrative examples, but in general any story involving obscure concepts from cosmology or quantum mechanics will fall into this category. The more jargon-laden and compulsively detailed the presentation of the concept, and the more tortured or cringe-inducing the effort to make it relevant to the plot, the more certain the reader can be that this is what is going on.

Like so many bad aspects of modern science fiction, this quirk seems driven by the need to demonstrate a superior intellect to others rather than the desire to explore ideas. It’s the class nerd shouting: Look at me! Look how smart I am! My brains make me special and superior! In short, it’s both a product of and a product aimed at the brand of socially-inept but delusionally self-important outcasts observed in the recent Hugo Award controversies and “pink SF” generally.

It’s also, I suspect, what turns a lot of mainstream readers off with regards to science fiction. They might like a popular science fiction movie and decide to give written science fiction a try. But when they encounter one of these stories, they are reminded of the gamma losers they knew in school, and it sours them on the genre as a whole. Whether that association is made consciously or not, I think plays a large role (along with the creepy sexual perversions and taint of pedophilia that stained the genre in the 1960s and 1970s) in why despite the success of science fiction in film and television, reading and writing science fiction are still looked down on.

Coming Soon: Dispatches from Mars

In addition to the full draft of Ghosts of Tharsis, we have several stories in the works, more Dispatches from Mars by freelance journalist Calvin Lake, author of “Anatomy of a Disaster”. While that story was written tongue-in-cheek as a satire of several “sci-fi” tropes (notably the fiery redhead stock character and the annoying cat-fetishism of SF writers, indulged in by hacks and masters alike), it was the first use of Lake and his Dispatches as a framing device through which we could explore elements of the Ares Project universe that wouldn’t fit into one of the novels. We have at least ten of them outlined, with two substantially completed and one now finished and out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourth story that has a full detailed outline, because I’m generous like that.

  • “True Crime” (working title)
    • Lake investigates an incident at Redlands Automation (makers of, among other things, the science pins mentioned in In the Shadow of Ares and “He Has Walled Me In”). When celebrity science popularizer Silas Hudson and his producer are murdered while visiting the settlement, order threatens to dissolve into mob violence as the settlers improvise justice for the killer. Eyewitnesses recount the murders and the dangerous days that followed – but are any of them telling the truth?
    • The story tackles a surprising number of themes for a 22,000 word short story, including:
      • The nature of science popularizers like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Silas Hudson is their inverse, in that he’s actually brilliant in his own area of expertise and has learned through embarrassing experience to consult with experts in other fields before talking out his ass. He’s philosophical, he’s engaging, he shares credit with other experts, he’s earnestly curious about the way the universe works, he’s everything you could ever want in a science popularizer (apart from being dead).
      • The problems of civic order and justice in a frontier settlement where there is no established law and order. This theme is meant to be explored in depth in a different Dispatch and in the third novel, but here you get a glimpse at what can happen when there are no formal methods for dealing with serious crimes.
      • The invisible threat of “the crowd” in small, isolated populations like space settlements. We draw on Charles Mackay and Gustave le Bon to show how “extraordinary popular delusions” can spread as a social contagion and grow rapidly out of control and out of all contact with reality.
      • The unreliability of personal accounts of crimes and other dramatic events.
      • The value of sticking to the truth over taking the easy route of lying, which can be dismayingly tempting even to scrupulously honest people under certain circumstances – one seemingly small lie can snowball into tragedy.
      • A variety of recurring themes in our stories, such as the “baby taboo”, immigration on bond/contract, the protection of scenic places, commercial development, the practical operations of a Martian settlement, “facers”, etc.
    • This story is complete and out to our test readers for review and feedback. I expect we’ll have it published in the next 3-5 weeks.
  • “Pipeline”
    • Lake shows us the single largest development project on Mars undertaken to-date, and the colorful businessman behind it. His attempt at obtaining an interview with Jedediah Thoreson leads to an unexpected journey through Thoreson’s past and Mars’ future.
    • There are a few parallels to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” here, but the development and outcome of the story are very different.
    • The main themes here are free markets vs. anti-business zealotry camouflaged as environmentalism and humanitarianism, the importance of a clear vision to a large project, how large projects might be organized and funded on Mars or the moon, industrial development and future industrial technologies, and how people aren’t always who or what they seem to be.
    • Despite our original intention that “Anatomy of a Disaster” be non-canonical given its farcical nature (remember that it was first published on the blog as an April Fool’s joke), there is a cameo appearance by one of the characters from that story, and Thoreson Polar Water itself is mentioned in that story as a reference to this (future) Dispatch.
    • I especially like the narrative substructure of this story. Describing it here would reveal a lot of spoilers, unfortunately, so readers will just have to uncover it for themselves.
    • This story is around 80% written out from the detailed outline.
  • “Marineris”
    • This Dispatch describes the First British Trans-Marineris Expedition. An eleventh-hour leadership change initiates an escalating spiral of bad decision-making. Initial successes despite bad choices lead to hubris and eventually catastrophe.
    • The feel and certain elements of the story are modeled on the exploration missions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and specifically Mawson’s account in Home of the Blizzard. While none of these real-world expeditions went awry for the reasons shown in “Marineris”, those reasons are exaggerations of various leadership and mission planning flaws those early explorers experienced mixed with the authors’ own real-life leadership experiences.
    • The main themes in “Marineris” are of course leadership and the planning and conduct of complex missions. In particular, why you don’t put gamma males in charge of anything, ever, and the importance of sticking to a plan, preparing for contingencies, and not overextending yourself. Other themes include the practical elements of such a mission (i.e.: an architecture by which settlers on Mars might pull it off), the stultifying dead-end of technocratic socialism, team dynamics under reckless and incompetent leadership, the thrill of discovery, and the majesty of wild nature (even when it seems to want to kill you).
    • This Dispatch introduces a special-purpose hopper which will figure prominently in both Ghosts of Tharsis and “The Olympian Race”, and shows the origin of its name (it being the only named hopper in the MDA fleet). It also ties in to an unnamed Dispatch in which Lake buys a second-hand rover and runs into unexpected company on his way back to Port Lowell.
    • This one is currently about 70% written from the outline.
  • “The Olympian Race” (detailed outline complete and ready to write)
    • Lake relates the dramatic true story of two “gentlemen explorers” vying to be the first man to reach the top of Olympus Mons. Each thinks he has an insurmountable head-start over the other, only for their rivalry to converge at the end in a deadly all-out race to the summit.
    • This Dispatch is more an action story than a big-theme story. It’s a character-driven mixture of extreme sports and crime caper (remember that the MDA forbids all unapproved access to the Wilds, i.e. the lands outside of the settlement tract, which includes Olympus Mons and all approaches to it).
    • For crossovers, it’s the only Dispatch we’ve outlined so far in which The Green makes an appearance, and as noted above, it features the special purpose hopper from “Marineris” (as well as another key piece of hardware used on that Expedition).

Shaver Mysteries – Fin

I read about as much as I could tolerate, which was not quite to the end of Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalities. I may tough it out through the last few pages, but that’s enough.

I still think there’s a lot of interesting potential in the Shaver Mythos, some interesting ideas, situations, and settings. Unfortunately, that potential is wasted with writing so bad as to be unreadable: long narrative dumps, stilted dialogue, corny and inconsistent descriptions of the imagined technology, goofy recycling of elements from other mythologies, poor story mechanics, etc.

Then there are simple writing mechanics and stylistic errors that any minimally-competent editor would have caught. For example: multiple instances of the same significant word in the same sentence or paragraph. It was a little thing to notice, something that happened that I might not have noticed had it happened only once or twice, but in one 5-6 page stretch I noticed that it happened so many times that, as it happens, I couldn’t not notice when it happened. Just as awful is Shaver’s frequent description of events or places as in some way “beyond mere words to portray” or “exceeding human ability to understand”, a cheap gimmick whose overuse fills me with a weary loathing I struggle to adequately convey.

I’ve read a lot of mediocre SF (I subscribed to Analog for 25 years), but I didn’t fully appreciate the term “hack writer” until I experienced Richard Shaver. I think if I taught English or creative writing classes at the high-school level or above, I would be tempted to teach my students editing by assigning small groups one story apiece. Go, and make this readable. Even government-school students couldn’t make it any worse.

Shaver Mysteries, cont’d.

I’m a few pages into the wonderfully-titled “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia”, the second of the stories in the collection, and can already see why Shaver is compared to Ed Wood. The writing is schlocky, the names are cheesy, the dialogue is campy, and the overall quality is at the level of a high-school creative writing assignment.

But…

There’s something endearingly strange about it all, and something compelling about the storytelling. For all its faults, there’s something that holds my interest enough to keep going with it.

I suspect that someone could make a project out of rewriting Shaver’s stories in a more competent form (assuming they’re out of copyright) and organizing and clarifying his mythos along the way. Behind the ineptitude there are some interesting ideas a good writer could explore further in new Shaver Mythos stories as well.

They Make It Sound So Appealing

Resuming my personal project of reading classic SF from the 1930s – 1950s, I decided to give the oft-discussed Shaver Mysteries a try. I figured that if I’m going to make arch jokes about hell-creatures from the hollow Earth and Nazi flying saucers, I should probably know the source material. This wasn’t what I expected to find:

Armchair fiction presents extra large paperback editions of the best in classic science fiction novels. “The Shaver Mystery,” by Richard S. Shaver, is perhaps the most controversial piece of science fiction ever written. Supposedly a true story, it is widely considered to be the nadir of science fiction literature, the “Plan 9 From Outer Space” of the whole genre. Some people considered Richard Shaver to be a genius, but most others considered him and his editor, Ray Palmer, to be two of the biggest blights to have ever entered the field of professional science fiction writing. Shaver’s wild ramblings are a thing to behold. We have never encountered an author who could write such consistently overlong sentences that appeared to make no sense whatsoever. Genius or nut-case? You decide. Here in Book One, are the first three parts, just as they appeared in the June, 1947 issue of Amazing Stories: “Formula from the Underworld,” “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia,” and “Witch’s Daughter.” Also included in Book One is the mind-boggling, yet essential “How to Read the Shaver Alphabet,” which pertains to Book Two as well. “The Shaver Mystery” is presented in paperback for the first time. Heaven help us.

In other words, Shaver’s writing skill is on the same level as today’s Hugo Award winners. On the plus side, at least he (probably) didn’t write his stories as clumsy vehicles for cockamamie cultural Marxism and cringeworthily intimate unwanted explorations of his personal dysfunctions.

We shall see.

Review: Analog January/February 2018 Issue

Several hours over the holidays spent putting my and my cousin’s old Analog issues into archival bags made me curious about what I might have been missing over the ten years since I cancelled my subscription.

Little, it turned out.

I picked up a copy of the January/February 2018 issue a couple of weeks ago. Reading it reminded me why I ended my subscription back in 2008: the magazine had turned to crap. This issue was largely unreadable crap, which in what little I did manage to read showed  many of the Analog themes I mentioned in my previous post.

Here are my immediate reactions. This is a little rough, as I have time at the moment to type up my notes but not to write up more detailed analyses of each story – not that it would matter:

  • Artwork: the cover is a mess of lurid colors, cartoonish, amateurish, no depth, does not compare well with the average cover of the early 1960s. As I observed to Carl, the background looks like a bunch of livid green poops swirling around a mushroom. The central figure looks oddly misshapen, and not in the kind of exaggerated pose feminists love to mock in SF and fantasy art – he’s just ineptly drawn; the interior illustrations were lousy, too, being too “busy”, poorly composed, crudely sketched, or clumsy 1995-vintage Photoshop pasteups.
  • Editorial: I knew it was going to be about Trump before reading it, or even looking at the title; Schmidt does manage to get to the second paragraph before making it obviously about Trump, but the first paragraph is an emotionally overwrought and sensationalistic lead-in to it; the language throughout has a similar childishly ominous tone: “frightening”, “disturbing”, “darkest chapters in human history”, “feared”, etc.; wrings hands over Trump’s “election is over”, apparently not recognizing the similarity to Obama’s comments in 2008 that ‘I won’ and ‘elections have consequences’; offers new explanation of “consensus” which confuses is and ought with regards to scientific process, and ignores the politicization that corrupts this process (alternative opinions and dissent are met with angry screeching and denunciations and bad-faith dismissal, not a collegial review of the evidence and logic behind them); usual criticisms of people who disagree with his stance on global warming, etc., as being ignorant and anti-science; actually makes the assertion that scientists tend “to try to avoid getting involved in politics”, which he immediately follows up with a rent-seeking appeal for more public science funding; overall, the editorial is saturated with science fetishism and the science cargo-cult mentality; Schmidt is utterly clueless when it comes to persuasion – ‘If we just harangue these morons enough, they might see a glimmer of truth despite themselves, and come around to our enlightened way of thinking’; he concludes by name-dropping Carl Sagan because of course [makes wanking gesture] – but with a hilarious lack of self-awareness, the quote he uses is a condemnation of the public education industry…of which Schmidt earlier reminded us he was/is a part; there’s really nothing new or interesting here, it’s just a stew of the same threadbare talking points blabbered by every fucking-loves-science leftist on these subjects for the past thirty years.
  • “The Quantum Magician” by Derek Kunsken – wastes no time involving the wave-particle duality metaphor cliche; utterly boring first page; “puppet theocracies”? actual puppets? really?; made it through two pages before giving up, nothing caught my interest, no hooks to draw me in.
  • “The Journeyman” by Michael F. Flynn – swords, feudalism, pretentiously unpronounceable names, kilts, probably other cliches if I’d manage to read the whole thing; larded with goofy “exotic” words serving no purpose but exoticism; not only unpronounceable names, but also weird names and kennings; really disappointing as his “Eifelheim” (published in Analog) is one of my favorite short stories;I’m out.
  • “Hobson’s Choices” by Mary A. Turzillo – starts off with “hip” tea namecheck (character doesn’t just drink tea, of course not, but some exotic type with an erotic name); weird art references; overly-technical dinosaur references; one page in, no idea what the story is or where she’s going with all these calculated-to-impress references; Volvo namecheck; does not read as SF at all; I give up.
  • “Ten and Ten” by Alan Dean Foster – scientist cultism, but otherwise not a bad story.
  • “Margin of Error” by Paul Carlson – not bad, but does slip in a gratuitous political reference to “national popular vote”.
  • “One to Watch” by Andrew Barton – overwrought sentimentality; another gratuitous mention of an ‘exotic’ tea (“Pu-erh”); gratuitous use of non-western name (Anh) with no further gender or ethnic information to give it any signficance; human apocalypticism theme (we’ve had the bomb for 70+ years now, get over it); tone is moody, negative, despairing; finished it (it’s only two pages) but remained unclear what the point of the story was.
  • “Air Gap” by Eric Cline – pretty clever; felt like it was going to be yet another typical pink-SF humanity-sucks story, so I didn’t see the twist coming at all.
  • “Home on the Free Range” by Holly Schofield – a meandering exploration of a bunch of idiots trying to set up a farm on another world they know nothing about; unrealistic characterizations and scenario; skimmed, nothing made me care, so I gave up.
  • “When the Aliens Stop to Bottle” by Ian Watson – gratuitous mention of the ‘wage gap’, incoherent plot, nonsensical aliens and situation, unrealistic character (in)actions.
  • “Two Point Three Children” by Marissa Lingen – potentially interesting premise, but she goes nowhere with it after introducing it; felt promising but incomplete.
  • “The Dissonant Note” by Jeremiah Tolbert – to say I hated this story is an understatement, I hated it almost as much as the story I mentioned in the previous post about the weepy mother shaming alien killbots with her emotional incontinence; if “The Journeyman” had goofy gratuitously weird names, this one had names that, while they fit the context of the story, were so annoying that I could not get past them to comprehend the story; they were annoying precisely because of that context, which involved yet another threadbare SF trope: the noxiously twee use of musical terminology and musical thematic elements; I tried, but it was unreadable – I can’t even remember what it was about beyond a power struggle between two women who may have been dolphin consciousnesses hosted in robot bodies living in a stereotyped matriarchy where everyone communicated by singing and had musical notes for names and used robotic lobsters as IEDs.
  • “Endless City” by David Gerrold – confusingly, this one was actually the best story in terms of the skilled use of language (Gerrold’s been writing for fifty-odd years, so you’d expect that much at least), yet it too was a meandering mess in terms of plot; it’s a murder mystery whose first few pages serve as a vehicle for gratuitous insertions of, shall we say, the author’s personal interests and preoccupations; the perspective shifts between the real and virtual worlds are poorly executed, leaving one confused as to whether the protagonist we don’t like or care about is in meatspace, the Matrix, or both at the same time; the intuitive leaps are an (I assume unintentional) parody of Holmes and Poirot stories, and the resolution of the mystery is disappointingly trite; reading it left me feeling both shortchanged and strangely dirty. (It will surprise absolutely no one that in his bio at the end, Gerrold dines out yet again on “The Trouble with Tribbles”.)
  • “Blurred Lives” by Adam-Troy Castro – gets off to a bad start right at the beginning with characters named “Draiken” and “Thorne” [cramp-inducing eyeroll]; I tried to read this one fairly, but ended up skimming it, then giving up; what I did read appeared to be an exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing, or some other “experimental” structure, I don’t know – it was a sketchy, present-tense narration of the actions of two characters that seemed to have no point.

Didn’t bother with the science fact articles, because they were rarely ever interesting or useful back when I read Analog regularly. And do I even need to say that I avoided the “poetry” entirely?

I’ll admit that I went into this exercise with a negative attitude, and that that definitely influenced my perceptions of the writing. But even with that confessed bias, I was still appalled at just how bad it actually ended up being. As much as the writing quality declined through the 1990s and early 2000s, I would judge that it has continued on the same trajectory in the decade since I last tried to read an Analog. It was so bad that I simply couldn’t make myself read most of the stories all the way through, and a couple I couldn’t even force myself to skim. The issue currently sits on the bookshelf next to a stack of issues from 1969 – the older ones look intriguing, but this one I am tempted to burn rather than archive with the others.

Honestly, how does this garbage get published by a major science fiction magazine? And how does that magazine stay in business when it publishes such low-quality writing and artwork for twenty-plus years and counting?

 

An Informal Survey of Analog Magazines

I may have mentioned that I inherited my cousin’s collection of Analog magazines a while back, and now have (as far as I can tell) a complete set spanning from October 1958 through July/August 2008. Those are the dates when he started subscribing and I stopped, he having given up on Analog sometime around 2000.

In early December, Carl and I got to talking about a particularly awful story that had appeared in Analog sometime late in that period, and was in hindsight one of the reasons I stopped reading it regularly and then stopped subscribing altogether. I couldn’t remember the title, so spent a couple hours looking at the tables of contents of every issue from July/August 2008 back to around January 1990 to find it, along with a number of the teaser blurbs that appear on the splash pages for individual items.

While I somehow did not find the story in question, I did inadvertently obtain an interesting “statistical” feel for the magazine’s common threads over that period. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to devote to a proper analysis, so I’ll just list a few of my observations:

  • The scientist-in-obscure-field as protagonist, used to the point of cliche; the most transparent offenders are writers who are scientists in obscure fields themselves (blatant author insertion);
  • Related, the chronic overuse of academic or institutional internal politics as a backdrop or plot device, as if every reader understands or cares about the inside baseball of tenure panels, thesis committees, research funding allocations, faculty lounges, etc.;
  • The (mis)use of the same small set of scientific concepts, over and over, as plot devices;
  • The cringe-inducing generation of “new” SF gimmicks by appending “quantum”, “nano”, “cyber”, “crypto”, “neo”, or other cheesy prefix to some threadbare old gimmick;
  • Overuse of the same underlying plot theme – in particular, every month seemed to have a story whose blurb centered on “adaptation”, and the related blurbs were reused nearly word-for-word in multiple issues;
  • I got confused a couple of times while searching by the similarity of the stories in one issue with an issue several months or years apart, thinking I’d mistakenly picked up an issue I’d already skimmed through;
  • There were far more non-SF stories disguised as SF than what I remembered reading at the time – romance stories, cozy mysteries, fantasy, spy-thrillers, whatever, with a thin veneer of Science! pasted onto them in a way that is lazy and immaterial to the story.
  • Stories aside, the art of this period (compared to that of the 1950s and 1960s) is unremittingly awful – amateurish mechanics with bad composition and lurid colors occasionally alternating with the latest awkwardly-angled view of the same meticulously smeared spaceship. And that’s just on the covers.

I should have written this up at the time, as I’m sure there are other observations I’ve since forgotten. But now I’m re-thinking my abandoned plan to read and review each issue in the set in chronological order – that’s still not a realistic plan (there are something like 600 issues involved), but given what I saw in the 1990-2008 part of the collection, a statistical sample of one randomly-chosen issue per year may be sufficient.

As for the story I couldn’t find, it had something to do with a colony world where long-departed aliens had left behind a handful of Gort-like robots. These robots would occasionally appear in the colony and kill anyone who failed to freeze into certain ritualized poses or seek shelter in a certain park. A grieving mother loses her mind and launches into an emotional tirade at one of them, which despite their having shown known ability to communicate with humans moves them to desist. It was noteworthy to me in part for being one of those stories where so much essential information is left out that you feel like you’re reading part of a series or a chapter yanked from a novel you haven’t read, and in part because of the maudlin emotional incontinence of the protagonist, and in part because despite the superficial SF context of the story, the resolution of the conflict centers on her teary outburst rather than logic or reason applied to the problem. Or so that’s how I remember the story – I really wanted to re-read it to see how accurate my recollection was.

The Trouble With Science Popularizers

More people are starting to notice the problems with Bill Nye:

The trouble with science popularizers in general is that by nature, the job entails talking about a wider range of technical topics than any individual can fully comprehend at the level necessary to discuss them competently. While an expert in one field can speak intelligently about closely-related fields, the further away from one’s own expertise one travels, the more difficult that task becomes. And it’s even worse if a man in that role is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, so assured of his superior intellect that he is incapable of recognizing that he is in fact a fool.

Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson inspired a character in another “Dispatches from Mars” story Carl and I are trying to finish up – a character who as a science popularizer and a man is the opposite of these two.

The big difference between the fictional Silas Hudson and these two is that he learned very early on, when he fell into a career as a public personality on the back of a book and related video series, that it’s easy for any expert to fall prey to the temptation to speak authoritatively about fields of which he has lesser, little, or even no knowledge. After publicly embarrassing himself, he redeemed his image by hiring a research staff to vet his scripts and books with true subject matter experts, and by conscientiously acknowledging the limits of what he personally understood. In other words, he started off as a young man with an enormous ego, humiliated himself as a result of that ego, and learned a bit of humility and ethics from the experience – humility that improved his ‘product’ greatly.

I’m actually disappointed that we have to kill him off. But when you’re writing a murder mystery, someone has to be the victim.