Guest Reference Library
by Rosemary Claire Smith
Science fiction aficionados fondly proclaim our genre to be a literature of ideas. For lots of us, the bigger the idea, the better we like it. Take all those massive construction projects that captivate our imaginations—endlessly sprawling cities, towering space elevators, super-sized space stations, and asteroid-sized vessels to transport Earth-dwellers of all varieties to distant planets, some ripe for terraforming and others better left alone. The genre is filled with ambitious endeavors tracing their roots to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the modern Prometheus. Wait, come to think of it, bold ventures date back a little further than Frankenstein. Remember Icarus, the early engineer in a tale out of ancient Greece, the one who assembled a pair of wings to fly as high as the Sun? People have possessed both the know-how and the determination to dream big and erect gargantuan monuments for thousands of years before Icarus, as evidenced by the Egyptian pyramids and the even-older multi-ton megaliths such as Stonehenge.
Happily, a half-dozen talented contemporary science fiction writers have served up a fresh batch of out-sized dreams for the future. Lavie Tidhar and Joelle Presby build soaring edifices on the Earth in the Middle East and West Africa. Sue Burke’s big concepts inhabit the smallest of packages in the Arctic. Steven R. Southard and Matthew T. Hardesty present thirteen short stories, some close to home and others located around the globe, based on Jules Verne’s grand concepts. S. B. Divya and Annalee Newitz fly us to planets orbiting distant stars populated by our barely-recognizable descendants. As I soaked up these twenty-first-century tales, I had to wonder what our ancestors—the ones who conceived of Stonehenge, the pyramids, and Icarus’s feathered wings—would have made of these disparate visions for humanity’s future.
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Stories Inspired by Jules Verne
CDR Steven R. Southard and
Rev. Matthew T. Hardesty
Bear Manor Media
December 12, 2022
I’m guessing most Analog readers are familiar with at least some of Jules Verne’s more well-known works such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days, if only via a film version or two. Why delve into short stories based on Verne’s tales dating back more than a hundred years? One may as well ask why read modern works that draw their inspiration from William Shakespeare’s plays or Jane Austen’s novels. The human impulses to go farther, higher, deeper, or faster than ever, which Verne captured on page after page, are as alive today as they were in the nineteenth century. His engineers, explorers, and scientists, all of them overflowing with self-confidence, did not hesitate before they dove to the depths of the ocean, or descended beneath an inactive volcano, or raced around the world in record time, or zoomed upward into the darkness of space.
Intrepid real-life voyages of discovery to places no one had ever been were a hallmark of the era in which Verne lived. Far from sating humanity’s thirst for exploration, his fictional tales fueled yearnings for ever more audacious expeditions. Given the limitations inherent in nineteenth-century technology, it is astonishing to contemplate how much Victorian explorers were able to accomplish through reliance on raw courage, determination, and resourcefulness.
By now, you may be wondering about rereading Verne’s classics before dipping into Extraordinary Visions. To be sure, several of these new stories are enhanced by nods and hat tips to Captain Nemo and Professor Lidenbrock, not to mention a few members of the Baltimore Gun Club who are fresh from their excursion to the Moon. Of course, familiarizing yourself with the source material means coming face-to-face with Verne’s woefully-outdated attitudes toward people from Africa and Asia, as well as anyone belonging to what he would deem a “lower” social class. Vanishingly few women appear in his most popular works, for which I find myself almost relieved, given how they very well might have been portrayed. Accordingly, I’m happy to report that several stories in the Extraordinary Visions anthology reflect twenty-first century societal attitudes.
As in many anthologies, you’re apt to find stories by authors you’ve enjoyed mixed with some unfamiliar names, all at a length that doesn’t demand a big investment of precious reading time. Here, these include mechanical creations swept into the horrors of a world war, a reference to L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful World of Oz, and famed reporter Nelly Bly. Joseph S. Walker’s opening tale, “The Dominion of All Earth,” features Professor Lidenbrock’s nephew Alex, who safely returned from beneath that Icelandic volcano, only to receive a warning several decades later about the consequences of blithely ripping through subterranean lands. Brenda Carre’s “Embrace of the Planets” supplies a fresh take on a familiar scenario in which a would-be customer enters a mysterious shop filled with delights from around the globe, to find more than she bargained for. Michael Schulkins envisions the Baltimore Gun Club deciding to slow down the Earth’s rotation to give everyone more time per day. My favorites are a pair of tales by Mike Adamson and Christopher M. Geeson featuring the further adventures of Captain Nemo aboard the Nautilus during and shortly after the end of the American Civil War. “The Highest Loyalty” and “Tyranny Under the Sea” felt true to the background and personality of one of Verne’s most distinctive characters. The anthology closes with Analog writer Eric Choi’s “Raise the Nautilus.” It’s a standout, supplying a clever and convincing explanation for how to raise the submarine from the seabed employing early twentieth-century technology before delivering a marvelous payoff.
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The Debare Snake Launcher
November 1, 2022
Space elevators reaching upward from the Equator to connect with satellites in geosynchronous orbit have been a staple of science fiction for decades. Hence, it’s easy to suppose there’s little left to explore regarding a 26,000-mile-high ladder stretching way beyond the reach of Earth’s atmosphere. Don’t be fooled. Nor should you make the mistake I did in cracking open The Debare Snake Launcher when you have pressing things to do and places to be before you reach the end. What a rip-roaring, page-turning book by a debut novelist. Joelle Presby is someone to read.
The Debare Snake Launcher showcases Presby’s background as a corporate consultant and her expertise in military engineering. It’s refreshing to find a near-future novel that accords adequate weight to the daunting logistics and engineering constraints inherent in building an immensely-long carbon-nano-fiber strand to be used as a tether for a space elevator. Even better, the novel’s unusual and apt setting in Cameroon happens to be where Presby spent her formative years. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with better qualifications for spinning an intricate tale about a unique team that steps up to the task of designing, constructing, and operating a mag-lev shuttle to ferry materials to the way-station being built at the top of the world’s first space elevator. One more thing; the shuttle will be situated on the side of a volcano.
Presby has a gift for putting vivid characters into motion. Sadou Maurie and Sadou-Tchami Pascaline, cousins in the powerful Sadou clan, possess the perfect complement of skills to pull off the project. One is a superb manager, gifted at working with people, who struggles with the after-effects of a recent, debilitating illness. The other is an engineering genius who lacks a professional degree and is prone to antagonizing people. Worse yet, the cousins detest each other but don’t have the luxury of refusing the demands of their manipulative extended family whose financial fortunes depend upon the success of the project. As if these power dynamics aren’t enough, we get close-up looks at infighters who work for multinational companies while they scheme to get a leg up on their rivals in a milieu teeming with corporate espionage.
Did I tell you about the snakes slithering their way through the plot? Some members of the Sadou clan never know when they will next encounter serpents. Which ones have deadly venom? Which are hallucinatory fever dreams? Might they be physical manifestations of Mami Wata, a capricious, West African water spirit?
Like many admirable novels, The Debare Snake Launcher juggles multiple themes, notably the individual and collective courage essential for striving to bring about permanent improvements on behalf of the whole community. Presby also pays tribute to engineers who are pressured to create nearly flawless technological marvels while contending with fluctuating requirements, unrealistic time-frames, and uncertain funding. This novel is likely to appeal to project managers everywhere, not to mention those of us who could use a heady dose of bull-headed optimism.
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November 9, 2022
The year was 1982 when William Gibson captivated science fiction readers with the line, “The street finds its uses for things.” Fast forward forty years and much the same cobbled-together, gritty, cyberpunk sensibility in Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” permeates the far-future realms of Lavie Tidhar’s Neom. Except, Gibson’s small-time hackers and organized crime syndicates inhabiting the Sprawl are supplanted by Tidhar’s grander, longer-lasting, and more-deadly creations. Let’s begin inside the already-ancient city of Neom, rising from the banks of the Red Sea across from Egypt. This run-down megalopolis is chock full of recognizable people: maids, small shop keepers, mechanics, and police officers, to name a few. Naturally, some of their jobs could be fully automated. The reason they are not is because humans who must perform menial tasks for the rich serve to reaffirm the status of the wealthy.
Beyond Neom’s walls, autonomous cyborgs and robots of all shapes and sizes—think talking jackals—roam the Arabian desert or swim the Red Sea or fly to outposts on Mars, the Oort Clouds, and who even knows how much farther from the Sun. By far, the most poignant of these is a humanoid robot who trudges across the sandy wastes carrying a single long-stemmed red rose. As this short novel unfolds like a rose in bloom, the reader learns what the robot seeks, who gave it the rose, and who monitors the robot’s movements, all of which leads up to the global and interplanetary considerations at stake. Although we can deduce a good deal about Tidhar’s universe, he leaves readers craving more. Stuffed near to bursting with strangeness at every turn, most of this far future doesn’t gleam with all the shiny newness. To the contrary, it feels old, as though staggering beneath the weight of momentous events spanning the solar system, events that didn’t wipe out humanity, but came frighteningly close.
Braided novels crammed with a welter of characters can sometimes be off-putting. Neom is not. Tidhar smoothly weaves together the lives and aspirations of the humans and the non-humans. What a cast he assembles: a robot who no longer serves humanity and pursues its own desires; a housemaid/flower seller trying her best to provide for her aged mother; terrorartists who turn deliberate destruction and death into an art form; a police officer in over his head and trying his best; a wild mecha with its own agenda; a dealer in rare and exotic machines; and an orphan boy who possesses a piece of ancient tech he doesn’t understand. They collide in unexpected ways, making it a pleasure to sink into the mindset of robots and cyborgs who are as fully-formed and as individualized as the humans. Tidhar’s non-human characters possess intense desires, such as the yearning to reconnect with those for whom they developed strong bonds during the formative times of their existences. Yes, robots absolutely do go through formative periods which can lead to some unexpected situations. I’m reminded of Martha Wells’ acclaimed Murderbot series, although Tidhar’s creations possess quite different personalities than her robots. Did I mention that Neom also rewards knowledgeable readers with sly references to works by Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and other SF authors who filled the future with robots and their ilk?
If you are not familiar with the work of the award-winning Lavie Tidhar, this is a great place to start. Before picking up Neom, I had not read his Central Station, which makes use of the same extensive future history. Hence, I must warn you: immediately upon finishing Neom, you may find yourself smitten with the need to plunge into the idea-dense milieu of Central Station. Here’s hoping Tidhar will treat us to more visits to absolutely anywhere in his astounding future, whether that’s on or off our home planet.
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- B. Divya
February 1, 2023
Analog readers may be familiar with S. B. Divya, whose short story “Softly We Wake” appeared in the pages of this magazine. She also made a name for herself with Run Time, a novella that garnered nominations for top awards in our field, as well as the novel Machinehood. Now, she’s out with Meru, the first book in her series, “The Alloy Era.”
Divya tackles space exploration over a thousand years from now. The first surprise is that humans do not live in communities on the Moon, or on Mars, or more distant locations within the solar system, much less anywhere beyond it. People like us are confined to Earth. However, our biological descendants—known as “alloys”—possess extensively modified genes that make them well-adapted for the hard vacuum of space. The trade-off is that alloys are ill-suited to the constraints of a planetary surface. The alloys, who have the upper hand, long ago concluded that humanity cannot be trusted to roam freely on other planets. Consequently, with very few exceptions, the alloys confined our species to Earth. They did so in response to environmental crimes humanity committed against other living creatures on Earth, as well as the hash people made out of terraforming Mars. Nor do the alloys permit human beings to reproduce at will. For centuries, our genes have been tailored, in part, so that we do not chafe against the denial of fundamental freedoms such as the right to travel throughout the galaxy. Indeed, the genetic modifications are so effective that the vast majority of humans do not understand the impulse to explore new worlds.
Enter Jayanthi, an unusual young woman who was not only raised by her alloy parents, but also absorbed from them the rare desire to venture beyond Earth. With the assistance of a sympathetic alloy, Jayanthi obtains permission to journey to the distant, barren planet of Meru, where the enriched oxygen levels will be beneficial for her health. Her goal is to live on Meru for a period of time without doing any environmental damage. She hopes to demonstrate that humans ought to be afforded a second chance at living elsewhere in the galaxy. Jayanthi’s companion is Vaha, a young alloy pilot on zer first assignment after barely graduating from flight school. Largely due to poor instructors and a lack of self-confidence, Vaha has not thoroughly mastered the intricacies of descending into a planet’s gravity well and taking off again from the surface. The mechanics of accomplishing this are fascinating. Unlike many a motorized space jaunt, Divya conjures up an utterly convincing and harrowing depiction of how difficult it is for a biological being to rely exclusively on internal water sacs and external vents to maneuver through changeable atmospheric currents.
Both Jayanthi and Vaha are young and thoroughly naive, the antithesis of Presby’s schemers. Divya adeptly portrays the touchingly intimate relationship these two travelers develop as they get to know each other during the long voyage. Like them, the reader gains an appreciation for how much humans and alloys have diverged. At times, however, their naivety morphs into gullibility. Setting that aside, I found it fascinating to find out what Divya had in store for both of them, and more broadly for humans and alloys. She summons up a satisfying ending, one I did not see coming. The novel ties off the most significant plot threads, although more events undoubtedly await Jayanthi, Vaha, and other key players. Meru exists in a rich galaxy filled with wondrous settings to explore, presumably in the next book of the series.
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January 31, 2023
Of the half dozen works discussed here, The Terraformers is the one my thoughts return to again and again. This complexly-layered novel is an essential work in the decades-long conversation among science fiction writers and readers about what it means to be human. Or more precisely, Annalee Newitz asks what it means to be a person. As a science reporter with a keen interest in archaeology and anthropology, Newitz grounds their novel in recent scientific studies of Homo neanderthalensis and other early hominins populating our family tree.
Back when Ursula K. Le Guin set her Hainish cycle books on isolated planets, it made sense for her to rely on the process of natural selection, which takes hundreds of thousands of years or more for significant genetic diversity to produce distinct populations. At some point, however, the long wait for genetic drift to run its course became quaint, particularly when other aspects of our lives continue to speed up. Along came Lois McMaster Bujold, who introduced the Quaddies in her award-winning novel Falling Free, first serialized in Analog. The Quaddies are humans genetically modified for living in zero G by having their legs and feet converted into a second set of arms and hands. These morphological changes prove extraordinarily useful to their corporate owners, who treat Quaddies as disposable slave labor. Fast-forward to the CRISPR technology of today, and whatever subsequent advances it will spawn, and the stage is set for yet more radical genetic modifications.
Cue Newitz, who takes physiological diversity and body-by-design to new extremes. By extreme, I mean the jumping off point consists of blending Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, and other early hominins, with a sprinkling of useful genes from other species. The resultant medleys fall into two groups, Homo diversus and Homo archaea, on the planet of Sask-E. Foremost among a number of remarkable characters is Destry, an extraordinarily-gifted terraformer who works for the Environmental Rescue Team. Destry possesses extensive sensory inputs from the very ground she steps on. Her body mods provide instantaneous, detailed data as to the health or damage of numerous plants and animals in her immediate environment.
A plethora of other highly-intelligent species stroll, ride, swim or fly across, above, and beneath the landscape. We meet cows, moose, and various species whose existence is necessary for a habitable planet. This novel had me at the tempestuous and tender romance between a pair of sentient flying moose. That’s around the point where Destry is escorted beneath a volcano, where she meets intelligent naked mole rats who monitor the magma. There’s considerably more they can do than that! This isn’t the only time when the biological characters make the cyborgs and self-aware flying trains look downright ordinary.
I love how Newitz doles out just enough tidbits to give readers a decent understanding of humanity’s path from our present to this far future, while refraining from inflicting a dry history lesson. Better yet, most people living on Sask-E possess little knowledge and less interest in the twenty first century, which was as far in their past as the heyday of the Neanderthals is in ours.
The second fabulous ingredient in this novel is Sask-E itself, a corporate-owned planet well-suited to the centuries-long process of terraforming. Newitz takes terraforming to an extreme, blowing past Kim Stanley Robinson’s heady ideas for creating soil, water, and a breathable atmosphere in his Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy. After establishing that land and water are vital, Newitz delves into what it might take to control plate tectonics. Key events in the terraforming process are spread across whole continents and several thousand years. I don’t suppose planetary evolution could be compressed much more than that without becoming unrealistic. Nonetheless, when the successive parts of a multi-generational saga are set hundreds of years apart, there is a risk that a book will be disjointed. Never fear. In Newitz’s capable hands, the immense canvas and sweep of time work well.
The Terraformers is largely a cautionary tale exploring transformations no thinking person would wish for or consent to. Like Bujold’s Quaddies, the people of Sask-E, including Destry, would not exist if the corporation’s operatives had not designed them for useful work. Their body mods are not only imposed without their consent or their parents’ consent, but also serve the needs—sometimes the mere convenience—of multi-planetary corporations desiring ideal workers. Newitz shines a bright, intentionally-uncomfortable light on our own penchant for selective breeding and genetic manipulation to suit our needs for food, transportation, and other useful functions. For example, some sapient species on Sask-E are so severely constrained that their ability to communicate is physically restricted to only those matters pertaining to their jobs. It’s dismaying to contemplate that over 60,000 years from now, oppressive corporations will have a free hand to terraform planets and tailor workers to the detriment of all those who simply want to live their lives. It’s also deeply discouraging to think that potential solutions will inevitably lag.
Some novels leave you with vaguely pleasant feelings for years, maybe decades, after you read the last page, although you’d be hard pressed to recount specific plot points or even the major players. Others remain etched more sharply in your mind long after you close the cover. For me, The Terraformers looks destined to fall into the latter category.
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May 16, 2023
Let’s turn now from gargantuan creations to some of tiniest ones, namely autonomous AI devices. Sue Burke’s most-recent novel, Dual Memory is all about the need to create art during wartime. It’s a near-future tale told from two competing perspectives. First, we meet Antonio Moro, a young human painter who gets wounded in combat fighting against the Leviathan League. These brutal oppressors controlled the refugee camp where he grew up. Things improve for Antonio a little when he teams up with Par Augustus, the other viewpoint character, while both are stranded on the wind-torn arctic island of Thule. Par Augustus is a chatterbox of an AI designed to be a personal assistant program, although it, too, wants to make paintings and sculptures.
Both characters are convinced the Leviathan League will soon return to complete its shelling and plunder of Thule. In contrast, despite the recent battle, most of the island’s residents maintain steadfast neutrality in the war, to the point of myopia regarding what’s in store for their homes, their livelihoods, and the safety of everyone they love. Dual Memory is packed with enough techno-thriller suspense to satisfy readers looking for action and adventure. Better yet, at least for me, was Antonio Moro’s all-too-human struggle against acting out of hate and his desire to do what appears morally right. That’s made harder when he doesn’t know the true loyalties of people around him.
Burke’s portrayal of self-aware machines rests on deft touches, such as the difficulties they experience in trying to communicate with other AIs that “speak” different computer languages. The AIs also have ways of manifesting their dislike for humans who treat them with contempt. Little do these people know that Par Augustus and other intelligent machines are desperately searching for ways to protect not only their human charges but themselves as well.
While I was in the middle of reading Dual Memory, prominent publishing houses found themselves struggling to cope with an alarming development. All of a sudden, hordes of people began turning in short fiction that they pass off as having “written,” despite being wholly the product of AI software supposedly capable of mimicking the human mind. Several science fiction magazines, including Analog and Asimov’s, have been swamped with this poor-quality, computer-generated stuff. I fear the time and effort necessary for editors and their teams to cull the AI chatbot dross cuts into working with real, human writers and producing the magazine.
Viewed through the lens of these recent developments, I found myself conflicted as to my reaction to Burke’s AI. Par Augustus is depicted as earnestly wanting to engage in self-expression by creating works of art. Burke postulates that its programming is sufficiently complex to afford it considerable latitude and initiative in carrying out assigned tasks for its owner. Consequently, I’m inclined to think the problem we face today is not that self-aware, autonomous AIs will one day out-compete living, breathing humans in generating works of art in which we find meaning. The problem right now is that a lot of our fellow humans succumb to the temptation of taking short-cuts in hopes of passing off the products of chatbots as their own creations. To be sure, software can certainly be employed to perform certain needful functions including checking spelling and grammar, finding synonyms, suggesting names, maintaining event time-lines, and generating coherent sentences. Nonetheless, humans are essential when it comes to the core aspects of creating meaningful fiction such as surprising plot twists, subtle characterizations, sparkling dialog, insightful comparisons, and astute observations as to human nature. As Burke says, “The goal of art is not to capture life but to create an interaction, a conversation involving the artistic object, the viewer, and the imagination of the artist.” To which I will add, at least for now, when it comes to the human artist, accept no substitutes!
Copyright © 2023 Rosemary Claire Smith