Friday, May 31, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Alec Nevala-Lee

Another birthday today is that of Alec Nevala-Lee. Alec is doubtless best known to most people as the author of the current Hugo nominee for Best Related Work, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which is a look at Campbell's life and career and influence along with the careers of and his interactions with three of his most famous (or infamous) and important contributors. It's a wonderful book, definitely recommended for anyone interested in the history of the field, or indeed in 20th Century America.

He has also written a number of very intriguing stories for Analog over the past decade and more. I've reviewed a number of these for Locus, and a collection of those reviews is appended. His latest story, "At the Fall", from the May-June Analog, is also very fine, and my review is in the June Locus, due out any day now.

Locus, June 2011

In the June Analog I found Alec Nevala-Lee’s “Kawataro” interesting. Like a couple other stories this month, this is based on fairy tales to an extent, less a true tale in this case than the Japanese fantastical water creature normally called a “kappa”, but also sometimes called a “kawataro”. Here a cameraman comes to a village of “burakumin” – historically low caste people – to help a linguist who is studying the independently evolved sign language the local deaf population has created. All this is under threat because the village is likely to be combined with a neighboring village. Another threat is embodied in the disappearance or murder of a few people – attributed by some to a “kawataro”. As this is Analog, we expect an SFnal explanation, and to an extent we get one, but not the first one that came to my mind!

Locus, November 2011

Alec Nevala-Lee has been a nice recent discovery at Analog. His latest is “The Boneless One” in the November issue, about an expedition to the Bermuda Triangle (well, almost) in search of scientific discoveries – and profit and fame. A potentially remarkable discovery – luminous octopuses – becomes a bone of contention when their tight schedule suggests they should turn back. The contention turns murderous – and at the heart of it all is a science-fictional idea based on real science. A solid piece of SF, and a darker story than usual for Analog.

Locus, February 2012

At Analog for March, Alec Nevala-Lee again shows his range, in “Ernesto” taking us to the Spanish Civil War, and Ernest Hemingway, who witnesses a church at which seeming miraculous cures have occurred. The turns out to be a political problem as well as a religious (or scientific?) question, and the story lays out the political background effectively while giving a nice Sfnal treatment of the miracles.

Locus, August 2012

The best story in the September Analog is Alec Nevala-Lee's “The Voices”. January is a young woman who hears voices, as did her grandmother. The older woman committed suicide, and January, desperate to escape them, has agreed to join a research project using new technology to stimulate the brain to stop her auditory hallucinations. Now January's hallucinations are quite specific – particularly a familiar voice called Elfric, who sternly warns her against participating in this project. But she continues, with some success. Then she meets a young colleague of the leader of the project, who has been analyzing recording of the voices she hears – something that rather surprises her. This is an SF story, so we expect to learn that the “voices” are real, and that they will be important to January – and so it turns out, though not quite in the way I might have expected. I liked best the delicately spooky twist towards the end, that I suppose I should have seen coming.

Locus, August 2013

I don't want to suggest that Analog is abandoning its core mission. For one thing, “The Oracle” (and “Tethered”) are both quite traditional in their Sfnal subject matter, and any shift they signal is more a matter of attitude – and also something as simple as roster – the authors are new names for the magazine, and that in itself signals change. And I should note, Schmidt was never shy about developing new writers. One of Schmidt's best recent discoveries, Alec Nevala-Lee, is back in July-August with “The Whale God”, a fine story set in Vietname during the war. One of Nevala-Lee's idea engines is to present a situation which suggests a fantastical or science-fictional premise, and then to turn the idea on its head, not so much by debunking the central premise, or explaining it away in mundane terms, but by giving it a different, perhaps more scientifically rigorous, science-fictional explanation. Here an American officer, a doctor, is presented with a problem – a beached whale, which is complicated because the villagers revere whales, particularly “the whale god”. He has other problems – feelings of being watched, and additional discomfort. In an attempt to win the “hearts and minds” of the villagers, he decides on a risky plan to try to save the whale – a plan complicated when more whales are beached. The resolution is low key, only modestly science-fictional, but the story is well told and well-characterized, with a subdued theme inviting reflections on the whole American adventure in Vietnam, and inevitably on other military actions.

Locus, April 2014

The May Analog is a very solid issue. The lead story, “Cryptids”, by Alec Nevala-Lee, is about an expedition to a an obscure island near New Guinea. It's lead by Karen Vale, a respected scientist, but it's sponsored, to some extent, by the pharmaceutical company for which Amanda Lurie, a former student of hers, works. Karen is just interested in mapping bird species in the New Guinea islands, but Amanda is looking for the source of the batrachotoxins found in a bird, the Hooded Pitohui, because the complex alkaloids offer a lot of pharmaceutical potential.  The bird eats a certain beetle, and the question is, “What does the beetle eat?”. A small group tracks the birds to an uninhabited island … where they find something much more interesting, and dangerous. Cool stuff.

Locus, October 2015

Alec Nevala-Lee's “Stonebrood” (Analog, October), is also interesting, about Marius, who is working a project to map the tunnels left by Pennsylvania coal-mining in an effort to effectively put out a long-burning underground fire. Marius has a dark secret in his own past, for which he did time, and this seems to be intertwined with a somewhat hostile ex-con he's employing, and with strange sounds he starts hearing, as well as the tiny drones used in the underground mapping. The resolution is rational, as usual with Nevala-Lee, and interesting enough, though it is Marius' personal history that ends up being more impactful.

Locus, February 2017

Alec Nevala-Lee takes on climate change, wind power, and bird behavior in “The Proving Ground” in the January-February Analog. Haley Kabua is a woman of Marshall Islands ancestry, part of a group trying to recolonize the islands, mostly sunk due to sea level increases. They have built a seastead, and our adding wind towers for their energy needs, when birds start acting very strangely. A couple of consultants for the corporation that has been sponsoring their effort are investigating. The mystery turns on unexpected effects of a sort of Hail Mary attempt at carbon sequestration. The story is an effective mix of interesting scientific speculation, and plausible near future political machinations, with a realistic resolution.

Locus, May 2018

Analog has also been on a hot streak lately, and this issue is no exception. The lead novelette, “The Spires” by Alec Nevala-Lee, offers an interesting explanation to an old Fortean mystery – the appearance in the Alaskan sky of images of a distant city, and wraps a strong character-based adventure around it. Bill Lawson is a bush pilot in 1930s Alaska, and he is hired by a couple to fly them up to Glacier Bay. They are trying to study the phenomenon of the city images, and that’s where one old prospector claimed to have seen them. He takes them there (illegally), and then a storm damages the plane. He finds himself battling not just nature and the problem of fixing his aircraft, but his own dark temptations, and his skepticism about the couple’s beliefs. The mystery stays mostly a mystery, with a plausible and SFnal explanation hinted at.


  1. "Stonebrood" was the very first story I ever reviewed for Rocket Stack Rank.

  2. Just finished reading "At the Fall" and loved it. Hope to find a copy of the June Locus to read your review.