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[Comments] (1) Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1985/07: Here it is, the final entry in this series, started seven years ago when I picked up a bunch of old SF magazines at a swap-fest. I've acquired a lot of magazines since then, and those are getting 'old', so it could continue, but this is the last of the original set. And good riddance, because this magazine smells like laundry detergent for some reason.

So what do we got? The cover story (one assumes) is the first part of Timothy Zahn's "Spinneret", which would later be published as a novel. It was good but I kinda see where it's going and don't feel a strong need to read the novel.

Eric G. Iverson's "Noninterference" is a pleasant story whose sole purpose is to dis the Prime Directive. The accompanying artwork seems more appropriate to a story about the mixing of the ultimate prog-rock album.

Charles L. Harness's "George Washington Slept Here" is the cream of this issue: a creative, funny and entertaining story that combines several Analog favorites (aliens, historical figures, and fussy middle-aged hobbies) that you rarely see together. Bonus: no time travel or major alt-history, just a character with a really long lifespan. I really liked the concept of the main character, a lawyer who loses every case he takes, but in a way that's more beneficial to his client than if he'd won. That concept's strong enough to support a series, but it looks like this is the only one.

This month's vague story blurbs:

Now to nonfiction. David Brin's essay "Just How Dangerous Is The Galaxy?" classifies every known potential solution to the Fermi Paradox and puts them in a big table by which term of the Drake Equation they affect. He also introduces his own "Water World" solution, which he deigns to classify in a separate section called "Optimism". This solution posits that "Earth is unusually dry for a water world," and that intelligent life evolves all the time, and thrives for long periods, but very rarely builds spaceships. I'm just riffing on the idea here, and I don't buy the idea that "hands and fire" are prerequisites to advanced technology, but you could imagine a dolphin-type civilization treating a planet's surface and atmosphere the way we treat low-earth orbit.

Tom Easton's book review column includes a review of Ender's Game, which wanders into a long philosophical discussion that I won't reproduce here because it's pretty similar to stuff you can find on the Internet. I was disappointed to read that "Russel M. Griffin's The Timeservers is a pale incarnation of the diplomatic satire that made Laumer's Retief so popular." It was a Phillip K. Dick Award finalist, though, so maybe it's just on a different wavelength from Laumer.

In letters, paleontologist Jack Cohen returns fire at Tom Easton, who in an earlier book review column disputed the evolutionary biology in Harry Harrison's Cohen-collaboration West of Eden. And reader Michael Owens has it out with Ben Bova about the latter's support of the Star Wars program. Summary of Owens: "far from leading to a defense-oriented world, Star Wars leads to another offense-oriented arms race." Bova responds that he wrote a book (Assured Survival) that deals with all this stuff, and then mentions this comforting tidbit:

[T]he new defensive technologies do not apply only to satellites and ballistic missiles. They are already being developed into "smart weapons" that will make the tanks, artillery, planes, and ships of conventional land and sea warfare little more than expensive and very vulnerable targets. "Star Wars" technologies (plural!) can make all forms of aggressive warfare so difficult that an era of worldwide peace is in view—if the nations of the world want peace.

Which leads nicely into the thing I've saved for last because I've got a lot to say about it, in direct violation of my usual "if you can't say anything nice" rule. Previously on Analog, columnist G. Harry Stine asked readers to send in their answers to the following question, which I will quote in full:

What, in your opinion, is the most important problem that technologists should tackle in the next twenty years, and why do you believe this?

In this issue Stine reports the results, and I was looking forward to doing a kind of The Future: A Retrospective thing on them.

The first thing Stine does is disqualify 120 of the 127 replies he got. That may seem extreme, but that's approximately what I'd do if I was running a magazine and accepting fiction submissions. I was kind of laughing along as he disqualified entries for exceeding the word limit or otherwise ignoring the rules, but then I got to this:

49.61% of the replies [63 of 127]... discussed problems that were either (a) not technological problems, but social and political instead; (b) already solved or well along the road to solution; (c) trivial and parochial in their scope; (d) based on incorrect, incomplete, or outmoded data; and/or (e) the result of someone else's telling the respondent that the problem was a problem because the expert said so, whereupon the respondent stated it on faith without checking.

And at this point I gotta call bullshit. You didn't say "most important technological problem", you said "most important problem technologists should tackle." Social and political problems have technical aspects, and vice versa. The impact of a technological development is judged by its effect on society. This is the basis of the science fiction genre! You could replace every vague Analog story blurb with "Social and political problems tend to have technical aspects, and vice versa...", and it would always fit the story!

Half of Analog's readership can follow directions but their opinions are wrong. Let's take a look at the top five disqualified "problems" (all direct quotes, scare quotes in original):

  1. Control of nuclear weapons
  2. the "population explosion"
  3. the "energy shortage"
  4. the "raw materials shortage"
  5. "pollution" in various and sundry forms

I sure am glad technologists didn't waste any more time on these non-problems after 1985! According to Stine, America's ballistic missile defense system is well on its way to solving #1 (if the nations of the world want peace, of course). #2 isn't a problem anymore because the rate of population growth has slowed. #3 and #4 were never real problems. ("The only reason we had an 'energy shortage' was to provide an excuse for politicians and bureaucrats to gain control of natural resources, and thereby gain control over people.") As for #5, who's to say what counts as "pollution"? Like most words, it's a "semantically-loaded term". "Pollution in its many forms may be a localized problem in some areas, but it is not a worldwide problem."

So what are the seven entries that made the cut? I'm glad you asked, previous sentence:

  1. "Making products maintenance-free, i.e. designed for a 100-year life with a 0.0001 probability of maintenance." DISQUALIFIED. Maybe the move from 75 years to 100 would be a technical improvement, but the problem as it exists today is a problem with the way products are sold, and technical improvements won't change that.
  2. "[C]ontrol of the weather" to boost crop yields and prevent famine. SEMI-DISQUALIFIED. Modern famines are political problems, not technical problems. Control of the weather would indeed be great, not for this reason, but because it would let us mitigate the damage caused by our worldwide pollution problem.
  3. "The construction and maintenance of closed ecological systems". Sure, OK.
  4. Here's the shortest quote I could get that explains this one:
    Education depends on communication. John points out that communication involves moving information from place to place... which really isn't much of a problem, but... managing the information is. It's possible to download lots of information into a student's mind. But if the student doesn't know how to determine what information is meaningful and relevant... everything stored in the student's memory is useless.

    Now that's more like it! Not only is this a real problem, it's one that we made significant progress on between 1985 and 2005!

  5. "The development of the direct link between the human mind and the computer to produce a true intelligence amplifier." Another good one. We got both parts of this (mind-computer link and intelligence amplifier), but in practice they don't have anything to do with each other.
  6. "[T]he construction by machines of very small machines." This also happened but proved not to be a huge deal, and even Stine is kinda skeptical ("he doesn't specify exactly what technological problems can be solved by developing sub-microscopic technology"). I'm gonna go out on a limb and say the real problem is the reader doesn't specify exactly what social or political problems can be solved with this technology.
  7. And finally,
    Del Cain of Augusta, ME presented a technological problem that is as much philosophical as technological... He wants technologists to develop structures and artifacts that tend to support healthy behavior in human beings—i.e. to help people live and rear children so they can develop to their full potential without trauma but not without struggle, difficulty, or drama. To do this, he believes that we should solve the technological problem of determining what are the optimum sizes and structures of healthy communities. In short, he feels that the big problem is developing technology with a life-affirming philosophy behind it.

    I don't understand how Del Cain managed to smuggle the concept of Scandanavian social democracy past G. Harry Stine, but good job. No, wait, I figured it out: I'm projecting, and so was he.

Well, there we go, that's our look at old SF magazines of the 80s. To commemorate the end of the series, I've scanned all the old ads in this magazine, not just the ones I thought were interesting or funny. But here are the ones I thought were interesting or funny:

I'll leave you with this question: what, in your opinion, is the most important problem that technologists should have tackled from 1985 to 2005, and why do you believe this?

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Comments:

Posted by Brendan at Sun Jun 21 2015 18:04

The most important problem was clearly the quality of nerd games and their promotional materials, which technologists seem to have tackled the shit out of. Speaking of which, I'm pretty sure I've got an inherity copy of Lords of Creation in my mom's basement if you want to try it sometime. (I recall that it seemed terrible.)


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