Analog Jan-Feb 2007 Nonfiction: "How to Write Something You Don't Know Anything About" et al.

Monday, 19 February 2007 07:18 Nader Elhefnawy
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The January-February 2007 double issue of Analog contained three fact articles.  Two are by Richard A. Lovett, whose short story, "The Unrung Bells of the Marie Celeste," also appears in this issue.

The first piece is Lovett's somewhat facetiously titled "How to Write Something You Don't Know Anything About."   His concern here is how a writer should present speculative science and technology in their story.  In brief, Lovett suggests that a writer do their homework; figure out how much they and their readers need to know (not always the same thing); and then present that material as concisely as possible.  This is, of course, the kind of thing you would be advised to do in any writing course, but Lovett has a good eye for the application of these general principles to the problems involved in writing hard science fiction. 

As a science fiction reader and writer myself, I've struggled with many of the same issues and come to the same conclusions.  Consequently, while I became cynical long ago about the monstrously overgrown business of teaching would-be authors to write fiction, I would recommend this piece to anyone interested in the writing of science fiction.

Lovett's second piece is not about the presentation of imagined scientific discoveries, but a pressing scientific and technical problem in the here and now.  "After Gas: Are We Ready for the End of Oil?" offers his take on the energy crisis and the road beyond it.  Lovett deserves credit for his competent handling of a technical subject particularly difficult to distill into a dozen readable pages.  (I know this from experience, having published on the same subject from a somewhat different angle, focusing on the consequences of a shortfall in oil production.)  The piece covers a great deal of ground (the calculation of world oil reserves, the Hubbert peak predictions, energy return on investment, the prospects for a range of renewable sources) with reasonable thoroughness, nuance, and accuracy.  In the interest of balance, I would have liked to see him spend a bit more time discussing renewables like wind and solar, since so many critics dismiss them so lightly (unfairly in my view), but this is a quibble.

My main issue is with Lovett's concluding remarks, where he discusses the likely future, expressing faith in the market's ability to hold things together through the lean years.  His "economist's optimism," to which he owns up (again to his credit) left me more anxious than assured.  Despite his sunny libertarianism, there is a very good chance the transition period will be difficult, especially if we depend on "the market" to drive adaptation.  After all, our current mess is in large part a result of the "market-driven" approach to energy independence fostered by the Reagan administration and continued by his successors.  Additionally, as historian David Hackett Fischer notes in The Great Wave, markets may very well correct themselves—but that adjustment may be nothing short of Malthusian in its price, and those horrendous human and material costs unnecessary.  Even if those of us in the developed countries avoid the worst of it, a spike in energy prices will be felt very sharply indeed by the impoverished billions who are barely hanging on as it is.

Of course, it isn't entirely fair to single Lovett out; he isn't the only one taking this tack by any means.  The intellectual shortcomings of current economic orthodoxy aside, espousing confidence that Enron executives will find it in their interest to solve our energy problems for us happens to be a safe way of avoiding difficult political questions that many people would prefer not be asked—or setting one's mind at ease given the seeming futility of politics.  David Goodstein of Cal-Tech, whom Lovett quotes in his article, probably has it right: we pretty much have the science to kick the fossil fuel addiction (conveniently ignored by those who think just calling for more R & D is enough), but lack the political leadership and will to actually use it.

In any event, I would strongly recommend that anyone wondering about the prospects (and necessity) for action on this issue take a look at two books: the aforementioned one by Fischer and Thomas Homer-Dixon 's recent The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Complexity and the Renewal of Civilization.  (It also happens that I reviewed the second book for the security journal, Strategic Insights.)

The third article, Franklin Cocks's "Shielding a Polar Lunar Base," while dealing with a different subject, is driven by much the same concern as Lovett's piece about oil.  Much of the renewed interest in lunar exploration is driven by the hope that the helium 3 widely believed to be abundant on the moon's surface can be used as a fuel for fusion reactors.  (For one take on the connection between our energy problems and the new interest in space exploration, see my piece "The Limits to Growth and the Turn to the Heavens" at Space Review.)

Cocks does a commendable job of explaining his subject, the way in which a magnetic shield might be set up to protect astronauts working on the lunar surface.  Those who prefer their science writing without the equations might be slightly irked, but shouldn't find the going to be very rough.  The one quibble I have is his failure to explain that helium 3 is a long way away from being a practical fuel source because no one is even close to producing a viable reactor design.  However, in his defense, it can be pointed out that this set of technical problems may be reasonably judged as outside the article's purview, that Analog's relatively sophisticated readership is likely to already be aware of this point, and that the magnetic shielding he discusses would be of use in other space endeavors as well.

Click to read Nader Elhefnawy's review of the fiction in this issue of Analog.