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Tomorrowland

The chronicle of popular science fiction/fact.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By ELI LEHRER
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Analog Magazine: Science Fiction, Science Fact (that’s the actual full title) turns 80 this year, and seems at first glance like an anachronism. 

Tomorrowland

Consider the facts: It’s one of the few mainstream magazines that still serializes novels, prints in the digest form that even Readers’ Digest abandoned, never posts any of its content on the Internet, and won’t accept initial submissions via email. Although Analog’s content stays on the cutting edge—stories extrapolating on new discoveries can appear only months after papers hit the scientific journals—the magazine even looks old-fashioned. Its black-and-white interior contains only a few nods to electronic layout, and the bright, multicolored covers could pass for 1950s B-movie posters. The circulation of 33,000 is small but, in its 80 years, Analog has had a broad influence on the shape of American culture by defining and sustaining an entire branch of imaginary literature: hard science fiction.

“Hard” sci-fi—what Analog prints—consists of creative writing that relies heavily on real-world science. Plenty of speculative fiction—Star Wars, Doris Lessing’s Canopus series—pays almost no attention to actual science. Such speculative fiction can be good or bad literature, but it’s not even remotely new. If published today, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Thomas More’s Utopia, and the Book of Job would all likely find a place in booksellers’ “science fiction” sections, even though none of them even pretends to be grounded in science.

Hard science fiction is arguably the most modern major genre. Although its origins date back to classical antiquity, the scientific method of disinterested, rational inquiry into the universe didn’t begin to shape society until the second industrial revolution in the late 19th century. With actual science came science fiction, and starting with popular authors like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, an entire genre emerged that aims to incorporate the future of science into a literary form. Through a grounding in actual science—even far-fetched science—hard science fiction can ask specific questions about the human future. And that’s what Analog prints. 

“We want good stories but good stories that include a real element of science. Stories that wouldn’t make sense without some sort of scientific element,” explains Stanley Schmidt, editor since 1978, only the third in Analog’s history. But with this unique attribute comes a pitfall for hard science fiction: Great literature, by definition, manages to ask (and sometimes answer) universal questions about the human condition. Although character-driven stories—which are quite possible even in a hard science fiction context—can address almost anything, a major focus of any hard sci-fi story will, almost by definition, involve something that has never happened to anyone. (Yet.) So hard science fiction, even when well crafted, will probably never make it into the literary canon. 

Still, such grounded speculation about the future has become more important than ever. Much modern culture, ranging from television shows such as CSI and House to congressional debates over stem cell research, relies heavily on cutting-edge scientific discoveries. An understanding of where things might go, and what technology might do, can do more to inform the public policy debate and the shape of society than ever before.

From its first days under founding editor John W. Campbell, Analog provided a market for this type of work. And most of what fills its pages is pretty good. Well-known science fiction novels such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and, going back much further, E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series, made their first appearances in Analog. To be sure, the magazine has printed some duds: Under its original name—Astounding—it printed the original outline of L. Ron Hubbard’s cult manual, Dianetics; but it also printed some pretty good stories that Hubbard wrote in his first career as a science fiction author. 

Over 80 years, however, the good has outweighed the bad by a healthy margin. Although some stories will raise eyebrows—one recent piece features a sentient, Buddhist Tyrannosaurus Rex as its protagonist and a twangy-talking, self-aware gun as her main foil—much of its current content asks genuine questions about the future. Stories that consider the realistic probabilities of genetic engineering, the functioning of healthy ecosystems, and the possibilities of an oil-less economy, have all appeared in recent issues. Serious “science fact” articles, likewise, never talk down to readers.

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