Friday, October 10, 2008

The Issue Before the Current Issue of Analog

Analog continues to deliver thoughtful stories that are more or less well-written. In the nature of thought-experiments, of course most of these stories are rather shamefully contrived. In "The Last Temptation of Katerina Savitskaya" by H. G. Stratmann aliens have terraformed Mars and allowed only two people, a man and a woman, to live there. Then they put them through a series of tests and offer them ultimate power. The story focuses on the reactions of the humans, but I would have liked to see more about the motivation of the aliens—what the hell could they be thinking?

Likewise in "The Fourth Thing" by Stephen L. Burns—aliens wake a woman up one morning, tell her the world is going to end in an hour or so, they can only save a few people (including herself), and she can only bring four easily carried things with her. Luckily she's an assistant librarian... you can see where this is going. I’ve noticed that short story writers can never go wrong appealing to people who love books. Can’t imagine why that could be.

However, one story stood out for me with some particularly interesting speculation. "Invasion of the Pattern Snatchers" by David W. Goldman investigates the possibility of the brain being damaged in such a way that it consistently fails to recognize certain patterns... say a parasite that wants not to be noticed. (In a broad sense this is perfectly possible. In my Neuroscience class I just learned about patients with damage to their right parietal lobe. They simply fail to notice things on their left. If you show them a clock and ask them to draw it, they’ll draw a circle and numbers 1 through 7, then leave the left part empty.) The plot involves long-distance territorial conflict between planets. One planet’s modus operandi is to drop slow-acting biological agents that lead to planet-wide sterilization over a couple of generations. Then they swoop down and colonize. The send a human agent to a planet where this failed to work. The ability of the brain to recognize both patterns and their significance comes into play as the un-conquered population recognizes what is going on and modifies the agent's pattern recognition facilities. The story is nothing particularly ground-breaking or award-winning, but the speculation on the power of the brain and how it may be modified was well done. The brain works in mysterious ways and it seems that the more we know about those ways the more mysterious they get.

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