Eats shoots and leaves

Is the truth stranger than fiction? Darned right it is, especially if your carefully scripted words come under the scrutiny of the US Office of Foreign Assets Control. Dave Wilson explains all.

Democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven – H. L. Mencken.

In the US, it’s the unenviable job of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC for short, to administer and enforce economic and trade sanctions against nasty foreign countries, terrorists, and the like.

An admirable goal, for sure. Unless, of course, the guys in charge get carried away.

Which, naturally, of course, happened in September 2003. Back then, the chaps at OFAC issued a ruling to the effect that the IEEE’s (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’) use of peer review as well as style and copy editing for their technical journals ‘may’ fall into the category of providing a ‘service’ for a ‘sanctioned country’.

And that, of course, would have been prohibited if it resulted in ‘substantive or artistic alteration or enhancement to the article’ by folks in the US.

Golly gosh! A lot of US publishers got a bit spooked by that one, I can tell you. It’s not a lot of fun being slammed in a Federal Penitentiary just for adding a semicolon to an article written by a fella from Iraq, after all!

Thankfully, there was a bit of an about turn a couple of weeks back. And a lot of editors have now stopped sweating WMDs. Because the very same OFAC has now issued a new ruling to the IEEE confirming that it will not regulate the technical article peer review process, or the process of style and copy editing, with respect to articles submitted by authors in a ‘sanctioned country’.

That’s great news for everyone, especially the scientists from the so-called sanctioned countries who can get their work published in the US – contributing enormously to the free flow of technical information around the planet.

But could OFAC have overlooked something vitally important here? While it’s been busy targeting the editing of technical learned journals from the IEEE and such like, it’s forgotten entirely about writers and editors of science fiction.

That means that any budding science fiction writer in Tehran is still free to submit any fantastic story he likes about futuristic weapons systems to any US science fiction journal of his choice, where it will undoubtedly be ‘sexed-up’ by a team of US editors. And that could be a big problem.

If you don’t believe me, cast your mind back to 1944. Back then, in an issue of John Cambell’s magazine ‘Astounding Stories’, a one Cleve Cartmill published a story describing the workings of the atomic bomb. That in itself wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been published fourteen months before the first successful atomic test. The result of this was that the unfortunate duo were investigated by US Federal Authorities attempting to figure out if there had been a leak of military information.

Clearly, we don’t want writers of sci-fi under investigation by the FBI again. Nor do we want the countries they live in suddenly classified as ‘sanctioned’ just because of their vivid imaginations.

Perhaps the good folks at OFAC could issue some guidelines to help clarify the matter…

On the web