The story alternately follows events on two worlds of approximately equal technological development, separated by interstellar distance. One is the Earth, where the characters worry about the potential of war to destroy human civilization. Surely there must be some way of defusing international tensions, but what could it be? If only we could communicate with some other world that has already solved this problem!

On the other world, rather likable aliens pat themselves on the back for the progress their world has experienced since the agreement was made to open borders, allowing citizens of any country to come and go as they please and to live anywhere. Oppressive regimes are so quickly deserted by their citizens that they are forced to change. Now science and technology are booming, but another crisis is developing. Life is more abundant than ever before, with the new chemical industries based on lead and arsenic, chromium and uranium. But now people are slowly dying for no apparent reason. There, too, the characters sigh, if only we could communicate with some other world that has already solved this problem!

I don't know when I encountered this English-language story; it could reasonably date from the 1960s to 1980s or even later. I probably read it in an anthology.

  • 4
    IIRC the story is told primarily from the viewpoints of a human SETI researcher and his alien counterpart. Each is facing pressure to give up the resources they are using to instead be used for the "greater good" and thinking that maybe somewhere out there was someone who knew the answers they needed.
    – DavidW
    Jan 7, 2020 at 2:32
  • Yes. I wasn't sure of that aspect so I didn't put it in. Jan 7, 2020 at 2:52
  • 1
    "Solved the problem" of lead, arsenic, chromium and uranium, you say? I shall alert Erin Brokovich post haste. ;)
    – Lexible
    Jan 7, 2020 at 6:45
  • 5
    Come to think of it, there should be a natural follow-up short story where the worlds now can communicate, and both sides are disappointed that their proposed solutions are both, 100% accurate and completely useless in practice.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 7, 2020 at 14:03
  • 2
    David Brin explored other aspects of first contact in two other stories in the same anthology, including the dangers of being the youngest and most naive civilization in the galaxy (Lungfish) and an arrangement in which civilizations cannot contact others that have not broken their Crystal Spheres. Jan 7, 2020 at 15:27

1 Answer 1


"Just a Hint," by David Brin. First published in Analog (April 27, 1981). I encountered it when I bought a secondhand copy of a collection of several of Brin's early shorter pieces of science fiction (as opposed to his early novels): The River of Time.

The basic premise of the plot is just as you described. The point-of-view shifts back and forth between two scientists, light-years apart, who each are worried sick about a problem that the other one's civilization has already analyzed and solved . . . but they don't know this, and it looks like they never will, due to lack of funding for radio astronomy projects such as SETI (and the alien equivalent). And on each world, there are disasters looming on the horizon which mean it may be a very, very long time before anyone revives the science of radio astronomy -- and that's only if some of their descendants live long enough for it to ever become an option in a rebuilt civilization, you understand.

Sam Federman is concerned about the possibility of nuclear war, and wonders if aliens, with a completely different perspective, might be able to see a new approach to resolving geopolitical problems -- that is to say, "new" to human psychology, but blindingly obvious from the alien viewpoint. It particularly irks him that the environment here on Earth has been largely cleaned up after we realized the cancerous side-effects of massive industrial pollution, but now we may not last long enough to enjoy it. If only he could get a hint from some intelligent, impartial outsiders who didn't share all the cultural paradigms that human kids subconsciously absorb as they are growing up on Earth . . .

Meanwhile, on another world with a similar level of technological development, Federman's counterpart, an Academician called Fetham, is looking at things from a different perspective. He, too, wishes he could get plenty of funding for efforts to make radio contact across the light-years with some alien culture that might have a very useful perspective. I'll quote a few nonconsecutive paragraphs of his musings to show beyond any reasonable doubt that this is, in fact, the same story you remembered.

After the invention of atomic weapons, before he was born, his parents' generation had finally found the motivation to do the obvious and abolish war. The method had been there all along, but no one had been sufficiently motivated before. Now the fruits of peace were multiplying throughout the world.

But the Plague had then come among them, soon after the last war, and now affected almost everyone. Lung ailments, skin cancer . . . that horrible sickness that struck the mercury and bismuth mines . . . the death of the fisheries.

Huge sums were spent to find the microorganisms responsible for this rash of diseases. Some were found, but no germs yet that could account for the wide range of calamities. Some scientists were now suggesting a pathogen smaller than a virus.

Fetham, too, speculates that if long-term funding for his work were assured, it might be possible to contact some other sentient race which had already encountered and somehow overcome similar problems, and who might be kind enough to share the secret of how they'd managed that remarkable feat!

The last few lines of the story (still showing us Fetham's thoughts):

Suddenly he had a totally irrelevant thought.

I wonder where the birds are? They used to be all over this part of the city. I never noticed that they had gone, until now.

"I suppose," he sighed. "I suppose I was hoping for just a hint . . ."

  • 2
    Positive ID. I read it in a 1987 edition along with several other memorable stories. Thanks! Jan 7, 2020 at 3:51
  • I was thinking it had to be a 70s or 80s Analog story, but had balked at the prospect of a manual search. :)
    – DavidW
    Jan 7, 2020 at 4:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.