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The Future of Threat Predictions

NOVELIST TOM CLANCY wrote about a vengeful Japanese pilot who crashes a commercial 747 jumbo jet into the U.S. Capitol Building during the president’s State of the Union address, killing the president and most members of Congress in his 1994 thriller, Debt of Honor. It was the kind of leap of imagination that government officials simply don’t make. They never anticipated as a serious possibility that Muslim terrorists would fly hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the deadliest attack on U.S. soil. That failure is what allowed the attacks to happen, the 9/11 Commission concluded.

Now U.S. officials are eager to take national security advice from people who spend their time imagining the future: science fiction writers. And some in the field are eager to oblige.

“It’s our duty,” says science fiction writer Arlan Andrews, Sr., “to come back to mankind (from the future) and report on what we’ve seen—mostly what we’ve made up.”

Andrews, an environmental engineer, founded SIGMA, a think tank of science fiction writers who advise the government on a voluntary basis. He launched the group in 1992 while working as a fellow in the White House Office of Science and Technology.

“I’d been a participant on many panels at science fiction conventions,” he explains, “and many of the future possibilities that were being discussed were a lot closer aligned with reality than anything the government forecasters were coming up with.… They never think of disruptive technologies, and they never think of disruptive events, whereas novelists and science fiction writers do.”

Andrews, one of whose short stories appears in an anthology titled, aptly enough, How to Save the World, recruited nine of his fellow science fiction authors to join SIGMA. He selected only those with doctorate degrees so that official Washington would take them seriously.

The group currently has 35 members, and a Ph.D. is no longer required. Among them are best-selling novelists Greg Bear, the author of Quantico, and Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, whose latest collaboration is titled Burning Tower.

They consult with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Defense, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and NASA, as well as with intelligence agencies that Andrews isn’t allowed to name. They work on everything from disaster response to future urban warfare to protecting the earth from asteroids.

“Our agenda is to be creative and disruptive and introduce people to different ways of thinking,” says Andrews. An idea for game-changing technology that SIGMA members came up with, for instance, was “to put some kind of suppression field over the entire country of Iraq (in which) explosive devices wouldn’t work except for ours.”

Several of the group’s members spoke on a panel at a Homeland Security conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Although they’re not allowed to discuss the work they do for the government, they said they speculate on the challenges the United States may face in 20 years.

Novelist Greg Bear predicted that the U.S. border problem will grow much more serious as Mexicans and Central Americans try to escape a severe drought. “If you have states in the South [that] cannot be protected from people crossing the border...that will (be) a dire situation,” he said. “I think...something very like it is coming.”

Other future threats he mentioned were economic warfare in which an enemy exerts pressure on banks to call U.S. loans and a lone individual concocts a dangerous biological threat in his basement lab.

Michael Swanwick, author of Stations of the Tide, said that he sees a 50-50 chance “that somebody could take a space shuttle and smash into a major world city.”

Charles Gannon spoke about simultaneous attacks that could overwhelm our ability to respond. He mentioned, for example, a release of smallpox virus in major metropolitan areas at the same time as an anthrax attack and a train began leaking hazardous radioactive products. “Because if I were red teaming, it’s certainly the way I’d be thinking,” he said.

It may, at first, sound frivolous for government to turn to fiction writers for serious real-world guidance, but this isn’t the first time the government has turned to creative thinkers in wartime. Isaac Asimov,

Robert Heinlein, and L. Sprague de Camp were recruited to work at the Naval Air Experimental Station, a research and testing facility, in Philadelphia during World War II. Heinlein and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard were among the writers assigned to analyze defenses against Kamikaze attacks.

How good are science fiction writers at envisioning the future? To answer that question, you need only consider how many of the technological breakthroughs that have changed our reality were first conceived in the pages of science fiction. Included on the list: the atomic bomb, space travel, computers, robots, satellites, lasers, the Internet, cell phones, radar, military tanks, and cloning.

—By Susan Mandel, a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.