Sigma: SF Writers Advise Homeland Security

Homeland Security has finally hit the motherlode on futuristic thinking. A group of science fiction writers including Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Greg Bear have been asked to provide input based on their imaginative qualifications. The "Sigma" group was put together about fifteen years ago.

(SF writer Sigma group
Back: Jerry Pournelle, Arlan Andrews, Greg Bear, Front: Sage Walker, Larry Niven

I'm guessing that the participants are given particular problems, and then asked for science-fictional ideas that may be usable in the near future.

"Fifty years ago, science fiction writers told us about flying cars and a wireless handheld communicator," Christopher Kelly, a spokesman for Homeland Security's Science and Technology division, told USA Today.

"Although flying cars have not evolved, cellphones today are a way of life. We need to look everywhere for ideas, and science fiction writers clearly inform the debate."

This is not the first time science fiction authors have been consulted by the government. in 1980, group of science-fiction writers including Pournelle, Bear, Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein, astronauts including Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad and Philip K. Chapman, space scientists and engineers, aerospace industry executives, computer scientists, military officers and others, met at Larry Niven's house in California. They formed an ad hoc group called Citizen's Advisory Council on National Space Policy. They provided most of the background for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), presented by Reagan in 1983. In later meetings, Heinlein's friend Arthur C. Clarke had a falling out with Heinlein over his support of SDI; Clarke was adamantly opposed to the system, which he regarded as doomed to failure and potentially destabilizing.

Homeland Security might be surprised about which writers are potentially the most useful in predicting future weapons or military situations. For example, Philip K. Dick would clearly not fit into a government think-tank, but the weapons that he suggests in his 1965 novel The Zap Gun have all since been implemented (or at least tried). In the novel, a weapons designer in a drug-enduced trance thinks of new ideas. Take a look at the articles on the Civic Notification Distorter, the Garbage-can Banger and the Sheep Dip Isolator to see what I mean.

Niven and Pournelle made use of the idea of sf writers advising the government in their excellent 1985 novel Footfall, in which herd aliens invade the solar system and the government asks for help.

The government creates a special think tank of science fiction writers who try to understand the aliens and extrapolate their capabilities. Eventually, they even invited a captured member of the aliens to join their "herd" - the Dreamer Fithp. The military called them the Threat Team.

They took their places in the lecture room, but they tended to sit for a moment, then get up and gather in clumps. Most of them talked at once. Working with the science-fiction people was an educational experience. They had no reverence for anything or anyone...

"Admiral Carrell has assembled an intelligence group to advise the National Security Council. You are part of it."

"Makes sense. Who else knows about aliens?"

She looked at her seating chart. Curtis. She nodded. "...You are the Threat Team. The others will assume the aliens are friendly. Our group will examine the possibility they are hostile..."

As one character says in the book, you might as well listen to science fiction writers because, in some areas, "they're the only experts we have."

Thanks to Vik for the tip and the push to write the story (and to Occam for help); via Wired.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/4/2007)

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