Thursday, May 31, 2007

Using some imagination

The government bureaucracy has no imagination. The mere fact of the 9-11 attacks proved that: after all, Tom Clancy had envisioned a terrorist using a jet plane as a flying missile in 1994 in his novel Debt of Honor but the government did not conceive of such a thing.

So to alleviate this shortcoming, the Department of Homeland Security has specifically sought out people who have imagination in abundance to help it -- science fiction writers; specifically those in a self-created group they titled "Sigma" designed to advise government. I'm unfamiliar with two of the authors in the group (Sage Walker and Arlan Andrews) but the other three are known for their imaginative tales: Greg Bear (Eon, Darwin's Radio), Jerry Pournelle (Lucifer's Hammer), and Hugo winner Larry Niven (Ringworld series). It makes sense:

Although some sci-fi writers' futuristic ideas might sound crazy now, scientists know that they often have what seems to be an uncanny ability to see into the future.

"Fifty years ago, science-fiction writers told us about flying cars and a wireless handheld communicator," says Christopher Kelly, spokesman for Homeland Security's Science and Technology division. "Although flying cars haven't evolved, cellphones today are a way of life. We need to look everywhere for ideas, and science-fiction writers clearly inform the debate."

Bear says the writers offer powerful imaginations that can conjure up not only possible methods of attack, but also ideas about how governments and individuals will respond and what kinds of high-tech tools could prevent attacks.

The group's motto is "Science Fiction in the National Interest." To join the group, Andrews says, you have to have at least one technical doctorate degree.

"We're well-qualified nuts," says Jerry Pournelle, co-author of the best sellers Footfall and Lucifer's Hammer and dozens of other books.

Pournelle and others say that science-fiction writers have spent their lives studying the kinds of technologies and scenarios Homeland Security officials have been tackling since the department began operating in 2003.

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