“Science Fiction in the National Interest”

When USA Today reported, back in 2007, that the Department of Homeland Security was enlisting the aid of science fiction writers to help them better respond to possible threats, the idea was met with widespread derision. I wonder what people will think of the practical fruit of the department’s intense efforts to search out speculative technology, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, “In the Spirit of Spider-Man, the Border Patrol Casts Its Web.”

One goal is to find non-lethal means to stop cars or people on foot. The Squid, inspired by Spider-Man’s web, sends out tentacles which wraps around a vehicle’s drive train and force it to stop. The LEDI is a strobe light “that flashes in a pattern and spectrum the brain simply cannot process,” causing disorientation and possibly nausea. Both devices are in the testing phase right now.

Another project being tested involves biology rather than technology, and is designed to reduce the vegetation that allows people to hide along the Rio Grande. A wasp found in Spain feeds on a weed called the Carrizo cane, and researchers have been studying it in a secure greenhouse to know what to expect if and when they release it to breed along the border.

That one has people more concerned. Unlike technology, which may simply not work or may cause intended injuries (for which tort claims would have to be paid), but can at least simply be discontinued, species new to a region have a way of getting out of hand because they have no natural predators. I would hope that the two years of greenhouse study would have taken that into account, but who knows whether wildlife will respond the same way once it is allowed to be truly wild.

Science fiction writers have a mixed record in predicting future developments. In 1970 one of my teachers had us try to imagine what life would be like in the year 2000. I don’t remember many of our predicitons, but I know that flying cars haven’t made it into production yet. Professional science fiction writers probably do better than 8-year-olds, but their visions often overestimate some technological developments while entirely missing others. Still, there are a number of now commonplace devices first imagined by writers of fiction.

One of my favorite science fiction stories (of which I can remember neither the author nor title – nor what anthology it is in, nor many of the details) relates a battle between an American ship and the vastly superior enemy fleet. That is, everyone thinks they are vastly superior, and the captain of the American ship is eventually ordered to surrender. He has a new-fangled device, however, which allows him to “see” enemy ships even when dark, fog, or the smoke of battle make other ships virtually invisible, and he can shoot them without his own ship being fired on in return. He radios back to HQ that he is unable to surrender to the enemy fleet because it no longer exists.

What most impressed me was the editor’s note, that this story was written before the development of radar. According to Robert Buderi’s The Invention that Changed the World, it was radar that actually won World War II for the Allies. The atomic bomb hastened the end of the war, but the technology that shifted the balance to the Allies’ favor had been radar.

Of course, I have no idea whether the writer of that earlier story had in any way inspired the scientists who developed a working radar. I would guess that in many if not most cases, the building blocks for new developments, both conceptual and practical, are available to a large pool of both speculative writers and those who prefer to work on their ideas in the laboratory. And some people enjoy doing both.

And that seems to be where SIGMA comes in. Made up of sci-fi writers who also hold doctorates in various technical fields, they volunteer their knowledge and their unique insights to the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies. As a long-time sci-fi fan, I am intrigued by the possibilities here.

One Response to “Science Fiction in the National Interest”

  1. owermumbhew says:

    Oh my god loved reading this blogpost. I added your feed to my google reader.

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