Instapundit reader Harry Helms pointed out a few days back that the failure of imagination which is central to the government’s inability to prevent September 11th means we should look to creative types such as writers to “help visualize new terrorist scenarios and plots”.
Yup. Harry doesn’t call them out by name, but I think my particular favorite genre has quite a bit to offer in this regard — science fiction writers. Some of the best SF comes from the classic formulation of taking a possible (but not yet actual) premise and exploring it to its logical conclusion — precisely the kind of thinking I would assume is useful in terrorist planning scenarios.
My hands-down favorite example in this area is Solution Unsatisfactory, a short story by SF master Robert A. Heinlein (which can be found in his collection Expanded Universe, out of print but possible to find used). The central idea in Heinlein’s tale is the development of atomic weapons — in this case, radioactive “dust” bombs that, when spread over a city, render it completely uninhabitable.
The story was published in 1940, five years before Hiroshima, and legend has it that it earned him a visit from the U.S. feds to find out where, exactly, Mr. Heinlein had gotten his information.
For about fifty years, Heinlein looked really smart, but not quite totally prescient, given that his dust weapons didn’t exactly match the actual atomic bombs that were created. But now it seems Heinlein wasn’t predicting the future six years in advance — he was predicting it sixty years in advance — as we now are living in a world where “dirty bombs” which spread radioactive waste are, quite possibly, the most likely nuclear weapons that may (fate forbid) see use against civilian populations.
There are numerous other examples of well-reasoned, intelligent and (incidentally) extremely readable explorations of “what-if” scenarios out there. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote perhaps the definitive work on human colonization of a new world with his Mars Trilogy — which actually addresses yet another Instapundit topic du jour, what the environmental issues will be when humans begin colonizing Mars. Robinson’s novel (which I’ll admit up front is one of my absolute favorite works of fiction, period) addresses not only the nuts-and-bolts technical issues of rendering a planet habitable for fragile humans, but also creates a complete political and social world, wrestling with the rather staggering question of “If you could create an entirely new society and government on a new planet — what should it look like?”
Other samples: it’s reasonably well known that author Arthur C. Clarke developed the concept of satellite communications in 1945, but less well-known that Robert A. Heinlein came up with the idea for the waterbed. William Gibson is widely credited with the idea of cyberspace, but frankly, Vernor Vinge described the coming ‘Net better with A Fire Upon the Deep, and earlier with True Names.
And there is even some precedent for the formal inclusion of creative types — in this case, science fiction writers — being called upon in time of war. During WWII, Issac Asimov, L. Sprague De Camp, and yes, Heinlein, were recruited to work at the Materials Laboratory of the Naval Air Material Center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (I’ve tried to find some more detailed history on the web of this effort, but the best I can do is this acceptance speech by De Camp, which mentions the project about halfway down).
So why not again, and why not now? Limiting the pool to science fiction writers would be foolish — I’m just focusing on what I know here — but they certainly aren’t a bad place to start. Tom Ridge doesn’t seem to be doing terribly much else — why not put him to work getting a crowd of creative types together for a serious what-iffing session? Put the right twenty people in a conference room for a day, supply sufficient quantities of caffeine and alcohol, and I guarantee you’ll walk out of there with ideas that haven’t yet occurred to the CIA or FBI.
Nominations, anyone? Here’s a quick list to start with:
Tom Clancy (has a proven track record of coming up with nasty scenarios — see above)
John Barnes (frighteningly good at coming up with nasty worst-case scenarios, see Mother of Storms).
Kim Stanley Robinson (natch)
Christopher Hitchens (guaranteed to have an opinion on anything)
Iain M. Banks (he’s a Brit, but they’re on the right side)
Got your own nominations? Send them to me, and I’ll start a running list….
Update: By the way, I hope nobody will bother suggesting Oliver Stone, because he’s a complete nutcase.
Update May 31, 2007: Howdy Instapundit readers (again, five years later!). If you are looking for more on the “dream team” we came up with back in 2002, check out this update.