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The feds at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have this week called in some self-described "deviant" consultants to aid them in the battle against terrorists, illegal immigrants, smugglers et al.

The deviants in question are a group of science fiction writers, namely Jerry Pournelle, Arlan Andrews, Greg Bear, Larry Niven, Yoji Kondo and Sage Walker.

"We need to look everywhere for ideas, and science-fiction writers clearly inform the debate," Christopher Kelly, spokesman for Homeland Security's Science and Technology division, told USA Today.

The writers are members of Sigma, a "think tank of patriotic science fiction writers" founded to advise government officials by Arlan Andrews when he worked in the White House Science Office in the early 1990s. He recruited only authors with advanced technical or medical degrees, in order to pass the "laugh test."

"If you don't read science fiction, you're not qualified to talk about the future," he told the St Louis Post-Dispatch.

"We're well-qualified nuts," added Jerry Pournelle, co-author with Larry Niven of the bestsellers Footfall (alien invasion) and Lucifer's Hammer (comet strike apocalypse).

The educated scribes were invited to attend the Homeland Security Science and Technology Stakeholders Conference as guests of the DHS. The writers weren't paid, and like scribblers everywhere seem to have been reluctant to give out their best ideas for free. According to the Post-Dispatch, all they offered up was:

"material that becomes armor when struck by a bullet; an antibiotic that cures martyrdom; a satellite that beams solar energy to earth."

Oh, and "mind-reading helmets for bomb-sniffing dogs," apparently.

The armour material is old hat, so to speak. So is the solar-power satellite, which Pournelle for one has been advocating for decades.

The sci-fi scribes might not have given of their best and freshest at the conference, but it's certainly true that science fiction has sometimes predicted the course of technology a long time in advance.

Robert Heinlein for instance, author of Starship Troopers among many others, was writing about recognizable cellphones in 1948. (In Space Cadet.) He also has a passage in Friday (1982) in which he gives a fairly prescient idea of how computer networks could operate in looking for information - years ahead even of Gibson's cyberpunk works, let alone the consumer web. (Though not, quite, ahead of Lexis-Nexis.)

Still, Heinlein also predicted nuclear-powered rocket ships, household robots which could "put dishes away after the dishwasher was through", human colonies throughout the solar system and beyond, "Beanstalk" orbital elevators etc etc. Not to mention a dystopian future for America in which a crazed religious zealot would establish a theocratic dictatorship. The all-American hero in that book joins a successful secret rebellion against the US government. Not something that the feds at the DHS are likely to smile on.

But the Sigma writers are patriotic as well as qualified, and mostly haven't written anything off-message like that. They've produced some imaginative stuff nonetheless, and could well offer the DHS some pointers.

There will always be a stiff laugh test to pass when government takes advice from novelists. Nonetheless, the feds may have history on their side here. The DHS was formed as a response to the outrages of 9/11, after all - events fairly similar to the suicide-747 attack on the US Capitol at the end of Tom Clancy's bestselling 1994 airport doorstopper Debt of Honor.

Scoffers beware.®

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