By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009
The line between what's real and what's not is thin and shifting, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has decided to explore both sides. Boldly going where few government bureaucracies have gone before, the agency is enlisting the expertise of science fiction writers.
Crazy? This week down at the Reagan Building, the 2009 Homeland Security Science & Technology Stakeholders Conference has been going on. Instead of just another wonkish series of meetings and a trade show, with contractors hustling business around every corner, this felt at times more like a convention of futuristic yarn-spinners.
Onstage in the darkened amphitheater, a Washington police commander said he'd like to have Mr. Spock's instant access to information: At a disaster scene, he'd like to say, "Computer, what's the dosage on this medication?"
A federal research director fantasized about a cellphone that could simultaneously text and detect biochemical attacks. Multiple cellphones in a crowd would confirm and track the spread. The master of ceremonies for the week was Greg Bear, the sci-fi novelist whose book "Quantico" featured FBI agents battling a designer plague targeting specific ethnic groups.
"What if we had a black box that IDs DNA on the scene?" Bear asked a panel of firefighters and police officers. "Put a swab in the box. How long would it take us to do that? Would that be of interest to anybody here?"
"Absolutely!" said a police official from Fairfax County.
The dozen or so novelists sprinkled throughout the breakout sessions had camouflaged themselves in GS-conformist coats and ties, but they would have fit right in anyway. Science fiction writers tend to know a lot about science. And the ranks of federal and commercial R&D departments are stuffed with sci-fi fanatics.
The cost to taxpayers is minimal. The writers call this "science fiction in the national interest," and they consult pro bono. They've been exploring the future, and "we owe it to mankind to come back and report what we've found," said writer Arlan Andrews, who also is an engineer with the Navy in Corpus Christi, Tex.
Andrews founded an organization of sci-fi writers to offer imaginative services in return for travel expenses only. Called Sigma, the group has about 40 writers. Over the years, members have addressed meetings organized by the Department of Energy, the Army, Air Force, NATO and other agencies they care not to name. At first, "to pass the Beltway giggle-factor test," Andrews recruited only sci-fi writers who had conventional science or engineering chops on their résumés. Now about a third of the writers have PhDs.
The communities converged again Wednesday evening when the scene shifted from the conference hall to Reiter's Books, the beloved old science-focused shop on K Street NW, where the writers signed books and led discussions.
Harry McDavid, chief information officer for Homeland Security's Office of Operations Coordination & Planning, had a question for Catherine Asaro, author of two dozen novels, about half of them devoted to her Saga of the Skolian Empire. She also has a PhD in physics. McDavid's job involves "information sharing" -- efficiently communicating information about response and recovery across agencies, states, business sectors. How, he wanted to know, did Asaro come up with the Triad system in her novels of flashing thoughts instantly across the universe?
"It evolved along with the story," Asaro said. Basically, she applied principles of quantum theory -- one of her specialties as a physicist -- to a fictional theory of "thought space."
McDavid has no plan to add telepathy to Homeland Security's communications strategy. That wasn't the point of his question -- or of the agency's invitation to science fiction writers in the first place. He's looking for ways to break old habits of thought.
"We're stuck in a paradigm of databases," McDavid said later. "How do we jump out of our infrastructure and start conceptualizing those threats? That's very cool."
All this attention from Uncle Sam does wonders for the self-esteem of science fiction writers. Despite the cultural acclaim of a few superstars, some others feel spurned by critics, dismissed by academics, ripped off by Hollywood -- another misunderstood subculture.
And yet: Would the space program have flourished so quickly without a generation of engineers and scientists that grew up reading Robert Heinlein? Has anything been invented that somebody didn't first imagine and put in a story?
"I would now go so far as to claim that only readers or writers of science fiction are really competent to discuss the possibilities of the future," Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1962, before completing "2001: A Space Odyssey."
In this spirit, Homeland Security first reached out to science fiction writers a couple of years ago. At last year's conference, the attendees rated a panel led by the writers as the best of the week "by far," said Chris Christopher, the agency's conference director for science and technology.
The department can't point to a gadget on the drawing board that was inspired by one of the novelists. But Rolf Dietrich, Homeland Security's deputy director of research, says the writers help managers think more broadly about projects, especially about potential reactions and unintended consequences.
"They have a different way of looking at things," Dietrich said.
A Homeland Security manager is trying to imagine what kinds of construction infrastructure and architecture the economy will support in 50 years, and the science fiction writers will try to help, said Andrews.
At Reiter's, a place for science browsers since 1936, the dystopian future includes the possible demise of another struggling independent shop. It's getting hard to pay the rent, said owner Barbara Nelson. On the shelves was at least one factual hard-science text edited by one of the fiction writers on the panel. The tome, "Observatories in Earth Orbit and Beyond," was marked down to $130 from $179. The same unsold copy had been here a year ago.
This annual sci-fi security event, co-sponsored by the Washington Science Fiction Association, is the only night of the year Reiter's sells novels. The fans lined up for autographs of their newly purchased fiction, ignoring the science.