TCS Daily

Science Non-Fiction

By James Pinkerton - January 25, 2002 12:00 AM

Last week we considered some of the threats the world faces in the era of suicidal terror and weaponry of mass destruction. In this dangerous world, we must continually scan the horizon for threats, be they probable, possible, or theoretical. That was the message, too, of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in an under-reported interview with the BBC in December: "I anticipate another attack," he said, urging his audience to "try to anticipate new things."

As if to prove Giuliani's point, a few days later Richard Reid allegedly attempted to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 over the Atlantic. Admittedly, a shoe bomber is not a world-ender, but the Reid incident points toward a scary future. Applying Moore's Law to terror, we can expect deadly innovation to flummox anticipation. So the challenge facing those tasked with homeland security is to keep up the anticipating, especially since Americans seem to be relaxing a bit.

As noted last week, anticipating can be as simple, sometimes, as digesting terror-scenarios put forth in the popular culture.

Science fiction, of course, has always been looking ahead, although in recent decades, as part of the anti-technological backlash among much of the cultural elite, sci-fi has been demoted from the mainstream into a marginal genre. This development is paradoxical, and perhaps even suicidal, because science fiction is often an overture to hard scientific fact, and hard science-based solutions are desperately needed for hard problems.

And since TechCentralStation is part of the solution-oriented backlash against the backlash, we might take a look at what sci-fi has had to say about threats to the planet and, just as importantly, what might be done to forestall them.

For instance, new and ever more infernal techniques for hiding suicide bombs were featured in a new movie, "Impostor," based on a Philip K. Dick story. The film died at the box office, but Tom Ridge ought to arrange a showing for his Homeland Security Officers.

And a look at past sci-fi shows that for all money countries spend on their militaries, they have been chronically shortsighted about other distant early warnings staring at them in print.

For example, in an 1889 short story, Jules Verne anticipated gas warfare. His "In the Twenty-Ninth Century" described "asphyxiating shells" fired from artillery. Yet just 26 years later, when the Germans started using lethal chlorine gas on the Western front, Verne's fellow Frenchmen were pathetically unprepared. In 1914, a full three decades before Hiroshima, H.G. Wells envisioned nuclear weapons; his novel The World Set Free describes an "atomic bomb" in city-annihilating detail. In 1932, Aldous Huxley outlined the devastation caused by "anthrax bombs" in Brave New World. Decades later, we still seem woefully unprepared for any and all of these threats, especially as they might be inflicted upon the homefront.

So what additional threats loom large in the imagination of sci-fi seers, even if they loom small on the political agenda? Diseases of mass destruction have been part of the sci-fi mix, as in Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Stephen King's The Stand (1978). But the latest twist in the DNA tale is the threat of engineered bio-warfare.

Walter Mosley, best known for his "Easy Rawlins" crime stories, has just published Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World. In one of the stories, "The Nig in Me," set sometime in the middle of this century, war escalates from nukes to race-based viruses. The last strain, Mosley writes, "Was 100 percent fatal and everybody got it; everybody but those with at least 12.5 percent African Negro DNA."

Some will say that such a hideous and insidious threat is an argument for clamping down on bio-research, and maybe even bio-discussion. But sci-fi teaches the opposite lesson. While the prophesying of Verne, Wells, and Huxley were ignored by most, they weren't ignored by all. Instead, scientists beavered away until non-fiction caught up with fiction; the weapons were built, by both good guys and bad guys.

We've been warned. And so, just as Giuliani says, it's necessary to start anticipating - and then, even more vitally, to start acting and building and deploying. Otherwise, all those sci-fi books won't be remembered as fantasy, but rather, as prophecy - if in fact, there's anyone left to do the remembering.

Since we're in a big-picture frame of mind right now, what should we make of the fact that in the five-billion-year history of earth, we homo sapiens have been bipeding around for a mere 50,000 or so years? Are we the future of this old earth, or just a blip upon it? That question has been much asked, but the answer has much bearing on just how long we can expect to stay here on this planet, no matter what we do.

We'll bear down on that topic next week.

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