Via Sadly No!, we find out the latest from the SF authors who helped bring us Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative

Now a fixture at Department of Homeland Security science and technology conferences, SIGMA is a loosely affiliated group of science fiction writers who are offering pro bono advice to anyone in government who want their thoughts on how to protect the nation.

The group has the ear of Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Jay Cohen, head of the science and technology directorate, who has said he likes their unconventional thinking. Members of the group recently offered a rambling, sometimes strident string of ideas at a panel discussion promoting the group at the DHS science and technology conference.

Among the group’s approximately 24 members is Larry Niven, the bestselling and award-winning author of such books as “Ringworld” and “Lucifer’s Hammer,” which he co-wrote with SIGMA member Jerry Pournelle.

Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.

Which, I think, was actually the plot of one of his stories.


  1. #1 Barton Paul Levenson
    April 30, 2008

    Several, but especially the three novellas involving Gil “The Arm” Hamilton.

    To openly suggest this kind of thing is beyond bizarre and deeply into dishonest. I’m disappointed in Niven, but then, I’ve been disappointed in him since he teamed up with Jerry Pournelle.

    There was a time, in the ’60s, when it looked like he might actually become an environmentalist. The early stories involving time travel and Hanville Svetz agonized over what we were doing to the Earth. But by the time of “Inferno” he had joined the anarcho-capitalist, pollution-is-good bandwagon. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

  2. #2 Roland
    April 30, 2008

    I remember reading Lucifer’s Hammer as a teenager, and even though I had a pretty high threshold for escapist crap, I was completely put off by the underlying mix of racism, survivialist dogma and celebration of nuclear energy as the savior of a post apocalypse world.

    I seem to recall in particular one of the strong, sensible, male characters (obviously one we were supposed to listen to in the face of lily livered liberals and the cannibals led by a former black panther) wisely belittling the idea that CFC’s could hurt the ozone layer. Good call on that one. There’s a reason they call it science FICTION.

  3. #3 Thomas
    April 30, 2008

    I think getting input from SF writers is a great idea, as long as you keep in mind that they are writers of fiction and that there is no guarantee their suggestions will work in reality. As long as you get one or two good suggestions it is worth it, at least if the people running the show are competent enough to weed out the junk. Clarke was an SF writer too, and his idea about geostationary orbit certainly proved useful.

  4. #4 Mark P
    April 30, 2008

    I have at home a book by a science fiction writer who was a PR flak for some government agency, and therefore thought he knew something. Way back during the SDI debates, when Reagan thought he had a new idea, this writer (I cannot remember his name right now) wrote this nonfiction book outlining how SDI could only work if it were space based. His simple plan for building and arming the satellite system involved a couple of years’ worth of weekly Space Shuttle flights.

  5. #5 dhogaza
    April 30, 2008

    Clarke was an SF writer too, and his idea about geostationary orbit certainly proved useful.

    Clarke was a telecommunications engineer, and outlined the benefits of a satellite in geostationary orbit in that role.

    From Wikipedia:

    He described this concept in a paper titled Extra-Terrestrial Relays — Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?, published in Wireless World in October 1945.

    Wireless World – a non-fiction venue.

    Clarke’s fiction and professional career were interrelated of course, but it wasn’t his ability to write fiction that got him engineering gigs.

  6. #6 Hank Roberts
    April 30, 2008

    > this nonfiction book … involved a couple of
    > years’ worth of weekly Space Shuttle flights.

    Excuse please. Is fiction.

  7. #7 Hank Roberts
    April 30, 2008

    That full linked article is hysterically funny and worth reading.


    “… The 45-minute panel discussion quickly deteriorated as federal, local and state homeland security officials, and at least one congressional aid, attempted to ask questions, which were largely ignored.

    “Instead the writers used their time to pontificate ….

    “David Brin, keeping on the topic …. delivered a self-described “rant”…

    “It is impossible for you to succeed without us!” he shouted at the assembled officials, while banging his fist on the table and at one point jumping off his chair to wave a mobile phone in their faces.

    I’m amazed nobody got shot by a nervous security guard, actually. Unless they’d all fallen asleep ….

  8. #8 Mark P
    April 30, 2008

    I followed the links. The obit for Jim Baen made clear the ignorance and arrogance of those writers, who were convinced that they were seminal in Reagan’s missile defense system. The truth is that the US had been spending millions/billions on missile defense research for decades before that and had at one time even gone as far as installing ABMs outside of Washington. I don’t know whether the ever-simple Reagan knew it, but every one of his military advisors must have known it.

    So, if you want a bunch of ill-informed, self-important dilettantes advising you on issues of national security, you know where to look.

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    April 30, 2008

    David Brin, keeping on the topic of empowering citizens with mobile phone technology, delivered a self-described “rant” on the lack of funds being spent to support citizen reservists to back up the military, homeland security officials and first responders in times of crisis.

    “It is impossible for you to succeed without us!” he shouted at the assembled officials, while banging his fist on the table and at one point jumping off his chair to wave a mobile phone in their faces.

    I think the “us” in this bit refers not to SF writers, but to citizens caught in emergency situations. You know, the ones who jump on terrorists in airplanes. Brin has advocated adding peer-to-peer capacity to cell phones, so that a robust text-messaging system can be activated when the spaghetti hits the fan.

    Conflict of interest disclaimer: I met David Brin at a conference a couple years back, and he seemed like a sensible fellow (although he takes a positive pleasure in being a professional contrarian).

  10. #10 Hank Roberts
    April 30, 2008

    Thanks, Blake, I’ve also found Brin far more sensible than that bit of story suggests — certainly at his website where he often warns of how the civil service is being wrecked and gutted by the political appointees!

    Perhaps he was addressing upper management at this meeting.

  11. #11 Mark P
    April 30, 2008

    Hank, obviously the idea that the space shuttle could ever maintain a pace of one flight per week was pure fiction based on the most optimistic view of its potential. And by “optimistic” I obviously mean “stupid.” But, unfortunately, the book was nonfiction in the author’s eyes.

  12. #12 jayh
    April 30, 2008

    Cryptographer and computer security guy Bruce Schneier runs an annual “contest” where readers suggest movie plot terrorism scenarios.

    Of course, his point, is that there are far more possible scenarios than proactive steps against them and that common sense generic procedures and planning are much more important than trying to anticipate details.

  13. #13 z
    April 30, 2008

    well, those of us who cut our teeth on heinlein became immune to rightwing sfers.
    on the other hand, you have clarke, asimov, …

  14. #14 Holly Stick
    April 30, 2008

    I’m disappointed in those guys for failing to go the next step; to arm each citizen with a mobile phone that includes a death ray for atomizing any evul terr’ists that they come across.

  15. #15 Ian Gould
    May 1, 2008

    Niven reached a new low with the blatantly racist “The Burning City”.

    At this point, I wouldn’t trust him to tell the time.

  16. #16 John Mashey
    May 1, 2008

    Like any other group, I’d guess that science fiction writers follow normal distributions (independently) on both politics and knowledge of science.

    There are certainly some SF writers who are quite good, and some of whose stories were actually pretty prescient. For instance, I recommend Vernor Vinge’s “True Names”.

    As for ABM, when I joined Bell Labs in 1973, some colleagues in my organization had recently finished their work on a big ABM project, “Safeguard”, which got them frequent flier miles to Kwajalein Island. They were pleased to now be building softwazre that they expected would actually get used.

  17. #17 John Mashey
    May 1, 2008

    And actually, as a group, they might occasionally generate a few useful ideas, probably better than:

    CIA & Remote Viewing at SRI.

  18. #18 guthrie
    May 1, 2008

    I can’t think of SF authors actually using their authorial authority to actually do something useful, although every now and then someone in an office somewhere gets some together to pick their brains. But then for security stuff you don’t even need SF authors- there are a number of marine terrorist possibilities that have those tasked with that sort of thing really, really scared.

    I re-read some early Niven last year, and it was pretty good, but then the stuff where he teamed up with Pournelle was mostly junk.

    I’ve seen Jonathan vos post hanging around at science blogs, I wonder if he’ll pop by.

  19. #19 J
    May 1, 2008

    Something definitely happens to a lot of male SF writers as they age. Look at Heinlein, look at Niven.

    Or look at James P. Hogan … he seems to have fallen for every crank theory out there. Started with Velikovsky, then moved on to “contrarian” positions on evolution, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the medical consensus on HIV/AIDS, stratospheric ozone, climate change, etc etc … eventually landing on something that seems to be a kind of coy version of holocaust denial (Hogan said that he finds the views of holocaust deniers to be “more scholarly, scientific, and convincing than what the history written by the victors says.”) [see wikipedia for source]

    Fortunately we still have Harry Harrison.

  20. #20 Ben
    May 2, 2008

    Is that any worse than having Actors (Cate Blanchett) in the ear of the gummint?

  21. #21 Ian Gould
    May 2, 2008

    Actors, like other members of the public, can express their views to government.

    I don’t know of many (any?) instances of actors being paid by governments to advise them on critical national security issues.

  22. #22 bargal20
    May 2, 2008

    A.C. Clarke was actually invited into the early 80’s group that dazzled Reagan with SDI promises. When he expressed skepticism he was verbally beaten to a pulp by his friend Robert Heinlein and told he had no right to voice any objections since, as an Englishman, he had no dog in the fight.

  23. #23 Seth Finkelstein
    May 2, 2008

    Some of Niven’s stories were indeed about the social effects of postulated easy organ transplantation. Many have a common sort of right-wing plot of mean evil oppressive government will hurt the good people. On the other hand, where they did actually eventually intersect with reality, there is a point – e.g. consider China and India’s real organ-transplant marketing. Except that’s also happened in a somewhat left-wing way, of rich people essentially buying poor people’s organs (mostly only kidneys, so far, since it’s still difficult medically).

    I suppose extrapolating technology doesn’t change your basic political orientation.

  24. #24 Betula
    May 2, 2008

    Somehow the movie title “Soylent Green” based on Harry Harrison’s novel “Make Room! Make Room!” seems to be an appropriate title for todays climate.

    The storyline? We’ll see….

  25. #25 John Yaya
    May 5, 2008

    The relevent science fiction story is the short “The Marching Morons”.

    “The Marching Morons” is a science fiction short story written by Cyril M. Kornbluth, originally published in Galaxy in April, 1951. It was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two after being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965.
    The story is set hundreds of years in the future: the date is 7-B-936. John Barlow, a man from the past put into suspended animation by a freak accident, is revived in this future. The world seems mad to Barlow until Tinny-Peete explains the Problem of Population: Due to a combination of intelligent people prudently not having children and excessive breeding by less intelligent people, the world is full of morons, with the exception of an elite few who work slavishly to keep order. Barlow, who was a shrewd conman in his day, has a solution to sell to the elite.-Wiki, see link

    Let’s just say the solution involves a “trip to Venus” for the excesss population. The parallel to “too good to be true” solutions proposed by government officials and their eventual results is scary.

  26. #26 David
    May 6, 2008

    I don’t recall having read “The Marching Morons” (link failed, btw), but I still remember a book Kornbluth co-wrote with Fred Pohl, “The Space Merchants”, which postulates a world severely over-populated, short of resources (especially water), run by corporations (particularly advertising agencies), and rather hotter than at present. I read it in the early 60s. It’s horrifyingly prophetic.

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