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The Role of Science Fiction in Strategic Thinking

Peter Garretson, Airpower & Spacepower Strategist, and Grand Stategist, is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 26, 2009

    The recent publication and controversy over STRATFOR founder George Friedman's The Next 100 Years, with its forecasts of war and new space technology reminds us all to consider the value of science fiction to strategic thinking.

    Science Fiction is an underappreciated tool in a nation's and strategist's tool book as well as an underappreciated part of culture and literature. Many, because of a lack of scientific literacy or unfamiliarity confuse hard science fiction, often written by well qualified scientists, with fantasy. Many use the term pejoratively to denigrate an idea as being too remote and fantastic, as in "This is the stuff of science fiction." That is an unfortunate self-lobotomy of individuals and cultures that are held captive by the tyranny of the now, or of the past.

    No culture is naturally strategic. Strategy is an uphill battle, a constant struggle for all levels of all organizations. It is the natural instinct to be biased in favour of the present and its concerns, and not to consider the far-term and its implications. If one culture appears more strategic, it is only because at that particular period of time, there is some core of strategists, of gadflies prodding their establishments to take a longer view, and a calculated influence campaign fought through media and entertainment to value the future. Perhaps over time, nurture and inspire others, and like a nuclear reactor, keep enough interactions going so they don't entirely fizzle out. Occasionally they can be brought together in enough concentration to create enough heat to drive the turbines of society in new and productive directions.

    One tool to nurture such interactions is Science Fiction. Science Fiction is basically a special form of scenario planning, a one-to-many publication of some possible future, based upon an extrapolation of trends and technology to examine what they mean to the human enterprise. It informs us as to the desirability of alternate paths we may take or shy away from. It helps us understand the implications of decisions in the now, of problems we may encounter as a result, and allows us a window into microcosms of cause and effect. It helps make the unfamiliar familiar and understandable, thereby steeling us for change and preventing future shock. It provides us with organizing gestalts, models for our behaviour and organization. It allows us to criticise the present, freeing us from the tyranny of the now. Like all of our senses, it is a sort of evolutionary adaptation that helps us to "see over the next hill" and to explore the territory ahead.

    The ability to see which trends and technologies might be important, to suspend belief and project those implications into the future, to see how those factors will interact with other factors, and then to imagine oneself as an actor in that future, with those circumstances and causality and rule sets is a special talent. It requires a mind not only trained and agile for analysis, but for synthesis, for breaking down old patterns and reassembling their constituents.

    SciFi typically aims to cast broadly, aiming for a mass audience. Societally, it helps us explore and be prepared for new possibilities or eventualities. Like many seeds being cast widely, some occasionally reach fertile soil, get planted in the right mind, and helps organize their own vision of the future. Take for instance this sentence from Indian IT entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani's book Imagining India, "As a teenager, I also read plenty of science fiction stories by American writers that portrayed computers..." Or consider in how many areas life has imitated art, such as the advent of submarines, powered flight, atomic power, space travel, computers, cell phones, and virtual reality. All things are created twice, and the first creation is in the mind.

    But the special skills that a science fiction author has need not only be limited to the mass audience. Many times governments and think tanks bring together diverse groups of people to think about the future and our strategy in the present to arrive at or avoid some particular vision of the future. But too often, we neglect, or discount the contribution that such a mind could make. The SF writers’ special mental agility causes them to think on different lines, and ask different questions that lead to more robust and better analysis. They are a good hedge against "a failure of imagination." And contrary to popular belief, in real practice, they do not take discussions down wasteful fantastic diversions. However their presence does create a sort of permission for others to be less conventional in their thinking and more creative, which is a benefit in itself.

    Some organizations, at some times, have made exceptional use of science fiction authors. In the 1995-1996 time frame, the US Air Force brought in multiple science fiction authors as part of its AF2025 project. Currently within the United States, several organizations, from intelligence, to military, to homeland security, to DARPA create structured opportunities for brainstorming and discussion with groups of eminent science fiction authors. An example of an organized group of science fiction authors as a think tank "science fiction in the public interest" is SIGMA (, which routinely offers its services to government and multi-government agencies.

    But the initiative to convene such get together rests with the strategists, and their ability to create the space and seriousness to make use of this talent. Like all strategic thought, it involves risk, and requires organizational self-confidence. But many organizations have tried this approach already and were happy enough to do it at least a second time and recommend it to others.

    As India grows in its volume of organized strategic thought, it is inevitable that it turns to its own internal science fiction talent to help it understand and envision its future, and to broadcast it widely to inspire and prepare the greater populace. But the initiative to take ownership of, and make use of this strain of Indian strategic culture will continue to rest with India's existing strategic community, and their ability to be bold and forward thinking.