France hires sci-fi writers to predict threats

The future? An inventor pilots his jet-powered flyboard over Bastille Day military celebrations.

Can fiction be truer than fact? The French army is to create a “Red Team” of sci-fi writers to imagine possible, future threats. But many say it is absurd and that soldiers would be better.

Truth is stranger than fiction, as the saying goes, but is fiction truer than fact?

It was the American writer Mark Twain who pointed out that fiction has to stick to the possibilities, whereas truth doesn’t.

And Florence Parly, the defence minister of France — which has the largest armed forces in the EU — seems to have taken the message to heart, with the announcement that a team of fiction writers has been engaged to help military strategists anticipate future threats to national security.

A report by France’s recently established Defence Innovation Agency says four or five visionaries, called the Red Team, are being hired to imagine “scenarios of disruption” that might not occur to military planners.

The possible sequences of events they come up with will remain top secret, as they could be crucial in the fight against “malicious elements”, says the report.

France’s Foundation for Strategic Research confirms that the role of the Red Team will be to think more creatively than the military top brass and challenge “any certainties that we may have and hypotheses about the future outside the usual bureaucratic procedures”.

It will try to anticipate how terrorist groups or hostile states might use advanced technology against France.

A similar exercise happened in the US, where science-fiction writers took part in defence brainstorming sessions after the 9/11 attacks.

The announcement came as Franky Zapata, former jetski champion and army reservist, demonstrated a futuristic jet-propelled flyboard, soaring into the air on the hoverboard-like device, above assembled dignitaries and crowds of amazed spectators in front of the the Eiffel Tower, at France’s Bastille Day military parade.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, tweeted a video of the stunt with the message: “Proud of our army, modern and innovative”.

The French army is also experimenting with an anti-drone device, the Nerod F5 (a rifle-shaped microwave jammer that blocks the pilot’s control signals) and a “mule” robot to ferry supplies to soldiers on the battlefield.

But leading science-fiction author William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace”, is adamant that writers have no special gift of seeing into the future. “We’re almost always wrong,” he told Wired magazine.

“I think the least important thing about science fiction for me is its predictive capacity. Its record for being accurately predictive is really, really poor! If you look at the whole history of science fiction, what people have said is going to happen, what writers have said is going to happen, and what actually happened — it’s terrible,” he added.

Sacré bleu!

This story shows that the French government has more money than sense, say sceptics. The majority of military advances come out of scientific labs working to instructions from people who conduct operations in the field. There is no substitute for experience. A writer sitting in an ivory tower simply knows nothing about it.

But hang on a minute, say believers. Jules Verne got details of the Moon landing eerily right, 104 years early. Seven years before the first flip-open mobile, there was one on Star Trek. Aldous Huxley predicted anti-depressant pills 20 years before they were eventually created. There are dozens more examples of fiction being a brilliant guide to the future.

You Decide

  1. Is the truth really stranger than fiction?
  2. Is prophecy more about the future or the present?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are on the Red Team. Write a list of five ways a future enemy might attack us.
  2. Write an outline plot for a sci-fi novel set in 2050. It can be about anything you want. (Don’t forget to think of a good title!)

Some People Say...

“The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.”

William Faulkner, American novelist (1897-1962)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That there is something called the Defence Innovation Agency in France. And it has asked some fiction writers to think about future technologies. We also know that after the 2011 attacks on New York, the US government felt it had been guilty of a lack of imagination in preparing for the worst.
What do we not know?
Whether the sci-fi writers will be involved in the development of any new hardware. It sounds more likely that their ideas will merely be discussed and presented to a group of military experts for a decision on any follow-up.

Word Watch

Mark Twain
American author (1835-1910), whose most famous books are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Florence Parly
A former director-general of the French national rail company, appointed as France’s minister of the armed forces in 2017.
Defence Innovation Agency
Created in France during 2018 to embody the “thirst for daring” and embrace new technology.
Foundation for Strategic Research
An independent French think-tank whose mission is to analyse strategic security issues.
Top brass
People at the top of an organisation.
Bastille Day
The anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, a turning point of the French Revolution.
William Gibson
The Guardian has described him as “probably the most important novelist of the past two decades”, while The Sydney Morning Herald called him the prophet of cyberpunk. Gibson has written more than 20 short stories and 10 critically acclaimed novels.
Ivory tower
A metaphorical privileged place that is removed from the real world.
Jules Verne
French author (1828-1905) famed for such revolutionary science-fiction novels as Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Star Trek
Originally, a US sci-fi TV series, it has for decades been a cult phenomenon, including movies, games, novels, toys and comics. Its most famous character is Dr Spock.
Aldous Huxley
An English writer (1894-1963) who wrote nearly 50 books, most famously Brave New World.

Subjects

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