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 seems to have taken the message to heart, with the announcement that a team of fiction writers has been engaged to help military strategists.

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 announcement came as Franky Zapata, former jetski champion and army reservist, demonstrated a futuristic jet-propelled flyboard at France’s Bastille Day military parade.

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.

Sacré bleu!

This story shows 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?


  1. Imagine you are on the Red Team. Write a list of five ways a future enemy might attack us.

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.
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 metaphor for a privileged place that is cut off 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, there are also Star Trek 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

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