Hydra authors come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. We asked former Hugo award nominee and author of the new techno thriller Silicon Blood, Dr. Arlan Andrew Sr., to talk about an organization he founded in the early 90s, SIGMA.
SIGMA: Science Fiction in the National Interest
© Arlan Andrews, Sr. 2017
“What will be the impact on humanity when science discovers the reality – or lack thereof – of life after death?” My question was met with silence from the audience in the darkened hall. “And ask yourself the same question about final, proven contact with advanced civilizations from beyond the stars.” A murmur of interest. “These are disruptive events,” I said, “discoveries that will change all of human history for all time to come.” Nods from the now-animated gathering of men in white Arab dress and colorful headdresses, and from women in black abayas, with only their faces or eyes visible behind their cover-all clothing. “What will happen to us?” I repeated. I never received answers to these rhetorical questions, but the audience was thinking about all of them. That was my intention – to stimulate these Saudis and others with thoughts that would probably never arise in their day-to-day lives. Stimulate! That’s what a science fiction writer does!
Five years ago, as a guest of the Government of Saudi Arabia, I spoke to an international group of attendees at the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Along with three other members of SIGMA, the science fiction think tank, I discussed the topic of “Disruptive Technologies.” An example still fresh in the Middle East at that time, the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring”, was the simple cell phone. “This one technology,” I told them, “spreads dissension at the speed of light. Furthermore, I told the U.S. government all about that possibility over three years ago!”
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I was not surprised at the rapid revolutions going on in Tunisia and Egypt back then. As a science fiction writer speaking to U.S. government authorities at meetings in 2009, I had said that dictatorships would fall when people had cell phones and texting and other communications devices outside the control of their governments: “Think of revolutionary social change, spreading around the world at the speed of text.” I used the term “flash mobs” back in those ancient days.
As founder of the science fiction think tank SIGMA, making such forecasts is one of the things I am privileged to do. My forty SIGMA colleagues, science fiction writers all, do the same thing. Not everybody who brings us in likes what we have to say, but as science fiction authors who have spent our careers writing about alternate futures, and as concerned citizens ourselves, we have an obligation to tell what we think.
SIGMA has been around since I started it in 1992 while working as a Fellow in the White House Science Office. Situated in The Executive Office of the President, the organization is formally called The Office of Science and Technology Policy, or simply, OSTP.
Actually, I started SIGMA because I was pissed.
For a politically-motivated engineer who wrote science fiction, the OSTP atmosphere was heady. I was situated in the Old Executive Office Building, immediately across a narrow alleyway from the White House itself, occasionally seeing President George H. W. Bush, walking the hallway with his retinue of Secret Service agents and a coterie of advisors, sometimes accompanied by Millie, the First Dog. When the President of the United States waves at you and says “Hello” it is always a bracing experience. Attending Congressional and Senate hearings on technology, hearing the latest briefings on advanced civilian and military technologies, going to conferences, summarizing these for higher-ups, all this was exciting and productive. So overall it was truly fun for an engineer, but this one afternoon I was also truly and totally ticked off at the Washington science and technology establishment.
I had just heard forward-thinking scientists being ridiculed for proposing that the government look into micro-machines, nanotechnology, and virtual reality, so I went back to the office and wrote up a manifesto: “The Future is too important to be left to the futurists,” it began. “I have heard more appropriate and realistic forecasts of technology and the future at any given science fiction convention than in all of the forecasting meetings I have attended here in Washington, D.C.” I further proposed that since “we science fiction writers have spent our literary careers exploring the future we owe it to the rest of humanity to come back and report on what’s out there.”
So I formed a group called SIGMA, meaning summation, which would comprise Ph.D.-level scientists and engineers who were also science fiction writers. The doctorate degrees would help us get past the Beltway’s “giggle factor” by presenting solid technical credentials, but the science fiction (SF) authorship would be the unique membership requirement. The goal of SIGMA would be to provide SFnal kinds of futurism to government decision makers, to get the best ideas from the best minds – the SIGMA “summation” – into the thinking and decisions of those who fund and develop government technology programs. We would offer our minds and our imaginative services pro bono, so that budgets and funding would not be limiting factors in seeking our unique kind of help.
Within days SIGMA had nine SF authors as members, all of them luminaries instantly recognizable as the tops in the field. Today, twenty-five years later, there are about forty of us, most without PhDs, because SF has become much more acceptable in the intervening decades, and creativity, imagination, and some political savvy are the primary criteria now.
SIGMA works like this: As Director, through networking and searches I find interested “clients” who potentially want our services. Then I send out a query to the group, and those members who have the background, time, and inclination volunteer. Over the years, we have worked with dozens of Federal agencies and a few foreign and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), including all branches of the US military, several alphabetical agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, NATO, and “Beltway Bandits” (government contractors). The Saudi Arabia trip was unique and productive; we met and inspired a local there who now writes science fiction and fantasy, with at least one best-selling book.
SIGMA participates like this: Depending on the client’s wishes, over the years we have chaired meetings for government employees wanting exposure to our ways of thinking, written future scenarios on specific topics, appeared on their panels at conferences, written short stories about possible future developments in their areas of interest, made specific presentations on possible future technologies and geopolitical events, and occasionally just brainstormed in open meetings. As one example, I was recently a judge of science fiction short stories that the US Army solicited from its soldiers, tales of future warfare and technologies. And last year, three of us made presentations to the Special Operations Command about near-future speculations affecting their missions. Within the last two years, other SIGMAns have met with futurists at West Point, the Pentagon, and other facilities. A Navy officer met here in Louisville with fellow SIGMAn Dave Creek (also a Hydra author) and myself, to hear our speculations on the future of human-computer interactions.
I currently participate in ongoing conference calls about futurism and other related studies within the government; last year I presented to the conference my thoughts on upcoming developments in virtual and augmented reality on future battlefields, and my fellow SIGMAn Mark O’Green (author of the online game HALO ) explained how online gaming offers the opportunity for mission planning and simulations.
For those of us who write science fiction or games, SIGMA is a great way to push new ways of thinking into what used to be staid bureaucracies. And as concerned citizens ourselves, it is also satisfying to know that at least some of our ideas are being heard by decision makers. Based on the fact that now, unlike twenty-five years ago, science fictional ideas are becoming a staple of government planning, I believe that SIGMA has helped the nation.
At the very least, it’s fun!
For details, visit: www.SigmaForum.org
Dr. Arlan Andrews, Sr., writes science fiction and speculative non-fiction. His Hydra books are SILICON BLOOD and FUTURE FLASH.