SciFi Friday: Terrorism and Science Fiction and The Fates of Shows

USA Today reports that homeland security is picking the brains of science fiction writers to help fight terrorism:

Looking to prevent the next terrorist attack, the Homeland Security Department is tapping into the wild imaginations of a group of self-described “deviant” thinkers: science-fiction writers.”We spend our entire careers living in the future,” says author Arlan Andrews, one of a handful of writers the government brought to Washington this month to attend a Homeland Security conference on science and technology.

Those responsible for keeping the nation safe from devastating attacks realize that in addition to border agents, police and airport screeners, they “need people to think of crazy ideas,” Andrews says.

The writers make up a group called Sigma, which Andrews put together 15 years ago to advise government officials. The last time the group gathered was in the late 1990s, when members met with government scientists to discuss what a post-nuclear age might look like, says group member Greg Bear. He has written 30 sci-fi books, including the best seller Darwin’s Radio.

Now, the Homeland Security Department is calling on the group to help with the government’s latest top mission of combating terrorism.

Failure of imagination played a major part in the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration received many warnings about al Qaeda and an impending attack but ignored them. While I cannot be certain what was in the heads of those who ignored these plans, I don’t think there was any type of dark conspiracy. It was more likely the failure to recognize the potential of a non-government organization to cause meaningful harm to the United States. The 9/11 attacks probably could have been prevented if we had competent government leadership, but future attacks may require greater imagination:

“We’ll play ‘What if?’ with anything,” says Sage Walker, an emergency medicine physician turned sci-fi writer and the only woman in the group. She says the discussions with government officials “tend to be very intense and far-ranging.”

So are discussions between the writers. During a coffee break at the conference, Walker, Bear and Andrews started talking about the government’s bomb-sniffing dogs. Within minutes, they had conjured up a doggie brain-scanning skullcap that could tell agents what kind of explosive material a dog had picked up.

The 9/11 Commission called the 2001 terrorist attacks a result of the government’s “failure of imagination.” For this group, Walker says, there’s no such thing as an “unthinkable scenario.”

Why offer their ideas to the government instead of private companies that pay big bucks?

“To save civilization,” Ringworld author Larry Niven says. “We do it in fiction. Why wouldn’t we want to do it in fact?”

Other writers might not formally be working with the government, but may also be looking at terrorism. 24 has created the most controversy of any television show dealing with terrorism. The show’s reliance on torture has received the most publicity, but there has also been discussion of abuse of power. While there has been material of interest for both conservatives and liberals, the overall world view is distinctly conservative. While contrived by the show’s formula, 24 presents a world always in the midst of fighting terrorism. Terrorism is only fought by brute force, including torture, with little room for looking at the deeper implications.

This year’s season of 24 was disappointing. Once the bomb went off at the beginning of the season, everything else seemed like a replay of what we’ve seen before. I’ve argued before that Heroes was a much better Monday night serial. They even got it right by saving the big bomb for the end, with hints of its potential consequences along the way. Juan Cole, writing in Salon, describes Heroes as Dick Cheney’s least favorite TV show. He notes that Heroes, is also a response to the 9/11 attack but, unlike 24, skews to the left politically.

In fact, it functions as a thoughtful critique of Vice President Dick Cheney‘s doctrine on counterterrorism.

In Bush and Cheney’s “war on terror,” the evildoers are external and are clearly discernible. In “Heroes,” each person agonizes over the evil within, a point of view more common on the political left than on the right. Each of the flawed characters is capable of both nobility and iniquity. In Bush’s vision, the main threat remains rival states (Saddam’s Iraq, Ahmadinejad’s Iran). States are absent from “Heroes,” as though irrelevant. “Heroes” makes terrorism a universal and psychological issue rather than one attached to a clash of civilizations or to a particular race.

Cole finds that 24 endorses Dick Cheney’s world view, while Heroes does the opposite:

The program “24,” which debuted just two months after 9/11, seems to endorse that worldview. On “24,” “good guys” quite often need to do bad things. Jack Bauer, the hero of the show, tortures terrorists for information and was lauded for it from the stage during the recent Republican presidential debate.

The creator of “Heroes,” Tim Kring, has rejected this black-and-white, “24”-style worldview in favor of something very different. In fact, as he told comics blogger Jonah Weiland in an interview, he had initially planned to have a Middle Eastern character as the terrorist threat but dropped that scenario. His terrorist threat is murky and various, his world multicultural and morally ambiguous.

Juan Cole sees a different view of terrorism and the world than is expressed by Bush and Cheney in Heroes and how the season’s main arc ends:

“Heroes” also acknowledges the subjectivity of any discussion of “terror.” The show’s moral vision is far too nuanced to give aid and comfort to American nationalists. The serial killer in the cast, Sylar, played by Zachary Quinto, is the closest thing “Heroes” has to a pure villain. He seeks out and removes the brains of the other mutants. In the season finale, when it is clear that Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) is the mutant who is in danger of losing control of himself and destroying New York, even Sylar’s wickedness becomes ambiguous. Sylar, in a position to rub out Petrelli before the latter explodes, realizes that were he to destroy the time-bomb mutant, he would turn out to be the true hero. He wants to kill Petrelli and save New York, but for the wrong reasons.

What happens next is an implicit argument against Cheney’s 1 percent doctrine. Just before Sylar can make himself into a perverse sort of hero by killing Peter Petrelli, Hiro Nakamura runs Sylar through with his samurai sword. Nakamura saves Petrelli, but New York remains endangered. Likewise, cheerleader Claire Bennet is in a position to shoot the human bomb (who once saved her from Sylar) and so to prevent the blast, and Peter Petrelli himself, fearing his own power, implores her to do so. She does not take the shot. Both of these plot twists could be seen as decisive rejections of deploying evil to forestall disaster, and of Cheney’s impoverished view of human nature.

Ultimately, Peter’s brother, Nathan the politician, who can fly, swoops down and grabs Peter. Instead of following through on a scheme hatched by his mother and Mr. Linderman to have him emerge as a soft dictator in the aftermath of the apocalyptic conflagration, Nathan ascends with Peter into the heavens. The explosion lights up the night sky above New York harmlessly. Tim Kring, who has spoken of wanting a redemptive ending to the season’s story line, is apparently conveying the Gandhian message that compassion and brotherly self-sacrifice are more effective in preventing terrorism than naked ambition and hard-line tactics…

… the globalized vision of “Heroes” sees Japanese and Indian characters as potential saviors. Kring said in his interview with Weiland, “Again, it was part of the theme to try and depict people from different parts of the world in positive ways.” Rejecting the “America-first” unilateralism of Bush, “Heroes” firmly chooses multilateral efforts in the fight against terror and refuses to give up on any character or culture as beyond redemption.

The ultimate act of terrorism on television science fiction occured when the Cylons attacked and killed most humans. Terrorism was later shown through reverse eyes when the Cylons occupied New Caprica and the humans became the terrorists. There have been rumors and denials this spring as to whether Battlestar Galactica would conclude next year. There is finally official word that the series will end next season:

Ending “Battlestar” with the upcoming 22-episode fourth season was a creative decision made by the hit show’s executive producers Ronald Moore and David Eick.

“This show was always meant to have a beginning, a middle and, finally, an end,” Eick and Moore said in a statement Thursday. “Over the course of the last year, the story and the characters have been moving strongly toward that end, and we’ve decided to listen to those internal voices and conclude the show on our own terms. And while we know our fans will be saddened to know the end is coming, they should brace themselves for a wild ride getting there — we’re going out with a bang.”

The fourth and final season of “Galactica” will kick off in November with “Razor,” an extended two-hour episode, with the rest of the season slated to run beginning in early 2008.

Just as this matter was settled with Battlestar Galactica, we became subjected to similar rumors about Doctor Who. The Sun reports that Doctor Who will end after the fouth season. The report claims that Russell T. Davies has decided to end the show in order to work on other projects. British fans notethat The Sun is not very reliable and has posted incorrect information about the show in the past. The story also sounds a little implausible as the BBC owns the show. I suspect they would hire someone else to continue the show if it is doing well rather than ending it if Davies really wanted to leave. Unlike Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who is a story which goes on for all time with no end.

Doctor Who returned from a week off with 42, one of the weakest episodes of the revived series. If the story wasn’t bad enough on its own, it repeated many features of last season’s two parter, The Impossible Planet and The Satin Pit, but in a poorer manner. The only good features were that Martha got a key to the Tardis and a phone with the best roaming plan ever. There was also more foreshadowing of the season’s confrontation with Mr. Saxon (who I still predict will turn out to be The Master.)

Doctor Who has made up for a couple of week episodes with Human Nature, based upon a 1995 novel. Human Nature is the first of a two part episode, but what I’ve seen so far makes me rank this as one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever broadcast. The Doctor takes on human form to hide from aliens, and only Martha has memories of their actual identities. This episode highlights Martha to a degree not seen since the episode where she made her initial appearance.

Star Trek, like Doctor Who, has many novels written based upon the television show. When Star Trek moved from weekly television to the movies, the stories suffered as the producers didn’t understand how to translate the show to the big screen. The show worked well as a weekly series, but they rarely came up with the story big enough to justify a full movie. I’ve often thought that they should consider turning some of the better novels into movies, but there has always been a wall between the television/movie versions and the books. Doctor Who’s use of Human Nature shows the value in adapting a good story from a novel. While done for television, I bet this would also result in a better story than those used for many of the Star Trek movies.

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  1. 1
    Paul Levinson says:

    Excellent, informative, and provocative (I know Greg Bear very well, and Andrews and Walker pretty well too – comes from being an Analog Magazine writer, and President of the Science Fiction Writers of America, 1998-2001).

    One point of disagreement (for now): 24 is not all monolithic, Dick Cheneyish, right-wing, or jingoistic in its attitudes – not by any means. Heroic characters are shown disagreeing with Jack’s torture; people in power are shown to be corrupt and deluded; heroes like the Presidents Palmer are shown working as hard as possible for peaceful resolutions.

    As you no doubt know, Keith Olbermann – whose views I generally applaud – pretty savagely attacked 24 at the beginning of this season, in what I thought was an uninformed way. My response – Olbermann’s suspension of rationality about 24.

    But I’m delighted to see science fiction and science fiction writers and critics of science fiction moving into more serious roles in our lives…

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    “One point of disagreement (for now): 24 is not all monolithic, Dick Cheneyish, right-wing, or jingoistic in its attitudes – not by any means”

    I did mention that briefly above, and in more detail in previous posts where I concentrated more on 24. The Salon article on Heroes was more one sided on this, but when I’ve written on 24 I’ve gone over topics like Logan and controversies over abuse of power.

    This long afterwards its hard for me to separate out by memory who said what about 24, but I do recall some of the stuff did go overboard in attacking it. Plus, ultimately its only a TV show. Some of the attacks went beyond expressing disagreement with its message to being overly concerned about the impact of the show.

  3. 3
    battlebob says:

    I thought the first season or so of 24 was great. It seemed to go more toward unnessary violence and I quit watching.
    I prefer shows like ‘Numb3rs’. I may watch a snippet of 24 while changing channels and it seems the body counts keep rising. 24 reminds me of old Clint Eastwood spagetti westerns.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:


    The ultimate problem with 24 wasn’t so much that the first too seasons were good and then it went downhill, but that they’ve attempted to do the same thing over and over. For people just starting to watch after a few seasons, the first couple seasons they watch also seem great, and then it goes downhill.

    There also was an increase in violence as you mentioned, but that stemmed primarily from the basic problem of repeating the same thing over and over. They tried to add a little more, including a little more violence, every year to fill the episodes.

    They actually did cut back on the violence mid way into this season. They went so far overboard that I think they realized it was counterproductive.

  5. 5
    Paul Levinson says:

    Actually, I thought 24 achieved a sort of quiet power this season – Jack Bauer, for example, was much more of a human being, with more complex family relationships than previously. 24 Season 6: Life…

  6. 6
    Anon says:

    Can we back up a bit? “What if” is the start of most science fiction, so lets ask a “what if.”

    What if the events of 9/11 were written by a science fiction author, commissioned by the PNAC? What if, years from now, when Michael Crichton is on his deathbed, he confesses to be the author of the terrible events of that day? After all, we have spent so much on “fighting terrorism,” but how much has been spent actually investigating the crime, and pursuing the perpetrators?

    BTW, asking the Sci-Fi community to come up with ways to battle terrorism, is just another example of the USA trying so hard to not look at the source of the problem.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:


    Sure you cold ask “what if” from the point of view of science fiction like ideas. Not all acience fiction ideas provide valid explanations of events in the real world.

    Asking the Sci-Fi community for ideas is fine as long as it is just one avenue beinb pursued. I agree the problem is that the Bush administration ignores the sources of the problem.

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