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In Darklore Volume 3 (Amazon US and UK) there’s a fascinating article on the crossover between the infamous ‘Philadelpha Experiment’ and some of the greatest sci-fi authors of the 20th century, by our good friend The Emperor (from the Cabinet of Wonders website and blog). In that article, Emps mentions a modern group of sci-fi writers – which includes names like Larry Niven, Greg Bear, Ben Bova, David Brin – that goes under the name ‘SIGMA‘, and which “provides a significant pool of talent for volunteer pro bono consultation with the Federal government and other organizations which need the imagination that only speculative writers can provide.”

What’s interesting is that the founder of SIGMA, Arlan Andrews, is a long-time TDG reader and has communicated with me personally for many years now. So I thought it would be interesting to chat with Arlan about the group and some of the issues which go along with working closely with government groups.

(Synchronistically, as I was posting this I noticed that the Washington Post has posted a story on SIGMA.)


TDG: Arlan, can you give us a bit of background to your history with sci-fi, and how SIGMA came to be founded?

Arlan: I began reading SF (preferred term) with Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet in 1950, and have been a fan ever since. My first sold writings appeared in the esoteric fields covered by TDG: Fate Magazine (1972), Ufology, Psychic Dimensions, and others, including tabloids.

I sold my first SF, a poem, “Rime of the Ancient Engineer” to Asimov’s Magazine in 1979, and over the next 25 years published about 50 short stories and poems in a range of magazines, including Analog, Amazing Stories, Omni, Pulphouse, Science Fiction Age, Science Fiction Review, and others, plus anthologies How to Save the World, Amazing Stories Two and Nanodreams. I was a co-founder, playwright and occasional toastmaster for Inconjunction, the Indianapolis SF convention, for its first 20 years. I attended fifteen Worldcons and have been on dozens of panels at those and other cons.

In 1992 I was selected as a White House Fellow for the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), serving as a staffer in the Engineering Directorate there. In that capacity, I often attended meetings where technology forecasting was the subject, and I was completely appalled at the lack of imagination demonstrated by government bureaucrats and invited industry representatives. I commented to a fellow attendee that I had seen much better futurism at any given science fiction convention than in all the futurism meetings in Washington, D.C. That evening, I wrote down that quote for future reference.

The final two steps in my disgust with the government came over two issues:

In one particular meeting, a forward-looking minor player suggested that MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) and nanotechnology would become very important in the time frame of the early 21st Century. The meeting’s host laughed at him, and said they would be sure to create a footnote about his little robots. At the second meeting, this one in the Roosevelt Room of the White House itself, when President George H. W. Bush’s science advisor suggested that virtual reality would play an important role in future computers, this same sarcastic bureaucrat laughed again an told him that his video games would never amount to anything.

That night I went back to the apartment and wrote a manifesto that began, “The future is too important to be left to futurists!” I further stated that since SF writers had been exploring the future, we owed it to humanity to report on what we had discovered there. I came up with the name SIGMA (not an acronym) to indicate that we writers would provide a summation of our visions for the good of civilization. We would offer these visions without cost to the U.S. government, which was in dire need of forecasting ability outside the hidebound Establishment.

The fellow occupying the desk adjacent to mine was Air Force Lt. Colonel Dr. Doug Beason, also a fellow SF whom I had met in Albuquerque years before. I asked Doug to join SIGMA. Within a few weeks, SIGMA had grown to ten members, including Dr. Charles Sheffield, Dr. Yoji Kondo (“Eric Kotani”), Dr. Geoff Landis, Dr. Robert Forward, Dr. Greg Benford, Dr. David Brin, Dr. Stanley Schmidt (editor of Analog), and Mr. Greg Bear.

Originally I wanted mostly technical Ph.D.s in the group so as to pass the “laugh test” or “giggle factor” — at that time, at least, if you weren’t at or near the top of your profession, D.C. types would not give you the time of day. I had to be cognizant of that.

My initial advances were to the incoming Clinton Administration, but SIGMA’s help was not wanted. As a staffer, I had already written the first White House endorsement of molecular nanotechnology and Solid Free Form Fabrication (now called “fabbing” or “rapid manufacturing”); I had arranged for the first briefing of the new administration on the Delta Clipper Single Stage to Orbit project; and other SFnal high tech issues. But these were individual efforts, and not organized SIGMA projects. They do show the importance of having SFnal-thinking people in all levels of government, to influence policy from the inside out.

Eventually SIGMA did do a group project for a national laboratory on the topic of “Future National Disasters,” with mixed results. We warned about many possibilities that have not yet occurred, but unfortunately none of us considered the relatively low-tech option of flying airliners into buildings, something already written up by Tom Clancy. (Interesting enough, the mass murder mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was an engineering student mentored by a former colleague of mine in Greensboro, North Carolina.)

Over the intervening years individual SIGMA members often conferred with government agencies on specific topics, and in 2007, when the Dept. of Homeland Security wanted SF writers to help, we were a ready-made group. I had always kept SIGMA low key because there was no need or desire for publicity. But in D.C. a reporter from USA TODAY wanted to interview the six of us who attended, so we relented.

The resulting worldwide publicity generated more requests for SIGMA consultations, so I expanded our initial group, which had lost two members to death. This time I knew we did not need to keep the “mostly Ph.D.s” requirement because of the greater acceptance of SF within society as a whole, and because of the interest shown within the government. At present, we have about 40 members. Their names and bios appear on the SIGMA website, www.sigmaforum.org.

TDG: Can you tell us more about how that 2007 link-up with the DHS came about, and whether any of the brain-storming resulted in concrete defence innovations?

Arlan: SIGMA cannot for obvious reasons talk about what we discussed with government agencies that are trying to protect all of us from terrorists. What I can say, and what few people realize, is that not only are we SF writers, in addition we are all thoughtful citizens of a nation and a culture that is threatened. So, although our primary purpose is to provide elements of creativity and unpredictability to help bureaucrats break out of their straitjacketed thinking, we also get to tell them our opinions as citizens.

We speak unspeakable truth to authority. For example, on a Washington, D.C. subway one morning, I told a high level DHS official that his department had an unfortunate name, that “Homeland” sounded too much like “Fatherland”, and we all know the connotation of that. Just the night before, I told him, I had seen a rather stupid TV series in which an “agent” from DHS murdered another government employee. This was just the latest, I told him, in the unwarranted attacks by the entertainment media on a group doing its best to help us. He was shocked. And the next year, one of our members gave some DHS scientists an SF novel of a young hacker destroying DHS in retaliation for some perceived mishap. Without SIGMA, nobody there would have ever read such a novel, or considered the motivations of people who write or read them.

My point here is, not only do we respond to taskings for various scenarios, we proactively stimulate and challenge our “clients” with viewpoints and attitudes they do not expect. As I state on the website, SIGMA will surprise you, disturb you, maybe even shock or outrage you, and we are not shy. Without a “rice bowl” to protect, with no political affiliation, no funding sources to protect, no ideology to promote, we are free agents who offer only our brains and our visions. And this concept is beginning to be appreciated by groups you wouldn’t imagine would care.

TDG: I’d imagine a group such as Sigma would have a real cross-section of personalities and philosophies involved, and I’m wondering how that mix goes when you’re dealing with some of the emotive and controversial issues involved when it comes to the ‘War on Terror’, and providing aid to the Homeland Security Department?

Arlan: SIGMA has no political litmus test. One of the criteria I used in selecting members was a certain degree of maturity and situational awareness, so that no one member would destroy the group’s effectiveness by inappropriate rants at inappropriate times. We have to be able to work with whichever political group or ideology that runs the nation. As I often say, “Terrorists don’t do a demographic survey before they perform mass murder.” So within SIGMA, we have never considered what we do as “providing aid to the Homeland Security Department” but rather “providing ideas and ways of thinking to those people within DHS who are working to try to protect innocent citizens.” If we ever came across anything that appeared to be setting up a Gestapo or an NKVD, we would be the first to object, and to yell, and to write about it.

One member, whose politics would probably be at variance with mine (if we went into detail about our differences — which we don’t, unless there is a lot of time and a lot of beer, and the place is private), envisioned a wonderful future in which all we had to do was walk to the airplanes the way we used to, without searches and shoelessness and all the other irritations of modern air travel. A SIGMA panelist at the 2008 DHS Science and Technology Stakeholders Conference in Washington, D.C., he asked us and the audience, “What would we have to do to be there in ten years? What technologies would we need?” Asked by DHS to write up his thoughts on that, he did so, and his piece will be appearing on the SIGMA website, for all the world to see. When it’s out, read it. It is a future we all want for ourselves and our friends and families — the whole world, in fact. This is truly great science fictional thinking — not just about current tactics and problems, but societal solutions, transcending politics and the present.

When a quite leftist acquaintance of mine made that very objection about helping DHS back in 2007, I asked him “Exactly which part of DHS upsets you so much? Is it the US Coast Guard — don’t you want us to help those who rescue people and stop drug smugglers? Is it the Customs and Border Patrol — don’t you want us to give better ideas about protecting our borders against weapons smugglers? Is it FEMA — doesn’t every American want to be able to give them better ideas about helping during hurricanes? Is it TSA — wouldn’t you like for us to come up with ways at airports that didn’t make you go through metal detectors and take off your shoes? Just which part don’t you like?”

That shut him up, but he went off grumbling about “Big Brother” and all that. I believe it’s just the unfortunate name. For my own part, I found DHS people to be open-minded and hard-nosed about figuring out ways to protect us.

For myself, I believe that if we are protected and safe, then we are free to exercise our political rights and do all the domestic infighting we want to do. But more attacks like 9-11 and we may willingly choose restrictions.

(It is ironic that Ben Franklin’s axiom, “those who would sacrifice essential liberty for a little safety deserve neither” is always taken out of context, as if we should not try to protect ourselves. In actuality, he was chastising those Pennsylvanians who preferred to stay home, who would not go and help him and his militia fight marauding Indians on the frontier. He was criticizing those who would not go to war, quite the opposite of how his quote is misused today to justify doing nothing.)

TDG: When the first sci-fi emerged, we hadn’t left the planet, and the technological revolution was just beginning. I think this gave a lot of room to move for writers on the ‘fiction’ angle, while these days readers seem a lot more educated on what’s “possible” (as far as science fiction should be restricted by that issue!). Any personal thoughts on changes during the evolution of sci-fi, and how healthy the current scene is?

Arlan: The technological revolution started in the late 1800s, and H.G. Wells rode the first wave, possibly inspired by Jules Verne. He dealt with time machines, Martian invasions, industrial war, species conversion, global civilizations. For myself, I was inspired by rockets and space travel, and went to White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, as a co-op student to work on them, and did. With the political abandonment of the Apollo Project in the early 1970s, and a probable repeat performance by the new administration, any chance of manned exploration of the Solar System in my lifetime was destroyed, barring a breakthrough. In the next several hundred years, maybe less, we will have a spacefaring civilization, but not as soon as my generation wanted it. The progress in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was our dream, and that didn’t happen. Instead of a monolith on the moon at the bottom of a pit, in the real 2001 we had burnt girders at the bottom of a pit in New York City — I have two photographs that show the two scenes, complete with ramp leading down to the bottom. So today, in many parts of the world, and in the inner cities of advanced nations we are probably closer to Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange than to his 2001.

In my own opinion, many tropes apart from space travel have become important as for science fiction. My own favorite is alternate history, particularly the works of Harry Turtledove, with his treatment of the “what if’s” of history. I read them for pleasure, but tell myself I am learning about the fragility of events, how they turn on small probabilities, how our history is one of such probabilities, much like the eigenvalue solutions of equations. Our concrete realities are not.

Time travel, interdimensional transfer, alternate physical and temporal dimensions, all provide unlimited playgrounds for the imagination, so SF will always have these unexplored regions available,

But, space travel aside, the continuing revolutions in other technologies, and possible new inventions, events and knowledge, will always offer new devices for stories — genetic engineering (from Wells and Huxley and Heinlein onward to Greg Bear), nanotechnology, virtual reality in all its forms, computer advancements (half of my stories deal with computers). And there will always be a future — future wars and weapons, societal changes, dystopias, utopias, atopias, alien invasions, plagues, and astronomical events (Jerry Pournelle says that he and Larry Niven have made millions from dropping giant rocks onto Earth, and have used their SIGMA connections to generate bureaucrat characters for the next big rock they plan to drop.)

TDG: As a man who has spent his whole life envisioning the future, how often have you been surprised by developments over the decades?

Arlan: As an engineer, I often see inventions and think, “Given the opportunity, I believe I could have thought of that.” That is a common engineering conceit. But the things that delight me, that I really enjoy, are those that I recognize that I never would have thought of, ever, no way.

One of the things that I had read about, even before it had a name, was virtual reality. From the stories of Ray Bradbury and Clifford Simak, I envisioned a future in which I was an old, old man, unable to travel any more, but would be able to be immersed in a 3D sensory environment and travel anywhere in the world. That I envisioned. Along the way, for a story I outlined but did not complete, I thought of being immersed in data representations the same way, “surfing” the data. As a researcher and development engineer I looked for a technology that would do these things. When I found it fifteen years later, I started a high tech company to develop and sell it, but that’s another story, ultimately a sad story of egos and greed. I envisioned applications of a new technology; I never imagined that ego and greed would prevent its use by every person in every household, which it could have been by now. Again, too innocent in the ways of the world.

I later found another surprising technology that I would not have thought of, a revolutionary biotech reactor, and it delighted me. Again, I co-founded a company to exploit it, but greed almost destroyed that one, too.

And I knew about computers, and knew they would be tiny and ubiquitous. What I didn’t envision, and don’t know if I could have thought of, was the social impact of the Internet, with the viruses and worms and hacking, all the criminal aspects of the new technology. I was entirely too innocent. And although I did envision apps like Google, GoogleEarth, and YouTube even before the Web arose, I did not foresee Facebook and Twitter, any more than I could have imagined that reality shows or American Idol or Dancing with the Stars would exist, much less that anybody would watch them.

I had read Feynman and early SF about tiny machines; but I never envisioned nanotechnology — being able to grow machines, materials, and all the rest of the advances that nanotech may bring. However, when I wrote about it for the White House back in 1992, I did think that it would be much more advanced by today. Like my dreamy visions of Kubrick’s 2001, I think we were all 50 – 100 years off.

So, the technology you can often vaguely envision, but true prophecy, if that’s what it is, requires getting into the minds and souls of citizens or criminals and looking outwards from there. That’s where sitting down and writing a comprehensive story comes in; you have to think that way, and you may hit on some unforeseen complication when you consider a new technology in actual use by real people. Along those lines, I think we will all be surprised, blown away (maybe literally), when some upcoming technologies like “fabbing” are widespread. See my 1992 article in Analog, “Manufacturing magic”, or my 1995 interview in Wired, “Gear From Goop”, a sidebar to a major article about Sandia National Laboratories,

TDG: What’s your current vision of the next 100 years for human civilisation?

Arlan: Barring asteroid impacts, massive methane burps, supervolcanoes, gamma ray bursts, intercontinental tsunamis or truly nasty natural plagues that we can’t defend against, this is what I think will occur — all politics aside.

The Big Zap: someone, some group, will generate the means to perpetrate a meltdown of the entire Internet, generating a financial crisis orders of magnitude worse than we are now experiencing, maybe accompanied by:

The Great Hack: someone, some group or nation, will harvest enough data so that the private information on everyone who has ever been online will be available to every other user — Isaac Asimov’s “Fishbowl” without the time machine.

The Big Bug: Think Ebola with swine flu with AIDS, and a witch’s brew in a cauldron in a basement with an intelligent teenager with a grudge…

The Disintegration: Western European and other advanced nations may Balkanize, creating either reservations or other zones for undesirables and/or non-productive citizens, or those who will not or have not assimilated into the majority culture, e.g., France may set aside dhimmi zones for the few remaining Christian and non-Arab French; Russia will cease to exist as a functioning state, shrinking, like Byzantium, to the confines of a single city, either Moscow or St. Petersburg. National boundaries may become meaningless and various states self-declare their dissolution, as nomadism becomes prevalent in entire geographical regions.

The Changes: The United States will undergo nearly unimaginable political and demographic changes, and wars may be fought along its borders and within them. Those of us who lived in the US and other Western democracies between 1950 and 2001 will be looked upon as having basked in a Golden Age — but we will be reviled for it, and blamed for problems of the world of 2100, without much gratitude for the technologies that have given most civilized peoples long, healthy lives and abundance beyond our own.

The End Time: A nuclear war in the Middle East that will change many national boundaries; several nations will no longer exist, either legally or physically. Major religious reformations, toward greater rationality, will bring the massacre of millions, with ancient monuments evaporated and lost forever.

The Great Leap: China will become six separate nations, as a Falun-Gong-like group, aided and enabled by incredibly effective instantaneous holographic communication, simply calls together “twitter mobs” that practice Ghandi-like resistance among hundreds of millions of people at once, bringing the nation to a halt (“The Day the Middle Kingdom Stood Still”?) and allowing nativism to prevail, splitting it up among ethnic and political majorities in each region.

The Multitude: Deliberately-constructed, holistic, multi-sensory, immersive Virtual Worlds will be more ubiquitous than websites are today. Any person will be able to, and will, access billions of them by some simple gesture, thought, or unconscious action; arising from these virtual worlds will be new types of organizations, cults, religions, philosophies; some of these will be benign, others will be predatory or malevolent. Think Second Life combined with the Star Trek Holodeck; think World of Warcraft combined with Terminator; think of these as not being fantasies. Think of revolutionary social change spreading around the world at the speed of light. Sleep well.

The Encyclopedia: All unclassified human activity that ever was or is being digitized will be available to every human being all of the time, accessed by a ring with neural interfaces that enable total immersivity into any imaginable environment, or many at once. The effects of this new capability are not foreseeable, but they can be expected to be totally unexpected.

The Rapture: The often-prophesied “Singularity” will occur, but won’t be evenly distributed (to paraphrase William Gibson). Whole groups of people, even entire cities, may suddenly disappear without leaving any trace or any message. These vanishings may occur as organizations obtain sufficient technologies to enhance or otherwise effect enough changes to enable them all to relocate elsewhere/elsewhen/elsethen.

The End: To people in the Year 2100, the Year 2000 will appear to be a lot closer to the Year 1900 than is does to their own time.

TDG: Arlan, thanks for your time.