Ready For Really Big Risks?

Image: NASA

As the Trump administration gets down to work making its mark on the first 100 days in office, its members would be wise to remember that the next national security risks are so new they’re almost impossible to comprehend, let alone see.

This is where science fiction comes in. The right novel or short story can bring existential threats down to Earth, and make them seem solvable with the right recipe of science, heroes, and villains.

In one of President Barack Obama’s final interviews, the outgoing 44th Commander-in-Chief told The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani that reading was an essential part of getting through some of the most difficult moments of his presidency. President Obama read plenty of literature and biography but he also was a fan of science fiction, especially Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem science-fiction trilogy. He said the stories were as much a diversion as a reminder of the importance of narrative in placing our own struggles in a bigger, human context. (Read an Art of the Future Q&A with Liu Cixin.)

“The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty — not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade!” Obama said. Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu — who spoke at the Atlantic Council 2015 Global Strategy Forum — tells the story of mankind’s centuries-long collision course with aliens traveling  toward Earth to destroy it.

Even without a fleet of omniscient warlike aliens racing toward us, crisis mode starts on day one (or before) when a new president is sworn in. Being in crisis mode for hundreds of years is a far greater challenge for humanity, but it has lessons for day-to-day government.

The subsequent books in the Three Body series, Dark Forest and Death’s End, play the story out to a stunning conclusion and deal with everything from the nature of deterrence to coalition politics to skullduggery in defense acquisitions. It is hard to imagine a bigger threat than the sort of extinction posited by Liu Cixin. Harder yet is to really understand how might people respond. It is in this that such science fiction is most valuable, particularly in dealing with lesser problems.

The second book, Dark Forest, is most relevant for the national security community, particularly for the novel’s exploration of the essence of deterrence in a very, very dangerous universe. In one of its most important points, the solution to defending Earth comes from a most unexpected source, which underscores the shortcomings of big bureaucracies and institutional approaches to defense innovation. The perils of technological progress are manifest, and sometimes emerge in tongue-in-cheek scenes like when two protagonists are nearly killed when aliens hack a living room couch.

Other recent stories are similarly useful, including Neal Stephenson’s 2015 novel Seveneves. It forces the reader to ask the question: what might America’s leaders do right now when faced with an acute threat to humankind? Perhaps the most fictional element in the story is an efficiency of action that defies what most citizens have come to expect. In Seveneves, a lunar cataclysm forces a fundamental stay-or-go crisis for humankind, which results in a highly engineered scramble for the exits – or space. In his review of the book, Microsoft founder Bill Gates noted that the “other thing that struck me is the way the book pushes you to think big and long-term. If everyone learned that the world would end two days from now, there would be global panic, plus a big dose of hedonism. But what if it were ending two years from now?”

The book’s scientific foundation is solid, and it is a grippingly aspirational story measured in centuries not the milliseconds of a techno-thriller. It revels in the little details that are often overlooked by planes, such as how would you fashion new glasses when your eye muscles atrophy after years in space, and the cosmic questions tied to gender and human evolution. For House of Cards fans, the story and offers up plenty of politics and a fair amount of action and skullduggery, too, on and off world

What place books have in the White House and as lodestars for President Donald Trump remains to be seen. After an election so thoroughly driven by narrative over facts, the double-edged power of story is unmistakable. Science fiction like Dark Forest or Seveneves remind us that the universe is indeed a dangerous place – but also that we can do something about it, and succeed if we come together. That lesson may be the most important one of all for the new administration.