Science Fiction and Disaster Risk Reduction
By Joshua Anthony, on 29 July 2021
Author: Nigel Furlong
I have been a fan of science fiction literature, TV shows and movies for as long as I can remember. I have worked in emergency management and planning for over 20 years and over the years I have found science fiction has been a useful tool in my critical thinking. It’s also supported my skill set. Who knew playing wargames and role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Twilight 2000 would enable me to deliver tabletop and seminar exercises later in my career!
Before I go into this blog, I do wish to caveat that some of the works, authors and screenwriters are products of their time and by today’s standards may at best be considered twee and at worst misogynistic and racist. I do not endorse any political and social statements. They are used as examples no more, no less.
In the early 1990’s I attended a church service marking Remembrance Day at a small church in Greasby, Wirral. This was at the time that the country of Yugoslavia was imploding into civil war and the local army regiment, The Cheshire Regiment were deploying with the United Nations to Bosnia. The vicar gave his sermon which was very much about the war in Yugoslavia, and he said as part of his sermon (I am paraphrasing): “history is a hilltop in which we can look back but also look at the present and future”. It struck me then that science fiction can do the same. Some authors extrapolate trends, others create societies and ecologies and then add plots and story twists etc. This phenomenoncan be seen in the works of the author Robert Heinlein. He is accredited amongst other authors in inspiring a generation to become scientists and engineers who went onto work on the US space programme and various spinoff industries such as computing. Heinlein’s short stories and juvenile novels were heavy on engineering and science solutions. Some of his early works in the early 1940’s were classified and only released years after the end of World War 2 as they discussed atomic physics and the development of nuclear facilities and weapons. He saw the use of irradiated materials such as powder being used as a weapon – the dirty bomb.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of discussion over the movie’s “Outbreak”, “Contagion” and “I am Legend”, but the works of John Christopher are potentially more interesting as “Empty World” seemed a bit too close for home at one point in the early days of the pandemic. Christopher wrote a number of disaster novels, “A Wrinkle in the Skin”, “The Death of Grass”. The TV show “Survivors” both the 1970s and reboot 2008 Series took viewers through a pandemic and its aftermath. I find it fascinating to consider analysing the various pandemic disease disaster and post-apocalyptic novels and how they attempted to mitigate and control the pandemic and compare against real world actions!
Isaac Asimov is credited with creating the 3 rules of robotics, yet his Foundation Series of novels are a superb discussion of business continuity. William Gibson’s 1980s cyberpunk novels such as “Neuromancer” gave us the language used today in cyber security and some of the concepts as well.
Jerry Pournelle is another author who blended science and engineering onto novels. However, his novels include “Oath to Fealty” which is a great read and although set in Los Angeles has parallels with the Shard building in London. His series of novels and short stories about Falkenberg’s Legion focused on colonial era type military operations in far off solar systems by a mercenary force of soldiers. They have become required reading in the US military as they placed the protagonists in situations similar to Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan type situations and operations. The books were written in the 1980s and 90’s.
Science Fiction covers many disaster scenarios: asteroid impacts, space weather, environmental/ecological collapse, Global Warming, global war, nuclear war and aftermath, social collapse, post disaster survival, Terrorist use of Weapons of Mass Destruction/CBRN. A particular theme to acknowledge is the “Zombie Apocalypse”. So popular is this theme, the Centre for Disease Control in the US produced a “Zombie Preparedness” plan to engage new audiences with the concepts of “All Hazards emergency preparedness”. This has been emulated multiple times including by Bristol City Council who produced a contingency plan for handling zombie outbreaks in Bristol.
History may be a hilltop, but science fiction allows us to identify potential events and play out the outcomes to gain insight into what could be probable, plausible, possible or a wild card!
Nigel Furlong is a Business Resilience Manager and Senior Security Advisor with the UK Atomic Energy Authority