Tuesday, July 01, 2008

And the Worst Is Yet to Come?

We wrote recently here about how science-fiction writers have been consulted by government think-tanks wishing to look ahead at possible threats to our society, some of which might not even originate from this planet or dimension. But, as Peter Millar notes in The Times of London, SF writers aren’t the only one with prognosticating skills:
As the third anniversary of the London bombings approaches, the author Stephen Leather is among those with cause to reflect on the uncomfortable relationship between the real world and fiction--particularly when the plot of a thriller becomes horribly true.

In February 2005, five months before the 7/7 suicide attacks on the London Tube, Leather’s thriller Soft Target detailed a plot by four British-born Muslims to explode bombs on the Underground.

As in real life, one of them went off above ground, albeit at the entrance to a Tube station rather than on a bus. His hero, an ex-SAS man called Dan Shepherd, has more luck preventing loss of life than did the real-life security services.

“It was uncanny really,” Leather says. “I had been ... speaking to a lot of anti-terror people and the emergency services and they all said the same thing: their worst nightmare would be suicide bombers on the Underground.

“Then five months later it happens. I’m watching TV and there are the same people I’d been talking to, saying how they’d had to deal with it.”

The detail in Leather’s book even had echoes of the subsequent shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station: “My hero, Shepherd, has to shoot one of the bombers, even though he’s coming at him from behind and can’t see any indication that he’s carrying a bomb, but there’s this voice in his ear telling him that’s the man. And he shoots him, and keeps on shooting him, putting bullets into his head until he stops moving. Because that’s what the men at the Met told me they would have to do to deal with a suicide bomber.”

I asked Leather, a former Times journalist, if he ever felt that the resemblance between his plot and what actually happened was so great that he might bear some responsibility? Doesn’t he worry that the terrorists might have got their ideas from his work? “Never. Not at all. Terrorists don’t get their ideas from fiction. And in any case, I always leave out one essential detail so that I’m not publishing a blueprint for an attack.”
This crossover from thriller fiction to reality is usually seen from the American side, the Times observes:
There must have been a moment, somewhere between the first passenger jet crashing into the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, and the instant a few hours later when a third airliner smashed into the Pentagon, when Tom Clancy put his hand to his mouth and thought: “Oh my God, what have I done?” It had been all of six years since he had brought his series of novels featuring the CIA man Jack Ryan to a blockbuster climax with a crazed anti-American Japanese airline pilot crashing his 747 into the Capitol, killing the U.S. President and half of Congress.

Of course it is the job of writers such as Clancy to imagine the unthinkable. No one seriously believes that Osama bin Laden is whiling away the hours in a cave in the Hindu Kush with a library of the latest shock-horror paperbacks (although it is an interesting image).
I found that The Survivor, pseudonymous author Tom Cain’s soon-forthcoming follow-up to The Accident Man (2007), plows a similarly prescient furrow, following a realistic “what if” scenario to its frightening conclusion. Cain’s second novel is premised on the idea of belligerent forces discovering the locations of several “suitcase nukes” (remember them from the Cold War?) in an attempt to provoke Armageddon. Because Cain is a former journalist, his tale reads like something torn from today’s headlines. So I wasn’t surprised to find Cain musing in the London Evening Standard on the shape a potential terrorist attack on the British capital might take:
Rumours of rogue nukes had been doing the rounds for almost 20 years since the breakup of the old Soviet Union. Yet no bomb had ever been uncovered, let alone detonated.

For policy makers, forced to work with limited resources, the key consideration was the balance of probability.

And the most probable scenarios, in terms of attacks on the UK mainland, involved disaffected British citizens, using conventional weapons, delivered by groundbased vehicles.

Lord Carlile, the Government’s terrorism adviser, might warn of the threat from the air, but the professionals were not convinced.

A rogue pilot would require military-level skills of high-speed, low-level flying to reach any high-profile target in British airspace.

A truck, on the other hand, was a far more reliable delivery platform. It could be driven direct to its target without anyone being any the wiser. But what if the attacker did not wish to be anonymous?

What if--as on 9/11--global visibility was the whole point of the exercise? The attack on Britain, when it came, would be very visible indeed.
You can read all of Tom Cain’s doomsday scenario here.

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