Netflix’s recent announcement of a new show titled “Space Force” — undoubtedly based on President Donald Trump’s push to create an actual space force — seems to cement the idea that defending American assets in space is best done from one’s couch, basking comfortably in the glow of a laptop screen.
The show is expected to be a comedy, since it marks the reunion of “The Office” star Steve Carell and creator Greg Daniels. As the chosen genre suggests, critics of Trump’s plans tend to dismiss the potential sixth branch of the military as the stuff of science fiction. But being excellent fodder for sitcoms does not disprove America’s need to focus on defense in space. There is historical precedent for science fiction influencing the opinions of political leaders, technical experts and the public at large — often for the better.
Ronald Reagan loved science fiction. Watching “WarGames” — a 1983 science fiction film about a teenage hacker who breaks into a government computer and nearly starts World War III — kindled in him a curiosity about the realities of cyber warfare. In fact, the country’s first cyber policy was created thanks to Reagan’s reaction to the film.
“WarGames” wouldn’t be the only movie to leave a mark on American cyber policy. In his book “Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War,” Slate columnist Fred Kaplan details how National Security Agency Director Mike McConnell was similarly inspired by the comedy “Sneakers,” in which a hacker steals a top-secret decoder. McConnell shaped the NSA’s mission in part on words uttered by the film’s villain: “There’s a war out there … And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets, it’s about who controls the information: What we see and hear, how we work, what we think.”
American leaders are not alone in drawing inspiration from science fiction. Winston Churchill enjoyed a friendship with H.G. Wells, the author of science fiction classics like “War of the Worlds.” Churchill even borrowed ideas and phrases for his own political speeches from Wells’ novels, at one point writing to his friend, “I owe you a great debt.” (The British former prime minister also once wrote an essay contemplating the possible existence of aliens.)
Political leaders aren’t the only ones that science fiction has influenced. The oft-reincarnated show “Star Trek” is cited as influencing a bevy of individuals to go into science and technology. In fact, NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Terry Virts are among the show’s childhood devotees. “Star Trek” has also proven eerily prophetic about the future of technology. While no one has yet developed the ability to “beam me up,” many of the devices the show imagined — including tablets, smartphones and voice recognition — now exist in some form or another.
Shows like “Star Trek” built up the public’s interest in space needed to make political feats like the moon landing possible. China’s government has recently taken notice of science fiction’s ability to influence the public at large. Last year, China’s Communist party included a panel on science fiction, starring Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin, as part of a campaign to popularize science. Liu has headed a resurgence of Chinese interest in science fiction, interest that dovetails well with political elites’ goals to push technological self-reliance. This is especially the case in light of the recent Huawei and ZTE scandals.
Science fiction is an outlet for our fears about the future — explaining the popularity of tech-wary shows like “Black Mirror” and the long-standing fascination with a robot-inspired apocalypse. It also allows us a place to explore our ambitions — even our politically divisive ones.
Ambitions like a space force. According to the Netflix trailer, “The goal of the new branch is to ‘defend satellites from attack’ and ‘perform other space-related tasks’ … or something.” The opacity of that “something” is no doubt part of the reason why space military operations seem better suited to the silver screen.
For the sake of my love of good science fiction, I hope Hollywood figures out that “something.” And for the sake of our nation’s security, I hope the Department of Defense, Congress and the current administration figure out that “something” as well. The stakes are certainly higher in the latter case — American satellites do face legitimate defense threats from cyber and kinetic attacks.
Figuring out the appropriate solution to these defense threats is no easy task. A conversation about what potential solutions look like is well worth having. But first, pass me the popcorn — I’ve got some TV I’m looking forward to watching.
Image credit: Dima Zel, Shutterstock