Rogue One: an ‘Engineering Ethics’ Story

In the battle between Light and Dark, engineers shape humanity’s fate

[Spoiler warning: Some plot assumptions and an important character’s story are discussed in detail]  

In a story where engineers are more central than Jedi or Sith, Rogue One breaks new ground for the franchise both in its characters but also in the ethical territory it covers.  Not to diminish the character arcs of Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, but the core ethical arc of the film is one man’s decision to engineer the Death Star in such a way as to prevent its use for galactic domination. One could fairly retitle the movie to ‘Rogue One: an Engineering Ethics Story.’

Our review essay will address Rogue One as the engineering ethics case study it is. Properly understanding the ethical power of the engineers in Rogue One enriches our understanding of good and evil in the Star Wars universe and furthers our understanding of what engineering ethically truly means.   

Only part of the story: blowing the whistle on the Death Star

The movie begins with the Death Star program director, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) finding and returning his escaped top scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Despite all the resources of the Empire and its access to the dark side, the Death Star takes 15 more years to build, requiring incredible effort and the capabilities of a top designer and scientist of Galen’s caliber. The challenge of engineering was apparent to all, as Grand Moff Tarkin notes years of challenges and delays.  It is important to note that while the movie calls Galen a scientist, he was leading a design effort and a team of engineers. To us, he clearly is an engineer[1].

The film also makes its engineering ethics explicit. Before the opening scene, Galen Erso had escaped the Death Star project because of his moral objections, likely against the Empire as well as the concept of making such a terrifying weapon at all. After Krennic captures him, Galen later tells his daughter Jyn that he had a choice: he could have continued abstaining, and let someone else build the Death Star, or he could dive deep into the project, become indispensable to it, and find a way to stop it. He chooses to dive deep, and succeeds in building a subtle flaw in the Death Star design. Then 15 years later, he sends a messenger to the Rebellion informing them of the weapon’s existence, power and most importantly, its fatal flaw.

Galen’s reflection on engineering could have come straight out of real-life engineering discussions of the 1970s. As the historian Matthew Wisnioski captures in his book “Engineers for Change”, many engineers were criticized during the Vietnam War for their role in developing major weapons systems. In the real world, Galen could have become a conscientious objector and left the project, but oftentimes engineers can choose to stay engaged and try to influence the project. In our world, some engineers did change fields and while some engineering societies sponsored large public debates about the role of technology in society. Engineering schools added ethics to their curriculum, but Wisnioski suggests that the changes were ultimately too narrow.

Unfortunately, much of engineering ethics education has focused excessively on whistleblowing, and perhaps a limited view of Galen Erso’s actions would call what he did “whistle blowing,” as he alerted the rebels to the looming threat. We tend to agree with the engineer philosopher Samuel Florman who once wrote that “Whistle-blowing - to use a word that appears early and often in many discussions of engineering ethics - is a rare and extreme circumstance, worthy of consideration, to be sure, but not deserving of the central role it has been given in studies of the field.” What Galen Erso does is not simply watch a system be built and then whistleblow; he actively shaped the design from its earliest stages considering its ultimate societal impacts.  These early design decisions are proactive rather than reactive, which is part of the broader engineering ethics lesson of Rogue One.

Shaping designs in pursuit of a more just world

Galen Erso, as more than a conscientious whistleblower, highlights what a broader approach to engineering ethics can look like. Critically, Galen modified the Death Star design creating a critical flaw that could be used to destroy the Death Star. This weakness, a path for a missile charge to travel from the Death Star surface through an exhaust port to hit the center reactor, was then exploited by the Rebels and, in particularly, Luke Skywalker in Episode IV.  Erso demonstrates that if one is imaginative enough, there can be ways to change or modify a design so that it has a different impact on society, so that people can interact with the design in a positive way, or so that it can best contribute to a more just world.

While Galen’s change to the Death Star is an extreme case, akin to modifying a nuclear weapon design, engineers make many decisions that affect our everyday lives. Engineering and technology can critically define how people live and who has power. Philosopher of technology Langdon Winner’s article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” argues that technology changes the world around them, creating policies and politics that result from the inherent (at times destructive) characteristics of the technology. Yet, it is not only the technology of advanced weapons that can shape our world. Social media and increased computer devices are affecting how humans think and how we act in a democratic society. An engineer must consider not only the function of a new system, but how it will be used and the possible unintended consequences, just as Galen Orso did when designing the Death Star.  

A complementary point to Winner is to think through how we have to labor to maintain existing systems. Historians Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel have started a social movement called The Maintainers, which tries to call attention to the neglected role of maintenance in society. While the Star Wars universe has a lot of ships and cities that look like they’re in a state of dystopic disrepair, there are also many who scavenge (such as Rey) and make the most out of existing systems.. A robust discussion of engineering ethics should consider how we treat the people and technological systems that maintain the broader society.

The Force is not enough?

The above issues are all substantial parts of engineering ethics, but there is one more highly speculative thought about engineering ethics in Star Wars that I want to explore. Rogue One surprised me in how much it highlighted how the dark side seems to rely on technology. In my reading of the original films, it always seemed to me that the Force was the most powerful source of change in the Galaxy, and that the Empire relied on technology only incidentally. As Vader said in Episode IV, the Death Star’s power is “insignificant next to the power of the Force.” The ultimate threat was the Emperor, and the two Death Stars and the Star Killer were secondary, almost easily summoned into being just in time for the next movie plot.

In contrast to that, Rogue One shows that the engineering development of the Death Star took decades to complete and was a much more complex and vexing development than we knew. While its plans were briefly shown in the prequels, the amount of work needed to make the Death Star a real engineering artifact required the focused attention over decades of Krennic, Tarkin and Vader. In this film, the Emperor’s long term survival and goals for the dark side rely on the challenging, detailed, and sometimes banal work of engineering and technology development. Despite the Emperor and Darth Vader’s great power in the force, they needed technical superiority to establish permanent galactic control [2].  

One way of describing this is to say that the dark side is seeking a technological fix [3]. A technological fix, as described by Daniel Sarewitz & Richard Nelson, is a technological solution found to address a complex, social problem.  On paper, a technological fix sounds great, due to its assumed replicability and reliability. However, problems in the real world can simply be too complex, defying any easy technological solution.  We never really know how effective the Empire’s technological fixes are, though, as the Rebels continue to destroy these mega-weapons before they are widely used.

But, if the Death Stars are a technological ‘fix’, then what is the problem that it’s trying to solve? Clearly they want to eliminate continued resistance to the Empire, as well as the possibility of battle with future Jedi or other light Side users. All technological factors being equal, perhaps the battle between the light and dark side will always come to a partial détente, as Yoda’s battle with Palpatine showed. Without a technological edge, there are individual victories that change the tide, but never fully wins the war.   The Death Star is the engineering artifact intended by the Emperor to tip the balance between the light and the dark.  

Interestingly, the dark side users abide by the ‘Rule of Two’, where there is only supposed to be a Sith master and a Sith apprentice, of which the latter is expected to take over from the master. This Rule of Two exists because multiple dark side users cannot be trusted: each will betray the others until they are in succession to eventually lead. Given the Rule of Two, there can never be an army of multiple Sith that fight, which means they need accessories to help promote their goals. Perhaps in this way, the real problem that the the Death Star hopes to fix is one of trust: it lets the Sith maintain power over others without needing to involve and ultimately trust another Sith.

As mentioned, this discussion also changes the interpretation of Luke Skywalker’s victory against the Death Star in Episode IV. It’s not simply a case of using the Force to beat a technologically superior foe.  While the light side of the Force (and an assist from Han Solo) was needed, so too was the ethical engineer who built in a design flaw into the Death Star. The entire fight scene can now be scene as a battle of light and dark with engineers shaping the terms of engagement.  


Rogue One’s core story arc is about an engineer influencing a technological system that will transform the political order of the galaxy. Ultimately, Galen Erso engineers the system from the bottom up to have a critical flaw to ensure that this weapon of destruction could also, itself, be destroyed.  This character reminds us all that engineers can and must insert ethics into the heart of their work.  Galen Erso’s ethical objections amount not just to whistle-blowing, which is a standard, but limited part of engineering ethics. The movie demonstrates the broad range of engineering ethics which combines whistle-blowing, ethical design, and a fundamental consideration of the role of engineering in society.

When considering ethical engineering in Star Wars, a new range of questions emerge which, as #scifipolicy aficionados, we look forward to continuing to debate.  Was Luke Skywalker’s initial success only possible due to an ethical engineer? What is the balance of moral responsibility between the engineers and the force users? Does the final outcome of the battle between the light and dark sides depend upon engineering?  This is one role for science fiction in policy: to inspire questions, and perhaps provide some answers, that further illuminate the technological challenges we face in society right now. Reflecting on the ethical engineering in Star Wars can serve as amusing but fruitful practice for ethical engineering in the real world.


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[1] This is part of Hollywood’s habit of labeling as ‘science’ the most exciting parts of engineering. As Mark Watney said in The Martian while talking about many repair activities that were clearly engineering in nature: “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this!” Do
such fictional representations affect the career choices of students, when all the cool aspects of engineering are made to seem like science activities? For more details on how engineering is different from science, see Henry Petroski’s The Essential Engineer. 
Also, a more substantive spoiler that provides a hint into what engineering is in Star Wars: to punish Galen for being a whistleblowing traitor, Krennic kills seemingly all of the six or so engineers who worked for Galen. Apparently the engineers are all disposable whereas the ‘scientist’ in charge is not! That the engineers were both few in number and all very old, white men seems deliberate.

[2] (12/21/16 Edit: this footnote was accidentally left out, thanks to RT for noting error in comments.) The Jedi and the Rebellion’s use of technology is different from the Sith’s. They use technology, having their own fighter and cruisers that can fight with Star Destroyers, but they never attempt to make a singular weapon. In the prequels, there are also many different Jedi, as they don’t need to constrain their number due to a lack of trust. There are hints of a sort of craft knowledge amongst the rebellion: Han Solo’s relationship with the Millenium Falcon is one of craft and informal learning – one might suspect he’d enjoy the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?  

[3] The clone wars are an interesting contrast here: did the creation of the clone army (and eventual stormtroopers) reflect a type of technological fix as well? In some ways, surely yes, but it’s of a very different nature than the Death Star. That was an example of a very distributed military, which could exert a person-to-person style of military control across the galaxy. The use of cloning technology is not necessary, and perhaps Episode VII’s use of non-clone but brainwashed stormtroopers is a return to that. The Death Star, in contrast, was a very singular and monolithic device that could destroy planets. Why did the Emperor decide to build the Death Star instead of building endless numbers of clones such that he would simply overrun all resistance?

Interview with "Red Soil Through Our Fingers" Author N.A. Ratnayake

SciFi Policy: Tell us about your new novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers.

N.A. Ratnayake: I would describe the novel as a political thriller in space. We’re in a future, maybe a not so distant future, in which massive corporations have established colonies and settlements across the solar system. Our hero, Mahela, is a farmer on a Mars mining colony owned by one of these large corporations. He starts to realize that life as a tenant farmer on a Mars colony, millions of miles away from anyone’s jurisdiction, may not be quite as great as the brochure promised. He starts uncovering clues that lead him to some alarming conclusions, and as a result makes some powerful enemies. Mahela decides to make a stand for what’s right anyway... and you’ll have to read it to find out what happens.

On Building Economies for Space Civilizations:

SFP: In the book, you place Mars as a central hub for exchanging mining and agricultural goods that are then transferred throughout the solar system. Given the difficulty and mass penalties involved in taking goods into and out of a gravity well, to what extent do you think this will be a challenge? If humanity did grow throughout the solar system, to what extent is it likely that humans would grow crops on planets and not in zero gravity?

Ratnayake: This is more speculative than futurist, but I think that, like Chicago was for Western expansion in the United States, Mars will become not just a stop on the way to somewhere, but also a large center of population in its own right. In that sense, it's not a "waste" to send goods down the gravity well, because if you have millions or even hundreds of millions of people living on Mars, the goods will actually be consumed there too.

Yes, launch out of a gravity well is expensive, but so is structural volume. If you're growing food for tens of millions of people, the total space station volume you'd need is enormous. Why not build into the ground, where much of the food will be consumed anyway, you at least have some gravity, and can produce/recycle a lot of your resources in situ?

And to milk the Chicago analogy a little further, consider that historically, it would have been faster for trains going through the Midwest to go point to point, bypassing Chicago. Why would they stop? Because Chicago was a hub. A large population lived there, hungry for more refined goods from further up the civilization line. They also had goods to sell that the big cities on the East Coast couldn’t get on their own. It was also a manufacturing, refining, and integration center for raw materials farmed and mined in the west and midwest.

It’s also because point to point is not always the most efficient model -- what about massive supply haulers coming from Earth to Mars, that then distribute their cargo to smaller freighters on runs to outer colonies? They could stop for refuel, resupply, dropping off and picking up new passengers, and any number of other activities. The bulk of this activity will surely be done in orbit, on stations high in the gravity well, but much of it will come down to the surface too. Especially if orbital access becomes more efficient with space elevators or what have you, I don't think this is a big leap.

SFP: In the world of Red Soil, corporations led the drive to settle the planets, with the RBX corporation owning the Mars colony in which the main character, Mahela, settles. As you know, there are strong debates today about whether future exploration should be government-led or led by the private sector. It is difficult to know for sure whether there will be enough profit to enable the private sector to take initial exploration steps altogether. Do you think proft alone will incentivize the push to explore the outer solar system? Or will we need some combination of government and private funding?

Ratnayake: I think the initial exploration and setup of infrastructure will likely be government, or at the very least a government-industry collaboration. That's been the case for most of history. A government will see the strategic importance of investing in certain infrastructure to open up new areas of settlement, transportation, resources, or discovery, and then commercial enterprise will grow into it. That investment could come through direct construction of infrastructure and systems, guaranteed contracts from civil government or the military, or through other economic and social incentives. So I think it will be a mix.

Strong public space policy shouldn't squash commercial spaceflight, but it does need to keep pace with corporate expansion into space to make sure we keep things balanced. Beyond simply keeping up with commercial enterprise, I think that public policy needs to go further and lead with a strong vision of what our future in space should look like, so as to guide the forces of enterprise and innovation towards a positive future.

The United States Congress has recently passed The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015. This is a domestic law which guarantees property rights to US citizens who extract resources from space or celestial bodies. While this sounds great, I believe the specific nature of this act violates the spirit of a long-standing international agreement called the Outer Space Treaty, which sought to make sure that the riches of our solar system would be always open to science and used for the betterment of all people. So we are not on a balanced path already.

My personal opinion is that we should put all human and human-directed activity outer space that is for commercial purposes under international jurisdiction, with a regulatory structure that makes sure a portion of all wealth generated goes toward lifting the whole world up. This would allow private companies to stake claims and conduct private commerce, but also make sure that humanity’s expansion into space is an achievement that our whole species can share.

On Using Engineering and Policy to Build a Better World:

SFP: At a meta-level, to what extent did you intend to have a policy message in the book? What would be your main message to policy makers?

Ratnayake: I think the overall policy message is that we need to be proactive and responsible about actively shaping an equitable and just future for all people in space, starting right now. As more nations and private corporations join the fold of space-faring entities, huge public policy challenges will come along with that expansion. I don’t think most citizens of the world want unregulated, for-profit corporations to take the lead on defining what that future looks like.

As for inserting policy messages into the book, I think for Red Soil it came out unintentionally. I always start with a premise and characters, and the story kind of grows around those aspects. I certainly saw a messages emerge in early drafts, and I did intentionally try to hone them and bring them out through the major themes of the novel.

SFP: To what extent did you try to use your engineering background in the book?

Ratnayake: I think my engineering background comes through indirectly in the novel. Certainly, I spent some time researching Mars colonization, basic infrastructure, and so forth. I also did a fair amount of systems analysis at a conceptual level, via simple spreadsheets for things like populations, resources, etc. And I spent a lot of hours nerding out on Google Mars!

To make the research process even more exciting, the two years during which I was writing this novel overlapped with some amazing discoveries about Mars, such as liquid water on the surface under certain conditions, the structural instability of Phobos, and many others. So I found myself trying to season in these new findings whenever I could, even in later drafts.

My goal was to ground the word of the novel in a believable, technically consistent setting. I hope that the well-researched setting will appeal to seasoned Hard-SF fans, while still being accessible enough to draw lay-readers into the wonder of the Martian landscape, the details of daily life on the red planet, and the cities we might one day inhabit on other worlds.

All that said, I definitely think a good story is ultimately about people, not technology or settings. I tried to use my engineering background only where it was useful and avoid making the novel an engineering manual. Red Soil Through Our Fingers is not a comprehensive vision of how we could someday colonize Mars. It is, instead, a human-level exploration of where our current trajectory will take us if we project our present socio-political systems forward into an era of Mars settlement.

SFP: We enjoyed the character of Ashok, the systems engineer who, despite his academic pedigree, ended up being woefully unprepared when it came to practical, applied work on the farm. Why did you include this?

Ratnayake: With specific regards to the character Ashok, I think it's useful for us engineers to remember that our skillsets are useful for certain limited number of things. I think sometimes we like to think that we have a more logical or efficient solution to many social or political problems, but in reality I think we would find our default approach hopelessly naive in the face of many social and political challenges.

For example, people are not rational, efficient, linear, or particularly good at making decisions based on long-term group consequences. These uncertainties make human systems difficult to model, especially for engineers who like to linearize everything. (There’s the old joke about an aeronautical engineer being perfectly willing to assume a horse is a sphere of equivalent drag coefficient, because it makes the aerodynamics easier… fortunately or unfortunately, humans cannot be similarly reduced.)

Engineering is critical to building our future, but engineers are not the solution to everything. In fact, I believe that the largest challenges we will face as we expand into space will be social and political, not technical. In that sense, the character of Ashok is a bit of a reality check. He definitely has his redeeming qualities, but they are at a human level, not tied to his technical credentials.

SFP: The book ends on a cliffhanger, with Sun Hee being left in charge of the RBX company on Mars. What chance do you think she has of changing the economic system for the better? With such a dystopian premise, what prospects would any one individual have of changing her world for the better?

I don't want to give away too much of the plan for the rest of the series yet, but generally speaking, Sun-Hee will attempt take the colony in a new, more positive direction. It's going to be hell for her to try and do so, and she’s going to have to rely on many other people in positions of power to see their way to something more just, but she's going to try.

If I had to generally characterize each of the novels I have planned at the moment, then I would say something like:

  • Book 1 (Red Soil Through Our Fingers): Define the problem.
  • Book 2 (untitled so far): Depict the ugly transition that has to happen because we waited too long to get this right, and show the sustained moral courage required to change entrenched, corrupt social systems.
  • Book 3 (untitled so far): Show how we build something better with our hard-won freedom.

I personally don't like the fact that many dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or speculative social justice stories leave us hanging in a dark place. It's certainly important to address the darker aspects of society and the negative consequences of our collective choices, but I think it's also important to contribute something in the way of how to make it better. Stories that are focused purely on pointing out what’s wrong with society play on our fears and point fingers, often without offering any real solutions.

My aim is that the Red Soil trilogy as a whole will not be seen as a dystopia at all, even though the first book is pretty dark. Like social progress in real life, the world will end better than it started, but it’s going to require a lot of bitter sacrifice from a lot of good people in order to get there.

We need to be idealistic with our goals and realistic with our tactics at the same time. I think we can do that.

On Public vs Private Control of Space:

SFP: We’ve seen and enjoyed fiction that espouses a variety of political visions, each of which has some, debatable, chance of becoming a reality. In Red Soil Through Our Fingers, you show a space future in which corporations like Rekos-Breland Xenomaterials (RBX) dominate. To what extent do you think this fictional setting is likely to play out in our actual future?

Ratnayake: I think it's great that private entities, including corporations, are making inroads into space. I'm a human spaceflight nut, and I'm among those cheering on SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and all the others. The more the better. If, as a species, we are going to live in space permanently and make the best use of the resources available to us in our solar system, then private commercial enterprise needs to become involved.

I think that the perils of a government-dominated future in space are just as dire as a corporate-dominated one. But the fictional world of Red Soil Through Our Fingers depicts what I think is our mostly likely course out of those two extremes.

If you look at the balance of power in our society today, public policy is mired in partisanship and beholden to big money. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are in poverty, underemployed, or trapped in exploitative systems, while pan-global corporations are pulling in record profits. One of the core functions of government, the military, is driven largely by private lobbying and defense contracts. Even an agency like NASA, whose global public image is overwhelmingly positive, cannot develop spaceflight architectures and research portfolios at their discretion. NASA is constrained by congressional requirements to use contractors, suppliers, and even whole systems that maintain jobs in key districts where lobbyists have power.

Corporations and private industry are not inherently evil, and we are not living in a corporate oligarchy, but there is a balance between private enterprise and social control of production and resources that needs to be met in order for a society to be equitable. I think, globally, we are far from that balance point.

If we extrapolate our current socio-economic state forward into the future of commercial spaceflight, then in the extreme we end up with the world of Red Soil.

I don't think science fiction has to "predict" the future in order to be useful. In Red Soil Through Our Fingers, I'm not trying to show the future as I think it will actually happen. I'm using a future setting to show a forward projection of the way we live now. In that sense, the story is really about where we are today, rather than where I think we will be later in any concrete sense.

My plan is that the sequels to Red Soil Through Our Fingers will explore alternatives to this future, and attempt to show the difficult transition between a world we have but don’t want to a world which may not be perfect, but is at least better.

SFP: The book depicts a return to economic domination in models similar to those that exist today. Why would a Mars-active company engage in slimeball tactics similar to what has happened on Earth?

Ratnayake: Why slimeball tactics by corporations? The short answer is because a) they work to generate profit, and b) no one is stopping them. What RBX does in the novel is almost literally what large agricultural corporations are doing right now, and not just in far-off third-world countries. Many farmers and ranchers even in an advanced democracy like the United States find themselves in situations that are uncomfortably similar to those of Mahela, Taliyah, and Raquel in my fictional Hellas-Dao Colony.

Cattle, milk, poultry, coffee, diamonds, chocolate, raw metal, produce, oil and almost any other commodities you can think of are generated for the global market at the lowest cost through strong-arm tactics that favor corporate distributors and large suppliers over small producers and workers -- many of whom live in indentured servitude and, in many cases, de facto slavery.

Considering a relatively near-future setting, such as that of Red Soil, and assuming government check on corporate power gets worse rather than better, then I see no reason why any corporation would give up clearly profitable tactics. After all, that is their legal mandate. A free-market corporation is the ideal social structure to maximize profit at the expense of people, while conveniently avoiding direct guilt or blame for anyone involved. A corporation, or a government for that matter, can be full of well-intentioned, generally ethical individuals -- whose aggregated actions result in an exploitative system just because how we have chosen to structure our society and economy.

In the novel, Yoo Sun-Hee is a corporate executive for RBX. A large part of her character arc is realizing the personal consequences of looking behind that curtain of willful ignorance, and coming to terms with what she has been a part of over the course of her whole career.

SFP: The fact that you refer so directly to present-day corporate tactics raises a meta-question: to what extent do the policy conclusions of Red Soil Through Our Fingers require a science fictional setting at all?

Ratnayake: I don't think the plot itself requires a science fictional setting. But I think the setting is useful, because it projects our current trajectory forward, and depicts what the future could look like for us if we don't make some course corrections.

They say art should hold a mirror up to society. I think science fiction has a powerful role to play in that the mirror can be a time portal as well. Science fictional settings can help us explore the effect of our actions and attitudes on our future selves, and what we are setting up for future generations. A corporate espionage thriller set in the present day wouldn't do that, even if the plot were similar.

SFP: In the time of the novel, Earth, via the United Nations, is threatening to impose regulation and taxation on off-Earth entities, which have been developing for some time. Do you think it is plausible that Earth governments will wait many decades to change outer space laws about corporate domination? Why wouldn’t this regulation void get filled earlier?

Ratnayake: I think the question assumes that governments have more control over corporations than I think they do. Consider what just happened with the recent financial meltdown. Thirty years of deregulation and so-called "free trade" (championed by both major political parties, by the way), and at each incremental step it gets harder to reverse the tide of greater corporate control of resources and production. Then in 2008 we have one of the largest financial meltdowns in modern history, with hundreds of millions of people affected globally, and no one in government can manage to even prosecute anyone, let alone make any meaningful reparations, because these large corporations are just too embedded in the fabric of our global economy.

For an an analogous situation, consider Mexico's drug cartels. Over time, these cartels to grew into an entrenched system of corruption and violence, with tentacles all over the country -- embedded in government, backed by many citizens for filling societal vacuums, and sprawled across international borders. When Mexican President Calderón decided that something finally needed to be done, the cancer was so pervasive that it required a de facto civil war to begin dislodging it. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and the violence hasn’t fully subsided even today.

This is how human affairs go. We look the other way until we don't have another choice, and by then something really big has to break in order to make a change. I think the world of Red Soil could plausibly arise in much the same way, if we choose to let it.

Final Thoughts:

SFP: What have been your favorite science fiction stories that inform policy?

Ratnayake: Of the science fiction novels I've read, I think four stand out: * The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, which is of course a classic. Showing the progressive alienation of a war veteran from society as he deploys and redeploys in a pointless, multi-generational, relativistic war really brings home the human cost of conflicts that are initiated and sustained by people who do not have to suffer the consequences of their decisions. I would hope that this novel could help humanize strategic military decisions, and help us all consider the total cost of war beyond the simple price tag of mobilization.

  • Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Though lean on interesting character arcs, I think Anathem makes up for it through sheer force of ideas. The novel is full of thought experiments that bend the mind. More importantly, the novel also asks us to consider the relationship between science and society, a relationship which I think we take for granted, if we even acknowledge it explicitly exists at all.
  • The Quiet War, by Paul McAuley. For all the advances that are happening right now in genetics and neuroscience, biological hard science fiction is agonizingly hard to come by. McAuley fills the void by asking us to consider what it even means to be human in an era of genetic self-modification. Also, why terraform planets when the technology to change ourselves is much closer to reality and orders of magnitude cheaper to implement? And how do people react to that sort of existential threat to what it even means to be a person? (Sometimes violently, it turns out...) The social and political issues raised in this novel are imminently upon us as a species.
  • Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie. I think Book 2 of the wonderful Imperial Radch trilogy stands out to me in several ways. It artfully shows how the privileged can be blind to their own privilege, even when directly confronted with it, thus propagating social inequities from generation to generation. It shows a wide range of social and political structures adapted to many different worlds and off-world environments. It explores the relationship between security, privacy, and ethics in an environment of ubiquitous invasive information about citizens. And it shows how cultural norms can effectively mask brutal oppression with the veneer of civilization, order, and justice.
  • Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed makes it absolutely clear that everything about the way we structure society, from politics to economy to the arrangement of families, is a choice. There is nothing special about how we do any of these things now, except that they have precedent and at some point they worked well enough for the purposes of whoever was in power at the time. I think the novel implicitly asks us: If we could truly choose what kind of society we would have, what would we build?

I’ve got my eye on a few more that have come out somewhat recently and seem policy-relevant, but I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, John Scalzi’s Lock In, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 are on my to-read list.

SFP: Now that you have completed your first novel, what’s next for your writing? Do you expect your future writing to have policy-relevant themes?

Ratnayake: So many projects on the to-do list! As I mentioned earlier, I’m already in the process of laying out ideas for the two sequels to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. However, I have no specific timeline for these novels yet.

Actually, to be honest, I’m a little novel’ed out after going through the whole writing, revision, and publication process. I think I’d like to get back to writing a short story or two, and spend some time returning the many peer-critique favors to my writer's group before I delve too deeply into another big project.

I’m interested in doing more of the near-term Hard-SF stuff like Red Soil, but I’ve also got an itch to do something more fantastical, such as a far-future space opera or even a straight up fantasy novel.

No matter what I end up writing next, I think there is a good chance something about it will be policy related. I love exploring the intersection between ideas and people. In that intersection is where I find the most interesting science fiction, and where I think the heart of what policy is.

About N.A. Ratnayake N.A. Ratnayake is a former aerospace engineer turned science teacher and science fiction writer. He lives in Boston. His short stories have appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine, and the postcolonial anthology We See a Different Frontier. His story “Remembering Turinam” received an honorable mention in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Thirty-First Edition.

His debut novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers, is the result of a longstanding passion for human spaceflight, combined with a desire to see humanity move towards a more positive future for all people. You learn more about the novel and N.A. Ratnayake at his website:

Tools for Inserting Science Fiction into Policy

As you might guess from our “Why Science Fiction and Policy” page, we wish there was an established field of “Science Fiction Policy Studies”. Yes, there are already venues out there for futurists, as well as many resources on using scenarios to inform decision making (google scholar abounds with it!). But rarely does science fiction get discussed in policy debates or inform policy decisions. We want there to be more public and scholarly attention about how science fiction stories can inform policy debates about the future. Science fiction stories can force us to think through our own goals and priorities for given policy issues, allowing us to develop a similar language for talking about policy decisions. 

Thankfully, there have been some efforts to contextualize science fiction and how it can inform policy. Below is our list (which we’ll update as we find more) of some of the best resources for thinking about the role of science fiction in informing policy. Some of these tools can be used to create new, tailored science fiction that can tease out key parts of a policy debate. Others can take existing science fiction and help better insert it into policy discussions. 

  •  "Thinking longer term about technology: is there value in science fiction-inspired approaches to constructing futures?” Bennett and Miller's 2008 article in the journal Science and Public Policy. This article explores multiple reasons why science fiction can be helpful for thinking through policy issues. As the authors say: 
    • “[I]f society is going to become more reflexive in assessing and anticipating technological change and its implications for society... it seems to us crucial to identify novel strategies for thinking longer term about technology that can incorporate questions of meaning and social dynamics — no less than physical laws — as foundational elements of analysis”
    • “It is wrong to see science fiction as merely about individuals; science fiction narratives are about individuals who inhabit societies, and the best science fiction allows us, through individual stories, to have societies very different from our own come alive”
    • “We need, therefore, to develop new tools that can help the public engage vitally with scientific and technological futures, which increasingly are caught up not only in the physical transformation of matter but the biological transformation of life. One such potential tool is new socio-literary techniques built on the strengths of science fiction.”
  • Just as Bennett and Miller explore science fiction as a tool for governance, others have proposed a broader framework for governing science policy, with science fiction as a key tool for doing analysis. Real-time technology assessment has a dedicated research theme for using science fiction. The most significant implementation  of this research approach is through work on  "Technology Assessment and Choice" which uses SF as part of a broader suite of tools to examine where technologies are going and how society should govern them. Science fiction can tie to many different approaches for governing technology. 
  • Rosalyn Berne, a professor at the University of Virginia, has used SF as a tool to probe where scientists imagine how their work might develop. By forcing scientists and engineers to write SF stories themselves, it can cause them to question assumptions about utility and unintended consequences that might not otherwise be considered. This approach could help generate new science fiction, which in turn may make scientists and engineers more aware of the policy dimensions of their own work. 
  • NASA has also explored using science fiction to inform its policy decisions! At the turn of the millennium, NASA worked with several science fiction, including the late Arthur C. Clarke, to get advice for how it should do long term thinking.  David Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars discussed the result and prospects of such an approach here

This list is just a beginning, and we’d love to get input from others on what other helpful resources there are. Please join the conversation by emailing us at, or on twitter @scifipolicy


Where to Find Policy-Relevant Science Fiction

What is science fiction? Debates for decades have tried  to define what science fiction is, exactly, often trying to exclude some piece of the genre and emphasize others. Such debates are likely irresolvable. In the words of Justice Potter, you "know it when [you] see it". There is a lot of science fiction published every year, and much of it varies, from the fantastical to dystopic to transcendent visions of humanity and its various possible futures. We are willing to have a broad definition of what science fiction is-- but our main concern is trying to find fiction that makes us rethink policy debates. 

We should also caveat an oft-repeated concern: some avoid science fiction because they don’t think it is “good literature”. We, in part, agree: there is a lot of bad science fiction published every year. But, as the editor Theodore Sturgeon once said, “90% of everything is crap.” Given that most published literature is bad, it’s obvious that most science fiction is likely not to be good as well. We believe that there is a spectrum of quality for stories, but that there can sometimes still be awkwardly written tales that can make us think differently about real world problems. 

Science fiction stories can be divided into four different categories. As described by the Hugo awards definitions

  • Novel: story of forty thousand (40,000) words or more.
  • Novella: story of between seventeen thousand five hundred (17,500) and forty thousand (40,000) words.
  • Novelette: story of between seven thousand five hundred (7,500) and seventeen thousand five hundred (17,500) words.
  • Short Story: less than seven thousand five hundred (7,500) words.

Here at SciFi Policy, we have a special focus on short stories through novellas. Numerous references already exist for assessing what books are available in science fiction every year -- check out major websites like io9, and If there is an important policy message in a book, it will become part of the discussion. There are, however, very few resources for identifying short stories in science fiction. Moreover, if you’re looking for something that a congressional staffer or federal decision maker can read, the story often needs to be short. Shorter stories are worth focusing on because they have a better chance to go viral, whether among policy-makers or the public. 

Here is a partial list of the magazines that publish short fiction (novella through short stories). Some of them are paper or kindle subscription only, but increasingly more and more magazines are putting stories online. 




Finally, Sam Tomaino’s brief summaries over at are an invaluable resource in sifting through the substantional amount of material published each month. 

Across all of these magazines and anthologies, there are several dozen short fiction pieces published every month. One of the best resources for discovering what new science fiction short stories are coming out is’s prolific Sam Tomaino. His column (Note that the link will direct you to July, 2015; just skim through to find the month and year you’d like) provides several-sentence summaries of all SciFi short fiction published each month. Given that there are too many short stories published in a month for any mortal human to read them all, we sometimes skim through Tomaino’s SFRevu blurbs to decide which stories are worth reading That helps us triage 80% of the SciFi that's out there, searching for stories that seem to be relevant to a contemporary policy debate. 

However, given all of this: it’s still hard to find science fiction stories that can help us think through policy issues. Likely more such fiction needs to be written -- but there are still gems that are published every year. 

As time permits, our blog will attempt to curate and write about new science fiction stories that may help us think through issues in a different way. Your thoughts and suggestions on candidate stories or resources for finding policy relevant scifi are welcome: shoot them over to, or tweet them at us @scifipolicy.

Why Science Fiction and Policy?

“Where policy and vision intersect”

We strongly believe that a more focused use of science fiction can help the policy process to be more reflective and participatory. We’re dedicated to having more and greater discussions of science fiction stories with subject matter relevant to government and public policy. We also want to encourage more science fiction writers to write stories related to policy issues. By combining both increased demand for SciFi IN policy as well as more supply of SciFi FOR policy, we think SciFi can help improve outcomes in policy debates in the government. 

Why does this matter? Policy debates often happen in a confused rush, with competing interests jumping in to frame an issue before a policy maker has time to explore the full set of options. , Whether in  Congress or within an agency of the federal government, these decision makers simply don’t have the time to sit back and think for about the big picture. We can’t remove all such challenges in policy, but there are ways to nudge these men and women to think longer term, to better work toward the goals that the public wants and needs, with cognizance of the uncertain ways in which the future can evolve. 

We should be clear: the point is NOT to have science fiction predict the future of different policy decisions. While occasionally science fiction helps to predict some future technology (and gets chronicled in list after list after list), very often science fiction misses incredibly important changes. For example, while the revolution in information technology has been partially foretold in books like Neuromancer or Snowcrash, all of these works didn’t foresee the critical role that social media played in defining the new internet, and it’s impact on our world. It’s impossible to do a rigorous assessment of how accurate (or not) science fiction is, but we argue for a different goal altogether.

Instead of prediction, our desire is for science fiction that helps us better address the decisions we will make, as well as who we are and what values we have. If these issues are framed up in the context of a contemporary policy issue, it can force the reader to be more reflective, to think about their own goals and potential uncertainties. A good story can serve as a common reference point in a debate, helping different groups think about the same terms even if they disagree. By being reflective, thinking things through and exploring different scenarios through SciFi, policy makers may make better decisions about the future. 

We encourage a broad definition of what science fiction is-- but our main concern is trying to find fiction that makes us rethink policy and our approach to resolving the needs of society. We by no means think all science fiction needs to be this way: ‘popcorn movie’ adventure stories and mind-bending philosophical reflections have their place in science fiction. However, we do feel there is a lack of debate about (and perhaps supply of) of science fiction stories with something to say about how our current governments and organizations can debate and set policy for generations to come.

We want to find and emphasize stories that do this, which we call policy-relevant SciFi. Many have examples of science fiction stories that open up their mind to new possibilities about a political issue, from the internet to satellites or nanotechnology. Are there key debates coming up, such as about how to deal with human genetic sequencing or assessing autonomous cars, where we really could use more science fiction stories to help us better understand evolving terms of debate? What’s an example of a SciFi story that you wish you could show a decision maker at a Research agency, or even a Congressional staffer? We want to find these stories and issues, and encourage those in positions to frame policy debates to have access to their insights into these issues.. 

If you want to share word exciting new stories or drop us a line to talk about how science fiction and policy relate, please comment on the site, or send us an email at