Doing Things with SF and Speculation

There is a perception that SF is about predicting the future. While that may be the case for some SF, far more common is SF that deals with trends, and buried in those trends, possibilities, while other SF is more in the nature of what-ifs and general speculation. SF thus may or may not be technological, although to maintain a semblance of difference from garden-variety fantasy it often has the veneer of the technoscientific as a distinguishing feature. I have discussed SF previously as a composite of technological futurism, epistemological futurism, and conditions of possibility, in other words that takes the future as a starting point for thinking about possible presents, but that description works only for a certain kind of SF, as all descriptions do. More specifically, that description of SF works for the kind of SF that I find interesting as a researcher, as this kind of SF helps me think through certain problems and questions I am dealing with.

This kind of SF has been seen as useful by any number of organizations, including think tanks and governments, who think that SF provides particularly fertile grounds for speculating about future societies and technologies. Both NASA and ESA have had numerous projects drawing upon SF.[1] Just a few months ago, newspapers widely reported the French Government recruiting SF writers for assistance in military strategy (the truth is a little more complex than that, but not by much).[2] There are any number of websites out there which focus on what SF got right and what it didn’t (or hasn’t yet) when it came to predictions about future technologies.[3] Within natural science domains, SF often turns up as a general thinking tool, allowing the kind of gee-whiz excitement about possible technologies and ideas that may or may not be feasible. In many cases, people and organizations also actively work towards making such ideas real, or at least exploring the possibilities of translating some ideas into reality.[4] A whole bunch of innovations literature has used SF to think with possibilities in technoscientific development. University centers such as the Arthur C Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego,[5] and the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University[6] have done an incredible job thinking with the science and science fiction model, dealing with a wide variety of imaginative responses to global problems such as climate change. Such responses have also spawned new tools and methodologies such as prototype fiction, coined by Intel’s Brian David Johnson, which encourage prototyping both ideas and effects of SFnal technologies that are within the realm of possibility.

Yet, when talking about SF, three main problems remain. First, how does one create a process for such speculative thinking that can be used by people with SF or non-SF interests, such that speculation itself is seen generally as a positive activity: an essential part of rather than dissociated from reality. This is not a problem unique to SF, it is a problem for other speculative genres such as fantasy or fairytale and folklore. But the problem is particularly acute when discussing SF, since folklore and fairytale at least have a certain cultural claim which SF lacks in most parts of the world. Second, how do we encourage speculation that is geared towards more positive possibilities. Much speculation today is dystopic, which is unsurprising given the state of the world, where climate change, demographic change, and technological change cause numerous anxieties about the future. but one of the advantages of speculation is that it can help us think past those mental and social blocks. As Samuel Delany put it in his Paris Review interview, “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”[7] Third, how do we ensure that those who most need it to think of possibilities use such tools and strategies effectively: the marginalized, the oppressed, and the suffering. By effective, I mean to say that these speculations are seen, heard, and taken seriously, and such speculations are not co-opted into technocratic or technofascistic views or co-opted into top-down managerial visions.

There are no easy answers to these, but luckily I can at least work on some of these problems in the next years. I also intend to investigate strategies used by others to address these same problems, and explore if some of these strategies can be scaled up or distributed when talking about the globe.

 


 

[1] For instance, check out this cool project Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications, edited by David Raitt (https://www.esa.int/esapub/br/br176/br176.pdf)

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-49044892

[3] Perhaps the most comprehensive source of such hits and misses is the technovelgy database: http://technovelgy.com/

[4] NANORA, the EU Nano Regions Alliance that focuses on nanotechnology, has done cool things with nanotech ideas in science fiction literature. http://www.nanora.eu/nano-dimension-science-fiction

[5] http://imagination.ucsd.edu/index.html

[6] https://csi.asu.edu/

[7] Delany, Samuel R. “The Art of Fiction No. 210.” Interview by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. The Paris Review, Issue 197, Summer 2011. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6088/samuel-r-delany-the-art-of-fiction-no-210-samuel-r-delany.

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