Futurists! Use Science Fiction to Grab your Audience by the Heart
For context, this article began as a five-minute speech at an event sponsored by The Fork in the Road Project initiators.
Story matters. The stories we tell ourselves about the future create our beliefs and our actions. If we believe the road we are on is leading us to a dangerous and dark place, we hunker down and hoard toilet paper. We hide. If we believe the road winds through interesting, hopeful places, we invest our hearts in that positive future.
Stories can create hope.
But let’s start with warnings. The most famous warning delivered by science fiction came from George Orwell for the book 1984. He took the trends he saw in the 1940s (authoritarian governance in Stalinist Russia) and imagined the technology government would need to gain complete control over its people. 1984 is a dark book that deals with surveillance, fake news, and power that doesn’t care about human happiness. It still sells tens of thousands of copies a year because it is relevant today. Other books that warned us included Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
The list of dystopian fiction is far longer than this article. While that sounds depressing, it serves a purpose. It tells us where we do not want to go.
But for now, let’s move along to fiction that shows our power, our heart, and the possibilities for good that lie before and within us.
Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds, which came out in 2012, tells of a primarily positive and technically fascinating future. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future is recent, well researched, and utterly absorbing. These stories of the future depict a world with utopian and dystopian elements. They celebrate the strength of the human heart in the face of obstacles. They tell us that we can succeed.
In addition to reading and recommending novels, I’ve seen very short stories used to illustrate scenarios. Here is a small example. I have been talking with some other futurists recently about human population. The core question is “Should we have more people? Or fewer?”
Let me tell you a very short story about a woman named Marianna, thirty years from now…
Marianna pulled her sister’s child, Liam, into her arms and buried her face in the glorious smell of baby shampoo, touching her cheek to his small, soft one. She imagined him with a brother or sister, a prize from the lottery she entered every month in hope that she would be chosen to have a child. But no more. “I’m so sorry, Liam,” she whispered. “I know you need a cousin. But you, me, and your mom all need a new house further up the hill.”
Marianna had already started packing the kitchen, using the careful placement of chipped coffee cups into paper-lined nests to cement her decision. She set Liam down carefully in his bassinette, next to his sleeping mother. and went outside. Her eyes leaked small tears. On her way uphill to the family planning clinic to trade her fertility lottery tickets for a house outside of the flood zone, she turned to look below, where the ocean crashed against the foot of the town at the far end of their street. The sea was healing. She had seen a dolphin just yesterday. She bowed her head and whispered to the waves. “I am doing this for you as well,” she whispered.
That was two paragraphs. Just enough to create a feeling and start a discussion. I’ve seen small vignettes like these included with scenario planning, in strategic plans, and in education pieces. They work. They engage the heart. Having a human character in a situation and setting can drive home the implications and complications of our choices. Character can create hope.
In a science book that’s very appropriate to the Fork in the Road Project, James Hansen devotes an entire chapter near the end of his book Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe to a story.
I encourage all of us to tell stories about what waits for us after the climb the upward path, and how we get there.
Once more, this article was adapted from a five-minute speech I gave in my role as a signatory and supporter of The Fork in the Road Project. Please consider dropping by the website Forkintheroadproject.com and joining us as we fight to help the world understand the urgency for significant human change.
Here is a short reading list designed to grouped by the goals of the Fork in the Road Project.
Feel free to recommend books or stories you like in the comments.
Dealing with the Climate Crisis so that humans and all life can continue to flourish on Earth
· The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson, 2020
· New York, 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2017
· The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi, 2015
· Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver, 2013
· The Great Silence, by Ted Chiang
· Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction, edited by John Joseph Adams, 2015
Designing New Economic and Political Frameworks, based on sustainable principles such as “People, Planet, Purpose & Prosperity”
· Stealing Worlds, Karl Schroeder, 2019
· The Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler, 1993 (also Climate)
· 1984, George Orwell, 1949 (Dark, but important)
· Karl Schroeder, Degrees of Freedom, Hieroglyph, Stories and Visions for a better future, 2015
Managing Exponential Scientific and Technological Progress
· Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds, 2012
· Phoenix Horizon Trilogy, PJ Manney, 2015–2021
· Accellerando, Charlie Stross, 2009
· WWW Trilogy, Robert Sawyer, 2009
Governing Human Enhancement, Longevity, and Human Genome Editing so that progress continues while consequences are carefully considered
· The Nexus Trilogy, Ramez Naam, 2013–2015
· Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress, 1994
· Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes, 1958
· Time enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein,
Other writers to pay attention to:
· Cory Doctorow
· Liu Cixin
· Paolo Bacigalupi
· N.K Jemisin
· Tobias Buckell
· Neil Stephenson
· Nnedi Okorafor
At least a hundred others…..