Can Science Fiction Writing Change The Future?

science fiction writing

Science fiction writing imagines a future — sometimes dystopian, sometimes utopian — but can it help shape the future and save mankind?

Occupying a sliver in the timeline of cultural evolution, a bump in the wobbly course of progressive civilization, writers bear a unique responsibility to honestly depict the current course of human events and portray — with imagination and clarity — where that course is heading. Are we en route to an irreversible planetary meltdown or will we rally to meet the challenges of our age?

Despite the proclamations of author Steven Pinker that we’re living in the best era ever, a few monstrous heat waves, the accompanying wildfires, a rampant virus that shuts down the world economy, and the mass migration of people fleeing societal and climatological events make you realize it’s not so rosy out there in the real world.

Writing for openDemocracy, Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct, offers a blistering critique of Pinker’s ideas, mirroring the same technique Pinker used — hard data exemplified in graphs — to make his points.

Whether our collective fortunes are rising or falling, some imaginative authors construct visions that are the harbingers of our future, whether it’s a scenario filled with impossible despair (The Road by Cormac McCarthy) or a more optimistic view of human potential (the Dune novels by Frank Herbert).

It doesn’t have to be hopeless

Author Jim Infantino, who recently released the second title in his The Wakeful Wanderer’s Guide, hews to a hopeful approach in his speculative fiction. Infantino says:

“Much of near-future speculative fiction, by which I mean stories set a hundred or so years into our future, depict worst-case scenarios. These can be a near-perfect pandemic, like the one in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, or near-total environmental collapse as depicted in The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. These stand as flashing red lights for the reader warning us that if we don’t change our ways, things could get terrible.

The other side of speculative fiction, though not always less dark, is the utopian story. Novels like The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk, or Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, have fallen out of fashion, but contrast their idealized utopian societies with their nightmarishly horrific dystopian neighbors. Both styles of storytelling echo a warning, only one suggests a positive way forward. I think the trend has been to err on the negative edge.

No writer wants to be called naïve. On the other hand, since we tend to steer toward what we look at, isn’t it also naïve to think we could ever make things better by accident? If we can’t imagine a better future, how would we achieve it? I hope that there are some speculative fiction writers creating today who sketch out the parameters of a better world and risk being tagged as Pollyanna. That’s the space in which I’m currently writing, and I hope I’m not alone.”

Is society doomed to self-destruct?

As President of the Integrative Strategies Forum (ISF), based in Silver Spring, MD, Jeffrey Barber has a keen interest in discovering and nurturing the most effective ways to communicate the concepts and ideals of sustainability. At a very young age, he recognized the power of storytelling to instill a sense of wonder in the natural world.

“Growing up, the book that had the most profound effect on me was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Barber recalls. “It started out not from the book, but it was one of my first experiences of movies. My mother took me to the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland; this was in 1954 or ’55. I was really little, four or five years old, and I remember that we came into the movies late. We were walking in, going through the door, and on the screen was the scene where they are already under water and there is this big window and all these fish streaming by and Captain Nemo is there with his library and big pipe organ, made out of shells. I was just blown away by this vision. After that somebody told me it came from a book and I thought in amazement: ‘That came from a book!’ That was when I decided I wanted to be a writer (even though I didn’t know how to write then).”

Jules Verne, considered by many to be the father of science fiction, penned 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1870 and, although some of the scientific assertions have been shown to be faulty, his work inspired the development of the first electric submarine and other advances in the sciences.

science fiction writing Jules Verne
Frontispiece: From Vingt Mille Lieues Sous Les Mers (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Paris: J. Hetzel, 1871. Harvard University.

“Today, stories about the future are mostly dystopias or apocalyptic,” says Barber. “It seems so hard to deal with imagining our emergence into a sustainable future. You always hear that it’s boring. Why should it be boring? Why can’t we deal with the struggles that are involved in trying to create that? You don’t have to have a story about how everything is perfect and everybody is happy. People think ‘that’s utopia; there’s no such thing.’ What we need to see is the struggle, the process, the mental processes that are involved, the emotional processes, the social friction, dealing with other people and all our various flaws and weaknesses and fragility in the process of creating a society that is not going to self-destruct.”

“We need to transform society,” Barber continues, “to have a truly just, sustainable society. To do that, we need to imagine another system. Speculative fiction is a social laboratory for envisioning those things. If you can’t imagine it, you aren’t going to work for it.”

An example of a near-future book that suggests ways to transition to a sustainable future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future. Barber observes that, “Robinson is dealing with climate change and the United Nations and things like low-carbon zeppelins for transatlantic flights. How do we make this transition to a sustainable future? Hardly any writers that I have found are doing that.”

Confronting today’s issues through storytelling

Shelley Streeby, author of Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism, is director of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Association and a professor of Literature and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her work combines real-world social movements, epic worldmaking, and the rigors of contending with climate disruption and justice for those who are disrupted.

Streeby credits the work of science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler with informing and inspiring a generation of creatives by highlighting the consequences of global warming and writing powerful stories that bring home the dire possibilities. In her blog, Streeby writes:

As Director of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Institute, I learned a lot about imagining the future of climate change from meeting adrienne maree brown, a brilliant writer of visionary speculative fiction and social movement organizer who uses Butler’s work to partner with communities and movements, using direct action to confront climate change and environmental racism and co-create what she calls symbiotic relationships based on our needs and our dreams. In this way, she builds on Butler’s imaginings of symbiotic entanglements among humans, critters, and the Earth that belie myths of isolated, competitive individuals as she labors to create linkages between groups such as the Arctic Indigenous Youth Alliance and the environmental and social justice organization the Ruckus Society.

Can science fiction reimagine the future?

Writing for RE.THINK, Andrew Merrie poses the question, can science fiction reimagine the future of global development? “Development is a serious and important endeavour that impacts many people’s lives,” Merrie writes, “and as such, seemingly leaves no apparent room for fiction of any kind. Policymakers, practitioners, change-makers, all are bombarded from all sides with conflicting expectations and constantly evolving challenges: certainty must come from measuring and monitoring.”

“Incredibly rigorous science and its toolbox of methods and practices that provide certainty, however, are limited if we can never extrapolate and experiment with what they mean for the possible future,” he continues. “Call them predictions from models or scenarios—they are fiction until they become real. And before they become real, we have the chance to play with them to see if they are what we want.”

A project in which Merrie participated produced Radical Ocean Futures, sponsored by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. The four authors in the project crafted scenarios built on our current scientific understanding, using science fiction prototyping to project alternative narratives for fate of the world’s oceans.

The author team stated that these scenarios accounted for complexity and non-linear change and reflect interactions of ecological, technological, and socio-economic factors. The scenarios range from collapsed to sustained, factoring in how society responds to the challenges — in a fragmented or connected way — presenting four possible futures dependent on human actions over the years ahead.

The full-length narratives are available under a Creative Commons license on ScienceDirect.

It’s not black and white

William Gibson, who burst upon the science fiction landscape in 1984 with his novel Neuromancer (adding the term “cyberpunk” to our lexicon in the process), thinks dividing science fiction into dystopian and utopian camps creates a pointless dichotomy.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Gibson states, “There are people writing contemporary fiction who are effectively writing science fiction, because the world they live in has become science fiction.”

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  1. Today we have persons objecting to vaccination, and refusing Covid 19 vaccines. We need stories, facts or the world before smallpox. In the movies everyone has beautiful skin; in the portraits there are no blemishes.
    Really important would be fact stories of the world BEFORE smallpox, and the dozen childhood vaccines.
    Most women and men know about obstetrics before today.
    We need information about the world before current prevention and treatments to convince the anti – cancers.

  2. I agree with Jeffrey Barber’s comments. I’ve been strongly influenced too by Carl Sagan’s observation that too many people fail to differentiate between real science and “faux” science. This translates into science being to easily misrepresented by people of power and influence to serve their own political goals.

    Mostly, this falls along the line of “give us more money and we know how to spend it/fix this” -which they don’t.

    My own SciFi novels*, while ostensibly about alien invasion, mostly address the complexity of reworking human society to help it advance to the next level of trust and cooperation. And I try to offer a realistic picture of the obstacles and the level of work and cooperation needed.

    *Prelude:The Expanding Seas of Earth.

  3. I know that I have a connection to the future, when I was writing my book, (Memories of the Future) It seemed that I was being directed to go a certain direction in my story telling, I sat down to wright and it just came out of me. A lot of my story was based on my own vision of what I have seen in my life time. I saw the world and universe going in a good and bad direction. My book was intended to wake up the people of the world and do there best on saving mankind and the planet earth. Yes I know that futuristic writing will have a big impact on the direction of our future.

  4. As a fan of thoughtful, visionary science fiction (I never miss a book by Kim Stanley Robinson) and the author of a SF Middle Grade novel that takes place in a near future, I enjoyed this article.
    I would like to suggest that the title could be improved by changing “mankind” to a gender-inclusive “humankind.”
    Word choices help shape a kinder, more equitable future, too.

    • I’m a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson, too, Mobi. Also looking forward to Neal Stephenson’s upcoming book, Termination Shock. I think “humankind” is a more equitable term than “mankind”, as well (I used that term in the original copy; I’ll ping the BookBaby editor and see if we can restore that wording. Thanks for your kind words about the article.

  5. How incredibly timely! THANK YOU! I am a YA/metaphysical author and the underlying message of my book (only one so far; many to come) is self-empowerment—empowerment for oneself and NEVER over others. Reiki (energy healing) and quantum science are part of the foundation of the book. I believe we have a responsibility to write (create) that which we want to see in the future. I won’t even read dystopian or apocalyptic because I don’t like the energy.


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