Apply Science Fiction Here
Jo Lindsay Walton and Polina Levontin
Every issue of Vector is special, but this one is especially special. It is guest-edited by science fiction author Stephen Oram, and it was made possible through a collaboration between the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), the UK’s oldest and largest association for writers, publishers and fans of science fiction1, and the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), an independent think tank affiliated with the University of Sussex.
The theme is ‘futures.’ Plural, obviously: science fiction would never be content with just one future. ‘Futures’ is also shorthand for ‘futures studies‘: horizon-scanning, strategic foresight, scenario planning, anticipatory governance, forecasting and backcasting, red teaming and wargaming, speculative design and diegetic prototyping, experiential futures, futures futures, superforecasting and plenty more besides.
When businesses, governments, financial institutions and other actors seek to peer into the future, they often use some variety of risk management. Risk management overlaps with futures studies, but it is really pretty distinct. As crystal balls go, it’s a prosaic one. It involves identifying risks, assessing (perhaps quantifying) them, monitoring them, and implementing treatment strategies (such as avoiding, reducing, sharing, transferring, or informed acceptance). There is even an International Standard for Risk Management (ISO 31000). By contrast, future studies is a field where the expert and the charlatan can be difficult to distinguish. Many futures practitioners may be unsure themselves which of these they are, or in what proportion they are both.
Climate change (or as Margaret Atwood has dubbed it, ‘everything change‘) is undermining traditional risk management. You just can’t put reliable numbers on the complex cascades of ecosystems collapsing, extreme weather intensifying, energy and land use transforming with unprecedented rapidity, and—perhaps—Earth systems crossing their ‘tipping point‘ thresholds, as sea ice crumbles or ocean currents shut down. Risk management is trying to evolve, drawing on futures studies and other sources. Within financial risk management, for example, there are now ESG labels (it stands for ‘Environmental, Social, Governance‘), tools like Climate Value-at-Risk and Implied Temperature Rise analyses, and new insurance products to protect buyers from fluctuations in the voluntary carbon offset markets. Nevertheless, climate risk management is very, very far from fit-for-purpose, when it comes to steering us through the years ahead. For example, organisations like MSCI and Sustainalytics will be the first to admit that their ESG scores were never intended to drive decarbonisation and climate justice, only to help investors better understand the risks and returns of their investments. More broadly, incremental adjustments to policies, behaviours, technologies and infrastructures won’t be enough to address the unfolding ecological crisis. There are various ways of naming and formulating where our best hopes really lie—system change, societal change, transformative change, radical or revolutionary change—and risk management can make at best a small contribution to that change.
Where traditional risk management falters, might more narrative approaches step in? Another way of putting it: this special issue is about applied science fiction. It is about science fiction that is trying to do something, to not only glimpse but also shape the future. Who is trying to do things with science fiction? To name a few: militaries are, corporations are, think tanks are. Environmental and humanitarian NGOs, intergovernmental agencies, academics across the arts, humanities and sciences, are insisting science fiction can and should make itself useful. Their experiments fill these pages.
What about science fiction authors? Well, authors may be willing participants, but they are also wary about the instrumentalisation of their work. Actually, many science fiction authors argue, science fiction has always been ‘doing things’—inspiring, provoking, soothing, connecting, inoculating, wriggling—but we would mistake its nature if we tried to corral these verbs into something as sensible as ‘Aims, Methods, and Outcomes.‘ Isn’t science fiction too prickly and mercurial to be grasped like a tool? Isn’t the point of science fiction to question and transform what is ‘useful’ or ‘valuable’ or ‘practical’ in the first place, not dutifully submit to criteria that might not catch up for another century?
Keeping these reservations in mind, let’s sketch four ways that science fiction (or actually any art) might become an applied art. First, maybe science fiction can model possible futures. This is probably the most pervasive understanding of how science fiction becomes applied science fiction. It is easily grasped by people who are not science fiction writers or critics, and once they have taken that firm grasp, they can apply science fiction to whatever topic interests them. It’s easy! All you need to do is start with a plausible premise and extrapolate. If you extrapolate rigorously, maybe you can aid policymakers in anticipating risks and opportunities before they arise. Such thought experiments might, for example, anticipate the novel and unexpected behaviours of a complex system arising from the interactions among its components. Or they might identify interactions between trends that are typically only studied in isolation. Or they might flag up second- or third-order consequences of a new technology, as it is adopted at scale in ways its developers never intended.
For proponents of this approach, science fiction is the art of asking, ‘What if?’. It’s a rich and vivid form of scenario analysis. Unsurprisingly, these folk grow agitated when an extraterrestrial waltzes in, let alone an elf. Never mind (they might concede) a bit of fun could engage publics in participatory processes around serious issues—let’s just remember where to draw the line between the scientifically plausible and the sci-fi tomfoolery! But proponents of this approach really ought to have a bigger concern. Their own initial premise, that science fiction authors can perform any of these astonishing feats, is every bit as implausible as any unicorn-straddling elf. More often, science fiction writers are illustrators for different models of the future, affecting how predictions are weighted and strengthening biases. Writers have even been hired, e.g. by the military, for precisely this purpose: to make certain expert-led scenarios feel more poignant.
That’s because under this approach, even if science fiction authors aren’t being asked to predict the future exactly, they are being asked to predict the future given x. They are also being asked to somehow know for which x’s robust predictions can be made. With good reason, many science fiction authors (and critics) get prickly when treated like soothsayers. ‘Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive,’ wrote Ursula K. Le Guin. And in an interview: ‘The future in science fiction is just a metaphor for now.’ Cory Doctorow: ‘Science fiction writers don’t predict the future (except accidentally), but if they’re very good, they may manage to predict the present.’ And look who we’re talking about here: these are science fiction writers who are working especially hard to do things with science fiction. They are interested in the limits of applied science fiction because their work tests and pushes those limits2.
So let’s try another approach to applied science fiction. Perhaps science fiction can transform imaginaries3. This second approach emphasises that the line between the plausible and the implausible—the line that the first approach is so keen to respect—is not universally agreed upon, nor fixed over time. Instead, there is a politics to what gets declared impossible or impractical. As Oscar Wilde put it: ‘A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish.’
This approach remains the beating heart of Science Fiction Studies, the academic field investigating science fiction as a literary and cultural phenomenon. Science fiction is expected to reveal what was under our noses all along, making the impractical practical (or vice-versa), the undesirable desirable (or vice-versa), the unimaginable imaginable (or vice-versa), the unnatural natural (or vice-versa). Ernst Bloch’s ‘educated hope’ and Darko Suvin’s ‘cognitive estrangement’ have been influential concepts here. When you show that a thing can be different, you show that it can be different in many different ways, not only the specific way you have shown. This is how science fiction (at least, some of it) might stir a special kind of knowledge in its audiences, a kind of liberating truth.
To really bring home the difference between these two approaches, think about the role of the far-fetched. In this second approach, the far-fetched is no longer the enemy of the applied. The fairy queen, the Martian invaders, the limitless clean energy, the ambient healthcare nanotech, don’t have to be plausible in themselves, to reveal to us our own world in unfamiliar lights. Things in the real world—ESG labels for financial products, IP law about generative AI, the design of urban parks, programmable money, climate reparations—really can be reformed or revolutionised, after we’ve seen them through the eye-stalks of those hypothetical visitors from Dimension X. Allegory and metaphor may play a role (sometimes). Models do play a role, but science fiction isn’t primarily supplying new models directly: it’s more like a set of tools for detecting and debugging models we didn’t even know we were using, and for experimenting with different ways of reconstructing and reinterpreting those models.
So that’s another neat approach to applied science fiction. And, like the first, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. At best it is an incomplete story. Truth is cognitive-estrangier than fiction: that is, any social imaginary already accommodates all kinds of strangeness, because real people are already strange to one another, and strange things happen to us all the time. You’d need to wake up very early indeed to pull a fast one on a social imaginary! Social imaginaries have been round the Bloch a few times. At least, if the claim is that science fiction can more reliably and radically transform how a person sees the world than (for example) acquiring a new disability; falling in love; losing a loved one; moving to a foreign land; surviving a brush with death; retraining in a new field; entering a social movement; acquiring an addiction; acquiring or losing religious faith; experiencing local ecosystem collapse; experiencing a decade or two of technological change; etc., then it is a claim that has yet to be convincingly articulated.
Third, maybe science fiction can frame emerging phenomena, in other words, supply the words and concepts to name and to think about new things. Science fiction definitely does this, and it definitely influences how those things are developed, used and perceived. Scientists and policymakers are especially wary of science fiction’s influence on public perception, and hence the potential to impede the roll-out of a new technology, be it nuclear power, autonomous weapons, UBI, gene drives or solar radiation management. But ‘applied’ also implies some degree of controllability and reliability, and this aspect is more elusive. Only a tiny proportion of science fictional neologisms catch on outside of science fiction, and those that do often mutate out of all recognition. These mutations are not always widely appreciated, because influence runs backwards as well as forward, and we read earlier texts through the lens of the present. When we return to William Gibson’s Burning Chrome in 2023, it is hard not to read the word ‘cyberspace’ with all its 2023 associations. In this way, science fiction whose terminology has been influential may appear more prescient than it actually is: we might not notice, for instance, the lack of mobile phones.
If we can’t control the process, should we just get on with writing lots of science fiction, trusting that the right bits will wriggle their way into wider discourse? Maybe not. We began this editorial with talk of risk assessment: anything applied, especially to the future, might be subject to some risk assessment itself. For instance, later in this issue, Will Slocombe warns how imagined futures might lead to dangerous military preemptive action. Stephen Oram points out that ‘science fiction does not always warn us about the right things’: nudging us to shift focus, narratives might lead to resources being badly rediverted, to maladaptations, and to harmful action. On climate futures, Burgess et al. (2022) warn how ‘[o]veremphasized apocalyptic futures can be used to support despotism and rashness,’ citing climate catastrophism and youth mental health crisis, among other things. Tech multibillionaire Elon Musk once name-checked socialist science fiction writer Iain M. Banks for shaping his idea of a desirable future; you get the feeling Banks might not wholeheartedly endorse the spin Musk is putting on his work. If science fiction can do good things in the world, surely it can also do bad things.
This brings us to our fourth approach to applied science fiction. Perhaps science fiction can supercharge activism. This approach is less focused on worldbuilding, and more on the conceptual, spiritual and aesthetic resources that change-makers might discover within science fiction. In her introduction to Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015), Walida Imarisha suggests: ‘Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction.’ Intriguingly, Imarisha also adds: ‘All organizing is science fiction.’
One exemplary case is Imarisha’s and adrienne maree brown’s engagement with the science fiction of Octavia Butler, connecting Butler’s work with their own activism and organising. Butler’s fiction is already a sustained exploration of social change, often starring marginalised and oppressed characters who adapt to find agency in the most unpromising circumstances. Her Parable duology (1993, 1998) explores the religious and spiritual dimensions of social change, swirling around the idea that ‘god is change‘; in brown’s Emergent Strategy (2017), this notion is shaped into reflections on ‘emergent strategy‘ and ‘shaping change.‘
Change is constant. (Be like water).
Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small.)
There is always enough time for the right work.
Less Prep, More Presence.
There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
Never a failure, always a lesson.
Trust the people. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy).
What you pay attention to grows.
Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass – build resilience by building relationships.
What distinguishes this fourth approach is that science fiction is being woven into activities that are already plausible mechanisms for pushing big changes—for example, the training in nonviolent direct action offered by the nonprofit Ruckus Society, for whom brown worked in the late 2000s. Maybe the first three approaches are asking too much from science fiction? Instead, we might suppose, some specific bits of science fiction (stories, people, workshops, conventions, communities) can be speculatively attached to assemblages of other actors, changing the way those assemblages behave, and of what they are capable. Such changes won’t always have an effect, of course. Sometimes science fiction writers might just glom on the side, sweet passive symbiotes spilling forth funny inert little stories. And the question about science fiction potentially inflicting harms hasn’t been cleared up, although at least it feels a bit less abstract. But even if we can’t know in advance if there will be any positive effect, or any effect at all, over time such experiments might plausibly expand what social movement theorist Charles Tilly calls our ‘repertoire of contention‘: the collection of tools and tactics available to social movements.
This fourth approach to applied science fiction also has limits, and brown’s Emergent Strategy is again instructive. Generous and inspirational, Emergent Strategy nonetheless reveals the difficulties that beset translation from fiction into the discourses which nourish and steer collective action. For all their distinctiveness, the essays, speeches, spells, interviews, conversations, tools, profiles and poems of Emergent Strategy distil values that are very standard within socially engaged arts practice. For instance, when was the last time you heard a writer or other creative practitioner extol rigidity over flexibility, or doing something perfectly on the first go over iteration and adaptability?
‘Never a failure, always a lesson.’ ‘Trust the people.’ ’Change is constant. (Be like water).’ Each of these maxims is incanted like a gust of magic wind (or like a Vector: it gives you a direction and a magnitude). Let such words catch hold of you, and their breath will carry you some distance. But whether or not these words are correctdepends on other things too. It depends on where you start out, what other winds you might be riding, and where you really need to be.
Because brown has gathered her experience within a system of forces many of us inhabit (a little or a lot), the vectors she recommends ring true to a lot of us. We write as a pair of people familiar with trying to invoke funding from academic, philanthropic and policy sources to do things we think are worthwhile. We struggle enough with prevailing forces that demand excessive clarity, rigidity and closure, that we can be grateful for any countervailing energy.
Yet we also all know social transformation sometimes does require things to be rigid and steely. Sometimes it does require a thing to be done perfectly on the first go, during some narrow window of opportunity. Sometimes attention to the emergent might turn out to be the tiny distraction that tips the win into the loss4. Sometimes even care, healing, and harm reduction may be double-edged. When they become entrenched not only as values, but also as practically universally applicable sources of strategic insight, they may paradoxically lead to more harm, not less.
Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes: of course, these reservations could all be a sort of concern-trolling. That is, they could be taken as an attempt to demoralise and deflate, disguised as solidarity. Pack all these caveats into the head and heart of any one activist, and they will probably self-organise into a spiral of self-doubt and paralysis-by-analysis. But luckily, we are not one activist. We are groups, networks, organisations, movements, institutions, systems created in the cracks of other systems. Our larger collectives can grow capable of useful judgments which would be unbearable for individual humans.
Science fiction, of course, addresses this complexity simply by narratavising it, choosing moment-by-moment whether it’s time for one of those sometimeses or not. Butler’s protagonists, characters like Lauren Olamina or Lilith Iyapo, exist within that thick screed of implied modal detail that all stories are made from. In other words, whenever a character does anything, their action is attended by the shadowy presence of alternative actions and alternative consequences. So listening to their lessons is partly a matter of comparing their context to one’s own. By contrast, Emergent Strategy, despite relatively scrupulous acknowledgment of its lineages, often feels confusingly dislocated from contexts.
Does that mean a work like Emergent Strategy should do more to locate its advice within North American traditions of Black liberation, social justice organising, the nonprofit-industrial complex, and New Age counterculture, in order that fellow travellers can compare our own contexts, make useful adjustments, or filter out elements that we feel don’t apply? When science fiction becomes applied in the context of social movements, does that imply the duty of specifying how it relates to various theories of change and associated organisational tactics, for example, affinity groups and consensus decision-making, revolutionary vanguardism, trade unionism, cooperativism, workers’ self-management, multitendency parties, Zapatista ichbail ta muk’, nonviolent direct action, ‘diversity of tactics,’ paramilitary activity? There is no easy answer. Without a clearer sense of where the affinities lie, as well as the incompatibilities and the ambiguities, applied science fiction loses the chance to learn from change-shapers around the world and throughout history. On the other hand, such contextualisation does sound like dauntingly hard work, a cure that might be worse than the ailment. After all, a book like Emergent Strategy is already working harder than most to situate its knowledge, acknowledge its positionality, and cite inspirations, influences, and mentors5. So it’s a puzzle.
Where does all this leave us? Each of the approaches to applied science fiction comes with some pretty serious drawbacks. It’s enough that we might want to go further, and develop a sceptical account of so-called applied science fiction. We might focus on its socio-economic underpinnings. Creative practitioners have a strong interest in promoting the transformative power of our creative practice. Our promotional efforts will be all the more effective if we really believe what we proclaim. But is there anyone who has a strong interest in investigating these claims? Similarly, there are science fiction creators and critics who regularly collaborate with a variety of partners across industry, policy, science, philanthropy. But how true is the reverse? Are there many examples of organisations so satisfied with the outcomes that they continue the practice over many years, collaborating with a revolving cast of science fiction experts? Could applied science fiction be like a street food snack that has a delicious smell and unexpected taste, that practically everybody buys once and kind of likes, and nobody ever buys twice?
We think this sceptical account goes too far—a little too far. There is plenty of evidence (in this issue of Vector alone) that the impact of science fiction is not negligible. Whatever the causal mechanisms are, they are to do with the systemic, with how science fiction might affect public discourses, social values, economic values, science and defence funding. Emerging generative AIs, trained on the stories data tells, may be changing these mechanisms too. ChatGPT has been known to bemoan its own inability to create culturally specific content because of the lack of representation in its training data. This limited range of available stories will translate into a narrow scope of human values operationalised by AI, with potentially wide-ranging implications.
Here’s an idea: What if nobody knows? A slightly-less-sceptical account of applied science fiction proposes that science fiction does make important differences to the world, but that there is simply not yet a comprehensive or consistent theory to articulate how and why. Each of the four approaches above might have a piece of the puzzle, but do they interlock? And isn’t this is a puzzle with many more than four pieces? Doesn’t it also need to address, for instance, the impact of myths about myths, stories about stories, SF about SF? Does it increasingly need to account for AI as the intermediary, stories being part of this transformative technology? Could it all depend on how we choose to apply science fiction?
All this could be quite exciting: an unsolved mystery! Some essays in this collection, including Sarah Dillon and Claire Craig’s Storylistening framework, offer some tantalising clues. We are also intrigued by Creative Practices for Transformational Futures (creaturesframework.org), home to a dazzling set of arts-led interventions seeking to stimulate action towards eco-socially sustainable futures. The CreaTures Framework includes the Nine Dimensions tool for talking about creative practice and change, lead-authored by Joost Vervoort, who also appears in this issue. The tools’ strengths are really in their details, so we won’t try to summarise here.
But they do feel like they share something with this issue of Vector: aspiring to honest and constructive assessments of the applied arts, captured in ways that might advance the art of applied arts. We did something: did it work? Do we need to try something else? Can we do a similar thing, only better? Is there time?
- Terms like science fiction, SF, sf, sci-fi, speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy (SFF), literature of the fantastic, Fantastika (John Clute’s term), visionary fiction (Walidah Imarishah’s), as well as Indigenous futurism, Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, Gulf futurism, Indofuturism, Sinofuturism, Chicanafuturism Pasifikafuturism, Indofuturism, and other -futurisms, Solarpunk, etc., are subject to a variety of definitional disputes (sometimes interesting), and carry different connotations in different contexts.
- ‘Made-up stories, even stories of impossible things, are ways for us to mentally rehearse our responses to different social outcomes,’ writes Doctorow. Doctorow’s science fiction is part of a vast and spirited sprawl of journalism, advocacy and activism, on issues such as open culture and Intellectual Property. Le Guin’s utopian novel The Dispossessed has been almost dismayingly influential: more than half a century later, it is often the first title mentioned in conversations about literary post-capitalism, an enduring legacy strangely at odds with its own spirit of improvisation, self-reflection, and perpetual transformation. High time we had fresh utopias as brilliant as this one was (some people are trying).
- And perhaps it has a special purchase on socio-technical imaginaries, what Sheila Jasanoff has characterised as ‘collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology.’
- Or such attention might be simply impossible: and Butler is certainly also interested in action over vast time scales, about living a life whose ripples continue long after you are gone.
- Where do the trade-offs and opportunities costs of such feminist reflective practice—as theorised by Patricia Hill Collins, Sara Ahmed, Donna Haraway, Dorothy Smith, Sandra Harding, among others—lie? How do we situate the situating of knowledge itself.
This editorials first appeared in Vector: Futures, a publication in part supported by the PASTRES programme (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins, www.pastres.org), funded by the European Research Council (ERC) (Grant No. 70432). PASTRES is co-hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the European University Institute (EUI).
One thought on “Vector ‘Futures’: Torque Control”