Adventures in Science Fiction Prototyping

Andrew Merrie and Pat Keys in conversation with Jo Lindsay Walton (and briefly Polina Levontin) about science fiction prototyping and the Radical Ocean Futures project. 

Radical Ocean Futures project

JW: We’re lucky enough to be joined by Andrew Merrie and Pat Keys. Andrew is a Research Liaison Officer at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University (Sweden) and the Head of Futures at Planethon. Pat is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University (USA).

We want to find out more about your very intriguing Radical Ocean Futures project, and Science Fiction Prototyping in general—as well as adjacent ideas like applied science fiction, critical design fiction, diegetic prototyping, speculative design, all part of the theme of this special issue. But I guess let’s start with the high seas themselves. How do we define the high seas? What are some of the issues that arise in their governance? Surely mighty Poseidon is ungovernable? To me, those words already feel strange in a sentence together: ‘governing the high seas.’ 

AM: The high seas are areas of the ocean that are not managed by any single authority. In some ways they represent this largely unexplored ‘wild west’ of the global ocean. When you’re trying to think about how to govern the high seas, you are thinking about things like climate change, overfishing, deep sea mining, genetic resources and so on. But you also have to contend with the pace of change. The ecosystems are changing, and the technology is changing, and companies and other kinds of actors can basically take advantage of these gaps or delays in regulation, and sort of do what they want in this ocean space. Interestingly enough, just a few weeks before this issue of Vector went live, a historic deal was made, after nearly 20 years of talks to put in place a legal framework, the UN High Seas Treaty. That said, monumental governance challenges remain and though very consequential, this is really the start of another 20 years of work.

JW: In this context, does ‘governance’ refer to international law?

AM: Partly. Governance is actually broader than that. It refers to a variety of laws, regulations, institutions, certifications, norms and so on. It’s everything that is relevant to how we look after the oceans, or fail to look after them. For example, for the governance of marine ecosystems, computer modelling is very important. But you can’t just look at a model and go, ‘OK, here is what will happen, if we follow this management strategy.’ There are all kinds of questions about what is possible or plausible. About what models to use, what their assumptions are, how you should interpret and use their outputs. All that could be part of governance. 

JW: OK. And these questions are more than technical questions, right? They quickly get us into the realm of politics and ethics. But sticking with ocean ecology for a moment. Honestly, when I think of the ocean, I mostly think, ‘I have no idea what’s going on in there.’ I want to quote a 2016 WIRED article about your project. ‘Earth’s oceans are having a rough time right now. They’re oily, hot, acidic, full of dead fish—and their levels are rising.’ Can you tell us a bit more?

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Vector ‘Futures’: Torque Control

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. 

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Chinese SF industry

By Regina Kanyu Wang et al. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

According to Science Fiction World, the concept of “science fiction (SF) industry” was first proposed in academia in 2012, when a group of experts were brought together  by the Sichuan Province Association of Science and Technology to comb and research SF related industry, and put together the Report of Research on the Development of Chinese SF Industry. Narrowly defined, the SF industry includes SF publishing, SF films, SF series, SF games, SF education, SF merchandise, and other SF-related industries, while a broader definition also includes the supporting industries, upstream or downstream in the industry chain.

According to the 2020 Chinese Science Fiction Industry Report, the gross output of the Chinese SF industry in 2019 sums up to 65.87 billion RMB (about 7.4 billion GBP), among which games and films lead the growth, with publishing and merchandise following (check out more in Chinese here). The SF industry plays an important part in China’s cultural economic growth.

We have invited sixteen organizations, companies, and projects that play a role in China’s SF industry to introduce themselves to the English readers. You can see the diversity and vigour from the texts they provided. We’ve tried to keep editing to a minimum in order to show how they posit and define themselves in the SF industry. Here they are, ordered alphabetically.

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Call for Submissions: Prediction, Innovation, & Futures

Vector and Focus invite proposals from academics of all disciplines, and from industry, policy, and practice backgrounds, on the theme of speculative fiction in relation to prediction, innovation, and futures. Please see here for the full call.

The principal output will be a special issue of Vector, guest edited by Stephen Oram, and relevant proposals will also be considered for publication in Focus (ed. Dev Agarwal), and/or for online publication. Prospective contributors are encouraged to move conversations forward; to challenge received wisdom; to historicise the use of speculative fiction within science communication, policy, foresight, innovation, education, and research contexts; and/or to reflect in detail on your own personal experiences of using speculative fiction. Contributions may take the form of:

  • articles of any length;
  • snapshots / key findings / lightning summaries of your research or activities;
  • methods and tools, and/or reports on their use;
  • interviews, roundtables;
  • other formats — be as innovative and imaginative as you like!

We especially welcome proposals from BIPOC contributors, and/or proposals which connect applied speculative fiction to themes of diversity, decoloniality, and social, environmental, and economic justice. Priority fields of interest include futures studies, innovation studies, Science and Technology Studies, applied ethics, and the history and philosophy of science. Topics might include prediction, modelling, decision analysis and decision support, hacking and makerspaces, speculative design, critical design including Critical Race Design, anthropological futures, design fiction, diegetic prototyping, strategic foresight, wargaming, anticipatory governance, predictive data analytics, algorithmic governmentality, speculative fiction as technology, speculative fiction and aspects of methodology such as reproducibility and validation, user stories as a form of speculative fiction,  science communication, protoscience, exploratory engineering, design futurescaping, experiential futures, serious gaming or participatory scenario workshopping, financial modelling and financial activism, creative disruptions, future fabbing, the use of speculative fiction to engage communities and stakeholders, the ethical obligations of the speculative fiction writer, the use of speculative fiction to facilitate interdisciplinary encounters, the use of speculative fiction to model risk and uncertainty, issues around speculative fiction and Intellectual Property, the sci-fi-industrial complex, Indigenous futurisms, energy futures, education futures, all kinds of futures, and the history and future of the future. 

Submission details

Please submit proposals by 5 September 2021 to Very early proposals very welcome. A proposal should typically contain:

  • a 150-500 word proposal;
  • an estimated word count; and
  • some information about you, e.g. a 50-100 word bio or a CV.

We seek contributions that are carefully grounded in research, while also being clear, engaging, and suitable for a broad audience (including non-academics). Articles will be due by 1 February 2022.


The Value of Science Fiction

By Martin Griffiths, Brecon Beacons Observatory

Science fiction (SF) has many definitions. From the perspective of educators, Joanna Russ’s definition must be one of the best: SF is “a literature that attempts to assimilate imaginatively, scientific knowledge about reality and the scientific method, as distinct from the merely practical changes science has made in our lives.” It is this imaginative approach to science that underlies SF’s broad appeal. The phenomenal success of high-grossing films such as Star Wars, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, ET, Close Encounters, The Day After Tomorrow, Avatar, the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and many more, attest to the success of not only SF’s value as entertainment, but its ability to excite, fascinate and encompass human values.

Science fiction and education

The inclusion of SF in the schooling curriculum can promote discriminating faculties with applicability in later life. Some of the greatest scientists of the previous century, figures such as Carl Sagan, Robert Goddard and Richard Feynmann, were inspired by the speculations found in SF. Scientists such as Isaac Asimov, Fred Hoyle, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds and Kim Stanley Robinson also became award-winning SF writers. 

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SF and the future of security: an interview with Ping Zheng

Defiant Today
‘Defiant Today’ Phil Jones

In late December 2017, a group of writers and scholars of SF, scientists and technologists, and defence analysts and policymakers, gathered at Dstl (UK government’s defence science and technology laboratory) in Salisbury to explore science fiction’s contribution to defence policy. Vector caught up with Dr Ping Zheng from Canterbury Christ Church University Business School, to ask her about her impressions of the day, and a few other things …

During the first breakout session, you were in the Human Behaviour in Smart Environments group. How did that go?

ping 1
Dr Ping Zheng

We had some inspiring discussions about how humans may react in smart environments. I think the group dynamics probably extended the scope of planned discussions, and allowed us to engage in more diversified discourse, ranging from individual perspectives, to emergent impacts at a societal level, and also to policy perspectives. For example, two prominent issues were debated: national and cultural differences, and ethical concerns such as privacy.

Perhaps the value of events like these is that you might discover that your original questions can be re-framed, or that your stakeholders are not precisely who you imagined them to be. Your other breakout session was ‘Defence (In)efficiency: What Does the Future Hold?’?

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The Quiet Links