What Science Fiction Can Learn From Forecasting Science

As someone who spends a lot of time defending science and speculative fiction as valuable ways to conduct intellectual experiments around scenarios that are so far away that we can’t simulate them or that we desperately hope never come to pass, I was totally enchanted by this short piece by Madeline Ashby about science fiction and strategic forecasting. I think it’s a terrifically useful guide to making narratives more interesting and to thinking about what happens when you change certain variables, but also to making science fiction a more useful tool for thinking about the future. Of course, those two things do tend to go hand in hand, even if you need other factors to make for an excellent science fiction story. She gives advice like:

Pay attention and take note. Get a team together. Learn everything you all can about the industry, market, demographic, problem, etc. Find recent news stories about it. Save and organize them. Listen to the sources no one else is listening to, because weak signals have more to say about the future than strong ones. (A good example is the anti-vaccination movement. Once upon a time, it seemed like a small cluster of people influenced by faulty research would have no impact. Now, California has record numbers of measles patients.) This is also how I research my fiction. I learn unusual things and write about them. This is why my last story had Quiverfull families working with fansubbers to uncover the truth about zombies.

In Southland Tales, Krysta Now (speaking of which, MOAR GOOD ROLES FOR SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR-NOW-PRINZE PLZ) says that “Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.” I tend to think that folks like Kurt Andersen, who complain about the recycling of styles, tend to underestimate the extent to which accelerating change has left everyone kind of fatigued and in need of some familiar reference points. All of which is to say the future is moving really fast, and the more people who are engaged in trend-spotting and intelligent speculative thinking the better. Artists should be at the front line with scientists and marketers.



I owe an apology to Kurt Andersen for some sloppy writing here. His essay doesn’t actually say that people aren’t looking for comfort in nostalgia: of course he argues that. It’s a sensible explanation. Where he and I really differ in whether we think that’s a bad thing. I’m kind of comfortable with people taking a bit of refuge from the pace of progress in the past, especially if they walk away with it from lessons for the future. I apologize for the mischaracterization and the jetlag-induced messiness.