The Role Of Science Fiction

I will be giving the following speech at this event in Bristol tomorrow morning:

The Role Of Science Fiction In Our Understanding Of The Future.
By Gareth L Powell

Good morning.

My name is Gareth Powell. I’m a science fiction writer and I’ve been asked here today to talk to you about the role science fiction plays in our understanding of what the future might hold.

A lot of people think science fiction writers try to predict the future in their stories. But accurately predicting the future is extremely difficult. Instead, what we try to do is to dream up plausible futures. We extrapolate sociological and technological trends and try to picture how they will affect the characters in our stories. We can imagine good futures and bad futures: utopias and dystopias. We can imagine futures where disease and hunger have been eradicated; and futures where repression and poverty are even more widespread than they are today. But how will we know what it’s like to live in those futures?

Good Science fiction looks at the world we know and asks: “What happens if?”

  • What happens if the ice caps melt and sea levels rise by fifty feet?
  • What happens if we discover a way to halt the ageing process and everyone lives for 1000 years?
  • What happens if the government puts a CCTV camera on every street corner?

In science fiction novels and stories, we get to experience and explore these futures through the eyes of the characters in the books. We get to put ourselves in their place and live through them. For instance, I’ve recently written a number of stories set in Bristol in the future. But in each of them, the future has been slightly different. In one, the city gets eaten by a plague of microscopic robots. In another, it’s rendered uninhabitable by an explosion at the Berkeley nuclear power station. In these stories, I’m not trying to explain the mechanics of how these events happen. Instead, I’m taking the reader on a journey, to give them an experience they’ve never had before, such as riding a motorbike through deserted city streets, or standing in a park looking out at all the familiar buildings in ruins.

In this respect, science fiction is useful as a tool, not for predicting the future, but for instead modeling a vast range of possible futures. As our society develops and changes, science fiction is there to show us what will happen if we continue along our current path. For instance, almost every news report or debate about CCTV cameras or civil liberties makes reference to Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. And those are just two of the most famous examples.

When scientists unveiled Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep, the world’s media reacted with stunned disbelief, calling for public debates on the ethics of cloning. Science fiction fans were unsurprised, though, as they’d been reading stories about cloned animals and humans for thirty years – stories in which every ethical argument had already been played out, both for and against. Science fiction fans were prepared for cloning in a way few others were. And not just cloning. In the world of computers, the word “cyberspace” comes from a science fiction novel by William Gibson called Neuromancer, which was published in 1984. The word “Avatar” comes from Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

Yes, science fiction can be a way to explore new technology, but it can also be a way to warn the world of coming dangers. Back in the 1980s, science fiction writers were already discussing global warming, pandemics, nuclear destruction, cloning, and cyberspace. During the Cold War, books like On The Beach and Z For Zachariah helped bring home to the public the horrors of nuclear war.

Today, we face a situation where the advance of technology is so swift, and the dangers of war and climate change so terrible, that we have no idea what will happen in the next 20 to 50 years, let alone the next 100 or 1000.

  • What happens if a pandemic kills 99 per cent of the world’s population?
  • What happens if we build a computer that is smarter than we are?
  • What happens if we augment our brains with artificial processors and quadruple our IQs?

Nobody knows for certain what the answers to these questions are. Futurologists and philosophers can tell us what the likely outcome of these events will be. But to really understand what living through them will be like, to experience them, you need to put a human face on them. You need to construct a narrative. For instance: if there are people standing on this spot in a hundred years’ time, they will most likely be profoundly different to us. Maybe they will be different mentally, maybe different physically. They may be the starving and disease-ridden survivors of a terrible apocalypse. Or they may be long-lived and healthy. They may have implanted processors or communication devices directly into their brains. They may have tweaked their genes. Perhaps they will no longer be quite human. They will have relationships with technology and the environment that we can barely imagine.

Look back at the way things have changed in your own lifetime. Look at the rise of mobile phones. They have dramatically changed the way we relate to our friends and colleagues, yet twenty years ago, they were a rare novelty item owned by stock brokers and yuppies. Now, it’s estimated that there are more than 4 billion of them. You can say similar things about emails and text messages. Few people thought they would take off in the way they did. What further weird and surprising developments will transform our society over the next decade? We can guess but we don’t really know.

Imagine the world as a pond, and imagine what happens when you throw a handful of stones into that pond. Now imagine that each stone is a new gadget, a new invention or a new fashion craze. As each one hits, it sends out ripples and when those ripples meet the ripples from the other stones, they interact in interesting and surprising ways.

For the last sixty years, science fiction writers have been trying to guess the technological and sociological changes that will shape our lives in the years to come. Plucking three examples more-or-less at random from my bookshelves:

  • In Geoff Ryman’s novel Air, the Internet is completely wireless, and is carried in the air itself, surrounding everyone and everything in an invisible web of information.
  • In Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, digital microchips in our spines allow us to download our personalities and swap them to other bodies.
  • In Jennifer Government by Max Barry, the world is run by giant American corporations, and you’re either an employee or a social and financial outcast.

As science fiction writers, we put a lot of serious thought into the futures we construct. It’s a game we play, and we like to be as plausible as possible. But the truth is, we simply do not know what will happen. We’re not trying to make accurate predictions. We might be trying to warn you of something – but generally, we’re trying to entertain as much as we’re trying to preach.

For me, what science fiction does is to try to encourage us to think about what it means to be human. Consider Winston in George Orwell’s 1984, or the narrator in HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds, or Robert Neville in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. There you have three fairly ordinary men thrust into unwelcome and dangerous futures. By following them, we get to vicariously experience their plights as their worlds are turned upside down and they lose – or come close to losing – everything they’ve ever cared about. We read those books and we wonder “What would I do?” And when we’ve finished reading them, we feel as if we’ve lived the adventure along with the main characters. We have some inkling what it would be like to live in their worlds.

This is my job as a science fiction writer: to speculate and imagine, and tell stories. The future is truly an undiscovered country. Futurology and philosophy can give us a map of the terrain. But if we want to know what it’s going to feel like to live and work and love there, one of the best tools we have is science fiction.

Thank you.

Author: Gareth L Powell


6 thoughts on “The Role Of Science Fiction”

  1. I really enjoyed hearing this earlier today – thank you! Was great to hear you, Jon, Tom and Lisa talking, lots to go away and think about.

  2. Thanks Richard. I enjoyed your talk too. It was a great event and I came away feeling quite inspired.

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