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Marian Wood Kolisch (American, 1920-2008), Ursula K. Le Guin, 1988, gelatin silver print, Bequest of Marian Wood Kolisch, © Portland Art Museum, 2009.30.35
Eden Kupermintz

Deep Dive | Science Fiction as a Tool

Designing Tomorrow through SF Methodology: from Speculative Fiction and Design to Speculative Policy

22/09/2020

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At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

Introduction – the future is weird

The future is weird. This is because, on one hand, the future doesn’t exist yet; those that talk of the future as a thing we hurtle towards misunderstand it. However, on the other hand, the future is something that will exist one day and, not only that, it has its roots in the present. We can picture it, we can think about it, it is here in many ways and yet, it is inherently not here, always around the next corner. The future, by definition, is present and absent at the same time. This conflation between the two states of non/being is the essence of something weird, something we can think about even as it defies our thought (1).

Therefore, conceptualizing the future, whether near or far, like most weird things, inherently involves imagination (2). Where reason cannot go, wilder and more out of step parts of our thought can more readily explore. Like the future, our imagination is weird. It has for its objects things which inherently don’t exist and we do with them things which we don’t necessarily think will ever come true. For example, a fancy where I can fly. Flying sounds terrifying but in my imagination, it’s great. I don’t necessarily want the ability to fly but being able to imagine it feels nice and makes me happy. If I were to “get what I wished for”, I would probably hate it and yet, my imagination allows me to side-step that and keep thinking about my wish positively. Thus, our imagination invariably leads us to hope, to strive and long for things as we want them to be rather than just things as they might, possibly, be. Imagination is weird because it doesn’t completely erase the existence of the practical and the complicated; we know they exist and will trip us when we try to move forward. But our imagination allows us to step around them, to keep hoping and wishing even if we know that the way forward is hard and messy. If it wasn’t for our imagination, we’d be frozen, unable to act in an infinitely complex and confusing world. Imagination allows us to use ideas which don’t exist to think and conceptualize the things we’d like to see come into existence and then to work towards making them, even if the way forward seems impossible.

If this all seems convoluted and complicated that’s because it is. After all, the weird inherently defies easy explanation and so does our imagination; it is the ultimate unheimlich, the uncanny which lies at the very center of who we are. We feel uneasy if we linger too long on the concept of imagination and its inherent contradictions. That unease, that inability to put the act of imagination into words, is why the imagination is best understood, and explored, through art. That’s what art is good for after all, conveying the inexplicable, the just-out-of-sight, that which we all glimpse but never truly know. And art about imagination is also weird because it describes the very tool which it uses. Imagination, after all, is at the core of art as well. The artist (whether musician, painter, dancer, poet, writer) starts with a blank canvas and then must use imagination to populate it. Even when the artist is a realist (more on that soon), they have no chance of creating a “perfect” simulation (if such a thing truly exists). Their own thought, their own imagination, will always play a part in the path between object and representation. When that object is imagination itself, or when that object is the future itself, the loop is closed and weird arrives, giving birth to a host of distorted images, half-wishes, and uncomfortable truths.

Grasping the loop – science fiction is weird

Which, finally, brings us to science fiction. All of science fiction is weird and “loopy” because it is art looking at itself, because it is imagination looking itself, because it is the present trying to conceptualize the future and, in doing so, takes part in creating that future, in influencing the present. Science fiction, at its core, is a “weird loop” (3), a process where parts influence the whole and the whole influences the parts but weirdly, in unpredictable ways. Up and down are not only conflated, they become the same direction. In our case, past, present, and future meld together into an asynchronous mess, a temporal weirdness where future vision relies on past fact and intervenes with present momentum. In those spaces, in the weirdness which arises from these conflations, lies great radical potential.

To put a more human, less jargon-heavy, spin on this, try to put yourself in the shoes of Jules Verne for example, weirdly transported into the 21st century and face to face with a submarine. Forget for now the question of prediction and whether Vernes “got it right” (more on that in the next chapter). Try, for now, to focus on how you might feel (past the horror of time travel and this new world you now find yourself in, of course). Someone has seemingly reached into your mind and extricated an object of your imagination, something fantastic which you conjured up. You didn’t really think that you’d ever see it and yet, you sort of hoped that you did. But not really; you drew up schemes and you wanted it built but you knew it would never be built but maybe you hoped that it would be? In short, you imagined it! It wasn’t real but you really wished that it would have been and now, here you are and here it is. You’d feel elated, uncomfortable, mad, ecstatic, anxious. Probably. We don’t know; we’re not Jules Verne. Jules Verne wrote science fiction (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) and in doing so, he imagined things that never existed and he probably wasn’t very confident they would exist. But guess what? They exist now. Sure, it’s not because of him that submarines exist but it’s not not because of him that submarines exist. His thought, his ideas, his imagination sowed the grounds for the idea of the submarine. He wrote about the future and he didn’t really think that that future would come about. But in so writing, he helped it come about.

That’s one hell of a power, isn’t it? The beauty of it is that we all have it; we all write science fiction or, as it is now increasingly popular to call it, speculative fiction. Whether we do it as kids and then stop, whether we continue on as adults, weaving fanciful tales of the future as it might be, whether we pen down those tales as a hobby or as professional writers, we all have the basic capacity to write science fiction. That capacity is imagination itself, turned towards the future, and we use it on a frequent basis, imagining ourselves in the years to come, our friends, our jobs, and our lives in general. From this sort of imagination arises the same weirdness we described before; if we spend too much in these spaces, day-dreaming about our future, we become uneasy. And we should become uneasy – the weird should never be comfortable. That weirdness is to be lived in, grappled with, thought about, discoursed on, conceptualized. This is, essentially, what science fiction strives to do, to grab a hold of that contorted space within us and try to explore it, to get used to it. To make art out of it.

But the problem is that, as the cliche goes, with great power comes great responsibility.  We mentioned above that these weird spaces which future-thought creates are places of potential radical thought. That’s because weirdness is inherently counter hegemonic. The hegemony, here to be understood as cultural hegemony (4), doesn’t like the weird. It is hard to categorize and understand; it buckles, it shifts, it never stays quite the same. Therefore, it is hard to control, to neatly package, to sell. Of course, the hegemony is very shrewd and will find ways to “hedge off” the weird and tame it, re-package it in accepted gestures, aesthetics, and approaches. It will then condone the approaches it has created and condemn the rest, creating a type of “weird chic” used to sell supposedly divergent narratives. That’s how we get that one “weird” movie every year that seems to do well in box-offices, the “weird” musical act that does the same, and so on. In creating these safe ways to be “weird”, the hegemony has an important ally: each and every one of us and our aversion to the weird. After all, the weird, that weird which is felt in the stomach, is uncomfortable. Our instinct is to shy away from it; like a kid with a flame, we instinctively feel the places in our imagination that make us queasy. Sure, we might poke them once in a while for that thrill of the “safe unsafe”, the rush of breaking the rules without meaningfully rewriting them. We’ll then retreat within the confines of the established, of the understandable, of the normal. The normal is an especially powerful tool for cultural hegemony because the normal is timeless; the normal is how things have always been, don’t you know? Our ways are our parents’ ways! It’s how things have always been done and suggesting that we might do something else, that we might organize society in some other form, is deemed as impossible. For the hegemony, appearing as obvious, as the default, as timeless, is the key to efficient control (5).

And therein lies the wub (6), as Philip K. Dick (that master of the weird) might say: our instinct to flinch away from the weird is the hegemony’s best weapon, best approach to sterilizing the weird, because we don’t even notice we’re doing it. After all, it’s the path of least resistance. Giving in, going back to normal, is what feels right and natural. Thus, even those of us who specifically set out to re-imagine things, to “boldly go where no man has gone before”, can be caught in the trap of the normal, in the unbelievable ease of simply sliding back into what you know. That “sliding back” can take many forms but one of the more insidious ones can be found in the replicating of your present situations, assumptions, and social codes (in short, your “cultural hegemony”) into your imagined futures (7). Take Star Trek for example, one of the most popular science fiction franchises of all time. It imagines a wild future where a supposed utopia rules “Terra” (Planet Earth, our planet) (8), humans (and other races) sail with relative ease among the stars, and technology rewrites vast swathes of reality itself. And yet, a majority (a crushing majority) of all intimate relationships depicted over the show’s many seasons are heterosexual. Bar DS9 (the most radical of Star Trek’s iterations), the military aristocracy of the Federation is seldom questioned. The colonial nature of Starfleet’s “science mission” is rarely examined thoroughly. In short, when sailing into their future-thought, the creators of Star Trek (both the original creator and the subsequent stewards of his vision) “imported” a host of assumptions, orders, and ideas along with them. Whenever they get too close to the weird, they flinch away and return with a satiated sigh to the normalcy which they know and love. Subconsciously, of course; we’re not claiming that they’re some evil “future cops”, purposefully stifling creativity and the weird. Instead, we’re making a point about how the best intentioned science fiction reinforces instead of breaks down present assumptions, moves away from the realms of the weird and into the realms of the normal. Of course, more examples abound like fellow silver screen hit Star Wars but also authors like Robert A. Heinlein or Isaac Asimov and many more of the illustrious writers of science fiction who, in purporting to re-imagine the future but leaving most of our present in effect, created literature which reinforces existing power structures and veers well away from the different, the radical, the weird.

Suburban science fiction

This is what we can call “suburban science fiction”. Even though it’s a relatively new term, suburban science fiction already has several meanings, including a certain sub-genre of science fiction stories which involves scrappy teens and the American suburb, mixed alongside magic or advanced technology (think Back to the Future or Stranger Things). However, this is not what we mean by the term here. Instead, the term suburban science fiction aims to invoke the kind of lethargic, conservative, and timeless doldrum of the American suburb as a predominantly white, well-to-do, subtly violent, and privileged space (9). It’s where liberals live, cocooned in the smug self-assurance that they aren’t the bad guys. Why, they might even allow their children to study the liberal arts, they might even discuss the truly horrible things happening far away. They might even vote for the “right” person. Clothed in these ideas and convinced that they are on the “right side of history”, the American suburb (by now a global phenomenon) and its denizens will go to great lengths to market themselves as not only wholesome but even progressive, daring, and forward-thinking. Of course, the reality is that these supposed paragons of virtue and progress are incredibly conservative; they maintain “party lines” around ideas like heteronormativity, race, class, and diverse other social topics. In order to “whitewash” that conservatism, they’ll pick some topics which are deemed to be socially relevant for the current moment and adopt a somewhat left of center approach to them. These still-safe social perspectives will then be used to hide their conservatism in other areas. “Excuse me,” they might say, “I am not a conservative! I think gay people should be allowed to marry! But trans rights? That’s going too far”.

See the parallel yet? Suburban science fiction thinks of itself in the same terms and utilizes the same mechanics to reap the benefits of its virtue signaling whenever possible. By marketing itself as cutting edge and daring, suburban science fiction can appeal to a crowd that’s looking for a weirder future, looking for brave new thoughts on the human condition and the societies we create. But by making its vision surface level, by maintaining a lot of the power structures as they exist in our society today, while tweaking some limited, surface level modifiers, suburban science fiction accomplishes three things: first, as we said above, it doesn’t alienate itself from conservative readers and thinkers, playing it safe to make sure it is as palatable as possible to as many readers as possible. You might read a story about a brave new society making its way into space on a doomed mission. The outward appearance of things is daring and controversial: these people are going to a place where all the old forms of authority are void and null. No one is there to enforce their will and freedom has a chance to run amok. But, in the suburban version, freedom runs amok in a limited sense; people glutton themselves. A scientist pursues a career as an artist. A marriage breaks up in favor of casual sex. People let their innermost secrets out, set free by the ring of Gyges (10) that is distance from authority. But no real challenges are formulated to the basic tenets of society. No one posits that not only should the captain be deposed (mutiny is a common trope in suburban/pulp science fiction) but that the very idea of hierarchy is meaningless out here in space. People seek new careers but no one questions the very idea of labor and who it serves. Things are kept just radical enough to be interesting but just safe enough to avoid engaging with any substantially revolutionary ideas.  

Secondly, and somewhat more importantly, it also avoids engaging with the weird in any real, meaningful, scary or dangerous way. It’s easier, both technically and psychologically, to make “safe” science fiction. Who wants to grapple with the truly weird when you could just sample it and achieve the same effect, the sheen of the progressive and the cutting edge? But thirdly, and most importantly, suburban science fiction remains a vessel for the promulgation, reinforcement, and bolstering of the cultural hegemony as the “timeless normal”. It becomes another sphere where the current intellectual and cultural order of our lives is taken for granted, taken for the norm, as something that “always has been and always was and always will be”. As we mentioned above, that is the hegemony’s ultimate goal: to decrease the amount of power needed for control by presenting itself as a “fait accompli”, as a fact that will always be true. If it can achieve that, it has de facto won and no longer needs to enforce itself; its subjects will enforce hegemony for it. What better literary tool for that than suburban science fiction? If we stare into the future and all we can see there is all that already is, then what already is seems like an inescapable truth. There’s no point in fighting against the way things always are and always will be.

To expand on the examples given above, we can zoom in on one science fiction scenario that has been grabbing the public imagination for the last decade or so: the conquest and exploitation of space. Of course, the idea of venturing out into space is nothing new; we’ve mentioned several examples above which span the last few decades. But in the recent decade or so, as questions about climate change, capitalism, and the sustainability of our way of life in the West have increased, the stars seem a bit closer. This new-found proximity is also encouraged by ever increasing technological achievements which have seemed to breathe some new life into the idea of a space program, an idea which died in the aftermath of Reagan-ism and Thatcher-ism. The questions now posited, both by a proliferation of “grounded” science fiction which asks economical and “practical” questions about space exploration (Interstellar, Ad Astra, The Martian, Aniara, to name just a few) and by an avid private market, seem to be of a new nature. They focus not on “pie in the sky” ideas about the grandness of space (although that rhetoric is certainly still present, more on this soon) but rather on practical questions of extraction, production, and assembly in and of space. That is, the questions become capitalist questions: how can we analyze, exploit, extract, and maximize the resources which “outer” space represents and contains? Or, put in a crasser way, “how can we mine asteroids, damn it?”

In the course of asking these questions, the appearance of a brave new frontier is manufactured and maintained (which is why the rhetoric about the “grand adventure” of space is kept alive), mostly by science fiction. People speak of these upcoming efforts, by companies as diverse as Amazon, SpaceX, and others, in hushed tones of awe, already educated by science fiction to consider “humanity’s next step” as an undeniable truth about our shared future. Going to space, way before the first man on the moon or the first satellite in space, is painted as an inevitable next step (11). This is how science fiction prepares the ground for these adventures. Beyond the hard to trace, quaint, and way too individualist tales about science fiction’s influence on specific people (“I had the idea for my invention as a boy, upon reading science fiction” or “I knew I wanted to go into STEM after seeing Star Trek”) this influence works on a systemic level. It does both more and less than make futures possible and others impossible. Rather, it works together with science and industry, the forces of “progress”, to deem one future probable and the other improbable. Sense a pattern? You should, because making one future probable is making it obvious, natural, normal, inevitable. It is doing the work of cultural hegemony. This also leads to the “market logic” of most science fiction and ties back to our point about the aversion from the weird which guides many writers of the genre. If the consumers of their stories have already been “conditioned” to expect a certain kind of future, it becomes harder to diverge from that kind of future. Of course such diversions exist but as the tropes and cliches of the genre become more solidified, escape from them becomes more problematic financially. Then, of course, the beautiful, horrible cycle closes as works that bolster and amplify the expected future become more financially viable, thus more of them are made and read, and that expected future gets bolstered again in turn by their sheer market presence.

The coming space race

Heading (somewhat) back on track: when you break it down to its basic components, to its material components, what really is new and exciting about the way in which we’re envisioning the coming exploitation of space? Let us, briefly, recount its characteristics as they are emerging out of the previous decade and into the next: first, this exploitation is being birthed out of an alliance between the private sector and the state. Elon Musk, for example, has now become NASA’s sole “path to space”, essentially sub-contracting the United States’ route into orbit and beyond. This is nothing new; the exploration and subsequent exploitation of the “new” world was born out of a very similar alliance between the state and the nascent private sector (hint: Columbus wasn’t an agent of state, he was an entrepreneur contracted by the Castilian state). Secondly, this exploitation, down its more advanced paths, is certainly aimed at the extraction of resources. But, more immediately, it is also about the control of movement, of ideas, of people, and of resources already present in the “home state”. The exploration/exploitation of space is about controlling the priorities here on Earth before it is about controlling the products of actual space. That’s why Musk insists on blinding astronomers with his satellites (12). That’s why a joint coalition of state, academic, and “philanthropic” elements don’t care that Mauna Kea is sacred (13). That is why the U.S government won’t declare the lunar landing sites a national park, so that they aren’t suspected of building a base on the Moon (14). That’s why a base on the moon is even an idea, and one which has preoccupied science fiction since the Cold War: control the movements in and out of the planet and you control the planet itself.

This is also, of course, nothing new. When the Portuguese first colonized the African coast, they made sure to build their colonial forts, equal parts military bases, trading posts, and factories, in strategic points overseeing the water. Control transport, control the flow of goods in and out of a continent, and you control the continent itself. But going one step further, the colonial efforts of all of the European empires were also about control at home, about reorganizing their states, their societies, and their economies along more rigid, controlling, and “rational” lines. They were about a new world order, breaking away from the more chaotic feudal order, exercising this newly desired form of control both abroad and “at home”, distinctions which quickly fell apart as the state expanded its control via and for the colonial project. OK, but who cares? The whole point of this digression was not only to show how science fiction paints an effort that has clear ties to the past and, in fact, mirrors previous projects by pretty much the same nations and people as something new and bold. It was mainly to talk about how this “mirroring” affects the future. Who cares about whether space exploration is actually old and boring while it is perceived as new and shiny? Naturally, this starts to matter when we talk about the future. Surprise! Bet you didn’t see that coming.

In order to understand why the depiction of space exploration in science fiction matters, we must make the point that the methods, tools, and institutions created to “explore the new world” were a part of the power consolidation of the nascent modern state. From this consolidation and the way it drove the exploration of the new world we can draw stark parallels with the moment we find ourselves in, mainly in the West. This is because this relationship, between the state and the tools of exploration, is the same relationship, more or less, as between the current capitalist hegemony and the nascent private space programs we are currently witnessing take form. There is a fair degree of innocence in imagining that what will happen “out there” that is, in outer space, will only manifest “down here” in the form of more goods or increased productivity or new kinds of jobs. Whatever form our exploration and exploitation of outer space takes, history shows us that it will invariably “bleed back” to Earth. The type of politics we choose to send to space will come home to roost as the distinction between home and space inevitably breaks down, both in our imaginations and in “reality”. Therefore, there is grave danger in whitewashing people like Elon Musk (a union buster who has shown callous cruelty in dealing with his employees) under the guise of a “captain of space” straight out of Golden Age science fiction. There is danger in painting Jeff Bezos (the richest man alive who continues to horde a fortune while his employees work themselves death) as the instigator of a Star Trek utopia. If, under this guise of daring, curiosity, and shiny spaceships, the capitalist order is exported to space (and is thus bolstered both there and here on Earth), science fiction will be complicit in the pain and suffering which ensues since it will be used (and is already being used) as the cultural language with which such an order is imagined. SpaceX is not that much different than the East India Trading Company (15) but with a little help from science fiction and a splash of the scent of bold innovation it comes across as a bright hope for our future in space.

What is to be done?

As we said, the complicity of science fiction is already all around us; suburban science fiction rules the day. Mostly. This science fiction, instead of imagining a new kind of future, a weirder future where space is an opportunity for the renegotiation of so much that we take for granted about ourselves and our societies, simply rehashes the past as a poor excuse for a future. By imagining the future as nothing more than a fertile ground for the values of the past, by exchanging the Portuguese fortress for a moon base, this type of science fiction makes sure that what we have today seems inevitable, that the only color palette with which we can paint our future, whether in space or on Earth, is the same grayscale of the past one hundred or so years.

But, of course, not all hope is lost. There is plenty of fantastic, weird science fiction still being made about space. This science fiction challenges basic assumptions about our bodies in outer space, about knowledge of outer space, about the economics of outer space. It imagines a future in fundamentally new colors, breaking away from the paradigms of the present and the past. However, we’re not all science fiction authors. At least, we’re not all published ones, with a grand stage, although we’d argue that we all have the potential to make science fiction. So, what is to be done? How can we contribute to the creation of a better sort of science fiction? To put it more abstractly, and more importantly, how can we use science fiction as a tool to imagine a better, new, fresh future for ourselves?

This will be the aim of the rest of this handbook. We’ll first dive deep into one example where free, wilder, weirder speculation can help us fight against the tyranny of the present, the tyranny of prediction. We will then look at more practical examples, taking a look at several methodologies and case studies which use science fiction and imagination at their core to imagine different futures. The aim of these case studies is to give you concrete tools to better exercise your imagination and use science fiction as a perspective on the future. Hopefully, this will help you break free from our current day assumptions of the type of future that is coming and enable us to, together, perhaps, imagine a better one.


Footnotes and Other Stray Thoughts

1 // Explored very well by many thinkers but also recently by the excellent Elvia Wilk. Her novel, “Oval”, is highly recommended in this context and in general.

2 // To be more exact, a specific type of imagination we can call “future-thought”. Wherever we say “imagination” below, you can imagine we said “future-thought”: It just doesn’t sound as nice.

3 // This idea has of course been explored by many thinkers since Escher coined it. Timothy Morton is one such thinker, specifically in his book “Dark Ecology”.

4 // As defined by Marxist thinkers, that is the structures of thought which arrange the presuppositions of a culture/society and control its output. See also Raymond Williams’ excellent The Long Revolution (1961).

5 // This idea has, of course, been investigated and written about by many writers but Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things remains one of the more important, if at times obtuse, iteration of these investigations.

6 // https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_Lies_the_Wub

7 // This idea of the tyranny of the present/past over the future has been explored extensively by many leftists writers in the past few years but perhaps most famously by Mark Fisher.

8 // Yes, supposed.

9 // A good example of literature which explores this idea of the “suburban” as conservative and lethargic can be found in the infamous Gravity’s Rainbow but also in more recent literature like Jeff Noon’s Nyquist novels or Jeff Vandermeer’s Dead Astronauts.

10 // https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_of_Gyges

11 // Here is a good, recent example. More examples like it abound.

12 // Perhaps “insists” is too strong of a word here but he certainly doesn’t care.

13 // Going so far as to turn to state-sanctioned violence in their effort to start construction.

14 // https://www.space.com/21921-moon-bill-protects-apollo-lunar-landings.html

15 // Think about it: both are state-sanctioned and contracted private organizations set up to explore a new frontier while shouldering the risk the state cannot afford to take. The only major difference is that the East India Trading Company had an army and SpaceX does not. Yet. More on the “extractivist” ideas that are fueling Musk’s vision can be read here.