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Mirror, Mirror -- Science Fiction and Futurism

Futurism -- scenario-based foresight, in particular -- has many parallels to science fiction literature, enough that the two can sometimes be conflated. It's no coincidence that there's quite a bit of overlap between the science fiction writer and futurist communities, and (as a science fiction reader since I was old enough to read) I could myself as extremely fortunate to be able to call many science fiction writers friends. But science fiction and futurism are not the same thing, and it's worth a moment's exploration to show why.

The similarities between the two are obvious. Broadly speaking, both science fiction and futurism involve the development of internally-consistent, plausible future worlds extrapolating from the present. Science fiction and many (but not all) scenario-based forms of futurism both rely on narrative to explore their respective future worlds. Futurist works and many (but not all) science fiction stories have as an underlying motive a desire to illuminate the present (and the dilemmas we now face) by showing ways in which the existing world may evolve.

But here's the twist, and the reason that science fiction and futurism are not identical, but instead are mirror-opposites:

In science fiction, the author(s) build their internally-consistent, plausible future worlds to support a character narrative (taking "character" in the broadest sense -- in science fiction, it's entirely possible for the main character to be a space ship, a computer network, a city, even a planet). In short, a story. Conversely, futurists develop any story or character narrative (here found primarily in scenario-based futurism) to support the depiction of internally-consistent, plausible future worlds.

Science fiction writers need to build out their worlds with enough detail and system knowledge to provide consistent scaffolding for character behavior, allowing the reader (and the author) to understand the flow of the story logic. It's often the case that a good portion of the world-building happens behind the scenes -- written for the author's own use, but never showing up directly on the page. But there's little need for science fiction writers to build their worlds beyond that scaffolding.

Futurists need to make as much of their world-building explicitly visible as possible (and here the primary constraint is usually the intersection of limits to report length and limits to reader/client attention); any "behind the scenes" world-building risks leaving out critical insights, as often the most important ideas to emerge from foresight work concerns those basic technology drivers and societal dynamics. When a futurist narrative includes a story (with or without a main character), that story serves primarily to illuminate key elements of the internally-consistent, plausible future worlds. (The plural "worlds" is intentional; as anyone who follows my work knows, one important aspect of futures work is often the creation of parallel alternative scenarios.)

In science fiction, the imagined world supports the story; in futurism, the story supports the imagined world.

It's a simple but crucial difference, and one that too many casual followers of foresight work miss. If a futurist scenario reads like bad science fiction, it's because it is bad science fiction, in the sense that it's not offering the narrative arc that most good pieces of literature rely upon. And if the future presented in a science fiction story is weak futurism, that's not a surprise either -- as long as the future history helps to make the story compelling, it's done its job.

Futurists and science fiction writers often "talk shop" when they get together -- but fundamentally, their jobs are very, very different.


I see the point of this post is to make an analytical distinction, but it does (probably intentionally) overlook a few shades of grey here ....

... take for example Isaac Asimov. I always thought Asimov loved exploring the futurist ideas in his stories, and the characters, especially in some of the earlier books, were quite 'cardboard cut-out' for the purpose of giving a personal perspective on some aspect of the scenario. Exactly the role you say characters play in a narrative included as part of a futurist scenario.

Then there is what you might call 'socio-technical sci-fi' of the likes of Ursula Le Guin, where there is a deep curiosity of how humans can co-evolve with technology, but that also feature strong characters.

So it seems more of a continuum to me. An interesting aspect of this :- while at first the bottom-lines driving professions of a sci-fi novelist and futurist may appear different (the former to 'entertain', the latter to 'inform &provoke reflection'), how clear is that boundary? For example the Superstruct project you co-led Jamais, I imagine it would be hard to untangle entertainment from informing there.

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