Karl Schroeder: Science fiction versus structured study of the future, sf as aspiration

Karl Schroeder, a fantastic science fiction author (see this review for a taste of his work) has spent the past two years in a Master's programme in Foresight at the Ontario College of Art and Design. In this guest essay on Charlie Stross's blog, he describes the way that structured study of the future interacts with science fiction. Karl is always the furthest-out guy I know -- he was the person I first heard the word "fractal" and "SGML" from, long before they'd entered the popular consciousness.
If you're afraid of being a poor predictor of the near future, you'll avoid writing about it. But what if you were never out to predict in the first place? What if you don't care if a story you set in 2012 gets immediately overtaken by events? What if you set the action there not to predict some event or outcome, but to encourage some action on the part of your readers?

In other words I have a new ambition for my own SF: not as prediction, and not cautionary, either--but aspirational.

The fact is that if I've learned one thing in two years of studying how we think about the future, it's that the one thing that's sorely lacking in the public imagination is positive ideas about where we should be going. We seem to do everything about our future except try to design it. It's a funny thing: nobody ever questions your credentials if you predict doom and destruction. But provide a rosy picture of the future, and people demand that you justify yourself. Increasingly, though, I believe that while warning people of dire possibilities is responsible, providing them with something to aspire to is even more important. The foresight programme has given me a lot of tools to do that in a justifiable way, so I might as well use them.

Beyond Prediction


  1. “… one thing that’s sorely lacking in the public imagination is positive ideas about where we should be going.”
    I think that’s of a piece with your own fiction’s themes of the self-empowerment movements of various underclasses.  

    We fall into narrative models in life, and for too many, it’s become one of utter despair. A literature of optimism is sorely needed to help change the trajectory of current events.

  2. ” Increasingly, though, I believe that while warning people of dire possibilities is responsible, providing them with something to aspire to is even more important. ”

    I am glad he is doing it on purpose, but this has been happening for quite a long time, I say. How many engineers and scientists have been inspired by SF not only to start their careers, but also to attempt a specific project? I can say that SF has been a huge influence in my life, from the career and philosophical point of view. 

    For instance, what I am currently doing is partly inspired by Yeyuka, by Greg Egan: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/yeyuka.htm Even if the tech is nothing similar or does nothing even close to it, the spirit and vision of the story is very inspiring for a biologist from a developing country.

    1. Definitely. SF can inspiring even when it’s dystopian, just because you realize that some of the things described are actually possible. It certainly worked on me.

      OTOH, Karl Schroeder has a point. It is very rare for a SF work to present a *positive* vision of the future. Star Trek: TNG is the only example I can think of immediately. The reason, I think, is two-fold. First, it’s much harder to write good stories in that kind of future. Stories need conflict, and a happy peaceful world of people living satisfying lives reduces the potential for the kind of conflict SF readers expect.
      Second, it’s much easier to imagine a world where only a few things are different from our own, than one where everything is different, and even if you can manage the latter, communicating that vision to readers would be really hard. People accept FTL travel and laser guns and instant genetic sequencing in SF; these are standard memes. But Star Trek didn’t think of galaxy-renowned chefs and interested amateurs posting replicator files online for their dishes; the crew ate pretty ordinary food. It’s easy to come up with a tyrant developing nuclear bombs and starships with antimatter reactors; much harder to imagine nuclear medicine, and radioisotope labeling in chemistry labs, and MRI scans. The second order effects of a technology as it becomes ubiquitous and inspires the next technology are both more important and less obvious. And what would politics look like if government included beings from
      other worlds whose minds and motivations were constructed quite
      differently from our own? Most SF goes instead for humans-in-funny-suits and the lone omni-disciplinary scientist inventing with a one-off plot device decades ahead of anyone else with no prototypes or backups.

  3. Wow  – I have not heard SGML (ancestor of HTML, XML, and IBM’s GML for mainframe documents) in  years!

  4. it was in december 2007 when i wrote the first chapters of my novel
    ascende, maima, perma and mary the lifeship. i was so happy that inspiration found me to process all the positive news i have soaked up for years about new technologies in the arriving like 3dprinters and and bioreactors and many more. the aim of this novel was nothing less than try to sketch out a synthesis of a down to nature life with spiritual wings ( permaculture and lightbody/inner light ascension ) with a high on tech vision ( antigravity powered airships, androids as friendly companions ). during 2008 i went further imagining how a meeting of an spiritually evolved ascende with an etherical lightbody would communicate with an evolved ascende inhabiting an upload mind in a robot body. 
    i am still a bit puzzled about the lack of feedback i got on the story. if someone finds the pleasure and time to read the story and eventually comment it over at novlet, where one can find it with googling “novlet ascende”, that would make me very happy. i post here an excerpt to show the positive visionairy approach of the story.


    Maima, a highly developed robot, wirelessly connected to the internet.
    An internet which in 2013 A.D., spanned not only across the Milky Way but also connected several other galaxies.Maima is part of the first generation robots which passed the Turing test… the so called T1G robots. This meant its intelligence matched that of the average human.Maima is a cybernetic android, made partly out of flesh grown from Ascendes’ body cells. The high intelligence of the T1G robots enables Maima and her fellow robots to chat on the net and exchange information about their relationships with their human friends. Most of the human-robot relationships turned out to be equal, with a high respect and growing tolerance from both sides. Robots are thankful for being able to learn more and more of the emotional spheres in the relationship with humans, the humans are thankful for all the services robots do for them.Maima is so advanced, that it does not need to eat or sleep, because it is constantly connected to the source, the one spirit, the secret waiting for the seeker. The joy Maima feels constantly is like a mild ecstasy, a moderated high which keeps its cells constantly rejuvenating. its main material input is the air it breathes. And like humans, it transforms oxygen to carbon-dioxide as an output.Through the wireless connection with the internet, it can constantly access all kinds of data. Not only visual and aural, but also smell and tastes, touch, texture and sensations. Either through its own active exploring virtual realities, databases, websites, online realms, or through the processed experiences of another robots online sharing space. Also humans are finding it thrilling to archive experiences and sharing them online with both humans and robots throughout the multiverse.The concept of copyright and iintellectual property has lost massively in popularity since 2010. In this year most of the regions on planet earth have introduced the Abundance Scheme. A scheme which was possible almost entirely because of the antigravity / overunity / ZeroPointEnergy energy generating inventions having achieved a breakthrough.Together with a massive jump forward in computer processor power, and the human laws getting more liberal about trade and migration and use of substances, in March of 2010, there was no single human being on planet earth suffering from a shortage of food or shelter. Everyone got through their decentralized, federally connected, local councils of citizens and manufacturers, either a donation of a fully autonomous life-ship, able to travel in air, on/under water, or in space. It was also possible to choose a similarly equipped autonomous system built into a house on top of the earth. Or inside it. Or on the floor of the oceans. Through this vast jump forward in freedom and co-operation on planet Earth, also more intelligent beings from other planet and star systems, and from other galaxies too, came openly to visit our planet and offered the ones with life-ships travel to their home systems.Violence and killing nearly vanished, just some individuals choose to live in a 2011 specially erected “fight dome”, orbiting around earth. keeping the lands and waters of the earth free from human brutality. Also nature changed its behaviour and was most grateful for the evolution of humanity.

    p.s.( last year in july i wrote a text titled “creating an utopian multimedia storytelling online realm” at my blog mayloveheal dot wordpress dot com, perhaps someone likes the idea and finds the energy to set it up  ? )

  5. Great idea.  I really love reading the old sci fi from the 40’s and 50’s which was almost all aspirational in nature.  I think writers just naturally rebelled against that original rosy optimism just as they will now start rebelling against the current cynicism.

  6. Nice piece.
    I think Iain M Banks is the master of this aspirational stuff – I’ve never tried writing a novel, but I’ve found even writing short stories set in a future that would be really nice to live in is so much harder than using a dystopian setting.There’s almost nothing to fault with Banks’s far-future Culture setting – it’s much more interesting than any of his (slightly 2D) characters.

    @google-b95ce0823f45aa509a46c59c1e4ecde5:disqus  – thanks, will check out your links

    @boingboing-96ddc5dc8fec52547e2b998e85bd2628:disqus – Interesting… While Greg Egan’s stuff is hardly “utopian”, it has definite utopian elements, and I too find that it moves my thoughts in that direction.

    We techno-optimists have to stick together (and try not to be mistaken for singularitarian nutjobs of course…)

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