SF vs SF

By Madeline Ashby

Illustration: Kurt Caesar (?)

Tell me the difference between these two pieces of text.

Example 1

Even if Junior had understood enough English to answer her, he didn’t get the chance. The RV swerved abruptly to the right, throwing them both against wall. Amy grabbed him and tucked him in close to her as the RV bounced up and down. She rolled off the bed just as a shower of cups rained down on them from a cupboard with a faulty lock.

“Javier, what do you think you’re doing?”

“LET’S BOTH GET SOME REST,” the RV said in a gentle tone.

Gripping the wall as the RV slowed down, Amy made her way to the cockpit.“Javier?”


Javier sat in the driver’s seat, head on his chest, eyes shut. The RV had driven itself onto a gravel access road with deep ruts, the sort that heavy logging trucks must have once made. As Amy watched, the RV’s displays all dimmed and vanished, and the vehicle quieted. Only the image of an old padlock remained, with a series of Z’s fluttering away from its keyhole and a countdown timer showing her how many minutes were left of the enforced nap.

Example 2

"You know who watches Offside?" Tien asks. "Kim Jong-un."

"Just because the Dear Leader watches it doesn't make it a bad show." Zhuang tries the account again. No luck. His usual feed, this guy in New Brunswick, has recently changed the parameters of his account and now the whole thing is impenetrable. "Besides, there's no content in North Korea. He has to Squee, like everyone else."

"It's a stupid show to get in trouble for, is all I'm saying. They should have killed it two years ago, when the story was still good."

Zhuang frowns. "I thought you didn't watch."

Tien casts his eyes to the ceiling. "Well, I don't. But when my little sister was in the hospital during the smog storm... There was this nurse..."

"And you thought she'd give you her number if you gave her the Squee?"

"Something like that."

The first snippet is from my novel vN, and the second is from a class project I did on the future of kids' entertainment for the interactive division of Corus Entertainment. The first conjectures vehicles that assert control when the driver falls asleep. The second suggests that adolescents in China will soon enjoy Canadian content so much that they'll hack content distribution networks to get it. Which of these is a science fiction premise? Neither. Both of these things happen already, more or less. So, what's the difference between strategic foresight and science fiction?

I could be cynical here, and tell you that the difference is the paycheck. Strategic foresight pays more, because the clients often have budgets for research, innovation, and/or strategy. Publishers also have budgets, but they're smaller and the competition for a piece of them is ferocious.

The real difference from the writer's perspective is the degree of freedom afforded by each context. When I first learned my manuscript had been purchased, my dad was concerned that my editor would "interfere" with my work, and turn it from a Godfather-with-robots story (about self-replicating humanoids developed with funds from a Rapture-minded mega-church) into something with vampires in it. I told him not to worry. Editors read interesting stories, and help them become even more interesting. It's a collaborative process. I would have the freedom to drive the text my way, but I would also have a friend to take away my keys if I were clearly incapacitated -- provided he weren't too busy collecting awards like a boss.

Strategic foresight is also a collaborative process. It involves facilitating workshops, sitting down for long conversations, and standing up at white boards with sticky notes. Unlike the writing of a novel, there are other people in the room with you -- and their ideas matter more than yours. You, the researcher, are there to help the client open up about the problems and the potential endemic to her industry. For this reason, the research phase of a foresight project can sometimes feel like corporate therapy. People have to feel comfortable before they can express genuine hopes or anxieties about the future. But once they realize this is an opportunity to think creatively, they run with it. li{margin-top:1em;}

Here's how I've worked in the past. The methods outlined here are by no means complete, but they do relate to the work I've done in foresight and how I think as a science fiction writer. For a nice big list of methodologies, check out Rafael Popper's foresight diamond.

  1. Find signals. Or, as I think of it, 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.
  2. Organize those signals into trends. Inevitably, some of the signals you find will fall into the same areas. Group them together as trends, like "the democratization of media" or "spending cuts for education." When you have those, further organize them into a STEEPV (.pdf) framework of social, technological, economic, environmental, political, or values-based trends. Some will overlap. That's okay. You're describing a culture, and cultures are messy. (Worldbuilders, take note: STEEPV also works as a method of organizing the current events in your fictional realm. It's like a character sheet for a whole culture.)
  3. Determine what drives those trends. Think of signals, trends, and drivers as the ocean: signals are waves, trends are the tide, and drivers are the moon. Waves may be big or small, the sea may be choppy or flat, but without the moon the water wouldn't move in the same way it does now. Drivers are elemental forces impelling the trends we participate in. They can be things like the expanding capacity of a chip, the price of lithium in Afghanistan, or the human urge to communicate. But they're always the thing undergirding reality that you most take for granted.
  4. Create a critical uncertainties matrix. Critical uncertainties are independent factors that have little influence on each other within the problem space, but could change the space as a whole if they tipped too sharply in one direction or another. They're determined from the drivers, and the client's workshop group decides which uncertainties are the most nagging. It's easiest to establish uncertainties which are polar, like "public funding for scientific research," which can go high or low. Then it's set against another uncertainty in a 2x2 matrix. That matrix creates the four scenario worlds.
  5. Write a scenario. When I'm writing a short story or a novel, I can decide which aspect of the future I'd most like to explore. When I'm developing a foresight scenario, I need to explore the aspects that are most important to the client. Scenarios can be heavy or light on the narrative, or somewhere in the middle. Sometimes they're more like a field-guide description. But the more lived-in that future feels, the faster the client can decide whether or not she'd like to live there, too. What both have in common is the need to write entrancingly about a place and a time that doesn't yet exist.

For me, that's Strategic Foresight vs. Science Fiction.

Published 8:17 pm Mon, Jan 2, 2012

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About the Author

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, otaku, immigrant, and contributor to both Frames Per Second Magazine and WorldChanging Canada.

30 Responses to “SF vs SF”

  1. Tom_Has_Doubts says:

    How does one imagine a world where Pizza is reclassified as a vegetable? 

    • retepslluerb says:

      You begin with extrapolating the trend started with trying to reclassify ketchup as a vegatable. 

    • allium says:

      1) 31 CE – Greco-Roman trading fleet making the Cornwall tin run blown out to sea, reaches North America. Columbian Exchange of flora and fauna occurs over 1400 years early.
      2) 250 – 450 CE – Pagan fertility rites involving small wheatcakes smeared with plant extract from the Hesperides coopted by nascent Christianity into Eucharistic ritual (monthly instead of weekly).
      3) 886 CE – Council of Alexandria allows Lenten dispensation for panes rubes even if they contain meat (considered representation of body and blood of Christ).
      4) 887 – ca.1750 CE – Numerous holy wars (the last major one, between Natchezistan and the Cherokee Empire, ending in 1726) fought over deep-dish vs. thin-crust style communion wafers.
      5) 1847 – Salvador Dali first man on Mars.

  2. bob ross says:

    I have no clue why this is posted on boingboing. What exactly was the reader supposed to come away with?

    I still have no idea what strategic foresight is, how it relates to science fiction or why knowing the process you use to accomplish it will help me in the future. I seriously feel as if I just read the very middle of something interesting, but have no idea what the introduction or conclusion were.

    • Kimmo says:

      Seems to me like the latest in an irregular series of articles by Cory  – wait a sec, it’s not Cory. Oh well, it’s another SF author – written to assist would-be colleagues.

    • artbyjcm says:

      It seems random to me too, but honestly I really enjoyed the read. It’s useful for anyone dabbling in writing any kind of story really.

      • Hey, thanks! I wrote these posts months ago, and at the time I pictured them as all hanging together — because that’s how I had written them, and that’s what they were doing in my mind. But in isolation they’re a bit rougher. Nevertheless, I’m happy you enjoyed it!

    • John Ohno says:

      This very much resembles an on-and-off series on the blog of Charlie Stross — with whom Cory is writing a novel (or perhaps has finished writing it already) — in which several different sci-fi writers guest-post about strategic foresight. This makes sense for Stross, whose novels seem almost compulsively rigorous (even his ‘urban fantasy’ titles are math-and-physics heavy). Maybe this is why it was posted here.

      Nevertheless, boingboing focuses much less on scifi authorship than on bananas with gears on them, so it’s hard to see the rationale — the audience is very different.

      Anyhow, strategic foresight is the current term for what used to be called ‘futurism’. While scifi authors occasionally are credited with predicting the future, futurists (or strategic foreseers, I guess, if you want to use a clunky term like that) actually legitimately try to predict the future. The division is very clear in terms of characters: science fiction is fiction first and foremost, with an emphasis given to telling a good story with all the other trappings of fiction (such as characters with names, backstories, personalities, and complex motivations), whereas futurism is more concerned with the speculation and so gives fewer specifics. Compare Future Shock with Shockwave Rider.

  3. MrHaroHaro says:

    I came away thinking the title was Sci-fi vs San Francisco for whatever that’s worth.

  4. My personal take is that neither examples are SF; although the last para of example one hints at a view of the bigger picture that might indicate it gets SF-y later.

    Nothing personal; just my 10c.

  5. Nadreck says:

    The intersection of these two things is the old YA SF series “Tom Swift”.  In the 1910s Tom Swift (Sr.) was inventing things like motorcycles and submarines and in the 60s (Tom Swift Jr.) was inventing LCDs and such; both well before the engineering on these things was worked out.  This was done through a combination of perusing newspaper stories and checking into trends in actual laboratory research project by the publisher’s research staff so that whoever was ghost-writing the series at the time would have a plausible new gizmo for Tom to invent.  

  6. Shaun Duke says:

    Or they could both be examples of science fiction, depending on when you wrote them.  Something doesn’t stop being science fiction simply because you used a different thought process (whatever that means).

    Thanks for the Atwoodian moment.

  7. artbyjcm says:

    It shows a file not found page for STEEPV. :(

    • Peaked says:

      You just need to chop off the first part of the URL (the boingboing part). Lately there seems to have been a lot of external links getting treated as links to local content on Boing Boing, resulting in the proper, external URL being appended to the URL of the directory that the page with the link is in. It’s probably just due to some formatting weirdness required when adding external URLs to the post.

  8. ultranaut says:

    whatever happened to speculative fiction…

  9. My experience has been that most futurists are wrong more often than they’re right, and that they only look good if you cherry-pick in hindsight, no matter how plausible their methods sound. This is not an indictment of futurists so much as it is an acknowledgement of the infinite complexity of events. Butterfly flaps its wings, Jeff Goldblum gets eaten by a dinosaur. Who could have seen that coming?!

    I mean, Jules Verne wrote about going to the moon, but he didn’t predict the Apollo program. And William Gibson could be said to have  predicted the Internet, but only if you focus on the details that he got right (vast network of interconnection) and not the details that he got wrong (jacking directly into your brain). He also “predicted” razor-knives that came out of your fingertips, but here I have to duct tape razor blades onto my fingertips if I want to pretend to be Molly Millions. FUCK YOU, FUTURE! WHERE’S MY FLYING CAR!

    The only thing that would make me pay attention to your ideas on Strategic Foresight would be if you made public your predictions so that people could track how good you were at predicting things that actually happened.

    • sabik says:

      As they say, SF writers don’t try to predict the future, they try to prevent it.

      Or inspire it, in more optimistic cases.

      The point, at least in serious SF (both meanings), is to have a conversation about what kinds of future we want to have and what kinds of future we’d rather avoid, so that we can work toward the former and try to avoid the latter.

      Any predictions are incidental.

      • Any predictions are incidental.

        Once you start charging clients for “strategic foresight,” they’re not.

        • sabik says:

          Sure they are. Strategic foresight is not about prediction and anyone who’s expecting predictions is hiring the wrong professional.

          The charge is for helping the client cope with the future. Predictions would be counter-productive to that, because (as you note) they’ll almost certainly be wrong. Rather, the job is to prevent some futures and inspire others, mostly with a view to making the business (plan) sufficiently robust to survive whatever changes do, in fact, arrive. Any scenarios written along the way are simply tools to facilitate discussion.

  10. liquidstar says:

    Incendiary material.  The idea of a crowd-sourced speculation is not only viable, it is also reprehensible. Really puts me in mind of Eck material.  Almost word for word.   There ARE certain angles you should not fuck with.  Are we deliberate(y -because we cant spell) muddying the waters of time with the TarotÉ why cant I get an honest to god question fucking markÉ  Anyways, not to be offensive such is not our intention.  Why are you not talking about the Exegesis CoryÉ

  11. petsounds says:

    You know what’s scary is? I have a friend who is involved with this “patent group”. They get together and do research, and then apply for patents. It’s the very definition of patent troll. Anyway, their process doesn’t differ very much from the steps listed in this post. This also sounds like a very soulless way of developing a story.

  12. Adam Cahan says:

    Meh. I like Vonnegut’s comments on science fiction:


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