SF vs SF

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.

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 2×2 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.