How science fiction writers' "design fiction" is playing a greater role in policy debates

Science fiction writers have a long history of intervening/meddling in policy, but historically this has been in the form of right-wing science fiction writers spinning fanciful superweapon ideas like Ronald Reagan's Star Wars system, or the writers who pitched in with the GW Bush team after 9/11 to design the brutal, endless "War on Terror" we're currently mired in.

But a new, progressive wing of design fiction practicioners are increasingly involved in policy questions, through vehicles like MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows annuals and the Hieroglyph and Pwning Tomorrow anthologies, as well as the forecasting consultancies of writers like Madeline Ashby and Karl Schroeder.

Much of this work is going on at ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination, which just collaborated with MIT Press on an anthology of critical perspectives on Frankenstein to tie in with the book's bicentennial; ASU also recently hired the brilliant Brian David Johnson away from Intel to work on these projects.

In a long piece for Slate, New America Foundation's Kevin Bankston takes the measure of this work -- where it's come from, where it's going, and what effect it's having on the world.

Thankfully, an ambitious new project launched this month aims to use the vision and expertise of the science fiction community—including Atwood herself—to move past dystopian visions. The newly announced Science Fiction Advisory Council, composed of a stellar selection of 64 bestselling sci-fi writers and visionary filmmakers, has tasked itself with imagining realistic, possible, positive futures that we might actually want to live in—and figuring out we can get from here to there. The council is sponsored by XPRIZE, the nonprofit foundation that uses competition to spur private development of things like a reusable suborbital spacecraft. The advisers on the council will “assist XPRIZE in the creation of digital ‘futures’ roadmaps across a variety of domains [and] identify the ideal catalysts, drivers and mechanisms—including potential XPRIZE competitions—to overcome grand challenges and achieve a preferred future state.”

This new project is reminiscent of Hieroglyph, a project from Arizona State University that is similarly aimed at leveraging science fiction to make positive change in the real world. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense; I work for New America.) Like the Hieroglyph project, the Science Fiction Advisory Council will be launching with a short story collection. In July, XPRIZE plans to publish an online anthology of original science-fiction stories by members of the advisory council recounting the experiences of passengers on a fictional flight from Tokyo to San Francisco who are mysteriously transported 20 years into the future. (The air-travel theme makes a bit more sense when you realize that the project is cosponsored by Japanese airline ANA.) The stories, published at Seat14C.com, will presumably include visions of some of the “preferred future states” that XPRIZE seeks to identify, and will be followed by quarterly meetings of the advisers as they build out their roadmaps for avoiding dystopia and reaching those better futures.

Prototyping a Better Tomorrow [Kevin Bankston/Slate]