Connecting Science Fiction to Science Policy
Science fiction complements policymakers’ usual methods for anticipating the future, broadening possibilities and ensuring a wide range of voices are heard.
The people at the bar had already shared their favorite alien species, so I retrieved the next question from the stack of prompts: How comfortable were they with technological body modifications? We started to talk about the ways people might implant interfaces within themselves to augment connectivity and awareness. Someone mentioned the scene from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, in which a character sports an array of quill-like sensors plugged into the back of their head. When I asked the all-important follow-up—what proactive policies would address the issues raised by such augmentation?—everyone was prepared. After all, this was the second DC Science Fiction and Policy Happy Hour I had organized, and the attendees included a dozen or so people from federal agencies, companies, and academia. Most were professionally engaged in science or policy as well as passionate about science fiction, so everyone was excited to talk about them together.
Although our happy hours have been on hiatus due to the pandemic, the motivation behind them remains: to bring together like-minded people who want to explore the intersections of science fiction and science policy in ways that get at the heart of the social-technological transformation we’re all experiencing. Personally, this process gives my work in science policy new insights—I often seek out science fiction that goes beyond the boundaries of our society and history to explore big, unwieldy ideas. And over the years, my policy and advocacy work has led me to be increasingly attentive to the questions of governance and self-actualization within the fiction. How does society define the direction we are going? What language do we use to do that? And how, in the future, do we see ourselves defining our values and leadership in the face of challenges both within and beyond the scope of our current reality?
In my policy work at a federal science agency, I support expanding the use of data and analytics. With seemingly limitless possibilities—as well as risks—I often reflect on where society is headed. How should we weigh the costs and benefits of different efforts? How should—or shouldn’t—we apply new technologies or use new sources of information?
Science fiction fosters a comfort in exploring unusual, out-of-the-box ideas and scenarios. It complements other methods policymakers use to imagine the future, such as undertaking visioning activities and developing theories of change. While foresight activities take place in other circles (e.g., nonprofits, think tanks, academia), often with greater attention to immediate policy applicability, science fiction goes beyond these by helping us articulate not only possible future problems but also solutions.
Science fiction allows us the freedom to explore all dimensions of a scenario, including social, economic, and political forces. For example, in The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, an asteroid hits Washington, DC, in the 1950s, decimating the United States’ political leadership and catalyzing a catastrophic climate event. The ensuing reimagining of the space program allows Kowal to explore a pivotal stage of technology development in the context of race, gender, and class. In this manner, science fiction can provide significant value to policymakers, and I argue it does so through three dimensions that build on one another: the presence of narrative, character action, and inclusion.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the narrative focus of science fiction helps shine a light on entire techno-social systems. The word “system” acknowledges that society and science and technology are not a duality intersecting along a plane, but instead a network of variables that intertwine in different ways to impact individuals, communities, and whole societies. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, our individual observations may touch on portions of the system, but inevitably leave some topics unscrutinized. The result is that our understanding of the benefits and risks inherent in a new technology, a possible future world, or a social value is in danger of being incomplete.
For complex systems, narratives enable a deeper and broader exploration of stakeholders and their interests that often cannot be readily articulated in policy and academic analyses. Who are the stakeholders? What language, values, and emotions are at play? Exploring how characters experience future conditions differently is essential for policy, where creation and implementation hinge on policymakers’ perceptions and experiential boundaries. High-level policy discussions often lose the perspective of multiple voices, and representation is an ongoing issue, so the reminder that multiple experiences are relevant is invaluable. Although a pragmatist might argue that it is impossible to represent all interests and perspectives in such discussions, I think policy leaders need to consider which perspectives are being left out, and who pays the price of their prioritization.
Narratives can also put into tangible form concepts that people don’t fully articulate on a cognitive level. You often find this in stories that explore uncomfortable ideas—particularly those that result in failure, loss, or diminished stature—and it is directly relevant to science policy. If you have ever read a report about how the United States risks losing dominance as the global leader in science and technology, consider this: Did you truly imagine a world where the United States no longer leads? What would such a world be like, for you, your neighbor, or people on another continent? Can you imagine this world in the midst of such a transformation rather than the concluding point of the loss of US dominance? And where is that concluding point?
Here is where stories can help. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, for example, is a masterful story of lurching decline. It describes 2020s America as an unraveling society where remnants of wealth and innovation coexist with mass migration, riots, and the collapse of cities. Though written 30 years ago, its predictions are startlingly prescient in some ways and compel readers to reflect on the cultural forces we see in today’s world.
Likewise, international science fiction provides a critical way to break out of an America-centric mode of thinking. Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, for example, explores the unfolding of a hostile first contact with an alien species in China, presenting a narrative centered around technological advancement and competition entirely from a Chinese viewpoint. With real-life parallels in China’s emerging leadership in quantum computing and artificial intelligence, such stories provide policymakers with a deeper, albeit hypothetical, understanding of the implications of this shift. In a similar vein, Africanfuturism blows aside the pervading Western-centric focus and presents a reimagined landscape vibrant with African culture and technology.
The second domain where science fiction offers critical insights involves the actions characters take to manage challenges in the context of science and technology. In any story, it is the characters’ actions that drive plots forward; thoughts, wishes, and intentions are not enough. When I read about a character taking action, such as standing against cultural or technological forces in support of the character’s own principles, it reminds me to reflect on how science and policy intersect with morals and values. Even more, it reinforces my own active voice, which spurs me to move beyond intentionality and actually work to make change.
In Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, for instance, a group of scholars learns that a museum artifact in their collection was obtained via the attack and dismemberment of an alien chief. Recognizing that the conditions under which the artifact was obtained do not align with their values, they return it. In real life, academic scholars with some similarity to the characters in this story are important stakeholders for my work as well as a defining force for the progress of science. Reading Binti and absorbing its lessons has shifted the way I talk about the role of data and analytics. What’s more, the book has become part of my moral compass, helping me navigate the shaping and implementation of strategic priorities in an ethical and equitable manner.
For developing thoughts on policy, the recent growth in inclusive representation and diversity in science fiction literature is an immense asset. Like narrative and action, the increasing diversity of writers and their characters helps to broaden the boundaries of our thinking. Communities that have until now been excluded are driving a renaissance in science fiction, bringing forth an incredible body of new perspectives and ideas. This is not just new talent with interesting plots and characters; these voices are shattering barriers of thought that have previously limited the ability to truly explore the full spectrum of existence in future or alternative worlds.
This diversity of stories reflects one of America’s greatest strengths and offers potential that we should leverage. Sexuality, gender, trauma, childbirth, racism, and oppression are all present in techno-social systems, though rarely are they explicitly specified—science fiction creates a safe space to explore these experiences and viewpoints. Just as improving diversity within the scientific workforce will enhance our innovative capacity, exploration of future horizons must come from different lenses to be effective.
My hope, as a policymaker, is to read more science fiction stories about the future of policy and diplomacy, and I would greatly enjoy seeing more diverse visions of science and technology policy. Who are the heroes? How do those visions face the future challenges of humankind? How will gene editing be regulated, for instance, and what conversations will take place across all of society as such regulation is developed and implemented?
I also want stories of how success is forged. There is much to be gained from dystopian fiction, and testing the depth to which things might go wrong will always have value (consider the cautionary tales of futuristic corporate governance found in the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells and Autonomous by Annalee Newitz). But I find myself curious about stories that explore visions for overcoming setbacks—not only prevailing but moving forward. There are always counterforces to change: What are they? What are the known unknowns and unknown knowns (including uncomfortable truths that are hard to admit) in success? How do we even define success, as it varies from person to person?
Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future touches thoughtfully upon these questions. For example, although it is common for us to talk about addressing climate change, what does that look like on the social level? I wish for even more voices—a vibrant, inclusive, and diverse community of writers and thinkers—to tease apart ways we deal with climate change and other challenges from multiple perspectives.
Science fiction can help the science policy community envision both where we end up as well as how we get there. As our social-technological problems grow ever more complex, we need a range of stories that spans the human experience and even beyond. How will we leverage new tools to improve equity and democracy in society? Science fiction can help us imagine future possibilities, opening not just our minds but our hearts as well.