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Mirror, Mirror—Science Fiction and Futurism
Jamais Cascio   Mar 21, 2014   Open the Future  

Futurism—scenario-based foresight, in particular—has many parallels to science fiction literature, enough that the two can sometimes be conflated. It’s no coincidence that there’s quite a bit of overlap between the science fiction writer and futurist communities, and (as a science fiction reader since I was old enough to read) I could myself as extremely fortunate to be able to call many science fiction writers friends.

But science fiction and futurism are not the same thing, and it's worth a moment's exploration to show why.

The similarities between the two are obvious. Broadly speaking, both science fiction and futurism involve the development of internally-consistent, plausible future worlds extrapolating from the present. Science fiction and many (but not all) scenario-based forms of futurism both rely on narrative to explore their respective future worlds. Futurist works and many (but not all) science fiction stories have as an underlying motive a desire to illuminate the present (and the dilemmas we now face) by showing ways in which the existing world may evolve.

But here's the twist, and the reason that science fiction and futurism are not identical, but instead are mirror-opposites:

In science fiction, the author(s) build their internally-consistent, plausible future worlds to support a character narrative (taking "character" in the broadest sense -- in science fiction, it's entirely possible for the main character to be a space ship, a computer network, a city, even a planet). In short, a story. Conversely, futurists develop any story or character narrative (here found primarily in scenario-based futurism) to support the depiction of internally-consistent, plausible future worlds.

Science fiction writers need to build out their worlds with enough detail and system knowledge to provide consistent scaffolding for character behavior, allowing the reader (and the author) to understand the flow of the story logic. It's often the case that a good portion of the world-building happens behind the scenes -- written for the author's own use, but never showing up directly on the page. But there's little need for science fiction writers to build their worlds beyond that scaffolding.

Futurists need to make as much of their world-building explicitly visible as possible (and here the primary constraint is usually the intersection of limits to report length and limits to reader/client attention); any "behind the scenes" world-building risks leaving out critical insights, as often the most important ideas to emerge from foresight work concerns those basic technology drivers and societal dynamics. When a futurist narrative includes a story (with or without a main character), that story serves primarily to illuminate key elements of the internally-consistent, plausible future worlds. (The plural "worlds" is intentional; as anyone who follows my work knows, one important aspect of futures work is often the creation of parallel alternative scenarios.)

In science fiction, the imagined world supports the story; in futurism, the story supports the imagined world.

It's a simple but crucial difference, and one that too many casual followers of foresight work miss. If a futurist scenario reads like bad science fiction, it's because it is bad science fiction, in the sense that it's not offering the narrative arc that most good pieces of literature rely upon. And if the future presented in a science fiction story is weak futurism, that's not a surprise either -- as long as the future history helps to make the story compelling, it's done its job.

Futurists and science fiction writers often "talk shop" when they get together -- but fundamentally, their jobs are very, very different.


Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.

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