Dystopia Week

Dealing with Real Dystopias is Part of My Job

Early in 2009, my friend and fellow Cecil Street Irregular Karl Schroeder suggested I submit an application to the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program at the Ontario College of Art & Design. Karl knew that I would soon be finished writing my first Master’s thesis, on anime, fan culture, and cyborg theory. “But traditional academia won’t work for you,” he said. “You need to be a consultant, and do the kind of work I do for the army.”

When he’s not writing hard science fiction, Karl is a strategic foresight consultant. He works on a contractual basis for both private corporations and the Canadian Armed Forces, helping them to imagine possible futures so they can prepare themselves for the years ahead. At the time, I had only the vaguest idea of this side of his career. But I trusted Karl’s judgment. He knew me as a fellow science fiction writer, and had watched me critique his and others’ work. He understood where my focus needed to be pointed, and he wanted me to begin a career that would grow under my own control. So, I applied. I got in. And now, I’m a futurist-in-training.

Training in how to help others understand (or alter) their futures is surprisingly similar to training in any other discipline. I’ve taken courses in systems theory, human factors engineering, design thinking, business model innovation and foresight scenario development. This last is key to me as a science fiction writer, because it involves the construction of fictional, futuristic contexts within a limited set of parameters established collaboratively by a group interested in a specific topic. I’ve followed prompts given by the editors of anthologies before, but this is different because the audience is different. Reading about the future is a lot like opening one’s eyes underwater. Experienced divers know how to see under there. Non-divers really don’t. The people reading my scenarios aren’t necessarily fans of a particular genre. I can’t help them rest comfortably on the smooth surface of a well-worn trope. So part of my job as a scenario writer is making the future an easy place to inhabit, while simultaneously exposing its potential pitfalls. So far, I’ve worked for the 2020 Media Futures foresight project, and I’m slated to write scenarios for Intel’s Futurecasting group and for the PLAYPR project on gameplay, performance, and storytelling.

What occasionally makes this job difficult is the fact that our culture almost universally considers the future a nasty place to live. We’re a long way from Gernsback, but as William Gibson pointed out, that particular continuum had its own sinister leanings. Even the word “futurism” has connotations of Italian fascism, due to Filippo Marinetti’s attempts to ingratiate himself and his compatriots’ often nationalistic design ideals with Mussolini’s regime. And overwhelmingly our visions of the future, whether in prose or on film, are pessimistic if not outright dystopian.

This last should come as no surprise. Some of SF’s greatest and most influential works are depictions of dystopias, from Metropolis to Nineteen Eighty-Four to District 9. Their commonalities—systemic poverty, rigid social roles, brutal dictatorships—echo over time and culture, subtly impacting our collective and personal images of the future. Even relatively mainstream classics temporarily embrace this darker view of the way things could be in hopes of proving a point: beloved Christmas tales A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life reflect on the futures made possible by the protagonists’ refusal to change their attitudes, and they’re marked by death, licentiousness, continued domination by the rich and endless rows of tract houses for the poor. The transformation of Bailey Park into Pottersville, and of cheerful Bedford Falls into a den of iniquity, is probably one of the quickest and most effective utopia-to-dystopia turnarounds in all genre filmmaking.

This may be because dystopias are easier to write. We have examples of what they look like. We have sworn testimonies and film footage. We have embedded reporters. We have Twitter. That’s the thing about dystopias: they’re really just retellings of someone else’s suffering. You want to know what it’s like to live in an oppressive regime? Watch the news. It’s all right there, from the bottles of acid thrown in female students’ faces to the systematic abduction of future child soldiers to the automatic weapons pointed at peaceful protesters. There’s no need to imagine that future. It’s already here.

All of these factors contribute to the cultural baggage I carry when facilitating a foresight workshop, and when composing a scenario on my own. We as individuals and our society at large have learned to raise shields to optimism, because preparing for the worst is safer than hoping for the best. (Or as my mother once told me: “I used to waste so much time and energy on imagining the worst possible outcome, because I thought that in doing so I was protecting myself from it.”)

But the worst possible outcome is just as unlikely as the best. You might not dance with your dream prom date, but you probably won’t wind up doused in pig’s blood, either. Reality is nuanced. And even dystopias have caches of hope nestled between the rusted tanks and the spent shells. As Octavia E. Butler wrote in Parable of the Sower (itself a dystopian SF novel), “The only lasting truth / is Change.” For good or ill, things change. We can resist the change and let it crash over us, or we can anticipate it and learn how to redirect its course.

Dystopias happen because we allow them to happen. And as we have seen in Egypt and Japan recently, the human response to crisis need not perpetuate or institutionalize that crisis. We need not make the disaster permanent. The more foresight work I do, the more I consider my favorite Ursula K. Le Guin quotation: “The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.”

Madeline Ashby begs your forgiveness for not blogging more frequently. Her life has been its own peculiar mix of dark and light of late.


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