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The power of fiction in exploring the future


Mythmakers and LawbreakersA remarkable new book, Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction, came to my attention because its editor, who goes by Margaret Killjoy, is my nephew. I bought the book merely to be supportive. But to be supportive, I also read the book, and was blown away by how many ideas I got from it, and how it stirred my thinking about the work I do as a futurist.
The core of the book is about why, and how, anarchist writers and others who have written about anarchism use fiction for exploring and communicating political ideas. Killjoy offers interviews with people in either camp who may or may not say they are anarchists.
As a futurist, I have struggled with the place and meaning of art, broadly, and creative writing, more specifically, in exploring and communicating about the future. I’ve learned, as so many of my colleagues in the futures field have, that storytelling is often the most powerful way we can explore, share, and communicate ideas about the future.
I use storytelling of several sorts in my work: intently, but imperfectly. I offer stories to make a point in speaking and in workshops on the future. By habit, I use stories and analogies in conversation, in trying to explain my ideas. And in much of our client work at Leading Futurists LLC, we use stories in the form of futures scenarios to deepen our understanding and that of our clients, of future possibilities. As I have written before, I think scenarios are the most powerful tool we have for communicating about change and the future.
The writers interviewed in Mythmakers & Lawbreakers clarified for me how fiction is a fundamental force in exploring and promoting ideas—any ideas, but certainly ideas about how the world and societies could be different. In that sense, futurists and anarchists have the same job: to help people understand much more deeply things that do not (yet) exist. So too, both futurists and anarchists have seen the mass of work depicting those different work coming in science fiction, along with some graphic novels, comics, video games, and hard-to-categorize forms of literature.
I have learned, and/or conclude some interesting things about fiction from my reading of Mythmakers and Lawbreakers:
+Some, but not all fiction writers have direct political goals in writing what they write—some are exploring a different society, some are promoting one, and perhaps some aren’t sure, but their art carries them deeply into exploratory 
+Fiction does not answer all of the questions it raises—it doesn’t try to. That means a writer can play out a distinct situation without fully understanding it, or its implications.
+Political ideas without a deeper (and perhaps fictional) exploration may be simplistic or poorly thought out, and may be driven by a dogma or principle, not tested fully against human realities. Thus we would all be better off, I am quite certain, if futurists developed much more fleshed out scenarios for the worlds we think we want.
+Where we want not just to explore, but to convince people about change in our world, the story may be essential. For example, I have found it inadequate to tell consumer product companies that there will be greater demands on them to create more sustainable products. They want to, and need to know, what those products would be like, and how consumers would incorporate those products into their lives.
If, as writers believe, fiction shapes our perceptions of ourselves, our surroundings, what is true about our world, then fiction surely can and will shape our view of the future. We can tap into that truth.
In our futures work, we may be too often creating scenarios that merely describe the future, but don’t have the power to really bring people to a sharp focus on a different world, because they lack conflict, a hero, a plot. I will ponder that issue some more. Perhaps our “fiction” cannot ever be quite as powerful as the novelist’s.
There is clearly lots of work to do here, to better understand what those of us engaged in foresight can learn from fiction writing and from other arts that strive to explore ideas. We won’t become great fiction writers or artists, but we may up our game in using fiction and art to delve deeper and get further, not to mention to communicate about the future better.
Some interesting thoughts from the Mythmaker interviews:
“Art is not a mirror with which to reflect life, but rather a hammer with which to shape it.” Bertolt Brecht [Mythmakers and Lawbreakers, p. 20, quoted by Derrick Jensen]
 “Fiction is not a good medium for preaching or for planning. It is really good, though, for what we used to call consciousness-raising.” [Mythmakers and Lawbreakers, p. 10, Ursula k. Le Guin]
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