It’s not about tomorrow, 1: Ursula Le Guin

In the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes that “Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.'”

“A prediction is made”, she continues:

“Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.”

Le Guin writes that “it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.”

The same might be said for those of us whose work includes scenario planning. It’s not about knowing what will happen tomorrow, or even having a sense of what’s probable. What you’re really doing is imagining different tomorrows in order to change your perspective on today: informing decisions in the here and now.

Good scenario work is about creating imagined future contexts for a particular decision. The futures you choose to explore are selected on the basis of how usefully they challenge people’s understanding of what’s going on in right now, and what changes might be emerging. They are vantage points constructed in the clouds in order to explore parts of the present which might otherwise be obscured by our position on the ground and our current heading through the landscape.

“Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive,” Le Guin writes, and goes on to say of the gender explorations in The Left Hand of Darkness:

“Yes, indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies.”

These lies – which Le Guin posits as the novelist’s stock-in-trade – are kin to the “ersatz experience” proposed by early scenario planner Herman Kahn: “strange aids to thought” that could serve as “artificial ‘case histories’ and ‘historical examples'” when the experience of the past no longer seemed enough to usefully inform decision-making. Scenarios are, in the foresight analyst Joshua Polchar’s words, “instructional fables” which need not come true in order to help us choose what to do in uncertain times.

This might also be why it’s hard sometimes to explain precisely how scenarios inform and enrich the decisions made by those who use them. As Le Guin writes of an encounter with fiction: “we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.”

Nonetheless, stories do stretch our understanding of the world we inhabit, and stories of the future may do this in special and relevant ways. Thinking about who we may become, how the world around us may change, the consequences of our actions and the different worlds those consequences might have to inhabit, all can help us choose and act more wisely, more strategically.

When our team at the University of Oslo envisioned a Norway of 2050 in which parents and corporations battled over children’s health and wellbeing in a heavily digitalised, algorithmic world, it didn’t mean that the future called “Norway Prime” had to come to pass, or that the issues we raised were ones that only awaited us thirty years hence. It highlighted to the education stakeholders in the room, and the users of the scenarios, that health, and the perception of health, could be a key issue in the digitalisation of education, and a point of conflict between families and institutions – something we saw coming to pass in the early days of the Norwegian COVID-19 outbreak.

A far-future hospital, from the BBC’s Doctor Who

“[O]ur society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists,” says Le Guin. “Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.”

And finding the right lies to tell, the right stories to confect, that people can see the world around them differently, more richly, with a better understanding of what they face, how they might act, and what the consequences could be, is also the work of the scenario planner – not, really, in any sense a “futures person” at all, but rather a strategist who helps leaders by enlisting them in the work of storytelling, finding the tales that are both relevant and challenging to decisionmakers.

“All fiction is metaphor,” Le Guin writes at the conclusion of her essay. “Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another.”

“The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”

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