It’s not about tomorrow, 2: Samuel Delany

In the Winter 2020 issue of The Yale Review, Samuel R. Delany gives twelve short responses to the question “Why I Write”.

Delany is a critic, teacher, and author of fiction both popular and transgressive, most famous for his science fiction writing.

The ninth of his twelve answers speaks to his love of the genre, and also the wider question of why imagining wild futures might make us wiser in the present.

Delany writes, of his preference for science fiction over stories of the everyday:

“I think what happens with mundane or naturalist fiction is that these characters succeed or fail in what they try to do, but they succeed or fail against the background of the real world so that their successes are always some form of adjusting to the real world. Their failures are always a matter of being defeated by the real world.”

For those of us who help people make better decisions by telling stories of the future, this “real world” is like the perspective of a decisionmaker who thinks themselves utterly pragmatic and realistic.

Their assumptions are those commonly held in their time and context; their decisions are based on the seemingly firm ground of evidence and data; they see the world through a frame which is widely held by their peers to be “right” for the present moment. They see their successes and failures as being a matter of how well or poorly they adjust to meet this reality.

Yet it cannot be the whole story. If everyone in your peer group is looking through the same frame, they will all have the same blind spot. If you rely on numbers – the reduction of complexity to countable simplicity – you will lose valuable information; quantitative indicators are, after all, not objective facts, but tools designed for specific functions, with all the benefits and limitations that implies. The practices which make you feel comfortable in your decisionmaking will also bind and limit you, both in terms of what you can see might happen and what you might choose to do.

Delany goes on to say that realist fiction can only talk in terms of “madness or slavery—those people who adjust to the world and therefore are slaves to it, or those people who are defeated by the world and are therefore mad because they shouldn’t have tried in the first place. But I do think there’s something else: in science fiction, because success or failure is measured against a fictive world that is itself in dialogue with the real or given world, that dialogue is much more complicated, richer, than in realist fiction.”

Imagining scenarios – plausible future contexts – involves precisely this work: the creation of a fictive world explicitly beyond the frame through which the conventional decisionmaker views their situation. From an analysis of the current context, we generate a small number of futures deliberately chosen to challenge assumptions; these highlight opportunities, threats, and new perspectives to which the decisionmaker was previously blind.

Presenting these challenges in the form of stories makes them evocative, resonant, and powerful. The emotional and affective quality of scenarios gives them substance and purchase: How would it feel to live in this future, or for the consequences of your decision to play out in that future? What does this entirely imaginary world tell you that you didn’t see before? What does it teach you about your blindspots in the here and now?

“You can put together more interesting combinations of words in science fiction than you can in any other kind of writing,” Delany writes, “—and they actually mean something. You can say things like, “The door dilated” […] and it implies both design and technology, as well as whole sets of social and experiential differences. When you say things like, “Her world exploded,” you are not just giving a muzzy metaphor for a female character’s mental state. You reserve the margin for the words to mean that a planet belonging to a woman blew up. Thus SF is sensually pleasing to work with, simply at the level of language.”

This sensual quality, the power of experiencing a trip to an imagined future, spills out of the purely literary into other forms of creative practice. Scenarios do not just exist as written texts, but also as speeches, videos, graphics, even songs and theatrical performances.

UEG Healthcare Scenarios for 2040 presented as YouTube video.

Organisations like the Danish Design Centre explore ways to build empathy for the future, and even make scenarios palpable, through the use of artefacts, stage sets, and other physical objects which bring imagined futures to life. “The door dilated” might not just be a sentence in a science fiction story or a scenario exploring the future of interior design; at the Centre you might find yourself walking through just such a prototype door, a physical experience to help your imagination stretch and accommodate the futures you hadn’t been looking at before.

Danish Design Centre scenario presentation

There is a hazard in all of this, however – and it’s the same one which science fiction faced as a genre. While Delany stretched the form to its limits in works such as Dhalgren, the popular image of sci-fi remained rocketships, good versus evil blaster battles, and little green men.

“Of course, we all know that there are many things about science fiction that are predictable,” writes Delany, looking back in The Yale Review.

“One of the problems—now that I’ve given this account of SF’s potential—is that, for a long time, SF was a kind of marginal writing, with many hard and fast conventions. You can do absolutely anything in it. But when you can do absolutely anything, you tend to fall back on the conventions.”

Goodies, baddies, and laser swords in 1978’s StarCrash

In the same way, mediocre scenario planning is done almost by rote: the swift assignment of determining factors to an X-and-Y axis, the generation of lazy futures which, far from opening up perspectives on the present, simply trade the single frame of the narrow-minded decisionmaker for a small number of equally restrictive pigeonholes.

The aim should be, through both the process and product of scenarios work, to get people thinking beyond their usual perspective – about today, and the decisions they face right now, not just the tomorrows that may or may not arrive. In strategy work, as science fiction writing, cleaving to hard and fast conventions will lead to rigid thinking.

Such thinking may suffice on occasion – just as a generic sci-fi space battle may do the job and sell some popcorn – but much will be missed, including that richness Delany spoke of: imagining futures that pick a quarrel with the assumptions we take for granted today; that give us new options beyond mere success and failure on the presently accepted terms; that show us the opportunities, threats, and challenges to which we have been previously been blind.

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