Infectious Futures: Can Stories Move Us to Action?

Image: Flickr/Nathan Reading

Image: Flickr/Nathan Reading

Talking about the end of the world is never easy. There are so many ways for a civilization to come to an untimely end, from natural disasters to rampaging epidemics. Having this conversation on a Sunday afternoon, when people want to relax, and having it in a public setting, less so. 

Now, doing it in the midst of an intense conference spanning cosplay, fantasy, gaming and a myriad of other subcultures would seem to present a wholly different set of challenges: with so much fun going on, who would want to focus on new ways to die?

But focus on the apocalypse is what we did at NineWorlds, courtesy of Nine Worlds, Nesta, and a panel entitled “Stories, Science & Averting the Apocalypse,” where Nesta’s new anthology of commissioned sci-fi stories about a post-antibiotic world, “Infectious Futures,” was launched. Alongside a stellar group, including Brigitte Nerlich, Jessica Blair, Jenni Hill, Paul Graham Raven, Lydia Nicholas, and Joshua Ryan-Saha, we probed the role fiction, and science fiction in particular, can play in helping the public engage with this and other forms of existential risk.

“Infectious Futures” (you can download the pdf here) deals specifically in near futures where antimicrobial resistance (AMR)—and the tools of medicine that rely on it and defeat infection—are for all intents and purposes past history. The intent of the curated collection of stories from great writers like Tim Maughan and Madeline Ashby is to illustrate worlds in which the £10 million Longitude Prize to support development of a cheap and quick test for bacterial infection perhaps don’t come to pass, and where even simple cuts and scrapes can result in a painful death due to lack of effective treatments.

The central question of the panel focused on whether works of fiction like “Infectious Futures” can even have an impact on public awareness and attitudes, or even drive action to avert the issues such works depict. Do stories about pending asteroid-Earth collisions, artificial intelligence takeovers, or catastrophic climate events move the proverbial needle, or do they just provide yet another form of scary escapism? Can fiction framed around facts reach and persuade wider audiences? 

As a non-fiction writer (for the moment) on the panel charged with talking about how we move people, governments and companies to action through depiction of different future scenarios, I have mixed feelings about science fiction as an form. Yes, science fiction can draw attention to various future themes, but it also often provides unwelcome distraction. We see this a lot lately around discussions of what role, if any, science fiction plays in sparking innovation: for some who have gotten the wrong end of the stick, science fiction seems to have a clear causal impact on innovation, while for others, it represents a playbook to be followed that shows us desired outcomes. I disagree with both of these positions, for the record.  

From where I stand, science fiction can play a positive role, but it can also be a portal to escape facing up to real issues, or feed unreasonable expectations of technology, society’s actions and malformed perceptions of just how catastrophes typically unfold—often slowly, before our eyes (see climate change and AMR as clear examples of this). 

What science fiction can do, with respect to this issue of public awareness and action, is sometimes frame situations or problems, inform readers about details of which they may not be aware, and even personalize and make intentionally mundane the experience of people like us facing life-changing events and challenges. This is often a challenge faced in my own field, futures, where the temptation to focus on magic technologies and narrative resolution can get in the way of critical analysis of implications and developing useful pathways to action. 

If creative work is to help us face, understand and come to a plan of action around catastrophic issues, then helping us relate to such issues, highlighting choices we face, and putting the audience on a useful timeline where we can make those choices are things I would put on my wish list. A story or work set sometime tomorrow afternoon, or next year or in three years is useful here—we can see ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist perhaps, personalizing the decisions made. But a tale told from a perspective several centuries out, making moral judgements about mankind’s flaws, isn’t so helpful in this context. Form and framing matter.

There is a lot of ground to explore here, not only around other uses for science fiction as a genre, but around creative approaches to engaging the public and decision makers on all matter of serious issues we face in possible futures. Whether through different modes of experiential futures, design fiction, speculative design, or some form yet to be well defined, practitioners from both inside and outside futures are collaborating to find new ways to connect people to issues both existential and mundane we may face as societies and individuals. “Infectious Futures” and the conversation it sparked at Nine Worlds and beyond provide another valuable plank in this expanding platform. Let’s keep exploring.