Think-tank Fiction

by Maria on September 3, 2018

Reading the intro to what turned out to be Gardner Dozois’ final SF anthology (RIP – his collections were my favourite by a country mile. In memory and thanks, I finally took his beseechings to heart and renewed subscriptions to a couple of SF magazines), I discovered there’s a name for a thing we’ve started to see a lot of and which I’ve also started doing in the last year or so; think-tank fiction.

Apparently, Jonathan Strahan coined the phrase to describe what Dozois said are ‘Futurology anthologies, many of them with corporate or government sponsors”. Henry wrote a nice piece on Philip K. Dick for the Boston Review dystopia one. Wired is at it, Slate, too. MIT, and various tech firms. I’ve even had a chat with the BBC about one. Let’s see what happens.

In a much smaller way, I wrote a bunch of 500-word future newspaper articles on the theme of ‘the Internet in 10 years’ for a report by the Internet Society, last year. The idea was to do three per report theme, I think, and they’d go with those sections, but in the end they were all bundled into a section of their own. I’m writing some again this year, but now the brief is for 1000 – 1500 words, and just three or four of them. So, by way of writing long as I don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to write smart, some observations:

People LOVE story-time. I mean, they just love it. I asked Henry at Christmas how he manages to be so productive, and he said ‘make everything you do work for you at least twice’. What I took from it was ‘if you write a piece for this magazine/platform, re-cycle it in some teaching over there, or a talk for someone else’.

(Slight digression; I still somehow, irrationally, think it is cheating to not come up with something entirely new even when just giving a talk, even for cost only, or even as a freebie. But I’m working on that. Further digression; I have never yet gotten paying work from a talk. Exposure is bullshit. I now do a lot fewer talks than I used to, and zero writing freebies. Weirdly, I occasionally get paying work via Twitter where my professional persona is, eh, a little intemperate, betimes.)

Anyway, story-time. Taking Henry’s advice to heart, and having put enough time between writing those semi-stories and the slightly smoothened form they ended up being published in, I took a couple of them on the road. Instead of giving my usual tech policy / futures / human rights type talk at an innovation quango called NESTA, I read out three stories instead. And at a keynote for a marketing conference in Tallinn, I intermixed stories with the usual stuff I have to say about platforms, choice, surveillance, etc. That second talk was a lot of fun because they had the whole Madonna headset thing, a vast stage and display (and only moderately full auditorium), and a catwalk thing to bring you out into the audience, which I used to establish intimacy and pacing – walking out, walking back – around the story bits. Ah, theatre!

And, not blowing smoke up my ass because I give plenty of mediocre talks, but I also know a bit about live audiences (having learnt the ‘art’ of public speaking on the Canadian/US student debating circuit and at UCD’s gladiatorial L&H where they would throw things – just paper, tbh – if you sucked egregiously enough), but holy moley, the quality of atmosphere when I read out a story instead of giving a tech talk… I would start off and there would be that uncomfortable, pre-cringe atmosphere of ‘this is going to be embarrassing, ugh, feelings’, which would give way a little unwillingly to just plain focus and listening, and then erupt into that kind of high-density, sustained applause for ‘oh, this was actually an unusually good experience, thank you’. The chats with people afterwards were quite intense, in a good way, and I was relieved and gratified to be told by a Senegalese woman that the names and details in a story set in Labone were right.

What I took from it was, first; people at all-day tech events are really, really glad to just relax and have stories told to them. News flash. And actual stories, with, hopefully, meanings heading off on different trajectories, not TED anecdotes driving to One Big Lesson. Two, that the guys at ISOC were right when they had the bright idea to hire someone to try and put emotions around and an unconscious underneath some of the research findings and general hopes and concerns they have about where the world is going. Stories really do communicate meaning and feeling better than any other vector humans have. I’m still meeting people (in my very narrow field, mind you) who latched onto a particular character or setting that stuck with them, and they get what we were trying to say on a level mere think-tank prose, itself a sub-genre, but rightly unloved, could never achieve.

What else? More broadly from writing these things and now doing it again, a year on, some other thoughts;
– The main part of my year’s nonfiction writing work was a commissioned series for Medium called ‘how to cope with the end of the world’, which was inspired by my sister Elli’s response to the vaguely viral life of this piece on the emotional fallout of Brexit, when she said ‘Yes, I get it, nicely put, etc. etc. but what about the duty of hope?’ So a lot of the Medium series was about the indulgence of political despair and how we have to come up with stories about the future that are 1, honest, and 2, bearable or even inspiring. Along the climate trajectory, these things are clearly incompatible, and yet.

– Dystopia basically writes itself. Utopia, aka imagining just and liveable futures, is harder and far more essential. Weird that so little of current SF/mainstream crossover gets this. So far.

– It’s weird what just seems a category error one moment is near zeitgeist the next, and you can sense at the time it’s at least partly because people (a particular sub-set of people at a particular moment) aren’t quite ready for an idea. One of the pieces that just didn’t work for the client was about a small, progressive country jumping ahead of the competition + data protection + fiscal regulatory pincer movement now ever-so—slowly starting to grasp the big tech platforms, and imagining what it would look like if, instead, the local ‘alcohol, tobacco and firearms’ agency led the charge instead. i.e. what if we looked on the platforms primarily as a public health issue-cluster and re-framed their lobbying as what the tobacco lobbyists used to say when they knew the research showed the opposite? Not mind-bending stuff, the client kind of liked it but just couldn’t see it, so we dropped it and came up with something better. (oh, also what sweet release is that feeling of ‘oh, I thought it was good, but you know what, plenty more fish in the sea, and off it floats’. Ideas are easy. Everyone has them. Execution is hard. Deadlines are a gift.)

– It is nice, especially as a freelance who basically takes whatever comes in the door, to feel the year’s work has an arc and an objective it is bending toward. At one point I thought I should get a book proposal together, but that, too, has floated away. For now. But there is definitely something to be said about how we imagine the future + what strategic and policy options are congenial to it + how SF populates our imagination in ways we can work with. Oh, and how capitalism (at least as we know it) is completely fucked.

– Also, it’s been a wretched year, health-wise, so it’s especially nice to feel my efforts have some kind of theme to them, even if their outcomes are fewer and sparser than I would wish. But very occasionally, often in the midst of a migraine cluster – which now seem to last a month at a time – I’ll get this soft and clear state of feeling and potential that’s like an open window ideas just float through, and that morning is bright like the first of all mornings.

There are more observations about think-tank fiction. One along the lines of market and business model interactions with tech development often seeming to people to have happened already, when they’re still just buzzy feature articles, and how our imagined near-future is often further away than we tend to think, while last decade’s shiny futures are having unexpected effects driven just by their adoption at scale. Quantity and quality are differently related. Oh, and how what I’m writing are not actual stories, but more like scenarios that could never walk unaided, and how I’ll never write real science fiction. Uptown problems like that.

But now to stop musing about all the lovely potentials and knock out some story-like things, and also the bread and butter writing and editing that makes up 80% of my income.



Maria 09.03.18 at 9:46 am

I have no idea what’s causing the strike-through in a couple of paras – sorry, unintentional.


Chris Bertram 09.03.18 at 9:56 am

Fixed that for you! (You were using hyphens as bullet-points, which the Textile plugin interpreted as strike-through. I’ve replaced them with en-dashes which don’t have this effect.)


Maria 09.03.18 at 10:03 am

Ah, thanks a million, Chris! I was staring and staring at the HTML tags and just not getting it. x


Maria 09.03.18 at 10:13 am

I suppose another challenge to this sort of writing is how weird and extreme the near-future has recently become, so writing compellingly about it has to be more than ‘imagine if this trend amplified and then…’. Even though that’s what it essentially is.


JimV 09.03.18 at 12:23 pm

I don’t have the references to understand all of that, but I liked it anyway. Keep up the good work. Sorry about the migraines. (Could be eyestrain from all that writing and proof-reading?)


Sumana Harihareswara 09.03.18 at 12:35 pm

Oh it’s wonderful to see you talking about this! I started a comment and it ballooned into something I’ll be posting on my own blog. :)


SusanC 09.03.18 at 12:55 pm

Things may be moving so fast that science fiction is outdated as soon as you’ve written it. E.g. Charlie Stross gave up on completing the trilogy that starts with Halting State.

… and I think i’d have written something more dystopia than Maria if the Internet Socoety had asked me to write something.


Maria 09.03.18 at 2:48 pm

Fantastic, Sumana! Will read yours, and can you post a link on this thread?


Maria 09.03.18 at 2:50 pm

Jim, yes, screentime is definitely a factor. I’m doing a lot more work on paper drafts at the moment, which should help. And it’s no harm anyway to focus the way you do on a print-out, away from a computer, even if the writing up is a bit tedious, afterwards.


Maria 09.03.18 at 2:54 pm

Susan, ah … I had wondered what happened with the Halting State books.

Re. the Internet Society – thing was, last year’s report survey had a perfect split between global north and south on whether people felt pessimistic or optimistic about the Internet’s broader effects. So not being too dystopic was a case of being true to how a lot of people still feel and also open to the possibilities for technology non global north people will generate. If, of course, the platforms don’t eat us all, first.


Bill Benzon 09.03.18 at 4:07 pm

Maria, you might want to take a look at Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent, New York 2140. The title tells the basic premise. The sea level’s risen 50 ft, which rather changes things a bit. Manhattan below 50th street is now rather like Venice, with skyscrapers sticking up above the waters and people getting around by boat. It’s not utopian, in fact the institutional structure of that world is pretty much like that of the current world. But it’s not dystopian either. It’s rather optimistic. KSR sets things up so he can replay the 2008 financial collapse with a somewhat different ending.

I’ve blogged a lot about the book:

And participated in a five-week online group reading of it:


Maria 09.03.18 at 4:11 pm

Hi Bill, ah, too funny, I was going to mention it, as NY2140 is probably my favourite and most needed story about how the future could be plausibly better/different. I wrote a little about it in this (very long, sorry) piece about SF and possible futures:

Will read your posts with great interest, thank you.


Bill Benzon 09.03.18 at 4:23 pm

Just blitzed through your piece. Yes, we’re in agreement on NY2140. And certainly on why we need such books. We need hope. Fiction gives us a way of thinking a better future.

Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently. –Samuel Delany


SusanC 09.03.18 at 5:20 pm

The dystopia is something of a genre trope in Science Fiction, so when someone starts to write SF (or almost-SF) the genre tropes can incline them to make it dystopian even if the actual facts — as we currently know them — don’t warrant it.

The Internet in its earlier days had a strong utopian element, and we’re currently seeing how things turn sour. Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly nicely captured the dystopian turn of the idea that psychedelic drugs would liberate us, and the time is ripe for saying the equivalent things about the Internet.

I find it hard to imagine the current trends turning out well:

– It seems to be a fundamental feature of software that it is full of bugs. This leaves is open to malicious exploits by criminals, foreign governments, your own government etc.

– We have a major problem with conflicts over which government has legal jurisdiction: where the data subject is, where the data is, where the software was written, where the hardware was made etc. This is not helped by governments not being inclined to play by “the rules”. from spying to outright acts of war/state-sponsored terrorism (e.g. Stuxnet). It seems likely critical infrastructure will be controlled by software written by people who can compelled to alter it by court orders, served by governments who might well be inclined to blow stuff up and kill people.

– Internet of Things makes the “blow stuff up and kill people” more pervasive that just e.g. centrifuges in uranium enrichment plants. Anything in your house is a weapon controlled by an enemy state engaged in terrorism.

– Psychological factors: receiving our news via the Internet appears to make it much more vulnerable to manipulation by malevolent actors, e.g. foreign governments intent on destabilizing your country and pushing it into civil war

– And then there’s the porn. (File this under psychological factor).


nastywoman 09.03.18 at 5:29 pm

The future of the Internet is going to be… so… so – I mean
as everybody who is anybody will be disconnecting? – as I wrote already years ago in my Master Thesis about the language of the Internet -(and I won’t tell the German Title) – that the YUUUGEST luxury of the future will be privacy – and that nobody can ”google” -ME (Moir) – as every mention of myself which appears in google or any other search engine – someone makes sure it get’s deleted right away.


SusanC 09.03.18 at 5:43 pm

As Henry says, reality is starting to look like a Philip K Dick novel.

A possible utopian future (“possible” in the sense that SF will permit the author a few implausible things) is something like the Butlerian Jihad from Frank Herbert’s Dune: increasingly malevolent computer malware eventually causes anything containing a microprocessor or a network connection to be viewed a “diseased” (like leprosy in the Middle Ages) and/or a violently malevolent agent of a criminal organization or foreign power, and as such to be destroyed on sight.

(This is utopian in the sense that it does solve the malware problem, albeit at some cost).


Neville Morley 09.03.18 at 9:02 pm

“Dystopia basically writes itself. Utopia, aka imagining just and liveable futures, is harder and far more essential. Weird that so little of current SF/mainstream crossover gets this. So far.”

I’m something of a J.G. Ballard obsessive, and so inevitably think of his remark in the preface to Vermillion Sands that most SF is actually about the present – which explains why so much of it is dystopian, I guess, and why the utopian stuff tends to feel a bit flat. His own futures seem perfectly liveable, but it’s not obvious *why*, or what’s needed to get there, and one might also wonder about some of his psychological models…


Annarestipanda 09.03.18 at 9:03 pm

Aaaaand time to tip your hats everybody, to William Morris, and ‘News from Nowhere’ the utopian novel born out of the Victorian think tank that helped create the British Labour movement?


Neil Levy 09.04.18 at 4:18 am

@16 “As Henry says, reality is starting to look like a Philip K Dick novel.”

Except the writing is even worse than Dick managed.


SusanC 09.04.18 at 6:50 am

Some of the dystopian features of the internet are not just technological, or technological/psychological (human+computer systems), but technological/psychological/economic/political. They are what happens when packet switched networks interact with humans and capitalism. The anti-Internet arguments are, in part, also arguments against capitalism. Some of things you might do to avert the dystopia cut against the capitalist system. For example, nationalising all social networks so some government agency (Ministry of Truth, perhaps) rather than Zuckerberg controls what people are say online. This makes it (a) not likely to haapen (b) carry a risk of ushering in a different dystopia


SusanC 09.04.18 at 6:55 am

A modest taxonomy of possible responses to the human/computer/capitalism interaction:
– destroy all computers (Butlerian Jihad in Dune)
– destroy capitalism (George Orwell’ s 1984. Etc.)
– destroy all human beings (can’t think of good SF examples, maybe Terminator, or The Matrix)


floopmeister 09.04.18 at 7:22 am

destroy all human beings (can’t think of good SF examples, maybe Terminator, or The Matrix)

…or the Night King in GOT?

Ok, not sci fi, but it fits…


Sumana Harihareswara 09.04.18 at 3:37 pm

Maria: here’s my blog entry, partly about conference talks and similar in the style of think-tank fiction, partly about the theatrical/storytelling approaches I’ve started using in my own conference presentations.

I broaden my definition of think-tank fiction a bit to cover fictional stories/scenarios, sometimes composites of real situations and sometimes future projections, reflecting on and demonstrating the effects of particular policies and trends — perhaps this is beyond the scope of what was desired, since I’m also thinking about indie futurological fiction that is presented to an audience of decisionmakers but is not commissioned by an org in the way Strahan discussed.


Collin Street 09.05.18 at 6:16 am

– destroy all human beings (can’t think of good SF examples, maybe Terminator, or The Matrix)

Fair chunk of japanese stuff: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind [manga], Humanity has Declined.

You could make a solid case for the Culture novels, particularly Consider Phlebas.


casmilus 09.05.18 at 3:13 pm

“The Genocides” by Thomas Disch has the extinction of humanity as almost an afterthought of unseen aliens simply going ahead and transforming Earth’s ecology to suit their own agricultural needs and hardly noticing the death of the existing flora and fauna, except when their robot gardeners have to use flamethrowers on the vermin getting near the plantations.

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