Science fiction can be a tool for creative political thinking

This weekend, “Dune,” the highly acclaimed film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic of the same name, crowned box office success by winning six impressive Oscars at the Academy Awards.

The film, directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, received particular praise for its stunning cinematography and soundtrack, and for breaking with previous attempts at adaptation by “noticeably” tackling only the first part of the 412-page novel. This is why, according to critics, this version of Dune was so well received compared to previous versions.

But an alternative — or perhaps complementary — explanation could be that today there’s simply more demand for stories like “Dune,” which provide a lens through which to think about the future. At a time when humanity faces existential threats, whether from climate change or nuclear annihilation, it makes sense that we start looking to science fiction to point the way forward. After all, its authors have been devising ways for humans to survive and thrive through cataclysmic change far longer than politicians.

For example, “Dune”, which was first published in 1956, is set in the year 10191, in a world where humans have colonized a large number of planets. But it focuses on members of a noble family, House Atreides. Thus, the novel is futuristic, with interstellar travel and laser guns, but also deeply human, rooted in age-old themes of romance, duty and religion, as well as political issues like resource extraction and racial and economic inequalities. Both the book and the film offer viewers the opportunity to think about how we, or at least our species, might act in the distant and unknown future, helping us take an 8,000-year leap of imagination.

Recognizing the power of science fiction to catalyze creative thinking, a number of thinkers have recently used this medium as a tool to analyze the most immediate challenges that humanity is likely to face in the next 20 to 100 years. . Some have been quite explicit in their intentions. For example, in 2017, the Future of Life Institute partnered with Stuart Russell, a leading artificial intelligence researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, to produce an arms control advocacy video titled “Slaughterbots “, in which tiny AI weapons wreak havoc. on humanity.

The seven-minute video begins with a technical pitch showcasing palm-sized autonomous drones that use facial recognition to seek out and eliminate targets. One executive boasts that a $25 million order of these “unstoppable” drones could wipe out half a city – “the bad half”. Then, as the video unfolds, reporters reveal that the drones were acquired by unknown individuals and used to assassinate protesting students and serving politicians. Ending with a warning from Russell that “allowing machines to kill humans will be devastating to our safety and freedom,” this video has been hailed for helping people better understand the complex and seemingly abstract dangers of deadly autonomous weapons. uncontrolled.

Other thinkers have been more subtle in their use of science fiction to suggest potential courses of action for humanity. Take, for example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book, “Ministry for the Future.” Set in the near future, this novel follows the story of the titular international body, whose mission is to defend the future generations of the world.


Addressing challenges such as the future of work will require unconventional thinking, which can only emerge from cross-sector collaboration.

Over the course of the book, Mary Murphy – the head of the ministry, which appears to be based on diplomats Mary Robinson, Christiana Figueres and Laurence Tubiana – is forced to face horrific challenges, including the aftermath of a devastating but too -Possible heatwave in India. She and her colleagues are considering a number of options to deal with the climate crisis, some of which are being discussed today, such as carbon pricing and changing solar radiation, and others much more drastic, like the clandestine assassination of the most polluting individuals in the world.

The genius of Robinson’s setup is that it allows the author to communicate the pros and cons, as well as the urgency, of climate solutions in a way that is both compelling and tangible. Longer but much easier to digest than a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this book has enabled millions of non-experts to grasp and grapple with some of the big questions being asked about climate change.

Finally, some examples of how science fiction can help us deal with real-life challenges came from really unexpected places. Case in point: “Horizon Zero Dawn,” a 2017 video game set in the 31st century on a newly terraformed planet Earth that was re-civilized after climate change and rogue robots wiped out the original. Although seemingly far-fetched, Horizon encourages users to reflect and make decisions about the future, and especially rewards pro-environmental and feminist choices. With over 20 million copies sold, this video game has probably done more to mainstream thinking about the future than any academic paper.

By emphasizing the power of science fiction, I’m not just trying to highlight certain movies, books, or games, although you absolutely must watch, read, and play them all. Really, my goal is to highlight three important points.

First, the pandemic has offered a clear example of how quickly misinformation can spread, causing chaos or even death. What the examples above reveal is that experts may have a better chance of getting through all this chaos and getting the truth across if they embrace more creative and popular methods of communication.

Second, if science fiction can help the average person unlock and articulate opinions on global issues like climate change, imagine what it could do for the minds of world-renowned experts. During his 2021 Reith Lecture Series, Stuart Russell joked that if humanity is to have any hope of dealing with big questions – like “What happens when AI takes over all our jobs?” – Then we should lock up the world’s greatest economists with a load of science fiction writers. There is some truth in this: tackling challenges like the future of work will require unconventional thinking, which can only emerge from cross-sector collaboration.

Finally, the examples above offer a reminder of the broader value of all art. At a time when the pace of change seems overwhelming and the scale of the challenges we face unfathomable, art can help enlighten, comfort and inspire us. Leaders around the world are investing in educating a new generation of Stephen Hawkings and Marie Curies. But we will also need Frank Herberts and Mary Shelleys.

Aishwarya Machani is a United Nations Foundation Next Generation Fellow. She led a consultative process bringing together hundreds of young people from around the world to contribute to the UN Secretary General’s report “Our Common Agenda”. She also co-wrote “Our Future Agenda”, a vision and accompanying plan for future generations. She is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His weekly WPR column appears every Tuesday.

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