I'm back from a long hiatus on this newsletter, most of which was spent touring for my novel The Terraformers, and finishing up my forthcoming nonfiction book Stories Are Weapons (coming in summer 2024 from W.W. Norton!), an exploration of how psychological warfare has shaped the American mind. At last, I'll be returning to writing this newsletter regularly. My focus will be on short essays, somewhere in the gray area between a classic tweet and a classic magazine feature. I've grown impatient with the idea that one must write something extremely short or extremely long in order to be understood.
So let's get started. In June, I was invited to speak at a workshop for Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination, where I joined an incredible group of writers and editors who work on "applied science fiction." I opened the workshop with a (short!) introduction to the idea. Here's what I said.
Applied Science Fiction
I first encountered the idea of applied science fiction when I wrote a short story for the Project Hieroglyph anthology back in 2011, which was spearheaded by the Center for Science and the Imagination, and inspired by Neal Stephenson’s idea that we should write SF about solving big problems. It was a big turning point for me as a writer, and one thing that it impressed upon me is that futuristic stories don’t just exist on a continuum of dystopian to utopian. They are also on a problem-solving continuum, where on one side you have people writing about fixing broken systems – and on the other side you have people whose writing is all about admiring problems without suggesting any solutions.
I prefer not to admire problems. But it’s tempting. Especially when you’re dealing with huge, systemic problems like climate change or racism, it’s very tempting to sit back and stare at all the multi-layered toxicity and give up. I mean, there are a lot of science fiction stories like that, where there’s a bleak, nihilistic vibe and humanity lives in a trashcan. It’s a way of saying there will be no future.
Except there will always be a future. That’s literally how linear time works. And if we don’t plan for that future, it will be chaotic, unjust, and destructive to our ecosystems. I have long believed that public policy is a form of very near-future science fiction, and it can certainly provide guidelines for us. It can help us allocate resources. But public policy doesn’t solve the basic problem of how we imagine ourselves in a world that’s very different from this one – a world in which our descendants are dealing with novel threats but still find ways to thrive. That’s where applied science fiction storytelling comes in.
When we tell stories about the future, we put our policy ideas and scientific innovations into a living context. Stories help us imagine how people will follow regulations, but also how they’ll break them, and why. They help us prepare for the knock-on effects of new inventions, both the political consequences and the personal costs. They allow us to explore how present-day conflicts might evolve, but also how people a generation from now might work together and forge alliances.
Most importantly though, stories about the future help us empathize with people who do not exist yet. They remind us that the choices we make now will have consequences, and that real human beings and other life forms will be living in the gardens and the cages that we build for them today. Best of all, stories teach us that there are always many pathways out of our problems.
If you want to see the workshop, with an amazing panel discussion, you can watch the full event online.
Other stuff I've been up to lately...
I wrote a science fiction story for Rolling Stone called "Unhearable Music," about an audio engineer who gets a cochlear implant that allows her to hear sounds at a much lower frequency than the un-augmented human ear can. Of course, she uses her new power to listen to blue whale concerts. At the end of the story, I explain all the real-life science that fueled the tale.
For Atlas Obscura, I wrote about a truly inspiring lab at Oregon State University called The Hinsdale Wave Lab, where people are doing experiments with enormous tanks full of robotic paddles that can create waves -- and even tsunamis! Mostly, researchers are using these simulated coastlines to build devices for the blue economy of the future, including green infrastructure and wave energy converters. I visited the lab and spent several days tailing a group of idealistic scientists and designers who are creating a sustainable way to deal with sea level rise and storm surges ... using a network of giant floating garden blobs they nicknamed "the chungus." You need to know more -- trust me. There are amazing photos and videos by Terrelynn Moffett (her photograph is at the top of this post).
I wrote about the rise of federated social media platforms like Mastodon and Bluesky for The Atlantic. There are major echoes between what's happening to our media today, and what happened in the debates over federalism in the early United States.
And I was lucky enough to interview a member of the WGA's negotiation team for my monthly New Scientist column about why AI is such a big part of the union's concerns. Also, I'm super excited because New Scientist has agreed to take my columns out from behind the paywall going forward. So you can read them in their full glory online!