Writers usually write because they love to read and reading leaves them with words and stories of their own rattling round in their heads and trapped in their bitten-tongued mouths. The human mind runs on narratives and all humans are storytellers and consumers of stories. If narrative is our default means of communication, then story telling is by nature a serious business. This is why there are business courses on story telling. To sell anything you must tell a tale. The best communicators know how to spin a yarn, to take others on the journey, to see how they see. The scientists and technologists I know understand this and look for every means of conveying often very complex ideas in a way that as many people as possible can understand.
One of the big problems of our age is not just the growing gap between rich and poor, but the gulf between those who can access and process the language and concepts of science and technology, and those who can’t. The rejection of “experts” is one consequence of this. So one risk of the voting majority not being brought along with the latest research is that they are empowered to vote but not to properly assess available information and make good decisions. They cleave to the most emotionally appealing arguments, which are often the simplest, and the ones that tend most to prejudice. Another tragic consequence of all of this is that, as a species, humans may not reach their potential. The rule of regression to the mean pulls the brightest tumbling down like Icarus when the majority are left so far behind in understanding. This would just be depressing at any other point in history, but right now, given the overwhelming challenge of climate change, it is an existential risk. Elsewhere, the rate of technological change throws up huge challenges to the world economy and society. All of these problems are international in nature. The more people who are capable of understanding these challenges, and are actively engaged in thinking of positive solutions, which step beyond nationalism and tribalism, the better. If answers are handed down from on high by “experts”, people are likely to reject them.
It is hubris to imagine that fiction can fix all of this.
The need for broader, better education was an issue that was identified by politicians a century ago with the advent of universal suffrage, one that, since then, successive governments have failed to properly address. I say this as someone who went to a state school and was the first generation of my family to go to university. Amongst my family and my peers, I was an outlier. An oddity. I am a lucky escape enabled by grants and low fees in the pre-student loan days. My education allowed me to get jobs that would otherwise have been beyond me, and pay high levels of tax to the state when I might have been a burden. It is because of my education that I do tend to trust “experts” instead of conspiracy theories, nationalism, and the kind of news that can be accessed in tabloid newspapers. But I remember what it was like reading my first broadsheet in my teens, having never seen one before, and being at my first dinner with middle-class people who talked about history, and assumed I knew what they were talking about. I felt stupid and excluded. That is often what experts make people feel like. And often experts don’t want to simplify their work because they worry that in doing so their findings are devalued or even no longer true.
One of the main fixes to our current crisis is better education, including improving access to high-quality education for people on lower incomes (actually the majority) and better science and technology education for everyone. But despite the current rhetoric that seems to speak for the “left-behinds”, the current political path seems highly unlikely to lead us where we need to be. And anyway, the problem with education will take generations to address. We do not have the time.
But all people love stories and people from all kinds of backgrounds read novels. I am always amazed at the variety of people I meet online through my writing. In particular, science fiction seems to have a way of engaging people who don’t otherwise read fiction. The purpose of near future fiction, I think, is to provoke. It’s to take a scenario that is either possible with existing science and technology, or just beyond the horizon, and to make it seem real and uncomfortable enough that the reader or listener is forced to react, either by thinking and talking about something they would never have thought about before, or by finding out more.
A few months ago, I was privileged enough to meet with scientists from the Bristol Robotics Lab. The purpose of the visit, organised by social scientists from the Human Brain Project, was to get scientists and writers in a room together to talk about the research the scientists were engaged in. The result was three stories written by myself, Stephen Oram and Allen Ashley that we then read at the Bristol Literary Festival. The debate that followed was lively and engaged and touched on a wide range of subjects, even beyond the scope of the stories. People really wanted to talk about the issues, we’d simply enabled the debate, using our stories as a friendly way in. You can see the video here.
More recently, I was a contributor to an event at the Lights of Soho gallery, called Near-Future Fictions, organised by Virtual Futures where Stephen Oram is writer in residence. The contributors included practicing scientists and technologists, and the topics varied from medicines developed from gut microbiomes, bipolar AI brains, and robotic bees needed to pollinate genetically modified crops. The stories shared an awareness of the darker side to scientific advancement. Encouragingly, the two events I have now taken part in have been packed out, and there will be more to follow.
Fiction writers can’t see into the future, they can’t act as prophets or offer solutions. But they can bring science to a wider audience through the gift of story telling. They can present scenarios, good and bad, that can help people think about the consequences of actions or inaction taken now.