Speculative Fiction to the Rescue
On the publication of Cybersalon’s new collection of ideas about the future

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 29 September 2022

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I wrote this introduction to a wonderful new collection of fiction/non-fiction hybrid stories from my old friends at Cybersalon Press, called 22 Ideas About the Future, which was just released today. I realize it reads a bit like a review, so I thought I’d share it here.

You see men sailing on their ego trip,
Blast off on their spaceship,
Million miles from reality:
No care for you, no care for me.

- Bob Marley, “So Much Trouble in the World”

Fiction has always been a guilty pleasure for me. With so many urgent things going on in the real world, how dare I indulge in reading, much less writing fiction? Don’t I have a responsibility to understand and explain the realities of economic inequality, racial injustice, and climate change before engaging in fantasies of robots, space, and artificial intelligence?


But after writing a couple of dozen non-fiction books and hundreds of articles, I’m not so sure that fact-based rhetoric is the best way to reach people — or even to inform them. Yes, I’ve gathered plenty of evidence for people who already agree with me to make their cases to others. I know many of my readers have nodded along with what I’ve written, feeling confirmed and vindicated by seeing their own opinions expressed for them in writing — maybe in a manner more fully formed than they’ve been able to articulate themselves. It’s an honor and a privilege to put words to our shared sensibilities.

Still, I’ve become aware that no matter how well I argue, I’m painfully limited in my ability to reach through to people who don’t already see the world as I do. My facts and insights don’t penetrate closed minds. It’s as if my premises just bounce off people’s skulls and scatter on the ground, unconsidered. If only I could get people to create a sliver of an opening to suppose something new or different, even if just for a moment. If they would only consider the utterly implausible, even just for kicks, I know I could take care of the rest.

That’s the beauty — the opportunity — of a collection like this. Speculative fiction does something very special to the otherwise closed mind. It creates space for the novel. Just allowing oneself to pretend that something could be true is more than enough. We can’t imagine something without at least entertaining that possibility. Speculative fiction is an invitation to speculate on fictional scenarios. And in the process, we reveal truths we have hidden from ourselves.

While reality TV is busy generating dangerous fictions and creating closed-minded, racist conspiracy theorists in the process, speculative fiction exposes people to necessary truths they may never truly encounter otherwise. You can’t read about the world after climate catastrophe without accepting the possibility of climate change to begin with. If you suspend your disbelief in thinking machines for long enough to follow the story of a vengeful robot, you are ready to consider the impact of autonomous vehicles on the human environment. if you allow yourself to imagine a future without debt or credit, worker or boss, hoarding or poverty, you free yourself to consider the inequalities embedded in our economic system.

But beyond the specific subjects that speculative fiction can introduce to our stubbornly rigid minds, the process of speculation itself retrains the brain. Like a form of exercise, it stretches our imaginative capacity, making our thinking more porous, flexible, and able to tolerate the surprising or absurd. Where reality addicts of all stripes can only envision a Great Awakening, apocalyptic comeuppance, or endless cycle of repression, those who embrace fiction have the freedom to eschew the inevitability of human suffering and envision alternative pathways. Ways out, ways through, or just ways. What if?

Speculative fiction, in particular, invites us to consider awe-inspiring new landscapes — outer space, inner space, living machines, alternative dimensions, magick sigils and shared consciousness. And that experience of awe acts positively on the body and mind. Psychologists studying the phenomenon have found that even a brief moment of awe can help people act with an increased sense of meaning and purpose, turning our attention away from the self and toward collective self-interest. Awe even helps regulate our body’s immune response and reduces inflammation — as if engendering a less defensive, aggravated response to the unknown. After a few moments of awe, people behave with greater altruism, cooperation, and self-sacrifice. It makes people feel like part of something larger than themselves.

Unlike traditional fiction, speculative fiction owes nothing to the standard, Aristotelian arc that has characterized drama and story for the past two millennia. We are used to following a male hero up the incline plane of tension into danger. He eventually reaches a crisis that requires reversal and recognition — the poison is a weapon, the talent is a flaw, the goal is the problem — then climax, catharsis, and sleep. And this same shape of striving toward a goal, up the hill, through adversity to the golden ring at the end of the journey has also characterized everything from Christianity and capitalism to Marxism and activism. We make change through ends-justifies-the-means campaigns because it’s the only story architecture we know. No pain, no gain.

The best of speculative fiction frees us not only from our personal reality tunnels, but from the tired narrative conventions that limit our approaches to innovation, collaboration, consensus and liberation. In this sense, speculative fiction is inherently revolutionary or, better, evolutionary in its purpose. Not only can things be so different, but the way in which that shift happens must also be up for discussion. Every story is a theory of change, whether or not it rises to that occasion.

Try to imagine technological innovation without the specter of a business plan or exponential growth curve. What is virtual reality or a metaverse when it’s not obligated to breathe new life into a dying ticker symbol? Where else but smart sci-fi and cli-fi can we speculate on the unacknowledged externalities of these business practices and the unforeseen impacts of the technologies themselves? Imagine what technological development might look like if it weren’t already sitting on top of the operating system we call corporate capitalism? Dare we?

So no, I will no longer apologize for my love of speculative and, yes, science fiction, climate fiction, cyberpunk and solar punk. In a world where nearly every experience makes us feel like we are being quantized for the benefit of an observing algorithm, we need ways of slipping between the prescribed values to the bizarre in-between spaces where life breeds and human thought mutates. Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s wrong. This is the work. This is the play.

Bob Marley was right. There is trouble in this world. Welcome to some new ones.