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Science Fiction and the Power of StorytellingRoman Krznaric

Roman Krznaric
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Roman Krznaric is a public philosopher who writes about the power of ideas to change society. His latest book is The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World. His previous international bestsellers, including EmpathyThe Wonderbox and Carpe Diem Regained, have been published in more than 20 languages.

After growing up in Sydney and Hong Kong, Roman studied at the universities of Oxford, London and Essex, where he gained his PhD in political sociology. He is founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum and is a Research Fellow of the Long Now Foundation and a member of the Club of Rome. Kznaric acknowledges the Darug and Guringai people as the traditional custodians of the land where he grew up.

This week we share an extract from Roman Krznaric’s new book The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World. Read his interview with Writer’s Rebel’s Liz Jensen here.


While the time rebellion in politics and economics has only developed since the 1970s, novelists and film makers have been extending our imaginations into the future for over a century. One early exponent was Charles Dickens; in A Christmas Carol, the ‘Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come’ shows the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge the death of Tiny Tim and his own neglected grave. Yet the real leap into the future came in the late nineteenth century with the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, founders of science fiction, a genre now often known as ‘speculative fiction’. Time machines, men in the moon and being lost in space soon became part of our everyday vocabulary. 

Today it can almost feel like we are overdosing on it, with Hollywood pumping out a succession of apocalyptic sci-fi blockbusters like The Day After Tomorrow, in which climate change creates a giant superstorm that brings about a new ice age. It is easy to be disparaging of this ‘apoco-tainment’ industry, which gives us plenty of emotional and high-tech thrills but often fails to forge a deep sense of connection with the fate of future people. Yet there are just as many serious and thoughtful attempts to explore possible futures, from novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and its sequel The Testaments, to films like Children of Men, based on P.D. James’s novel, set in a world where two decades of human infertility has left society on the brink of collapse and our species facing extinction.

In one of the first systematic attempts to study the genre, scholars at the University of Lisbon analysed the dominant themes in 64 of the most influential science fiction films and novels over the last 150 years, ranging from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and James Cameron’s Avatar. By coding their content into over 200 thematic categories, clear patterns began to appear. In 27 per cent of the sample, technology had become a tool for manipulation and social control. The destruction of the living world appeared in 39 per cent of the books and films, and acute food scarcity was a theme in 28 per cent, while 31 per cent contained resistance movements to fight oppressive political systems and extreme inequality. One of the study’s main conclusions was that speculative fiction and film don’t simply help us visualise and connect with the abstract notion of ‘the future’, but also operate as an early warning system that actively engages us with the risks of technology or resource exploitation far more effectively than the dispassionate analyses of scientists or long government reports. It can politicise us, socialise us and alter us. According to the authors, sci-fi has a capacity to ‘speak its truth to power’ and promotes ‘an ethics of precaution and responsibility’.

So it might be fictional, it might be entertainment, but it might also be a message. Kim Stanley Robinson, who has tackled the impacts of global warming and the challenges of colonising other worlds in a series of politically savvy bestselling novels such as New York 2140 and Aurora, says the purpose of his writing is to tell ‘the story of the next century’. All his science fiction is intensely grounded in the latest climate and technology research, and although it might explore human foibles as much as any literary novel, its larger purpose is to help us understand the crises that are coming our way and inspire us to act now to prevent or minimise them. They are a wake-up call. Robinson describes his books as ‘realism about our time’.

If I were to highlight a single example to illustrate the ‘early warning’ power of science fiction, it would be Olaf Stapledon’s prophetic masterpiece Star Maker, published in 1937. The novel describes a distant planet very much like ours known as the Other Earth, which is similarly populated by humans. One day, a geologist among them discovers a ten-million-year-old lithographic plate etched with a diagram of a radio resembling those in their own society. 

The inhabitants of this planet cannot believe that there was once a human civilisation as technologically advanced as their own that had collapsed and disappeared, and comfort themselves with the belief that the diagram must have been left by some other intelligent but less hardy species that had experienced a brief flicker of civilisation. According to Stapledon, ‘It was agreed that man, once he had reached such a height of culture, would never have fallen from it.’

What was the eventual fate of the people of the Other Earth? Theirs was a curious society, where radio technology became so advanced that most of the inhabitants carried a radio receiver in their pockets that stimulated their brains merely by touching it. Through this ‘radio–brain–stimulation’, people could experience the sensory pleasures of a banquet without eating, take part in a thrilling motorbike race without any danger, travel to wherever they pleased and even enjoy radio-induced sex. ‘Such was the power of this kind of entertainment that both men and women were nearly always seen with one hand in a pocket,’ Stapledon tells us. Eventually ‘a system was invented by which a man could retire to bed for life and spend all his time receiving radio programmes’. 

Governments on the Other Earth soon realised that they could manipulate this virtual world of ‘radio bliss’, using the receivers to broadcast nationalist propaganda messages that demonised their enemies. The result was the outbreak of devastating wars. Not long after, scientists discovered that the planet’s weak gravitational field was causing the gradual loss of the precious oxygen that sustained life. Although they had always possessed a self-confident belief that their civilisation could overcome any challenge ‘by means of its unique scientific knowledge’, one of the unintended consequences of the radio-induced wars was that scientific advancement had been set back by at least a century, leaving the people of the Other Earth insufficient time to solve the problem of their deteriorating atmosphere. Their fate was settled. They were destined for extinction.

Stapledon may have written all this over 80 years ago, but there could hardly be a better parable for our times. As we fiddle distractedly with our own digital versions of radio bliss in our pockets, might we become yet another lost civilisation to be discovered in the rock strata by the geologists of tomorrow?