The future is full of twists and turns. And also corn. (Unsplash)

The future is full of twists and turns. And also corn. (Unsplash)

Painful Truth: Sci-fi writers spin anxiety over change into stories

Want to predict the future? Don’t ask a writer

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s feeling a bit more anxiety about the future right now.

We have no idea how bad the COVID-19 pandemic will get, or what the near- or long-term economic fallout will be.

Every piece of news seems weirder and weirder – oil sells for negative-$37 a barrel! U.S. president touts unproven medical treatments! People protest angrily for Baskin Robins to re-open!

You would think that science fiction writers, people who write about the future for a living, might have seen this coming, or at least have a better handle on where it’s going. Surely people who have written about post-apocalyptic societies, viral plagues, and cyberpunk dystopias for years would know what’s coming!

Well, I must now make two shameful confessions.

First, I am a part-time science fiction writer myself. Yes, I have actually taken money to write stories about robots and genetic engineering and cyborgs down on their luck in rural Saskatchewan.

And second, not only did I not see this coming, I have absolutely no idea how it’s going to end.

I have guesses, but they’re only as informed as a pretty-decent grasp on the news and the views of experts can make them. (If I have any piece of advice – the future will be weirder than we can imagine, and it will take unexpected paths.)

But my hobby (there is not nearly enough money in writing short science fiction stories to call it a “career”) does actually help in times like this.

Science-fiction-writer-brain is a great way to filter the madness.

How does sci-fi-writer-brain work?

It takes a piece of information, and it chews it up, and it tries to spit out a bunch of implications.

For example – the price of corn is unexpectedly crashing.

Why?

Because we’re driving less! That little sticker on the gas pumps that indicates the gas is mixed with ethanol? All that ethanol comes from corn – huge, vast fields of corn, mostly grown in the American Midwest.

What happens to those fields this year? Do the farmers plow them under and plant other crops? Do they grow corn anyway – and turn it into cheap corn liquor (or corn liquor based hand sanitizer)? Does it go fallow, turning into a weedy wilderness where the deer population explodes – thus spreading deer ticks and causing a massive outbreak of lime disease next year, not to mention the introduction of cheap venison into grocery store shelves…

You can do this for hours.

Take an anxiety-inducing news story.

Let your brain shoot off like a wild hare.

Now you’re not worried. (Well, you’re less worried.) Instead, you’re trying to tease out the threads of possibility, the second and third and fourth-order implications of the many changes that are hitting us one after another.

Will you be right in any of your predictions?

Definitely not!

Science fiction writers are only ever right by accident, because they write thousands of books and stories every year! Usually, they’re wildly wrong! Go back to 1992, a year after the final fall of the Soviet Union, and check out how many novels published that year featured Soviet-Western rivalry extending in 2137!

The point isn’t to be right, really.

It’s just a way of thinking about the world. Nothing has one and only one impact. There are multiple impacts, spinning off, changing still other things, altering circumstances further.

The future is built of thousands of changes, all interacting with one another, each one’s effects a little unpredictable.

And unpredictability is what our future holds. That’s a prediction that will hold up.

ColumnCoronavirusLangleymental healthOpinion

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