Science Fiction Isn’t About Understanding The Future

Why do people read (or watch) science fiction? Yes, motives are mixed – they usually are. But what are the main motives?

Perhaps science fiction readers are eager to understand the future. After all, the future is extremely far, in a near-far sense, and science fiction offers a near-experience that can complement abstract far descriptions.

Consider, however, the extremely low demand for abstract analysis of the future. Not only are books devoted to future analysis in far less demand than science fiction books, it is possible to turn science fiction stories into abstract contributions, yet this is almost never done. Let me explain.

The main contribution of a science fiction story to our abstract understanding of the future is its setting – the situation in which its characters enact its plot. What techs are used how, what jobs and liesure activities are common, etc. Yet one could take most any science fiction story, and summarize its setting in a far shorter space, and with far less effort, than the author took for the story. ¬†I’d guess that setting summaries could be read in ~5% of the time it takes to read the story, and written with even less than 5% of the effort.

Yet almost no such summaries are written, presumably because writers and publishers anticipate that almost no one wants to read them. So the fraction of folks who read science fiction primarily to better understand the future must be very small. Alas, because I would love to just read setting summaries, especially with compare and contrast commentary, and educated critiques of their plausibility.

Added 2p: I should also mention that most science fiction settings seem clearly to have compromised realism for story benefits. The fraction that can be considered mostly good faith efforts to forecast a future is quite small.

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  • Michael Vassar

    It’s called the RPG setting. There are lots of them.

    • Agree and I think most people miss this point. I don’t, and never will, RP but I own complete series of certain Sci-Fi RPG’s with interesting settings just because the details of implementation, not the story, is need. Not sure why more people don’t buy RPG’s just as reading material.

  • Robert Koslover

    Yes, most of us watching or reading SF are doing so because we enjoy the stories, not because we are attempting to learn about what the future may hold. If the latter happens, that’s fine, but it is not a necessary ingredient. If SF were constrained by what rational present-day futurists believe, it would probably not be nearly as enjoyable.

  • I think the professor is having a us on – or maybe being deliberately dense? SF isn’t set in the future to make abstract arguments about an expected future, its’ setting is fantastic in order to make abstract arguments about the present. Its rarely (never?) the case that an author goes about creating a SF milieu to imagine the future as he thinks it will be, rather the setting is posed as a “what if”. T

    • Michael Vassar

      Rarely. David Brin’s “Earth”, Vinge’s “Rainbow’s End”, Egan’s “Distress”, Sterling’s “Islands in the Net” and parts of Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, are exceptions. Also a fair amount of Wells and plausibly Dick.

  • brazzy

    Actually I’d say that a major reason people like SF really IS to “better understand the future” – just not in terms of abstract factual analysis – because that’s not the way people think about the present either!. People think in stories, not in dry facts, as you well know. So of course they think about the future in stories as well.

  • Any wikipedia entry on a scifi book contains exactly the details you want. For example:

  • John

    Oddly enough, I’ve been trying a novel for some time, but I’ve discovered that although I enjoy writing about fictional settings, I’m not actually interested in creating the characters and plot for such settings.

    Maybe I should just write a blog where I’d imagine my settings.

  • Mark M

    Similar to John, I have an idea for a sci-fi novel where (in my opinion) the sci-fi part is very intriguing. However interesting that might be, it doesn’t make a good story.

    People read fiction for entertainment. For some, entertainment is enhanced by thought provoking ideas of where science might lead us. But science fiction is just the setting. There needs to be a story behind it that readers can identify with. People are most interested in other people.

    There are certainly people that are extremely interested in the science behind the fiction and will discuss the possibility of that science in excruciating detail, but it would be extremely difficult to cultivate any sort of wide-spread interest in fictional science (or perhaps I should say “potential scientific advancement”) without the draw of a compelling story.

  • Ben

    Many of Kurt Vonnegut’s books include short summaries of non-existent science fiction books.

  • Wonks Anonymous

    Sounds more like that would be fit for short stories. My uninformed impression is that there’s more money in novels. They’re less likely to be readable free on the internet, for one thing.

  • @John – check out the Orion’s Arm ‘open source’ sci-fi setting – a lot of the work done in it is simply describing the wonders of the universe.

  • Ely

    You might like David Foster Wallace novels as well. He studied formal logic and philosophy before writing weird dystopian novels. They are often extremely long, detailed, surrealistic, and difficult to read, and yet most critics and editors believe they should not (could not successfully) be shortened at all. They frequently also include bizarre short summaries of future events.

    W.r.t. S/F motives, I think writers write for a larger audience than folks who have training in quantitative methods. And perhaps the best way to engage those other folks is to include drama and speculative detail about the minutiae of emotional life in the future. That’s the part that will cause most readers to ponder whether the future should or should not turn out like it does in the story, and then perhaps be motivated to actually do something (like go study quantitative methods).

  • Lord

    Future projections would be mostly dull and uninspiring, simply extrapolations of current trends without the awe and surprise we actually know will likely occur but are unable to predict. Sci-fi says consider this, where could it lead, what will be our response and the result. The premise may be unlikely, but the more realistic the response and result, the more captivating and entertaining it will be.

  • Michael, there is a far smaller demand for RPGs, and they focus most on characters, plot drivers, an plot change rules.

    brassy, the media is full of non-story descriptions of our present world.

    Alex, that link doesn’t even have a “setting” section. And for book entries that do, the setting description has far less detail than can be found in the book.

    John and Mark, well I’m interested in just setting documents, depending of course on their quality.

    Aurini and Ely, I’ll check those out.

    • IVV

      With MMORPGs, I’d disagree.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    This sounds a lot like the nonfictional essays that are regularly included in Analog or SF&F magazine, in collections of authorial short stories, or whole books like “A Step Farther Out” by Jerry Pournelle (when I mentioned to him how influential it had been on me, he nodded and said that he gets that a lot), etc. This sort of analysis doesn’t appeal to every reader, certainly, but it appeals to quite a large fraction – large enough to be a regular feature of all the SF magazines I’ve read.

    I’m also tempted to make some sort of comment about Methods of Rationality and how the author could’ve just as easily have written a series of blog posts going into much greater depth on rationality instead of trying to put it into a mere story – perhaps the author will do that afterward, when his grasp of rationality is more advanced, and ready for this presumably greater challenge?

  • Doug

    Actually this post describes my relation with the genre almost perfectly. I basically haven’t read a science fiction novel since Snow Crash 5 years ago. I do however browse wikipedia and read the summaries of the science fiction setting all the time (usually if I read the plot summary its only to glean more information about the setting).

    I find this gives me 85%+ of the utility of actually reading the book in less than 5% of the time.

    • I’m the same way. I started to gain an interest in Star Trek after seeing the J.J. Abrams movie. (The Star Trek universe seems fairly coherent and philosophical compared to most Sci-Fi, and I was curious about its worldview.)

      I was able to cure this interest by reading Wiki material instead of watching the corny old TV shows and movies.

  • arch1


    To the extent that I read SF to better understand possible futures, I think that reading the plot (not just the setting) often helps me understand much more fully and indelibly what there is to learn. For example, I think I got (retained long term) a signficantly better sense of what it might be like to live in a spacefaring culture from reading some of Heinlein’s stories than I would have from reading 20:1 compressed settings summaries thereof.

    I also read SF to better understand my own world (society, species) – what’s arbitrary, parochial, good, bad, quirky, admirable about it. Again, I think that reading the plot helps the learnings sink in in a way that a settings summary wouldn’t. I can’t imagine a 1-page settings summary of Asimov’s “Nightfall,” however well written, which would have nearly the impact of the story itself in this regard.

    Another reason I read SF is for the enjoyable plots and character interactions. “In Hiding” by Wilmer Shiras didn’t teach me anything about the future (it’s set in the past); and it didn’t teach me a whole lot about my world. Mainly, I just found the two main characters, and the interaction between them, fascinating, rich and memorable. A mere settings summary would be almost valueless for this purpose.

  • Matt

    I thought it was widely assumed that most SciFi is intended by its authors to be a commentary on the present. The futuristic setting is not meant as a set of predictions, but instead functions to remove the reader from his usual factual surroundings to facilitate thinking about contemporary moral-political-philosophical problems in new and creative ways.

    This is why 1984 alludes to the year it was written, 1948. It’s also why Vonnegut’s “scifi” is absurdist rather than realist.

  • Andr

    I’m paraphrasing here: Vonnegut says that creative authors with something to say will often get pigeonholed into the sci-fi stacks at the local library because they dared to include the theme of technology in some way in their story, or because they speculate on new ideas.
    (done paraphrasing)

    That said, really good, original sci-fi, doesn’t rely on story-elements like space aliens and techno-viruses to carry the story. It may include these things, but the story has to carry itself, this means the story has to have something to say, something real. The original ‘Alien’ wasn’t a movie about an alien creature on a spaceship, it was about FEAR. Spider-man isn’t about some guy who gets radioactive powers, it’s about Responsibility.

    Good scifi, like good work in any genre speaks to us about things we understand, but to be exceptional it will say these things in a way we’ve never seen before. It may put these ideas into the realm of the fantastic, and this is so we can relate in a more in-depth way with the ideas being shown.

  • As it happens, Verner Vinge wrote an SF story (“The Ungoverned”) based on a nonfiction scenario (institutions, not technology) of mine. I thought his story convincingly revealed implications of the institutions that had not occurred to me. Similarly, _Oath of Fealty_ by Niven and Pournelle made convincing points about the implications of their setting that an abstract description might not have included, and that might not have occurred to the author of such a description. The points could perhaps have been made in less space than the novel but not, I think, 5% or anything close.

    My own two novels are SF in the sense of speculative fiction but not science fiction. I think each shows things about its setting that it would be difficult to demonstrate in the same depth and as convincingly without the story element.

    • Do you mean that one could not state the insights of the story in anything other than story form, that one could not convince others of the insights with a non-story argument, or just that a story was useful in generating the insights?

  • Jay Dugger

    The works of Hal Clement in particular counter the author’s claim. To a lesser extent, so do those of R. L. Foward, and Greg Egan.

  • Krishna

    I think SF authors choose that setting, not to explain their view of the future, but to free themselves from the constraints of reality of the present. The possibility that the setting could be true one day lends a certain ‘verisimilitude’ spice to the story that it would lack if the author were to choose to write the story in a different ‘constraint-free’ genre such as fantasy.

    The popularity of mockumentary comedies such as “The Office” is relevant here, IMO.

  • f

    Several times I’ve read summaries of Sci-Fi on wikipedia, and found it interesting enough to keep doing it. I do it mostly for the setting and general ideas, like you mentioned.

  • ShardPhoenix

    When I was a kid, one of my favourite books in the school library was an illustrated book that contained background and details about a sci-fi setting (I think it involved colonizing nearby stars), but no actual plot. I don’t know if it was standalone or a companion to something else.

  • ShardPhoenix

    Also, I’m pretty tired of the meme that for Sci-fi to be worthwhile, it has to treat the actual sci-fi stuff as mere trappings for a character tale or real-world allegory of some sort.

  • Custoo Fintel

    Science fiction is a subcategory of fiction; therefore its purpose is not anything found outside the purpose of fiction. If I had to state it in a single sentence, I would use Larry Niven’s, and say that the message of SF is: “There exist minds that think as well as you do, but differently.

  • arch1

    It’s a bit off-topic, but I’m going to use the prominence of “settings” and “the future” in this thread as an excuse to mention a book which some of you will find fascinating. It is “The Hidden Reality” by Brian Greene, a prominent string theorist and author of “The Fabric of the Cosmos” and “The Elegant Universe.”

    The book is speculative science rather than SF. Its topic is multiple universes. It discusses 7-8 different multiverse concepts (“settings,” ok?-), how they have emerged from recent physics / cosmology research, relationships among them, prospects for verification (in “the future”), etc.

    For me, this book helped tie together a lot of scattered information I’d read over the years concerning various potential flavors of multiverse, added some stuff I hadn’t seen, and seasoned it with context and commentary from a leading researcher who strikes me as also having good taste and judgement. It gave me a framework to build on.

    The book is written in a clear non-mathematical style but demands much of the reader in terms of imagination and willingness and ability to grapple with difficult physical concepts. Certain parts will be very tough sledding for people unfamiliar with the relevant physics and cosmology. That said, Greene has structured the book so as to bring as many readers along as possible (and the relevant physics/cosmology background is well covered in the other two books I mention above)

  • axa

    arch1 & matt mention an interesting idea. the future setting is just a tool used by the author to focus the attention on an important subject that might be invisible to us due to our “everyday normal life”.

    i just can’t remember the author of this quote: “SF purpose is to use future to talk about the present and use robots to discuss the human nature”. Asimov, Ballard, who said this?

    So, clearly SF is not about the future. wonder why intelligent Prof. Hanson haven’t noticed this before.

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  • arch1

    FWIW I don’t think SF is only about the here and now. That said, the way it encourages and enables readers to view and judge their current circumstances in the context of a broader scope (of space, of time, and of well-delineated alternative or possible future realities), is certainly among my top 3 reasons for reading it.

    My favorite quote along these lines captures the sentiment so well that I cut the author (T.S. Eliot) some slack on its oversimplification:

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

  • Khoth

    Seconding Greg Egan. For both Incandescence and Othogonal he’s got a lot on his website about the setting. It’s physics (real in the former case, fictional in the latter) rather than the effect of future stuff on society, but it’s incredibly thorough.