Charlie Jane Anders is the author of “The City in the Middle of the Night,” due out in February.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris was half right in her speech launching her 2020 presidential campaign when she said we need to address climate change based on “science fact, not science fiction.” The truth is, we need both. Science fiction has an important role to play in rescuing the future from the huge challenges we’re facing — and the responses to Harris’s statement illustrate this perfectly.
When the California Democrat’s statement about climate change went out on social media, a number of people pointed out the truth: Science fiction has been helping us to prepare for a world of potentially disastrous climate upheaval for years. But an equal number of loud voices took issue with Harris’s warnings about climate change, because in our post-truth era, the scientific consensus about what humans are doing to our planet is still somehow a matter of opinion.
And that’s why science fiction is more important than Harris gives it credit for. No amount of scientific evidence will convince deniers — or the vast number of people who merely live in a state of denial. We live in an era in which facts and fiction are blurring into an indistinguishable mess and power belongs to whoever can tell the best story, true or not. No one can even tell what’s real anymore, and what matters is just how something makes us feel — which is why we need better stories, that, in the words of author Neil Gaiman, “lie in order to tell the truth.”
Of course, Harris was engaging in a long tradition of politicians and pundits using “science fiction” as shorthand for “implausible or unreal stories of things that could never actually happen.” And it’s true that movies and TV have a, shall we say, mixed track record when it comes to climate issues. (See: “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Geostorm” and “Waterworld.”) But authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Sam J. Miller, Tobias Buckell and Margaret Atwood have been writing powerful works that depict the effects of climate change and how we might mitigate it.
Stories about climate change might be fiction, but they can help to sway people’s hearts and minds in a different way than a recitation of the undeniable facts. And this goes beyond climate change: Many other challenges we’re facing right now involve matters of belief, as much as logistics. Take, for example, the global crisis of democracy, in which the free press and voting rights are under threat. Or the new wave of attacks on LGBTQ people’s right to exist.
In response to these nightmares, and others, science fiction creators have been doing some soul-searching that includes looking for ways we can do more to restore people’s faith in the future. Authors such as Alexandra Rowland have started a conversation about creating a new type of stories called “Hopepunk ” that show people reasons to believe we really can do the hard work of fixing our problems. Neal Stephenson and others helped to launch Project Hieroglyph, publishing optimistic, science-based stories in which scientific ingenuity (and lots of sweat) help us to think big to grapple with climate change and other issues.
And then there’s another neologism ending in “-punk”: Some authors are creating a new genre called “Solarpunk” that aims to tell optimistic stories, specifically about using technological and scientific innovation to help the environment.
When the truth becomes near-impossible to distinguish through the fog of disinformation and “alternative facts,” people tend to feel powerless to change the world. Veteran activist L.A. Kauffman (author of “How to Read a Protest”) says people need to be reminded that they “have more collective power than they realize,” instead of getting distracted by arguing over the meaning of the latest viral video. Adds Kauffman, “There are truths we can get to through the imagination that are hard to get to through purely factual accounts.”
With Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Kauffman co-created the fake edition of The Washington Post, dated May 1, 2019, which reported President Trump’s resignation; she sees the fake Post as a piece of activist science fiction. Hence its center spread that urged people to “Remember the Future.”
Fact-checking and spreading the truth are a never-ending battle of vital importance — but they’re not enough to inspire people to do the hard work of rescuing the future. And because science fiction is the literature of problem-solving, our made-up stories about science and innovation can play an important role in helping us to regain our faith in our own ability to create change. So as Harris goes out and campaigns for decision-making based on science facts, she might also consider how we can harness the awesome power of science fiction.