Karl Schroeder Talks About Futurism vs. Science Fiction

Science fiction writer Karl Schroeder, author of The Sunless Countries (reviewed here), is earning his masters degree in "strategic foresight," or futurism, at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He told us about how futurism is influencing his work.

io9: Tell us about how you got into futurism.

Karl Schroeder: Around 2005 the Canadian army tapped me to do a dramatization for a series of foresight workshops they'd done. They had stacks of papers and needed it boiled down to something simple enough for a 4-star general to understand. We decided to do it as a story. That's how I created "Crisis in Zefra." The African city-state of Zefra was their invention and they let me do whatever I wanted with it. The army published it and you can download it. [PDF]

And this is not the first time that the Canadian military has hired a writer to create a fictionalized future. The first time was over 100 years ago, so it's an old tradition, and it's an effective way to communicate extremely complex sets of ideas.

That story was set 20 years in the future. What did you learn from writing it?

Looked at in isolation, each new technology or advance seemed to imply one outcome, but when you combine them in a story you quickly find that they influence each other in unpredictable ways. For nearly every new laser beam or autonomous armor suit or wahtever they came up with, I found that the most effective defense was the smart phone, particularly in its capacity to be used to create smart mobs.

The smart mob tended to trump any of the cool technologies that were deployed in my imaginary story.

So what do you study in a futurism graduate program?

We study product design as well as process design, with an eye toward how innovation happens in business and science. As graduates, we could go into business or government, and look at ways to cope with change.

How does being a futurist compare to being a science fiction writer?

The way I usually put it is that as an SF writer I'm never required to be right.

I have been doing technology foresight for a number of years now on the level of scenario design primarily. I want to become more rigorous with research methodology and statistical methods. I want to shift from creating clever SF scenarios to being a professional forecaster able to make rigorous predictions.

Let's talk about your science fiction. In your Virga novels, you combine classic characters and adventures with these incredible, high-tech settings. Why do you like to combine what is arguably old-fashioned with the new?

When Cory Doctorow and I wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Science Fiction, one of the suggestions I made was that you can get away with varying the setting, or the technologies, or the characters, or the plotline in SF - but you cannot get away with varying or changing all of them. I call that the principle of constants and variables. You can play with some features of the world as variables - set it in the future or the past - or can do a "what if" about technologies. But for a reader to have any anchor to understand the story and empathize with the characters, you have to have constants, things that are not changed.

With the Virga books, I carefully chose a set of variables and constants. The constants were easily-identifiable classic adventure characters in a steampunk type society. With the characters and the cultures to anchor you, you're free to explore Virga, which is otherwise disorienting.

The politics in Virga are also really interesting . . .

Various political themes emerge from my books as I write them. Primarily what I wanted to do with the Virga books was show the sheer fertility of science fiction. I decided not to use ideas from different eras, but classic stories as templates. Sun of Suns was something I consciously thought of as Master and Commander in space. Queen of Candescewas the Count of Monte Cristo. Pirate Sun was The Odyssey. With Sunless Countries, what I had in mind was Bridget Jones.

I brought in old science too. Virga is designed as Newtonian science fiction. There is no science in the series that was discovered past 1940. I wanted to show there is still so much to be discovered and invented in SF even if we limited ourselves to what we knew 100 years ago.

Sometimes artists talk about how they don't want to be psychoanalyzed because it will ruin the inspiration for their work. Do you worry that studying futurism might do something similar to your science fiction?

There's no possibility that foresight work will ruin my creativity. It goes to a different area than the creative wellspring of SF. What I have noticed in the last 5-6 years the foresight work I've done has provided ideas for near-future SF. I want to dive wholeheartedly into near-future SF, something set 5 to 50 years in the future, that is rigorously based on foresight.

One of the things I did in my novel Lady of Mazes was propose a new model of what it means to be human. That's exactly what I want to follow through on when I start writing near-future SF. I strongly feel that if you're going to write about the effects of cognitive science on us as individuals and as a society, you have to be prepared to take a leap into radically new vision of what it means to be a person. That's what I'll be exploring. I'm going to do it in the context of a computer programmer from the slums of India, and a midwest housewife who burns down her house and runs away - these are people who are instantly understandable.

What are you currently working on?

The fifth and likely final novel in the Virga series, titled Ashes of Candesce. I'm also writing a number of short stories set in Virga. After that I'm planning to do some near-future writing.

Image from the cover of Pirate Sun, art by Stephen Martiniere.