About the Author: Dr. Anastasia Klimchynskaya, SIFK Postdoctoral Researcher and Instructor, researches literary theory, sociology, and neuroscience to study how storytelling and narrative shape what (we believe) we know about the world. She is currently teaching a graduate course, Technology and Aesthetics, on how scientific progress impacts art forms. Learn more about her courses and research here. Anastasia can be also found on Twitter @anaklimchy.
In recent weeks, science fiction has been called upon with striking frequency to explain, make sense of, and survive our present crisis, from articles containing advice from astronauts on how to survive quarantines to memes.
These references to science fiction reflect a fundamental truth about how we know the world. As human beings, we dislike the unknown, and our brains are wired to fit unfamiliar phenomena into familiar patterns (called “schema” by cognitive scientists), through which we (believe we) know the world. Works of fiction often form such schema.1
The unfolding pandemic is extraordinary, unprecedented, and defined by the very limitations of our knowledge. Its root is a novel coronavirus, and though scientists are making leaps and bounds, we still have only preliminary numbers or studies that have not been peer reviewed for crucial statistics such as the mortality rate, the possibility (and rate) of re-infection, and the proportion of people who are asymptomatic carriers. At this moment, we can only wait and see (and make educated guesses) as to whether a vaccine will work or the virus will mutate. And yet it is based on this limited knowledge we must attempt to create predictive models2 and make political, social, and legislative decisions: how long should quarantines and stay-at-home orders last? How should resources be allocated? And it is also this limited information that must be communicated to the public in compelling ways in order to effect changes in their behaviors.
It is no surprise, then, that science fiction, with its vast possibilities and extreme scenarios, forms the go-to mental lexicon we’re using to conceive of the unfolding pandemic – a practice of fitting the extraordinary into the realm of the familiar that allows us to feel like we can comprehend a seemingly inconceivable situation. As science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in a piece in the New Yorker that appeared just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post: “science fiction is the realism of our time”3 – not only due to this pandemic, but because climate change will (and is already starting to) fundamentally reshape our life on this earth.
But science fiction can also prepare us to deal with both the unknowns of this situation and the knowledge we do possess in two other fundamental ways.
The first is that science fiction can train us to make sense of the unfamiliar, particularly scientific and technical information. We are currently being inundated with a plethora of specialized terminology—exponential and linear curves, R0, incubation periods—as well as with “new forms of visual knowledge”4 (as my colleague Dr. Alex Campolo has shown) intended to shape both our understanding and our actions:
However, these visual data and unfamiliar lexicons require a certain level of scientific literacy to parse, internalize, and then translate into new behaviors. And science fiction is chock full of the unfamiliar, including this kind of visual data and technical information. Early science fiction writers such as Jules Verne, for example, often incorporated maps, graphs, and charts into their fiction.
Historically, this can be traced to science fiction’s origins as a response, in part, to the need for widespread scientific popularization following the Industrial Revolution, but even today’s technothrillers, such as those of Michael Crichton’s, often contain highly technical information.
Science fiction can therefore serve as a training ground for confronting and making sense of such data. In fact, in the field of the “psychology of fiction,” pioneering researcher Keith Oatley has suggested that fiction in general can serve as a “flight simulator” that allows the reader “immersive simulative experience of social interactions,” which in turn aid us in communication, empathy, and social interaction in the real world.5 Building on Oatley’s work, I suggest that science fiction serves the function of a more specific kind of “flight simulator,” wherein we can practice confronting and making sense of unfamiliar terminology and technical information6 – as our daily lives frequently compel us to do, and the present pandemic even more so.
Secondly, the present crisis also compels us to think holistically. As we quarantine, it is natural for our worlds to shrink: to our home, our immediate family, our finances. Yet each of us is implicated in a fundamentally global crisis, and it is science fiction that can train us in the kind of broad and expansive thinking that is required to weather it.
Science fiction is defined by its introduction of a “novum”—literally, a “something new”—into a narrative, whether it be an invention such as faster-than-light travel or a new disease that ravages the world.7 It then extrapolates, showing us a world transformed by the introduction of this novum and consequently fundamentally different from our own. This might be a world where citizenship is not something one is born with but rather something explicitly chosen (as in the Terra Ignota series by SIFK’s own Ada Palmer), or a world suffering through the aftereffects of nuclear war (as in A Canticle for Leibowitz). And in showing us these myriad alternate worlds, science fiction trains us to assume the contingent and perhaps even ephemeral nature of what seem like the most fundamental and inviolable aspects of our lived reality; it urges us to “alter the habitual thinking patterns of its readers, forcing them to question their most basic assumptions about the nature of the universe.”8 Thus, it is readers of science fiction that are best prepared to face both the terrifying instability of our present moment and the vocal challenges recent weeks have brought to what we assumed were inalterable realities: relatively free travel across borders, in-person teaching and voting, and a health insurance system tied to employment, among many others.
Moreover, science fiction teaches us to think with what science fiction critic Darko Suvin calls a “cognitive” glance (a technical term in science fiction studies, and having nothing to do with the field of cognitive science): not only are the worlds science fiction depicts different from our own, but the genre focuses on how they got that way.9 It emphasizes the forces – social, political, cultural, economic, technological – that can transform a familiar reality into an alien one, urging us to constantly be considering, for example, how the nation-states that structure our reality might be done away with to create a global system of “micro-democracy” (as in Malka Older’s Infomocracy), or how the powerful forces of denial and inaction in the face of climate change might produce an alternate and terrifying future, as in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.
In other words, science fiction trains readers to think of the entire world as a complex system in constant flux, each of its component parts deeply interrelated and subject to a variety of forces capable of transforming what may seem definite and unchangeable. This is exactly how we must be thinking about the pandemic, because this global phenomenon reveals how complex, fragile, and deeply interrelated the structures that make up our lives are. In mid-February, when the seriousness of this crisis was just beginning to be understood in the United States, renowned economist Paul Krugman warned of the “non-negligible” possibility of a global recession as supply chains break down due to the pandemic. Krugman has famously mentioned the fictional discipline of “psychohistory”– which combines history, sociology, psychology, and statistics to make generalized predictions about the direction of societies – from science Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels as his inspiration to study economics. Around the same time, watching the transition of everything from pedagogy to conferences and social hours onto digital platforms, I tweeted a thread about whether we’re living through a Singularity-like moment that signals the beginning of a transition to virtual existence for humanity. Like Krugman, I was inspired by science fiction—in particular, I was thinking about Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun, in which high-end holograms completely replace in-person interaction on the futuristic planet of Solaria.
I don’t know what the world will look like when this pandemic is over, and neither does anyone else. Weeks ago, the Department of Justice asked for emergency powers,10 while Landing AI has announced a new surveillance tool11 that could track individuals’ locations in real time as a means of enforcing social distancing policies. Such news have led some to be concerned that we’re heading towards a Blade Runner-esque,12 dystopian surveillance state13 - and images of Landing AI’s software do eerily resemble the surveillance technologies in the uncannily prescient sci-fi show Person of Interest, which centers on the government possessing a futuristic surveillance technology.
On the other hand, we’ve seen an upsurge in grassroots activism and agitation for workers’ rights, healthcare, and sick leave, including a historic strike on May 1st, International Workers Day, so perhaps we’ll see a world that more closely resembles Star Trek’s utopian future.
Or perhaps nothing will change, and we will return to what we used to think of as normal. Who knows?
But whether we look at the future with hope or pessimism, it’s clear that both experts and laypersons (yours truly included) are drawing on science fiction to conceive of – to attempt to know—what the world will look like. And we should continue voraciously consuming science fiction in this moment—not to terrify ourselves with apocalyptic scenarios, but to develop the skills and perspectives necessary to face this extraordinary situation.
Cite this Article:
"Klimchynskaya, Anastasia. 2020. Knowing Uncertainty: How Science Fiction Helps us Make Sense of the Pandemic, May 4, 2020. Formations, The University of Chicago. https://sifk.uchicago.edu/blogs/article/knowing-uncertainty-how-science-fiction-helps-us-make-sense-of-the-pandemic/."
1 Oatley, Keith. 2011. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
2 Hansen, Lars Peter. 2020. "Using Quantitative Models to Guide Policy Amid COVID-19 Uncertainty", April 24, 2020. Formations, The University of Chicago. https://sifk.uchicago.edu/blogs/article/using-quantitative-models-to-guide-policy-amid-covid-19-uncertainty/.
3 Stanley Robinson, Kim. 2020. "The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations", May 1, 2020. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-coronavirus-and-our-future.
4 Campolo, Alexander. 2020. "Flattening the Curve: Visualization and Pandemic Knowledge", April 1, 2020. Formations, The University of Chicago. https://sifk.uchicago.edu/blogs/article/flattening-the-curve-visualization-and-pandemic-knowledge/.
5 Raymond A. Mar and Keith Oatley. “The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience”: http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Mail/xmcamail.2010_01.dir/pdfc8vBXO7Maa.pdf.
6 Klimchynskaya, Ana. “Jules Verne and the Reading Practices of Modernity.” (manuscript in progress)
7 Suvin, Darko. 2016. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. Bern: Peter Lang.
8 Evans, Arthur. 1988. Jules Verne Rediscovered: Didacticism and the Scientific Novel, 161. Westport: Greenwood Press.
9 Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction.
10 Woodruff Swan, Betsy. 2020. "DOJ seeks new emergency powers amid coronavirus pandemic", March 21, 2020. Politico. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/21/doj-coronavirus-emergency-powers-140023.
11 Landing AI. 2020. "Landing AI Creates an AI Tool to Help Customers Monitor Social Distancing in the Workplace", April 16, 2020. https://landing.ai/landing-ai-creates-an-ai-tool-to-help-customers-monitor-social-distancing-in-the-workplace/.
12 Atherton, Kelsey D. 2020. "We’re on the Brink of Cyberpunk", April 8, 2020. Slate. https://slate.com/technology/2020/04/coronavirus-cyberpunk-science-fiction-government-politics.html.
13 Linder, Courtney. 2020. "How the Coronavirus Could Turn the U.S. Into a Surveillance State", April 30, 2020. Popular Mechanics. https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/security/a32289996/ai-video-surveillance-coronavirus-social-distancing/.