Speculative fiction for researching the future

By Ash Watson

How we imagine the future has impacts on our everyday lives and societies. To research these impacts, we need to grapple with speculation, uncertainty and multiple possibilities. How can we study people’s imaginations and the effects of things that haven’t happened yet? One avenue involves taking seriously speculative fiction.

Stories about alternative realities and far-flung futures can tell us a lot about how societies change. Stories shape what we desire and anticipate, powering the shared ways that we make sense of our world. Bringing speculative storytelling into research can help us to understand how and why some visions of the future become significant and meaningful.

Raising ethical questions

In speculative fiction, the possibilities of science and technology are playfully written into new contexts and often taken to their extremes. Writers and creators harness the genre’s imaginative power to craft worlds that challenge our understandings and values. As such, fictional stories are regularly evoked in debates about technological development. Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for example, and Ridley Scott’s film adaptation Blade Runner, continue to be key references in debates about artificial intelligence today. The story centres on the ethical and social problems posed by robots who are almost indistinguishable from people.

Playing with the idea of what it means to be human, this fictional story offers a blueprint for considerations of what we want (and want to avoid) in the pursuit of human-like artificial intelligence. Researchers interested in the trajectory of AI ethics, for example, can trace the influence of portrayals of artificial intelligence in movies like Blade Runner to make sense of the direction of real-world research and policy decisions.

Understanding complex feelings

In my own research, many people I speak to also reference films, TV shows and novels when talking about technology. For instance, people often talk about Stephen Spielberg’s film Minority Report starring Tom Cruise — also based on fiction by Philip K Dick — or Charlie Brooker’s popular TV series Black Mirror to illustrate their fears and anxieties about tech developments that impact privacy and surveillance.

By paying attention to when and how people reference stories like these, researchers can gain insight into the unfolding ‘blueprint’ of our shared ethical ideals. Further, by actively prompting people to discuss such stories, we can consider how cultural narratives colour people’s perspectives and feelings about technological change.

Reading sci-fi to advance research

Just as the people I spoke to use sci-fi stories as examples of what they personally imagine and feel strongly about, researchers can gain great insight into social imaginaries by paying close attention to fictional texts. This means adopting the close reading methods of media and literature studies scholars, where a text is analysed in great detail to understand its nuances and effects.

Ursula Le Guin’s work offers an exemplar of the value of the speculative form. Her anthropological approach to world-building brings to life strange settings and events against which our familiar social structures and cultural norms are reflected, tested and skewed. By pushing the boundaries of what is culturally conceivable, stories like Le Guin’s chart new territories of thought in ways that are valuable for researchers interested in how futures are imagined and made.

Turning research into fiction

Many researchers are also turning to creative practices as part of their scholarly work. I write fiction as a way of exploring the ideas and phenomena that don’t easily ‘fit’ within the more traditional scholarly work I do. I also lead writing workshops and run publishing spaces where scholars can experiment with fiction, poetry and visual artforms that extend their research in novel directions. I strongly believe that creative and artful practices can help us see social problems in new ways, expand our theories and concepts, and develop a more robust and panoramic scholarly imagination.

In Bits/Bytes/Dreams for example, an anthology collection of short stories I edited and published last year, scholars from around the world turn to fiction to consider various technological futures. The stories show the material and social ways that ephemeral digital information can manifest. They show what people hope for and what they fear about technological change. The stories challenge the luminous modern visions we are used to seeing in advertising and consider where and on whom the visions cast shadows.

By writing creatively, or producing other forms of artistic work, researchers can not only reach new audiences with their findings and ideas; they can advance their own scholarly understandings too.


In trying to navigate the unfolding expanse of tomorrow, to understand the paths we are currently laying down and respond in ways that improve social life for more people, speculative fiction offers a rich way forward. Through its imaginative capacities, challenging reflections of contemporary issues, and impact on the shared ways we make sense of technological change, fiction enriches our understanding of how futures are made today.

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