Imagining Futures: From Sociology of the Future to Future Fictions

Image: Thomas Martinsen

Friday 4th March, 2016

Richard Tutton

In the first part of our special section on Sociology and Fiction, Richard Tutton from Lancaster University explores the significance of fictional futures for Sociological engagements with possible futures.

Since the early twentieth century, sociologists, especially those seeking to challenge the orthodoxies of their time have found fiction to be an effective way to imagine radically different social orders – feminist Charlotte Gilmore Perkins and anti-racism scholar W.E.B. du Bois are two such examples. Today, sociologists writing about the future also engage in storytelling, although of a different kind: John Urry, for example, in his recent work on oil, climate change and automobility, has crafted scenarios of alternative, possible social futures, which might emerge from and in response to climate change and energy use practices. Urry’s aim in writing these stories about possible futures is to imagine a way that human societies could best manage and adapt to changed circumstances. As with all scenarios, they usefully project forward aspects of the present. But what they don’t necessarily do that well is to allow us ‘to accompany our actions to their potential impacts on future generations […] to know ourselves as responsible for our timeprint and the time-space distantiated effects of our actions and inactions’ (page 196) To do this, Barbara Adam and Christopher Groves argue in their book Future Matters, we need to take the standpoint of a future present; only then can we begin to explore and appreciate our responsibility to future people.

I would like to suggest that writers of fiction are arguably better than social scientists at exploring these questions. Yet, I would also argue, social scientists can use such writers to convey this standpoint of a future present when with engaging publics - including their first public students – in thinking critically about the future today.

One writer whom I have found who highlights questions of transgenerational responsibility is the British author Robert Llewellyn. Through his recently completed trilogy News from Gardenia, News from the Squares, and News from the Clouds, Llewellyn has sought to revive a form of utopian writing, drawing inspiration from William Morris. Although he is uncomfortable about describing his novels as utopian, he says about his first book that he has created ‘a world where eventually, instead of the human race destroying the small planet we inhabit, we get it right. It’s not perfect, it’s not likely, but it is entirely possible’ (p. 2). In this sense, Llewellyn’s novels belong to that tradition of what Ruth Levitas calls critical utopian writing that does not seek to produce blueprints of perfectly formed societies but rather seeks to call into question taken-for-granted aspects of everyday life by imagining alternative societies, often ones in which marginalized others become central figures. Examples include Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia or Ursula le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

Llewellyn’s books stage a number of interesting encounters between the protagonist, Gavin Meckler, an engineer, and notably climate change sceptic, who travels from 2011 into three alternate future times. In each he is confronted with the consequences of his generation’s actions.

In the first book, he spends time in Gardenia - in which southern England has become a kind of garden state; large cities have all disappeared, and people now live in communes, growing their own food. He is taken by his host to what he sees as a ‘giant rubbish dump’: ‘the ground around us, as we picked our way across this unpleasant landscape littered with the remnants of plastic bags, bottles and containers, created in me an overwhelming feeling of regret and sadness. This is what my generation had done, dumped all this stuff and forgotten about it' (p. 147). Two hundred years later, however, members of Gardenian society believe, perversely, that previous generations chose to store this material in the ground precisely for them to use.

Another much more striking encounter takes place in the second book when Gavin has arrived in a society in which women have assumed the responsibility of running human affairs on a global scale. He is confronted with the problem of a very different kind of waste. He joins a museum tour, learning about what is for him the future but which is this society’s past. He finds how this society has had to assume responsibility for the nuclear waste produced in his time. In caverns below Trondheim, he watches:

‘a live feed coming from the radioactive tomb buried under Trondheim. Above the meter reading on the screen which showed dangerously high levels of radiation in the space, there was a countdown figure. It was at 49,782 years; that’s how long it would be before the material in the storage vault would be safe […] Yes, it was utterly insane […] I had always put my faith in nuclear technology, I firmly believed it was the answer to many of the problems I knew we were facing’ (pp. 126-7)

However, contrary to the beliefs he held when he left his time, he discovers that subsequent generations abandoned nuclear power for ‘cheaper and safer options’, but were still left with the burden of managing the safe storage of nuclear waste. Indeed, Gavin is told that the very idea of waste – wasting finite materials ‘appears to us as a form of madness’.

In these two books, then, future societies find themselves dealing with and making the best of the legacies of societies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Their environments, while altered by the industrial processes of these centuries, remain relatively benign, and each society went through largely non-violent transitions. In the third book, however, things take a darker turn. In News from the Clouds, Gavin experiences a world in which rapid climate change was not acted upon, resources were used to preserve the existing political and economic order for as long as possible, until there was little left to protect them, and they crumbled. Dramatic sea level rises, droughts, and 500km winds ravage the planet, making the surface is uninhabitable. In this future, Gavin meets people who have developed ingenious systems of survival but some of whom also feel a strong animosity towards him as a person from the past who they hold responsible for making such a pernicious future. He is confronted and says repeatedly that it’s ‘not his fault’, yet the history that he learns of the mid to later twenty-first century reveals that his scepticism about climate change was plain wrong.  

As three examples show, Llewellyn’s books imagine three alternative futures in which there is dramatic social, cultural and economic change, as societies adapt to the long term effects of actions that are altering the Earth’s environment. In contrast to sociologically written scenarios, these fictional ones foreground questions of our own responsibility in making these futures through the travails of Gavin Meckler.

Fiction can dramatize critical ideas – it gives us characters with whom we might as readers identify, avoid abstractions by describing future worlds in detail, and can foster empathy by encouraging us to place ourselves in these worlds, to see our present time – what has now become their past - from their standpoint. In other words, fictions of the future as opposed to sociology of the future, take us beyond the cognitive to explore emotional responses and questions of morality and ethics. This, however, is not enough and this is where the sociologist must draw on these fictional accounts and couple them with critical analysis of how to effect social change today.

As someone who is actively engaged in remaking the sociology of the future, and who wishes to engage students in discussions about futures in which they have a significant stake, I think that fictions of the future can play a vital role in teaching and research.


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