The future. The moving frontier. These are the adventures of the AHRC project Unsettling Scientific Stories in its 36-month mission to seek out new insights, science histories, and understandings of sociology, and go where no one has gone before…
What is the future? How does it change? Why is it important to understand the different ways in which the future has been imagined across the long 20th Century? What does science fiction have in common with (the histories of) science?
How we saw the future in the past is at the centre of the Unsettling Scientific Stories project. We will look back through the history of SF to see how descriptions of the future have appeared in the pages of periodicals, SF magazines, and novels, and across film and television screens. We want to understand how they have used the future to talk about their present, and also imagine the science, technology, and medicine that will drive and define our futures. SF exposes and discusses contemporary issues by flinging them into future. And past futures linger on in the present, inspiring the work of real world scientists (and future scientists), and shaping public perceptions of science and its role in society. Science fiction can imagine alternative futures that are more than just an extension of our present reality – this creativity is vital for the development of new technologies unconstrained by the perceived restrictions of the era.
The Unsettling Scientific Stories project examines how these futures evolved over the course of the long, technological 20th century, beginning in 1887 with the publication of Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti’s design of the Deptford Power Station (the beginning of large scale electricity generation in the UK), and continuing to the publication in 2007 of the International Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report (which put the existence of anthropogenic climate change beyond reasonable doubt).
Our cultural understandings of the present and constructions of the future have been influenced by real-world scientific advances. This project is split into three interconnected time periods that can be interpreted as key points in the generation of historical futures:
During the late Victorian and Edwardian period the optimism and excitement generated by innovations in physics and other experimental cultures inspired writers of fact and fiction to imagine futures full of fantastic inventions, time-travel, flying machines, and journeys in to the Earth’s core and out to strange new worlds. Starting with fin de siècle optimism, this part of the project will explore how science was presented in a range of popular periodicals through this long 20th century.
The inter- and post-war period saw radical shifts in our conceptions of humanity, nature and the idea of the future. The sciences themselves became Janus-faced as SF showcased their capacity to both end human history and enable future hope. Biological, medical, anthropological and environmental sciences intertwined with physics as authors confronted potential anthropogenic catastrophe: nuclear warfare, plague, genetic manipulation, and good, old-fashioned overpopulation. At the same time, national and local governments were beginning to treat the future as subject to human planning – a potential source of hubris that was also subject to imaginative exploration. This part of the project will consider how past visions of the future help us to understand individual social choices and their consequences past and present.
The late 20th and early 21st century have seen mutating reiterations of environmental and resource crises. New environmental sciences and social sciences have sprung up to examine and explain our changing socio-natural world and suggest new ways of living in it. But science fiction has also been remarkably prescient in imagining new futures with nature. This part of the project will examine how contemporary SF writers and readers are anticipating the future now, in the face of the emergent scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, challenging issues about energy futures, and new possibilities suggested by the development of genetic manipulation. We are thinking about the ways that science fiction might matter now more than ever to help us come to terms with new posthuman timescales of the Anthropocene and imagine futures where none seem possible.
The Unsettling Scientific Stories project goes back to the future to look at the science fiction genre and its relationship to the development and contemporary comprehension of science. The project draws upon the history and sociology of science and popular culture studies. It will show how science has been a source of unsettling social change as new knowledge opens up new possibilities, anticipations and hopes – but also new fears, conflicts and unintended consequences. At the same time, we will explore how fiction and culture have unsettled scientific certainties by making science a source of entertainment, wonder and pleasure, that enables readers, viewers, and publics to challenge expert knowledge by asking difficult questions about the ethical, social and political implications of the futures opened up by scientific innovations.
As part of the project we will be posting regularly on the blog as a means of sharing what we’ve found, thinking through our ideas, and exploring the fascinating and diverse ideas and representations of the future and how it relates to our contemporary understanding of science and the history and sociology of science. Over the next few weeks the project team members will be introducing themselves and sharing their sf ‘top tens’ so that you can see what kind of SF we like and where we hope the project will go in the future.
We hope you’ll enjoy following us on our journey back to the future!