Everyone in Tech Should Read Speculative Fiction
How books like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Left Hand of Darkness offer important frameworks for Silicon Valley
Speculative fiction is my favorite genre to read. It aligns with how chaotic our world is and provides an escape into fiction while still leaving me with the feeling that I’ve learned something that may be useful in the future.
It’s also quickly become the first genre I recommend to anybody in tech looking for a new book or just something slightly different to do. Speculative fiction is a wide-sweeping genre that has a low entry bar for a reader. There’s something there to appeal to everyone, whether it’s magical creatures or futuristic technical inventions. It’s uniquely positioned to deliver maximum enjoyment while facilitating a certain kind of forward-thinking that helps us consider many possible futures, think about what in the past may contribute to upcoming events, and consider more deeply our own roles in the way the world works.
What is speculative fiction?
A post on Marcus Haynes’s website has quickly become my go-to resource for discussing speculative fiction. He looks specifically at Black speculative fiction, but more generally he creates a definition based on what author Annie Neugebauer has written: Speculative fiction “is a text that forces its consumer to imagine (or speculate) on possibilities that do not fit in with their understanding of the world.”
Kamilah Jenkins, a software engineer and avid speculative fiction reader, frames speculative fiction as a genre that “takes an existing, broken model and applies risky solutions.”
Speculative fiction can include fantasy and science fiction, though as with many literary genres, nobody agrees on exactly what belongs to which category. The way I see it, speculative fiction is any story that guides a reader into thinking more deeply about something that doesn’t presently appear in their world. Typically this takes place through the lens of events that don’t happen in the world today (either because they can’t, or simply because they haven’t come to pass yet) but could in the future. The stories in speculative fiction may include aliens and epic battles over miscommunication and fear of the unknown, or they may be more nuanced takes on environmental change and the need to live in symbiosis with the environment, which is one of the lessons a reader might take from Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood series.
Black speculative fiction is speculative fiction that looks specifically at the people and cultures of the African diaspora. This genre looks at the future from the perspective of those whose survival today is too often threatened, and which creates a world of possibilities that tend not to be limited by what seems realistic, given today’s politics.
Speculative fiction is incredibly important in the world today because it helps us remember to look ahead at the consequences of our actions. It often draws on real-life events to project potential futures that could come of them, as Margaret Atwood did for The Handmaid’s Tale. And while it’s important for anybody who cares about the way we will live for the next five, 10, 15, or 50 years to follow these trains of thought into the wilderness and see where they get off, it is particularly vital that those directly involved in the creation of new technology — really one of the less-well-understood aspects of our society today — make these mental leaps and think ahead to the consequences of our actions today.
What does tech have to do with it?
Folks working in tech are the first ones to know about an emerging technology.
Whether it is the recruiter looking for fresh talent to fuel a rapidly growing team, a software engineer architecting a framework for which there is no similar model, or a product manager creating user tests to determine what direction their team should take, these people know much more about what’s coming than the rest of us do.
This can clearly be said about any industry. But for the tech world, which has radical potential to change the way we live our lives in the immediate future, the point is particularly salient.
Techies can shape how our world works by championing powerful tech that enables people to access the world in new and inclusive ways.
Enter speculative fiction
Folks working in tech need to be experts at envisioning the different futures of their products — and this is the whole point of speculative fiction. The talk I’ve heard in design meetings and software reviews often focuses on questions of accessibility, profitability, and so on. Rarely at the point when a product is coming together, looking less like a jumble of parts and more like a real thing with a head and a tail, have I heard anyone question the origin of the product itself. Even more rarely have I seen a comprehensive look at the potential ways that product could impact our future in unexpected (negative or positive) ways.
I’ve never worked with A.I. or health tech, which are some of the more notable fields where tech can go badly wrong, but there is no shortage of news stories that prove things have already gone wrong and will continue to go wrong. But regardless of the field, the same trains of thought that speculative fiction follows should be top of mind at every stage of development for any tech company. As Jenkins notes, in speculative fiction, “not only are the outcomes vividly illustrated and make for an exhilarating read, but they also serve as a warning for the impact our technology can have on our societies. When the future is only limited by what we can envision, and technology is making such tremendous strides every day, those of us who are directly responsible for transforming these visions into reality need to also be the first to question the potential ways this technology could transform beyond what we expect or desire.”
Folks in tech are gatekeepers and should act accordingly
Techies can shape how our world works by preventing malignant tech from getting through or championing creative and powerful tech that enables people to access the world in new and inclusive ways. Few other individuals have the power to impact the future so directly. Speculative fiction can help consider some potential outcomes of this responsibility.
Techies can also look to speculative fiction to answer the more sticky questions
Many tech companies are making a big push for diversity and inclusion as they try to ensure that their workplace reflects the populations it serves. Questions of access and inclusion surface constantly: What about people who use screen readers, or modified keyboards, or have other needs that the typical computer and applications do not anticipate?
Speculative fiction deals with those questions all the time. Species blend in Octavia Butler’s worlds, protagonists are frequently shut out of spaces which they have to enter in order to save their world, and battles are fought over differences far more minor than skin color. There are modified humans, entirely separate species, and questions of access constantly being interrogated in other works of speculative fiction.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin offers us a metaphor for the fear of diversity and inclusion, specifically that while difference inevitably requires a change in behavior and understanding of how to interact, it is not nearly as threatening as it may initially seem. The protagonist is essentially a human man who travels to an alien planet to convince its inhabitants to join a coalition of other planets. These inhabitants are ambisexual humans, a fact that the protagonist initially struggles to understand. In the end, however, he forms a close connection with one of the natives. While there are plenty of problems in this narrative, it also explores how differences can lead to both sides growing and learning when they lean into trying to understand one another, rather than relying on stereotypes and letting fear dictate actions.
Creators can also look to speculative fiction to understand how building tools with accessibility in mind doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Narratives like those found in Seanan McGuire’s series help us consider how differently-abled people move about the world. In her novels, disabilities are simply a part of the worlds she creates. American Sign Language, wheelchairs, and other assistive devices exist without needing excessive explanation. Books like this remind us that what we see as the norm may not work for everyone, and they also remind us that it isn’t that difficult to create accessible spaces.
Speculative fiction may not solve our problems, but can certainly help us learn to think more creatively about how to solve them
The early lives of important technological advances are often known only to a select group of people invested in the development and release of said product. If those people can practice broad thinking that considers the perspectives of those vastly different from them, while leaning into the lessons about inclusion that speculative fiction encourages, it might help curb the release of technology that negatively portrays specific groups (for example, when Google’s algorithms label people as gorillas) or has the potential to lead us down ever more biased and unpleasant roads. Speculative fiction is a fantastic place to look for questions of diversity, questions of access and inclusion, and to examine the far-reaching impacts of various forms of technology.