Looking Forward Together

[Originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of Focus, the BSFA’s magazine for writers.]

Can a project that brings together science fiction writers, scientists, technologists and the public generate enthusiasm and catalyse change for the wider society? That’s the fundamental question behind projects I’ve been involved with over the past few years.

As Dr Christine Aicardi, a senior researcher in science and technology studies at King’s College London, said in the foreword to my Biohacked & Begging collection: “How good can near-future fiction be at provoking ethical and social reflection on emerging science and technology? At mediating debates around such topics? Deeper and larger questions are churning under these interrogations, questions which so far, academic approaches fall frustratingly short of measuring up to: How can we broaden the diversity of views effectively represented in setting the research agenda for science and technology? How can we encourage reflexivity in scientists and engineers? How can we engage diverse publics into concrete discussions of collective responsibilities around science and innovation?”

First, some back story and scene setting. In 2016, at the Virtual Futures event on Neurostimulation I shared a stage with science and technology experts for the first time as a writer, reading a piece of commissioned flash fiction. The idea was to experiment and see if fiction could provide an effective bridge between the panel and the audience.

It was an exciting experience, albeit daunting. There was the usual fear — will they like it? — that comes with all writing, but with an additional edge. What if the panel say something ahead of my reading that makes the story look really stupid? Thankfully, all went well.

Afterwards, I met one of the panellists, Dr Christine Aicardi, and we agreed it would be great to work together on a project. Later in 2016, along with writers Allen Ashley and Jule Owen, I attended the Bristol Robotics Laboratory with the intention of creating stories that would be read alongside a panel discussion between the writers and the roboticists. The event was part of the Bristol Literary Festival and where my story “Eating Robots” was born. Its slightly infamous piss-powered pyjamas were inspired by two pieces of tech we saw at the lab — urine-powered batteries and power-assisted clothing. This was not a combination of technologies the scientists had previously thought of. I was hooked.

This feedback from one of the attending roboticists shows the potential impact of such events. “If I would choose one thing that [participating in the project] may have affected, it was my willingness to disseminate our science and our results to the public; I’m more prone to that. I enjoy it more. But I also think it’s more important.”

Science fiction writers spending time with scientists is nothing new, and I’m sure many readers here have either done this or know someone who has. However, sharing a public stage to discuss the fiction and its associated science and technology is more unusual.

My collaboration with Christine Aicardi led to more projects. One was Strange Brains, Alien Minds, funded by King’s Cultural Institute, with King’s College London’s Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology and the Department of Developmental Neurobiology. It was totally fascinating. It’s where I saw that studying “how brain anatomy is built during vertebrate embryogenesis[1]” could use unexpectedly low-tech methods. I learnt of the existence of Evo Devo (look it up), and got to know Geoff Ryman and Pippa Goldschmidt. This project culminated in two further events. One where the writers first shared a stage with a panel of scientists from the participating labs, followed by a panel with perspectives from history, philosophy and the social sciences; and a public event at Waterstones.

Another project was with Furtherfield[2] and their Citizens SciFi celebration of Finsbury Park’s 150th anniversary. This involved leading a day-long workshop with residents of Finsbury Park and scientists from a broad range of disciplines — architecture, smart cities and urban mental health to mention a few. We discussed emerging science and technology and how that might affect the future of the park and its surrounding area. Residents and experts described their vision of the future for Finsbury Park which then formed the basis of the world in which to set my short story, “Long Live the Strawberries of Finsbury Park.” (Now being turned into an augmented reality zine).

Here’s what Furtherfield had to say, “Stephen Oram worked in a number of highly engaging ways to encourage residents to imagine future worlds with him. In particular his live reading at our Future Fair captivated audiences where he read a section of the story and then hosted a discussion with attendees.”

It has been a fascinating journey of discovery. I vividly remember joining the team at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour for a visiting expert on artificial neural networks. It was one of those afternoons when every time I felt I had a grip on the technology one of the neuroscientists would ask a question and I would realise two things: the complexity of the read-across from human brains to AI; and how far we are from achieving general artificial intelligence. It made for a wonderful afternoon spent hanging-on by my intellectual fingertips.

To quote from one of those neuroscientists, Danbee Kim: “As a scientist, I tend to fall in love with science fiction that reminds me of the human consequences of science. It’s strange, because most often, the human consequences are dark, dystopian, and depressing; and yet, because I worry that today’s scientists aren’t worried enough, I love these stories for speaking the truth that many scientists would rather ignore. We are blinded by illusions of a perfectly objective science.”

But, what does all this feel like as the writer? Well, there’s the usual panic of whether you’ll be able to find an entertaining story that also raises ethical issues. To date my experience is that, if anything, ideas spark too soon, distracting me from what’s happening in the lab. A good recording device is helpful there. One of the most important considerations is that as part of the project you are going to share a public stage with the scientists. The iterative process between scientist and writer to ensure accuracy and plausibility of the science is crucial. And if the plausibility isn’t there the scientist has the ultimate veto by refusing to share the stage. Based on a discussion with the Bristol Robotics Lab, at the beginning of a project I now frame the level of dystopia that will be comfortable for the scientists as, ‘Black Mirror is fine, Terminator is not.’

Who is the audience at such events? Once again I refer to Christine Aicardi: “A constant throughout the projects was that the public events we organised were oversubscribed […]. An important message coming through their feedback is, there is a public out there hungry for forums where they can explore the complex shades of ethical grey surrounding science and innovation, as opposed to the kind of purposefully orchestrated black-and-white debates so often taken to be the dominant norm of ‘what the public wants.’” This is particularly important because as one of the roboticists observed, “With the audience, […] I was expecting them to be less negative; … I was expecting them to have a little more faith in scientists.”

Is it for everyone? Well, for the scientists, it is certainly not everyone who will want to do this; it takes an existing appreciation of or openness to science fiction. For those who do take part it is rewarding as Christine has found out from her research. “It seems that the most ethically engaged scientists can discover new ways of thinking thanks to their encounter with near-future fiction. A most rewarding moment in the projects was when one such scientist told me that although he had always been an avid science fiction reader, his collaboration with us got him interested into near-future fiction, which he was reading a lot more since, and he thought the best of it was especially good for bringing out deep sociological perspectives. He added, it had also triggered the realisation that what they were doing in his lab was turning fiction into facts, was realising what had hitherto been only imagined: for him, the best stories are thought experiments, and as a scientist there is a responsibility in the choice of which imagined future to help turn into fact.”

Is it every science fiction writer’s dream? Probably not. It often pays a daily rate which is way beyond what you’d get for selling a single story, but that does mean you have to be a willing and effective collaborator. The other obvious upside of working with real-life scientists is building a network of collaborators, which comes in very handy. For example, it was great to email Danbee Kim for some advice while writing a commissioned story on the downloadable brain.

Writing fiction for such a specific purpose does bring constraints to the imagined world, but that’s no bad thing. For example, it can be surprisingly underwhelming to visit a working lab. Not all science is interesting to watch, but also it’s often not as far developed as the popular press imagines it. Other times scientific debate can blow you away. In June 2018, I attended the Human Brain Organoid conference at Oxford University. This was on the moral imperative to experiment ethically on ‘lab-grown’ human brains to end human suffering. “Human brain organoids are miniature ‘brain structures’ that can be generated from stem cells. These have the capacity to produce new, complex and developing neuronal tissue and have the potential to provide neuroscientists with models of parts of a functioning human brain for research.[3]” During the day we heard about how to measure consciousness and there was talk of gastruloids, novel entities and chimeras. We discussed developing a human brain inside an animal and how the closer we get to human brain surrogates the more pressing the ethical issues become. One particularly fascinating and slightly disturbing conversation centred around the scientific, legal, and ethical considerations about how long to keep an organoid ‘alive’.

It only seems right to end with Christine Aicardi’s research into the writers’ experience. “What came out strong is the jarring contrast between the idealised and hyped visions of science filtered through the medias, and the reality of scientists’ working practices — more messy, low tech, repetitive and mundane than expected, not to mention burdened with all manner of bureaucratic and financial concerns. This closer to the bone, perception of scientific work and of the human behind the science was visible in several of the stories, which wove into their plots research ethics, double binds and professional (mis)conduct.”

Finally and with all that in mind, what next? Well, a year-long project I’m working on with Christine Aicardi is, “piloting development of an automated approach to coding expressed emotion in mothers’ speech to improve prediction of youth mental health problems.” The result should be two pieces of fiction that contribute to the ethical discussions about this use of this technology. It sounds interesting and contentious and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Videos of these events and associated interviews can be found at www.stephenoram.net/science-and-scifi-projects/

[1] https://www.kcl.ac.uk/people/clemens-kiecker

[2] London’s longest running (de)centre for art and technology

[3] https://www.neuroethicssociety.org/oxford-meeting-2018#lectures

photo credit: Rusty Russ Twisted Tree ReTwisted via photopin(license)