Syllabus: Predictive Fictions

GTD 598 syllabus Public

ASU GTD 598 Spring A 2020
Predictive Fictions: Stories About The Future

Dr. Malka Older

Course Description:

Our present is surrounded by futures. Weather reports; science fiction novels, films, or cartoons; economic forecasts; year-end predictions; five- (or fifty-) year plans; election polls; product launches; mock-ups for large development projects; disaster simulations: all of these offer versions of the future, and their purpose is to influence us, affecting both mundane and momentous decisions that then create the future we will in habit. Some approaches are framed as neutral or scientific while in fact privileging certain viewpoints and involving considerable guesswork, while others are discounted as emotional or imaginative.

This course will explore the range of tools from a critical perspective, questioning how we, societally, value or devalue various constructions of the future. We complain about the inaccuracy of weather forecasts and election polls, yet give them an entirely different status than we do to science fiction, no matter how rigorous the science. Plans rarely acknowledge counterfactuals or unexpected events; economic forecasts are used as the basis for consequential policy decisions without consideration of their track record. Without discounting the utility of numbers, measurements, and calculations, this course will have a particular emphasis on the currently under-used area of fictional narrative and what speculative fiction can bring to our understanding of the future. Characterization, imaginative thinking, and narrative motivations offer powerful tools largely ignored in mainstream construction of futures.

Through readings of science fiction along with critical examinations of other forms of prediction — all of them, to some degree, fictions — students will be challenged to think critically about what futures are being presented, what techniques are given more confidence, and why.

This is a reading-intensive course. Each week aims to balance some science fiction with some academic writing, and often some popular writing or videos as well. Discussion is

important. There are brief assignments every week, culminating in a paper and a presentation in the final week.

Course Learning Outcomes

The overall course objective is to give students the tools to critique approaches to depicting the future and think creatively about how to provide more robust and useful predictions or models.

Goal 1: Students will demonstrate the ability to analyze depictions of the future critically. Goal 2: Students will evaluate future predictions in terms of agenda, perspectives

considered or absent, framing, and societal impact.

Goal 3: Students will write at an appropriate level, undergraduate or graduate, with an informed response to the issues raised in class.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Introduction and Quantitative Bias

An introduction to the idea of socially constructed predictive value. .

Learning Objectives: Students can identify predictive fictions around them and begin to triage them.

Students can analyze the predominance of quantitative approaches to depicting the future.

Key Discussion Questions:

Popp Berman and Hirschman identify four questions about quantification. What does The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday say about the first three (what shapes the production of numbers?; when and how do numbers matter?; how do we govern quantification?)? Does it raise any other questions? 

What elements of the future described in The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday seem likely to you? Considering LeGuin’s description of how science fiction works, what elements of the future described in The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday are relevant to today?

Assignment: List examples of future references in your daily life (or weekly, or yearly – doesn’t have to be frequent, just mundane). How far in the future do they look? What isthe basis for their predictions? Which of your decisions do they influence and to what degree?


Anderson, Ben. “Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies.” Progress in human geography, 34.6, pp. 777-798, 2010

LeGuin, Ursula K. Introduction, The Left Hand of Darkness. (The rest of the book is not required, but it is quite good)

Fine, Gary Alan. “Ground Truth: Verification Games in Operational
Meteorology.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35, no. 1 (February 2006): 3–23.

Hossain, Saad Z. The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday. Tordotcom/Macmillan, 2019.

Berman, Elizabeth Popp, and Daniel Hirschman. “The Sociology of Quantification: Where Are We Now?” Contemporary Sociology. 47.3 pp. 257-266 2018

Week 2: Is it the Economy?

Learning Objective: Students can analyze the dominance of economics among the social sciences in planning and prediction.

Key Discussion Questions: What do you about the argument that science-fiction and economics “have a lot in common”?

The Pushcart War was written more than fifty years ago, and each subsequent printing has adjusted the dates so that it continues to take place far in the future, looking back at a historical event that takes place several years after the present in which we are reading. How does that framing affect your reading of the book? What in the story feels dated, and what feels current? What do you think the metaphor is?

Assignment: Find a current (within the past two weeks) article about something relating to the future: prediction, planning, an upcoming product or media release, a policy question, etc. Identify and analyze the use of economic framing. Are any other scientific, social science, or anecdotal framings used? What others could be used?


Berman, Elizabeth Popp. “Not Just Neoliberalism: Economization in US Science and Technology Policy.” Science, Technology, & Human Values, vol. 39, no. 3, May 2014, pp. 397–431, doi:10.1177/0162243913509123.

Hirschman, Dan. “climate change economics goes to congress.” Blog post, Scatterplot. December 13, 2020. economics-goes-to-congress/

Chang, Ha-Joon. “Why Sci-fi and Economics Have More in Common Than You Think” The New Humanist, June 18, 2018

Merrill, Jean (Ronni Solbert, illustrator). The Pushcart War. 1964. W.R. Scott, New York.

Pilmis, Olivier. “Foreseeing in the dark: Macroeconomic Forecasting in a Health Crisis” Annexe de Dossier, Sciences Po Centre de Sociologie des Organisations. June 23, 2020

Video: Minaci, Raffaele, “Economic Science Fiction” (Click on Room 1, Day 1, and start at 7:09:45 or so)

Website: Sci-fi Economics Lab. Watch Cory Doctorow’s video and read at least one article.

Week 3: Investing in the Future

Learning Objective: Students can evaluate the way economic, quantitative, and technical approaches are used in planning, financial policy, and investment.

Key Discussion Questions: What ‘technology myths’ have you encountered? How do the ways we think about the future of technology, or our knowledge about macroeconomics, obscure uncertainty? How does systems analysis or new public management techniques play into that? What does “Pan-humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” say about planning for the future, and how do the human relationships in the story intersect with future visioning and planning decisions?

Assignment: Choose a quandary pertaining to the future: a problem that needs to be solved or an opportunity that can be leveraged or a decision to be made. Write a brief (< one page) elaboration of the quandary from an entirely economic/technological perspective (feel free to be creative in how you apply those frameworks). Write a similarly brief elaboration of the quandary without using any quantitative or rational framing.


Freudenburg, William R., et al. Catastrophe in the Making : The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow, Island Press, 2009. Chapter 5, “A ‘Helpful Explosion’”

Peeters, Paul; James Higham, Diana Kutzner, Scott Cohen, Stefan Gössling. “Are technology myths stalling aviation climate policy?” Transportation research. Part D, Transport and environment. Volume: 44, May 2016 pp. 30-42

Hoos, Ida R. “Societal aspects of technology assessment,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 13, Issue 3, 1979, Pages 191-202

Barber, Jess and Sara Saab. “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” Clarkesworld September 2017

Week 4: The Horse-Race: Polls and Punditry

Learning Objective: Students are able to analyze the role of the future in our thinking about politics.

Key Discussion Questions: How does polling – a representation of a current state – become entangled with projections of the future? Why is our political discourse, in general, so fascinated with the future?

The Parable of the Sower is both very different from today and, considering when it was written, shockingly accurate in some ways. How do you find it more or less accurate than the sort of punditry shown on news channels or in newspapers? Does her essay about her process change how you understand her vision of the future?

Assignment: Choose a recent but not too recent (2-5 years ago) anticipated political event (can be an election or a treaty or contested policy vote, etc; can be national, international, or local), and read some of the predictive coverage from before the event. (If necessary, read some of the coverage of and after the event to refresh your memory of what came to pass). Write 1-2 pages on what you find; if relevant you may consider whether the success or lack thereof of the predictions had any impact on the people doing the predictions.


Lepore, Jill. “Politics And The New Machine” The New Yorker 2015-11-16

Rosen, Jay. “Why Political Coverage Is Broken” PressThink, 2011.

Scoblic, J Peter; Philip E Tetlock. “A Better Crystal Ball” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 99, Iss. 6, (Nov/Dec 2020)

Butler, Octavia. The Parable of the Sower. 1993.
Butler, Octavia. “Brave new worlds: A few rules for predicting the future” Essence, 2000.

Week 5: Futures that Hopefully Won’t Happen: Planning for Disaster

Learning Objective: Students analyze the ways that constructions of the future are applied to uncertain and fearful events.

Key Discussion Questions: How do the depictions of the future in the articles make the potential disasters seem more or less real? How does Turnbull’s story present disasters differently from the simulation described in Revet’s article or the documents described by Clarke? In the episode of She-Ra, how do the characters’ different personalities influence their varying projections of the future?

Assignment: Sketch out (< 2 pages) a simulation or plan for a future event (this can be a crisis or disaster of some kind, however other kinds of events are also fine, as long as they involve some decision making etc). Decide in advance on the agenda you want to encourage with your simulation or plan.


Weinstein, Liza, et al. “Resilient Growth: Fantasy Plans and Unplanned Developments in India’s Flood-Prone Coastal Cities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 43, no. 2, Mar. 2019, pp. 273–291. EBSCOhost, login.aspx?direct=true&db=eoh&AN=1774663&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Clarke, Lee. Mission improbable: using fantasy documents to tame disaster. 1999, University of Chicago Press. Chapter 2; further reading optional

Revet, Sandrine “‘A small world’: ethnography of a natural disaster simulation in Lima, Peru” Social anthropology, 2013-02, Vol.21 (1), p.38-53

OPTIONAL She-Ra: The Princesses of Power, Season 2 Episode 4 “Roll With It”. Netflix, 2019

OPTIONAL War Games. Dir: John Badham. 1983

Turnbull, Cadwell. “Monsters Come Howling in their Season.” The Verge, January 2019

Week 6: Long-Term Planning
Learning Objective: Students can identify the issues and framings of long-term planning.

Key Discussion Questions: Imagine being in 1970 and trying to write a science-fiction story set in 2020. What key pieces of technological or social change would you be missing? Given how many uncertainties there are in 50 years, what is the purpose of 50-year plans?

Assignment: Proposal for the final paper. Include topic, approach, and sources. The sooner you get it to me, the sooner you’ll get it back, the more time you’ll have to work on your papers and presentations.


Achieng’, Roseline M. “Can We Speak of African Agency?: APRM and Africa’s Agenda 2063.” African Sociological Review / Revue Africaine De Sociologie, vol. 18, no. 1, 2014, pp. 49–64. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.

“NEW YORK OF THE FUTURE: A TITAN CITY” New York Times, 02-11-1924

“Sheikh Mohammed launches project to shape the UAE’s next 50 years” SyndiGate Media Inc, 2020-09-28

Hoogstra, M.A., Schanz, H. Future orientation and planning in forestry: a comparison of forest managers’ planning horizons in Germany and the Netherlands. Eur J Forest
Res 128, 1–11 (2009).

Amis, Martin. “The Janitor On Mars.” The New Yorker. October 19, 1998

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future.” Daedalus, vol. 142, no. 1, 2013, pp. 40–58. JSTOR, stable/43297300. Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.

Week 7: Student Presentations and Discussion

Learning Objective: Students demonstrate coherent and original ideas about constructed futures and the role of narrative.


Paper, maximum seven pages, analyzing some topic discussed in the class or related to the class (topic must be approved through the paper proposal). You may choose a science fiction novel and write about how it approaches certain aspects of its constructed future drawing on the readings from the class; or you may choose a type of constructed future and use examples from science fiction to discuss or critique it.

Presentation, maximum ten minutes: present your argument from your paper to the class. This may be in the form of slides with audio or video with or without slides.


One thought on “Syllabus: Predictive Fictions

  1. Thanks for this Syllabus! This is such fascinating and important work. I shall try some of these assignments with my students of my Sustainability courses. BTW, this should also be an online course, available soon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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