Can science fiction save the world?

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Can science fiction save the world?

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How can science fiction help the world? Rob and Finn discuss a project which aims to inspire through stories of a bright future

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Hello I’m Finn and welcome to 6 Minute English. Rob’s here today. Hi Rob.

Hello Finn – are you well?

Very well, thanks. Rob, tell me – do you have a favourite science-fiction movie?

Ahh, science fiction – stories about an imagined future … well my favourite was and always will be ET: Extra Terrestrial , and you Finn?

Mine would probably be Blade Runner – the movie with Harrison Ford set in a dark, scary Los Angeles where he hunts robots called replicants. You know the one?

I do – and come to think of it, lots of movies and stories about the future are quite dark and negative …

But perhaps this might change. A new project wants to use the power of science fiction to do something very different: to inspire people to create a better future. It sounds very grand. We’ll be discussing the project and learning some language to talk about the future in this programme.

But before we get too far into the future, I’m sure you have a question for me, Finn?

Yes indeed. It’s about the film Blade Runner. It’s set in the future – but in which year?




I think I’m gonna go for the far future, c)2056.

Well I’ll tell you if you’re right or wrong later in the not-too-distant future.

Very good. So, as we were saying: lots of science fiction is negative.

Yes, there’s a word to describe the kind of future world which often appears in science fiction: dystopian. The noun ‘dystopia’ means an imagined place where things are unpleasant or bad. The opposite is utopia and utopian.

But why is so much science fiction dystopian? Dr Braden Allenby from Arizona State University.

Braden Allenby, Professor of Engineering and Ethics, Arizona State University

The downside of both of science fiction and movies is that they tend to be dystopian, they tend to be very negative, they tend to be very noir. Dystopian is easier to do. It’s easier to write a dystopian story than it is to write an optimistic story.

He says dystopian stories are easier to write. I can see that – there’s more conflict in a world which has problems – and good stories often have a lot of conflict and problems to resolve.

Yes, but Braden thinks being negative is the downside of science fiction. A downside is a disadvantage, a bad point. He would prefer to see more optimistic science fiction.

Optimistic, more positive about the future, which is why Braden is taking part in something called Project Hieroglyph. It brings together writers, scientists, engineers and artists to create optimistic stories about things which really could happen in the next 50 years.

So let’s talk about the kinds of things are happening in these stories?

Well, there’s one about a huge tower 20 km tall – going all the way into space. Apparently, building the tower is good for the US steel industry … and they invent a new kind of energy in the story too.

Sounds very interesting – but is it plausible – could it really happen? Could they really build a tower that big?

Well, there’s another about environmentalists who fight to stop people building the first hotel in Antarctica.

Environmentalists – people who care about the environment. Well there’s conflict there … and it’s plausible, so it could be a good story. But I can’t help thinking – will these stories actually change anything?

Ed Finn, who edited a book of these stories, thinks so. He says: “A good science-fiction story can be very powerful”. “It can inspire hundreds, thousands, millions of people to rally around something that they want to do.”

To rally around something means to come together in support of a cause.

And Braden Allenby says you can already see the influence of science fiction in modern research. Which item is being worked on right now?

Braden Allenby, Professor of Engineering and Ethics, Arizona State University

“Why are people working on, for example, invisibility cloaks? Well, it’s Harry Potter, right? That’s where they saw it.”

An invisibility cloak – a long coat which makes you invisible, in other words unable to be seen – which people first saw in one of the Harry Potter movies.

Interesting … so will the stories from Project Hieroglyph inspire people to do and invent new things that can help others? Can they help create a bright future – that’s a good, positive future? Or will they just be good stories?

Time will tell – that means we’ll find out as time goes by. One thing that we’re going to find out right now is the answer to when the movie Blade Runner was set?

I said the answer was c)2056.

And the answer was in fact b)2019. A little bit earlier, Rob.

Quite soon, then?

Yes, it’s in a couple of years. So, watch out LA. But, Rob, can you remind us of some of the words we learned today?

We had …

science fiction





a bright future

time will tell

And that’s it for today’s programme. If you want to listen to more programmes like this one, visit


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