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Top fiction writers imagine brighter possibilities for humanity. 


Take a minute, and think: how many dystopian works of fiction can you name? It’s a long list: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, 1984, The Road, Fahrenheit 451. That’s not to mention the movies.

What about stories about good futures? How many of our stories depict futures much better than our world today? It’s a strange gap in our collective imagination.

Some have suggested that stories need profound problems to be overcome. Since utopias don’t have profound problems, they’re uninteresting by nature. Or in a world as manifestly imperfect as ours, maybe depictions of dazzlingly good futures are just hard to believe — we lack the reference points to relate to them. When we do try to imagine good futures, their goodness is often little more than relief from the bad. Orwell writes:

All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.

So: truly bright futures — utopias within humanity’s reach — are wholly missing from our collective imagination. And this matters.

It matters because clear stories can shape real decisions, and the future is becoming increasingly shapeable.

To get a sense of how much better the future could be, we should pause to appreciate how wondrous the comforts of our world must seem to even our recent ancestors: we have ended entire diseases, achieved almost full literacy. We have cars as horseless carriages and washing machines as robotic servants. Life for the middle class today is more luxurious than life for  a European king in 1700. In many cases this progress outstripped our imagination: powered flight was estimated to be millions of years away — 9 days before the Wright brother’s inaugural flight. Sci-fi tales become possibilities, and those possibilities become options.

Today, humanity’s powers are growing faster than ever. Propelled in particular by the prospect of  transformative artificial intelligence, this century could be the most important ever for humanity to make the right decisions.

As long as this trend continues, we should expect ever more outrageous possibilities to fall within our grasp. Philosopher Joe Carlsmith writes:

The difference in quality of life between a fixed-up version of our current world and the best possible future is, I think, less like the difference between a mediocre job and a beach vacation, and more like the difference between being asleep and being awake; between blindness and seeing; a droplet and an ocean; a cave and an open sky.

But the more powers humanity inherits, the more choice we will have over which future we get. That’s why the stories we tell now matter: we won’t end up with the best future for all if we don’t even try to imagine what that could look like. To raise our collective ambition, we should focus not just on understanding what is possible, but also imagining what is desirable.

Longview Philanthropy commissioned four top authors with this brief: Femi Fadugba, a writer and mathematician known for boundary-pushing science fiction; Naomi Alderman, an award-winning author and game designer; Ian McEwan, a novelist and screenwriter listed among “[t]he 50 greatest British writers since 1945”; and Jeanette Winterson, a decorated author known for her explorations of religion and identity.

We offer these four stories as a step in a hopeful direction.

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