Speculative Fiction and Speculating about the Social
From the Series: Speculative Anthropologies
In the opening pages of Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay’s book Richter 10, the world is amazed by an accurate prediction made with a method called earthquake ecology theory. The book’s main character, Lewis Crane, is the method’s chief proponent, and he is known for this reason as a prophet of destruction. In the chapters that follow, earthquake ecology theory—a fantasy of big data and geophysical modeling—is used to make a number of predictions. While some go right, others go very wrong. People panic and suffer in relation to all of them.
Richter 10 is hard science fiction—its focus is on earthquake ecology theory and its consequences. These consequences unfold through a big, complex world. The predictions enable Clarke and McQuay to explore relations between environments, technologies, and social order. That being said, the book’s social world is painful to read: women in the book mostly exist as sex objects; Chinese characters dominate the world in subtle ways and scheme to keep their control; and the African Americans that Clarke and McQuay have invented are politically radical, socially backward, and violent. The book’s exploration of the social effects of earthquake prediction is troubled in basic ways by this poorly imagined social world.
That being said, Richter 10 is interesting to me precisely because of the way that others value it for its social insight. The book was loaned to me in 2013 by Andres, an engineer who works at a Mexican nonprofit devoted to seismic risk reduction. The degree to which Andres and other engineers shared my fascination with speculative fiction was one of the delights of my fieldwork in his office during 2013 and 2014. When Andres handed his personal copy of Richter 10 to me, he told me that, yes, it was awkward and unfortunate in places, but that he was intrigued by the way the book put earthquake predictions into social context. He was fascinated by the way it explored what earthquake predictions, whether they went right or wrong, could mean for ordinary people.
Our mutual fandom and conversations around Richter 10 in the context of seismic studies have helped me to frame questions about the speculative tools that engineers like Andres use when they consider the social consequences of technologies. It has encouraged me to get serious about my fandom as a way to engage with collaborators for whom empirical social science is not exactly accessible.
Clarke and McQuay’s earthquake prediction model is a matter of near-future data accumulation and analysis, theorizing vast and mechanistic geophysical relations to weave together evidence of phenomena like weather patterns, sunspots, bodily sensations, electromagnetic data, animal signs, and gas emissions.
By contrast, for mainstream earthquake science, predicting the location, magnitude, or timing of earthquakes with any useful accuracy is simply not possible with contemporary technologies and knowledge. Certainly, scientists and engineers study topics related to decreases or increases of seismic activity in specific sites and precursor effects such as gas emissions and electromagnetism, but their findings cannot be easily extrapolated from one place to another.
Although mainstream earthquake scientists consider prediction to be impossible, this does not deter others from trying. Despite expert skepticism, charismatic outsiders have on a number of recent occasions made their predictions circulate in and through mainstream regimes of knowledge, authority, and obligation (see Olson, Podestra, and Nigg 1989). Mainstream experts often call these “pseudoscience,” but for people who have little understanding of either the state of earthquake science or scientific processes of peer review, they can be convincing. When these predictions gain public attention, they both fascinate and frustrate mainstream experts.
In Richter 10, predictive knowledge is caught up in political worldings that move in step with a basic assertion that engineers and others concerned with emergency management have expressed to me over the course of my research: that predictions promote distrust of experts, cause dangerous panics, and drastically upset economic systems.
That’s a tidy story, but it’s not exactly true. I have ready access to peer-reviewed science that proves it.
Empirical research suggests more complex relations between prediction and social action. Just as women, Chinese people, and African Americans are more than the caricatures that Clarke and McQuay write them as, social responses to earthquake predictions are more than the systemic panics that Clarke and McQuay describe. Social scientists have documented that reactions to predictions are variable, complex, and situated (see Barnes et al. 2007).
When it comes to thinking through the social effects of earthquake predictions, Clarke and McQuay’s speculations are accessible to engineers like Andres. Engineering studies researchers Yanna Lambrinidou and Nathan Canney (2017, 3) have documented how discussions of the social world in engineering fields tend to refer to “a rhetorical, as opposed to an empirical, space.” This means that engineers who develop technologies may be more comfortable speculating on social effects rather than investigating them rigorously. Many may not know where to start looking for empirical social science.
I can meet fellow travelers from different fields to talk about where Clarke and McQuay’s frankly terrible Richter 10 goes wrong, and where other speculative fictions go right. Shared fandom is fun, and I am excited to find out if it can also be more than that.
Barnes, Lindsey R., Eve C. Gruntfest, Mary H. Hayden, David M. Schultz, and Charles Benight. 2007. “False Alarms and Close Calls: A Conceptual Model of Warning Accuracy.” Weather and Forecasting 22, no. 5: 1140–47.
Lambrinidou, Yanna, and Nathan E. Canney. 2017. “Engineers' Imaginaries of ‘The Public’: Content Analysis of Foundational Professional Documents.” Paper at the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition, Cleveland, Ohio, June 24.
Olson, Richard Stuart, with Bruno Podesta and Joanne M. Nigg. 1989. The Politics of Earthquake Prediction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.