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Does Sci-fi Predict Future Tech?

Can you give us a 101 to medical humanities?

The medical humanities are where the disciplines of the arts and humanities intersect with the concerns of medicine and healthcare. I find it useful to think of the medical humanities as doing three things. They complement; they contextualize; and they critique. When the medical humanities complement medicine, they offer humanistic ways of directly or indirectly improving our health and wellbeing. In my own field, literature can be used as ‘bibliotherapy’ for mental distress or dealing with difficult life situations, such as chronic illness. Alongside ‘literature on prescription’, there’s also an indirect use of literature, when, for instance, medical students or trainee doctors read fictional or biographical narratives of illness, and so – we hope! – develop greater empathy for their patients.

The medical humanities also contextualize medicine, locating it within a wider context of culture, society, and economics. This involves investigating not just the route to modern medicine, but also the blind alleys and dead ends that have been forgotten about, and the varying forms of medical expertise and practice at a global level. In doing this, we learn about the contingency of what we take for granted, such as the widely varying views on what counts as illegal or improper drug use – my colleague Douglas Small, for instance, has been investigating the sanguine way in which the Victorians regarded the use of coca by sportsmen.

Finally, the medical humanities critique medicine, pointing out and theorizing its deficiencies. An obvious example here is criticism of medicalization, particularly with respect to psychiatric diagnosis and therapeutics.

What’s the story behind the University of Glasgow’s Science Fiction and Medical Humanities Project you headed last year?

I had been teaching and researching science fiction for several years, as well as working in the medical humanities (my research primarily focussed on mental health, particularly the history of psychotherapy, and the limits of cross-cultural diagnosis and therapeutics). When the Wellcome Trust announced their call for Seed Awards in Humanities and Social Sciences (small awards intended to facilitate potentially big, transformative ideas), it struck me that there was room to bring science fiction into the medical humanities. Research on literature and medicine had got stuck in a narrow range of genres, particularly those that might seem to promote empathy between physician and patient – short expressive poetry of the illness experience, or longer illness narrative genres (novels, biographies, and memoirs) were the favoured forms. You can see this in New York University’s Literature, Arts and Medicine Database which has about 2700 entries on fiction, of which only around 80 are science fiction.

And so the Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project was born ( The project investigated the significance of science fiction for the medical humanities and included a series of workshops, as well as a concluding conference. My personal highlights were papers on brainwashing technology in post-war culture, courtesy of the Hidden Persuaders project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and also Luna Dolezal’s discussion of Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story, a satirical take on the ‘quantified self’ of personal biometric monitoring.

We also had a creative writing competition, with over 600 entries. I can’t speak with any authority on the distribution of utopias and dystopias within them. The entries were read in the first instance by a team of creative-writing students, who then produced a shortlist of twenty stories. I’d say all of the shortlisted stories took medical or quasi-medical innovations to be problematic or disturbing in some way, although perhaps only half sketched in a larger dystopian social background, depending on what counts as ‘dystopian’. I don’t think there were any utopian stories, in the sense of offering a society significantly better than our own. However, it would be hard for a short story competition to do anything else. The conventional utopian narrative suits a longer form in which a visitor to the utopian society is taken on a tour (intended or adventitious) of the alternative social order, and is faced with the question of whether to subscribe to it. This is hard to do in a few thousand words, whereas a narrative of challenge to a dystopian order by a problematic individual can be sketched in more quickly, without the lengthy exercises in fictive ethnography.

Does science fiction have a role in predicting future technologies?

I think science fiction has no particular stake in predicting future technologies, medical or otherwise. This view might sound a little odd, given that so much science fiction is set in the future (and even when it isn’t, alien societies that we encounter are invariably “ahead” of us in their technological development). I accept that science fiction may, somewhat haphazardly, offer make-believe narratives that eventually “come true” – this has been explored particularly with imagined military technologies, where there’s evidence of military technologists looking to science fiction for inspiration. But it’s important to recognize that prophecy or forecasting is largely incidental to science fiction. A genre classic like Wells’s War of the Worlds isn’t a prophecy waiting for fulfilment: we will never be invaded by Martians, but this isn’t a failing on the part of the book. Instead – as has been widely recognized – Wells’s alien invasion images a confident imperial British power, centred on London, being abruptly taken over, indeed colonized, by a technologically and militarily superior force, and so getting a taste of its own medicine.

Nothing can stop you – if you want – reading science fiction for technoprophecy, and so one might propose that War of the Worlds anticipates chemical warfare (and maybe other kinds of weapons that haven’t yet been developed). But here an analogy may be useful. You can read or watch historical fiction, and learn something about history along the way – but ultimately, historical novels are doing something other than just teaching us about history. If they weren’t, then academic and popular histories would be sufficient. The same is true for science fiction and its relation to the future. There are many representations of the future circulating in our culture; that’s part of what’s distinctive about modern society – its future orientation. But science fiction doesn’t have a privileged role in representing the future, and indeed, it shouldn’t, precisely because it’s “science fiction” rather than “future forecasting;” science fiction is make-believe, whereas our everyday attitude to the future is that we can know something about it. Our knowledge of the future might be more or less uncertain, hypothetical, and multiple, but it’s knowledge nonetheless, rather than fiction: only a conspiracy nut, for instance, thinks that the various scenarios predicted by the science of climate change involve “the suspension of disbelief.”

A further argument against science fiction as technoprophecy can be inferred from what’s been called the “cognition effect” in science fiction. The innovations that science fiction uses in its storytelling needn’t be rigorously grounded in scientific possibility. Sometimes they are – above all in so-called “hard” science fiction, where there’s a real effort to ensure that fictional technologies extrapolate plausibly from existing scientific knowledge. But a lot of science fiction innovations have a very loose – and even contradictory – relationship to scientific possibility. They exploit instead a rhetoric that imitates the language of scientific and technological development. Warp drives, teleportation devices, time machines – and a host of other technologies – are far beyond anything we can presently accomplish, or plausibly explain. But they are stock items in the genre, and are supported by a context of transplanted or invented technoscientific vocabulary.

So what, then, does science fiction do with its innovations – plausible, or illusory? There are varied ideas of what science fiction does, but here are a few:

i) Science fiction portrays a world that while nominally futuristic is full of unsettling correspondences to our own reality. This encourages us to think about our world without our habitual assumptions about how society has to be ordered in terms of economics, gender, territory, and a host of other unnoticed prejudices about what is “natural.”
ii) Science fiction preserves the hope that human agency will bring about a better world, and promotes a thoughtful utopian aspiration, but without trying to promote a particular fixed vision of “the perfect society,” or offer detailed “blueprints.”
iii) Science fiction interrogates longstanding assumptions that human life is outside of and above other forms of life, both natural and artificial.

There are more besides, of course, but we can readily see a lot of science fiction i) estranging our own worlds, ii) offering critical utopian hope, and iii) exploring “posthumanism.” Indeed, it’s interesting that the short-listed stories in the Writing the Future competition sidestep the implied, prophetic objective of the prize: “In a world where five years counts as long-term, we need to think differently. Thinking about the real long-term in health is exceptionally limited – this means governments and the NHS are flying blind as to where we're headed.”

But none of the winning stories really bother with “bringing new ideas and creative thinking” to healthcare in the longer term. They’re certainly all set in the future, and involve healthcare innovations, but the stories pursue some longstanding generic preoccupations, rather than engage in “science fiction prototyping.” To take a few examples. Matthew Castle’s story “Burnout” uses a make-believe medical future to estrange our own world of bureaucratized, unempathic healthcare. Hannah Harper’s “Project Seahorse” is similarly estranging: this story of future “Male Motherhood” appals us with its vision of state and media control over pregnant male bodies – and might make us wonder at what the law and the court of public opinion currently do with pregnant female bodies, particularly celebrity ones. Elisabeth Ingram Wallace’s “Opsnizing Dad” pursues – in intensified form – some posthumanist problems that ensue in an age when memory is now increasingly “perfected” by modern storage technologies. There’s a similar use of posthumanist motifs in Andrew Dana Hudson’s “Mend and Make Do”: the setting invokes a post-antibiotic age – and so is somewhat dystopian – but there’s a utopian dream also, in the presentation of a world where medicine, by necessity, is forced to develop an “ecological theory of health.”

Further reading

If you’d like to know more about medical humanities then you may wish to look at the following references, and/or follow @SciFiMedHums on Twitter.

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  1. J Billington, “Is Literature Healthy?” Oxford, Oxford University Press (2016).
  2. Hearing the Voice: Interdisciplinary Voice-Hearing Research. Available at:
  3. Hidden Persuaders. Available at:
  4. New York University School of Medicine, “Literature, Arts and Medicine Database.” Available at:
  5. G Miller, A McFarlane, “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities,” BMJ, 42(4) (2016). Available at:
  6. G Miller, A Mcfarlane (Eds.), “A Practical Guide to the Resurrected: 21 Short Stories of Science Fiction and Medicine,” Glasgow, Freight Books (2017).
  7. University of Glasgow, “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities.” Available at:
  8. D Small, “In Victorian Britain the crowds approved of sports doping – with cocaine,” The Conversation (2017). Available at:
  9. Wellcome Trust Seed Awards in Humanities and Social Science. Available at:
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