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Imagining the Future: The rapid classification of fiction archetypes

Abstract: Classifying fiction illuminates the future. The technique for imagining the future presented in this paper using a rapid, low-resource approach for the classification of fiction represents a “field expedient” method for categorizing works of fiction according to Fergnani & Song’s (2020) Six Science Fiction Archetypes Framework.

This technique enabled the classification of 36 near-future science fiction novels in just a few hours (See Table 1). A step-by-step process is described along with a link to a TEMPLATE for Rapid Fiction Analysis for researchers who wish to examine the subject in greater detail.

Table 1.


In 1979, Jim Dator, the Director of the University of Hawaii’s Foresight program, published a model of social change proposing that all of our narratives regarding social change could be distilled into one of four archetypal images of the future. He labeled these four images: Continuation, Limits and Discipline, Decline and Collapse, and Transformation (Dator, 2019, p. 42). In 2020, building on Dator's earlier work, Alessandro Fergnani and Zhaoli Song extracted images of the future from a set of 140 science fiction films using a grounded theory analytical procedure. In view of their research, Fergnani & Song (2020) proposed a more nuanced series of six archetypal images of the future that represent critical stress-point conditions in the external environment. These six new archetypes were named: Growth & Decay, Threats & New Hopes, Wasteworlds, The Powers that Be, Disarray, and Inversion, according to their underlying themes.

While the researchers document several attempts to analyze science fiction through the use of survey instruments, Fergnani & Song (2020) conclude that "Most importantly, no attempt has been made so far to systematically extract archetypal scenarios from science fiction" (p. 4). To address this, the researchers employed a multi-state grounded theory analytical process following Charmaz’s (2014) data analysis guidelines. Their analytical procedure consisted of two steps: film transcription and identification of archetypal images of the future. The two steps were undertaken in an iterative, rather than sequential fashion:

The process employed by Fergnani & Song (2020) was both innovative and thorough. For the science fiction novelist, the insights gained from the Six Scenario Archetypes Framework may prove immensely valuable for identifying gaps in the existing literature and demonstrating a more comprehensive market analysis of competitors to literary agents and publishers. However, the process as described is too time consuming and resource intensive to be readily available for someone working outside of an academic or corporate environment to replicate easily.

The implication is that only professional futurists working in an academic or corporate environment would have access to, and the benefit of, valuable information regarding the relative distribution of fiction archetypes across a given spectrum of films, television, or books. Fergnani & Song’s research raises the question; is there a method for the individual researcher, entrepreneur, or content creator to benefit from the Six Archetypes Framework?

Can I Imagine the Future?

Multiple possible futures cannot be imagined simultaneously. A science fiction novelist or content creator is unable to apprehend the future in a manner that is consistent with foresight principles. Foresight professionals are taught to consider multiple different futures as existing simultaneously. In contrast, during the process of crafting a fictional story, the content creator is forced to choose (typically just one) storyline. And by doing so, simultaneously rejects a nearly infinite number of possible alternate futures to explore.

This argument may appear counter-intuitive at first. Surely storytelling, in all its various formats throughout history, has imagined, and in many instances, even influenced the future? Humanity relies on the construction of fiction to anticipate and prepare for the future.

The Prevalence of Author Bias when Creating Works of Fiction

So how does an author create a work of fiction about the future? There is no single technique, yet all approaches share some combination of trend analysis and speculation. Fiction authors are renowned for their wide range of innovative approaches. They may use deductive, inductive, or abductive reasoning regarding the times and circumstances in which their characters find themselves. Authors may create stories through the use of intuition. They may "sense" or "feel" something they then craft to form a singular vision.

Whichever technique, or combination of techniques, they use, all fiction storytellers must ultimately choose from among the competing images of the future. These choices are always determined by the conscious or unconscious bias inherent in the content creator. Some authors imagine a future society rife with immense opportunities (and threats) achieved through a highly networked artificial intelligence like Pandora’s Brain by Calum Chace. Other authors see the future emerging an apocalyptic ecological catastrophe as in Altered Seasons: Moonsoonrise by Paul Briggs. These radically different visions of the future are products of the individual author's personal bias. Bias is the essential tool of fiction authors who must use to choose between multiple competing futures.

Overcoming Individual and Collective Bias to Identify Trends and Gaps

If the author’s personal bias is the engine that drives the process, then the public reception of those images of the future is the fuel that keeps the process alive. Countless thousands of fictional works are produced every year, yet only a tiny percentage of them ever garner enough attention to be commercially viable. It is as if a legion of struggling content creators exists in the background of society’s collective id, waiting for the focus of the collective social consciousness to breathe life onto the ember of their ideas and (in some cases) ignite a maelstrom of social change. Examples include Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which envisioned Chicago union workers wresting control from corporate power brokers, and Isaac Asimov’s I Robot, which explores the psychological ramifications of the development of artificial intelligence.

A Rapid, Low-Resource Approach to the Classification of Fiction

Foresight and Futures professionals take a much different approach to Science Fiction World Building as contrasted to science fiction novelists. In the Knowledge Base of Future Studies, Johnson (2020) published an Updated Practitioner’s Guide to Science Fiction Profiling in which he listed five steps along with a total of forty-five prompts designed to offer “a simple architecture to examine and reexamine both the future and the impacts it will have” (p. 194). After I dutifully wrote forty-five short essays that answered each of Johnson's (2020) prompts, I combined the essays into a single science fiction manuscript.

Next, I submitted my science fiction manuscript to a commercial editor. At that point, I was informed that I had written a story without a plot. Unfortunately, it turns out that the commercial editors and publishers are much more concerned about a story’s structure than the number of different dimensions of the future the author considers. The plot can be briefly described in terms of; the Hook, the Inciting Incident, the First Plot Point, the Midpoint, the Second Plot Point, and the Climax. In addition to the plot, there are many other aspects of the storyteller's art that are not typically of concern to Foresight and Futures professionals.

However, one element of commercial fiction may be of great interest to Foresight and Futures professionals interested in the rapid classification of works of fiction into the Six Archetypes Framework. Experienced fiction writers have developed a shorthand method for determining a novel's theme. This is significant because Fergnani & Song (2020) state that “We find six archetypes, which we rename Growth & Decay, Threats & New Hopes, Wasteworlds, The Powers that Be, Disarray, and Inversion, according to their underlying themes” (p. 124 – emphasis added). Therefore, a literary technique that allows for the rapid identification of the theme of a work of fiction could substantially reduce the time and resources required to categorize those works according to the Six Archetypes Framework.

How to Imagine the Future

Imagine the future in eight steps. In his proprietary lecture series, Bell (2021) illustrates several instances where the theme of a work of fiction can be rapidly deduced by comparing statements made by the lead character at the end of the work to statements made by the lead character at the beginning of the work. New understandings of the future emerge when many themes of fiction are compared simultaneously.

James Scott Bell is the #1 bestselling author of Plot & Structure and award-winning thrillers like Final Witness. He won the Christy Award for Excellence in inspirational fiction and is currently a fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine. To explain his technique for determining the theme, he uses the example of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, who repeatedly states that "There is no place like home." This statement is compared to the Song she sang early in the movie "Somewhere over the Rainbow." These two statements show a transformation in the girl who first wants to find happiness “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” and eventually discovers that true happiness was always within her reach, "There is no place like home." This transformational lesson, combined with the setting in the magical Kingdom of Oz, forms the story's theme.

Bell (2021) argues that either through intention or accident, the vast majority of fictional works follow this thematic formula. What’s more, successful writers, editors, and publishers also understand this popular thematic formula, and they display this information prominently in the form of sales copy or back-cover book copy. Therefore, the thematic elements of a novel are not only rapidly deciphered, but they are also readily available to researchers interested in using this data source to classify fiction according to the Six Archetypes Framework.

Step 1: Select a Data Set from Works of Fiction set in the Future.

The first step in imaging the future is to select a data set of works of fiction. These could be films, novels, television shows, or nearly any other form of storytelling. Fergnani & Song (2020) specify that they selected "science fiction artifacts presenting enough information about the future of mankind so that they could be categorized under archetypal images of the future" (p. 5). Therefore, any sample must be limited to works of science fiction that take place in the future.

Fortunately, many easily accessible data sets are readily available through commercial fiction sources. For my research, I picked a website by titled “Best Near-Future Science Fiction” because it was convenient. While not an exhaustive list of every possible near-future fiction novel, the selection was large enough to provide a reasonable reflective sample of the genre. There are great advantages to relying on commercially produced lists because they often represent public impact in the form of sales data and are thus independent of any potential researcher bias. The search criterion employed by is reflected below in Table 2.

Table 2.

Step 2: Prepare a Simple Spreadsheet to Extrapolate the Theme

To perform the next step, a simple spreadsheet is required to extrapolate the theme using a hybrid version of the literary technique described by Bell (2021). The spreadsheet should consist of five parts:

  • The first column lists the name of the work.

  • The second column of the spreadsheet will present the work’s setting with the implicit understanding that it encapsulates the “Mirror Moment” found in the middle of the story.

  • The third column provides a general understanding of how the characters will overcome the challenges they will face and achieve the essential transformation found at the end of the story.

  • The fourth column expresses a "Counter-Argument" against the transformation. This represents the initial context of the character at the beginning of the story.

  • Finally, the fifth column requires the researcher to review the gathered evidence and make a subjective decision, choosing which category of the Six Archetype Framework best represents the story's theme.

An example of the spreadsheet that I used for analyzing the Goodreads list of Near-Future Science Fiction Futures can be viewed here: Analysis of Goodread’s List of Near-Future Science Fiction.

A blank template that researchers can use to conduct their own analysis is available for download here: TEMPLATE for Rapid Fiction Analysis.

Step 3: Follow the Links to the Back-cover Copy

For my research, I selected the data set from titled "Best Near-Future Science Fiction.” In addition to the list, the website also provided links to the Back-cover copy for each novel. The initial list had 38 titles; however, one was a duplicate, and one was discarded because the setting did not take place in the future. The remaining 36 titles and their back-cover links appear in Table 3.

Table 3.

Step 4: Select the Setting that contains the “Mirror Moment”

Back-cover copy is a rich source of high-quality information about novels. Designed to communicate value to potential readers, the easiest thing to learn about the novel is the setting where the story takes place.

Bell (2014) asserts that great stories tend to have a major moment located around the center of the story in which you find the story’s “heart.” It is not always possible to detect this “Mirror Moment” from a novel’s back-cover copy. However, for rapid categorization into the Six Archetype Framework, it is assumed that a Mirror Moment occurs somewhere within the novel's setting.

Fergnani & Song (2020) also looked at the setting and the characters to capture the complexities of the futures portrayed. Therefore, the second column of the spreadsheet will present the setting with the implicit understanding that it encapsulates the mirror moment found in the middle of the story:

Step 5: Select the Summarized Transformation (Found at End of the Story)

The character transformation that takes place in a story is not difficult to identify. For obvious reasons, authors and publishers don't want to give the end of the story away. However, the purpose of back-cover copy is to give readers a sense of the benefit they will receive from the story. Therefore, the authors and publishers tend to do an excellent job of conveying the problems a character will face and (while they may tease the ending) a general understanding of how the characters will overcome the challenges (and succeed in the transformation.)

The theme is always carried by characters (Bell, 2014). The inevitable transformation, which occurs near the end of the story, typically illustrates how the character(s) tackle the challenges they face to ultimately become better or stronger people. This transformation could also work in reverse (i.e., a story about a good person transforming into a bad person). Back-cover copy will never give away the ending, but the reader can ascertain the general direction of the transformation:

Step 6: Select the Argument Against Transformation (Found at Beginning)

With an understanding of the setting and an idea of the final transformation, the final step to determining a story's theme is to locate the argument against transformation that will be found in the very first opening scenes. Look for statements that describe the character(s) psychology before the main story begins. What moral flaw is there to overcome? Once the overall context of the story is understood, the initial reluctance of the hero to engage in the quest becomes evident:

Step 7: Select the best fit from the Six Scenario Archetypes Framework

For a rapid, low-resource assessment of fiction into one of the categories of the Six Archetype Framework, this step requires the researcher to make a subjective selection based on the setting, the final transformation, and the initial argument against transformation. To make this assessment, a review of Fergnani & Song's (2020) Archetypes and Archetype Descriptions is required (Table 4):

Table 4.

With the archetype descriptions in mind, and the elements of each story's theme displayed, it becomes a fairly simple procedure to categorize many novels in a very short period of time. Using this technique, I categorized all 36 novels into the Six Archetype Framework categories in a single afternoon without the need for research assistants, transcript preparation, grounded theory processes, or staff meetings. While clearly not as rigorous as Fergnani & Song's (2020) iterative process requiring multiple rounds of validation and revision, the method produced a large amount of valuable information in a short amount of time. The following three examples will illustrate the efficacy of the technique described:

Step 8: Display the Data Graphically

The last step in the process is to display the data graphically. A few simple formulas embedded in the spreadsheet will quickly generate a bar chart that will illustrate the relative representation of the Six Archetype Framework categories in the selected sample. Table 5 graphically represents the rapid, low-resource categorization of 36 near-future science fiction novels:

Table 5.

In the blank template provided here for researchers, the bar chart feature is already built and will populate automatically: TEMPLATE for Rapid Fiction Analysis.

Fiction Archetypes in Literature

Six Science Fiction Archetypes are described in Fergnani & Song’s (2020) framework. The technique for imagining the future presented in this paper using a rapid, low-resource approach to classify fiction represents a "field expedient" method for categorizing.

For those in the science fiction industry, categorizing works of fiction into the Six Archetype Framework reveals important trends that illustrate competing visions of the future. Understanding popular trends is of great importance to both publishers and film producers. However, it may be just as important to understand the gaps that represent future possibilities that have not been explored sufficiently.

This is significant because creating new content for saturated markets is an exercise in diminishing value. (Do we really need another superhero movie?) By categorizing works of fiction according to the Six Archetype Framework, decision-makers can gain a perspective of both the trends and the gaps in coverage that will enable them to overcome the psychological traps created by individual and collective bias. These calculations help answer a critical question: If money and resources are invested in this project, will there be a return on investment?

How Can Future Studies Benefit from this Method?

A map of alternate futures radically streamlines the forecasting process and provides stakeholders with valuable insights they can use in the planning process to reach preferred future states. From a foresight perspective, the process is the same, but the critical questions are vastly different.

If the works of fiction were all future-oriented (as the films were in Fergnani & Son's research), then each fictional story represents a plausible possible future. Categorizing fiction according to the Six Archetypes Framework builds a map of alternative futures. This hearkens back to Dator’s (1979) original conception of the future as a spectrum of possible future events, rather than a single thread running from the past, to today, and into the future.

The technique described in this paper could conceivably be applied to political messaging, public policy, or any future-oriented document. Analysis of the possible ramifications of competing ideologies could be explored with the assistance of established science fiction writers or even paid freelance content creators. As trends and gaps are discovered, categorizing future-oriented works of fiction will enable stakeholders to imagine (and plan for) previously unthinkable possibilities.

Visions of the Future: Implications for practice and research

Classifying fiction illuminates the future. The discussions and conclusions of the rapid classification of fiction archetypes using the Six Archetypes Framework revolve around four topics; the democratization of foresight techniques, the method's contribution, the method's limitations, and recommendations for additional study.

The Democratization of Foresight Techniques

The method for classifying works of fiction described in this paper builds on the theoretical work of Dator (2019), the grounded theory analysis of Fergnani and Song (2020), and combines them with a theme analysis technique adapted from Bell (2014). The result is a "field expedient" streamlined technique for rapidly classifying works of fiction. The symbiotic interaction of academic theory and nonacademic practical applications demonstrates the principle of the "democratization" of foresight tools.

In a video discussing an ongoing debate between “democratizing” the tools of foresight versus professionalizing, or “colonizing,” the disciplines of Futures & Foresight, Fergnani (2020) examines both sides of the discussion using a thought experiment illustrated in Table 6.

Table 6.


After analyzing arguments from both camps, Fergnani (2020) concludes that many who are interested in using the tools and techniques of foresight are not willing to engage at the level of detail necessary to develop those tools and techniques. Therefore, academic institutions should employ scholars to do research on foresight and to ensure that good theory is taught.

In Fergnani's (2020) view, both a professional class of scholars and a global population of practitioners are required to achieve the goal of "democratizing" the future. The two viewpoints are complementary, not mutually exclusive. And the tension between them is healthy and productive.

The method presented in this paper for the rapid classification of fiction into categories described by the Six Archetypes Framework is an example of the successful democratization of foresight techniques. As a science fiction novelist, I am a practitioner or end-user of foresight techniques. I would have been unable to devote the time or resources necessary to develop a theory using Fergnani & Song’s (2020) multi-state grounded theory analytical process. However, by building on their academic work, a global audience can now take advantage of the valuable insights gained from the theory they developed.

Method’s Contributions

The primary contribution of the method described in this paper is to use insights gleaned from literary professionals to quickly and easily identify the theme of a story and combine them with a novel foresight theory. Using this streamlined technique, I categorized 36 near-term science fiction novels in a single afternoon.

The simplified classification process and this step-by-step description of the process are captured in the foresight tool, TEMPLATE for Rapid Fiction Analysis, which is broadly available.

Method’s Limitations

A streamlined technique for classifying fiction ultimately requires a subjective choice by the person conducting the classification. In view of the setting, the character transformation, and the argument against transformation, the person doing the cataloging must make their best guess about which of the six archetypes the work falls under based on the perceived theme of the work.

It is reasonable to assume that different people would look at the same list of book themes and sort them into dissimilar categories. What is unknown is the degree to which separate cataloguers would sort the various works of fiction. Would the results match with only a slight variation, or would lists generated by separate people vary so wildly as to make this technique impractical?

The technique described by Bell (2014) to quickly identify a novel’s theme was never intended to sort novels into the Six Archetype Framework’s categories. Instead, Bell’s (2014) method was adapted for use with the framework. In addition, Fergnani & Song’s (2020) twelve-dimension framework for the transcription of 140 films did not account for a “mirror moment” in the middle of the story, nor did it really account for the transformation of the central character(s) in the same way that Bell (2014) did. In short, the hybridization of literary techniques with scientific theory may be a poor fit.

Finally, there is likely bias involved in selecting lists of fiction to examine. In Fergnani & Song's (2020) sample preparation, they pared down a Wikipedia list of 512 films set in the future down to a final sample of 140 films by excluding "films set in a fictional future as a result of a fictional past or featuring a substantial amount of fantastic, and/or surreal phenomena, superpowers, monsters (not aliens), magic, the supernatural…" (p. 5). While their rationale for these selections is understandable, it does reveal a bias towards what the researchers consider to be "real." For instance, why would they accept films with aliens but exclude supernatural phenomena? Aren't there billions of people who hold religious beliefs? Fergnani & Song's approach might betray a bias towards a secular worldview. How might Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and others perceive what is "real"?

Recommendations for Additional Study

The principle of the democratization of foresight techniques requires that recommendations for additional study be conveyed back to the academic institutional setting. More time and resources are required to ensure scientific rigor and the development of sound theory than I have at my disposal.

To test the degree to which different catalogers sort works of fiction into similar or dissimilar categories would likely require a double-blind study with some basic control measures in place. A statistically relevant group of individuals could be selected to review a Rapid Fiction Analysis worksheet pre-populated with identical information. The survey participants would be asked to sort each of the titles based on the perceived theme of the work. Their responses could be run through a statistical analysis to quantify the degree of difference between responses.

To test if the hybridization of a literary technique is compatible with a scientific foresight theory, I recommend a quantitative text analysis similar to the one Fergnani & Jackson (2019) used in an earlier study of Dator's (2009) four archetype alternate future model. The research question might be: To what degree are the subjective "best guesses" of catalogers using the streamlined method similar or dissimilar to a categorization based on the quantitative analysis of unstructured textual data?

To overcome the problem of potential bias in the selection of lists, the streamlined method for categorizing fiction according to the Six Archetype framework must first be validated. If it proves to be a valid approach, the principle of the democratization of foresight techniques could again be employed. However, this time the Rapid Fiction Analysis tool could be distributed to the "cloud" to solicit analysis from many different researchers.

Rather than modify the Six Archetypes Framework to account for supernatural phenomena, lists with specific supernatural phenomena could be selected. There are numerous examples of such easily generated lists:

There could also be a test for competing secular visions of the future. Which ideas might seem to reflect best the reality humanity is moving into?

Competing economic and political issues could be explored. Although Goodreads does not offer a selection of Capitalism in fiction (they only have non-fiction titles), a diligent researcher should be able to generate an appropriate list:

The future of societies is also impacted by geography, history, and culture. Any number of these variables can be considered at a regional level:

Not all of the books in these lists present portrayals of the future; however, it is clear that the sample sizes are quite sufficient. Overcoming bias in the selection of lists could involve comparing and contrasting the results from different categories. The possibilities for such analysis are infinite, and so are the possibilities for valuable insight and new applications to be gained from this approach.


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