war on the rocks

To Better Understand Policy, Read (and Write!) Fiction

There are tons of policy discussion websites out there, with a million different levels and types of funding. But there are painfully few that utilize one of the most effective means we humans have of understanding a complicated issue: stories. We think it’s time to fix that.

To that end, we have teamed up (with some help from WOTR’s own Alex Hecht) to create Viewscreen, a website of fictive policy stories.

Lost in the endless flurry of policy briefings, op-eds, white papers, testimonies, political horserace whisper campaigns, and clickbait hot takes is a very simple fact about our society — policy reflects and affects people in the real world. The many dry discussions one can find about current events — troop levels in Syria, carbon emissions in China, healthcare expenditures in the United States, the role of journalism in society, or land management in Oregon — are ultimately about people and how we organize and manage our communities. The human side to policy is often lost in the technical debate about which one should be implemented. These policies are fundamentally about politics; and politics are fundamentally about stories.

Human understanding is based on storytelling. This is why election pundits are obsessed with “narrative.” This is why our news media presents new information in the form of a story. It is the primary means by which we ingest popular culture. In the security realm, there is growing understanding that narrative stories can have a powerful effect on, say, the appeal of a terror group or the effectiveness or a counterterror response.

Storytelling is inherent to our existence, yet when it comes to the policies that constrain and determine our lives, there is almost no storytelling to help us understand the complexity of the issues we all face. Apart from the occasional special issue of a website or a magazine here and there, the power of storytelling to illustrate some fundamental truth about our world is, for the most part, missing from discussions about policies and their impacts.

There are stories that need to be told, that have merit, that explain the way the world works, that simply cannot be told through a conventional nonfiction format. You need to invent something to get the point across, to explain in crystal clear terms what is going on and what the stakes are. At the same time, there is a certain grounding that’s necessary in good fiction to constrain its scope. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” Mark Twain famously said, “because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

Here’s the deal: Each month we will publish a short story from a creative policy expert (or a wonky writer), which is used to help us understand the complexity of our world through the organic, liberating medium of storytelling. Our stories will be solidly grounded in the world, yet won’t be held back by it. Accompanying each story will be an analytical review essay, around 2,000–3,000 words or so, that uses that month’s story as a jumping off point to explore the topics in a more analytical fashion. We are also reaching out to artists who can illustrate these stories. We will play with ideas, illuminate current and/or near-future policy challenges, and maybe even propose creative and unconventional solutions to problems without (we hope) falling into myth-making.

We are eager to hear from you. One of the most frustrating aspects of the policy community in Washington, DC is how cloistered it can be. Too many go to the same schools and learn the same things from the same people. We think a diversity of experiences, viewpoints, and ideas is the only healthy way to approach understanding the world. We have room for Ivy League-educated think tankers, but also hardscrabble aid workers just in from a lengthy stint in the field. Both perspectives are important and necessary.

There have been some efforts to focus storytelling and art on understanding the future of warfare, but Viewscreen has a much wider aperture. Stories rely on conflict to engage their characters, so there is a clear role for stories where the conflict is physical as well as psychological. But the world is bigger than just war and peace: it’s ecology, it’s economics, it’s personal. Rather than trying to fit everything into the bounds of security, we think there’s value in letting these issues breathe on their own.

That being said, we do see a common thread to our approach. We are not limited by genre or timeframe, but we anticipate nearly all of the stories we run will have a science-fiction edge to them. In the introduction to Green Earth, Kim Stanley Robinson observed:

[T]hese days we live in a big science fiction novel we are all writing together. If you want to write a novel about our world now, you’d better write science fiction, or you will be doing some kind of inadvertent nostalgia piece; you will lack depth, miss the point, and remain confused.

We agree. Our first story, about hackers on the moon, has a “cyber” edge to it, but it also hints at the culture of Silicon Valley, nationalism, and about displacement. The accompanying essay, by Brett Fujioka, explores these themes, as well as how literature and fiction can enhance our experiences of technology.

We have more stories and analysis coming about ecological collapse, refugee flows, and other settings. But we want to get more stories, more essays, and more ideas about our world and the challenges it faces into the pipeline. We want to hear your take; and we want to help you realize it in a new and interesting way. Washington, DC can sometimes seem painfully devoid of creative thinking. That’s a damned shame. With Viewscreen we hope to bridge that gap and re-introduce the policy community to the power that stories have in shaping our world. And maybe, if we’re lucky, improve it.

 

Joshua Foust is the publisher of Viewscreen and a national security fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a former military intelligence analyst. Michael Hikari Cecire is the managing editor of Viewscreen and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions. Alex Hecht is the editor-at-large of Viewscreen and a security analyst in Washington, DC. He is the editor of Molotov Cocktail at War on the Rocks.

This editor’s note is also posted at Viewscreen Magazine’s website.

 

Photo credit: nicoleleec