How can stories unlock pathways to positive futures?
In their new short film The Assignment, screenwriters and producers Tamara Krinsky and Taryn O’Neill open a window into the power of stories to change our relationship with the future
I must confess — I’m a sucker for a good dystopian sci-fi movie. I love the way they force us to think about what it means to be human when everything around us is falling apart.
And so I was surprised by just how much I was captivated by Tamara Krinsky and Taryn O’Neill’s decidedly non-dystopian new short film The Assignment.
The Assignment was conceived as a trailer for The Climate Action Almanac — an anthology of works by top science fiction authors, researchers, artists, scientists, and advocates from around the world, all focused on visions of positive climate futures. But as the film’s narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that it’s as much about how stories connect us to the futures we aspire to, as it is about climate alone.
Directed by Taryn O’Neill and written and produced by Taryn and Tamara Krinsky, The Assignment adeptly explores how the stories we tell ourselves — and each other — impact our ability to influence the future. And it does this using narrative techniques that reflect a skilled and sophisticated approach to movie-based story telling.
As I’d tell my students if we were watching this together, it’s worth paying attention to the cinematography, the “mise-en-scènes” (how the scenes are set up), the subtle interactions between characters, and the interweaving of visuals (many of them AI-assisted), music, and dialogue.
In the short film (which you can watch above) a small group of students are asked “what does it look like, this life you lead in the future …”. The assignment is to write a short essay that allows the reader to see this future through their writing — through the stories they tell.
Not surprisingly, the immediate response from the students is that they’re being asked to write a horror story — a story about a future where everyone’s screwed and no-one cares.
The teacher acknowledges this possibility, but then goes on to say “Dystopia. The end of the world. It’s the easy answer, right?” And then the kicker: “Doom and gloom narratives remove your agency. Makes it easier to disengage and lose hope. But the apocalypse is just one story. What’s another?”
From here the narrative shifts to bringing in perspectives from four contributors to The Climate Action Almanac — four authors from around the world whose short stories spin challengingly positive visions of the future.
In the wrong hands this could, I suspect, have turned out to be a little cringe-inducing — heavy handed platitudes about a future full of love and happiness. But it’s not. And this is largely down to the storytelling skills of the director and scriptwriters.
What unfolds is a compelling narrative around how we might think differently about the futures we imagine and build together — futures that tap into our innate inventiveness and creativity, and our natural desire to build positive and caring communities.
This in itself makes The Assignment worth watching. But the larger narrative around the power and importance of storytelling is what especially grabbed my attention.
Taryn and Tamara are the co-founders of Scirens — an organization that spans the worlds of acting/film and science to create characters and stories that can change the world. Both are accomplished actors, writers, and storytellers.
To place their work in context, Taryn moved from acting to directing and writing in 2018 and has two fantasy features and a festival sci-fi short under her belt, while Tamara writes extensively for live events in the impact space and hosts for Marvel’s red carpets, alongside co-hosting the Science series “Tomorrow’s World Today”.
In 2014, frustrated by what she saw as an egregious lack of science literacy as Bill Nye “debated” creationist Ken Ham, Taryn tweeted out “You know how we’re going to spread the awe inspiring wonders of science? Entertainment.” The tweet led to a blog post that went viral, Taryn and Tamara connected, and Scirens was born.
What stands out with Scirens is a commitment to leveraging the storytelling that is at the heart of entertainment to engage people around science and how it impacts their lives. As Tamara described it to me, “one thing that Scirens has always believed in is that storytelling can be an "on-ramp" to further understanding of STEM fields/issues.”
The Assignment goes beyond this though. It draws the audience into realizing that there’s more than one story that defines their future, and encourages them to think differently about how their visions of the futures they aspire to can lead to actions that nudge others in that direction.
This is where the power of storytelling can cut through the barriers we put up to imagining the future as being different to what we fear is unfolding. Preach to someone about the future, and most people will shut down. Beat them over the head about how their ideas and thinking about the future are wrong, and they’ll likely fight back — or simply ignore you. But tell them a story that resonates with them, and you open their mind to exploring possibilities that they would otherwise reject out of hand.
In the case of The Climate Action Almanac, the challenge for Taryn and Tamara was, in Tamara’s words, “how do you tell a story about trying to imagine better futures and why does it matter?” — especially where the possibilities may not initially be obvious. This takes skill and a subtlety of touch — both of which are apparent in the short.
Yet while The Assignment is, at face value, just a trailer for The Almanac, it becomes so much more when seen as a way of thinking about possible futures. It reveals the power of storytelling — in this case through the medium of film — to unlock people’s imagination as they think about different futures, and how they can be a part of helping bring about the futures they dream about.
There’s a bunch of additional stuff I wanted to include in the article above, but which would have diluted and disrupted the piece’s narrative if I had — so I dumped it all here in the afterword!
To start with, I should acknowledge that The Assignment is a collaboration between Scirens and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. It was also supported through funding from the ClimateWorks Foundation.
The four stories referenced in the film can be read here:
Robots & Insects & Languages & Other Living Things by Libia Brenda
City of Choice by Gu Shi (Translated by Ken Liu)
Death is Not an Ornament by Hannah Onoguwe
Three-World Cantata by Vandana Singh
It’s also worth noting that all four authors are women, and none are from North America or Europe — reflecting the importance of listening to diverse voices tell stories of different futures.
And finally, in watching the film and writing this, I was reminded of what I wrote about stories and the future in Future Rising. So to wrap things up, here are a couple of passages from Chapter 29 of Future Rising, simply titled “Stories”:
“Stories are how we make sense of the world around us. They help us piece together the convoluted puzzle that connects cause and effect, and they enable us to map out our lives, and those of others, in relation to the future. More than this, stories allow us to share our visions of the future with others, and provide them with a glimpse of the world as we see and experience it. And because of this, stories have become part of the social fabric that holds us together as we journey into what’s to come … stories become the pivot point between being able to imagine the future and beginning to build it. They set the stage for the journey and help form the mental maps that chart a way between past, present, and future.”