Math heists, time travel, aliens, and creepy predictions
September 12, 2020 5:01 AM   Subscribe

The Society of Actuaries has held a regular speculative fiction contest since 1995. Actuaries write science fiction about actuarial work, insurance, advances in prediction, and more. In the 13th contest (2019), the winner of the "Most novel prediction forming the basis for the narrative" prize focused on on insurance companies' role in fighting climate change: "We All Have a Green Heart" by Anna Bearrood. (The following links include a lot of PDFs, at least one ZIP file, and scores of of mostly math-heavy science fiction stories, written by amateur authors, often focusing on death, murder, surveillance, creepy conspiracies, implants, and behavior modification.)

I can't find the compilation from the first competition (held 1995-1996), but I'd love to read David Kroll's first-place winning story "The Actuary and Alfred Anderson", which won him a $250 gift certificate and a one-year subscription to Actuaries Online. I also wish I could read the Best Action/Adventure story, Marilyn Dunstan's "An Actuarial Heist", and the Most Humorous story, Timothy Orcutt's "The 500th Anniversary of the Ferengi Actuarial Institute".

Also hard to dig up: the compilation for "Actuarial Speculative Fiction, version 2.0" from 1998, regarding which judge Robert Mielke said, "If Ray Bradbury’s stories are like dandelion wine, these are like dry martinis". Illustrations and "fanzines" (fan fiction?) were encouraged. David G. Kroll placed again, winning 2nd place for "Actuarial Examination". First place "was split by Victoria G. Stachowski and Alice Underwood for their respective stories, 'It Will be Partly Cloudy Tomorrow' and 'Mec Life.'"

I can't disinter the compilation for the third competition (1998-1999), nor figure out who won, but I know that whoever did had to send in "two paper copies of the story and an IBM-compatible diskette with your word processing file".

You can read the stories from the 4th competition in 2001: An Actuarial Odyssey! "Proof" by Jerry Tuttle includes a character using Luhn's Formula to help solve a murder, and "Destined for Greatness?" by Jennifer Yanulavich features a time traveller saying "The future needs an actuary."

The 5th competition, in 2003, gave us The Outer Limits of Actuarial Thoughts, which, appropriately, includes the UFO story "Transformations" by Steve Konnath.

I can't dig up the compilation from the sixth competition in 2005. But this forum post lists the winners.

The winners of the seventh competition (2008) do not include "Sam McAtry, P.I. And The Case of the Dead People" by Melvyn R. Windham, Jr., but it's in the compilation and it made me laugh out loud.
“Just a word of advice. If you really want to do this private investigating, I suggest you don’t use your real name. Also, you don’t want to be caught on camera looking like yourself. You need a disguise. Here, I have an idea. Use this.”

Sam looked at the object Peter gave him and asked, “What’s this?”

“It’s called a comb. Here, let me try.”

Peter combed Sam’s hair and then said, “There. Now no one will know it’s you.”
The 8th competition (2011) includes the Star Trek fanfic "A Turn-screw tlhImqaH" by Melvyn R. Windham, Jr., and a story about changes in eating habits, "No Love Sincerer", by Gregory A. Dreher.

The 9th contest was announced in 2010. The compilation (2011) includes "Price it Like A Life Product" by Nick Jacobi, which has a light Snow Crash homage, and "The Curious Story of Mr. James Phillimore" by Walt Herrington, a Sherlock Holmes homage.

In 2013, the 10th contest included "Actuarial Year" by Mel Windham, a wish fulfillment (kind of) story that made me laugh aloud.

I cannot find the compilation from the 11th contest (2015) -- intriguingly, it included "Blockchain Insurance Company" by G. Stolyarov II.

The 12th contest (2016) features "Good Morning, Maxwell" by Jason Rossiter, a story about self-driving cars and corporate shenanigans, which won the Most Unique Use of Technology in a Story award.

These days the contest is sponsored by the SOA's Technology Section, Actuary of the Future Section, and Predictive Analytics and Futurism Section. If you'd like to read nonfiction essays by actuaries, take a look at last year's “Actuarially, I Believe This” contest.
posted by brainwane (18 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
This is absolutely fascinating and I’d never heard of it before - thanks for the post brainwane!
posted by adrianhon at 5:15 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

I’m with adrianhon on this: I had never imagined such a thing ten minutes ago and now I am fascinated with it. The actuarial spin is like a variant of Rule 34.

(Wait, Rule 34 itself suggests there is actuarial porn. Love Actuarially had better be the title.)
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:21 AM on September 12 [10 favorites]

YES I am so glad you find it fascinating!! I found out about this several years ago and it made me feel like EVERY professional guild should have a regular speculative fiction contest like this about the future of their industry!

I did not have time to read every story in every compilation so I'd love for people to call out noteworthy stories in the comments! And if there are any actuaries reading this - did you already know about this contest? What do people in your field think of it? Could you get SOA to publish all the anthologies online, or at least the sixth and eleventh compilations which were definitely digitally available at some point?
posted by brainwane at 5:30 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

YES I am so glad you find it fascinating!! I found out about this several years ago and it made me feel like EVERY professional guild should have a regular speculative fiction contest like this about the future of their industry!

When I worked for an alternative transportation nonprofit I definitely dreamed about a sponsored competition for SF stories about future transportation systems. I think you'd get some really interesting stuff.

When you think about how stuff like satellites and tablet readers were inspired by earlier science-fictional depictions of similar technology, it seems like humanity as a whole would benefit from every profession having something like this.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:29 AM on September 12

This is amazing, thank you for posting it!
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:45 AM on September 12

I've had a soft spot for actuaries ever since my spell working for a trade newspaper serving the UK's life insurance & pensions industry - which employs a huge number of them, of course. Among their colleagues, they were always stereotyped as the most boring members of a self-confessedly boring industry: the dullest of the dull, in other words.

Mostly, the actuaries themselves took these jibes in good spirit, sometimes even joining in to gently mock themselves. One year, they produced a batch of give-away bumper stickers mimicking a British Government slogan discouraging the giving of puppies as a festive gift. "An actuary is for life," the stickers read, "not just for Christmas".
posted by Paul Slade at 7:54 AM on September 12 [5 favorites]

I've had a soft spot for actuaries ever since my spell working for a trade newspaper serving the UK's life insurance & pensions industry - which employs a huge number of them, of course.

Heh. Same here. A number of years ago, I was involved in recording an audio version of an actuarial exam textbook for a client who was blind. I was on the production side of the equation since they left the narration to people who are actually good at math, unlike myself.

Anyway, as part of the process, there was a consultation with actual actuaries about what would be the most helpful way to handle some of the material in an audio format.

Someone asked an actuary who came in to advise how he'd gotten into that line of work. He said, in the most deadpan voice you can imagine, "I became an actuary because I couldn't stand the excitement of accounting."

It took a few beats, but once the joke landed, everyone cracked up, including him.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:50 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

You will have to forgive me for favoriting this and commenting before reading a single one of the links, but "actuarial speculative fiction" is so intensely in my wheelhouse it was physically impossible for me to do otherwise. I'm too excited to read these omg.
posted by Cozybee at 12:26 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]

(and yes, I would love to see other industries do this)
posted by Cozybee at 12:36 PM on September 12

Anyway, as part of the process, there was a consultation with actual actuaries

Actualaries is what we usually call them, but go on.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:16 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Omg this is the best post ever! I am an actuary (and a member of the SOA) and I’m a HUGE science fiction fan, so like Cozybee, this hits me in all the right places. Can’t wait to go through all the stories!

I wonder if the CAS (that’s the property-casualty actuarial society, the SOA is life/pension/health) also have their own contest? There’s some fairly serious beef between the two societies that makes me think there isn’t a lot of cross-over.

And to answer brainwane’s question: no I did not know this existed (but my life is so much better now!) I will ask the SOA if there are archives available anywhere.

I’m sure there is actuarial porn, but I have not looked for it. However, there is a free Amazon kindle romance novel called “The Actuary” if that floats your boat. (And during that search I learned it’s a 3 book series!)

And since I saw one earlier, here’s a couple more actuary jokes:

-An actuary is an accountant with a personality. (Supposedly accountants make this same joke in reverse)
-What is the difference between an introverted actuary and an extroverted actuary? An introverted actuary stares at his own feet during a conversation, while an extroverted one stares at the other
person’s feet.
-How many actuaries does it take to change a lightbulb? I don’t know. How many did it take last time?
posted by LizBoBiz at 2:41 PM on September 12 [6 favorites]

LizBoBiz, one favorite is not enough for how much happiness your comment has brought me -- I am so overjoyed that I have managed to help a scifi fan who is an SOA-card-carrying actuary discover this part of their own heritage, and that you will ask the SOA about the archives of the previous contests! THANK YOU!

-How many actuaries does it take to change a lightbulb? I don’t know. How many did it take last time?

This is great.

Earlier today I spent ~1 hour telling my husband about themes and patterns in the stories I read from these contests. I will condense my analysis to the following points:

* The prose and storytelling quality is not at a professional level but there are still a lot of interesting and memorable stories here. There were a few where I thought that, with one or two editing passes, this story would be really strong and might make it into one of the sf/f magazines I regularly read.

* I kind of want to meet Mel Windham; I think his detective-story parody is genuinely fun and seems to have inside jokes about the message boards where actuaries hang out, and "Actuarial Year" is partially a parody of the "if they were smart, EVERYONE would want to be like us!" sort of Mary Sue tendency in some of his competitors.

* Lots of procedural mysteries, especially "actuary discovers a data anomaly/how can that competitor be charging so little?" kind of mysteries. The parlor scene does not always lead to the triumph of our investigator!

* Some stories about the idea that human actuaries will not really exist/have jobs in the future, perhaps because technology will make them obsolete, or because it will be illegal to be an actuary (too much power and knowledge!); on the other end of the spectrum, there are stories about a future in which actuarial work is the most prestigious and powerful profession, or everyone is or wants to be an actuary. This wide range feels right to me as -- over the course of 25 years -- many varied actuaries are writing sf/f about the future of the profession.

* Lots of insurance companies surveilling us (sometimes without our knowledge/consent -- see "Preferred Best" by Randy Makin in the 2001 anthology) and either modifying our behavior through incentives (see "Worth the Risk" by Joe Kincaid in the 2003 collection -- unexpected ending!), or through creepy implants. Or directly killing people for various reasons ("Actuarial Certainty", Gregory A. Dreher, 2003). There was one anthology that (I think) had two different stories in which the Social Security Administration was either killing some senior citizens or nudging them in various ways towards suicide. Not all the insurance companies' schemes are portrayed as nefarious! Sometimes what reads to me as creepy is something the narrative seems to celebrate!

* Several stories where the map does not fit the territory, and so either the territory or the map is unnaturally forced to fit -- a magical database not only records deaths but can also cause them, or an actuary kills people who inconveniently outlive her predictions in order to make her model 100% accurate.

* I remember one story that literally had an appendix with a set of tables describing an actuarial model or product. Can't find it easily again, which is a shame, because I think that is awesome.
posted by brainwane at 3:31 PM on September 12 [5 favorites]

Actuaries are taken to be dry and sure, but the (few) actuaries I have known have 3/3 been on the side of "we don't know, we do our best, but isn't reality weird?" Which to me makes perfect sense as a response to trying to find all the regularity in a reality which is, in fact, weird. As fuck.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:07 PM on September 12

There’s some fairly serious beef between the two societies

Are we talking Sharks v Jets here, or is it more like the East Coast/West Coast rapper wars?
posted by Paul Slade at 11:21 PM on September 12

It’s pretty much a turf war and the SOA is trying to mosey in on the CAS’s turf. Essentially, the SOA wanted to merge, but the CAS didn’t want to as they are not a country-specific org. So the SOA decided to create its own property-casualty designation and tried to poach existing CAS members. Because of some shitty behavior by the SOA, they were removed from the board of the AAA (American Academy of Actuaries, which is the one recognized by regulators and who governs disciplinary actions for actuaries but dont offer credentials themselves and instead rely on the member orgs). Actuaries who qualify under the SOA are still recognized by the AAA, we just aren’t on the governing board anymore.
posted by LizBoBiz at 4:44 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]

I should also mention that the majority of members of the SOA don’t actually care and it’s the leadership that was spearheading this. I didn’t even know about it until a couple of years after it was all over.
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:42 PM on September 13

> Cozybee: "(and yes, I would love to see other industries do this)"

I wish I could find some link to this, but I have a dim memory of a very specific industry magazine that also had some kind of regular fiction column, themed around that industry. I can't swear to it but for some reason I think the column was about a hard-boiled, film noir, Dashiell Hammett-style private detective in a magazine about the parking industry. So, the PI would be investigating cases in and around parking lots or garages and/or solving crimes using parking industry-specific knowledge.
posted by mhum at 10:47 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]

I'm remembering "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar" which was an old radio show -- detective stories told from the point of view of an insurance investigator.
posted by brainwane at 6:37 AM on September 18 [2 favorites]

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