Design Fiction, Science Fiction and Literary Criticism

Last year, as I was listening to the panel debate: ‘Design Fiction: Props, Prototypes, Predicaments Communicating New Ideas’ – with speakers Bruce Sterling, Sascha Pohflepp, Jake Dugarden and Julian Bleecker at South by South West, it really came home to me that there is a wealth of material, knowledge and research in literary criticism about the problems of writing about the future that could contribute to many of the questions and debates in futurology and Design Fiction. Sci-Fi writers have already gone through many of these questions, and faced many of these problems. (I know everybody knows this already, and most of them have read more science fiction than I’ve had hot dinners, but hear me out).

It’s axiomatic, in literary criticism of Science Fiction (such as it is), to assume that Sci-Fi is written as a conscious metaphor for current questions. That is, Science Fiction uses speculation about the future as a way of analyzing the present, the here and now. Either that, or as a means of trying to answer philosophical questions that are more or less universal. To take a famous example, ‘Solaris’ by Stanislaw Lem, is nothing so much as an attempt to answer the question: ‘what is it that makes us human?’ The fact that the story takes place in the future, on another planet, if not actually incidental to that question, is simply a way of opening up new, oblique ways of approaching it. The central device in Solaris, the ability of the planet to generate or replicate organic forms, including human beings, allows Lem to present a classic philosophical dilemma in a new form: what’s the difference between you and a perfect replica of you? (the same question has been posed, albeit in a much cruder and much less poetic way, in the recent film ‘Moon’).

Now I’m not saying that Sci-fi authors aren’t trying to write about the future as well, and trying to shed some light on the possible ways in which our society and culture might develop, but they are all too aware of the difficulties this entails, and anyone who is trying to ‘prototype’ the future or create original Design Fiction would do well to study the ways in which authors have addressed these questions already.

Design Fiction uses the techniques of fiction and drama to ‘test’ the future, to see what future technologies or systems might work, and how they might be received and what their impact might be, or to present a series of alternative possible futures and see which path might be preferable. But whereas the material of speculative fiction is  words and ideas, Design Fiction actually uses prototype objects and devices in the ‘real world’ to see how they might be utilised or how people might respond to new designs or tools or scenarios. But just as with Science Fiction, Design Fiction often reveals more about current attitudes, prejudices and behaviours (or universal ones, if you believe in such things) than it does about the future.

Clearly one of the inherent problems for Design Fiction in trying to reveal something about the future is that the users of any prototype or piece of speculative design are the users of today, not tomorrow, so their assumptions and conventions are those of the present. This is a hard problem, and one that even the greatest Science Fiction writers have struggled to overcome. How can you imagine characters whose attitudes and emotions are shaped by an entirely different social and technological landscape? Tricky.

In ‘A Scanner Darkly’, Philip K Dick describes a future world in which Los Angeles and its wider conurbation have expanded to take up much of California, in which police agents are able to use special camouflage suits to disguise their identities, and in which mega corporations create new and highly toxic drugs. In many ways it’s a plausible scenario. But the characters in ‘A Scanner Darkly’, through their speech, their attitudes and their behaviour, are drawn from a very recognisable 1960s counter-culture. The book is a masterpiece for all sorts of reasons, one of which is the very accuracy with which the author depicts that particular community. But what even he can’t do is give us characters from the future. Instead what he creates is a parallel universe in which characters that we instantly recognise and empathise with are pitched into a scenario and a location that is unfamiliar. This helps us to understand how we might face the challenges they face and react to the technologies and social changes that confront them.

Design Fiction sometimes overlaps with and certainly borders closely on the world of alternate reality gaming (ARG), in which gamers compete to solve a problem or inhabit a fictional scenario ‘ITRW’. Many scenarios have been tested in this way, a World Without Oil – http://www.worldwithoutoil.org/, for instance, which helped people to adopt new patterns of beahviour and reduce their own reliance on oil. By ‘prototyping’ the future in this way, you can educate people and change behaviours now. So Design Fiction itself is not so much concerned with anticipating the future precisely, but with a kind of Situationist/activist approach to changing the present. And as I seem to be reiterating more or less constantly, in William Gibson’s brilliant phrase: ‘the future’s already here. It’s just not evenly distributed’.

One of the ironic micro-effects of science fiction (which has been well noted) is the impact it has on future generations of designers and engineers. Star Trek has often been cited as an inspiration by software engineers and physicists. It is as if by speculating about a technology in a fictional setting, the writer is almost laying down a challenge or opening a path for the scientific community to follow. There is the imaginative breakthrough first – just an idea, however implausible – and then this idea has such a strong cultural impact that real scientists find themselves trying to work out whether such a design is actually possible. The Lightsaber from Star Wars is a good example of such an idea that has had a powerful influence on speculative physics. So much so that Michio Kaku, in his Physics of the Impossible, proposed a design based on nano-batteries and high energy plasma (though not physically impossible, the MegaWatt capacity required makes this device still a distant geek-dream).

In fact, Design Fiction is a recent spin-off of Science Fiction, directly inspired by many of the imagined worlds of writers like Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, J.G. Ballard and others. It sets out to do many of the same things as Sci-Fi does, but in a more concrete way, by introducing real physical objects or real sets of rules and scenarios which require the participation (direct or indirect, voluntary or involuntary) of users, beyond just their emotional and intellectual engagement. In this way Design Fiction can ‘test’ objects or tools or storylines that Science Fiction, until recently, has not been able to. A literary work, has (in general) been a fixed text until very recently, and so even though readers have enjoyed many different readings and interpretations, the author has not been able to adapt or react to their responses. Design Fiction allows the inventor or storytellers to adapt their scenario as it evolves and as the users or participants give their reactions. Science Fiction has been immanent in a way that Design Fiction needn’t be. At least until writers started to work on collaborative stories like PerplexCity and Inanimate Alice – http://www.inanimatealice.com/

So the relationship between Design Fiction and Science Fiction is an interesting and complex one. They both have certain limitations and inherent expectations that help us to understand more about our relationships with technology, with each other and with our environment, but they also understand that their usefulness as truly predictive disciplines is less fully-formed. Design Fiction really is a nascent practice and has hardly had time to get off the ground, but I would simply encourage any designers, futurists and technologists who haven’t already done so to read as much of the great Science Fiction as they can get their hands on, and also study some of the literary debate about this work because it may hold a lot of illuminating insights into how you can go about designing the future, and where you can go wrong.

To find out more about Design Fiction, probably the best place to start is with Julian Bleecker’s essay at the Near Future Laboratory - Near Future Laboratory (but be warned, a lot of the links are broken. scroll down to the comments for more up to date versions).

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One Response to “Design Fiction, Science Fiction and Literary Criticism”

  1. 10 what if questions. | sian

    [...] has linked design fiction to media by asking us to focus on the ‘what if’ tendencies of the theory.  In a [...]


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