Science fiction, fantasy, design and cultural invention

True Blood fans are familiar with the kind of story-telling that comfortably puts vampires, werewolves and witches right in with the rest of us, and over the past few years I’ve read a lot of “urban fantasy,” a sub-genre characterised by the inclusion of fantasy elements in an otherwise recognisable and often contemporary (urban) setting or, as one fan site puts it, the type of story “where para is normal.”

Now I laugh when friends and colleagues tease me about my taste in reading materials–after all, there’s no guilt in my pleasure–but I’m also intellectually captivated by these stories and think that might be worth trying to unpack a bit.

I remember wandering around Chapters on Ste Catherine in Montréal, looking for something easy and fun to read. I had just finished watching the entire Buffy series and was in the mood for some more tough-chick ass-kicking, and a young gay salesclerk suggested the Anita Blake series. While I devoured every book on my weekly work commute to Concordia, I had no idea that I would eventually find myself in a multitude of Canadian, American, UK, Australian and New Zealand bookstores joyfully talking with complete strangers about which urban fantasy series had the smartest and strongest heroines, the most brutal fights, the hottest sex. Through these books and conversations I felt connected (like I didn’t know was possible) with the middle-aged mother and housewife who dreamt of being a warrior in epic battles against the forces of evil, with the young MtF transsexual who fell in love with so many fierce and playful shapeshifters. I was amazed that despite our differences, we could find ourselves, and each other, within these narratives. And to this day, these are the only times I’ve actually felt what Maffesoli meant when he wrote about taste and tribes.

But is there anything about these stories that can be put to good research and design use? STS and HCI researchers, futurologists and designers have long shared an interest in science fiction, and I’ve been talking about fantasy fiction. As Joanna Russ suggests:

“Science fiction is not fantasy, for the standards of plausibility of fantasy derive not from science, but from the observation of life as it is.”

I think she meant this to back up her claim that science fiction is superior because of its “truthful” and didactic nature, but it also allows us to consider the possibility that urban fantasy can be appreciated precisely because it seamlessly brings together the natural and supernatural, the mundane and the extraordinary. To be aesthetically successful, it doesn’t have to be scientifically plausible but it does need to be emotionally recognisable and moving–and that has important implications for those of us interested in using speculation rather than simulation to help people navigate possible presents and futures.

Of course, as Charles Elkins noted in 1979:

“The relevant point is not whether these fictions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but whether they are useful. We must have them because it is only through them that we are able to think or act at all.”

Unlike the rational and predictive models favoured by more positivist futurologists, Elkins points out that science fiction (and I would add speculative design) functions according to a dramatic model:

“Where the rational models of the futurologist might be best described by the paradigm of the classical syllogism ─ ‘if this … then this’ ─ the model for a literary work might be best described within the structure of  ‘what versus what’ or ‘who versus who,’ with its final statement given, not in the form of a conclusion based on valid inference, but in the form of a proverb.”

This may seem a minor, or even obvious point, but when it comes to the relationships amongst fact, fiction, research and design, the ability to move beyond utopias that become boring for their lack of conflict, or dystopias that become boring for their lack of hope, is crucial. This is the difference between actualisation and potentiality. As E.M. Forster famously wrote in Aspects of the Novel, and I try very hard to get my design students to understand:

“‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot … Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’”

A lot of design is very good at stories; far less design is good at plot–and I’m convinced that we need the latter if we want design to serve, as Jack Schulze puts it, as a form of  “cultural invention” instead of problem-solver. And I think that these differences are related to differences between speculative design and design fiction, a point to which I’ll return shortly.

I’m not a huge fan of magical metaphors in technoscience and design, but I do find a few related concepts to be helpful in understanding how we can use speculative design to bring about significant cultural change. For example, utopian futures often use technoscience to enchant, while dystopian futures often use technoscience to disenchant; in both cases, design functions as an incantation of sorts. As Elkins explains,

“[Science fiction] must destroy old beliefs, furnish us with forms of passage from the old to the new, and finally inculcate new values in place of old beliefs. Art does the first through a symbolic process of ‘de-mystification,’ the second by eroding fixity in meaning with metaphors, and the third by ‘consecrating’ the symbols charged with new values and beliefs. This process is not done solely or even primarily through appeals to logic, to reason, or to the ‘hard facts.’ It is done through the communication of specific symbolic forms (parody, satire, ridicule, burlesque, comedy, tragedy, melodrama, etc.), which we all use in communication with each other but which are perfected in art, especially literature. As old beliefs are destroyed, we uphold new beliefs through the artistic presentations of tragedy and comedy and melodrama, through tragic and comic ‘victimizing’ of those who would trespass on our sacred symbols. It is in the dramatic presentations of art that values and beliefs are upheld or destroyed and men [sic] moved to either accept, reject, or doubt the principles which sustain their social order. At the same time, the artist keeps channels open to change through the creation of equivocal, playful, and comic symbols which allow audiences to hypothesize in symbolic action, to rehearse in imagination possible actions and attitudes before they must realize them in irrevocable moments of the complete act. This creation and destruction, this experimentation, while individually shaped, has objective social meaning because the artist must use the socially validated symbols of his [sic] culture.”

Wow. A more aesthetically-inclined sociology of translation/actor network theory anyone? And is it just me or does this sound more like fantasy than (hard) sf?

As I’ve alluded to, the differences between speculative design and design fiction intrigue me, and the question of what each actually produces is of particular interest to me because my work is motivated by the desire to create not just potential spaces, but spaces of potential. Adam Rothstein defines design fiction as:

“[T]he theory and practice behind conflating design, ‘building things that exist’, with fiction, ‘making up shit that doesn’t exist’. Design-fiction–either through its own limited fictional proposition or on the back of pre-existing works of fiction–links a fictional narrative regarding a proposed object, with some image, shadow, ghost, dream, or otherwise hologrammically-real design of that object.”

This, I believe, positions design fiction firmly within the realm of simulation–which I would associate more with a potential space than a space of potential. Along similar lines, Justin Pickard recently suggested that design fiction is “propositional” but “without framing or labelling, seeded in the real world, such objects and material scenarios blend awkwardly into their surroundings. Fiction passing as truth.”  Interested in the possibility of a “propositional ethics” for these simulations/simulacra, he continued to ask “to what extent is this thing we call design fiction built on deceit? What of consent? Is this even a problem?”

But if the aesthetics of fantasy can be distinguished from the aesthetics of science fiction, it may be worth considering how speculative (i.e. fantastical) design differs from (science) fictional design in terms of its aesthetics and ethics. For example, Carl DiSalvo has explored how design constructs publics and how speculative design can become publically-engaging design, rather than merely fictional design. This relates to concerns I have that the intentions of critical design are quite distinct from its consequences, and if the former is where its strengths lie then we have a problem if we hope to engage in cultural invention.

I recently gave a talk on ethnographic fiction and speculative design in which I used the following quote from Bruno Latour’s essay “A Cautious Prometheus?” (pdf):

“[T]o design is always to redesign. … Designing is the antidote to founding, colonizing, establishing, or breaking with the past. It is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures.”

Although I have issues with some of the related arguments he raises–a discussion for another day–I think this is a lovely way of understanding design because it shifts our focus to cultural reinvention as well, and that puts us back in the space where plausibility is tied not to science or technology per se, but to the contexts in which they are found. As I’ve long argued, and Matt Jones recently reiterated, “The network is as important to think about as the things.”

But my point is this: when design fiction creates things without context and critical design doesn’t escape the exhibition, I think the best we can achieve is preaching to the converted. More specifically, we won’t be creating new publics that can reinvent culture–and that means that for all the potential spaces we create, we will have missed the opportunity to create spaces of potential.

And, really, I’d like to see more animals at the tea party.

Further reading
Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels Series & The Edge Series
Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson Series & Alpha and Omega Series
Jennifer Estep’s Elemental Assassin Series
Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire Series
Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changling Series & Guild Hunter Series
Rachel Vincent’s Shifters Series

And TV Binging
The Holy Trinity: Buffy + Angel + Firefly
HBO: True Blood
Showcase/Syfy: Lost Girl

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