A—we’re all worldbuilders now (or: a justifying a narratology of futures)
Early drafts of this essay—and others before it!—were attempts to explain the differences between different forms of futuring: narrative, experiential, &c. That aim informs the essay you are now reading, too, but through those drafts it became apparent that the easiest way to explore those differences would be to begin by explaining what the different forms have in common.
That I’m choosing to call that commonality “worldbuilding” is perhaps somewhat controversial, though it is meant less as a provocation than as an attempt to redraw (or at least relabel) some of the battlelines in the field of futuring.
I am aware that Julian Bleecker is particularly keen to avoid the W word: as I understand it, he doesn’t want the artful approach of design fiction to be conflated with the clunky top-down scenario vignettes that come out of tech-fetishising commercial futures agencies, a form of work that—as the word has metastasised from fandom discourses and sf criticism and become increasingly normalised—is frequently billed as worldbuilding (and billed, one might add, at eye-watering daily rates).
I am fully sympathetic with that position; I don’t want my own work mixed up with that stuff either! Nonetheless, I would counter that we would be unwise to surrender the term, as worldbuilding is very much what is happening on both sides of the line. What is different—and it’s a huge difference—is the narratology of the process.
That means I need to redefine the division in a different way. I will return to that definition, to the distinction between open and closed worldbuilding, in the final section of this essay. In order to have that redefinition make sense, however—and in order to show how worldbuilding is (quite literally) at the heart of all forms of futuring—I first need introduce narratology as the foundation of a critical theory of the field.
At this point, I imagine more than a few readers have flinched instinctively from the word “theory”, especially now it has appeared next to the word “critical”. As such, my first task is to make the case for the utility of theory in the context of futuring. There are two sides to such a case: a practical side, and a political side. As with the faces of a coin, these sides are not really separable from one another, but we will treat them separately for the sake of simplicity. The political utility of a theoretical framework for futuring is (at least in part) to do with that redrawing or redefinition of the line between, to be blunt, the good stuff and the bad stuff: the distinction between openness and closedness, to which I will return at the end.
For now, I want to briefly state the practical case, in the hope that it will give the more practically inclined a reason to follow me into the narratological labyrinth.
“You know, we get on just fine in futuring without any theoretical framework, Paul!” Sure, I agree—but I think we might get on even better once we have one. If I might make an analogy to music: one can make excellent music without knowing any music theory whatsoever, but learning the theory—learning how harmony works, how melody stitches a progression together, how rhythms interact and shift emphasis—gives the musician a greater array of options and choices which can be accessed by means other than the purely serendipitous or accidental. Theory provides rules, yes—but they are rules of thumb rather than iron laws, and you are free to avoid, ignore or defy them. Theory does not replace or destroy instinct and creativity; rather, it supports, supplements and extends them.
Theory informs original works produced in isolation, but—as I will argue in greater detail later—it also informs and enables collaborations across a variety of different methods and media. Theory also informs critique, and furthermore provides ways in which the act of critique may itself be creative and constructive: the production of futures which respond to, remix, reconstruct other futures. Theory puts us in dialogue with our work, and with each other as creators; theory puts our works in dialogue with each other.
I will return to these points at the end of this journey through the narrows of narratology—a journey which I hope I have convinced you will be worth the shoe-leather. Now, will you join me?
B—the narratological labyrinth
My starting point is, I think, fairly uncontroversial: all futures are narratives, of one sort of another. So, how do narratives work?
For those who like to know where ideas originate, everything I’m discussing in this section is based on the narratological theory of Mieke Bal. I am using it as lightly as possible, and barely skimming the surface; there is much more to be done with it in the context of futuring! My purpose here is just to show how this can serve as a model for what we do when we create futures.
B1—into the model
Bal’s focus is on prose fiction (i.e. novels, short stories), so let’s stick with that for now. I’m going to (mostly) use the works of Tolkien as examples, because I can assume a fairly broad familiarity with the shape of his work even among those who haven’t actually read the books, and because (as I will discuss further) he’s a usefully neutral case in the context of futuring. And to start with, we’re going to just think about old-fashioned dead-tree books as the delivery system for the stories in question; we’ll look at other media later on.
So, here’s the diagram. We’ll start our exploration from the outside, as the notional reader does, so the first thing to do is to define the three boxes:
- THE TEXT is the words on the page that the reader encounters, as put there by the author;
- THE STORY (or PLOT) is a set of events and utterances (which may or may not be delivered in a chronological sequence) that the text describes for the reader;
- THE FABULA (or STORY-WORLD) is a four-dimensional imaginary space in which the events and utterances of the story take place.
If the four-dimensional thing is breaking your brain a bit, try this: you know what a three-dimensional object is, right? So imagine a simple 3D form, a cube, within which is a volume of space with length, breadth and depth. To add the fourth dimension, imagine the things within this space changing their relationships to one another—spatial and/or otherwise—over time. Better yet, think of a cubic fish tank: if you see a still photo of a fish tank, it’s just a 3D space, but if you sit there and watch the fish going about their business, the fourth dimension of time is playing out in front of you.
So the fabula is a sort of fish tank in which the fish are characters—or AGENTS, as a narratologist would call them; if you are at all familiar with the work of Bruno Latour, this may be a very helpful term. Meanwhile the weeds and rocks and little plastic skulls in the tank are objects and/or locations that the characters can interact with. The first three dimensions of the fabula mean it has a geography; the fourth dimension means it has a history (and a futurity, though we’ll park that point for a while).
Also in the mix are the READER and the AUTHOR, which roles (or positions) are fairly self-explanatory, though things can get tricky once you start thinking about different forms of media, as we shall do briefly later on. Then there’s the NARRATOR, FOCALISER and NARRATEE, about whom I could easily write another essay of similar length to this one, which I believe would be just as relevant. However, I want to keep the focus on worldbuilding in this piece, so I am going to limit myself to three crucial observations:
- firstly, the narrator is always within the text, but they are not necessarily within the story or the fabula;
- secondly, the author and the reader are (in works of fiction, at least) outside of the text, though certain forms of fiction like to play games that involve blurring those boundaries;
- thirdly, the narrator is distinct from the author, though the degree of that distinction—and the extent to which that distinction is made clear in the text—is highly variable.
OK, then—having quickly worked our way into the heart of narrative, we can work our way back out again by examining the relations of the layers in closer detail.
B2—out of the model: one world, many stories
The first thing to note is that the fabula is not exhausted by the story—or, in less theoretical language, there is always more fabula than the story shows the reader, just as (by way of analogy) there is more to the world than today’s newspaper shows us.
That excess of fabula may be a deliberate development of the author: think here of Tolkien’s legendarily voluminous notes and backstory work on Middle-Earth, much of which material only appears by implication (if at all) in the canonical books. This obsessive attention to detail meant that Tolkien could have a character (and/or the narrator) mention such-and-such a historical era or distant location—times and places within the fabula to which the text in question never actually takes the reader directly—and thus provide a sense of depth (or, more accurately, of volume) to the fabula with considerable efficiency.
This sort of volume-implying labour in storytelling is not unique to genre literatures like fantasy and science fiction, in which the fabula is by implication somehow separate and distinct from the world of the reader in time or space, or in both. Ernest Hemingway famously described a work of fiction as being analogous to an iceberg: the reader sees only the part of the ‘berg that pokes out above the surface of the water, but below the waterline (i.e. beyond the text, in the author’s imagination) is a vast bulk of ice that the reader never sees; crucially, Hemingway argued that the implacable presence and motion of the iceberg, its “dignity of movement”, is precisely due to this invisible mass.
So, to reiterate: the fabula is not exhausted by the story. This implies that one fabula is capable of supporting multiple stories. Think back to our fictional fish tank for a moment: perhaps you’ve been watching the antics of one particular shoal of tetras for an hour or so. However, if you’d been paying attention instead to, say, that lonely-looking archer-fish up in the top back corner, you might have seen a whole different set of events play out; but unless the archer-fish happened at some point to be in the same place at the same time as the shoal of tetras, you’d be completely unaware of that story.
This is perhaps an easier concept to grasp than it once was, thanks to the ubiquity of “cinematic universes” in the contemporary entertainment business. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) can be thought of as a particularly capacious (if arguably overstocked) fictional fish tank, with multiple stories unfolding throughout its four dimensions; sometimes the main character from one story (Iron Man, say) crops up as a bit-part player in the story of some other character, while sometimes a totally new set of characters is discovered in some as-yet unvisited spatiotemporal corner of the tank.
(The MCU also illustrates the extent to which the geography and the history of a fabula can be rewritten—or “retconned”, as comics people like to say—for the convenience of the intellectual property owners, or to satisfy the sense of entitlement of the audience… but we can park this point for later, too.)
B3—out of the model: one story, many texts
Moving outward through the model one step further, we can note that the story is not exhausted by the text: think of the way in which a text zooms in or out on the spatial or temporal detail of a story at various points along its plot-line. This can be a little tricky to grasp at first, but the old (and much-squabbled-over) writerly dichotomy between writing that shows and writing that tells is a useful metaphor for thinking about it.
To be very reductive, writing that tells simply recounts what happened (e.g. “Jennifer woke at 7am, feeling cranky and poorly rested”), while writing that shows makes an effort to depict what happened (e.g. “When Jennifer awoke, her mind was still foggy with half-remembered dreams and anxieties, while the wan light of dawn was just pushing its way between her curtains…”). Writers love to fight over which of these approaches is better, and when or where they should be applied; if you should ever witness such a fight, I recommend walking away until it’s finished.
Returning again to Tolkien, and shamelessly pulling my figures out of the air for the sake of illustrating the argument, we might say that 80% of The Lord of the Rings—or at least of the parts of it in which Frodo is the focal character—is spent on showing (some parts of) Frodo and Sam’s long journey to Mount Doom in Mordor, but much far fewer pages are devoted to their journey back to the Shire. That’s not to say that it’s not shown at all; the reader is left with a very clear knowledge that their journey home happened, but it is not described in such detail. This might be said to reflect what Tolkien thought was the important part of the story as a whole, or perhaps what the reader was willing to bear—though those are perhaps two ways of saying the same thing.
So, to reiterate again: the story is not exhausted by the text, which implies that one story can in theory support multiple texts. Tolkien might have chosen to return to Frodo and Sam’s story and written a more detailed account of their journey home, for example. But more ambitious options are also possible, and—crucially—this work does not necessarily have to be undertaken by the original author of the story. By way of example, Kirill Eskov’s novel The Last Ringbearer is, in essence, a retelling of the story that Tolkien told in Lord of the Rings, but as seen from the perspective of the orcs of Mordor. In terms of Bal’s model, then, Eskov took Tolkien’s fabula and story, selected a different set of focalising characters, and produced a text that explored that story/fabula combination from a very different angle.
Now, in regular terminology at least, one might balk at the claim that Eskov’s novel tells “the same story” as Tolkien’s—but this is why the more precise terms of theory are useful. Because from a narratological perspective, Eskov’s novel really built around the same story (and fabula) as Tolkien’s, even though it’s a (very) different text. This distinction is, I will go on to argue, very important for those of us engaged in the work of futuring.
The example of Eskov also illustrates another important point: that an author may use the fabula or story of another author as the basis of their own texts, though publication may depend on working within the limits of applicable intellectual property law. Eskov famously wrote his novel without the permission of the (very litigious) Tolkien estate, which is why the English translation that’s floating around is considered an infringing work, and cannot make Eskov any money. But stories and fabulae which are no longer under copyright can be used as the basis of new texts without hazard—remember that rash of remixes that followed Pride & Prejudice & Zombies?—and there is also a fairly long tradition in genre fiction (and roleplaying games) of “shared worlds”, where the fabula of a successful property is farmed out to a number of different authors who are then free to create new stories and texts within it.
One last point to make on this matter is the increasing openness of the authorial role, which has become more accessible (or destabilised, depending on your position) by the increasing democratisation of the means of production and distribution of texts. Or, to put it in a word: fan-fiction (a.k.a. fanfic). This is another deep-weeds topic, but the main thing to note is that certain fabulae seem to engender in their readers the urge to write new stories and texts set within them—and, quite frequently, to thereby RE-write the author’s original stories, or even “retcon” their fabula, to the end of making it more congenial to their particular interests or enthusiasms, or making it more just, or both.
B4—narratology and worldbuilding
I used Tolkien as an example in the previous section because his work is widely known, and because, as a fantasy epic, it’s a neutral case with regard to futuring. It could of course be argued that Tolkien’s oeuvre was in effect an exercise in writing an alternate mythology for northern European culture—indeed, this is one of the more enduring interpretations of Tolkien—but you’d be very hard pressed to find anyone who would claim Middle Earth is an example of futuring.
However, few would deny that he was doing worldbuilding—indeed, Tolkien is probably the example that most people would go to first, and his influence on the various forms of fantasy literature that followed the huge success of LotR in the 1960s is often decried for its having encouraged a tendency to over-build (and/or over-show) the fabula.
But as the example of Hemingway indicates, “straight” (or “literary” or “mainstream”) fiction writers are also engaged in worldbuilding. The difference is that a literary writer setting a story in the present of their own world can leave a lot of things unsaid, because they will be the default assumptions of the reader as regards geography, history etc. To make a sweeping generalisation, literary worldbuilding is mostly a matter of inventing characters and relationships and events: of developing fictional microgeography and microhistory, if you like, that plays out against a backdrop of default (or “real”) macrogeography and macrohistory.
Of course, the assumption of a default history has to do a lot of work: the reader’s knowledge (or lack thereof) has to step in to plug the contextual gaps that a literary writer wouldn’t bother to fill in themselves. This is why novels which were written in bygone eras can feel so strange and alien to a modern reader: we lack the contextual knowledge to be able to distinguish, for example, totally explicable and normal behaviour in a character from drastic and exceptional behaviour. Interestingly, however, the inverse is also true, in that we tend to mistake the fiction of the past for history.
And then there’s the case of the historical novel, i.e. a novel set in a historical era prior to the one in which it was written and published. Worldbuilding is definitely in play here, as well, but—at the macro level at least—the assumption (by both reader and author) is that the historical basis of the fabula is true to whatever extent the sources available allow. However, history (like archaeology) regularly revises its accounts of the past, so that we can think of historical novels less as fictions whose fabulae are essentially factual at the macro scale, and more as fictions whose fabulae are themselves imaginative reverse interpretations of the various texts and stories which history takes for its evidence base at any given point in time. And then there’s the alternate-history genre, which I (and others) would argue is much closer to science fiction than historical fiction, at least in narratological terms… but that is (if you’ll excuse the joke) a story for another day.
Because now we need to deal with science fiction, which is—or certainly seems to be—the most obvious literary parallel to the practice of futuring. This is complicated somewhat by the continued (and likely eternal) lack of a formal definition of science fiction that can be agreed upon and made to stand scrutiny. Nonetheless, it seems uncontroversial at this point to claim that futuring and science fiction share some considerable narratological overlap—but the manner of that overlapping is probably more easily explained by defining futuring, which is somewhat less controversial (if only because it’s a term with which fewer people are sufficiently familiar to care about).
So, here’s my pitch: futuring is the exploration (often, but not exclusively, through story) of fabulae which are in some sense temporally extrapolated from the “real” present in which the futuring activity is performed.
Note that the plausibility or probability of these extrapolated fabulae are secondary factors, at least from our current broad and theoretical point of vantage: a future in which a colony of human exiles-from-Earth in the Beta-Eridani system is colonised circa the year 2460 by sentient yet benign space-wasps is just as much a future (in the sense of my definition above, at least) as one in which the inhabitants of Earth circa 2050 manage (or maybe don’t manage) to keep global average temperatures from increasing more than 2ºC over a certain historical baseline temperature.
Perhaps, then, we might say instead that a future is any story whose fabula’s fourth dimension has a timeline that extends beyond the date at which it was published. The advantage of this definition—or perhaps its disadvantage, if you’re already a little confused—is that it makes plain the narratological similarity between paleofutures, i.e. futures developed at some point in the past, and historical novels: what was once an acceptably plausible fabula can become, with the passage of time, a laughable demonstration of its creator’s myopia.
B5—from page to screen (and beyond)
OK, that was a bit heavy—but the worst is done, and I promise I’ve done the best I could to compromise between making it simple and making it relevant.
Now, to reiterate: Bal’s model was developed for prose fiction, and I’ve used prose fiction to illustrate its elements. Things get a little more complicated once we start looking at other media. Take cinema, or video more broadly: in this case, we might think of there being a second textual layer around all of the standard elements, with the inner text being the script or screenplay, and the outer text being the audiovisual presentation developed from the script or screenplay. This means there’s one or more extra layer(s) of interpretation in play, as well: think of Peter Jackson’s choices regarding his adaptation of Tolkien’s work to the screen (and the ire that those choices provoked in certain enthusiasts of the original books). Those choices can (and often do) involve alternations to, subtractions from, or additions to the fabula and/or the story.
There are also the affordances to consider: there are many differences between the screen and the page, but here are two of the most obvious and consequential. Firstly, the camera is obliged to show rather than tell; indeed, the camera “eye” (and “ear”) replaces the narrative “voice” of a written story. This gives the impression of narrative without a narrator, and thus implies a certain objectivity—though it is anything but objective! In a sense, the director becomes the narrator: it is the director who chooses which moments and locations of the story we get to see and hear, and which we don’t. That story, and the fabula in which it plays out, were authored by Tolkien—as the marketing materials for Jackson’s movies are keen to emphasise—but they have also been remixed by Jackson (likely with the assistance of a large crew of directorial assistants and writers, perhaps with some input from the actors as well), reinterpreted still further by the costume and set designers and the CGI unit, filled out by the sound designers and the composers of the score.
The point being: the authorship (and hence the creative control of the story and fabula) we encounter in Tolkien’s books is very clear; the authorship of the movies is far more complicated. Furthermore, cinema is an inherently spectacular medium, almost to the point of parody now that CGI has become so powerful. Compare for a moment with, say, a low-budget student theatre adaptation of LotR: again, you’ve got some rewriting and reinterpretation going on, and the interposition of a directorial authorship around the source text, but you also have a situation where the words and the expressiveness of the actors have to carry a lot more of the weight.
Which brings us to the second big difference in affordances. The unique power of written fiction is, I would argue, its ability to convey interiority: written fiction can show and/or tell us what characters do and say, as can cinema, but only written fiction can reliably convey what those characters think and feel. One might counter that an actor’s value is surely based on their ability to convey interiority, and—leaving aside the purpose of Hollywood heroes like Tom Cruise, which lies precisely in being so devoid of interiority and affect that the audience can project onto them whatever feelings they want—there is surely some truth to that. But as in life, the interpretation of non-verbal cues is imperfect and ambiguous. There exist cinematic devices and strategies for spelling out what a character thinks or feels—the monologue, the voice-over—but they tend to be clunky; they break the spell of the supposedly objective and realist narrative that we see through the camera’s eye.
C—back to the futures
Let’s now think about creative works of futuring qua futuring—and I hope that you will forgive me for bundling experiential futures, narrative prototyping and design fiction in the same space for the sake of brevity. Let’s start with design fiction, which was glossed by Bruce Sterling as “the use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change”: at the risk of simplifying hugely, the design-fictioneer makes (or approximates) an object which purports to come from a future world which differs from our own. The term “diegetic prototype” ties design fiction closely to film theory, in which a diegetic object is one which exists in the fictional world that the movie explores1. As such, we might usefully think of a design-fictioneer as being a props builder for a film that doesn’t exist: there is no script, and seemingly no story, only this one designed object.
I put it to you, then, that “diegetic” as we use it in this context means “of the fabula”, and that a design fiction is therefore a chunk of a fabula brought to the audience without any of the mediating outer layers of the narratological model getting in the way; in effect, design fiction as a method turns the model inside out, like a glove. This means that, while there may seem to be no story associated with the fabula from which the object supposedly comes, there is in fact a story contained within the object. There are even characters, in a way: there is the implied character of the buyer/user of the object (the designer’s “use case” is a form of character sketch, after all); the character of the designer who imagined both the buyer/user and the solution to the use-case that the object implies; the character(s) of the firm that took the thing to market. This bundle of implied characters implies a story in which those characters might plausibly (if sometimes absurdly) exist. That implied story, in turn, fleshes out (through the imagination of the viewer) more information about the world (or fabula) from which the object is taken.
Now we can return to Bleecker’s beef with worldbuilding as a label for commercial foresight work. Those top-down scenarios attempt to describe and explain everything; to refer back to an earlier distinction, they tell rather than show, even—or perhaps particularly—when they use visual and video material. Design fiction, by contrast, only shows, and shows as little as possible. But in both cases, a world (a fabula) is being built.
So perhaps we can describe the difference in another way: in design fiction, as in the better sort of science fiction novel, the worldbuilding is a collaboration between the imagination of the designer/author and the imagination of the viewer/reader. In commercial scenario work, there is no room for collaboration: the agency has done everything for you, and their future is (both literally and figuratively) merely a lifeless description that you can buy2—or which, more likely, has been commissioned and constructed to order.
Now, there are many design fictions—particularly those whose producers work closer to the art world—in which the diegetic object (or image, or film) is supplemented by one or more framing texts; these texts may be diegetic themselves (as in the text on the packaging of a diegetic product), or they may be of the viewer’s world (as in the descriptive card or booklet accompanying an object on display in an exhibition). As a result, modelling the narrative(s) in play becomes more complex—though I maintain that it is a) still possible, and b) still valuable.
And then there are experiential futures installations, which we might liken to the set for a piece of immersive theatre (or a location set for a work of cinema) with no script or actors. Or, to put it another way: experiential installations are a collection of diegetic objects sufficiently large that the audience can literally get inside it and wander around; it’s (part of) a fabula made real! But some of those diegetic objects incorporate texts and scripts and characters: perhaps there’s a (diegetic) newspaper or magazine lying around, or a show playing on a (diegetic) TV screen. At this point, the inversion of Bal’s model is complete: the audience enters the fabula first, from which the broad shape of the story can begin to be inferred, and then gradually filled out (or not!) through the discovery of (pieces of) the text(s).
To be clear, this is not to say that design fiction or experiential futures are necessarily inversions of a heretofore standard narratological model; rather, it is to say that these approaches to futuring can, and demonstrably do, make use of elements for which the standard narratological model—which, you will recall, was developed with prose fiction in mind—provides us with names and relationships.
D—on the merits of openness over closedness
It is my hope that you may now see why I abandoned my attempts to explain away the differences between various forms of futuring, and opted instead for this little wander through the narratological landscape. But to make it plain, my point is that yes, all these methods are very different, and the futures thus produced engender different effects and experiences in their audiences—but the narratological framework lets us understand how those differences are really just alternate routes to the same destination: the creation and presentation (or rather mediation) of an imagined (future) world. We’ve also seen how the methods can be combined—and in fact, hybridity is probably the norm rather than the exception, in that e.g. most design fictions are accompanied by some sort of text (whether diegetic and of-the-fabula or external to it, or maybe both), experiential futures often contain textual elements, video futures usually have a script or screenplay (if perhaps only implicitly), &c &c3.
With that case made, the utility of a narratological theory for futuring should be a given: it gives you a structure within which to think about different techniques through which you might try to bring your future to life. If you know all the tools in the workshop, rather than just the pillar-drill, you can make a greater variety of more complex things! Better yet, you can team up with someone else whose specialisations are different, discuss the fabula and story (or stories) you want to work with, and bring a greater range of techniques to bear on your project, all while working within a framework which provides a map of the project that is pertinent to both techniques.
This in turn should make a case for the constructive/creative critique, in which one responds to someone else’s future by (re)creating within or around the fabula or story thereof. This is what Eskov was up to—and while I am in no way endorsing what some have assumed to be his political subtext4, it’s a powerful demonstration of the possibilities of pluralising perspectives in futuring. But perhaps an example from closer to home would make the point more effectively.
Vitiden was a project developed by researchers at KTH (Stockholm, Sweden) which took as its starting point one of a suite of four scenarios developed by the Swedish Energy Authority5. Like many such scenarios, this one was top-down in construction, consisting largely of abstract goals and targets to be met. The Vitiden researchers, with some very talented speculative designers among them, decided to put some flesh on its bones, to bring it to life; they produced a book which contains (among other prototypical devices) train timetables, restaurant menus, and the other day-to-day ephemera which might exist in a world whose big-picture parameters matched those of the original scenario. In doing so, they critiqued both the scenario itself and its manner of production and presentation—but they critiqued it in a way that brings it to life.
So perhaps the question I should have started from was “what do we mean when we say we are bringing a future to life?” My answer would be that when we bring a future to life, we make it open, while a lifeless future is closed. I regret that I cannot offer any quantifiable measures for the openness or closedness of a future. It is, perhaps, a strictly qualitative metric—to the extent that the qualitativeness of the future in question may even be the best (or only) measure of its openness, because qualities always admit their subjectivity, even if their authors did not intend them to do so. But illustrative pairs are a good way to get at the distinction: as is probably obvious, the Vitiden design fictions are open, while the original scenario was closed. This has an important implication: a closed future can be made more open, and an open future can be made more closed. You just have to narrate them differently.
My declaration of open futures as good futures is, of course, a subjective one—and it is rooted in my belief that futurity is inherently political. The political scientist Harold Lasswell famously defined politics as the question of “who gets what, when, and how”; these are not necessarily questions connected to parties and voting, but they are undoubtedly questions about people, about the world, and about change. As such, my ideas about good futuring are connected to the extent to which a work of futuring in question allows, or even insists upon, the active participation of others.
This participation may be literal and direct, incorporated into the making of the work: workshopping, co-production, call it what you will. That is a fine thing, and long may it continue… but I think there is another form of participation, another form of openness which—equipped as we now are with a map of the narratological territory—we can understand more thoroughly, even if we cannot measure it: the fullness of an open fabula is only created in the moment of its discovery and exploration by the audience.
It’s something of a cliché in literary criticism to claim that the meaning of a story is produced in the process of its being read, as much as (if not more than) in the process of its being written; this is a simplified version of what Roland Barthes meant with his “death of the author” idea. Of course, there is a strong presence of the author in the text (and thus in the fabula); the author may be “dead”, but they still haunt their creation. So when you read, you (re)construct the fabula from the clues and cues that the author put into the text: every reading is also a writing, as Philip Wegner is fond of saying.
However, this is also something of an ideal, rather than a universal—or perhaps it’s (yet) another spectrum. Allow me to introduce an illustrative quote, which came to me via the serendipity machine that is the internet while I was working on this explanation. In his introduction to a new edition of a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Tom McCarthy writes:
“Robbe-Grillet claims that, whereas the novels of Balzac or Dickens do not require readers, since they perform all the latter’s work themselves, his own writing calls for active readers who will piece it all together.”
While this is a very bold statement, and perhaps a little unfair to both Balzac and Dickens (who, as literally dead authors, are not in a position to respond), I know what Robbe-Grillet is getting at here. Both Balzac and Dickens are much at pains to make sure you know exactly what they want you to know about what’s happening in their fabulae: to return to a distinction from earlier, they do a fair bit of telling, as well as showing very thoroughly. That’s perfectly fine, to be clear; Dickens and Balzac are much-loved authors for a good reason. But their fabulae are closed, because they are complete: nothing is left to your imagination, other than the visualisation of the characters and events of the plot as it plays out on the page. It is certainly possible to imagine beyond the bounds of the stories as published (as the existence of Dickens fanfic confirms), but it is not necessary.
I must confess to not being familiar with the works of Robbe-Grillet, but I am familiar with the works of Tom McCarthy—and in his novels, it is necessary that you imagine more than you are shown or told. This is because McCarthy plays with the expectation of (or the desire for) completeness by deliberately leaving gaps and absences: one can of course read one of his novels from end to end and decline to fill those gaps, but one will be left frustrated by the experience; seemingly vital parts of the fabula and story are simply not provided for you, even though their existence is implied by the material you are given. I have already noted that the text cannot exhaust the story, nor the story exhaust the fabula; so perhaps the best way to describe the difference here is to note that an author can either fight against the impossibility of exhaustion, and provide as much as possible, or one can lean into the impossibility of exhaustion, and provide less.
The latter is not the lazy option, though it may in some senses be the more economical one. Such writing exploits the urge to extrapolate story and fabula from the text—an urge that, I would argue, is part of the human condition, quite apart from the question of art, and may well be the engine of what we think of as philosophy and science. The world we live in is inherently, terrifyingly open—even now, as it seems to be shrinking and diminishing around us. In other words, the non-fictional fabula which we inhabit is not exhaustible by the stories we tell about it, either.
This collaborative reading—of a novel, yes, but also of any other work of art, or of the actual world—does take effort on the part of the reader. And as much as it seems to be an instinct for humans to enquire and explore into what is not shown or told, there appears also to be a hunger for being provided the answers without doing the work. Hence the popularity of Dickens and Balzac, we might say; hence also the immense commercial success of franchise storyworlds, where the instinct to discover and the desire to be told are held in tension. The Star Wars franchise is perhaps the biggest of them all, at least in the Western world, but one might also mention (again) the MCU, or the Warhammer universe(s) of Games Workshop. The desire to exhaust the fabula is clearly seen here, as is the impossibility of that exhaustion: the sheer volume of texts in these franchises is mind-boggling to someone who doesn’t follow them, but spin-off novels (and other merchandise) from them sell in numbers that more lauded writers (whether of science fiction or “mainstream” literature) can only dream of achieving.
The fandoms associated with these franchises are illustrative and cautionary for those of us seeking to produce futures with the intent of shaping the actual world. We see the sense of entitlement that comes with a fannish devotion to the fabula in question: think again of the complaints about Jackson taking liberties with Tolkien’s work, or of a certain subsection of Star Wars fandom complaining at the existence of characters of colour or queer characters in their heretofore white universe, or of the creepy over-identification with the Jungian archetypes of superheroes among hardcore MCU devotees. My theory—and it remains only a theory at this point, pending the opportunity to research it more thoroughly—is that there comes a point with a fabula when the desire for being spoon-fed comforting answers that reconfirm one’s existing prejudices has been overindulged, after which any deviation from the implicit assumptions of that fabula is interpreted by its fans as betrayal, or even treason.
While I admit that the analogy is imperfect, I would also argue that this is much the same as the relationship which exists between the imagined futures of a political imaginary and the followers thereof. To be very clear, I am not equating Middle Earth or the MCU with white supremacy or neoliberalism—but I am suggesting that, in all of these cases, the familiar comfort of the world(view)s on offer has become the object of a habituation, a dependency; the problems that result from such a dependency are, I will assume, fairly obvious by this point.
Our hypothetical futures agency with its top-down scenarios is, I suggest, also feeding exactly this sort of dependency. They’re in the business of telling firms what they want to hear, repeating the comforting story of infinite growth, of business as usual: a cookie-cutter Cambellian “hero’s journey” in a closed future, wherein a product or service (and its faithful retinue of managers and investors) makes the lock-step journey from orphan farm-boy to king of the world.
We don’t need that story anymore. To steal a phrase from William Gibson, we have learned to distrust that particular flavour.
So what is the alternative, for those of us seeking to make open futures, and bring them to life? It’s something to do with letting go: with refusing the urge to explain everything, with refusing to play god… or, perhaps, only refusing to play a monotheistic god. There is an artistic argument for the superiority of this approach, but that would take a book (or more) to explore, so let’s leave it aside. Besides, the political argument seems more pertinent: it is the difference between on the one hand inviting your audience to discuss and explore possible futures in collaboration with you and their peers, and on the other hand simply handing them a brochure with “The Future” written on it, and inviting them to invest in your portfolio.
It is my belief that most of us engaged in the work of bringing futures to life are doing so not in order to sell those futures as products, but rather to present them as possibilities for discussion, as starting points for collective adventures that will ideally go way off the edge of any maps we might have prepared in the process. As such, we need to be aiming for openness, not just in the process of (co-)production, but also in the manner of manifestation: we need to leave space for the audience to come in and create, to build, to dream.
There are many methods and modes of futuring, all of them very different—but this is the difference that really matters. By understanding that difference—perhaps with the help of theoretical models, like the one I’ve begun to build here—we can make futures which are more open.
In so doing, we also open up the practice of futuring, and futurity itself.
1 The distinction may be clearer with reference to soundtracks: a diegetic sound is one which emanates from the action of the scene that the viewer is seeing (e.g. clinking cutlery and muttered conversations in the romantic restaurant scene) while a non-diegetic sound is interposed on top of the scene by directorial fiat (e.g. the swelling string music that cue up the appropriate emotional response in a jaded audience).
2 It bears noting that there exists a similar disagreement about the role of worldbuilding in science fiction criticism, perhaps best summed up a notorious and much-misparsed riff by the author M John Harrison, in which he referred to worldbuilding as the “clomping foot of nerdism” in genre fiction. Harrison’s novels have some of the richest fabulae to be found in the genre, and as such I interpret his objection to be not to the creation of fabulae, but to the urge that some authors have to show every single thing they have imagined to the reader, often to the detriment of any other element of the narrative.
3 Indeed, one might reasonably argue that prose science fiction is the real outlier, by merit of its cleaving to a “pure” medium… though the techniques of literary modernism—such as multiple and mixed POVs, the interpolation of ostensibly “non-fictional” narrative styles, and even typographical and designerly experimentation with the form of the text on the page or screen—are very much in play, if rather later than they rose (and fell) in “mainstream” literature.
4 Eskov’s retelling of LotR is sometimes taken to be an allegory for the way in which Russia has been positioned as a definitively evil Mordor, and set in opposition to a Euro-American alliance that figures itself as the Western Lands.
5 Vitiden’s creators refer to it as an “energy fiction”. You can read more about it at https://www.greenleap.kth.se/en/projekt/energiframtider/vitiden-en-energifiktion-1.756177