Tag Archives: Robert Heinlein

Defining [my] design fiction.


It’s tough to define something that still so new that, in practice, there is no prescribed method and dozens of interpretations. I met some designers at a recent conference in Trento, Italy that insist they invented the term in 1995, but most authorities attribute the origin to Bruce Sterling in his 2005 book, Shaping Things. The book was not about design fiction per se. Sterling’s is fond of creating neologisms, and this was one of those (like the term ‘spime’) that appeared in that book. It caught on. Sometime later Sterling sought to clarify it. And his most quoted definition is, “The deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” If you rattle that off to most people, they look at you glassy-eyed. Fortunately, in 2013, Sterling went into more detail.

“Deliberate use’ means that design fiction is something that people do with a purpose. ‘Diegetic’ is from film and theatre studies. A movie has a story, but it also has all the commentary, scene-setting, props, sets and gizmos to support that story. Design fiction doesn’t tell stories — instead, it designs prototypes that imply a changed world. Suspending disbelief’ means that design fiction has an ethics. Design fictions are fakes of a theatrical sort, but they’re not wicked frauds or hoaxes intended to rob or fool people. A design fiction is a creative act that puts the viewer into a different conceptual space — for a while. Then it lets him go. Design fiction has an audience, not victims. Finally, there’s the part about ‘change’. Awareness of change is what distinguishes design fictions from jokes about technology, such as over-complex Heath Robinson machines or Japanese chindogu (‘weird tool’) objects. Design fiction attacks the status quo and suggests clear ways in which life might become different.” (Sterling, 2013)

The above definition is the one on which I base most of my research. I’ve written on this before, such as what distinguishes it from science fiction, but I bring this up today because I frequently run into things that are not design fiction but are labeled thus. There are three non-negotiables for me. We’re talking about change, a critical eye on change and suspending disbelief.

Part of the intent of design fiction is to get you to think about change. Things are going to change. It implies a future. I suppose it doesn’t mean that the fiction itself has to take place in the future, however, since we can’t go back in time, the only kind of change we’re going to encounter is the future variety. So, if the intent is to make us think, that thinking should have some redeeming benefit on the present to make us better prepared for the future. Such as, “Wow. That future sucks. Let’s not let that happen.” Or, “Careful with that future scenario, it could easily go awry.” Like that.

A critical eye on change.
There are probably a lot of practitioners who would disagree with me on this point. The human race has a proclivity for messing things up. We develop things often in advance of actually thinking about what they might mean for society, or an economy, or our health, our environment, or our behavior. We design way too much stuff just because we can and because it might make us rich if we do. We need to think more before we act. It means we need to take some responsibility for what we design. Looking into the future with a critical eye on how things could go wrong or just on how wrong they might be without us noticing is a crucial element in my interpretation of intent.

Suspending disbelief
As Sterling says, the objective here is not to fool you but to get close enough to a realistic scenario that you accept that it could happen. If it’s off-the-wall, WTF, conceptual art, absent of any plausible existence, or sheer fantasy, it misses the point. I’m sure there’s a place for those and no doubt a purpose, but call it something else, but not design fiction. It’s the same reason that Star Wars is not design fiction. There’s design and there’s fiction but different intent.

I didn’t intend to have this turn into a rant, and this may all seem to you like splitting hairs, but often these subtle differences are important so that we know what were studying and why.

The nice thing about blogs is that if you have a different opinion, you can share.


Sterling, B., 2013. Design Fiction: “Patently Untrue” by Bruce Sterling [WWW Document]. WIRED. URL http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2013/10/play/patently-untrue (accessed 12.12.14).
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It’s all happening too fast.


Since design fiction is my area of research and focus, I have covered the difference between it and science fiction in previous blogs. But the two are quite closely related. Let me start with science fiction. There are a plethora of definitions for SF. Here are two of my favorites.

The first is from Isaac Asimov:

“[Social] science fiction is that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings.” — Isaac Asimov, Science Fiction Writers of America Bulletin, 1951 1

The second is from Robert Heinlein:

“…realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the scientific method.” 2

I especially like the first because it emphasizes people at the heart of the storytelling. The second definition speaks to real-world knowledge, and understanding of the scientific method. Here, there is a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy. Star Wars is not science fiction. Even George Lucas admits this. In a conversation at the Sundance Film Festival last year he is quoted as saying, “Star Wars really isn’t a science-fiction film, it’s a fantasy film and a space opera.”3 While Star Wars involves space travel (which is technically science based), the story has no connection to the real world; it may as well be Lord of the Rings.

I bring up these distinctions because design fiction is a hybrid of science fiction, but there is a difference. Sterling defines design fiction as, “The deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” Though even Sterling agrees that his definition is “heavy-laden” the operative word in his definition is “deliberate.” In other words, a primary operand of design fiction is the designers intent. There is a purpose for design fiction and it is to provoke discussion about the future. While it may entertain, that is not it’s purpose. It needs to be a provocation. For me, the more provocative, the better. The idea that we would go quietly into whatever future unfolds based upon whatever corporate or scientific manifesto is most profitable or most manageable makes me crazy.

The urgency arises in the fact that the future is moving way to fast. In The Lightstream Chronicles, some of the developments that I reserved for 25, 50 or even further into the future are showing signs of life in the next two or three years. Next week I will introduce you to a couple of these technologies.


1. http://io9.com/5622186/how-many-defintions-of-science-fiction-are-there
2. Heinlein, R., 1983. The SF book of lists. In: Jakubowski, M., Edwards, M. (Eds.), The SF Book of Lists. Berkley Books, New York, p. 257.
3. http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a32507/george-lucas-sundance-quotes/
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Science fiction: Near, distant or far? Why is The Lightstream Chronicles set in 2159?

Science fiction author William Gibson said,

“Personally I think that contemporary reality is sufficiently science fiction for me. Some critics are already maintaining that science fiction is a sort of historical category and it is not possible any more…I have to figure out what it means to try to write about the future at a time when we are all living in the shadow of at least half a dozen wildly science fiction scenarios.”1

I am not of this opinion. I think it is still possible to write compelling near, distant and far future fiction. The frustrating part is often the off-the-cuff critiques, and quick dismissals that any trope such as robotics, or immortality immediately render the work a rehash. I’ve heard this many times. So, it was an conscious decision when writing the original script to make this a distant future fiction.

I follow Robert Heinlein’s definition of science fiction:

“Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the scientific method.”

With that it is incumbent upon the author to hold those realistic speculations in one hand and with the other, threads of the present that could stretch far into the future.

One of my primary thematic motivations is speculating on human and transhuman futures. To me, based on present day facts, seminal aspects of transhumanism are already in place. We already have cochlear implants, artificial hearts, robotic limbs, transmitting health monitors, and other technological improvements built into our bodies. Without some sort of wild card devastation (which could derail any speculative future) here is no reason to consider a decline in the sophistication and amplification of health-assisting technologies. As with most technologies that, over time, etch themselves into our culture, these will become progressively more accepted as logical improvements to our natural bodies. Based on the current rate of technological advancement and the propensity for technology to grow exponentially, it is not unreasonable to consider a neart future—say 10 to 15 years—where our natural human bodies are significantly enhanced by multiple technologies from retinal implants, to augmented reality, in the form of organs, genetic adjustments, replacements, and interventions designed to keep us younger, sharper, and better in some demonstrable way.

This 10 to 15 year future could easily be the premise of a “near future” design fiction (and perhaps my next book will take that track), but I wanted to follow the threads deeper for two primary reasons. First, is the pragmatic reason that it takes a long time to write and produce a graphic novel of this complexity and I did not want to embark upon a race with technology to complete my story before the speculative future was either no longer speculative or was simply wrong. The second reason, is that small changes, to me, are not disruptive enough to provoke discussion and debate. An incremental change, one that seems like the logical next step, runs the danger of appearing too rational and “on course” to disrupt our present day thought processes (i.e., Her). If we only observe incremental trajectories, we cease to contemplate the long term.

The argument against long-term, future speculation is that it ceases to be plausible because, by then,  “anything can happen”. But this is merely a truism. The fact is, anything usually does not happen. There is an enormous amount of logical speculation that can be derived from what usually does happen given the human condition. If you combine the human factor with plausible advancements in technology—given reasonable trajectories of scientific focus—then we are, in fact, dealing with realistic speculative futures.

This brings me to the narrative itself. If you want to take the next few steps, and look beyond incremental change, to the logical next steps of viable AI, and synthetic humans, fully realistic and indiscernible virtual reality, functioning telepathy, ubiquitous surveillance and indefinite life-pans, then to exert a firm grasp on the science and the current gaps that exist, the only responsible thing to do is move your story into the distant future. To accomplish this you don’t need a 300 year Star Trek future but rather two or three generations from where we are now. This places us in a distant future of approximately 150 years. In my estimation, you just can’t plausibly get there any sooner.

If we want to talk about these logical trajectories we have to place ourselves in a setting that permits them to exist. Then we can look back on how they came to be. To me, this is the crux of design fiction. You may not like it, but the idea is provocation and examination of the futures we incrementally build. If you may think it passé and stereotypical, then you might also find yourself quickly bored of stories that also include tropes such as life, death, love and redemption.


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