Tag Archives: science fiction

Grinding it out – Graphic Novel update

Today: 3D tutorials. Web comics. Future of clothing. World Future Society.

Have I mentioned how I hate to learn software? It’s a young man’s game. As I remember back to the early 90’s, I taught myself 3D with programs like Strata 3D and PowerAnimator. Somehow it was easier then — software more intuitive (and less robust) — or I was just a lot younger. Anyway, I find myself having to learn certain aspects of the various software programs that are in my stable, just to move from point A to point B. Clothing is a bear. I mean really. Getting clothing to look realistic can be a nightmare. I’m a full week behind on my character designs and clothing is a big part of the issue. Nevertheless, I am grinding on. I still plan to release my eight key characters in September along with the plot line for the book. This comes with the caveat that I can change my mind at any time.

I have also toyed with the idea of launching the story in weekly form online, but have since thought better of it. I’m afraid that launching my graphic novel online before it is finished will prohibit the kind of last minute tweaks and changes that help continuity and overall polish. For example, my first spread is a fairly ambitious project in and of itself, and I am trying to capture a number of sophisticated visual effects to set the state for the whole story. But as I continue to work daily, I actually find that I’m getting better at what I do. What my first spread looks like today could look infinitely better in a year, (when I hope to be finished) if I could go back with new chops and polish it up.

Speaking of clothing… I’ve also done a lot of thinking about what people will be wearing in 150 years. Putting on my futurist hat, my design speculation is that clothing will be more technologically active than today, and a body suit will be the standard for most. It will also be possible to create your wardrobe in your closet, a scarf, a jacket, whatever on your own 3D textile printer. But most of the time you will be wearing a tight fitting body suit that is constantly monitoring your internal chemistry as well as functioning as a mediator with the outside world to provide information and protection. If you are thinking that some people will not look so good in a tight fitting body suit, that should not be a problem, since we will be long past the medical advancements required to maintain perfect body weight and muscle tone late into your first century. So there.

That brings an interesting point and why I have to keep driving toward the finish line on this as fast as I possibly can. If I take too long on design, I run the danger of never finishing. A year is a long time. My whole story vision could change if I’m not careful and over the course of a year I run the risk of hating everything I’ve done thus far. This happens, so I’m going to have to watch out for it.

On an academic note. The World Future Society is calling for essays for next year’s WorldFuture 2012: Dream. Design. Develop. Deliver. Neatly, they’ve inserted design into the theme. What could be better than that for my design fiction essay. I will probably submit. I’d love to attend.

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Grappling with sci-fi jargon

A friend and I were discussing the phenomena of sci-fi jargon that so many books and stories use. Personally, I find that it can tedious when it’s overdone. My guess is that it started somewhere around the time of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s deemed to be something of a classic. It certainly has the accolades. Wikipedia gives this description, “Neuromancer is a 1984 novel by William Gibson, a seminal work in the cyberpunk genre and the first winner of the science-fiction “triple crown” — the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award.[1] It was Gibson’s debut novel and the beginning of the Sprawl trilogy. The novel tells the story of a washed-up computer hacker hired by a mysterious employer to pull off the ultimate hack.” That’s a good synopsis. As I recall, the book is set far into the future but no exact date is given. Neuromancer is one of those sci-fi books that are fraught with pseudo jargon. Check out this passage,

“The gate blurred past. He laughed. The Sense/Net ice had accepted his entry as a routine transfer from the consortium’s Los Angeles complex. He was inside. Behind him, viral sub-programs peeled off, meshing with the gate’s code fabric, ready to deflect the real Los Angeles data when it arrived.”

That’s actually a mild example, and you find yourself wishing you had a glossary to help you figure out what he’s talking about. But it is highly imaginative stuff and was clearly the seed for a lot of science fiction that followed, including The Matrix.

When you are creating a work of future fiction a certain amount of new lingo is an imperative. Look how language alone has change in just the last ten years. Twenty years ago, terminology like GPS, GSM, and iTunes were unheard of, and street slang was a completely different animal. So, to some degree, newspeak is required. Don’t look for my graphic novel to contain a Gibsonian level of verbal texturing however. It’s too much work for the reader and me. While I’ve invented a few words, some slang and such, most of them have some conjunctive grounding in present tense origins, so the reader can figure it out without a glossary.

I welcome more examples of sci-fi speak. Send them along.


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Design challenges in design fiction

Part of what makes design fiction so interesting is that you have to speculate, an exercise almost unheard of in the traditional practice of design. In fact, after 30 or more years in the profession, most clients would probably concur that the designer has no right to be wrong. Market research, iterative design and prototyping, along with the rigor of the design process should eliminate ideas that don’t cut it or won’t cut it in the outside world. Design, as we know it, is a criterion-based practice. Time, money, market, manufacturing, competition, user analysis/interface, usability testing and a myriad of other forces are what shape, and ultimately mold, the final solution. It is a fact-based, reality-based endeavor. The exercise, if you will, of design fiction, forces the designer — not to abandon research — but to venture forth without the comfort of the conventional design climbing holds, or to create their own. Building design constraints for a speculative future can be approached two ways, through pulling threads of existing technologies and social trends (which seem to be becoming the same thing) or through wild unbridled fiction. The latter carries the dismissive, “Don’t ask me how, it’s just that way”, as something akin to the writer/artist’s artistic license. Hey, it’s fiction. The former blends the brain of the designer and the writer/artist and insists that he or she ground the idea, however speculative, in the roots of some plausible science or social momentum.

Hence, as I begin crafting the visual world for my graphic novel, I find myself struggling with these challenges daily. This summer, I am working on the self-imposed deadline of August 31 to have completed character designs for the eight, key cast members. Each character is posed in a relevant (though not apparent without having read the story) scene from the book. That requires not only the design of the character and the questions of what they would wear, the material, the design, and the function, but also the design of their accessories, as well as the design and construction of the set on which they are standing. The decisions seem endless, sometimes terribly frustrating and enthralling at the same time. The CG workflow, which at this level often distributed between specialists in modeling, texturing, posing, lighting, rendering etc., lies squarely on my shoulders. Since I don’t posess virtuoso proficiency in any of the above, it adds to the challenge. On the up side, I may well be a virtuoso (at something) by the time the project is completed.

I plow ahead, but I am excited to show my progress, and hopefully on, or near to the deadline.

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Refining the setting for the graphic novel

If you’ve read some of my past posts you might recognize a wee bit of angst about the locale of my graphic novel. Originally intended to be Hong Kong 150 years from now, I toyed some with Tokyo, then finally settled on Manhattan. No less than two days later I read that the new screen adaptation, live-action redux of Akira will not be set in New Tokyo as in the original story was conceived in manga form in 1982 (the anime film was released in 1988), but rather in “New Manhattan”? Weird but probably to be expected from Hollywood. There’s all sorts of controversy on this already in that George Takei (of StarTrek fame) is lobbying against Warner Bros. casting a white guy in the lead role. (I wholly agree. How lame.) And… even though all this takes us off point, I have to throw in the very cool poster from the original 1988 fick.

Anyway, to add further complications, Akira’s release date is probably 2013 which is precariously close to my own launch date. Now, I am not being oh-so-arrogant to assume that my meager GN will make any impact in the market place or will run the risk of competing in any way with the movie, but it’s the principle of the thing. I mean, how can my book be set in New Manhattan, too?  Thinking about this, it seems I am putting way too much import on whether the physical locale needs to have a specific 21st century counterpart. By establishing a specific city I am inviting the audience to scrutinize the environments for telltale 20th century remnants or landmarks, which is not the point and could even be distracting. The solution? I’ve settled on a large North American metroplex, probably east coast which will probably be more like William Gibson’s sprawl from Neuromancer. The fact that it’s New Asia, and it’s in North America is plenty to swallow… so hopefully this little hurdle is behind me.

Other news and graphic novel status report

This week I’m taking some Mudbox classes. We’ll see if this can become another tool in the toolbox.

I have partially designed seven characters. Two are complete and I am satisfied with their clothing and gear. I have set an aggressive schedule to complete the detailing on the other five by end of August when I hope to introduce my main cast. There are about a dozen more characters, but they are more or less, extras so they shouldn’t require as much effort.


Stay tuned.

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A graphic novel about culture, design and transhumanism in the future

And you thought this blog was about writing a graphic novel.

Anyway, I’ve just returned from holiday, I have been virtually free from the computer for nearly a week. I finished two books, started a third, and did a lot of mental tweaking to my story.

Without tipping my hand (too far) to the plot of my graphic novel (since it is not 100% solidified), I can say that it has always dealt with ramifications and implications of a somewhat transhumanist future, a world where scientism rules the day. As the prologue to my screenplay states, “Scientific advances have enabled the manufacture of life-like robots. Known as synthetics, these robots are found in all walks of life and can be virtually indistinguishable from humans.” Some of my key characters fit this description and even my humans are considerably augmented, enhanced and amplified.

While my story includes a fair amount of mystery and action, I never intended the read to be one dimensional. I hope to thread some thought-provoking themes and opposing ideas into the mix. This is especially relevant in lieu of the fact that my paper, the whole design fiction aspect of this project, is an examination of the design culture relationship. What we design will affect our culture and vice versa. What happens when we are able to design and create near-humans? What will we teach them? How will we use them? What capabilities should they have or not have? What will separate our future, synthetically augmented human sons and daughters from their purely synthetic counterparts? What role will ethics play in this future drama? After all, there is no science to ethics.

Meanwhile, all of these questions seem to be surfacing around me in our current cultural environment as we see a flurry of discussion about Kurzweil’s optimistic singularity and Vernor Vinge’s less than optimistic predictions of that same technology gone astray. In fact, Kurzweil has even enlisted Michio Kaku, Deepak Chopra and a host of other “thinkers” and, of course the mandatory celebrities (no doubt for their scientific insight) for a live discussion on the topic that will be coming to a theater near you.

I guess this means my novel is timely.

I’ve also done some additional thinking on stylistic texture and setting, especially in light of the fact that recent press releases have put the locale for the upcoming screen adaptation of Akira in “New Manhattan”. Hmmm.

More on that later.

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Defining Design Fiction

Now that Design Fiction is firmly at the core of my thesis and the undergirding of my graphic novel it is also one of my Google Alerts, along with Concept Art, Futurist, Comic Book and Graphic Novel, among others. And while it doesn’t generate quite as much buzz as these other topics I get at least one daily link of interest. The most reliable source of regular info would be Bruce Sterling’s Beyond the Beyond, Wired Blog. I think Sterling’s “design fiction” draws a wider, more inclusive circle. His features would include any focused narrative that makes a product or idea real or at least to gain in Julian Bleecker‘s words “cultural legibility”. On other sites I’ve seen project leaders, or design teams referring to the snippet stories of their UI or product concept as their “design fiction”.

Then there is David Kirby’s spin on the idea. Evolutionary geneticist and science lecturer Kirby calls these props “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, 2010:1) and that design fiction, particularly in filmmaking,  becomes a purposeful, almost manipulative device to create acceptance of a concept or idea as some kind of future product placement.

Indeed, crafting a story around an idea, service, or product in a narrative context makes it appear more logical and coherent. In this respect most of the prevailing interpretations venn with Bleecker’s ideas of design fiction, but Bleecker’s vision seems to require a bit more than just a brief story or vignette — as does mine.  I think we would prefer more of the cultural context and a bit more drama surrounding the idea or product. As Bleecker says, (forgive me if I’ve used this quote before) “We can put the designed thing in a story and move it to the background as if it were mundane and quite ordinary — because it is, or would be. The attention is on the people and their dramatic tension, as it should be.” (Bleecker, 2009:37) Thus, design becomes that invisible collaborator with culture in making life seem as real in the future as it is real for us now. Bleecker adds, “A particularly rich context, a good story that involves people and their social practices rather than fetishizing the object and its imagined possibilities — this is what design fiction aspires to.” (Bleecker, 2009:27). I agree.

Of course, nobody’s definition is wrong and Sterling’s wider circle is a good thing. It brings more people into the conversation and more discussion on the topic. This is good.


Bleecker, Julian. 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction.

Kirby, David. 2010. The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development. Social Studies of Science, 40/1; 41–70, February 2010. http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journals

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Predicting the design future.

Are futurists really breathing rarified air? Let me explain. I believe it’s possible to be so in tune with the forces of society and technology that you can be “near-future” accurate but, let’s face it, it’s still guessing. I’m not a futurist and I’m not looking to disparage anyone who is. As a profession I’m certain that legitimate futurists are a bit like designers. We immerse ourselves in the landscape of the problem. If we’re designing a better mousetrap we are learning everything we can about every mousetrap ever built, everything we can learn about mice and the technologies and processes that may affect that objective. That’s the design problem, our challenge. In my eye, if you’re a really good designer, you’re also going to ask, “What if?” and that would include the question, “Why do you have mice?” and “What if you didn’t have to trap mice to begin with?” When you start down this road, you’re bypassing the deterministic mindset of most business, government, etc. that assumes a specific future and a limited vision of what could be. So I’m sure that good futurists, are thinking the same way. “What if?”

Looking at a recent blog from author and futurist Jack Uldrich quoting from a new book by Dan Gardner, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, And You Can Do Better , Gardner says, “the experts who were more accurate than others tended to be much less confident that they were right.” I haven’t read the book yet but, I’m guessing that the best futurists are going to have a healthy appreciation for the unexpected, the ambush that changes everything and that means that they are never going to be “sure.”

This is sound logic for why one of the designer’s many hats needs to be that of futurist. It also supports the notion of design fiction as fertile ground for exploration, either as curriculum or practice. As with designers, the best futurists and other consultants are probably those who leave you with more than a new design, prediction, or plan; they leave you with a better way to think as you move forward. That’s a lasting contribution.

Next post: The style dilemma.

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Designing the future.

“Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century.” [1] But that’s not the kind of futurism I’m talking about. “Futurists… or futurologists are scientists and social scientists whose speciality is to attempt to systematically predict the future, whether that of human society in particular or of life on earth in general.” [2]  Though many futurist predictions have come to pass, it seems to me pretty iffy business and at the rate that things change the singularity may be not be such a wacky idea after all. There is a Wiki definition for the singularity, too. A comfortable definition could be the point at which technology becomes so advanced; predicting what will come next is impossible.

Of course, I am not a scientist or sociologist by training but I am a designer, and in many ways, designers are expected to call upon science and social science whenever they are designing. We are designing for people and society, after all. As a designer, if you’re not thinking that way, well, you should be.

So, like it or not, designers called upon to be some kind of a futurist. In my current pursuit of a dramatic design fiction, I have to ask myself, “What will design be like in 2159?” It’s more than a century away. Who can know? The answer is: part science, part design, and part fiction.

As I have argued, design and culture are inextricably linked, synergistically influencing one another. They will be producing and affecting one another whatever utopian or dystopian future you can imagine. Hence, some of my future design will be the result of speculation on a particular scientific thread, that if it remains connected, might produce something that functions or looks a certain way, and some of it will inevitably be done for sheer effect or mood (at the end of the day, this is dramatic story). Some of it will be garish or ugly; conditions that will probably not go away no matter how advanced we become.

Ah, but therein lies the drama. Good and evil are more than tenuous threads that you pull gently into a possible future — they are (in the British sense) bloody cables. Take it to the bank. There will be stunning achievements and dismal failures. While we will make beautiful things, solve epic problems and ease great suffering, not everything will be bright and shiny, sleek and effortless. We will also invent unimaginable horrors, new ways to sin and profane our creations.Regardless of how far our technology advances, the human condition remains more or less steadfast through the centuries.

As a Christian, I believe that we are created in the imago dei: the Image of God, that design, is a kind of divine inheritance from the Master Creator to the design pupil. But we live in changing times. The master narrative that I live by is very much under fire right now. Who knows? In 50 years, it may be outlawed. How will that affect design? One of the questions you stumble over when designers ask, “What if?”

I guess the designer has to be part philosopher, too. I’ll hit on the more nuts and bolts side of future design in another post.

[1], [2] Wikipedia

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Screenplay to graphic novel.

So, I have this screenplay… the assignment was to write a screenplay for a short film — no more than 30 pages. It began with a “pitch,” then a “treatment” and ultimately a series of drafts that produced a final submission. My first draft produced a 74-page screenplay that Phil graciously plowed through and marked up. “Tighten,” was the predominant scrawl. There were also good comments from the rest of the class about the believability of some of the characters, the amount of violence, etc. that provided a sort of focus group for the story (though most of the class, I think intimidated by the sheer length, passed on reading the whole thing). Nevertheless, Phil indulged my graduate student status and let me continue with my feature-length film script over the prescribed shorter version.

What became clear was that this was not a short story. There are lots of characters, the plot is complicated, and the setting is highly relevant to the way people act and the things that drive the story. There is more than a bit of story-telling here.

You have to add to this the anchor of my thesis which is what gets “made” in this fictive future — the design-fiction motive. It requires a level of research into science, government, medicine, crime, society, transportation and history to give context to the culture that begat these design changes.

The screenplay was written using a free, downloadable piece of software called Celtx that actually lets you convert your screenplay to comic book format. Though it was unable to read my mind, the conversion was a handy way of putting you in  the panels and pages mindset. A lot of tweaking is needed. I have continued writing and editing the story as well. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the comic format allows me to break all the screenplay rules of exposition and generally lay it out however I want since this is a reading and visualizing medium.

Already, then something of a change to my setting. In a perfect world I would have had the whole thing take place in Tokyo. I love that city and have spent a fair amount of time there. I understand the aesthetic and I can see it in some future fiction. However, it doesn’t play into my storyline. China is huge in my future which had me switch to Hong Kong another amazing city, but one that I have no visceral attachment to they way I have with Tokyo. But now as I have been spinning away at Hong Kong, I’m starting to think that you need to have some deep knowledge of the place to write about it even if it is a hundred and twenty years from now. So I took the script back to my screenwriter (me) and we hashed a new, and frankly much improved scenario.  I’ll share:

The government of New Asia, which accounts for 75% of the world’s population, is now headquartered in what was New York City. Officially renamed New Hong Kong (for the locals, it was easier to swallow than New Beijing) in 2079, most people have shortened it to HK2, some call it King Kong. The original Hong Kong is still Hong Kong. It was a gentle change of command; China repossessed it all. It was all perfectly legal and peaceful. Most former Americans reluctantly acquiesced. Bankruptcy is a bitch.

I’m excited about transforming New York into New Hong Kong and I am ever so much more familiar Manhattan. But strap yourselves in. It’s going to change a lot.

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The otherly graphic novel. Part 3.

If you’ve been following my progress, (and a few of you have) you know that the screenwriting class from Spring Quarter was an immense help in moving forward my story, characters, plot and setting. All of these beforehand were mere flashes from some strange disconnected dream where I could see a character that looked like this and a villain, a controversial scene, and the makings of a future world — all nothing but ideas. The screenwriting class helped this all to congeal fairly well. Screenwriting however is not graphic novel writing. Though they are both intended to become visual narratives, film has a much different dynamic, driven by a completely different way of advancing the story across time.

Which bring us to the next discussion on the otherliness of comics. I have concluded that they deal with time differently in at least three respects. First, as I have mentioned in the past, film goes forward, that’s it, and unless you have an annoying habit of replaying scenes incessantly, (not exactly what the director intended) you are stuck in forward motion. Even when wielding the remote control, either backward or forward film provides only one moment in time; one frame. So in the first respect film — in it’s presentation — is linear. In the otherly world of comics, graphic novels, what have you, past, present and future are all laid out on the page right in front of you. Indeed, you can quickly move forward or look back to add context or meaning, much as you do in pure prose. Of course, here we have pictures.

In a second regard, a film has a finite length. I’m sure there is some marketing formula that lays out the ideal length for general matinee fare. This restriction is not completely absent from a comic or graphic novel, since a publisher may have similar marketing motivations here as well. But, in the absence of a tight publishing format or serial precedent, the length is more likely to be based on the story than the number of marketable pages and the luxury of continuing to a next issue or installment if the story calls for it.

Finally, there is the restriction of time as in the time you spend with the story. This is related to the first reason but not the same. In the graphic novel or comic, we can linger, which is different than scanning back or forward for context, it is about enjoying or studying an image for its sheer impact or wonder. Yes, you can do this with a remote control, too, but let’s face it; it’s different: primarily because the images on the page are intended as 2D art and not moving photos. This brings us back to screenwriting. As most experienced screenwriters will tell you, the visual and audio are your primary tools. They will tell you to write, “Only what we see and hear.” No one wants to read a lot of exposition in a movie. Save for the introduction to Star Wars, most screenwriting experts will tell you that if you have to write a page of explanation then, at the very least, you are using bad form. Not so in the graphic novel. In this constantly evolving form, you can pretty much do whatever you want. If you feel the need to tell your readers that the world in 2159 is extremely complex, that there is a new world government, bizarre new crimes, technological wonders, etc., etc., then you can do that. You can write “more than what we see.” Sounds become their own challenge, but the burden falls on the writer/artist to find a compelling way to introduce written exposition in an engaging and creative way — or you can read it. The cool part is that you could read it on a memo, or another visual device that adds context and additional meaning to the story.

I will have more on the switch from the screenplay to the story script in the next blog.

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