A—we’re all worldbuilders now (or: 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?