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 &c1.
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 subtext2, 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 Authority3. 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—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.
2—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.
3—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