The Magrathea Protocol, parts B1 and B2: the narratological labyrinth

Attention conservation notice: this post is one of a series of five such posts which excerpt from the chapter whose citation details are below.

Raven, P. G. (2023). "The Magrathea Protocol: Notes toward a narratology of futures". In Time’s Up (Ed.), Futures Brought to Life: We are no Futurists. University for Applied Arts Vienna.

If you enjoy it and/or find it interesting, please consider ordering a copy of the book (only €12 plus shipping, details at link above).

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.)

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