The Magrathea Protocol, parts B3 and B4: further outward through the model

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).

B3—out of the model: one story, many texts

Moving outward through the model one step further, we can note that the story is not exhausted by the text: think of the way in which a text zooms in or out on the spatial or temporal detail of a story at various points along its plot-line. This can be a little tricky to grasp at first, but the old (and much-squabbled-over) writerly dichotomy between writing that shows and writing that tells is a useful metaphor for thinking about it.

To be very reductive, writing that tells simply recounts what happened (e.g. “Jennifer woke at 7am, feeling cranky and poorly rested”), while writing that shows makes an effort to depict what happened (e.g. “When Jennifer awoke, her mind was still foggy with half-remembered dreams and anxieties, while the wan light of dawn was just pushing its way between her curtains…”). Writers love to fight over which of these approaches is better, and when or where they should be applied; if you should ever witness such a fight, I recommend walking away until it’s finished.

Returning again to Tolkien, and shamelessly pulling my figures out of the air for the sake of illustrating the argument, we might say that 80% of The Lord of the Rings—or at least of the parts of it in which Frodo is the focal character—is spent on showing (some parts of) Frodo and Sam’s long journey to Mount Doom in Mordor, but much far fewer pages are devoted to their journey back to the Shire. That’s not to say that it’s not shown at all; the reader is left with a very clear knowledge that their journey home happened, but it is not described in such detail. This might be said to reflect what Tolkien thought was the important part of the story as a whole, or perhaps what the reader was willing to bear—though those are perhaps two ways of saying the same thing.

So, to reiterate again: the story is not exhausted by the text, which implies that one story can in theory support multiple texts. Tolkien might have chosen to return to Frodo and Sam’s story and written a more detailed account of their journey home, for example. But more ambitious options are also possible, and—crucially—this work does not necessarily have to be undertaken by the original author of the story. By way of example, Kirill Eskov’s novel The Last Ringbearer is, in essence, a retelling of the story that Tolkien told in Lord of the Rings, but as seen from the perspective of the orcs of Mordor. In terms of Bal’s model, then, Eskov took Tolkien’s fabula and story, selected a different set of focalising characters, and produced a text that explored that story/fabula combination from a very different angle.

Now, in regular terminology at least, one might balk at the claim that Eskov’s novel tells “the same story” as Tolkien’s—but this is why the more precise terms of theory are useful. Because from a narratological perspective, Eskov’s novel really built around the same story (and fabula) as Tolkien’s, even though it’s a (very) different text. This distinction is, I will go on to argue, very important for those of us engaged in the work of futuring.

The example of Eskov also illustrates another important point: that an author may use the fabula or story of another author as the basis of their own texts, though publication may depend on working within the limits of applicable intellectual property law. Eskov famously wrote his novel without the permission of the (very litigious) Tolkien estate, which is why the English translation that’s floating around is considered an infringing work, and cannot make Eskov any money. But stories and fabulae which are no longer under copyright can be used as the basis of new texts without hazard—remember that rash of remixes that followed Pride & Prejudice & Zombies?—and there is also a fairly long tradition in genre fiction (and roleplaying games) of “shared worlds”, where the fabula of a successful property is farmed out to a number of different authors who are then free to create new stories and texts within it.

One last point to make on this matter is the increasing openness of the authorial role, which has become more accessible (or destabilised, depending on your position) by the increasing democratisation of the means of production and distribution of texts. Or, to put it in a word: fan-fiction (a.k.a. fanfic). This is another deep-weeds topic, but the main thing to note is that certain fabulae seem to engender in their readers the urge to write new stories and texts set within them—and, quite frequently, to thereby RE-write the author’s original stories, or even “retcon” their fabula, to the end of making it more congenial to their particular interests or enthusiasms, or making it more just, or both.

B4—narratology and worldbuilding

I used Tolkien as an example in the previous section because his work is widely known, and because, as a fantasy epic, it’s a neutral case with regard to futuring. It could of course be argued that Tolkien’s oeuvre was in effect an exercise in writing an alternate mythology for northern European culture—indeed, this is one of the more enduring interpretations of Tolkien—but you’d be very hard pressed to find anyone who would claim Middle Earth is an example of futuring.

However, few would deny that he was doing worldbuilding—indeed, Tolkien is probably the example that most people would go to first, and his influence on the various forms of fantasy literature that followed the huge success of LotR in the 1960s is often decried for its having encouraged a tendency to over-build (and/or over-show) the fabula.

But as the example of Hemingway indicates, “straight” (or “literary” or “mainstream”) fiction writers are also engaged in worldbuilding. The difference is that a literary writer setting a story in the present of their own world can leave a lot of things unsaid, because they will be the default assumptions of the reader as regards geography, history etc. To make a sweeping generalisation, literary worldbuilding is mostly a matter of inventing characters and relationships and events: of developing fictional microgeography and microhistory, if you like, that plays out against a backdrop of default (or “real”) macrogeography and macrohistory.

Of course, the assumption of a default history has to do a lot of work: the reader’s knowledge (or lack thereof) has to step in to plug the contextual gaps that a literary writer wouldn’t bother to fill in themselves. This is why novels which were written in bygone eras can feel so strange and alien to a modern reader: we lack the contextual knowledge to be able to distinguish, for example, totally explicable and normal behaviour in a character from drastic and exceptional behaviour. Interestingly, however, the inverse is also true, in that we tend to mistake the fiction of the past for history.

And then there’s the case of the historical novel, i.e. a novel set in a historical era prior to the one in which it was written and published. Worldbuilding is definitely in play here, as well, but—at the macro level at least—the assumption (by both reader and author) is that the historical basis of the fabula is true to whatever extent the sources available allow. However, history (like archaeology) regularly revises its accounts of the past, so that we can think of historical novels less as fictions whose fabulae are essentially factual at the macro scale, and more as fictions whose fabulae are themselves imaginative reverse interpretations of the various texts and stories which history takes for its evidence base at any given point in time. And then there’s the alternate-history genre, which I (and others) would argue is much closer to science fiction than historical fiction, at least in narratological terms… but that is (if you’ll excuse the joke) a story for another day.

Because now we need to deal with science fiction, which is—or certainly seems to be—the most obvious literary parallel to the practice of futuring. This is complicated somewhat by the continued (and likely eternal) lack of a formal definition of science fiction that can be agreed upon and made to stand scrutiny. Nonetheless, it seems uncontroversial at this point to claim that futuring and science fiction share some considerable narratological overlap—but the manner of that overlapping is probably more easily explained by defining futuring, which is somewhat less controversial (if only because it’s a term with which fewer people are sufficiently familiar to care about).

So, here’s my pitch: futuring is the exploration (often, but not exclusively, through story) of fabulae which are in some sense temporally extrapolated from the “real” present in which the futuring activity is performed.

Note that the plausibility or probability of these extrapolated fabulae are secondary factors, at least from our current broad and theoretical point of vantage: a future in which a colony of human exiles-from-Earth in the Beta-Eridani system is colonised circa the year 2460 by sentient yet benign space-wasps is just as much a future (in the sense of my definition above, at least) as one in which the inhabitants of Earth circa 2050 manage (or maybe don’t manage) to keep global average temperatures from increasing more than 2ºC over a certain historical baseline temperature.

Perhaps, then, we might say instead that a future is any story whose fabula’s fourth dimension has a timeline that extends beyond the date at which it was published. The advantage of this definition—or perhaps its disadvantage, if you’re already a little confused—is that it makes plain the narratological similarity between paleofutures, i.e. futures developed at some point in the past, and historical novels: what was once an acceptably plausible fabula can become, with the passage of time, a laughable demonstration of its creator’s myopia.



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