The Magrathea Protocol, parts B5 and C: back to the futures

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).

B5—from page to screen (and beyond)

OK, that was a bit heavy—but the worst is done, and I promise I’ve done the best I could to compromise between making it simple and making it relevant.

Now, to reiterate: Bal’s model was developed for prose fiction, and I’ve used prose fiction to illustrate its elements. Things get a little more complicated once we start looking at other media. Take cinema, or video more broadly: in this case, we might think of there being a second textual layer around all of the standard elements, with the inner text being the script or screenplay, and the outer text being the audiovisual presentation developed from the script or screenplay. This means there’s one or more extra layer(s) of interpretation in play, as well: think of Peter Jackson’s choices regarding his adaptation of Tolkien’s work to the screen (and the ire that those choices provoked in certain enthusiasts of the original books). Those choices can (and often do) involve alternations to, subtractions from, or additions to the fabula and/or the story.

There are also the affordances to consider: there are many differences between the screen and the page, but here are two of the most obvious and consequential. Firstly, the camera is obliged to show rather than tell; indeed, the camera “eye” (and “ear”) replaces the narrative “voice” of a written story. This gives the impression of narrative without a narrator, and thus implies a certain objectivity—though it is anything but objective! In a sense, the director becomes the narrator: it is the director who chooses which moments and locations of the story we get to see and hear, and which we don’t. That story, and the fabula in which it plays out, were authored by Tolkien—as the marketing materials for Jackson’s movies are keen to emphasise—but they have also been remixed by Jackson (likely with the assistance of a large crew of directorial assistants and writers, perhaps with some input from the actors as well), reinterpreted still further by the costume and set designers and the CGI unit, filled out by the sound designers and the composers of the score.

The point being: the authorship (and hence the creative control of the story and fabula) we encounter in Tolkien’s books is very clear; the authorship of the movies is far more complicated. Furthermore, cinema is an inherently spectacular medium, almost to the point of parody now that CGI has become so powerful. Compare for a moment with, say, a low-budget student theatre adaptation of LotR: again, you’ve got some rewriting and reinterpretation going on, and the interposition of a directorial authorship around the source text, but you also have a situation where the words and the expressiveness of the actors have to carry a lot more of the weight.

Which brings us to the second big difference in affordances. The unique power of written fiction is, I would argue, its ability to convey interiority: written fiction can show and/or tell us what characters do and say, as can cinema, but only written fiction can reliably convey what those characters think and feel. One might counter that an actor’s value is surely based on their ability to convey interiority, and—leaving aside the purpose of Hollywood heroes like Tom Cruise, which lies precisely in being so devoid of interiority and affect that the audience can project onto them whatever feelings they want—there is surely some truth to that. But as in life, the interpretation of non-verbal cues is imperfect and ambiguous. There exist cinematic devices and strategies for spelling out what a character thinks or feels—the monologue, the voice-over—but they tend to be clunky; they break the spell of the supposedly objective and realist narrative that we see through the camera’s eye.

C—back to the futures

Let’s now think about creative works of futuring qua futuring—and I hope that you will forgive me for bundling experiential futures, narrative prototyping and design fiction in the same space for the sake of brevity. Let’s start with design fiction, which was glossed by Bruce Sterling as “the use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change”: at the risk of simplifying hugely, the design-fictioneer makes (or approximates) an object which purports to come from a future world which differs from our own. The term “diegetic prototype” ties design fiction closely to film theory, in which a diegetic object is one which exists in the fictional world that the movie explores1. As such, we might usefully think of a design-fictioneer as being a props builder for a film that doesn’t exist: there is no script, and seemingly no story, only this one designed object.

I put it to you, then, that “diegetic” as we use it in this context means “of the fabula”, and that a design fiction is therefore a chunk of a fabula brought to the audience without any of the mediating outer layers of the narratological model getting in the way; in effect, design fiction as a method turns the model inside out, like a glove. This means that, while there may seem to be no story associated with the fabula from which the object supposedly comes, there is in fact a story contained within the object. There are even characters, in a way: there is the implied character of the buyer/user of the object (the designer’s “use case” is a form of character sketch, after all); the character of the designer who imagined both the buyer/user and the solution to the use-case that the object implies; the character(s) of the firm that took the thing to market. This bundle of implied characters implies a story in which those characters might plausibly (if sometimes absurdly) exist. That implied story, in turn, fleshes out (through the imagination of the viewer) more information about the world (or fabula) from which the object is taken.

Now we can return to Bleecker’s beef with worldbuilding as a label for commercial foresight work. Those top-down scenarios attempt to describe and explain everything; to refer back to an earlier distinction, they tell rather than show, even—or perhaps particularly—when they use visual and video material. Design fiction, by contrast, only shows, and shows as little as possible. But in both cases, a world (a fabula) is being built.

So perhaps we can describe the difference in another way: in design fiction, as in the better sort of science fiction novel, the worldbuilding is a collaboration between the imagination of the designer/author and the imagination of the viewer/reader. In commercial scenario work, there is no room for collaboration: the agency has done everything for you, and their future is (both literally and figuratively) merely a lifeless description that you can buy2—or which, more likely, has been commissioned and constructed to order.

Now, there are many design fictions—particularly those whose producers work closer to the art world—in which the diegetic object (or image, or film) is supplemented by one or more framing texts; these texts may be diegetic themselves (as in the text on the packaging of a diegetic product), or they may be of the viewer’s world (as in the descriptive card or booklet accompanying an object on display in an exhibition). As a result, modelling the narrative(s) in play becomes more complex—though I maintain that it is a) still possible, and b) still valuable.

And then there are experiential futures installations, which we might liken to the set for a piece of immersive theatre (or a location set for a work of cinema) with no script or actors. Or, to put it another way: experiential installations are a collection of diegetic objects sufficiently large that the audience can literally get inside it and wander around; it’s (part of) a fabula made real! But some of those diegetic objects incorporate texts and scripts and characters: perhaps there’s a (diegetic) newspaper or magazine lying around, or a show playing on a (diegetic) TV screen. At this point, the inversion of Bal’s model is complete: the audience enters the fabula first, from which the broad shape of the story can begin to be inferred, and then gradually filled out (or not!) through the discovery of (pieces of) the text(s).

To be clear, this is not to say that design fiction or experiential futures are necessarily inversions of a heretofore standard narratological model; rather, it is to say that these approaches to futuring can, and demonstrably do, make use of elements for which the standard narratological model—which, you will recall, was developed with prose fiction in mind—provides us with names and relationships.

1—The distinction may be clearer with reference to soundtracks: a diegetic sound is one which emanates from the action of the scene that the viewer is seeing (e.g. clinking cutlery and muttered conversations in the romantic restaurant scene) while a non-diegetic sound is interposed on top of the scene by directorial fiat (e.g. the swelling string music that cue up the appropriate emotional response in a jaded audience).

2—It bears noting that there exists a similar disagreement about the role of worldbuilding in science fiction criticism, perhaps best summed up a notorious and much-misparsed riff by the author M John Harrison, in which he referred to worldbuilding as the “clomping foot of nerdism” in genre fiction. Harrison’s novels have some of the richest fabulae to be found in the genre, and as such I interpret his objection to be not to the creation of fabulae, but to the urge that some authors have to show every single thing they have imagined to the reader, often to the detriment of any other element of the narrative.



, ,

Want to read more VCTB, but don’t use an RSS reader? No worries—you can follow along by email instead. Sign up here:

Join 90 other subscribers.

Comments and pingbacks

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.