Futures Thinking: Science Fiction

Why Science Fiction?

Audio Version:

Learning Guide: Here

Prezi Slides: Here

Hello and Welcome to BCM325 Future Cultures

This week we are talking Science Fiction and Futures Thinking. In the following square brackets ‘[ ]’ represent a slide transition.


[1] So why science fiction?

[2] Well, the core aim of this subject is to get you thinking and planning for the future.

[3] Not just your own personal future, but the future of the media and communication industries, technologies and practices [4] as well the future of the planet and humanity as it moves into the solar system and beyond.

[5] Science fiction as a genre has evolved a set of socially-agreed-upon conventions for imagining and representing many possible futures.

[6] Spaceships and time travel, robots and aliens, artificial intelligence and DNA manipulation, are all part of the speculative imaginary of science fiction futures.

[7] But science fiction does not predict the future, rather it represents how a possible future can be imagined by making specific changes to current conditions.

[8] Which means, the way we represent the future in films, books, comics and games, is very much informed by the now and how the present has come to be as the cumulation of the past.

[The Seven Beautifies of Science Fiction]

To start thinking about science fiction and how we can make use it to think critically about the future, this lecture is going to turn to the work of Professor Istvan Csicsery-Ronay and his book, The Seven Beautifies of Science Fiction, specifically we are going to focus on the third ‘beauty’ he calls “Future History”. Csicsery-Ronay argues that Science Fiction is more than a genre, it is a way of mythologising scientific and technical concepts into the spectrum of human interests and behaviours, both explaining them and attributing specific social values to them.


“It is from sf’s thesaurus of images that we draw many of our metaphors and models for understanding out technologized world, and it is as sf that many of our impressions of technology-aided desire and technology-riven anxiety are processed back into work of the imagination.”

[Past Futures]

Science fiction is not only about the future. Star Wars classically exists ‘A long time ago, in a Galaxy Far Far Away’. Science fiction offers a way of conceptualising the past, often described as alternative history, by presenting science and technology as contributing to a different reality.  Science Fiction, however, is always judged, against present conditions, whenever those conditions happen to be.


When we look back at Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, we get a sense of the concern for worker’s rights in the early age of industrialisation and automation.


When we look at the Wachowski’s Matrix from 1999, which we will be live streaming as part of this subject, we get a sense of concerns about artificial intelligence and virtual worlds in the early age of digital technologies and the internet.

[Mythic art]

In this way, sf produces ‘micromyths’ about historical processes that are used to construct the audience’s present as future-oriented.


Bladerunner is an example of what Csicsery-Ronay describes as the “prehistory of the future”, as it preconfigures our understanding of and attitudes towards artificial intelligence before they even fully emerge as a reality. This often results in very negative views of the future, as the demands of popular entertainment, like special effects and blockbuster action, drive the narrative, meaning that cautionary tales and dystopian nightmares, more outweigh utopian imaginary and less daunting stories.

[Flying Futures]

Most science fiction involves representing the future as being somehow ‘Futuristic’, which is an aesthetic that is not static and changes depending on a number of influences in graphic design, fashion, engineering, education and new technologies

From [Retro-futurism] to [Vaporwave] and [Glitch art].  

These are all nostalgic frames for recapturing the way the future has been represented in the past in art, design, fashion, music, television, comics, movies and games. They highlight the ways that the creative industries, from art to advertising, draw on the past to imagine the future


The futurism of science fiction, typically involves a ’novum’, which is the Latin term for [a ‘new thing’], described by science fiction scholar [Darko Suvin], as a [“scientifically plausible innovation”]

Examples of novums include warp travel and universal translators in Star Trek and the Babel Fish in Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Doctor Who’s Tardis, which travels in time and space, or the Delorean from Back to the Future are classic examples of sf novum. The dimensional portal gun in Rick and Morty is a particularly flexible novum that allows the show’s creators to be highly creative in the way they tell stories(For Rick and Morty fans, there is actually podcast on the Subject Blog with colleague and friend Travis Holland, in which we discuss the idea of a ‘black box’ which is a device, system or object that obfuscates or hides its operations).


Csicsery-Ronay says that science fiction’s main narrative strategy is to create convincing ideas about life in the future through precise details and historical cause and effect relationships, recounted by familiar voices. Science fiction is not prophecy, which distinguishes it from fantasy. Although typically narrated in past tense, science fiction does not predict the future but rather it seeks to explain a past future.

[Imaginaries – iPad]

The future is one of the key ‘imaginaries’ of science fiction, which like the novum, is a term for thinking about the influence science fiction objects have in bringing the future into being in subtle and interesting ways. An imaginary is a set of values, images or symbols that are common to a particular social group.


Take the imaginary of the mobile PC or ‘tablet’ device. As a iPad user and [Star Trek] fan, I often wonder if the design and function of modern tablets would be the same if the TV series hadn’t made them seem like such a useful and even ubiquitous device – what would tablet’s be like if StarTrek had contributed to the public imaginary of them back in the 1990s. 


Not only did Star Trek influence the development of the iPad, but it also had a big impact on me personally in terms of how I imagine uses for the tablet and incorporate it in my everyday workflow, that is very different to other users who were not exposed to that imaginary.


A science fiction novum or imaginary is  “… the illusion of a completed future that allows science fictions to be told, and for a parable-space to be formed, through which readers can shuttle back and forth between the fictive world and consensus reality.” A parable is a story with an instructive lesson, like a fable, it is a type of analogy. By imagining a fully realised future, science fiction mediates a specific relationship between the human present and the potential future.

[Matrix and Ghost in the Shell] 

Two movies we are going to examine this session, The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, present a full realised future in which humans can connect to the internet through a plug that inserts directly into their brain. Both of these films predate WiFi technology, which would now seem a more likely way to go directly online, through some kind of impacted chip. But both these movies informed a generation of programmers, hackers, engineers and researchers slowly working toward the idea of direct neural connectivity. These movies offer different Future Histories based on this novum, and both feature contemporary trends and anxieties about our techno-scientific approach to problem-solving.

[“Futuristic details are poetic devices for exoticizing the present.”]

In Bladerunner we see technologies introduced to overcome problems associated with the future, including overcrowding, climate change, and mass extinction. In the world of Bladerunner, space travel, terraforming, and colonisation are all made possible by the central novum of the replicant – a biological robot – a new slave race. Darko Suvin suggests that the novum is a logical extension of strategically isolated current trends projected into the future. This allows for the audience’s culture to become defamiliarised, its hidden significance revealed by what he calls ‘parabolic indirection’. Which means that science fiction is not about the future, it is about making the present strange in order to see it in a new way. The future is used as a convention to present distortions in the present and create a science-fictional awareness.

[“History cannot be imagined without a concept of the past having a future.”]

Paraphrasing, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Csicsery-Ronay suggests we can explain the future by what is most powerful in the present. At the same time, our sense of the present is saturated with anxieties, hopes, promises and plans.

[18th C]

Csicsery-Ronay argues that up until the 18th Century the past and the present were considered as a continuity: like a river flowing endlessly into the future. The past was separated from the present by memory. The future was the moment when developments originating in the past would be completed. As sacred history became secular, meaning disconnected from religion,  and the fate of the world became social.


“Human time had to be unmoored from the promises and curses of an original past.”


“Much of the intellectual energy of nineteenth-century Europe went into imagining universal improvement and the need to contain the chaos of leaving the safety of mythic history.”

“The scientific and philosophical systems of Darwin, and Marx, and other’s contributed to a sense of the Future as one of material improvement, greater freedom and power. 

Sf addressed audiences who felt they had an immediate stake in the technosocial disruptions, that they were remaking a world and doing so they “jettisoned” many of the aesthetic and historical axioms of elite western culture. 

[The Future As History]

The science fiction novum “trails its future behind it” like the contrails of a rocket. The novum transforms the readers present, from just another moment in the continuous past, into a dramatic prehistory of the future. The novum breaks apart familiar history and builds a new one, recreating the past to create a new imagined future. Most science fiction worlds are incredibly conservative, requiring a stable ground against which the novum can be fully experienced.


Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye described science fiction as romance that is overwhelmingly rationalised – “prosaic but plausible”. The Future History of science fiction uses historical realism to create the illusions that the setting is occurring in potentially real-time, familiar enough for the world to make sense and consider the implication of the novum’s disruptions. 


So that is just a small taste of Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s amazing take on science fiction, and Darko Suvin’s understanding of the science fiction imaginary of the novum. Hopefully, it’s been useful to those both familiar with the genre and to those completely unfamiliar with the texts we are going to be screening as part of this course. Definitely, use the idea of the novum and future history to think about the movies that we are going to be watching and start to identify the imaginaries involves and think about them in your tweets.

That’s it for me right now,  you’ll hear from me next time and remember:  The Future Is Now.


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