Re-Engineering Science Fiction

Will Ellwood asked me to expand on a section of last nights blog-post, which I am also interested to do because the idea came out of left field whilst I was writing it and it seems like it might be worth exploring further.

As I read the handbook, Shock is making me think some things. It is making me think that science fiction is powered by a small number of essential processes, and Shock does a good job of pinpointing what they are. It also makes me think that if we can accurately describe the meta framework of science fiction this way, then the task for science fiction writers is not to keep filling that framework with more stuff, but to start reengineering the framework itself. Don’t keep churning the same old products out of the factory. Don’t even build a new factory. Conceptualise a whole new manufacturing process and see what it produces.

Read last nights post on Shock for more context to this.

Shock reverse engineers science fiction, and reduces the genre to the interaction of two elements. Issues, which are the themes that SF explores, and Shocks, which are the tropes through which it explores them. So to give a classic example, War of the Worlds is a product of Martian Invaders (The Shock) being used as a way to explore Colonialism (The Issue). Or Neuromancer could be described as an interaction between Emergent Intelligence (Shock) and Spiritual Transcendence (Issue). You could even argue that this simple equation describes the entire SF genre:

Shock x Issue = Sci-Fi !

Ok. I’m not seriously going to argue that. But it is interesting to consider how much of the SF genre does work around that basic equation. As a test, take five of your favourite SF novels and see if they can be described within that equation. I’d be interested to hear suggestions of SF novels or short stories that do not.

So when we talk about innovation and experimentation, and about moving the SF genre forward, what we tend to mean is inventing new Shocks and exploring new Issues, or using old Shocks to explore new Issues or vice versa. So in Metropolis the Robot shock is used to explore the dehumanising process of industrialisation. A few decades later Philip K Dick uses the same shock to explore human empathy. Or Vernor Vinge describes the Singularity and introduces a brand new shock which a host of other writers then adapt to different uses. And in such ways does the genre advance.

Lets assume that the Sci-Fi equation holds true (I’m happy to be shown it does not, this is more of a thought experiment than anything else) then perhaps a fertile ground for experimentation is to start reworking the equation itself. Hmm…how about…

Shock x Character = ?

To me, that would suggest using an SFnal trope, lets say Alien Invasion, and exploring its consequences on a purely personal level for one character archetype, with no reference to the broader social context. So, Alien Invasion and the Tragic Hero. Or Alien Invasion and the Threshold Guardian. At the very least, this kind of playful tinkering makes for some interesting writing prompts!

Hmm…it is late and I have much work to tackle tomorrow so I can explore this no further tonight. So please, explore it for me. How far can the Sci-Fi equation be stretched? What other factors could replace Shocks and Issues? Or could we abandon the equation all together and formulate an entirely new one? And of course, does any of this make any sense at all, or am I just spouting nonsense?

I’ll be back in the morning, at which time I expect a fully re-engineered SF genre ready and waiting for me.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

6 thoughts on “Re-Engineering Science Fiction

  1. How I love the smell of post-structuralism in the morning…

    The real game being played is this:

    1) reduce a particular item of culture ad absurdum — to the level of cyphers (in this case Science Fiction)

    2) Suggest that this reductionist approach reveals an underlying structure

    3) Make a claim that only the items of that culture that are worthwhile are those that challenge this structure or refer to the structure or in some way or self-referentially mention the structure itself in a playful game with the reader. Who gets to decide which of these cultural outputs are actually transgressive? Why, your bona fide cultural game keepers!

    Its a game I won’t be playing.


  2. Damien, Google Alerts tells me you’re talking about Shock: and I want to play!

    An important thing to keep in mind is that the Grid is only the very first element of play. At the junctures of Issue and Shock are a Protagonist and an Antagonist. Other elements of the world that are not currently under the lens are “Minutiæ”, which are controlled by the Audience.

    The Protagonist represents particular issues within the society, to be sure. But the societal issues and the Shock collide precisely at the point of tension between Protag and Antag. They’re not stuff happening, personless, without moral consequences. The whole point of the game is to see what characters decide to do when given impossible choices about their world and the people they’re close to.

    Now, one of the weaknesses of Shock: is that it’s often hard to get really close to the characters because they’re so representative. That’s rectified by having multiple chapters with recurring characters and relationships. To encourage that, I’m building a multi-chapter structure into Human Contact, a far-future (probably), interstellar setting/ruleset. If you like, you can follow its development over at xenoglyph.

    The proof of a game is in the playing. Sit down with two people and see what you make! I’d love to know what you think of the process after an evening or two’s play.


  3. Hi Joshua! Yes, I am going to try hard to play the game for a time, despite being a nonRPG player (through lack of opportunity rather than inclination) and will report back here. I would really likely to know more about the process you went through to design the game. Is there any more information about that or could you say any more?


  4. The short answer is that I wanted a roleplaying game like Schismatrix or Red Mars, but was stymied by existing games. Most had rules that were both designed to be ignored, and lacked the tools to make stuff happen when you needed it to happen. They were designed at cross-purposes.

    Part of it was also that I didn’t want a game that was used to replicate science fiction, but one that would help you create it. Science fiction is about thought experiments, right? There’s no reason RPGs should be limited to reproducing others’ experiments.

    So, I started asking myself what my favorite bits of SF had in common — Blade Runner, Logan’s Run, Silent Running, Schismatrix, Red/Green/Blue Mars, Dune, 2001, Songs of a Distant Earth, and even Star Trek had that all drew me in in the same way. I did what I could to make sure everything in the game related to the parts that draw me in to good SF, and that there were as few other parts as possible.

    Since writing the game, I’ve been on an SF novel binge and have become increasingly fond of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Ekumen novels (particularly The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Telling) and Iain M. Banks’ Culture (particularly Player of Games and Use of Weapons). Those are encouraging new developments in my game design as well, as I figure out the structure of those works.

    But I’m being pretty broad and prosaic. What in specific would you like to know?


  5. Damien, regarding the development of the game, I did a podcast interview with Joshua in 2008 that you can listen to.

    Your post reminded me of an observation I made about shock:, and keep trying to impress people with to no avail. Anyway, the grid setup in the game sortakinda replicates a scientific experiment’s structure in fictional form. You have the independent variable (the Shock(s)), and then you see what application of that independent variable does to the dependent variables (the Issues) as expressed on the experiment’s subjects (the ‘Tagonists).



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