Photograph of Bruce Sterling by Guido van Nispen
I’m a science fiction writer, and
as I became more familiar with
design, it struck me that the
futuristic objects and services
within science fiction are quite
Why? That’s not a question
often asked. The reason is pretty
simple: Science fiction is a form
of popular entertainment. The
emotional payoff of the science
fiction genre is the sense of wonder it conveys. Science fiction
“design” therefore demands some
whiz-bang, whereas industrial
design requires safety, utility,
serviceability, cost constraints,
appearance, and shelf appeal. To
these old-school ID virtues nowadays we might add sustainability
and a decent interface.
The classic totems of sci-fi: the
rayguns, space cruisers, androids,
robots, time machines, artificial
black-boxes. They have a deep
commonality: They’re imaginary.
Imaginary products can never
maim the consumer, they get no
user feedback, and lawsuits and
regulatory boards are not a problem. That’s why their design is
glamorously fantastic and, therefore, basically, crap.
On occasion, sci-fi prognostications do become actual objects
and services. Science fiction
then promptly looks elsewhere.
It shouldn’t, but it does. I like
to think that my science fiction
became somewhat less flaccid
once I learned to write “design
fiction,” as I now commonly do.
I believe that I’ve finessed that
issue, at least in my own practice.
However, when science fiction thinking opens itself to
design thinking, larger problems
appear. These have to do with
speculative culture generally,
the way that our society imagines itself through its forward-looking disciplines. Many problems I once considered strictly
literary are better understood as
Literature has platforms. By
this I mean the physical structures on which literature is
conceived, designed, written,
manufactured and distributed,
remembered and forgotten.
Literary infrastructure has user-experience constraints.
To expand on this, consider
science fiction, a literary form
that is young, small, and geek-ish. Fantastic writing is old as
the scriptures. Science fiction, by
sharp contrast, emerged in the
1920s from down-market electronics parts catalogs for teenage
radio enthusiasts. That was science fiction’s original platform.
The American pulp-fiction
platform is now long dead. Still,
any contemporary Web designer
can easily understand how and
why science fiction functioned in
its early days. Pulp-paper magazines were cheap, affordable, easily distributed, and able to serve
niche markets. Effective graphic
icons quickly distinguished science fiction from its sister pulp
genres: mysteries, westerns,
May + June 2009