Design Fiction or Science Fiction?

In today’s workshop our class engaged in a symposium on the broad topic of design fiction.

It’s taken some time for me to understand how to differentiate between what might be considered or categorised as design fiction, and material that better meets the definition of science fiction.

Granted, I have had relatively little exposure to science fiction in the popular sense of the genre, as I prefer to read biographies, memoirs, and like, and watch kitsch rom-coms and dramas, rather than your Matrixs and Blade Runners. I must admit, I haven’t even seen all the Star Wars films, nor Avatar. Perhaps – in fact I’m sure – I’m missing out, but at this point in time, that’s how the grass has grown.

However, during our discussion I was reminded of a book I read and loved, in my younger years. The novel Will Buster and the Gelmet Helmet by Australian-born author Odo Hirsch, (real name David Kausman) is about a boy who’s chosen as part of an educational experiment run by Professor Alphonse Gelmet’s Academy of Leadership Excellence. The story is set in the future, where ‘the Wizard Wars of the 21st century’ are part of a ‘dull history lesson’, and Will gets around in a HoverPod, a kind of flying car (while being much more advanced than The Flying School Bus).

It turns out Will Buster is now the protagonist of a three-book series which goodreads files under the genre of ‘speculative fiction’. (As a side note, our tutor remarked that the most notable work of literature in this genre is likely to be George Orwell’s 1984.)

Hirsch is quoted to have said, ‘For me, writing is great fun. I get to make up a world and I get to look at that world with freshness and curiosity.’

In our class symposium we decided the fundamental distinction between design fiction and science fiction is this: science fiction is narrative-based. It relies on one key event or technological development that drastically changes the environment. On the other hand, design fiction’s focus is on creating a world or furthering the world through a multiplicity of developments that lead to more realistic and imaginable social changes. Design fiction is less prescriptive, and its concepts and inventions invite a variety of futures through acting on the world in a particular way.

While the Will Buster trilogy is a) a children’s series and b) could simply be dismissed as such (fiction), today’s discussion has left me wondering whether Hirsch really might be channeling something which is more intrinsically in keeping with design fiction. From memory, I recall Will living in a world where education is fed to students through digital devices, teachers are effectively defunct, and technological advances have led to greater independence and autonomy for pre-teen children.

In teachers’ notes written by Kevin Steinberger, he too suggests Will’s life ‘unfolds in a futuristic Orwellian world of social engineering, state institutions, public surveillance, robots and hover vehicles’. In its most basic sense, it is a story of good and evil and Steinberger advises teachers to ask their students to consider ‘what is life like in Will Buster’s time? What does the place look like? How different is it from the world as we know it?’ For our purposes, to this I would add; what developments or technological advances have led to this reality, and what have been their social implications?

Some may argue that many of Orwell’s portentous moralisings have evidenced themselves. If this is the case, maybe too, Hirsch’s fiction holds somewhat dim prospects for the future of our education.

  1. I choose Design Fiction. PS- I too have not seen Star Wars, but you must must must watch Avatar. In a way, I understood my humanity and existence a little bit more after watching it.

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