The Mythology of Change: Designing and Empowering Voices in Contemporary Science Fiction

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus’

Today’s guest contributor is writer, artist, and animator Natalia C. Lopes. A graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master’s Degree Program of the College of Art & Design, her essay, “The Mythology of Change: Designing and Empowering Voices in Contemporary Science Fiction,” was first published in the College of Design’s Student Publication magazine FLUX: Design in Transition.

Upon the first publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818, the birth of the genre we know today to be science fiction was realized. Originally published anonymously, this tale of creation gone awry received favorable reviews from critics. Encouraged by this reception, Shelley claimed authorship of the work, resulting in subsequent critics immediately dismissing it.

The knowledge of the voice behind the work, being that of a woman barely in her twenties, suddenly made it more difficult for it to be validated and accepted. Yet if not for Shelley, we may possibly have never conceived of a genre, now beloved by many, that impacts us tremendously in its discussion of what humanity might face in our future.

The character of Victor Frankenstein is at first depicted as in control of his knowledge and of his creation. But as soon as it comes to life, his fear and neglect of it produces monstrous results, and for the remainder of the novel, he spends his time searching for the creature in order to destroy it, as its existence haunts him.

While the ephemeral nature of power, who has it, and who will inherit it, has long been a part of the discussion of science fiction narratives and what they mean for us, it is interesting to note that the first science fiction novel dealt with the consequences of letting technology and power have too much control.

The Creature (Jonny Lee Miller) wrestles with his maker, Victor Frankenstein (Benedict Cumberbatch), in Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre production of ‘Frankenstein’

Today, the concept of power has new meaning as those who were once marginalized are slowly emerging as active voices in conversations enabled by accessible and portable technology. Among these voices, the most active should be that of the contemporary maker and storyteller. The primary role of designers and storytellers today should be to bring contemporary issues to the forefront of their work, and to assert their voice in unique ways by utilizing technology to contribute meaningful and accessible work. While in Shelley’s case the author’s voice was considered in her time to be as important as the ideas being expressed, this notion can be used as a positive in today’s design practice.

The nature of change is a topic that remains pervasive in science fiction narratives, since designers and problem-solvers have realized many of the solutions proposed in science fiction stories that were at one time or another impossible to imagine. We are also undergoing a period of great transition, not just in a global sense but also in the sense that the ultimate voice of authority — the voice of credibility — now takes many forms.

Because of our unprecedented access to technology, the everyday person can find and belong to a community of like-minded individuals that, when engaged in a proactive way, can become ultimate driving forces for change and action. What better way to engage and encourage people than with designing new tools that they can use for creation and conversation? Or better yet, for the aspiring storyteller to engage their audience in new ways using technology not only as part of the content, but in tandem with the form in which their story is told, the message and the medium becoming one and the same?

Oftentimes contemporary science fiction storytellers focus too much on the spectacular fear of it all: fear of space, of isolation, of the rising fascist dystopia, of the collapsing environment, of the other. While this is a necessary commentary and certainly a valid one, it is my belief that today’s world needs stories with a focus on how to combat this fear with accessible ingenuity.

Connecting our storytelling with the hybrid nature of media, therefore, allows designers to bring in new tools we have yet to use for the purpose of storytelling and engagement, and merging the form with the content of the story, creating new opportunities for design and for designers to see new problems to solve.

One typically sees design as a way of solving problems for the masses, or for a particular demographic or situation. In the case of storytelling and design, there is no need necessarily for a product to be invented, but rather the encouragement of experimentation and of trial and error, that eventually might lead us one day to place meaning and value to new concepts that empower all.

‘The Iron Giant,’ directed by Brad Bird (Photo: Warner Bros. Studio)

Just as in the film The Iron Giant, arguably an animated version of the Frankenstein story, the title robot helps to create art out of spare parts and garbage in the junkyard that he hides in, so we can potentially learn to utilize what has been disposed of or devalued by others to empower our narratives.

By speaking about technology while utilizing technology to tell new stories, audiences may grow to understand how to engage with the world and empower their own voices using what is around them. There are new needs and new voices in need of expression, and for tools to be designed for those voices.

What allows certain voices to remain in power and oppressive to other points of view, is the value that is placed in what those in power use to empower themselves. Put more simply, those who can’t have what those in power have don’t know what it’s like to value what they can’t have.

In the film Ex Machina, another more recent incarnation of Shelley’s novel, there is an almost wordless scene in which the robot Ava, who is trapped in a room for most of the film, repairs herself before making her escape into the human world.

After learning about humans and being embedded with a drive to become a part of them, she literally and figuratively completes herself by taking the skin from previous humanoid robots and placing flesh on parts of her body that were of synthetic material. In this way, she refashions herself in her own image, no longer functioning for or according to her creator.

Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robotic A.I., from Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’

The scene is poignant and beautiful, as it stands for the power of design and self-expression, as imperfect as it might be, perfectly flawed.

Regardless of the aesthetic, the function of design for new storytelling and empowerment rests in its message. The tools we need to empower our voices and those of others are not only around us, but also within us.

Copyright © 2016 by Natalia C. Lopes

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