Welcome to Imaginary Papers, a quarterly newsletter about science fiction worldbuilding, futures thinking, and the unplumbed depths of the imagination. We hope you'll join us in thinking carefully and whimsically about the tangled relationships between how we envision the future and how we see ourselves today.

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—Joey Eschrich, editor

Science Fiction Frames

Insights and analysis jumping off from a single frame of a film, TV show, or video game.

By Lisa Yin Han
Screenshot from the video game In Other Waters, showing a turquoise and yellow computer interface with dials, icons, and text, reading in part, "There's lots of dead material here so we should be able to take multiple samples."

In Other Waters (2020)

On its surface, In Other Waters (created by the one-person studio Jump Over the Age) presents a familiar video game premise—another futuristic adventure in an ocean environment. Like Abzû, it’s an immersive experience of exploration and discovery, prompting player interactions with underwater life and ecosystems, both deep and shallow. Like Subnautica, it’s set in an extraterrestrial ocean where players collect resources and monitor physical parameters, while staying alert to the hidden dangers of an alien world that is both terrifying and full of possibilities. As such, one cannot be faulted for expecting this game to involve similarly detailed scenery and immersive, hyperrealistic 3D graphics. These aesthetics are practically staples of science-fictional gaming.
Instead, players are denied all of this. While there is an ocean, there is no water. While there is an alien planet, there are no images of alien creatures. While there is futuristic technology, there is no simulation. There is only a bright turquoise topographic map, a simple navigation interface, with small dots representing spores and fungal organisms, and loads of descriptive text. When I started playing In Other Waters, I was struck by the game’s nonvisual approach to worldbuilding. The absence of photorealism was my first clue that this would be a different kind of game—one that foregrounds philosophical questions and sonic ambience over graphics and addictive gameplay.
Upon beginning, the player is brought into the storyline of xenobiologist Ellery Vas as she traverses and accrues knowledge about an alien ocean, while pursuing a mysterious mission to find a missing scientist named Minae Nomura. The player reads research logs, collects and analyzes samples, and follows the instructions of an AI text interface, which guides Ellery through this space. While the simple interface is aesthetically pleasing and undeniably futuristic, In Other Waters returns us to an old-school text-game format, exemplified by games such as the 1980 hit Adventure, in which the written word mediates between the player and the game environment. In her book Playing Nature, media scholar Alenda Chang contends that “Text games remind us that game worlds are not just substitutive or compensatory simulations, but also evocative spaces in their own right.” Chang and game scholar Alexander Galloway have argued that game realism is about more than “realistic” or cutting-edge computer graphics and aesthetics; rather, realism consists of a proximity between the game world and the player’s lived context—a social realism. On this front, I have never played a more realistic game.
Indeed, from discoveries of hydrothermal vents to fungal communication networks, the story of In Other Waters is a well-written and remarkably accurate reflection on the current state of affairs in Earth’s oceans, clearly inspired by historical events such as the discovery of hydrothermal vents in 1977. As the game progresses, players must increasingly inhabit complex ideological quandaries about human and nonhuman kinships, weigh the ethics of biotechnology, and mourn the devastating impacts of capitalist exploitation. By the time the player unravels the game’s central mystery, it becomes clear that Ellery’s journey through the oceans of planet Gliese 677Cc is an allegory for our Earthly past, present, and potential future. In our own waters, corporations (represented in the game by the Baikal Corporation) mine, weaponize, and despoil ocean ecosystems. Meanwhile, marine scientists lead missions that are dictated and funded by those very same companies, even though they may harbor their own appreciation for nonhuman intelligence, ecological interconnectedness, and wild nature’s inherent right to exist. In Other Waters’ AI interface also prompts us to reflect on games themselves as human-computational assemblages and environments—socially and technologically constructed, fluid, and interactive, just like our “real-world” environments.
So often, games set in extraterrestrial locales formulaically prompt players to terraform and commit simulated acts of violence to survive. In Other Waters makes a critical intervention, challenging the currently popular farming and survival game genres, which largely rely on extraction and colonization in their game mechanics. Here, the conceit of futurity and extraterrestrial displacement is no excuse to replicate the damage, but rather presents an opportunity to meditate on our present march towards environmental destruction. We have long recognized science fiction storytelling in literature and film as having the capacity to invite affective and ethical engagement. In Other Waters makes a strong case that games can do the same.

Forgotten Futures

Visions of the future that deserve more attention.

By Jonathon Keats
A photograph of a person sitting at the prow of a small boat, facing away from the camera, facing a shore fronted by a huge semi-translucent geometrical wall that seems to enclose a city.

Superstudio (1960s/1970s)

When the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman revealed plans to populate a stretch of the Arabian desert from the Red Sea to the border of Jordan with a 100-mile-long city housing a million inhabitants, Gian Piero Frassinelli was not amused. As the last surviving member of Superstudio, a radical Italian architecture collective active in the 1960s, Frassinelli saw bin Salman’s linear city as a blatant appropriation of his group’s signature work.
Like the Line (as bin Salman’s project is known), Superstudio’s Continuous Monument was proposed as an all-encompassing megastructure cutting through mountains and valleys with brutal Cartesian logic. But the lack of credit wasn’t what upset Frassinelli, nor was the fact that he probably won’t see a penny of the $500 billion budget. “Seeing the dystopias of your own imagination being created is not the best thing you could wish for,” he told the New York Times in an interview last February. According to Frassinelli, the 1969 proposal for Superstudio’s unbuilt Continuous Monument was intended to be ironic.
Although Frassinelli’s collaborators died before bin Salman revealed his plans, they probably would’ve shared his ire. After the group disbanded in the mid-1970s, Adolfo Natalini, Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, and Roberto Magris presented Superstudio’s oeuvre of visionary architecture as critical commentary on the bombastic hubris of mid-century Modernism and the capitalist society that supported it. The seductive photomontages they created to illustrate their ideas, which have become standard imagery in architectural history books, are generally presented as sophisticated satire. In architecture schools, the group now exemplifies the principled rejection of monumentality. The work has been venerated by starchitects ranging from Rem Koolhaas to Zaha Hadid.
Bin Salman’s slight aside, Superstudio remains a major force, and will likely be remembered long after the Line is erased by the Arabian sands. However, the true accomplishment of the collective has been obscured by persistent misrepresentation. The impetus for iconic projects such as the Continuous Monument is largely forgotten, diminishing their impact. A rich new retrospective organized by CIVA, and an attractive catalogue published by König, provide valuable context by exhibiting hundreds of items from the Superstudio archive.
The Continuous Monument was the outcome of Superstudio’s “theory of minimum effort.” Having tried and failed to wrest civilization from the grip of capitalism with home furnishings inspired by Pop Art, the collective decided to design a system that would eliminate the need for design. They took the cube as “the first and last act in the history of architectural ideas” and designed villas for mountaintop and seaside by stacking cubes in monotonous Modernist grids.
So far, so satirical.
But the opportunity to participate in the 1969 Graz Triennial for Art and Architecture enticed Superstudio to make the ultimate effort to put their theory of effortlessness into practice. They made the grid monumental in scale, iterating the cube to sprawl over landscapes ranging from midtown Manhattan to Niagara Falls. The city within the grid was presented as an ideal living environment for all people, an egalitarian antidote to the stratification of New York. Equally notable, the Continuous Monument was posited as a solution to human destruction of nature: an enormous containment structure that would bar human access to fragile ecologies.
Frassinelli is right that the Continuous Monument was not seriously intended as a blueprint for future construction. However, it was also not strictly ironic, and certainly cannot be categorically framed as a dystopia. Originating with an earnest attempt to counteract the excesses of design, the grid paradoxically became a design of its own. Efforts to expand upon it, born out of genuine environmental concern and economic idealism, led to a totalitarian Eden—less evocative of paradise than a prison—that was also an egregious environmental blight. The photomontages are clearly absurdist, but their ridiculous excess doesn’t ridicule anything in particular. What criticism they contain is primarily self-directed. For all the charisma of Superstudio imagery, the collective’s practice was unusually introspective, and their introspection made the imagery nuanced.
The members of Superstudio often referred to their projects as “negative utopias.” This term applied to the Continuous Monument and to the group’s subsequent Supersurface, a two-dimensional version of the grid that was supposed to dematerialize architecture—and eliminate the environmental footprint of construction—by freely distributing energy and information wherever people went. These negative utopias were not negations, nor were they condemnations, but rather were explorations of the consequences of good intentions. Like a photographic negative, they provided an alternative perspective on familiar ideals, highlighting the unexamined assumptions lurking in the shadows.
In that sense, the Continuous Monument was made for the present, confronting the hubris of Mohammed bin Salman’s desert utopia from a post-utopian future.
A version of this essay was previously published by

Permission to use the image above was generously furnished by CIVA. Image information: Superstudio,
Il Monumento Continuo, 1969 – 1970, Positano, 1969. Collage, graphite and prints on tracing paper, original mount. Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI.

Imagination Elsewhere

Celebrating the work of our fellow travelers.

By Ruth Wylie

On Imagination (2017)

At the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI), we’ve started to really wrestle with the term “imagination.” What is it? How can it be cultivated? Can, or should, it be measured? Attempting to come up with answers to these questions has led us to read multiple papers, watch dozens of YouTube videos, and convene conversations with numerous experts. It was through this process that I discovered poet Mary Ruefle’s essay On Imagination, published as a chapbook by the nonprofit press Sarabande. It’s a delightful read that presents an artist’s take on a term that has been so elusive to define.
Ruefle begins by stating, “It is impossible for me to write about imagination; it is like asking a fish to describe the sea.” The notion of the ubiquity of imagination is a consistent theme throughout the essay, with Ruefle arguing that imagination is inherent in everything we do and experience. She writes about the power of imagination, describing both the benefits it provides in creating art and catalyzing innovation, but also the pain and sadness that it can inflict. For example, while the term often connotes creativity and whimsy, a vivid imagination can be a contributor to feelings of anxiety and paranoia. Throughout the essay, Ruefle continues to explore, and push against, the dualities of the construct: imagination is neither good nor bad; imagination is as real or as made up as anything else; and “the imagination is not what you play with, the imagination plays with you.”
Ruefle’s take that imagination is a fundamental capacity that we all share strongly resonates with our perspective at CSI. Increasing imaginative capacity is about awakening something that has been forced to lie dormant, not about introducing something new. As Ruefle writes:
“A man taught art at a university. When he came home after work, his daughter asked him what he did that day. He said, ‘I taught people how to draw.’ And she said, ‘People forget how to draw?’ Artists are just people who have not forgotten how to draw.”

Defining Imagination

Perspectives on imagination and what makes it (and us) tick.

The mind is always incubating an alternative or supplemental reality. Our experience is always imagination-laden. Yet the vivid, and often unconscious, nature of this cognitive process isn’t always enriching. If imagination is an involuntary creative act of cognition before downstream rationality uses it, it can also be dangerous.


Stephen T. Asma and Paul Giamatti

In Aeon magazine, 2021

Copyright © 2021 Center for Science and the Imagination, All rights reserved.

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