Primer: Inexplicable Ideas In Design Fiction

Something that the almost inscrutable science-fiction film Primer does quite well is to paint enough of the contours of its science and technology to give the viewer the sense that *something is going on that should make perfectly good sense..if I was only a bit more techo-literate in the arcane minutia of quantum mechanics, time travel and so on.

Early on we see the DIY garage tinkerers/hackers/engineers working on a proof-of-concept of…something. They’re in their *garage, and that’s where weird, misunderstood, works-of-passion happen, at least in the American suburbs _ like garage bands, garage science is populated in the cultural imaginary as where real, dyed-in-the-wool innovation happens. (Much like the time-travel science/design-fiction in How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, as it turns out.)

The scene above is a favorite. We watch a device of some sort — small, exposed printed-circuit board, with a LCD numerical display that changes on a little bit. Car batteries for power; roughly hewn bread boards. Shaking assemblies; slight bits of panic and confusion. Something is happening here, and you can only watch the visual story as it unfolds to fill in the gaps. The setting makes it all seem much more possible — garage, a couple of guys discussing their work in the vernacular of…whatever they’re working on. And somehow this makes it seem honest — it’s not didactic like some techoscience-based science-fiction — or even documentaries. We’re not meant to completely understand the quantum physics here, even if it were understandable. When the story telling becomes too didactic, it loses something. It should be as complex as it would be, and possibly completely impossible for anyone to understand but the six people in the world who are working on it, like String Theory or some such.

In an interview with the director:

From the start, he wanted his dialogue to sound absolutely authentic. The only way to accomplish this goal was to immerse himself in the study of physics — the shared fixation of his characters — until he became “conversant” in it. “I had never taken a physics course,” recalls [screenwriter/director/co-star] Carruth. “but I read a lot about it and consulted graduate student research projects I had found online.” In the movie, conversations among the characters are extremely realistic: they talk to each other using the kind of techno-speak that would come naturally to work-obsessed scientists.

The film itself is intriguing for its story and how its told on the screen, but also for the production. Shane Carruth — writer, director, film score, co-star, &c. — is an engineer who wanted to tell a story and so learned how to do so by teaching himself filmmaking. Done on the cheap — $7000 according to IMDB — it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004 and a $20,000 prize from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for films dealing with science and technology. (That’s cool.)

Further in the interview, he describes an insight on the aesthetic of new ideas and innovation, which is of course much more rough-hewn then was typical for the canon of science-fiction. It’s all about the DIY finish — things bought at the local hard-goods store, or McMaster and cobbled together as best as one can with, oftentimes, low-budgets. Perhaps something like what Google’s first server looks like.

The inspiration for PRIMER came to Carruth at a time when he was reading books about discoveries. He observed that “whether it involved the history of the number zero or the invention of the transistor, two things stood out. First, the discovery that turns out to be the most valuable is usually dismissed as a side-effect. Second, prototypes almost never include neon lights and chrome. I wanted to see a story that was more in line with the way real innovation takes place.”

Why do I blog this? To add some additional notes to the design fiction chronicles and their attendant style conventions.

Late Edition: Nicolas Nova has pointed us to a Time Line!


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The Week Ending Long Ago…031210

Tuesday December 29, 17.27.48

The week before was mostly reassessing the Trust project communication and making notes on what might need to be redone and what might need to be tossed out. The communication itself has a good rhythm although the last share of it — well, basically it felt like falling while skating, but never quite hitting the ground. Kinda cartoon-like. In the end, it was okay but I felt shit.

Other than this work, there was general housekeeping, some house buying and preparing a bit for what I might present for the Design Fiction panel at SXSW, which was to happen on Saturday the 13th. That was a bit poorly planned on two points. The first was that I expected to cover what I normally covered in an hour or 90 minute talk in 7 minutes. The second is that I wanted to cover some new material in addition to that. And there was a third thing — I wanted to use much more video rather than still images. Fail on all points, but at least the prep helped me work through the new stuff and cutting lots of video has given me some good exemplars for a forthcoming bit on genre conventions in science fiction film, which I’m super excited to work on in the coming weeks, house moving permitting.
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