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2015 Syllabus

Syllabus of the Fall 2015 class

Published onOct 12, 2020
2015 Syllabus


Instructors: Joost Bonsen and Dan Novy
Faculty Advisor: Joe Paradiso
Meeting Time: Tue 7-9 in E15-359
FALL TERM — (Tuesday, Sept. 15, through Tuesday, Dec. 15)
11 Tuesdays + Final Exam Presentation.


‘Pataphysics (French: ‘pataphysique): The science of imaginary solutions.

‘Science Fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive.’ — Ursula Le Guin

‘A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.’ — Frederik Pohl

Far more than escapist fantasy or Saturday morning ray gun serials, Science Fiction has become the ambient ideaspace of our time. An author’s words or a director’s vision can inspire a generation of designers and engineers to work on the “Big Problems” of an age or to tread lightly as they wield the great power of science and discovery. From Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to SynthBio’s programmed life-forms; from Star Trek’s Communicator to the StarTAC Flip Phone; from William Gibson’s Cyberspace to the Internet of today; Science Fiction is the medium where new ideas are born, prototyped, and become technological reality.  

With a focus on the creation of functional prototypes, this class combines the analysis of classic and modern science fiction texts and films with physical fabrication or code-based interpretations of the technologies they depict. Topics will include the future of Matter, Energy, Medicine, Food, Cities, Brains, Emerging Nations, Sex/Gender, Money, War, Transport, Aging, Entertainment, Design, Religion, and more. Students will be exposed to concepts of digital fabrication, machine vision, speculative design, blockchain technology, interface design, machine learning, neuroscience, and synthetic biology to explore how tales of the future can inform cutting edge technology today. Guest lecturers and representatives from sponsor companies working in these areas will contribute to select project critiques. Students should have at least basic experience with fabrication techniques and/or coding skills.  We especially encourage students participating in How To Make (Almost) Anything and other skillbuilding fabrication, electronics, coding, and similar classes to consider taking Sci Fab concurrently.  Our emphasis is on exploring and finding the most interesting and compelling things to prototype — in our case, as inspired by Science Fiction.  We require you to commit to regular readings and/or viewings, active participation in class discussions, to have an open mind, to work on in-class design and other exploratory exercises, two iterations of project prototypes during the first and second month, and a final project.


Grading will be based on attendance, thoughtful participation in class discussion, design exercises, project critiques, and how successfully class projects incorporate concepts addressed in readings (30%). Participation includes speaking during class, being attentive and engaged, as well as posting, commenting on, and critiquing online materials at the class website. Two iterations of project prototypes will be required (15% each). The final project will be worth 40% (including documentation). Projects may be done alone or in collaboration. Collaborations must document the full extent of each participant’s contribution and equal effort is expected per collaborator. The final project may build on a previous class exercise or earlier prototypes. Each unexcused absence will result in losing one letter grade. Each failure to do the assigned readings or activity will result in a 5% loss of total points.

One week each. Reading selections, topic, topic order, and guest speakers may change.  Each class will contain in-class Design Exercises related to the reading.

Intro and Expectations (Sept 15)
GUEST: Jason Pontin from Technology Review
Design Exercise: Class discussion of favorites SF or Speculative Fiction Literature, Film, Video Game, etc.)
Assignment: “What have you always wanted to see become real?
Sketch (on paper, in legos, with clay, papier-mâché, laser cut cardboard, Sculpey, foam, arduino, openframeworks, etc) a prototype inspired by your favorite Science Fiction storyworld or artifact. Be prepared to explain what it is, what it does, how it works, and how it could be done today, i.e. what parts and processing exist today that would allow you to make it.
Reading Assignment:
>   Read the chapter of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson entitled “Nell learns to work the matter compiler; youthful indiscretions; all is made better.” (Page number will depend on chosen format.)
>   Read Ch. 1 & 9 of Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler

MAKE (Material Progress)  (Sept 22)

Guest: Sputnik0!
Design Exercise: Sputnik0!’s Awesome Design Fiction Exercise
Class Discussion:

  • Additive Manufacturing

    • Diamond Age / Matter Compilers

    • Transmetropolitan / Warren Ellis

    • Star Trek / Replicators

  • Energy Power

    • Wireless Power

    • Heinlein / Solar

  • Robomation

    • Asimov / I Robot

    • Butlerian Jihad / Dune

    • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

    • Rachel / Larissa Lai

    • The Lifecycle of Software Objects / Ted Chiang

Assignment: Learn how to program DNA and create a new life form:

Reading Assignment: Read selection from:

HEAL (Health & Physiology)  (Sept 29)
Guest: Andrew Hessel, David Kong
Design Exercise: Synbiota Synthetic Biology Hacking
Class Discussion:

  • Diagnostics

    • Truth Machine / Lie Detection, Neuroailments

    • Blood Music / Greg Bear

  • Cures

    • First Immortal / Cryonics, etc

    • Bionic Man

    • “Flowers For Algernon” ­- Daniel Keyes

    • Mindplayers / Pat Cadigan

  • BodMods

    • Diamond Age / implants, tats, ractives

    • Oryx and Crake

    • Nexus / Ramez Naam

  • Uploads

    • Diaspora / spectrum of uploads & AI’s

    • The Girl Who Was Plugged In / Tiptree

  • Gear

    • Starship Trooper’s – Forever War – Old Man’s War/ Protective Suits

    • Heinlein / Waldos

    • Herbert-Dune/ Stillsuits


  1. Sketch, again in your preferred medium, a “napkin prototype” that uses the organisms we created in the workshop. How could they be inputs/sensors? outputs/displays? etc. Extra points if you build it.

  2. Explore the IGEM Catalog of Parts. Become familiar with some of the most current “winners” of the competition.

  3. Reaching further, What “Oryx and Crake” like creature could you see being beneficial to humanity? Medical? Military? Entertainment? What would be its drawback?

Reading Assignment:

  • Fast Times at Fairmont High” by Vernor Vinge

  • TAP” by Greg Egan

  • Read the sections of “The Diamond Age” entitled
    Hackworth departs from Dr. X’s laboratory; further ruminations; poem from Finkle-McGraw; encounter with ruffians.
    From the Primer, a visit to Castle Turing; a final chat with Miss Matheson; speculation as to Nell’s destiny; farewell; conversation with a grizzled hoplite; Nell goes forth to seek her fortune.

  • Read these historic essays by MIT alum J. C. R. Licklider and Vannevar Bush

LEARN (Creativity & Learning)  (Oct 6)
Guest: Stuart Candy – Director of the Situation Lab, Foresight & design prof at OCAD University
Design Exercise: That Thing From The Future
Class Discussion:

  • Rapid Learn

    • Forever War / Sim tank

    • None So Blind / Neuromod

    • Matrix / Spinal Tap

    • TAP /  Greg Egan

    • Babel-17 – Samuel Delany

  • Kids Artifacts

    • Diamond Age / Primer

    • The Veldt/ Bradbury

  • HCI

    • Minority Report / Gestural

    • Diamond Age / Ractives

    • Snow Crash / VR

    • Neuromancer / Cyberspace

    • Hitchhikers Guide / Bablefish

    • Ready Player One/ The Oasis

Assignment: Take one of your or a classmate’s ideas generated during play of The Thing from the Future game and sketch it out in more detail. If it’s an easily buildable object, build it. If it’s an app or a site or a Processing sketch, code it. Document in detail on the class WordPress what the object is (object), how it works (mood + terrain), and how it fits into the future world from which it comes (arc).
Reading Assignment:

  • Finish “The Diamond Age“, (go back and read any parts you missed. Then read until the end.) Pay particular attention to the description of cities, mobility, and fuels (Feed vs. Seed)

  • Read “The Infinite Resource” by Ramez Naam.

FUEL (Enviro & Planet)  (Oct 20)
Design Exercise:
Class Discussion:

  • Cities

    • Blade Runner / LA

    • Fifth Element / NYC

    • Diamond Age / Shanghai etc

    • Snow Crash / LA Burbclaves

    • Star Wars / Corcusant

    • Foundation / Trantor

    • District 9 / Jo’burg

  • Architecture

    • Rainbows End/ Library

    • Anathem/ Clock of the Long Now

  • Vehicles

    • Snow Crash / YT’s Skates

    • Snow Crash / Rat-thing

    • Back to the Future / Hoverboard

    • Heinlein / Roads Must Roll

  • Disasters

    • The Windup Girl / Paolo Bacigalupi

    • Oryx and Crake/ Atwood

    • Dhalgren / Samuel R. Delany

    • “Speech Sounds” / Octavia Butler

  • Planet-scale

    • Fritz Zwicky

    • Dyson Shells

    • Matrioshka brains

    • Kim Stanley Robinson / Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars

    • Frank Herbert / Dune

  • Beyond

    • Accelerando / Charlie Stross

    • Lords of Light / Zelazny

Assignment: Finalize your project choice and begin building it.
Reading Assignment: 

THE FIFTH ELEMENT (Civic & Societal Scale) (Nov 3)
Guest: Zander Rose of the Long Now Foundation
Design Exercise: Zwicky Box!
Class Discussion:

  • Future Commerce & Money

    • Riders of the Purple Wage – Philip Jose Farmer

    • The Culture Series / Ian M. Banks

    • Frank Herbert / Dune

    • Parable of the Sower / Octavia E. Butler

    • The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas / Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Sociodynamic Sensing & Modeling

    • Foundation / Psychohistory

    • The Culture Series / Ian M. Banks

    • Destiny’s Children Series / Stephen Baxter

Assignment:  BUILD YOUR PROJECT! Upload your documentation PRIOR to class next week.
Reading Assignment: No new readings. BUILD YOUR PROJECT!

First Prototype Due (Nov 10) 
Class Project Presentations. 
Reading Assignment:


  • Post to the WordPress your general impressions about the adaptation. List at least a single technology that was left out of the film adaptation and why you think that is. What technologies were particularly well done in the film that weren’t in the novel?

  • Offer a small critique of each prototype seen in Nov 10th’s presentations in this Google Doc.

Thinking Tools: The Manufactured Normalcy Field
Assignment:  BUILD or REITERATE YOUR PROJECT! Add the features you didn’t have time for the first time around. Look closely at the feedback given to you by your classmates. Accept or reject it, but know WHY you’ve made this choice. Be prepared to defend this choice. Upload your documentation PRIOR to class next week.
Reading Assignment: No new readings. BUILD or REITERATE YOUR PROJECT!

Second Prototype Due (Nov 24) 
Class Project Presentations. 

Reading Assignment: Read the Daniel Suarez, Paola Antonelli, and Bruce Sterling stories from Technology Review’s current edition of 12 Tomorrows.

Assignment: Create and napkin sketch an additional Science Fiction artifact that would exist in any one of these three worlds (Daniel Suarez, Paola Antonelli, and Bruce Sterling). Upload the design with an explanation and a 1 paragraph Science Fiction story that includes your artifact.

Enjoy your holiday!

Women Destroy Science Fiction! (Dec 1)

Design Exercise:
Reading Assignment: ALL READINGS HERE

  • Read or listen to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by  Ursula K. Le Guin.

  • Read “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree ( <—- not her real name)

  • Pick ONE short story from Lightspeed’s “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” anthology.


  • Post to the WordPress a short summary of the story you chose in “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” along with your thoughts. Did you like it? Hate it?

  • Pick a technology or idea from your story and napkin sketch it.


(Dec 8)
Design Exercise:

(Wednesday, December 16) – Final Project Presentations

9:00 to 12:00 noon in E15-359

Non-Fiction Readings, Film Viewings, Field Trips, and Author Visits will be assigned as needed.


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