Bricoleurs in SF: Making Do Beyond the Walls of Utopia

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

Bricoleurs in SF: Making Do Beyond the Walls of Utopia

Dave Hubble

‘Bricolage,’ as well as approximating to ‘DIY’ in French, is a visual arts term referring to the production of artwork from whatever materials come to hand. In cultural studies, it refers to how people acquire objects from across social divisions to create new identities, especially within subcultures—for example, punk’s subversion of the safety pin as decoration (even if that was subsequently repackaged by capitalism). There is an innate element of activism and political commentary when the artist’s choice of materials aims to bypass commercialism, using rubbish or detritus to devalue the art object and give value back to the ordinary and everyday, the lost and discarded. From this viewpoint, if discarded materials can be valued, so can people—or any other species.

Moving beyond artists making objects that look post-apocalyptic or fantastical in galleries, there is a rich tradition of bricoleur characters in SF who typically use whatever they find to create gadgets, often in extremis. Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy is a recent popular example, and it doesn’t take many episodes of Star Trek before the crew escape peril using something they’ve made or adapted. This is something anthropologists will recognise, with Lévi-Strauss for example equating engineers with bricoleurs (16-19). However, none of this is activism per se, so where does that aspect come in?

As a visual arts bricoleur (Hubble), I see this approach as a reflection of our own valuing of ingenuity, including movements such as maker culture, makerspaces, hackerspaces, and repair cafés. They have the potential to improve equity and empowerment (e.g., Diaz et al.), although this isn’t always realised for a variety of socioeconomic reasons linked to resources, living situations, and competing demands (Barton and Tan). Regardless, the politics of using waste materials are well documented (e.g., Whiteley) and form a commentary on resource (mis)use, alongside acts aimed at decoupling from consumerism. This in turn can disrupt normative, unequal power dynamics to develop more positive imagined futures. One clear aim of bricolage is to waste less and use less, especially since the Anthropocene is here; human activity is the main driver of changes at the Earth’s surface (mineral movements, temperature change, and so on) and we are arguably causing a sixth Great Extinction (Kolbert). This is happening alongside, and intertwined with, late-stage capitalism, a period when wealth is increasingly drawn toward a multi-billionaire few whose space-travel is a non-fictional leisure activity, ego-tripping while the world burns.

Given its innate thriftiness, bricolage in a broad sense can help decouple us from hyperconsumerism where we can easily find ourselves manipulated into working such long hours that we only ever have the time to discard and replace, not repair or build, something Frederick Pohl noted in the 1950s with “The Midas Plague.” As Beder and Higgs note, consumerism, including its hyper-variant, is a deliberate capitalist ploy, replacing thrift and prudence, with capitalists using it as a means of controlling the working population. ‘Status consumption,’ trying to improve social standing through conspicuous acquisition of consumer products (Sahin and Nasir), requires ever more working hours in an increasingly competitive environment and thus the leisure-starved work-to-consume world develops (James). In turn, the skills of making atrophy, if they develop at all. In such a system, resisting compulsory consumption or normalised over-consumption is a form of activism.

In the near-future graphic novel Tinkerers set in 2024, Brin et al. explore the decline of technical ingenuity and what happens when a small town is cut off by a bridge collapse. The focus is on the decline of American manufacturing, and is very much about the nation and its systems, but also celebrates individual ability and the amateur. With this in mind, note that Derrida disagreed with Lévi-Strauss, seeing the engineer as serving static systems (the railway, let’s say, maybe even the concept of God) while the bricoleur (who could be any or all of us) is fluid, repurposing, potentially transgressive or revolutionary, and taking anything at hand to reuse as required or desired (chapter 10). After all, in our world, neoliberalism wants to maintain the status quo, however broken the system, while bricolage tries to move beyond this, including in the sphere of ideas, as it can co-opt the conceptual and intangible as well as the material. In this, bricoleurs can be seen as parasites, both in a literal sense and in the sense of philosopher Michel Serres, where parasitism is static interrupting the signal, a notion that also plays on ‘static’ as an alternative definition of ‘parasite’ in French (Wolfe 13). Since then, there have been numerous examples of artists using parasitism for the purpose of activism, as described by Fisher. This is not the mindless (or amorally single-minded) spread of self-replicating machines; following Drexler’s 1986 coining of the term, ‘gray goo’ has often been featured in SF as a threat to civilisation. For example, Iain M. Banks’s Culture craft, which are sentient spaceships, enjoy destroying smart matter or “smatter,” and the Jain war tech of Neal Asher’s Polity novels is a core plot element. Instead, though there may be some intent to weaken the host (consumerism), the aim of bricolage is typically benevolent (making society more equitable, reducing resource use, commenting critically on consumerism), or at least neutral (living more frugally but without wider societal concerns)—though of course the SF versions might see themselves the same way, just doing what they do.

So far, bricolage has typically been presented as an act of necessity, at least to some extent, a response to limited resources. However, SF explores many post-scarcity or low-scarcity utopias and near-utopias such as Banks’s Culture, Asher’s Polity, and Star Trek’s Federation. When thinking about such societies in the context of bricolage, some questions arise: What role might ingenuity or thriftiness have when there are nanotech fabricators or ships able to convert and meld energy and matter however they choose? Why make or mend something that can, in effect, be wished into being? There are a number of reasons.

Firstly, accidents happen, as do hostile acts. Any number of scenarios might mean that the relevant tech isn’t working or is unavailable. The various Star Trek series use this plot device regularly to prevent transporters, replicators, warp drives, and so on from functioning, forcing characters to scavenge and tinker. Aside from emergencies, there are those who live on the fringes or beyond, where bricolage is a vital skill in the absence of replicators or unobtainium. We then come to the crux of this topic as the question becomes, why would anyone leave utopia? It is worth qualifying the term ‘utopia’ here. In this context it is an actual utopia, at least for some inhabitants, rather than, say, an experimental living situation. For this reason, SF utopias are specified rather than real-world attempts to create them via communes and similar. A detailed examination of the latter is beyond the scope of this article but Garden covers reasons for leaving, such as reality not meeting ideals, internal conflicts, and management issues, while Bregman looks at broader changes that might be implemented, for example a universal basic income and open borders.

Returning to reasons for leaving SF utopias, some do so by choice, seeking adventure and experiences beyond their cosseted paradise. This could be seen as simply an act of privilege, an equivalent to a gap year or class tourism, going somewhere dangerous with their core selves backed up. This suggests they are just bored edgelords, but maybe they are making a point about their society and the need for self-determination. Iain M. Banks’s work has plenty of examples, such as Gurgeh, the titular Player of Games who is blackmailed into being a Special Circumstances agent—but then, his novels are intentionally set where potentially perilous ‘stuff’ happens. Most Culture citizens never encounter anything of the sort, and we never hear about them except as a generalised mass of pan-humanity. However, in a society with no formal hierarchy, joining the Culture’s Contact and Special Circumstances agencies has significant cachet. Even where that status has to remain secret, it is a way of determining self-worth by being one of the best among trillions of individuals, however that is defined when bodies and minds can be enhanced, rebuilt, replaced, and re-engineered.

For others it is an obligation or expectation, possibly based on a prior choice, for example, some Gzilt in Banks’s Hydrogen Sonata. Several civilisations in the Culture novels, including the Gzilt, reach a stage where they can “Sublime,” that is, advance to a godlike non-corporeal existence, but some Gzilt parents choose to stay in the “Real” because to sublime a child is considered unacceptable. By staying, they essentially exchange a utopia for its much-reduced remnants which will be plundered or colonised by less technologically developed races. They might remain amid this or relocate to the Culture or elsewhere, but their own utopia will be gone while the great majority of their civilisation exists in what is presumed to be a post-corporeal utopia of the mind.

Others, however well-adjusted in an era of perfect medicine and near-flawless mental health, might nonetheless experience ennui in the absence of a clear function. Joining the Culture’s Contact or an equivalent organisation might resolve this for a few, but such opportunities are limited, so without the need to earn a living, citizens of utopias may engage in self-allotted ‘work-hobbies’ or ‘life-tasks.’ This has also been explored in the real world, for example, by Kabakov, who states:

the only way and means to lead a worthy human life is to have one’s own project, to conceive it and bring it to its realization…. The project is the concentration, the embodiment of the meaning of life. Only thanks to it can one establish ‘who one is’, what one is capable of; can one receive ‘a name’. It is only from the moment of the determination of one’s project that one’s true ‘existence’ and not just ‘survival’ begins. (The Palace of Projects, n.p.)

This also challenges some of the standard objections to progressive policies such as basic income (Standing) and a short, fifteen-hour working week (Bregman). Detractors cry that people would become lazy, bored, spend their money on ‘bad’ things, that the standard of living would collapse, and so on. All of this can easily be countered and it is clear that for much of human history (and presumably prehistory) people worked only as hard as they needed to. They may have been poor, and they were certainly at the mercy of their environment (life could also be nasty, brutish, and short), but there was often an abundance of time for leisure. This doesn’t imply inactivity or even comfort; such time is likely to have involved making and mending in a world of limited resources—in essence, to be a bricoleur would have been the norm. Of course, individual regions varied depending on social structure, for example, a serf who has to work their feudal lord’s fields before their own might be short of free time if they also have their own land to tend. However, the trend continues and what changed was the development of capitalism and consumerism, the ‘time is money’ ethic, which of course means ‘your time is the bosses’ money.’ Technology allows us in principle to work less, but in practice communication devices mean we are constantly available (even when not formally at work) while also feeling uncertain about our finances, future, and well-being—a combination leading to what the World Health Organization has called a twenty-first-century epidemic of stress (Fink). We have ameliorated many horrors of the past as medicine and housing have improved, drinking water has become safer, and food supplies have become more reliable (in many places, and for now at least), but we have replaced them with contemporary problems which themselves need to be resolved if our potential utopia isn’t to become dystopian.

Returning to SF and The Hydrogen Sonata, Vyr Cossont is a Gzilt musician and military reservist who has chosen to play the titular (and notoriously difficult) piece of music, though it is widely considered unlistenable and requires the addition of an extra pair of arms and a specially made instrument. She begins the story clearly tiring of the task, but with only twenty-three days left until Subliming, determined to play the piece perfectly once. At the end of the twenty-three days, she does not Sublime, but has completed her task. She has an offer of passage on a Culture ship, no clear purpose beyond a sense of the adventure the journey might bring, and a lighter, freer feeling despite having, in effect, left her utopia. This isn’t simple contrarianism, but shows the importance of self-determination; as automated systems become less reliable post-sublimation, Cossont has to fly her small craft manually. In her world this is a significant loss; she is back in the land of the bricoleur. It’s also important to remember that the decision to remain is a long-term one. Whatever the reason for remaining, Banks is careful to clarify that delaying sublimation isn’t an option for individuals as the changes wrought in the ‘beyond’ soon mean they will be too late to join the majority who went before:

leaving it much more than an hour or so was risky; you’d get there and be isolated, those who had made the transition just hours before . . . would already have become so changed, so ascended in complexity, that you would have virtually nothing in common. You’d be on your own, or part of a hopelessly small group, effectively contextless, unanchored to anything greater than yourself, and so likely just to evaporate, dissolving into the generality of the fabric of the Sublime, meaningless. (The Hydrogen Sonata 23)

Meanwhile, some post-scarcity utopias are actually “ustopias,” a term coined by Margaret Atwood to indicate that utopias and dystopias each contain a latent version of the other. Thus SF societies might be utopian for some, but dystopian for others. It may look like someone is leaving a utopia, but from their perspective they don’t live in one to begin with. In such cases, some will leave out of desperation. For example, in Neal Asher’s Polity, a guaranteed death penalty for serious crimes (leaving an empty body for a ‘more deserving’ stored inhabitant) ensures that some will flee beyond its jurisdiction. The AIs of the Polity never forget or rescind the judgement, thus there can be no return. John Pierce’s introduction to Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man makes it clear that “The Instrumentality of Mankind” is an ustopia, shaped by the “ruthless benevolence” to create a “bland utopia.” As lifespans are extended and labour is completed by machines and animal-derived underpeople, there is little risk from the unknown, but humanity becomes “deprived of hope and freedom” (xviii). It is a bleaker view than offered in Banks’s Culture, but there are parallels with his peril-seeking individuals. It also highlights a sense of duty as a reason to leave utopia, in this case one that we clearly see in our own world. It could manifest in many ways such as military service to help defend their ideal society against threats, scientific or other knowledge-focused postings to less secure outposts and frontiers, exploration for the greater good or even martyrdom. There are countless examples of all these in the civilisations cited so far and they are not mutually exclusive, and many of the individuals involved survive (or ultimately don’t) though acts of ingenuity—bricolage—once detached from their home utopia.

Others embrace risk culturally. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as a Ferengi, Quark is a literal and figurative gambler who repeatedly derides ‘precious Federation principles,’ likening it to root beer with a distaste that the Cardassian tailor-cum-spy Garak shares, both characters acknowledging its sweet and sickly moreishness. Despite an overt avoidance of physical danger (after all, Rule of Acquisition 20 states “He who dives under the table today lives to profit tomorrow” [DeCandido]), Quark is a risk-taker, and not only at the Dabo table. He finds and acquires, whether tech or information, and uses these as he will—a bricoleur within the system but also playing his own game. After all, Rule 62 reminds us that “The riskier the road, the greater the profit” (“Rules of Acquisition”). Klingons meanwhile are famously stereotypical risk-takers, revelling in the thrill of battle and the idea of a glorious death. They are technologically advanced and presumably as post-scarcity as the Federation, but Sto’Vo’Kor, their afterlife for the honoured dead, strongly parallels the Vikings’ Valhalla, and challenges are often settled by combat rather than discussion or arbitration. Regardless, some bemoan the softening of Klingon life and leave their version of utopia as mercenaries, renegades, and the like; few if any take the ‘gap year’ option and such a life would likely be seen as dishonourable. Alongside this, many Federation citizens choose difficult existences, such as Kasidy Yates’s freighter captain, a recurring character in Deep Space Nine. There is no need to do so in a system where everyone has, in effect, a huge Basic Universal Income in the form of energy use, replicator and transporter allowances, and so on. This might not be far removed from the ‘bored edgelord’ suggestion above, but this choice to live a harder-than-necessary existence can turn into activism.

When even utopia leaves some behind, rebellion follows, as with Star Trek’s Maquis, whose homes are placed in Cardassian territory by a peace treaty. Not only do they rebel openly, but they also rely on peripheral characters such as Yates who are in a position to deliver (or smuggle depending on your viewpoint) scarce supplies. This echoes our world where elites make partition plans for India, Palestine, Chagos, and so on, while the Extinction Rebellion movement sees a global threat to human survival. With limited resources, such activism requires a DIY approach; some may find themselves relocated and dispossessed, or living in ustopias—refugee camps within sight of affluent Western cities for example. Campe de la Lande, commonly referred to as Calais Jungle, existed from 2015 to 2016, fewer than 500 metres from the Port of Calais. Places of worship, eateries, hairdressers, and other amenities were built out of junk, with help from external organisations and activists, combining bricolage with solidarity.

Some inequality is of course deliberately engineered, in SF as well as reality. Independents in the series Firefly and its film accompaniment Serenity eke out a precarious living, partly as they ideologically oppose the ruling Alliance, but also because the Alliance and its core worlds are another elite overseeing inequality of resource allocation. Within this framework, Kaylee Frye endlessly and intuitively bodges the spaceship Serenity’s engine. She is an engineer in the literal sense, but a bricoleur in the sense of Derrida. Ultimately, her work facilitates the activism of other characters: she keeps the ship going until it can deliver an Alliance-undermining message to Mr. Universe, the techno-geek who broadcasts it across all channels. Again we see the ‘official’ signal being parasitised. Humans mending and scavenging tech in The Matrix have a similar activist role, covertly broadcasting minds from their ships to rescue others, travelling via phone lines as pirate radio signals. Mockingjay (the final part of the Hunger Games trilogy) shows limited resources being used frugally and innovatively by the inhabitants of District 13 to develop an underground rebel stronghold against the tyrannical Capitol. The approach is material in nature, but transcends this. Some of the privileged of the Capitol turn out to be rebels (e.g., Plutarch Heavensbee), or shift allegiance and agree to help (e.g., Effie Trinket), willing to threaten the stability of their own utopian enclave, as the wider Panem is dystopian for most inhabitants. In this case however, the parallel with our world has become more literal. In The Hunger Games, the three-fingered salute spreads, signalling an uprising (and reprisals). It has since moved into the real world, used at pro-democracy protests in Thailand and Myanmar (Quinley) and spreading via social media. With protesters making DIY masks to counter teargas, stashing bags of essentials, making memes, placards, costumes, and so on, the bricoleur approach is clear to see.

This leads onto the realisation that bricolage doesn’t have to be material or even digital—ideas can have more power. After all, arguably the Federation’s biggest problem with the Maquis isn’t that they attack Cardassians, or even that some have broken Star Fleet oaths, but simply that they dared to leave. They broke the status quo, reusing its components, and that is the activism of the bricoleur. Similarly, in the Hunger Games, when the Hob (the venue for the Black Market) is destroyed, it is done to send a message telling the citizens to comply in place of acquiring, selling, and bartering outside the system. This is ever more relevant with the rise of intangible aspects of Virtual Consumerism, which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Wiederhold). This is not simply online shopping, subscriptions, and so on, but encompasses aspects such as the purchase of virtual goods with real money. If we have enough material things, capitalism provides non-things for us to buy.

While profiting from power and income, elites want to determine everyone else’s place and to make sure they know it. Bricoleurs aim to break free of this, to do what they want with whatever they find and undermine power structures along the way—by making do, things are made better. Joseph Norman’s recent The Culture of “The Culture” sees it as an evolving utopia, fluid rather than a static end-state—a grand exercise in bricolage. As Banks himself wrote in his 1994 essay “A Few Notes on the Culture,” “Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited.” I’m hardly the first fan to say that’s where I want to live, however ambiguous a utopia it might be at times.

To summarise, bricoleurs are activists in a consumerist and unequal world, and bricolage can be a tool to help decouple from consumerism and authoritarianism, hopefully making systems more equitable in the process. Examples from SF reflect the fringe nature of such activity in our world, highlighting issues of privilege and inequity alongside environmental considerations around waste, value, and resources.


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Dave Hubble is a visual artist and poet with a life-long love of SF. Creatively, he is a bricoleur, exploring the Anthropocene and humanity’s relationship with natural resources. He is a resident artist at The Arches studios in Southampton, U.K., where he tinkers and experiments. His first career was in ecology and this background informs his creative activity.

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