Can Science Fiction Writers Inspire The World To Save Itself?

The Hieroglyph project asks sci-fi writers to stop creating dark dystopias, and instead show us visions of a better future, so that we work harder to get there.

Science fiction has often predicted scientific advances, but what happens when scientists and sci-fi authors collaborate on visions of the future? Hieroglyph, a new project from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and science fiction author Neal Stephenson, is working on an answer.

The modern science fiction landscape is clogged with dystopian fantasies: the battles of The Hunger Games, the eerie rent-a-human business of Dollhouse, the zombies of the Walking Dead, the (admittedly visionary) cyberpunk novels of William Gibson. At the same time, the rosy 1950s visions of a future with moon colonies and flying cars are nowhere close to reality. It almost seems as though science fiction writers—and the general public—have given up on the future as a happy, technologically enhanced place to be.

Humanity’s lack of a positive vision for the future can be blamed in part on an engineering culture that’s more focused on incrementalism (and VC funding) than big ideas. But maybe science fiction writers should share some of the blame. That’s the idea that came out of a conversation in 2011 between science fiction author Neal Stephenson and Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University.

Stephenson was giving a talk on stage at a conference, lamenting the proliferation of apocalyptic books and movies and complaining that humanity has lost its ambition to do big things. Crow’s response, according to Ed Finn, the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU: "Maybe it’s all your fault. Maybe it’s the science fiction writers that should help us dream better dreams."

In an article in the World Policy Journal, Stephenson lays out the problem with sci-fi today:

Speaking broadly, the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone. I myself have tended to write a lot about hackers—trickster archetypes who exploit the arcane capabilities of complex systems devised by faceless others.

Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon. The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.

If science fiction inspires scientists and engineers to create new things—Stephenson believes it can—then more visionary, realistic sci-fi stories can help create a better future. Hence the Hieroglyph experiment, launched this month as a collaborative website for researchers and writers. Many of the stories created on the platform will go into a HarperCollins anthology of fiction and non-fiction, set to be published in 2014.

Hieroglyph has already drafted writers like Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, and Madeline Ashby, to share ideas on the platform, where they’re discussing things like Russian-style space cities, artificial spider silk, and a shadow drone Internet (a "decentralized, drone-based wireless Internet commons").

The ground rules, as per Stephenson (relayed to us by Crow): "Let’s avoid the easy dystopian story which is lots of fun to write and pretty easy to write these days. Let’s also avoid stories that rely on magic, where it’s impossible and implausible to see how we could get there from today. Let’s avoid stories that fall too far down the well of humans reverse-engineering technology, where technology becomes the obstacle to happier human existence."

The first concrete project to emerge from Hieroglyph is the Tall Tower, which comes from the minds of Stephenson and ASU structural engineering professor Keith Hjelmstad. The pair (and other Hieroglyph participants) are discussing what it would take to build an incredibly tall tower made out of high-grade steel. Crow explains: "The basic question is, how tall can we build something? The way Neal is thinking about the idea of a tall tower is that it’s a framework or platform for all sorts of different things."

According to Io9, Stephenson envisions the 20-kilometer high tower as a refueling station for docked planes or a place to launch space missions. It would be a feat of structural engineering on par with some of humanity’s biggest achievements—and it will make a compelling story, knowing Stephenson.

Doctorow is moving along with his own creative idea: a story about using 3D printers on the moon to create a lunar colony. Here’s an excerpt from his premise:

A group of Burning Man hackers mod a powder-deposition printer to use solar energy and some kind of locally derived binder to print playa dust (gypsum sand), powered by photovoltaic arrays, possibly using COTS blue lasers from surplus DVD players.

They learn so much doing this that they throw in their lot with Long-Now-style space colonization utopians and raise the money to put one (or more) of these printers on the moon, modded to print in regolith (possibly autosorting the regloith for a trace-element to use as a binder).

This printer is directed from a ground-station that is controlled by an Architecture for Humanity-style wiki on which arguments and technical challenges reign for a generation. The wiki periodically squirts the printer with updates for its operational plan (something like the new firmware periodically loaded onto the Mars rovers).

There are no concrete plans for Hieroglyph beyond the upcoming anthology, but the project will live on. "I think the collaborations are going to be just as interesting as the stories that come out in the end," says Crow. "Already, people are interested in this as a model for other kinds of publications and collaborations."

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