Science fiction the way it used to be

SF writer Neal Stephenson, speaking at a conference in 2011, lamented the decline of the U.S. space program and of big engineering projects generally.

Another panelist, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said this is partly the fault of science fiction writers themselves.

He said science fiction is culturally important in creating hieroglyphs—symbolic goals such as Robert A. Heinlein’s space rockets, Isaac Asimov’s robots or, in a later era, William Gibson’s cyberspace.

Science fiction writers, he said, need to abandon their dystopian preoccupations and revive the spirit of techno-optimism of the 1940s and 1950s.

In response to this challenge, Arizona State University commissioned an anthology entitled HIEROGLYPH: Stories & Visions for a Better Future.  Containing stories by 17 writers, it was published in 2014.  I came across it a few weeks ago in a Little Free Library.

Project Hieroglyph asked them to write about ideas that could be realized within one professional lifetime and implement technologies that exist today or will exist in the near future.  Writers were encouraged to consult with ASU scientists, and each story is followed by Internet links discussing feasibility.

I found the resulting stories interesting and I read the anthology to the end.  Somebody with a stronger background in science and technology than mine probably would find them more interesting.

Calls for “techno-optimism” is are calls for optimism not just about the possibilities of technology, but also about the possibilities of American capitalism.

In the same way, Soviet science fiction writers in the 1970s and Chinese science fiction writers today were supposed to encourage technological innovation, but not political innovation.

Science fiction writers should not be limited to suggesting incremental improvements and improving public morale.


Science fiction and the loss of the future

When I was a boy and young man in the 1940s and 1950s, I looked forward to the future.   I had more opportunities before me than my parents had, and I saw no reason why this would not continue for future generations.  I devoured Robert A. Heinlein’s SF boys’ books and thought his positive vision was reflected in the world around me.

I no longer feel this way.  Succeeding generations have fewer opportunities than I did.  My main reason for hope is the knowledge that the future is unknowable.

Few young people today read Heinlein or Neal Stephenson, whom I consider Heinlein’s literary successor.   They read the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy because it is an extrapolation of their lives.

In my youth, the world’s best thinkers thought about how to make the world a better place.  Now they think about how to avoid catastrophe.

Neal Stephenson, in his “Innovation Starvation” article, says science fiction writers are too pessimistic and this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But there are many science fiction writers who are very hopeful about human possibility.  I’m thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken MacLeod and the late Ursula Le Guin; if I followed the field more closely, I’m sure I could think of others.

These are not considered techno-optimists, even though Robinson and MacLeod are very sophisticated about technology, because their hopefulness is based on the possibility of fundamental change.

Human civilization faces two imminent threats.  One is nuclear war and the other is the inability to cope with catastrophic climate change and exhaustion of natural resources.  Many science fiction writers have used them as themes.  But none of the stories in Hieroglyph deals with nuclear war and only two with climate change and renewable energy.

Science fiction is speculation, not prophecy.  Good science fiction consists of a readable story based on an interesting idea, whether it be scientific, political or metaphysical.  Like all literature, it may influence the spirit of the times, but it is more likely to be a reflection of the spirit of the times.

The dystopian nature of much current science fiction is more than an intellectual fad that writers deserve to be scolded for following.  It is a reflection of reality.


Actuallyl, the Hieroglyph stories aren’t all that bad

Even though I think the assumption behind the Hieroglyph project is too limiting, I have to say that the stories held my interest. I read the volume all the way through to the end.

I won’t try to summarize all 17 stories, but here are highlights.  I’ve linked to the authors’ blogs or web sites when available, in case you’re interested in knowing more about their ideas.

Neal Stephenson

ATMOSPHERICA INCOGNITA by Neal Stephenson.  A spunky billionaire genius and his lesbian friend and successor build a 12-mile high Tall Tower in the Arizona desert as a future space launch facility. Their main challenge is building a structure that will stand up to the powerful jet stream of the upper atmosphere.

TALL TOWER by Bruce Sterling.  Two hundred years in the future, much of humanity has used the Tall Tower to migrate into space and become post-human superbeings.  A cowboy and his horse climb the tower on foot.

THE MAN WHO SOLD THE STARS by Gregory Benford.  A spunky billionaire genius creates an industrial empire in space, based on asteroid mining, and relocates into outer space to escape the shackles of taxation and regulation.  He goes from success to brilliant success.  When the authorities come for him anyway, he and his lover put themselves into suspended animation and head for the nearest inhabitable planet of another star.

THE MAN WHO SOLD THE MOON by Cory Doctorow.  As with the Benford story, the title is a tribute to a classic story by Robert A. Heinlein.  Some spunky characters who meet at the Burning Man festival develop a scheme to sent an autonomous robot 3-D printer to the moon and have it create building materials out of moon dust.  After many failures, they succeed.  The many failures make it more realistic than the Stephenson and Benford stories.

A HOTEL IN ANTARCTICA by Geoffrey A. Landis.  A young entrepreneur and a corporate accountant do a feasibility study of a hotel in Antarctica, which the first sees as a prototype for a moon base.  They are tracked by a radical Greenpeace-type environmentalist, but he turns out to be a rescuer.  Of all the stories, this is the most realistic about actual business.

COVENANT by Elizabeth Bear.  A serial killer, as an alternative to life imprisonment in solitary confinement, submits to “rightbraining,” which makes him capable of empathy, and a sex change operation, which is more than cosmetic—he gets an ovaries transplant.  The new person, now a woman, falls into the hands of a serial killer herself.

TWO SCENARIOS FOR THE FUTURE OF SOLAR ENERGY by Annalee Newitz is not really a story, but it is only entry in the anthology to discuss replacements for fossil fuels and only one of two to discuss global warming.  One of her ideas is a Mound City, a kind giant model of an algae cell, which would extract carbon from the atmosphere and use it for fuel.

ENTANGLEMENT by Vandana Singh.  This is the other story about global warming.  It is about disparate people dealing with its consequences, in the Arctic Ocean, the former Amazon jungle, India and Texas, and how they are mysteriously linked.

QUANTUM TELEPATHY by Rudy Rucker.  Entrepreneurs sell bio-engineered intelligent talking rats as pets, but they infect the humans around them with uncontrollable telepathic powers.  Rucker says in a footnote that quantum telepathy is a real thing.

JOHNNY APPLEDRONE AND THE FAA by Lee Konstantinou.  In this story, automation has made the majority of Americans useless, and surveillance technology keeps them under control.  A trucker engages in a Timothy McVeigh-type act of terrorism to protest self-driving trucks.   An aging hippie called “Johnny Appledrone” launches huge numbers of tiny solar-powered drones, which are nodes on a Drone Commons alternative Internet.  He is assassinated by a conventional killer drone.  But the narrator, his acolyte, keeps his dream alive.  This is the only story in the collection that suggests fundamental change is necessary.  I give the editors credit for including it.

I liked Konstantinou’s story the best and Benford’s story the least.

The other stories are by Charlie Jane Anders, Madeline Ashby, David Brin, James L. Cambias, Brenda Cooper, Kathleen Ann Goonan and Karl Schroeder.  Here are links for Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken MacLeod and Ursula Le Guin.  As noted, I’ve linked to their blogs or home pages when available.


Innovation Starvation by Neal Stephenson for the World Policy Institute.

Project Hieroglyph.

Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.

Innovation starvation, Hieroglyph and stories to Get Big Stuff Done by Gautham Shenoy for Factor Daily.

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2 Responses to “Science fiction the way it used to be”

  1. Catana Says:

    There’s nothing like being stuck in the supposedly golden past when things were so much better. As long as these writers fantasize about the triumph of technology, they will be irrelevant.


  2. Alex Page Says:

    “A spunky billionaire genius creates an industrial empire in space, based on asteroid mining, and relocates into outer space to escape the shackles of taxation and regulation.”

    John Galt in space. And this… isn’t… a dystopia? 😉


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