One thing I've discovered about being a science fiction writer is that it somehow makes me into a futurist. Because I write stories with spaceships and aliens in them, people think I must have some kind of inside line on how the world is going to look a century from now. In fact, that seems to be generally true: because science fiction has spaceships and aliens, people think it can predict the future.
In this essay (broken up into four posts) I'm going to talk about how science fiction can — and cannot — predict and shape the future. I'm going to begin by talking about a book: the anthology Hieroglyph, edited by Kathryn Cramer and Ed Finn, which came out in the summer of 2014. I had a story in it, along with a number of other very talented writers.
Project Hieroglyph — because it's not just a book, it's a Project — began with an essay by Neil Stephenson, the guy who wrote Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon and a stack of other great books. Stephenson is one science fiction writer who has embraced the whole futurist gig, and can often be found in the pages of Wired or wherever writing elegant think pieces about science and society. Back in 2011 Stephenson wrote an article called "Innovation Starvation" , about why the contemporary United States of America seems incapable of tackling big projects any more.
When Stephenson was a lad back in the early Sixties, we were building the Interstate Highway system and sending men to the Moon. The original Twin Towers took four years to build in the late 1960s; the current One World Trade Center tower took almost twice as long. There has been some debate about how true it is, but the very fact that the essay attracted so much attention suggests that at the very least people have an inchoate feeling that he's on to something.
Stephenson proposed that part of the reason for this stagnation is a failure by SF writers to inspire people to undertake big, innovative projects. We're no longer laying out grand visions of flying off to colonize Mars, so scientists and engineers spend their time developing better iPhone apps instead of spaceships.
In that piece he mentioned two theories of SF's role in creating or inspiring technological change.
Inspiration Theory: This is the notion that SF inspires brainy youngsters to pursue careers in science and technology, and generally acts as a recruiting tool for the next generation of nerds.
Hieroglyph Theory: This is Stephenson's own idea, and as one can guess from the name, was the inspiration for the whole project that followed. It's the theory that science fiction (to quote Stephenson himself) ". . . supplies a plausible . . . picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place." It creates symbols or icons that become part of the shared intellectual landscape. Stephenson again: " . . . such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees." In Stephenson's theory, Hieroglyphs provide a sort of "shared goal" for bottom-up innovation. If everyone knows that we're going to colonize Mars, then working on nuclear rockets in order to reach the Red Planet generates approving nods (and presumably funding) rather than uncomprehending stares.
Examples of Stephensonian Hieroglyphs include: The Spaceship, The Robot, The Cyborg, The Ray-Gun, The Powersuit, The Electronic Brain, The Net, Atomic Power. My personal benchmark is that if you show it in a mass-market motion picture and don't stop the action to explain what it is, it's a Hieroglyph.
Stephenson maintained that SF writers have stopped producing new Hieroglyphs. We're telling interesting stories, but we make use of the same furniture and props that people were using twenty years ago. There's a certain amount of truth to that, especially when you recall that twenty years ago was 1995, when writers like Kim Stanley Robinson and Bruce Sterling were in the first flush of their powers.
I noticed a similar problem myself at about the same time as Mr. Stephenson: back in 2012, I wrote a little blog post which eventually turned into a convention panel on "Have We Lost the Future?" about how so many Hugo-nominated works at that time were fantasy or steampunk alternate history, rather than future SF.
Stephenson's essay, and my own, would have been just another in a series of laments for past glories stretching back to Plato. However, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, challenged Stephenson (and other SF writers) to supply those Hieroglyphs again.
Stephenson, no fool, passed the job along to Kathryn Cramer, a longtime SF editor, and Ed Finn, director of ASU's new Center for Science and the Imagination. They assembled an anthology, called (of course) Hieroglyph, which included Stephenson's essay and a bunch of short stories by people like Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Elizabeth Bear, and . . . me. I got involved because I happened to be at a social gathering with Cramer when she was talking about the project, and I told her "I want in" with what was probably an alarmingly intent look in my eyes.
The goal of the anthology was technologically optimistic fiction, hearkening back to SF's golden age. According to the guidelines, the editors wanted stories " . . . at the intersection of a huge problem, a radical solution, and a breakthrough discovery that makes the solution possible . . . "
On the Hieroglyph web site Stephenson suggested the "3H" rule: no Holocausts, no Hyperspace, and no Hackers. In other words, no post-apocalyptic "dreadful warning" stories, no stories relying on magic tech, and no stories about characters who are essentially parasitic on someone else's technology.
Cramer and Finn assembled seventeen short stories and essays. HarperCollins published the book in the spring of 2014. It got good reviews and seems to be selling well.
Nevertheless, it failed.
(Next time: how and why it failed.)