(Note: this essay can be read in its entirety at the Hieroglyph website.)
In my last post I described the history of the Hieroglyph Project, and ended by saying that it failed.
How did the Hieroglyph anthology fail? It's full of great stories, it got good reviews and it sold well. By any normal definition of success, it succeeded. However, it failed at its original goal: we didn't create any Hieroglyphs!
Viewed objectively, Hieroglyph doesn't contain many futuristic visions at all. It contains stories about climate change, immigration, surveillance, protecting endangered species, private space development, and (self-referentially) the decline of Big Engineering projects. My own story "Periapsis" is basically about rapid prototyping and brain drain. You could open up a newspaper on any given morning in 2012 and find news articles about any of these topics.
The central icon of the collection is Stephenson's concept of the "Really Tall Tower," a steel structure twenty kilometers high, and even within the story in which he introduces it, characters wonder aloud at what the point of it is. Nobody other than Neal Stephenson is seriously talking about building one, and it's hardly the sort of thing that people will subconsciously adopt as part of their concept of "what it will be like" in fifty years.
To be clear, some of the stories in that collection are superb, many are excellent, and all are good. As an anthology of top-quality original science fiction it's great, and I urge everyone to buy many copies. But it isn't changing the world.
So: why did Hieroglyph fail?
It failed because I believe it was impossible for it to succeed.
Once you point people in the direction of inspiring or predicting change to solve contemporary problems, you lock them into the present. Think back to those iconic "Hieroglyphs" I mentioned earlier — rockets, robots, ray-guns, et cetera. None of them were created by someone trying to inspire inventors or predict new tech. Science fiction's predictions and iconic images are almost never the result of anyone's conscious attempt to predict or shape the future. They are accidental by-products.
Predictions of the future in science fiction come from three sources. Some writers are technologists themselves, and can introduce readers to things that haven't made it into the popular science periodicals yet. Some concepts from stories actually do make inventors or engineers think, "that could work." But most predictions are accidents.
The first method shows up a lot in the works of writers like Arthur C. Clarke or, appropriately, Neal Stephenson. Clarke, of course, was a genuine space science pioneer himself, the inventor of the communication satellite and a member of the British Interplanetary Society back when space travel was still an absurd pipe dream. He had friends in both the American and Russian space programs, and was well connected in the science community as a whole. So he could write whole novels (like Imperial Earth) consisting of little but "here's some cool stuff people told me about since my last book came out." Stephenson does the same in the software, cryptography, and private-space communities. They're not inventing future technologies; they're just beating other authors into press with them.
The second method is less common, especially since it's increasingly rare for a technology to be the brainstorm of a single individual. But there are verified cases of people who read about something in a science fiction story and decided to make it real. The best-attested one I can find is the Taser, which was apparently inspired by the "electric rifle" of the old Tom Swift series. Supposedly the name Taser can even be read as an acronym for "Tom A. Swift's Electric Rifle."
The third method is the most common of all. As far as I can tell, it is the "default method" for science fiction predicting real-life future technology. It's very simple: someone invents something for a story because it's necessary for the plot or helps develop the theme, and then later someone else invents something like it in the real world.
The big dirty secret of science fiction, something some SF writers hate to admit, is that science fiction is, fundamentally, a branch of literature. And despite all our talk about scientific accuracy and extrapolation, the things we put in our stories are there to serve a literary purpose first and foremost. In science fiction, futuristic concepts usually begin as metaphors or plot devices.
Metaphors are elements of the story that enable us to develop a theme or create emotional effect in the reader. The great strength of SF is that it lets us literalize our metaphors. So if you're Philip K. Dick and you want to write about how technology seems to be undermining our humanity, you can sit down and write Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in which the whole story is about the difficulty in telling humans and robots apart.
Note that one way that critics outside the SF/Fantasy ghetto often run aground is when they insist on interpreting the fantastic elements in a story entirely as metaphors. Yes, the androids in Dick's novel are a metaphor, but they are also deadly human-shaped robots in a depopulated future world. It's a floor wax and a dessert topping, as we like to say.
Plot devices, of course, are elements that allow your story to happen. I personally try to follow a rule that if my story can happen without something that doesn't exist in our real world, then it's not science fiction or fantasy, it's contemporary or historical fiction and I should write it as such. If I'm writing a murder mystery set aboard a spacecraft bound for Mars and a search-replace could turn the spaceship into an ocean liner without affecting the plot, then that's not a science fiction story.
(Next time: some Hieroglyphs and how they work as metaphors or plot devices.)