A Happy Thought Experiment
The stories found in the new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future reflect a return to “practical techno-optimism,” according to Neal Stephenson science fiction author and a key instigator of the Hieroglyph Project at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. The motivation for this collection seems to be a realization that a) science by committee and science by budget line is killing innovation and b) the American public’s current fascination with dark dystopian visions of the future is a bad sign of the prevalent attitude toward scientific and technological research.
As important as these concerns are, I was skeptical that science fiction writers can, or should, be put to work to solve either a) or b), but I picked up a copy anyway to see if the “techno-optimism” would cheer me up about the future. I also wanted to see what issues the collection would focus on, particularly the stories by female writers.
Girl in Wave: Wave in Girl – Kathleen Ann Goonan
By the Time We Get to Arizona – Madeline Ashby
Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy – Annalee Newitz
Entanglement – Vandana Singh
Elephant Angels – Brenda Cooper
Covenant – Elizabeth Bear
The Day it All Ended – Charlie Jane Anders
These stories address some of the almost-here issues I worry about , and some of the authors successfully convey the potentially beneficial applications of cutting edge research and technology. Drones, for example, feature in both Singh and Cooper’s stories, and both authors make convincing arguments for using this technology to monitor environmental issues as well as connect people and mobilize empathy.
Of all the stories by female authors, I found Cooper’s story about a global team’s monitoring of a group of wild elephants and ivory poachers the most intriguing. Using drones to monitor what we value in this world seems imminently applicable and demonstrates how handy drones could be – in the right hands. You can join the conversation with Cooper about these ideas at the Project Hieroglyph site.
Bear’s story “Covenant” is told from the viewpoint of a psychopath who has been “rightminded”, a euphemism for having neural surgery and biochemical monitoring to treat and eliminate the protagonist’s violent tendencies. The procedures lead to a good outcome for the society at large, but serious questions are raised about who decides who should be treated and civil rights. Surveillance, privacy and human rights figure in the stories by Goonan and Ashby as well.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Hieroglyph in terms of the content of the stories. Less so when it comes to the writing. I certainly did not lose myself in most of the pieces. I very much felt I was part of a thought exercise, which, although interesting, is not what makes great art.
This brings me back to the premise for the entire collection. Do science fiction writers have an obligation to science to write the big narratives that will inspire countries, corporations and philanthropies to fund research? I don’t think so, but I do agree with Stephenson and the editors that big narratives are required in order to get the public’s support for the fascinating, unproven, risky endeavors that are demanded to move science forward. Perhaps scientists eager to build public support should take a slightly different tact with science fiction writers.
There’s nothing wrong with showcasing writers who are wrestling with big ideas, but narratives cannot be dictated and there’s no guarantee the narratives that do emerge will paint the picture that scientists themselves are most enthusiastic about. Are there happy stories to reassure us on the march into the future? Sure, but we can’t go back to naïve optimism about research and technology after we have seen the dark side and know full well that most things in this universe can go either way. Embrace ambiguity, scientists! It may well provide you with the safeguards you will need to actually bring the big ideas to fruition.