Neal Stephenson—author of Anathem, Reamde and a dozen or so other wide-ranging novels—has had enough of dystopias. He has issued a call to action for writers to create more stories that foresee optimistic, achievable futures. Stephenson, who is also a futurist and technology consultant, wants realistic “big ideas” with the express intent of inspiring young scientists and engineers to offer tangible solutions to problems that have so far defied solutions. “People like Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg and Jim Benford and others have been carrying the torch of optimism,” says Stephenson. He agrees that the cyberpunk genre pioneered by Gibson “did a huge service for science fiction by opening up new lines of inquiry,” but, he adds, it also had unintended consequences in popular media. “When you talk to movie directors today, a lot of them seem stuck in a 30-year-old mind-set where nothing can be cooler than Blade Runner. That is the thing that we really need to get away from.”
In 2012, Stephenson partnered with the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University to create Project Hieroglyph, a web-based project that provides, in its words, “a space for writers, scientists, artists and engineers to collaborate on creative, ambitious visions of our near future.” The first fruit will be an anthology, Hieroglyph: Stories and Blueprints for a Better Future, to be published this September by HarperCollins. It will include stories by both established and newer writers who have been encouraged to “step outside their comfort zone,” as Ed Finn, the director of CSI, puts it. The same goes for readers. Finn sees the core audience for Hieroglyph as people who have never thought about the issues these authors address. “I want them to place themselves in these futures,” he says.
The stories take on big, difficult problems: Stephenson’s story envisions the construction of a 15-mile-high steel tower reaching into the stratosphere that would cut down on the fuel needed to launch space vehicles; Madeline Ashby applies the mechanics of gaming to manage U.S. immigration; and Cory Doctorow’s story suggests using 3-D printing to build structures on the moon.
An underlying challenge to this approach is that not all problems lend themselves to tangible solutions—not to mention briskly paced storytelling. “Techno-optimists have gone from thinking that cheap nuclear power would solve all our problems to thinking that unlimited computing power will solve all our problems,” says Ted Chiang, who has explored the nature of intelligence in works such as The Lifecycle of Software Objects. “But fiction about incredibly powerful computers doesn’t inspire people the same way that fiction about large-scale engineering did, because achievements in computing are both more abstract and more mundane.”
At the MIT Media Lab, instructors Sophia Brueckner and Dan Novy were surprised to discover that many incoming students had never read science fiction. “I could guess it’s because they’re top students from top schools who have been told science fiction is a form of children’s literature, or it isn’t worth their time,” Novy says. “They’ve had to compete so much to get where they are. They may simply not have had time to read, beyond required humanities assignments.”
Last fall, Brueckner and Novy taught a course, “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication,” with a syllabus packed with science fiction stories, novels, films, videos and even games. The students were charged with creating functional prototypes inspired by their reading and then considering the social context of the technologies they were devising. For a project inspired by a scene in Gibson’s Neuromancer, students built a device that uses electrodes and wireless technology to enable a user, by making a hand gesture, to stimulate the muscles in the hand of a distant second user, creating the same gesture. The young engineers suggested real-world applications for their prototype, such as physical therapists helping stroke victims to recover use of their limbs. But, Novy says, there was also deep discussion among the class about the ethical implications of their device. In Gibson’s novel, the technology is used to exploit people sexually, turning them into remote-controlled “meat puppets.”
Brueckner laments that researchers whose work deals with emerging technologies are often unfamiliar with science fiction. “With the development of new biotech and genetic engineering, you see authors like Margaret Atwood writing about dystopian worlds centered on those technologies,” she says. “Authors have explored these exact topics in incredible depth for decades, and I feel reading their writing can be just as important as reading research papers.”
Science fiction, at its best, engenders the sort of flexible thinking that not only inspires us, but compels us to consider the myriad potential consequences of our actions. Samuel R. Delany, one of the most wide-ranging and masterful writers in the field, sees it as a countermeasure to the future shock that will become more intense with the passing years. “The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes—sometimes catastrophic, often confusing—that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked.”