Neal Stephenson has seen the future—and he doesn’t like it. Today’s science fiction, he argues, is fixated on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios—think recent films such as The Road and TV series like “The Walking Dead.” Gone are the hopeful visions prevalent in the mid-20th century. That’s a problem, says Stephenson, author of modern sci-fi classics such as Snow Crash. He fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world. So, in fall 2011, Stephenson launched the Hieroglyph project to rally writers to infuse science fiction with the kind of optimism that could inspire a new generation to, as he puts it, “get big stuff done.”
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He got the idea at a futurist conference last year. After lamenting the slow pace of technological innovation, Stephenson was surprised when his audience leveled blame at sci-fi authors. “You’re the ones who have been slacking off,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and co-founder of the forward-looking think tank the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes.
To be sure, 20th-century sci-fi prefigured many of today’s technologies, from smart phones to MRI scanners, as you can see if you spend 30 seconds on YouTube reviewing such “Star Trek” gadgets as communicators and tricorders. Yet Stephenson argues that sci-fi’s greatest contribution is showing how new technologies function in a web of social and economic systems—what authors call “worldbuilding.”
Denise Caruso, a science policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, agrees that “science fiction helps [scientists] think about how the work they’re doing might eventually turn out.” It can even help them think about morality. Worldbuilding, she says, helps people anticipate how innovations might be used for good or ill in daily life.
Take Isaac Asimov’s novels and short stories about robots coexisting with humans, most notably his 1950 anthology I, Robot. He wrestled with such weighty issues as whether artificial beings have legal rights and the unforeseen dilemmas that could result from programming robots with moral directives. Upon Asimov’s death in 1992, the flagship journal of computer engineers credited him with demonstrating “the enormous potential of information technology” and highlighting the difficulties of maintaining “reliable control over semi-autonomous machines.”
The Hieroglyph project’s first concrete achievement will be a sci-fi anthology from William Morrow in 2014, full of new stories about scientists tackling big projects, from building supertowers to colonizing the moon. “We have one rule: no hackers, no hyperspace and no holocaust,” Stephenson says. He and his collaborators want to avoid pessimistic thinking and magical technologies like the “hyperspace” engines common in movies like Star Wars. And, he adds, they’re “trying to get away from the hackerly mentality of playing around with existing systems, versus trying to create new things.”
Stephenson’s greatest hope is that young engineers and scientists will absorb ideas from the stories and think, “If I start working on this right now, by the time I retire it might exist.”