Future Tense

Help Neal Stephenson Engineer the Weird and Create a New World of Sci-Fi

Last week Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, where I serve as director, officially launched the Hieroglyph Project, an effort to get science fiction writers talking with scientists and engineers about the future.  (Disclosure: Future Tense is a partnership of ASU, Slate, and the New America Foundation). The goal is to break out of our dystopian rut and get some ambitious new ideas on the table, and we need your help to do it.

Sci-fi great Neal Stephenson founded Hieroglyph with the idea that we need more optimistic visions of the future—visions that are still grounded in real science and technology. As Stephenson has pointed out, a good science fiction story can save us from hundreds of hours of meetings and PowerPoint presentations by immediately getting everyone on the same page about a potential breakthrough.

This sounds great in theory, but the entertainment landscape is crowded with evidence of what can go wrong when you try to substitute idealism for good storytelling. On the one hand, it would be a terrible mistake to try and impose optimism on every idea. That way lies the Kitchen of the Future, Brook Farm, and some of the creepier episodes of the Twilight Zone. At best, true utopias make for boring and implausible stories.

On the other undulating, Cthulhu-esque appendage, your standard-issue dystopia isn’t going to help much either. Survival narratives in the post-apocalyptic ashes like The Road generally reinforce the notion that the details of scientific progress are unimportant since the endgame is inevitable and wretched. The more nuanced genre of Orwellian nightmare scenarios (Children of Men, for example) is a little better, since it reminds us of everything we have to lose, but the moral of these stories usually suggests that no uplifting technology can match the destructive power of human folly.

How can we use Hieroglyph to create convincing stories about a better future, tales with conflict and resolution, with believable characters, with a compelling mixture of hope and irony? Well, while we have set of guidelines for our collaborators, there’s no expectation that every story will have a happy ending. A story where people make mistakes and things don’t work out exactly as planned—that’s pretty much every human story worth hearing. Some of the optimism in Hieroglyph might rely on the simple claim that we can build a better world if we set our minds to it, even if our hero dies or the mistakes along the way are painful ones.

Second, we aim to draw a few lessons from the golden age of science fiction without succumbing entirely to that worldview, which at its worst imagines every future problem can be solved by chisel-jawed white guys with engineering degrees wielding the weapons of Science. At their best, stories like “Requiem” by Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov’s “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” were technologically optimistic without sacrificing a credible sense of humanity. The spirit of adventure, of boundless promise, was tempered with human conflicts that illustrated the importance of understanding our tools both technically and culturally.

A big part of what gives these stories their frisson, the fresh chill of a new future, is the gap between our world and the fictional universe in question. There’s a kind of intellectual vertigo at play: The author has made some kind of grand imaginative leap and asks us to follow along. What distinguishes Hieroglyph is that we seek to radically extend our idea of what is possible in the present, not a distant future, by drawing on real, cutting-edge research.

And we’re doing it online. Of course we’d really like to invite every writer and researcher involved to spend a few weeks at some serene resort with a well-stocked bar, but then we wouldn’t be able to invite the whole world to participate in these conversations. So instead we built hieroglyph.asu.edu, a site for social collaboration based on WordPress and Commons in a Box, a suite of tools designed for just this kind of work.

Hieroglyph is an experiment in mapping out the current field of human potential—stuff we could do if we just set our minds to it, but that is so alien to conventional wisdom that it creates that familiar science fiction vertigo.

Through the interactions these incredible thinkers will have on the Hieroglyph site, I hope we will also put a much larger group of people in conversation with different ideas about the future. And that’s where you come in: this experiment is only going to work if we use these ideas to start a bigger conversation. Come on over and help us build this thing.