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Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future
edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer
William Morrow, 532 pages

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future
Ed Finn
Ed Finn is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English. He earned his B.A. at Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. at Stanford University. He has worked as a journalist at Time, Slate, and Popular Science. He lives in Arizona.

ISFDB Bibliography

Kathryn Cramer
Kathryn Cramer is co-editor (with David G. Hartwell) of Spirits of Christmas (1989) and Walls of Fear (1990). Her story, "The End of Everything" (1990), appeared in Asimov's SF magazine.

Kathryn Cramer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
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A review by Dave Truesdale

The Great Research in its opening phases seemed to fall into half a dozen major projects, some of which interested him more than others because they gave some hope of producing results during his lifetime.
—Robert A. Heinlein ("Beyond This Horizon", from Astounding Science Fiction, April-May 1942, first novel publication 1948)
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Take those private thoughts of genius Hamilton Felix from the above Robert A. Heinlein novel, skip forward seventy-two years to the present, and we see that the bright flame of this personal desire for forward-thinking, optimistic projects geared to providing a better future for mankind in the mid-term forseeable future -- though perhaps dimmed, if current genre trends are any reliable metric -- has not died, but has been faithfully preserved and given new life by current spokesman Neal Stephenson.

Indeed, it is Stephenson who is largely, if not solely, responsible for Project Hieroglyph, from which this original anthology of 17 stories (two reprints) is the result. The publicity sheet for the book encapsulates the origin and purpose of the book clearly and succinctly. To wit:

In his 2011 article "Innovation Starvation," Neal Stephenson argued that we -- the society that witnessed earlier scientists and engineers create and develop the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, the computer, and the space shuttle -- must reignite our ambitions to think boldly and do "big stuff." To help do so, he championed the "Hieroglyph Theory" (named for the notion that certain iconic science fiction inventions -- e.g., Asimov's robots, Heinlein's rocket ships, and Clarke's communications satellites -- serve as modern "hieroglyphs" or simple, recognizable symbols of innovation), which advocates for science fiction writers to break free from the dystopian mindset that dominates our visions of the future and to infuse optimism into their work to help the inventive imagination. In short, to change the future, we need to change the story we tell about the future; to do that, we need optimistic, technically grounded stories about how to make the world a better place.

Stephenson then partnered with Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI), established in 2012 to "bring together writers, artists, and creative thinkers with scientists, engineers, and technologists to cultivate and expand on 'moonshot ideas' that inspire the imagination and catalyze real-world innovations." Thus was Project Hieroglyph created and this anthology born. It is an ongoing enterprise, and ideas have been discussed, argued, and given feedback in continuing conversations among the writers and leading professors at ASU in its sciences and social disciplines departments, many of which are posted at the project's website with links provided in the Afterwords to each story. All of which underscores the fact that Project Hieroglyph is serious business, not just the sharing of story ideas for genre writers, but a think tank among dedicated futurists and writers working collaboratively on solutions to serious problems, or envisioning some of those inspirational "moonshot ideas" we seem to have forgotten in lieu of the dystopian mindset we see pervading the collective cultural and media landscape of the present.

Do the stories here embody and showcase the theme effectively? Whether they succeed, or miss the mark, are they good stories in and of themselves, though perhaps misplaced in an anthology of this specific nature? The answer, of course, is some do, and in admirable fashion, and some don't, falling short on one or both counts.

Interestingly, two of the most optimistic stories in line with the anthology's theme hail from 2013 and Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, eds. James & Gregory Benford, the first of which is Neal Stephenson's "Atmosphæra Incognita." A wealthy businessman is obssessed with the long-term project of constructing a 12.5 kilometer tower from which to launch rockets. Willing to devote his life to the project and to spare no expense, he overcomes countless hurdles, the first of which is learning that the current infrastructure dealing with steel manufacture has crumbled, forcing him to start from scratch. He must find a location where mining and processing the raw materials (of which steel is primary) is close enough for transport, and in a location with the proper geological, metereological, and political atmosphere are all conducive to this massive enterprise. It's much more complicated than he ever imagined, and Stephenson walks us through the process -- showing in detail how a project of this magnitude is dependent first and foremost on careful planning and teams of experts in various fields all working together. It takes many years before ground is even broken. Much of the beauty of the story lies not solely in the dream of one man -- which of course is central to the whole story -- but the near term and on-going byproducts of his goal -- the infrastructures rebuilt, the jobs created, the inspirational notoriety of the project on a worldwide scale. A perfect example of what this anthology is all about.

Gregory Benford's "The Man Who Sold the Stars" is the second reprint from Starship Century and with the more far-ranging scope of his tale cheats a bit on the dictum that projects envisioned adhere roughly to a single lifetime. But the intellectual and aspirational core of the story is nevertheless one with that of Stephenson's (and others) in that it chronicles the determination and vision of a single individual with the optimistic spirit endemic to the best in humankind.

Harold Mann is a young genius who lives the work ethic bequeathed to him by his parents. Beginning his career as a software app creator, years later he has come up with a plan to mine asteroids (where true wealth resides, not to mention the benefit it gives mankind in search of raw materials for further prosperity) in such a creative, ingenious manner that he inevitably runs into legal trouble due to outdated regulations and laws. Thwarted, and with help from like-minded souls, his wealth and scheming skirts the laws, though it puts him on the run -- and under a death sentence -- for the remainder of his life. Decades down the road and hopefully out of reach of the authorities, he finds himself safe and in "retirement" on a far planet, his dreams realized. Benford touches a lot of bases here, a lot of issues on a lot of fronts, including the ethical and legal, while providing an uplifting vision amidst a hard SF backdrop full of the sense of wonder at what mankind is capable of achieving if given the chance.

All of the stories here include notes from the authors on how their stories came to be. Benford begins his "On Building the Story" with: "Some may recognize that 'The Man Who Sold the Stars' is a direct echo and commentary on Robert A. Heinlein's classic tale from the 1940s, 'The Man Who Sold the Moon.' Both imagine a future, now soon to come, when space will be explored and developed by private companies." And further along he states that "The principal directions for solar system development will entail technologies we can see now: 3-D printers in a variety of substances, for manufacture from materials found in space; advanced space-rated robotics, with artificial intelligences to control them; nuclear thermal rockets to carry large masses." He concludes with "At first we'll see some space tourism (orbital hotels, etc.), then repair of high satellites, and on to asteroid mining. Beyond that, the frontier is open."

The notion of 3-D printers runs through several stories here to a greater or lesser degree and would indicate that this is the hot new gadget we are bound to see in many an SF story in coming years. The story centering on the possibilities of 3-D printers and how one man's dream revolves around their extrapolated use in bringing viable colonies to the Moon more than any other story here is Cory Doctorow's novella, which also riffs directly on Heinlein and with the same title, "The Man Who Sold the Moon." As with the previous pair of stories, Doctorow's tale centers on a man with a dream; the problem is that he is dying of cancer and may not live long enough to see it realized, even with the close cadre of friends who do everything they can to make it happen. It is the most fully rounded of the stories here, at once the most emotionally engaging, and ultimately optimistic and rewarding. A fine reworking and homage to Heinlein, albeit with the author's own individual methodology at work to achieve the story's specific goal.

Not all of the stories hit the mark, however. The weakest and most removed from the theme of "moon shot" and "optimistic" tales is easily Madeline Ashby's "By the Time We Get to Arizona." In the story notes following her tale, Ashby says,"International borders are a work of fiction. They are a consensual hallucination that we all engage in to perpetuate the status quo. In that regard, they are much like currency in that they have value, but the value itself is a social construct vulnerable to the whims of history." Further along, she uses the word "absurd" to describe borders. Obviously one for an open border policy for the United States and believing current policy to be absurd, Ashby shows us an equally absurd scenario whereby only "approved" immigrants are allowed to enter a border town straddling the US-Mexican border, and those who meet with further approval by those already admitted to this special border town may remain. They are watched by Big Brother cameras 24/7 so that their behavior can be judged and given points. Enough points, you're in, offend enough of the BorderTown's residents you lose points and are out, back to the harsh life from whence you came. The idea for this sort of "probationary testing ground" or "cultural moat" is prefaced on some gussied up cultural thesis the author found attractive in real life, but is used solely in support of her fringe beliefs concerning her no-borders stance. There is no optimism here, nor hope for a better future; no serious "moonshot"-type plan to improve anyone's life, regardless of their national status. This is simply an author venting (via a thinly disguised rant) over an issue of the most miniscule concern. It stands in pitiable and stark contrast not only to the other stories here, but to the very theme of the anthology itself. This is one of those stories that one can't help but wonder why it was included at all; its negativity is the antithesis of the anthology's explicitly stated raison d'etre after all.

Elizabeth Bear, with a much better and focused effort in keeping with the anthology's theme, addresses another social issue with "Covenant." The perennial and controversial problem of how to deal with the convicted criminal -- especially murderers -- is dealt with here via new micro-technologies using some of the brain's own chemicals, making it possible to set right criminal impulses. Following the procedure, the criminal is then set free. But there are two competing points of view, both espousing ethical positions: is this "mind control" or "mind repair." Issues of punishment vs. rehabilitation, and victim's rights are also part of the equation. In direct conversation with Terry Bisson's 1999 Nebula-winning short story "macs," which dealt with the identical issue but in much harsher and gruesome fashion, "Covenant" would seem to argue in the opposite direction with a more universal and hoped-for benefit to mankind. The debate continues.

Geoffrey A. Landis attempts to reconcile opposing viewpoints with his engaging "A Hotel in Antarctica." When a self-proclaimed young enterpreneur decides to pitch the idea of building a first-class hotel made of ice in Antarctica -- an outré idea which marries ecological concerns with those of capitalism and enterpreneurship -- his idea is of course thought crazy. Through perseverance he overcomes all obstacles, including realizing the scope of his enterprise is akin to building something similar on Mars due to the weather, financial, and specific geological problems. Also to be overcome is the very real human element in the guise of the Rainbow Earth Coalition (think Greenpeace) who have purchased a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter and will stop at nothing to thwart his commercialization of the pristine Antarctic landscape. A life or death situation brings the two sides together and through understanding rather than violent confrontation it is shown that both sides have something to gain. A well thought-through example of how a high concept commercial idea can benefit hitherto opposing ideologies, and is told within the framework of a tension-filled, thought-provoking story.

Back on the social front, Brenda Cooper's "Elephant Angels" combines Africa's dwindling elephant population due to ruthless poaching with current drone and satellite technology pushed forward a bit, to tell the uplifting story of how a few dedicated individuals -- not without setbacks -- rally to save these gentle giants from extinction. Not necessarily a "moon shot" or truly visionary sort of story with a large scope with which all of humankind can rally with daily newspaper headlines following the effort (after all, saving this or that species, while worthwhile, is hardly new), but with enough guarded optimism on a smaller scale to justify its inclusion here.

Lee Konstantinou's "Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA" at its essence is the story of one man's underground rebellion against a version of an omnipresent Big Brother scenario whose personal intrusiveness regulates and controls All, who creates a cyber network where the People can communicate without fear or reprisal. While moving, it is a story we have read about, heard of, and seen many times in the past, and so is nothing new. However, in that it fights fire with fire in its use of the same IT tools as the "enemy," it would seem to fulfill what the publicity sheet for the book puts forth as its mission statement: "Hieroglyph features works of 'techno-optimism' that seeks to develop grand, ambitious visions of the future, grounded in real science, and crafted into great stories that inspire us to imagine something risky and unexpected, but also potentially transformative, in the hope of effecting real change."

The story which works least as fiction, in the sense of storyline or plot, but reads more like a didactic tract with much in common with Ernest Callenbach's 1975 self-published work Ecotopia (later by Bantam in 1977), is Annalee Newitz' "Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy." Newitz is editor-in-chief of the online publication io9, which covers science and science fiction. The title to her 2006 book is Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture.

Told as by a tourist guide, the story relates the wonders of a Biomimetic City -- a city "arranged to imitate the structure of a microorganism." Network sensors and smart biologics operate and maintain everything, from the material of the roads and houses to robo-spiders and robo-dogs policing the surrounding lands and greenways, where one is not allowed to deviate from prescribed paths. The city operates as would a biological cell, everything automated and regulated, with no harm to the outer ecosystem (much power is generated from solar sources), but not without its trade-offs. The City's architectural structure is that of a giant Mound (reminiscent of early Indian burial grounds). Inside your home you think to yourself "And the carpet is a DIY grass mod that never gets too tall or scratchy. One day I'll figure out how to mod everything in here to reabsorb its own dying bits so that I don't have to dust plant crud off my projector every morning. I get on the treadmill and start walking. The projector comes to life, filling the air with my unread messages, and I start swiping through them one by one." Another example of how this Back-to-Earth-via-Smart-Biotech thinking would improve our lives is given here: "In the tub, I oil up and scrape off quickly, slapping a few tablespoons of dirty runoff into the bathroom bioreactor. It's never a good idea to waste skin microbes -- you never know when they'll come in handy. Then I towel off, pull on yesterday's jeans, and bend the planks of the sidewalk as I race to the station."

Recognizing that such a wildly different form of existence would need social acceptance as well and would take time, Newitz' narrator makes the following pitch: "We'd need social transformation that allowed for things like carbon taxes." And "People living in the Mound city would also have dramatically different expectations about how they would live. Our narrator's home is in a densely populated building where her neighbors' cyano affects the functioning of hers -- much the way a plumbing problem in one apartment can become a leak in another. She also doesn't own a car, nor does she expect to live in a place that is clean in the way most urbanites would want. Dirt and plants are everywhere. And energy comes where you can get it. Most of the time she powers up her computer by walking on a treadmill made of viruses that convert kinetic energy into electricity. For city dwellers of today, this might sound like a dirty, crowded, difficult existence." The narrator then gives a wonderful, picturesque overview of this vision of the future: "To modern eyes, the Mound city would look like a ruin, with crumbling, scarred buildings that have been overrun with plants. But to people of the future, it would represent the apex of technology. Or rather, biology."

One can only gather from Newitz' projected biological utopia, powered in great but unreliable fashion by solar power, that it would be a wonderful thing to live within a people crowded mound of smart dirt with an outer appearance of a crumbling ruin, with few houses having an outer view of...sunlight, and having to jump on a treadmill just to get one's computer going, is a lifestyle to be achieved at any cost. Using high-tech to be able to enjoy the "benefits" of a low-tech society, enjoying the sensual pleasure of scraping dirty, dead skin cells from your body to be recycled, because "you'll never know when they will come in handy." Certainly a "moonshot" game plan, a sparkling example of the "techno-optimism" the anthology is promoting -- that of using future smart-tech to bury ourselves in a past lifestyle we've worked so hard to escape. I suppose it's all a matter of definition. If yours differs from mine, then this story is certainly right in your wheelhouse, is your cup of tea, the bread and butter vision you've been dreaming of. But not me.

Kathleen Ann Goonan comes closer to the mark with her thoughtful story about the process of learning, how the brain works, and how universal literacy is key to making a better world in "Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl." In a scientifically advanced future where virtual realities, body modifications, and other seemingly "super-science" spinoffs are the norm, a young girl bemoans the fact that her mother denies her her wish of gills because of her young age. The girl's desire is to be a wingsurfer. She confides in her "many-great-great-grandmother Melody" who advises her to be patient, and then goes on to school her about the way things were back in her day. This is the core of the story and an interesting, colorful one, the young girl's desire to be one with the waves standing in, as it were, as a metaphor for a crashing wave of universal literacy and its subsequent benefits. Now, no one is against literacy and Goonan makes her case persuasively within a story sprinkled with welcomed bits of sense of wonder throughout and focused on a young girl's dreams. The theme of literacy being released to the world is expressed by Melody thusly: "I guess it was just as thrilling, because it was scary. We -- I -- didn't know what would happen. But once the incalculable power of creativity was released, and evenly distributed, it was like an atomic reaction: we could not put the genie back into the bottle." On the surface this sounds like a definite plus, with no downside, and a techno-optimism story right in line with the anthology's theme. However, what I think the author misses is that like technology of any sort -- and in this case tech-granted universal literacy -- that it is just a tool and not an answer in and of itself. It cannot be taken as a given that literacy -- universal or not -- will lead only to good benefit. History -- reality -- has shown through thousands of years that given the broad range of human nature, shaped and influenced by religion, politics, and a myriad of other factors, that literate people often use the tool for evil for personal gain or for larger schemes involving conquest, subjugation, and murder of his fellow man. Thus, I'm afraid that the author's noble goal of universal literacy -- regardless of her enticing way with words, will only produce good and evil in equal percentages to what we see around us today. That flaw notwithstanding, "Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl" at least posits a worthwhile goal brought about by a future technology. Whether it would really bring about the desired results is the question.

James L. Cambias's "Periapsis" is one of the bright spots in the anthology. It takes place on Deimos, a moon of Mars. Deimos is now fully colonized and eminently livable in a highly comfortable, productive manner where most hardships have been overcome and the population has enough leisure time to sponsor large-scale, popular contests. Contests where admission by highly educated, bright young people is eagerly sought, and the winner reaps enormous benefits. The numerous contests the participants are given all involve knowledge of science and relies on their ingenuity and creativity to win out. It's a glorious entertainment with real consequences, with its heritage traceable to Heinlein and others, where bright young people have center stage. It is at once charming, fascinating, and uplifting as Cambias puts intriguing obstacles in front of the two main contenders -- a young girl and boy (and here's the love interest, of course) -- and it is these combined elements that make for a challenging bit of fun.

As it takes place on Deimos and is concerned with a loosely termed "sporting" type event, some might question its inclusion here, for it is not precisely a "moonshot" project of some seriousness we might witness in even an extended lifetime. I think, however, that it shows a wonderous spinoff, an unforseen benefit in the class of unintended (positive) consequences, which can be traced coincidentally to several of the other more direct "moonshot/techno-optimism" stories within the very pages of this book. To get to and colonize Deimos to the high level of advanced civilization portrayed in "Periapsis," we first must get into space. Neal Stephenson's ambitious "Atmosphæra Incognita" lays the groundwork for this, as does, in its own way, Cory Doctorow's "The Man Who Sold the Moon" with his 3-D printers paving the way for expansion beyond the moon. Then we have Gregory Benford's "The Man Who Sold the Stars" as a progression even farther outward and as a consequence of our first getting to the moon, and then to further solar system exploration and colonization -- and then even farther into interstellar space. But if not for the predecessor stories the luxury of the spinoff society on Deimos could not have taken place. "Periapsis" shows one of the great success stories we can envision as a result of the initial varieties of "moonshot" entrepreneurial projects shown us in several other stories here.

Rather than hew to one of the important mandates of this book, to showcase "techno-optimism" stories "for a better future," io9 managing editor Charlie Jane Anders instead shows us a definitely dystopic future view of big corporate/business evil, and how they use one of their own number to dupe the public into buying their products in "The Day it All Ended." A tired, over-worked bit of ground we've seen or read about in one form or another for at least 60 years.

Rudy Rucker chimes in with probably the most gonzo story of the lot with "Quantum Telepathy." It's a crazy mix of "qwet," which stands for quantum telepathy, quantum and gene-modded intelligent "pet" rats that eventually "teep" or become one with their owners' consciousnesses -- but with a startling side-effect leading to a single-mind consciousness when a virus develops and spreads among those coming into immediate contact with others. Contact including sex, as our protagonist finds out when, after having sex and learning of its consequences from his lover, he asks, "You might say that -- telepathy is a sexually transmitted disease?" To which she replies, "Teep can be good, Zad." Like I said, this story is pure Rucker and Carrollian gonzo, but works quite well in its own down-the-rabbit-hole way. Weird future tech is present as the catalyst of the story as is a tworked vision of a debatably "better future."

The remaining handful or so of stories either left me lukewarm, with no strong opinion one way or the other, though during the reading they carried me along well enough but were regrettably soon forgotten, and I freely admit I just didn't get what the usually entertaining Bruce Sterling was driving at with his final story in the book "Tall Tower."

My overall impression of this ambitious original anthology? I am forced to report a very mixed bag here. A handful of stories did their job, hit their marks, and fulfilled the high promise the editors held out for the reader. Project Hieroglyph itself is to be applauded and more think tanks of like kind -- whether sponsored by a university or some other agency -- can only be viewed as a plus. As Neal Stpehenson rightly bemoans, too much around us in our society, and in our science fiction, is now of a dark or depressing nature. We must give the people (via our SF writers) an uplifting sense of optimism rather than doom and gloom. To quote Stephenson's own words from his opening remarks titled "Preface: Innovation Starvation," and following his thoughts on the grand achievement of the moon landing in the late 1960s, "Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 60s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the automobile, the airplane, nuclear energy, and the computer, to name just a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the twentieth century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy." And a few pages later: "SF has changed over the span of time I am talking about -- from the 1950s (the era of the development of nuclear power, jet airplanes, the space race, and the computer) to now. Speaking broadly, the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical, and ambiguous tone."

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, points out that it is his belief that SF writers have been the ones slacking off in providing the inspirational vistas we need so much these days. As Stephenson relates: "[Crow] refers, of course, to SF writers. The scientists and engineers, he seems to be saying, are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying the big visions that make sense. Hence, the Hieroglyph project, an effort to produce an anthology of new SF that will be in some ways a conscious throwback to the practical techno-optimism of the Golden Age."

While some of the stories here are of truly visionary scale and scope, and provide worthwhile entertainment and food for serious thought given the various issues they broach (perhaps none more so than Cory Doctorow's "The Man Who Sold the Moon"), sadly there are just as many or more that do not. More's the pity.

Copyright © 2014 by Dave Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.


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