Project Hieroglyph, a “failure”… already?

SF author James L. Cambias talks of what he labels the “failure” of Project Hieroglyph, in a long new blog post “Science Fiction and Predicting the Future”. A failure, already? The book was only published last year. As with Tomorrowland, I’d give it at least a decade longer to prove itself. Any SF deserves as much.

Project Hieroglyph (2014), as regular readers of this blog may know, is an excellent and best-selling new print and audio-book anthology of deliberately optimistic near-future SF stories by some of SF’s best writers. Big problems, but big feasible technologies and the optimistic people and projects to fix them. Editor Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, Anathem) had a super lead story in the book called “Atmosphaera Incognita”, in which he thoroughly and vividly imagines his own Tall Tower concept — somewhat similar to Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Elevator, though on very different principles.

Cambias feels that as as a first-try the book Project Hieroglyph has so far “failed” because it hasn’t to achieved a key aim — to create vivid new instantly-recognisable symbols of progress and the future — it was too anchored in the present…

“Once you point people in the direction of inspiring or predicting change to solve contemporary problems, you lock them into the present.”

Fair enough, I’m all for more long-term thinking. Although it may be a little soon to call the book a “failure”. Come back in 10, 20 or 30 years, take another look at the book, and there may well be things it it that have played a part in triggering some glorious new realities.

Though a contributor to the book, Cambias subscribes instead to the more down-to-earth Asimov / Sagan type of claim for SF, that the best SF writers can do is to hope…

“that people become interested in [learning] science and technology because of exposure to science fiction. That is where we can shine. … in encourage[ing] people to become scientists and engineers and create the future”

This thought leads Cambias to wonder if, actually, the headlong ascent of science and technology has simply thrown off such a need for the old optimistic inspirational literary science fiction, like an Apollo rocket jettisoning its boosters as it flies upward. I’ve been thinking along the same lines recently. 99% of SF that I encounter has become stale, using the same old clichés and props as we had in the 1960s and 70s. That science and technology is overtaking SF’s dusty stock repertoire is obvious, to anyone who reads the right magazines and listens to the right podcasts. Much big-money SF hardly even pretends that it’s not just an old wild western or a knights-in-armour opera dragged up in glitzy SF (Mad Max, the latest Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, and many more). On the other hand, scientists have an utterly dismal record of trying to predict the future, so there’s not much hope of SF being rescued from that direction.

There are also another two parts to this problem, which Cambias doesn’t discuss. Both the writers and their audience are no longer what they once were. 1) As far as I can gather (I read nearly everything in SF before 1984, but very little after) literary SF has slumped into a gloomy and dispirited late middle-age in terms of the demographics of its writers. 2) Even the intelligent reading public is loosing the ability to grasp science, as science fragments into arcane specialisms that take 20 years just to master, and as the basis for a solid common ground and common vocabulary evaporates. To write real near-future science fiction now, fully expressing all the changes and details and whys-and-wherefores, would be like publishing a scientific paper — it could only be read by 20 people, only five of whom would understand it. No mass market publisher would take a risk on anything like it. But perhaps we just require new morphing books, in which the reader can slide a dial and seamlessly ramp up the story details and vocabulary from ‘plain English’ to ‘super-nerd’ and all points in between, while also popping out scholarly annotations, infographics and Web links. But who would spend time writing and coding such a monster?

As Cambias points out, SF writers are historically better at plodding along in the wake of what they read in Scientific American, Wired and Popular Mechanics

“better at publicising than we are at innovating, and our predictions are all over the map. We can’t see the future. … When we genuinely try to predict the future, or worse yet, to actually influence it, we fail very badly indeed.”

At that simple task of publicizing we have been moderately useful. But I think Cambias overstates the case that literary SF has been successful in helping making nerds cooler and cooler in popular culture (if perhaps not in the everyday American school-yard) during the last twenty years. That shift has been mostly the result of screen SF, games, and the rise of the hacker — not literary SF. Bullies, jocks and normals don’t read literature.

So SF’s future role is to be entrenched as a public relations manager for the increasingly tired Wired magazine? Hmmm… it sounds a bit dull, frankly. And all too easily outdated — publishers and authors alike may well hope for a longer shelf-life. Young intelligent audiences may well yearn for something more inspiring and adventurous. In that regard I do wonder if the methods of the excellent new movie Tomorrowland point to a useful method of inspiration (rather than prediction, something a little different) for SF. Recuperate the great people and achievements of the past (in Tomorrowland‘s case: Tesla, the Eiffel Tower, the Apollo launchpad, Valencia’s City of Arts and Science, etc) and fictionally re-position them as underlying elements of new and very human stories about hope for the future.

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