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The Book Beat: Thinking big

SF short stories seek to inspire real-world projects

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This week's read

“The scientists and the engineers…are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense,” author Neal Stephenson writes.

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future” is a science fiction collection of 16 short stories by writers, including Stephenson, Cory DoctorowGeoffrey A. LandisElizabeth Bear, and others. 

The title of the compilation is in reference to Project Hieroglyph, founded by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson explains, “a good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. 

Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. Such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.” 

Stephenson partnered with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to implement Project Hieroglyph and the collection of short stories. The Center and the Project’s main goal is to encourage people to think “creatively and ambitiously about the future.”

Edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, the book includes a Foreword by Lawrence M. Krauss and a Preface by Neal Stephenson. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, describes how this project is different from other science fiction works: It avoids “the classic science fiction hooks: a dystopian future or a technology so advanced that the world it describes bears little to no relation to our world.” 

Stories in the collection feature the development of “big stuff” in a relevant and recognizable world with technology that is mostly available today. 

Stephenson relates literature with reality by posing a “challenge … to develop ideas that could be realized within one professional lifetime and implement technologies that exit today or will exist in the near future.”

By encouraging innovation and imagination in a world that is recognizable to readers, the visions in the stories become more real, exciting, and potentially possible. 

Finn and Cramer relate what Hieroglyph is trying to achieve to an earlier time when the world was teeming with ideas to expand beyond the earth’s blue skies, and the common goal brought people together in a collective effort to fire off into space. 

“Audacious projects … didn’t just happen by accident. Someone had to image them and create a narrative that brought that vision to life for others. They are dreams that became real not because they were easy, but because they were hard.” Readers may recall a similarly inspiring quote from John F. Kennedy in 1962 referencing the decision to go to the moon.

Refreshing, imaginative and invigorating, Hieroglyph offers optimism and hard science, “no magic wands, hyperspace drives, or galaxies far, far away” and demonstrates what great minds can really achieve in a collective effort to move scientific, technological and medical advancements into a new age of discovery and innovation.