Thinking Big: Greetings from Neal Stephenson

March 3, 2013 in Hieroglyph

Photo by Bob Lee.

Photo by Bob Lee.

My life span encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. At the age of 51—not even old!—I watched on a flat-panel screen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my orbiting, donut-shaped space station? Where’s my fleet of colossal Nova rockets? Where’s my ticket to Mars?

But until recently I have kept my feelings to myself. Who cares that an otherwise fortunate nerd has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled?

Nonetheless, I’ve had a vague feeling of disquiet that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general inability of our society to do Get Big Stuff Done. Those feelings were crystallized by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 and the Fukushima meltdowns of 2011. We’re better than this, people.

In early 2011 I accepted an invitation to participate in a conference called Future Tense. For the occasion I climbed up on my soapbox and wrote an article about the decline of the space program, then pivoted to the gulf oil spill as a way of indicating that the real issue isn’t about space launch. It’s our inability as a society to do big things, to execute big plans.

I had, through some kind of blind luck, struck a nerve. Many people, it seems, have been fretting about this very thing in the backs of their minds. They seemed hugely relieved to see the topic broached in a public arena. I haven’t stopped hearing about it since.

One of the questions that came up at Future Tense was: what can a science fiction writer do about it? My instinct—wrong, as it turned out—was to think that mere writers could be of very little use. Others were more confident that SF had direct relevance—even utility—in addressing the problem.

I heard two theories as to why. They are not mutually exclusive:

1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and sort of obvious.

2. The Hieroglyphic Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. It has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to a scientist or engineer, and provides them with a template that they and their colleagues can use to organize their work. Examples include Asimovian robots, Heinleinian rocket ships, Clarke towers, and Gibsonian cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research put it, when I was discussing this with him later, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on the significance of which everyone agrees.

“You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” proclaimed Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University, when I ran all of this by him later. He was referring, of course, to the science fiction writers. The scientists and engineers, he seemed to be saying, were ready, and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight!

Hieroglyph is, accordingly, the name of a project that has been taking shape during the months since. The idea is to get SF writers to contribute pieces to an anthology. These pieces would all be throwbacks, in a manner of speaking, to 1950’s-style SF, in that they would depict futures in which Big Stuff Got Done. We would avoid hackers, hyperspace, and holocausts. The ideal subject matter would be an innovation that a young, modern-day engineer could make substantial progress on during his or her career. It’s linked to a new entity at Arizona State University called the Center for Science and Imagination which will foster direct collaboration between SF writers, researchers, engineers, and students.

A year after the Future Tense conference I made a presentation on this topic at Google’s “Solve for X” conference, and found myself in enthusiastic discussions with people who had gathered there to discuss “moon shot” projects in general. Jack Hidary coined the term “moon shot ecosystem” to describe the network of people and institutions needed to Get Big Stuff Done. I like the term; ecosystems are amazingly productive and robust when they are up and running, but hard to fix when they get out of whack. Ours is out of whack, but we’re hoping that Hieroglyph and the discussions and institutions to which it’s linked may be able to produce a few green shoots that will teach us what needs to happen next.

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Neal Stephenson is the author of the three-volume historical epic “The Baroque Cycle” (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) and the novels REAMDE, Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

3 responses to Thinking Big: Greetings from Neal Stephenson

  1. Thank you so much. As one of the acquiring editors for the Canadian SF/F magazine OnSpec, we have been stressing to our submitters how few real SF stories we get.

    Thanks for bringing this out into the open to a vastly wider audience.

  2. Thanks for sharing the link to this. It’s hard to know how much demand there is for such stories, judging only by what is on the neighbourhood shelves, so this is both a heads up and a bit of a morale boost for those of us trying to do the harder, ‘big idea’ SF. I know what I’ll be working on during this weekend’s Write-off event.

  3. I’ll pitch in gleefully, having seen this sort of thing before.