The Flea: Where Speculative Art and Rocket Science Meet

April 26, 2016 in Hieroglyph

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

Rik Allen is an artist and sculptor who works in glass and metal. We previously talked to Rik in this interview about creating a retrofuturist sculpture, and were thrilled to hear about his recent work at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

I caught up with Rik via phone to talk about his visit to NASA, the sculpture he created there, and his ideas about the intersection of art and engineering.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: Welcome back. Was this your first time visiting NASA?

Rik Allen: It was! I was invited by the Chrysler Museum of Art to be visiting artist at their glass studio. While I was there, some friends in the aerospace industry got wind of my visit and suggested I go over to NASA for a tour. The Langley Research Center is about 40 minutes away from the Chrysler Museum; I visited the Advanced Concepts Lab, which was exciting as hell.

BB: Tell me about that.

RA: I met several researchers and engineers who are in charge of planning missions in space, including Pat Troutman, the Human Strategic Analysis Lead. What I like about talking with those guys is that it’s a lot like talking with other artists. They’re just fantastically interested and curious people with a desire to create. They’ll brainstorm a problem over coffee, sketch out their plans on a napkin, and eventually some of these designs end up becoming these incredible, functioning spacefaring vehicles.

BB: While you were there, you were shown a lot of space vehicle concepts – including the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, which you translated into an original sculpture.

Concept Art for NASA's Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MM-SEV)

Concept Art for NASA’s Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MM-SEV)

RA: Yeah, it’s a weird looking vehicle on six legs, planned for a mission to Phobos. Phobos has a rocky terrain with very little gravity, so the idea is that it will land and move across the surface by leaping from place to place. I called it The Flea – you know, if Phobos was a dog, then this vehicle would be the flea on its back.

BB: Of all the concepts you saw at Langley, what was it about that vehicle that inspired you?

RA: It was just so strange looking, really unlike anything else I’d seen, with these six truss-like legs. I’ve been incorporating those types of structures into my own work lately, so I was excited to see it proposed as a functional craft. It’s a pretty difficult structure to realize technically, but definitely worth the challenge.

BB: It’s interesting to see art and engineering in dialogue with one another – especially as we imagine the machines that will venture deeper into space on our behalf. This vehicle, and especially your take on it, seems a little more organic, whereas spacecraft are typically these hermetically sealed and dispassionate machines. What do you make of that?

RA: I’m a guy who dreams up fake rockets and space ships with no responsibility to the laws of physics or aeronautics – I can just dream up whatever I want and not worry about materials science. If it looks cool and I’m interested in making it, it gets made.

While I was there talking to the engineers, I noticed little Star Wars vehicles around their desks. We’re all about the same age and we all have that same interest in fantasy vehicles. It’s just that their responsibility is different. They render their concepts as organically as they can get away with, then scale it back to make it practical. But I feel like we’re coming from the same place of making something exciting and inspiring.

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

BB: I think there’s something similar happening with Space X’s commitments to vertical takeoff and landing craft. Part of the reason that these particular functionalities and designs are being pursued is that those are the visions these engineers grew up with, and it’s an exciting challenge to make those a reality.

RA: Yeah, totally. I tend to put a lot of portholes into my pieces – I added a porthole that wasn’t in the original design to The Flea – and the engineers said, “Oh that’s great, the astronauts would love that. They’re always trying to get us to put portholes in, but we can’t because of structural concerns.”

People raised on these images definitely have the desire to make cool looking, beautiful spacecraft that are also functional. As designers and engineers they need to merge the two as much as they can.

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

BB: You’ve done work for Blue Origin, an actual rocket factory where smart people go to work each day to create real spacecraft. What do you think is your role in contributing to that collective imagination?

RA: A lot of my work, including the piece at Blue Origin, has this underlying theme of looking outward and being curious as to what lies ahead. The engineers are buried under tons of technical considerations to get a vehicle into space and back down again safely, and I think my work is a reminder of what we’re all excited about.

Going to NASA, I was obviously super thrilled to be there, but also nervous, because I didn’t want to be in their way. What I found though, with the people that I was talking to, is that they were equally excited about what I was doing. Some of the engineers came out with their families and sat for six and a half hours, asking questions and watching me put the sculpture together. When you make this stuff all the time, you can lose sight of what it means to people – and it was exciting to hear that it was important to them.

There seems to be more and more crossover between science and art, which I think is important in addressing the challenge of increasing scientific awareness in the general public. The more people out there telling these stories, the better. So hopefully that’s part of the role I play: getting people to feel excited and curious about science and exploration.



Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

What Is The Purpose of Science Fiction Stories?

April 8, 2016 in Hieroglyph

Amazing_stories_193205 (1)Science fiction, perhaps more than any other modern genre of fiction, is often written with a social purpose or a goal. That purpose is rarely to explicitly predict the future—though they’re frequently touted, the predictive powers of science fiction are mediocre at best. In hindsight, it’s easy to pick out the novels and stories of the last century with elements that came true, but these works are few and far between compared to the plethora of “predictions” that fizzled. (Science fiction sometimes guides technological development, rather than predicting it—for example, some developers of Google Earth have credited Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash as an inspiration.) Science fiction writers themselves often bemoan the futility of trying to predict the future in their more metafictional works—see, for instance, Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress, a surrealist satire about drugs, war, and how perception shapes reality. Instead, science fiction is written to caution against the horrors of endless war (e.g., The Forever War), or to glorify human ingenuity (e.g., The Martian), or to explore the ramifications of a radically different political system (e.g., The Dispossessed, 1984).

Science fiction is also read with a purpose. Its readers seek to accomplish something, though our motives might be more elusive than those of the authors. Why do we read science fiction? The immediate answer for some is escapism: to enter into fantastic worlds that are more exciting than mundane reality. But that’s a simplistic answer that fails to explain why we’re drawn to science fiction, which, while speculative, often nods to realism and presents a thoughtful perspective on the future – frequently one that’s informed by scientific and technological reality. The draw of science fiction is more nuanced than a desire to escape the mundane.

Reading science fiction enables us to reflect on the ways people interact with each other, with technology, with our environment. A good science fiction work posits one vision for the future, among countless possibilities, that is built on a foundation of realism. In creating a link between the present and the future, science fiction invites us to consider the complex ways our choices and interactions contribute to generating the future. The collective and individual decisions we make every day—the careers we choose, the ideas we propagate, the ways we educate each other—lead us into the future. Science fiction gives us a venue to consider the futures that we want, and those we don’t, and how our actions contribute to one or the other.

Amazing_stories_193604Growing up, I immersed myself in science fiction, from the epic space sagas of Arthur C. Clarke to the twisted dystopian nightmares of Philip K. Dick. Science fiction opened up an endless array of possibilities and gave me a sense of agency in choosing which ones I hoped would materialize—and perhaps help nudge into being. The genre informed my decision to pursue a career in science and engineering, to very purposefully work toward the futures that I think are best and brightest.

Today, as a graduate student, much of the work I do involves the minutiae of science—the many hours of long work that hide behind every advance in the way we understand the world, no matter how small. But by reading science fiction, I place my work into a broader context and remind myself of why I think it’s important to work on the things I do: striving to make energy cheap, clean, and accessible, and developing systems for using it as efficiently as possible. Although I’m older, more practical, and probably more cynical, I’m just as inspired by science fiction now as I was when I first left the Earth with Bradbury and Asimov. 

Hieroglyph, in pursuing group storytelling and  interaction involving an exchange of ideas among readers, writers, scientists, and artists, gives us a tool for societal or collective reflection. Futures can be proposed, modified, refined, and discussed in an open, accessible community conversation. That certainly doesn’t mean that any one future discussed in the Hieroglyph collective imagination will come to pass. Nor does it necessarily mean we should all work together towards some particular future (such a call to collective action rings hollow to me). Truthfully, I doubt you could ever get a large enough portion of the population to agree that one course of action, one foreseeable future, is the best, to really ensure that it comes to pass. And the world is a large and diverse place—the notion that there can only be one ubiquitous “future” for everyone is laughable. But we should certainly use science fiction as a means to imagine what sorts of futures are possible, and which are desirable, and each act in our own way to help usher the best futures into reality.

Zach Berkson is an engineer, researcher, and writer, who graduated from ASU’s chemical engineering program in 2013 and is now a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on engineering nanostructured materials for new applications in energy technology, including solid-state lighting, pollutant emission reduction, and solar-energy utilization. He is interested in finding ways to further technological development while maintaining a commitment to the environment and social equity in the face of a rapidly changing world.

Slow Catastrophes, Uncertain Revivals: Stories Inspired by Project Hieroglyph

April 7, 2016 in Hieroglyph

Slow Catastrophes, Uncertain RevivalsSlow Catastrophes, Uncertain Revivals Cover is a collection of research-based stories about the future, proudly published by Project Hieroglyph. The book features stories created by students in “Slow Catastrophes, Speculative Futures, Science & Imagination: Rewriting and Rethinking Sustainability,” a course designed and taught by Dr. Michele Speitz at Furman University in South Carolina.

The course and the stories in this volume were inspired by Project Hieroglyph, particularly by our first anthology, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (2014), which the students read and discussed throughout the course – along with a wealth of scholarly readings on sustainability, ecocriticism, international development, narrative, and ecology.

The book is edited by Michele Speitz and Joey Eschrich, and designed by Ariel Shamas. It features stories from Graham Browning, Anna Peterson, Elisa Edmonson, Elly Gay, and Hagan Capnerhurst.  It’s free for anyone to read and share, under a Creative Commons license. Download and read it today!

We also hope that this volume serves as an invitation to educators everywhere: bring us your big ideas! If you’re using Hieroglyph as part of an educational experience, or if you use Slow Catastrophes, Uncertain Revivals, or if you’d like to collaborate with us on a project, please contact us at hieroglyph@asu.edu.



Imagining An Alternate History Space Program

March 3, 2016 in Hieroglyph

tumblr_nec2h2L3ff1u0vd4co1_1280“Imagine a world where the Space Race has not ended. Where space agencies were funded a lot better than military. Where private space companies emerged and accelerated development of space industry. Where people never stopped dreaming big and aiming high.”

-The Space That Never Was

Mac Rebisz is a Polish concept designer and illustrator working in the gaming and film industries for studios all over the world. In 2014 he embarked on a personal project, The Space That Never Was, combining his training as an architectural engineer with his lifelong enthusiasm for space. His work, like the Kronos Project, which envisions a manned trip to outer planets, is a unique alternate history with research-based visions for spacecraft that are both speculative and scientifically grounded. I chatted with Mac about this work, his universe, and the importance of getting the science right.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: Tell me about your process for creating these images.

Mac Rebisz: First, I always try to capture the scientific data of the project – to get the details technically correct. I visit the NASA archives to get technical documents, and I use astronautix.com for basic information about space hardware. Reading through these sites, I’ll make some initial inferences, and from there I usually correct myself after studying books on the topic – but I do research everywhere I can.

BB: How long do you spend on this part of the work?

MR: For one picture, I spend a week doing research and then a day or two just doing the image. Some of my images are hand painted in Photoshop and some are made in 3D. After doing  my research, I’ll make a detailed 3D model, then render it in Photoshop and overpaint the details, establish the mood and background…all of the artistic considerations.

BB: How much of what you do is a careful reproduction of the designs in the NASA archives, and how much is speculative?


MR: It depends on my mood – but when I find an interesting idea from reality, I think of how I’d like to depict it, then I do the study and research. When I had the idea for the Kronos spacecraft, I started reading NASA studies and documents about large, interplanetary expeditions and it just evolved from there.

BB: The Kronos Project is interesting too – because you’ve taken it a step further. This isn’t just another cool looking spaceship on the Internet: it’s designed to house a crew and a laboratory in an alternate history. Do your drawings also fulfill the technical requirements of these imaginary missions?

I first started thinking about Kronos in 2014 as a large interplanetary ship for exploration, conducting science research around Jupiter and Saturn. My first design wasn’t as big as it is now, because it started from the feasibility studies done by NASA back in the 60s and 70s, when they were actively planning missions like this. That’s why it looks like an Apollo spacecraft attached to a habitat module.  But since then I’ve plotted what I wanted my spacecraft to do, and have sketched and planned and added for what’s actually possible.20151231_kronos_3months_comp_by_macrebisz-d9m39z9

BB: It’s an interesting mash-up of speculation and real science. In your day job working on video games and movies, I imagine you get to take some artistic liberties. How important is it for you to pursue concepts like these and still get the science right?

MR: For this project it’s very important – maybe more so for me than for the audience – because I want to know how things work, and I’m gratified to know that these creations, as I imagine them, could work.

BB: Do you plan to eventually unite these images into a narrative?

MR: Yes, I’d like to make an art book from all the pictures with some background and a narrative throughout. Maybe with technical papers and some incredible cross-sections – to show how the modules would work and how people would live in them.

I’m also in pre-production for a short movie set in the Space That Never Was universe, about a Polish astronaut who goes on a mission to Phobos.

BB: How would you describe your vision for space – both The Space That Never Was as well how you’d like to see humans actually interact with space in the future?

MR: Space has always been very political, but I hope that it will be more humanistic and focused on international collaboration. The Space That Never Was is primarily scientific, of course – but I think it’s also optimistic. I want people to see that space exploration is cool and worthwhile. As an artist though, I just hope that people like my art.

Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

The Kalakala: An iconic 20th century vision of our maritime future

February 11, 2016 in Hieroglyph

This piece begins with a historical overview of the Ferry M.V. Kalakala, a fascinating piece of living, floating retrofuturism from the U.S. Northwest. Then, we learn about creating a one-of-a-kind Kalakala sculpture with Rik Allen, a renowned glass artist and sculptor, and Ted Lagreid, who commissioned the sculpture.  

Introduction: Ted Lagreid

Archival image of the ship The Kalakala on the water.

Launched in 1935, the Ferry M.V. Kalakala is believed to be the world’s first streamlined ship. It was the result of a visionary owner of a ferry system that operated in Puget Sound, the body of water that the City of Seattle was built around. It was considered Seattle’s iconic object from its launch until the erection of the Space Needle in 1962 for the “Century 21” world’s fair.

While in many ways an experiment, the Kalakala was most often perceived as a sign of forward thinking, progress, and a desire to embrace the future. It came on the scene just as commercial aviation (with Seattle-based Boeing being a major player) was making important technological leaps. Designed by a Boeing draftsman, the Kalakala was issued the first-ever commercial radar license in the U.S. Its aerodynamic configuration and silver-colored skin was striking and unprecedented.

The Kalakala operated for 32 years, until the service demands of the ferry system (now operated by the State of Washington) required much larger vessels. It was 276 feet long and 56 feet wide and carried both automobiles and walk-on passengers. Due to a series of questionable decisions, the ship suffered through a period of ignominy until it was eventually scrapped in January of 2015. But even in its demise, it had a haunting presence, and an unwillingness to succumb to the ravages of time and neglect.

The encouraging news is that the City of Kirkland, WA, where the Kalakala was originally built, is undertaking a renewed vision for the Kalakala. It was able to secure key parts of the ferry’s unique pilot house and bridge, and is currently in the midst of a process to re-envision this portion of the ship and create an adaptive reuse of it. Hopefully, this reuse will communicate provocative ideas about technological innovation and scenarios about the future – an entirely appropriate task for what was in its time a strikingly bold and futuristic creation.


Interview, Sculpting the Kalakala: Rik Allen and Ted Lagreid

Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: How did you two become inspired to work on this Kalakala sculpture?

Ted Lagreid: I was always fascinated with the Kalakala, from the first time I saw it. It’s the first art deco ship ever built and it was the first non-military vessel licensed for radar; it had Radar License 001. And it was such an exciting thing as a kid to see the Kalakala streaming across Puget Sound.

Side view of Rik Allen's sculpture of The Kalakala.Rik Allen: I’m not a native of the Northwest like Ted, but I’d seen images of the Kalakala and it’s incredible, and it was just kind of waiting down at the waterfront for me to look at and begin working on. I was immediately attracted to it aesthetically; it’s a beautiful and very unusual ship.

And when I learned how old it was, it baffled me, and I thought it was amazing that they built it at the time they did, in the 1930s. It’s stunningly ahead of its time: it looks like something that came out of the 1960s. The sleek steel hull, and the lines on it, are gorgeous. Finding out later that it had an arc-welded hull, which was unprecedented, and learning about the radar and its other unique features, it became even more intriguing.

Joey: Rik, you usually work with speculative rockets and spacecraft. Did you approach the selection of materials and techniques differently for the Kalakala, because this is a real object that came out of a particular historical moment?

Ted: When I asked Rik to do the piece, I started by saying that I didn’t want a replica. I wanted Rik’s interpretation of this iconic vessel – something recognizable, but not an exact copy. I wanted Rik to have plenty of latitude in bringing the Kalakala to life.

The Red Chair from Rik Allen's sculptures.One of the signatures in Rik’s work is a small red chair located, sometimes almost hidden, at a key point within the object – whether it’s a starship or a ferry. I asked Rik if he could include a red chair in this piece, and he agreed to do it. That was important to me because it’s one of the connecting messages of Rik’s work that resonates with me, this notion of the red chair and what it symbolizes.

Rik: Technique-wise, my sculpture is very different from the Kalakala. The piece looks mostly metallic, but it is in fact mostly glass. I wanted to bring out the ship’s unique shape. The lines on it are unusual and quite beautiful, and they just happen to be conducive to the way I work in glass. So I pulled that iconic form out of a glass form, and then built it up piece-by-piece, and replaced what would normally be the pilot house with a glass bubble and the little red chair.

As for the little red chair, it’s come to mean a lot of things to different people. I think of it as a placeholder for your consciousness to sit down, place yourself inside the vessel, and capture an imaginative moment or an adventure. I also feel like sometimes the vessels I create, including the Kalakala, are kind of a representation of your own body, human life, the little red chair behind your eyeballs experiencing life and looking forward.

Rik Allen's sculpture The Navigator.

Navigator, 2009

Ted: Years ago, I remember reading something that said, next time you’re looking at the stars, don’t just think about looking at the stars; think of yourself as the captain or pilot of spaceship Earth, a large spherical vessel that’s moving through space. I never forgot that image. And when I first saw Rik’s red chair on another piece called Navigator, which is really stirring when you’re in its presence, that image really came through.

Rik: One of the reasons I chose that particular style of chair is that it’s so common – almost everyone has sat in that simple style of chair. When I was in junior high school, we sat in a very similar type of stackable red chair.

I remember the moment in my first biology class in junior high, when we were talking about how flies develop from embryos all the way up to complex flying creatures. I grew up in a Catholic household, and nobody in my family really had a science background. Everything scientific was tinged with mystery. I assumed that flies just popped into being out of the ground somehow. Learning about the development of the fly through all of these stages blew my mind. It was that moment where I became curious about science and began to imagine all sorts of things. That was a pivotal moment, and I was sitting in my own literal little red chair when it happened.

Joey: The Kalakala was the first vessel that was built using arc welding, which gives it a sleekness that you wouldn’t be able to achieve using traditional riveting. There is such a fluidity to the glass sculptures that you create. Does the Kalakala lend itself to being rendered in glass, because of its unique shape?

Rik Allen and his sculpture of The Kalakala.Rik: One of the wonderful things about working in glass is that liquidity: that it can flow and take on forms in ways that would be difficult to realize in metal or other materials. It would take a lot more effort, and you’d really be forcing the material into those shapes. With glass, it very naturally falls into the Kalakala’s teardrop form – the edges of it are just like a teardrop cut in half. I did use some metal in this piece; it’s worth noting that the glass Kalakala is covered in a silver veneer.

Ted: There’s an engineering and physics aspect to the shape of the Kalakala, too. The ship doesn’t have a draft behind it – there is no air draft, like when you’re driving down the freeway behind a semi truck, and it pulls you down the road. The unique shape of the ship eliminates that draft, which is part of why it was so beautiful and fluid in motion on the water, despite being very much a utilitarian vessel. The guy who designed the Kalakala, Louis Proctor, was an engineer at Boeing, and you can really see that connection to innovations that we were making in the aerodynamics of aircraft in the 1930s.

Joey: Rik, can you tell us a little bit about how you conduct research for your sculptures? We’ve talked about your role as an interpreter of these historical vessels, or a creator of speculative starships. How do you gather the information you need to create something new, or interpret something that already exists?

Rik Allen's sculpture of the Starship Enterprise.Rik: With something like this, or with the sculpture of the Starship Enterprise that I did for the Roddenberry family, I was able to look at a huge number of images, letting those soak into my brain, and then get my sketchbook and see what the vessel would look like as it’s interpreted through my lens. And that reflects my working style more generally: I start by looking at images of technological and scientific creations and phenomena related to the project, and then I sketch forms and try to see how the forms take shape, without putting too heavy of a burden on my brain to render them in any one particular way.

Joey: As you’re translating these huge vessels into small sculptures, I imagine you have to be careful about the details that you have to lose as you miniaturize, while still retaining a sense of the grandeur and complexity of the object. How do you balance the overall emotional feel and aesthetic impact with a desire to capture small details?

Rik: In many cases, I get interested in one aspect of a craft I’m sculpting, like a massive starship engine, and try to make that the visual focus of the piece. I’m not constrained by realistic technology in many of my projects, which is nice; it gives me the freedom to pursue things I find interesting, and see how they work out as I integrate them into larger pieces.

For some pieces, parts of the form are made separately, in the glass shop. In those cases, I’ll build up the larger piece gradually, using almost an engineering approach, and try to get the form to stand up, and work out the kinks as I go along. Other pieces are made entirely in the glass studio, and then it’s almost like improv jazz, where you’re working with different people and you often draw in chalk on the floor, or on chalkboards in the studio, and work out the details of the form as it’s being made, and see where it goes. That’s when the most exciting things happen, when you evolve your process as you go and make decisions on the spot.

Joey: Many of your pieces are mixed media, incorporating a variety of materials, especially metals along with the glass. Is it important for you to keep glass as the dominant, primary form in your sculptures?

Rik: Yes, exactly. In the mixed media pieces, it’s important to build around the little theater that’s created in the interior, so that the red chair becomes amplified by a glass bubble – an atmosphere that’s built all around it. Ideally, you have this little atmosphere within the vessel, so you can peer inside and find the red chair, and see what’s going on in there.

The Red Chair in the sculpture of The KalakalaThe metal work is aesthetically interesting, but it all goes to support the interior. I want the vessels I create to be very cool and interesting to look at from afar, but hopefully you’re drawn to the interior. Sometimes I go overboard on the exterior because I can get too nerdy about the process, especially if it’s a technique I’ve just figured out. The danger is that the piece gets bogged down in too much metal detail, which distracts the viewer from the interior of the vessel.

Ted: I think that one critical element of Rik’s work in glass is the unique way glass interacts with light. Obviously we use glass for lenses and all kinds of other things, but glass also has these astounding refractive and reflective and absorptive capabilities. Building these pieces in glass enables them to capture and transmit light in strikingly unique ways that capture the imagination.

When you watch the process of dealing with a material that goes back and forth between a liquid and a solid in about ninety seconds, and is shifting over several hundred degrees in temperature in the process, you need to have both the technical and improvisational abilities that Rik is describing, and that he manifests in his work. You’ve got to be able to manage the heat that changes the nature of the material, and control its natural fluidity, and I think that Rik’s skill with channeling that fluidity is carried right into the finished object once it cools.

Joey: I think that the way these sculptures interact with light connects to what we’ve been discussing about the little red chair and the sense of an interior, imaginative journey.

Ted: Yes, I agree. At my house, where we have some of Rik’s work on display, people will try to look through the back ends of the sculptures, so they can see the insides. The way Rik designs many of his space-themed pieces incorporates a thrust component, so there is an opening that not only represents the thrust and launch process, but also lets viewers see inside. It’s like you’re sneaking a peek at the cockpit, and it absolutely captivates people. You’re drawn to the sculptures by the form and the appearance of the overall object, but what really hooks you is when you start thinking about being inside it, and thinking about why you’d be inside this magnificent futuristic vessel. And the reason is, to go out and embark on a voyage, to pursue exploration, whether it’s personal or scientific.

All images courtesy of Rik Allen. To see more of Rik’s work, visit his digital portfolio.


Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. He earned his bachelor's degree in Film and Media Studies in 2008 and his master's degree in Gender Studies in 2011, both from ASU.

Over at io9, Charlie Jane Anders on writing science fiction in the 21st century

February 2, 2016 in Hieroglyph

PrintLast week, our friend and Hieroglyph contributor Charlie Jane Anders published her new novel All The Birds in the Sky. Reflecting on her experiences as a science fiction author, critic, and community member, she penned a fantastically thought-provoking essay for io9 that echoes the work we try to accomplish here at Project Hieroglyph. Some choice excerpts:

On optimism

“There is just a famished, intense desire for optimism out there…but just being willing to believe in a decent future is a massively important act in the early 21st century.”

On the impact of science fiction stories

“…we have a lot of fears, as a society, that science fiction has an opportunity to address. The very fact that we’ve spent so much time lately debating whether science fiction should include ‘message fic’ about real-world issues proves that, yes, science fiction does have an opportunity to talk about real-world issues.”

On science communication

“…scientists know that we’re confused and overwhelmed, and they are sincerely interested in communicating science to ordinary people. And they absolutely see science fiction books and stories as a vehicle for talking about, and hopefully even educating about, actual science in the middle of so much misrepresentation and misunderstanding.”

The entire essay is truly a great read (no surprise there) and we look forward to diving into the new book. (And don’t miss the Hieroglyph shout-out in the section “Also, optimism!”)

Congratulations, Charlie Jane!


Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

Hard Science Fiction is Mapping our Future – But Are We Ready to Go?

December 23, 2015 in Hieroglyph

Here at Hieroglyph, we do our best to abide by Neal Stephenson’s 3H rule: no holocausts, no hackers, and no hyperspace.

It’s a good guideline for the work that goes on here. After all, how can we learn to make a better future when we’re burdened with hopeless dystopias, magical-but-unrealizable dream technologies, and only ad hoc improvements to our existing systems and machines?

Hieroglyph is about not just dreaming big, but also dreaming plausibly, a sentiment that was recently championed on NPR’s All Things Considered. In his piece, Steve Paulson details the recent popularity of “hard science fiction” by authors like Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Andy Weir (The Martian). Paulson argues that these “hard” stories aren’t even imaginary: the science is sound, and with a few (okay, a few hundred) billion dollars in the coffers, we’re an interplanetary species.

But not so fast. Kim Stanley Robinson posits at the end of the article:

This idea of a utopia happening on another planet is a story space you go into. I mean, I love Mars and I’m interested in Mars. But we don’t need to go anywhere, because this planet is our one and only home.”

Frankly, this is a surprising to hear. We enjoy science fiction because it provides a speculative and exciting escape, but books by Robinson and his contemporaries also do more. With its adherence to scientific accuracy and rigorous details, hard science fiction does the heavy lifting of dreaming about the future, establishing a steady foundation on which our ideas about humanity can be imagined and built upon.  To many, these aren’t just entertaining stories, but also explicit nudges toward any number of possible outcomes for our species. 

Home is wherever humanity goes next, and yes, we might stay Earth bound for the rest of our existence. However, if we’re dreaming big, the technology is near, Congress keeps feeling generous toward the space program, and popular fiction continues to prime the wills of would-be space travelers, we might need to add another ‘H’ to the Hieroglyph ruleset:

No homesickness.

Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

Interview: Talking Atompunk and retrofuturism with Hieroglyph Community Member John Maly

December 14, 2015 in Hieroglyph

John Maly is a Hieroglyph community member who works in patent law and enjoys exploring the atompunk scene through art and visits to mid-century landmarks like Atomic City, Idaho and the Dymaxion House in Detroit. I caught up with John over the phone about his travels, John Steinbeck, and the Fallout video game series.

A nuclear jet engine in Atomic City, Idaho.

A nuclear jet engine in Atomic City, Idaho.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: Tell me about your experience with Hieroglyph and your interest in atompunk.

John Maly: I’ve been participating in the Hieroglyph forums for a couple of years now and I think atompunk is getting at a lot of the same aspects of Hieroglyph – this idea that we have an unlimited view of the future that has gotten largely lost in a lot of modern fiction. The atompunk scene espouses a retrofuturism that’s interesting because it comes from an earnest and limitless view of the world that’s exciting – even though a lot of the things predicted in that era never really came to pass.

BB: Why do you think that is?

JM: That’s a tough question. I think a lot of it is systemic. You’ve got the companies that used to build great, ambitious projects, and they have stopped doing that because they’re are publicly held and their main obligation is to shareholder value. And so you no longer have some giant flagship retail store that’s supposed to be a kind of a wonder to anyone who goes near it.

I used to work on a microprocessor design team and we used to have these alternating cycles where one cycle you’d come up with a new architecture entirely that would introduce a lot of new features and functionality.

Then you’d have a couple cycles that were not very ambitious in terms of increasing functionality; it was just kind of streamlining and making small iterations toward achievable goals. It’s why it’s boring to walk to the end of your driveway and get the mail because you know you can do it, whereas if you’ve never run a marathon before, that kind of ignites a human passion.

I don’t know where that ambition started to get lost in society, but it’s certainly reflected in a lot of ways in fiction, in the educational system, in Corporate America, in fear of litigation that, I think, has really stacked the deck against it now.

BB: So, is atompunk fueled by that same sort of that boundless aspiration?

JM: Yeah, but I think when you take a step back and look at the world when this stuff was new and not cited in an ironic way, we were coming out of the Victorian era with World’s Fairs where people would go to see these technologies that were so far in advance of what was currently productized that they almost seemed like magic.

Then suddenly you had Ford making jet turbine-powered experimental cars. Companies were designing atomic engines to use in spy planes. All of these things were very credibly put forth back in the 50s as, “Hey, this is the next step. This is where things are going to be in another 30 years,” and none of that really materialized. Of course, a lot of that didn’t materialize because the ideas became obsolete. When you have satellites, you don’t need planes that can sit up in the air for two years.

Interior of the Dymaxion House, designed by Buckminster Fuller.

Interior of the Dymaxion House, designed by Buckminster Fuller.

But other things like housing designs, all those things have just slowed down a lot. I think in a lot of ways, atompunk represents the last hurrah of the non-skeptical and unironic view of a magical future that America had back then.

For example, have you read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley?

BB: I haven’t. Can you tell me about it?

JM: There’s a section in there, set back in the late 40s I believe, where Steinbeck stops in what is essentially a trailer park. At the time, trailer parks were this vision of the future. If you want to read a non-ironic tribute to how trailer homes are just the best thing since sliced bread, it’s in Travels with Charley because he interviewed these people and he discovered this whole phenomenon. Back then, every mobile home in one of these parks was brand new. So it’s deluxe and shiny with woodwork and fairly expensive things inside. They were this idea of how humans would live in the future, where we would all have these mobile homes and if the breadwinner lost his job, well, they’d just put the wheels back on it and move it to the new city and protect their investment. It’s a product of the era, where someone applied technology to a problem and tried to see how far they can go with it.

BB: So much of the “punk” culture – steampunk, cyberpunk, what have you – seems to prioritize the individual. But in this there seems to be an underlying nostalgia for “better living through corporations.” Is that fair?

JM: I think if we rewind to the time when all of this stuff was happening, the interests of the individual and the interests of corporations weren’t as mutually exclusive as they are now. People now are much more skeptical of the corporations than they were before. During the era we’re talking about, it was thought that if you went out and became incredibly successful then you would start your own corporation and be the next Ford, or Disney, or GE.

Nowadays the average person’s interaction with a corporation is they dial into some 1-800 number and get abysmal customer service. So regardless of what’s going on inside these corporations and what their interests and motives are, the average person is already jaded toward their relationship with the company.

BB: So, is there a privileged superiority at play in atompunk and retrofuturism – a sort of “look how quaint and simple things were” outlook – or is it a legitimate love for and tribute to that time?

JM: I think it’s love and tribute. There are lots of people out there who are missile silo geeks or people who are interested in prototype cars or people who are interested in retrofuturism, but I don’t think it has been unified yet. But what you see is that certain media have had a crystallizing effect on a larger scale. For example, are you familiar with the Fallout games?

BB: Sure. Absolutely.

JM: The product literature and packaging for Fallout has grown to have this very kind of late 50s, early 60s graphical way of rendering characters. There are these stylized people who are living the Eisenhower Era ideal – the sun is shining, everybody’s got nice, bright pastel clothes, and they’re just happy as hell for some reason.

It’s just one of the aspects of Fallout, which you might think is sort of inconsequential, right, because the original game’s graphics themselves did not have that kind of art. So, there wasn’t any real reason for that art to take off like it has, but you can see its influences everywhere, and especially with the Vault Boy character on t-shirts and in online jokes and fan art. I think deep down it strikes that same sort of chord – it’s kind of its own time capsule. I don’t people necessarily have nostalgia for the Cold War or needing to be ready to hide under desks when a siren goes off, but I think that all of this represents the no holds barred, swing for the fences outlook that we no longer really seem to have universally now.

Images courtesy of John Maly.


Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

Announcing The Tomorrow Project’s Journeys through Time and Space anthology

October 8, 2015 in Hieroglyph

“Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it.”
-Doctor Emmett L. Brown, Back to the Future Part III

Cover of the Tomorrow Project's Journeys through Time and Space anthology, featuring an artist's rendering of a black hole.I was nearing my thirteenth birthday when I heard that line — a call to action from a character that embodied scientific curiosity, exploration, and DIY. Unfortunately for me, the year was 1989, so rather than take to the Internet to find a community of thinkers and makers to help workshop my ideas, I contented myself by reading about other people’s imagined futures. Thankfully, for those of us who pined for access to a hackerspace or the fellowship of like-minded enthusiasts, these dreams are realized for a new generation courtesy of The Tomorrow Project.

For the past five years, The Tomorrow Project has empowered today’s youth to visualize and collaborate on the future they want to live in through both storytelling and prototyping. Using grounded science as a starting point, Tomorrow Project participants are encouraged to tease out ideas, designs, implications, and worst-case scenarios to envision the world that they’ll soon inherit. Hundreds of these exercises from fifteen countries and thirty-six U.S. states were submitted as short stories to the project’s The Future – Powered By Fiction contest and have been published in quarterly anthologies throughout the past year.

As a partner in this effort, we are excited to announce the publication of the fourth and final collection of tales from the competition, Journeys through Time and Space.

In this volume, eleven young people from Nepal, Singapore, and the U.S. share their dispatches from the future, expressing the primal human desire for exploration powered by the technologies of tomorrow. Their stories are fresh, exciting, and brimming with possibility. We invite you to read them all here and share the Tomorrow Project with the students and educators in your life. The anthology is free to read, download, and share.

Visit the Tomorrow Project website to read and share Journeys through Time and Space and the other three “Future – Powered by Fiction” anthologies, along with a bunch of other volumes of science fiction and fact.

Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

Hieroglyph Contributors Featured in New Climate Fiction Anthology

October 8, 2015 in Hieroglyph

Cover of the anthology "Loosed Upon the World," showing a cloudy sky rendered in dark blues and shades of gray.Climate fiction is a burgeoning genre in the crowded literary landscape – but it has been making waves lately. Think pieces on the growth of this particular flavor of storytelling abound, films like Snowpiercer use “cli-fi” as a backdrop for action and adventure, and earlier this summer the award-winning digital magazine Matter featured a series of essays and short fiction exploring futures shaped by climate change, including a lengthy contribution from Margaret Atwood.

Now, a definitive collection of short climate fiction can be found in the new anthology Loosed Upon the World, edited by John Joseph Adams. Featuring stories from new voices and luminaries in the field, including Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi, and several Hieroglyph contributors, the book provides provocative, sometimes-startling images not so far removed from today’s reality.

In his introduction to the anthology, Paolo Bacigalupi posits that overly sunny techno-optimism is too easy a position to take in the face of a looming crisis. Dreaming of a futuristic innovative solution is easier than mindfully confronting the social, cultural, and political challenges that bedevil us right now — several of which are examined by the authors included in the collection.

Stories featured in Loosed Upon the World include “The Precedent,” in which author Sean McMullen offers a vision of future eco-justice that rivals 17th century Salem; Tobias S. Buckell’s “The Rainy Season” considers one particularly strange side-effect of bioengineering a species to deal with human pollution; and Charlie Jane Anders’ “The Day It All Ended” (originally published in the Hieroglyph anthology) provides a satirical view of rampant consumerism.

While none of the twenty-six tales here provide a turnkey solution to the problem of climate change, the collected works offer a human perspective on a topic that is so often saddled with divisive rhetoric. While it’s all too easy to ignore policy briefs on climate change, narratives about the struggles of our fellow humans have power to move and unite us.  Storytelling might well change the future – but it requires an engaged audience to turn imagination into action. Loosed Upon the World and its writers have taken the first step in publishing this collection. The stories within remind us that what happens next is up to all of us.


Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.