Spotlight on the Community: April Davis

September 3, 2015 in Hieroglyph

April Davis is a new member of the Hieroglyph community. She is studying geophysics and astronomy at Cal Poly Pomona and can be found doing field work in the Arctic, Hawaii, and at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

I caught up with April over email to talk about her latest adventures and how science fiction inspired her passion for science.

April DavisBob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: What are you working on right now?

April Davis: My team is currently analyzing impact ejecta, secondary craters, and slope distribution of Martian terrain in support of the future Mars InSight lander mission. Basically, I’m projecting and layering various data types (visual, digital elevation, thermal emission) to make maps that will allow us to determine the safest place to land. I’m at JPL as part of the Caltech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, but will continue working here as a part-time intern through at least the fall quarter. So, I should get to do the same type of stuff for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission!!! 😀 (I am obviously very excited.)

My last internship (last summer I was in the High Arctic testing the IceBreaker-3 drill) was actually a competitor to the project I’m working on now. It’s been really interesting to have the experience of working on a couple of different missions – especially seeing how different NASA centers operate. It’s also renewed my interest in engineering.

I miss designing and building stuff. A few years ago, I designed an optical head-mounted display that could be used to help geologists wearing spacesuits – because so much of what we do is impossible to do in a spacesuit. The design was accepted for a talk at the International Astronautical Conference in Beijing that year, but I couldn’t fund myself to attend. I never actually built my prototype, and regret that pretty often. I need someone to help me with coding, but eventually I will get around to it.

BB: What does the future look like to you, and what are you most excited about?

AD: I’m really excited about the possibility of human spaceflight, space tourism, and Moon bases. As a self-described tree-hugger, it took me a long time to come to terms with my desire to explore other planets due to the waste of valuable resources here on Earth; the likelihood that we would just exploit other planets for materials; and the possibility that we could stunt evolving life on another planet. These are all real concerns, and the last is something that we should take very seriously. There are planetary protection laws in place to mitigate the damage we do, but those laws might not be enough in the face of the aggressive lobbying that would almost certainly happen if a profit could be turned.

I’m all for colonization of Mars as well. I’ve done a couple of rotations out at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, simulating a Mars habitat environment. I’ve also done research at Mars analog sites in the High Arctic and Death Valley.

BB: So you’re ready to go?

AD: Definitely! Many organizations, including JPL, have plans to get people to Mars by the 2030s. Some of those plans include staying for a couple weeks, and some include staying until death. Private organizations like SpaceX are also planning missions. Elon Musk has said that he would like to retire on Mars, and he seems like the kind of man who works hard to make things happen. However, SpaceX hasn’t yet managed a successful spacecraft landing on a planet other than Earth (and that was in the water). So they have a long road ahead of them. I’m hopeful that they will make some headway sooner rather than later, because I would love to sign up for the SpaceX Mars retirement plan.

In the meantime, I would be happy just to have samples brought back to Earth. Mars 2020 is supposed to collect samples that will be brought back as part of a different mission – it was too expensive to incorporate sample return into Mars 2020. The thought of waiting all those years for samples breaks my heart.

BB: What are your biggest challenges, and how do you deal with them?

AD: Planetary science research is extremely competitive. During my first few internships, I encountered so many people who were discouraging students from pursuing planetary science unless they wanted to devote their lives to it and were okay with not making much money. I am okay with both of those things, but it still worried me. Fortunately, I was lucky to have a mentor who not only encouraged me, but pretty much convinced me not to turn my back on Mars research. It meant a lot to me. I have really bad impostor syndrome, but she made me feel like I belong.

I hope I can have that type of impact on the life of a student one day. I would especially like to mentor young women. There are a number of reasons why women drop out of STEM, but I believe that too often it’s because of the way they are treated by people in the field.

BB: What is your favorite science fiction story or vision for the future?

AD: Tough question. When I was young, I was lucky enough to have an uncle that was really into sci-fi. I would often stay with him and my aunt, and he would let me watch ANYTHING I wanted. So I probably knew all the words to the Evil Dead script by the time I was five years old. We also watched an episode of The X-Files every week; I think that really taught me to be skeptical. Scully was my favorite. I didn’t have any role models when I was young; I really admired her. In later years, Colonel Carter from Stargate SG-1 would have a huge impact on my life. Her character made me realize that women could be good at math – as a kid I wasn’t good at math and was discouraged from trying because “girls just aren’t good at math.” I already had the desire to explore (or maybe just to run), but I hadn’t thought about exploring other planets yet.

Also, one of my exes is doing Mars research because he read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and it gave him the desire to colonize Mars. He took me to the Mars Society Convention back in 2012, and that’s how I got hooked up with the Mars Desert Research Station. In a way, part of what I’m doing today is also because of him (and KSR by proxy). Without sci-fi, I have no idea what I would be doing with my life, but I very seriously doubt it would be working for NASA.

After writing all of this, I really have to go with Stargate SG-1 as my favorite – even though it doesn’t really take place in the future. The protagonists are very into the science, but they’re also compassionate and ethical. If we ever make contact with sentient beings from outside of our solar system, I’d hope the leadership of Earth could be so elegant.


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.

Just How Realistic Is Buzz Aldrin’s Plan to Colonize Mars?

August 31, 2015 in Hieroglyph


Buzz AldrinThe second man to walk on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin – along with the Florida Institute of Technology – has joined the growing ranks of space colonization advocates that foresee the settlement of Mars in the near future. Other groups, such as SpaceX, NASA, and the much-harangued Mars One, all have plans in motion to land astronauts on the Red Planet. Most of these plans rely on research and space missions that have not yet been conducted; Aldrin’s plan, for instance, would use space stations, asteroids, and the moons of Mars as way stations for the eventual one-way colonists.

These plans are alike in that they are ambitious, inspirational, and daring. And they may be, ultimately, unrealistic. It’s been more than forty years since humanity’s last manned trip to another celestial body, the Apollo 17 Moon mission in 1972. Implementing a manned mission to Mars will take decades of research and planning, immense political will, and generous funding. The colonization of another planet is a project the likes of which have, arguably, never been seen before. Do we (i.e., the human race) have the drive to achieve such ambitions?

It is undeniable that serious, intelligent people are talking about the very real possibility of colonizing another planet. And with movies like The Martian debuting soon, it’s clear that Mars is in the public consciousness as well. Maybe now is the perfect time to start planning our next great leap into space.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Knake, used under a Creative Commons license.


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.

Kathryn Cramer at Google: Why Hieroglyph is a Verb

September 11, 2014 in Hieroglyph

I’d like to thank Google for having us here today; and Neal Stephenson, Ed Finn, and Jennifer Brehl, for the chance to collaborate on the anthology Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future.

Google Collage Photo

Photo by D. Simerly

And thank you all for joining us for the first event of our Hieroglyph Roadshow. In July of 2011, Neal asked me if I was interested in working on this book. It only took us three years to get here!

In the 1920s, Hugo Gernsback named our genre science fiction and described it as: engaging narrative that contains scientific information and prophetic visions. Debate over whether SF should be technologically optimistic has gone on at least as long as science fiction has had that name.

In broad outline, optimistic SF is associated with the frontier, with — as theSF Encyclopedia colorfully put it — “the Universe waiting voluptuously to be had.” Pessimistic science fiction is associated with the end of Empire, which parenthetically is the source of our preoccupation with dystopia.

Many pairs of opposites have kicked around in discussions of optimism and pessimism. Golden Age SF vs. the New Wave, American SF vs. British, science fiction vs. speculative fiction, cynics vs. Pollyannas, happy endings vs. downers, sympathetic characters vs. unsympathetic, idea-driven stories vs. character-driven, clear journalistic prose as opposed to stylistic sophistication, populism vs. the literary, realism vs. the fantastic, “playing with the net up” rather than more fanciful fabulation, free will vs. predestination, militarism vs. pacifism, activism vs. learned helplessness, utopia vs. dystopia, the influence of Henry James vs. that of H. G. Wells, genre fiction vs. stuff supposedly so good it’s not SF, and what is contrasted with what could be.

This last pair is the one most important to Hieroglyph. Our future is full of possibilities. Hieroglyph invites you to explore them. While as editors, Ed and I want you to have the best possible reading experience, Hieroglyph is not so much aimed at how you feel as what you DO.

In the Gernsbackian tradition, Hieroglyph is a visionary book. But Hieroglyph’s goal is not so much to predict as to inspire, to engage writers and scientists, engineers and other creative thinkers, with science and technology’s utopian potential. The future doesn’t just happen. Moment by moment, we help invent it. Some of us invent futures for a living. If we don’t invent futures we want to live in, who will do it for us? As Ursula K. Le Guin said, “Great artists make the roads.”

There are precursors to Hieroglyph. Geoff Ryman’s anthology When It Changed (2008): Ryman believes SF writers should rely less on what’s called rubber science. He put scientists together with his writers. Jetse DeVries did an anthology of optimistic SF called Shine (2010). There is the Futures column in Nature, founded by Henry Gee, MIT’s Technology Review occasionally publishes SF, and SF short stories sponsored by Intel, a program run by Brian David Johnson. Another precursor is the design fiction movement with which Bruce Sterling is associated. Gregory Benford’s anthology Starship Century focused on space travel — was edited in parellel with Hieroglyph, And there is the discipline of Foresight Studies, which both Madeline Ashby and Karl Schroeder studied in graduate school. And there are individual authors, such as Kim Stanley Robinson, who have been writing this way all along.

In 1978, when I was in high school, my father John Cramer became a science columnist for his favorite science fiction magazine, Analog, formerly known as Astounding back when it was edited by John W. Campbell. Astounding was the flagship magazine of Golden Age SF. When my dad was an undergraduate at Rice, he submitted his first attempts at stories to Campbell. This was very meaningful to him later when he was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for his hard SF novel, Twistor.

When I became an editor in the 1980s, that was the job I wanted. But Analog’s editor Stan Schmidt remained its editor until about two years ago. Instead, I have edited about thirty anthologies, including two hard SF books,The Ascent of Wonder and The Hard SF Renaissance.

In August of 1967, my parents threw a farewell party for a man who was leaving Seattle to go to Mars. Yes, to Mars. I remember how the condensation on the glasses of the adults’ gin and tonics bent the light; him leaning against the dishwasher talking about training to become an astronaut. I was five years old.

Joe Allen was leaving the University of Washington’s Nuclear Physics Laboratory, where he was a postdoc, to join NASA as one of the first scientist astronauts. There would be Apollo missions, to be followed by laboratories on the Moon, and then there was to be a mission to Mars!

You know he never got there. Nor did he get his lunar laboratory. But he did get to space.

We are asking science fiction to change. We are asking for a science fiction that won’t hang back arguing with itself, but will instead leap at the possibility that SF can create a better world.

Like all writers who come here, we want you to read our book and tell all your friends. And your enemies, too. But we ask more of you. We want you to participate in the Hieroglyph community and imagine better futures. We want you to think about infrastructure.

Hal Clement, when asked why his stories mostly lack villains, replied that the Universe is antagonist enough. Think long term, think survival, not just for us as individuals, but for humanity, and for the species with which we share our Earth.

We are on the surface of a planet right now. Astronomy teaches us how rare and precious is this Earth. Let us learn how to remain.

Our book is the beginning of the project, not the end. We want to do more books, but also, we aim to broaden the project to reach many more people.

We would like to work further with NASA. We would like to work on subject areas such as climate change, sustainability, and genomics. We would like to expand into novels, graphic novels, TV and film, while producing tangible academic research results and inventions. We hope for your help and your support.

Hieroglyph isn’t just a book. It’s also a project. And it isn’t just a project, it is a process. I will go so far as to say that, for me, Hieroglyph has become a VERB.

To hieroglyph: to refine an idea such that it becomes an icon in a language for solving the problems most in need of solutions. I’ll repeat that: to refine an idea such that it becomes an icon in a language for solving the problems most in need of solutions.

This is what Neal Stephenson does exceptionally well. It is why you are here. You can do it too. Let us all go forth and hieroglyph!

Thank you.

Kathryn Cramer is a writer, critic, and anthologist, and coeditor of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Year’s Best Science Fiction series with David G. Hartwell. She is a winner of the World Fantasy Award and has received numerous nominations and awards for her work as editor. Her fiction has been published by, Asimov’s, and Nature. She lives in Westport, New York.