Enough With Dystopias: It's Time For Sci-Fi Writers To Start Imagining Better Futures

You cannot have a future you do not first imagine. Problems are easy to see, so dystopias can lapse into lazy writing. Solutions call up objections, inevitably, and so provide the conflict that fiction needs to frame its questions. Optimism is harder.
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Here in the 21st century, science fiction is still a literature of ideas, but as science and technology have become more complicated, it has become harder to project what might happen. Twenty years ago, Vernor Vinge proposed that within 30 years' time we might be approaching the "Singularity," the point at which the rate of change in our lives goes up exponentially, a time when super intelligent machines take over and the world will change in ways that are impossible to predict or understand. While some writers such as Charles Stross have had a lot of fun in the past two decades trying to fathom the unfathomable future in such novels as Singularity Sky, we find ourselves not yet caught up in the rapture of the nerds, but rather in a world experiencing somewhat more mundane, and more predictable catastrophes, many of which are failures of infrastructure: Bridges when not maintained fall down. Nuclear powers plants not built to withstand a tsunami don't withstand them. Planes crash; sometimes planes crash into things that fall down. Levees fail. Oil tankers run into things and leak.

As our world became more complicated and our shiny futuristic infrastructure began to age and fail, dystopias emerged as a subgenre of science fiction. Some of these stories, such as "Pump Six" by Paolo Baciagalupi and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow are cautionary tales. But many, zombie plague novels for example, are not. Dystopia has become an off-the-shelf setting for science fiction the way the past is for fantasy. I quite enjoyed The Hunger Games and its sequel, and Jennifer Lawrence is a brilliant actress. But while they are dystopian, they are not really about the future; rather they are moral parables about how to survive on social media. (hint: get people to like you.)

In 2011, following the Fukushima disaster, Neal Stephenson came to the realization that much of our crucial infrastructure is aging, and we are dependent upon infrastructure built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. He wrote about this in an essay called Innovation Starvation. He gave a speech on this subject at GoogleX conference. Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University challenged him, saying that we had stopped getting big stuff done because science fiction writers like Stephenson had stopped envisioning is. Thus, Project Hieroglyph was born. Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future is the first book to come out of this collaboration. Stephenson called for a wave of technological optimism in science fiction. Hieroglyph is meant to be the flagship for this new direction for SF. I joined ASU's Ed Finn to implement Stephenson's editorial visions.

The final book is technologically optimistic science fiction. It is optimistic in the sense that it takes the position that our problems have solution. We have not formed a Glad Club to encourage complacency, but rather these stories are about how the world should change: more Horatio Alger than Pollyanna. While the stories are all gathered together in one volume, our writers have widely varying points of view about optimism and about the future Arthur C. Clark once said, "I don't pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about." This is the spirit in which we offer this book.

I have asked Gregory Benford, Madeline Ashby, Karl, Schroeder, and Bruce Sterling to weigh in on the nature of Hieroglyph's optimism.

Gregory Benford explains the importance of visualizing the world we want to live in: "You cannot have a future you do not first imagine. Problems are easy to see, so dystopias can lapse into lazy writing. Solutions call up objections, inevitably, and so provide the conflict that fiction needs to frame its questions. Optimism is harder, and who doesn't like a happy (and, inevitably, conflicted) ending?"

Madeline Ashby focuses on modeling characters who believe in change: "It's easy to get hung up on whether a given story is optimistic or pessimistic about the future. But what's more important is to write an optimistic protagonist -- someone who expects to create change. Because creating change is how strong characters take agency. And that's just good writing, for any genre."

Karl Schroeder would like us to visualize solving the political problems that stand in the way of solutions: "The symbols of the future so familiar to us--the rocket ship, the robot, even nanotechnology--are all 20th century inventions. What inspiring visions are rooted in the 21st century? Social media websites don't cut it. We have to do better. Fantasy is all very well, but no fantasy world is quite as exciting to me as imagining a fantastical world and then realizing that it could actually exist. To me, governance is the meta-problem we have to solve. We have the other tools and technologies to fix all the issues facing humanity and the planet; what we lack is the ability to collectively decide upon and commit ourselves to the right courses of action. But if this is our greatest challenge, it's also our greatest opportunity. Solve the problem of governance, and all other problems are solved. Solve that problem, and we seize the future."

Bruce Sterling likes the way Hieroglyph engages with problems: "I dislike the term 'optimism.' I like 'pessimism' even less. For science fiction writers these are like black and white horse-blinders, they're a self-indulgent excuse to remove half of human experience. I like the term 'engagement,' and Hieroglyph has that. It's not facile 'optimistic' pep talk like 'We can build a tower to the stars!' It's engagement with the laws of physics, mechanics, engineering -- 'how tall can steel reach?' That's a good question. When science fiction asks good questions, that's when I feel good about it."

In a 1970 interview later published in the Paris Review, Ray Bradbury, author of the Martian Chronicles, contrasted himself with Kurt Vonnegut. He said, "I suppose I'm too much Pollyanna, [Vonnegut] was too much Cassandra. Actually I prefer to see myself as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past--a combination of both. But I don't think I'm too overoptimistic."

Neal Stephenson invites us to ponder the idea of building a of a tower 20km high, knowing what we know: that big things can collapse; that infrastructure can fail; that building something that big can provoke people to want to knock it down; that it is harder to build than to destroy. And that is exactly why it is worth thinking about.

Hieroglyph uses the playfulness and the visionary capacities of science fiction in order to encourage people to think seriously about the future. The stories are intended to be fun to read, but there is a larger purpose: to encourage you to visualize the infrastructure your descendants deserve. As Ursula K. Le Guin said in Language of the Night, "Great artists make the roads."

Kathryn Cramer is the co-editor of Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future.

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