Neal Stephenson, science fiction writer and author of the totally awesome Cryptonomicon, has been making the rounds asking scifi writers to stop being so pessimistic. Stephenson laments the demise of the innovative, hopeful vision sort of scifi that imagines big things and inspires scientists to figure out how to really create them.
In an essay in The World Policy Journal, he talks about a speech he gave at the 2011 Future Tense conference. He believes that scifi is still relevant for two reasons:
1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and somewhat obvious.
2. The Hieroglyph Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. 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. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.
So as not to be all talk, Stephenson has launched the Hieroglyph Project to encourage scifi writers to think big and think optimistic. The project will be publishing a scifi anthology in 2014 with new stories about scientists working on big projects.
Scifi has always had a dystopian pocket in it, but I think Stephenson is right that is has grown very large and overshadows other possibilities. While I have enjoyed my share of dystopian scifi, I do really enjoy the stories that have big ideas in them. So much of what older scifi writers have dreamed up has become reality. Granted, I still don’t have my flying car and we have yet to colonize Mars, but that’s ok. I am an optimistic person and so I like Stephenson’s optimism. And in scifi the possibilities of science are only limited by the writer’s imagination. I am looking forward to that anthology but I hope Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project does something in the mean time. 2014 is a long time to wait.