A few years ago, Neal Stephenson wrote an article in Wired called Innovation Starvation. In it, he laments the decline of the space program (“Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars?”) and a general failure of our society to get big things done. He brought up concerns at a conference, and promptly got a finger pointed back at him: if Science Fiction authors weren’t so pessimistic, they might have inspired a new generation of folks who actually could get things done. Intrigued, Stephenson set out to correct that imbalance with something called Project Hieroglyph a collaboration between SF authors and real scientists at Arizona State University. There were two major challenges that Stephenson laid out: a moratorium on dystopian futures as well as “technology so advanced that the world it describes bears little or no resemblance to our own world.” In short, no “hackers, hyperspace and holocaust”. The result of all this is a collection of short stories, also called Hieroglyph, that was recently published. I would probably have read this in any case, but I was also hoping to find some short fiction to nominate for the Hugo Awards. Alas, like most anthologies that I’ve read, this collection is decidedly hit or miss. Surprisingly, there are quite a few stories that do read like a dystopia, and many seem to have a fundamentally pessimistic idea at their core. This is quite distressing, considering that this collection was supposed to get us away from such things. It’s not all bad, of course, and there are several bright spots, but I was overall pretty disappointed.
- Atmosphæra Incognita by Neal Stephenson – Unsurprisingly, this is one of my favorites of the collection. It’s a story about building a twenty-kilometer tall building. Stephenson explores the limits of our current civil engineering capabilities in his usual detail, and I am totally a sucker for the style. There are several moments of conceptual breakthrough and the sense of wonder is palpable. This is impressive since he’s not really proposing any crazy new technologies. This 20 km building is being built with current technologies, just on a much larger scale than anyone has actually dreamed to do. Stephenson, at least, seems to have taken his guidelines to heart. In addition, it feels like something actually happens in this story. Stephenson doesn’t downplay the difficulties of such a project, and the main conflict is derived from that, but his attitude is optimistic and the story is a great read. Highly recommended, and will probably be on my short fiction ballot somewhere (is this a short story or novelette?)
- Girl In Wave : Wave in Girl by Kathleen Ann Goonan – The idea at the core of this story is an interesting one, a way to dramatically improve the learning capabilities of the brain, and Goonan does a decent enough job exploring the possibilities. Alas, there’s not much of a story to hang this on. It reads more like a history lesson or short memoir than a real story. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure, and the idea is at least interesting and optimistic. Ranking this somewhere near the top of the middle tier of the stories.
- By the Time We Get To Arizona by Madeline Ashby – This one is about the interplay of technology with immigration. Once again, I’m not sure the story is particularly eventful, and the idea isn’t super clear either. In fact, one could read this more as a dystopia (especially with respect to the surveillance state), though Ashby thankfully doesn’t go fully down that path. This would be in the middle tier of the stories.
- The Man Who Sold the Moon by Cory Doctorow – This is the longest story in the collection and it reads strangely dystopic in its outlook. It centers around a couple of Burning Man like festivals, and spends a lot of time going through automated 3D printer robot thingies. Eventually it gets to the interesting part, where we send a bunch of these robots to the Moon to create the building blocks for our next trip to the moon. Alas, I was not particularly inspired by this story. The impression I’m left with is that we’d send these robots up there, they would build a bunch of stuff for us, but we’d never get there because we’re too busy destroying ourselves back on Earth or something like that. Lower tier!
- Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA by Lee Konstantinou – Another seeming dystopia, exploring some interesting ideas about drones and the commons, but it’s still an ultimately pessimistic look. Lower tier!
- Degrees of Freedom by Karl Schroeder – This is an odd one for me. On the one hand, it’s exploring one of the more relevant and important ideas in the anthology. It’s all about how Big Data and collaborative decision-making tools could make the political process more effective, and the system described here really stuck with me. Of course, we are talking about a short story here, so I have about a gazillion questions and am not really convinced that the particular implementation described in the story would work quite that well, but that’s also kinda the point. The particular system described here probably won’t work, but it does hit that goal of inspiration pretty hard. Bottom of the top tier!
- Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy by Annalee Newitz – This one takes the form of a guided tour through a couple of futuristic, carbon-neutral cities, each of which uses an approach that mimics biological processes in some way. It’s got some interesting ideas, but the “guided tour” approach didn’t really work that well for me. Middle tier.
- A Hotel in Antarctica by Geoffrey Landis – An interesting idea and Landis does spend time working through the practical aspects of building a hotel in Antarctica. We hit it from many angles: political, environmental, and physical. There’s even a surprising interaction with an environmental activist, though I found that a bit on the nose too. Still, it’s a fun little story that ranks somewhere towards the bottom of the top tier here…
- Periapsis by James L. Cambias – Among the more out-there efforts in terms of being very futuristic, but it’s not so far-fetched as to be unapproachable. It’s set in the far future, and it covers a competition amongst a bunch of young adults. The prize: citizenship on Deimos, one of Mars’ moons. Deimos has become the economic powerhouse of the solar system, and features a small population of very innovative people. This is one of the few short stories that actually feels like a story. There’s an actual plot here! And there’s plenty of interesting bits of technology and breakthroughs too. It’s among the best in the collection and I plan on nominating this for a Hugo. Top tier!
- The Man Who Sold the Stars by Gregory Benford – An interesting story that covers how an ambitious businessman started mining out asteroids in order to fund his search for other Earth-like planets. It’s an odd one in that we’re spending time with the richest of the rich, but it’s implied that things aren’t going quite as well for everyone else, at least in the near term. By the end, though, things seem to be working out, and there’s a clever little bit around a nearby Earth-like planet that I enjoyed. Top of the middle tier? Bottom of the top tier?
- Entanglement by Vandana Singh – This one really didn’t do it for me. It’s all climate change and misery. I think. The only thing I really remember about this story is how much I didn’t like it, which probably says something. Bottom tier!
- Elephant Angels by Brenda Cooper – This one proposes the use of drones to prevent Ivory poaching (or track down the poachers after the fact). It’s an interesting idea, but comes off feeling a little slight compared to the other stories in the collection. Then again, that sorta rings true as well. Bottom of the middle tier.
- Covenant by Elizabeth Bear – An interesting look at a convicted serial killer who gets “rightminded” to prevent future murders. It reminded me a little of Clockwork Orange, only it seems to approve of this treatment. There’s lots to dig into here from a moral and social aspect, and Bear also tells a quick little story here too. Bottom of the top tier.
- Quantum Telepathy by Rudy Rucker – Lots of bioengineering and the titular concept of Quantum Telepathy work reasonably well, but it feels kinda like bio-punk or something like that. It’s a little too weird to be all that inspirational, but it works well enough I guess. Middle tier!
- Transition Generation by David Brin – At first this one feels like a dystopia, but it turns out well in a fairly predictable way that is nonetheless pretty entertaining to read. Top of the middle tier!
- The Day It All Ended by Charlie Jane Anders – One of the more fun entries in the collection, I have a hard time believing this could ever happen, but it’s still a fun story that tries to pull the rug out from underneath you several times. Anders is playing the game well enough that I don’t mind some of the more ludicrous aspects of the story. Top of the middle tier.
- Tall Tower by Bruce Sterling – The second story about a giant tower, this one has a decidedly less optimistic approach, though it’s clearly not a dystopia or anything like that. I’ve never been a big fan of Cyberpunk, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the authors famous for that (see also: Rudy Rucker) don’t really connect with me. This story has some interesting stuff in it, but it also doesn’t really go anywhere.
And there you have it. There’s also an interview at the end that has some interesting stuff, as well as a few introductions that are interesting reading. On balance, it’s a decent collection, though again, it’s hit or miss, and there were several stories that baffled me by their inclusion. Still, I’ve got a solid two stories that I would like to nominate (the Stephenson and the Cambias)