Project Hieroglyph: Writing Optimistic Sci-Fi Stories to Save the World

Thursday, 04 September 2014 - 11:47AM
Thursday, 04 September 2014 - 11:47AM
Project Hieroglyph: Writing Optimistic Sci-Fi Stories to Save the World

Dystopian futures are all the rage in popular culture right now: Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, The Maze Runner, The Leftovers, The 100, the list goes on and on. The general consensus within the sc-fi genre right now seems to be that the future is terribly bleak. But now, the writers for Project Hieroglyph, aim to "rewrite the future" by crafting more optimistic stories that could have an impact on future technologies.

 

The writers at Project Hieroglyph are operating under the assumption that science fiction can have a tangible impact on the future, particularly on burgeoning technologies. "Why do we end up with the technologies we do?" asks Braden Allenby, Project Hieroglyph participant and professor of engineering, ethics and law at Arizona State University. "Why are people working on, for example, invisibility cloaks? Well, it's Harry Potter, right? That's where they saw it. Why are people interested in hand-held devices that allow you to diagnose diseases anywhere in the world? Well, that's what Mr Spock can do. Why can't we?"

 

Project Hieroglyph aims to create science fiction stories that are both optimistic and grounded in reality, in the sense that they depict technologies that could feasibly be achieved within the next half century. They will be compiled in a book called Hieroglyph, which will be released on September 9, in order to counteract the effects of the inundation of dystopian narratives. Project director Ed Finn believes that the abundance of these narratives discourages technological innovation and, to some extent, places limits on scientific imagination: "We want to create a more open, optimistic, ambitious and engaged conversation about the future. A good science fiction story can be very powerful. It can inspire hundreds, thousands, millions of people to rally around something that they want to do."

 

[Credit: Project Hieroglyph]

 

With this project, they not only aim to influence scientists, but policy-makers as well: "If the government has to decide what to fund and what not to fund, they are going to get their ideas and decisions mostly from science fiction… rather than what's being published in technical papers," said Srikanth Saripalli, an ASU roboticist and project participant.

 

Some were concerned that the project would paint a portrait of the future that was entirely too optimistic, to the point of naiveté. Participant Lee Konstantinou stated that he was worried the project would "white-wash negative aspects of our reality [and be] too Pollyanna-ish." But then he qualified, "It's not the job of the science fiction writer to create a blueprint for the future, but it's part of a collaboration with the reader to think hard about problems and to think about how people working together might overcome them."

 

In some cases, their prediction that the ideas presented in Hieroglyph could change the course of scientific innovation is already coming true. Writer Neal Stephenson conceives of a 20 km tower that "so tall that the stratosphere was just an elevator ride away." This could rejuvenate the floundering U.S. steel industry and present possibilities for renewable energy. Stephenson is now collaborating with ASU structural engineer Keith Hjelmstad in order to make this feat of imagination a reality. "That [idea] caught my curiosity like almost nothing ever has before," Hjelmstad said. "I wasn't thinking about it and now, of course, I can't stop thinking about it."

 

[Credit: Project Hieroglyph]

 

"We desperately need better stories," said Finn. "If we want to have better futures, we need to have better dreams."

 

Writer Kathleen Ann Goonan envisions a future in which illiteracy is eradicated by a process called Grokking: a marriage between nanotechnology and neuroscience that allows people to "share the memories and emotional journeys of another person." This sounds like it could be dystopian, so the story likely demonstrates that most advancements in technology have both positive and negative applications.

 

The story is called Girl in Wave: Wave in Girl

 

[Credit: Project Hieroglyph]

 

Author Elizabeth Bear imagines a futuristic alternative to our current criminal justice system that involves hacking the brain, a process called "rightminding." Her story follows a serial killer who is sentenced to rightminding that makes him believe that he is being hunted and forces him to experience his victims' fear in order to "cure the neurological dysfunction that led to his sociopathic killing of thirteen women." 

 

[Credit: Project Hieroglyph]

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