Hieroglyph Conference Report

By Martin Morse Wooster: Futurama writer and producer Patric Verrone surveyed the crowd of 200 that gathered at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington on October 2 and thought it very familiar.

“I’m looking out at this room and I see a lot of nerds,” Verrone said. “This is the closest I’ll ever come to Comic-Con.”

The crowd seemed to me to be half suits and half fans. No one wore garb or costumes.  But they were all there to discuss the stories and ideas in Hieroglyph, a new anthology of science-based sf stories.

Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson

The idea for Hieroglyph came from Neal Stephenson, who has, for several years, complained that science fiction has long abandoned its task of thinking up innovative and positive ideas about what the future should be like. He connected with Arizona State University, whose Center for Science and Imagination helps sf writers link to scientists coming up with cutting-edge innovations. As part of the center’s work, they decided to create an original anthology of hard sf devoted to positive stories about tomorrow.

Stephenson set the ground rules. There would be no stories about “hackers, hyperspace, and holocaust.” In other words, no stories about cyberspace, magical futures based on technology not possible today, or futures where the world was bleak because of atomic attack, global warming, or the collapse of capitalism. In an opening speech, Stephenson said that he didn’t have any problem getting positive stories based on plausible scientific developments, but he had a hard time getting authors to stop thinking about computers. Stephenson, however, while he wrote one novelette and a preface, did not edit the book; the editors are Arizona State media studies professor Ed Fass and experienced editor Kathryn Cramer.

Stephenson is doing his part for optimism. In his next novel, due to be published in May 2015, Stephenson said is a near-future space opera that he hoped would be so entertaining that kids would, after reading it, give up stories about magic schools or dystopias and go back to reading science-fiction novels based on real science.

Kathryn Cramer

Kathryn Cramer

Kathryn Cramer, in an interview, said the stories in Hieroglyph were “Gernsbackian fiction for the 21st century,” although she noted that Gernsback would have been oblivious to the high literary quality of the stories in the book.

The conference in Washington, co-sponsored by the New America Foundation, Arizona State, and Slate, was the most elaborate of the book stops on the tour, which included not only bookstores but also the corporate headquarters of Google and Tumblr. The tour concluded in the first weekend in October at Can-Con in Ottawa.

Authors who appeared on panels at the conference included Elizabeth Bear, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Lee Konstantinou, Karl Schroeder, and Vandana Singh, as well as editor Cramer and Ted Chiang, who did not have a story in the book. Special notice should be given to Canadian author Madeline Ashby. I never heard of Ashby before and have never read anything by her, but she came across as smart, funny, and quirky and I would like to know more about her fiction.

Although the conference looked to the future, with panels on drones, surveillance, and technology, it also looked to the past. Panelists told stories about Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

SyFy Channel co-founder Lauren Silvers said that when she was launching the network in 1989, she had a meeting with Isaac Asimov. Asimov liked the idea of the channel, because it might help teach non-readers the virtues of good science fiction. He went with Silvers to many meetings with potential investor and advertisers in the New York City area, and also provided help for Hollywood by giving her 20 signed copies of his novels, each one with a different phrase. Silvers gave out the books to important people in Hollywood, all of whom were grateful for a collectible Asimov freebie. Because of Asimov, Silvers recalled, a lot of doors opened for the SyFy Channel that might have stayed firmly shut.

Neal Stephenson explained that like many Baby Boomers, he read a lot of Robert A. Heinlein. He noted that the small details that made Heinlein an author of the first rank. He recalled Tunnel in the Sky, where teenagers teleport to rugged planets and struggle to survive. At the end of the novel, the surviving teenagers, back on Earth, are about to be interviewed on television. Just before the interview, a cameraman appears to accidentally brush their faces — with war paint, so that TV viewers would think they were savages

It was little details like this, Stephenson said, which ensure Heinlein’s greatness.

Woodrow Wilson Center scholar David Rejeski said that in 2000 he contacted all federal departments to see how they were planning for the future. Most agencies did little or no forecasting. When he got to NASA, however, the person in charge, a top aide to the NASA administrator, said, “Oh, do you want our 200-year-plan?” The person was author Yoji Kondo, and for a few years Kondo and Rejeski brought in Charles Sheffield and Greg Bear as consultants to help provide NASA with long-range visions. Sir Arthur C. Clarke also participated by a satellite uplink.

Conference-goers learned that some federal agencies are taking the future seriously. NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan said that she was a second-generation NASA employee who was proud that she attended her first launch when she was four and that she met Carl Sagan at a Viking launch when she was a small child. She explained that she has been an avid sf reader, who enjoyed Dune as a teenager and who was currently reading Andrew Weir’s The Martian.

According to Stofan, sf has more influence at NASA than you might think. On the International Space Station, for example, there’s a set of floating devices called “spheres.” Stofan didn’t give a clear explanation of what the spheres did, but she gave the reason why they’re there:  they’re supposed to be the equivalent of the device that Luke Skywalker trained on when he was taking Lightsaber 101.

NASA even has a grant-making program for far-out but plausible ideas. Come up with good ones and NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program will give you a nine-month, $100,000 contract, potentially renewable as a two-year, $500,000 deal. The most recent batch of contracts, issued in June, include a plan for having a submarine sail on Titan and having a way of capturing potentially dangerous asteroids.

Tom Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, explained that the administration was committed to long-term goals through a series of “grand challenges.” Among these “21st-century moonshots”:  manned space travel to Mars and making solar power “as cheap as coal.” In June, the White House hosted its first Maker Faire, with the South Lawn filled with entrepreneurs and the gadgets they made.

Science fiction has been a shrinking share of the sf and fantasy field for decades. But the Hieroglyph conference showed that science-based science fiction — the sort preferred by Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell — may be, at last, making a comeback.

5 thoughts on “Hieroglyph Conference Report

  1. Wish I could have been there. I hope something is bubbling up through the stagnant surface of “sf.” Everyone in the biz keeps talking about how literary it all is, and how polished the prose is, etc. But I still don’t find 90% of it readable because there’s nothing of interest happening in the stories.

    Just my opinion, but I’ll take a just north of badly-written story with some interesting ideas in it over a slick little number with all the right adjectives and not a single novum in its head any time you offer.

    The evidence of so much interest in this book, and in the enthusiasm for idea-centered sf in general, is that I am not alone. Good to know.

  2. Noble goals, but it will be an uphill battle. Bozos like Jonathan Strahan, representing the Locus crowd’s unfortunate lock on setting the prestige standards for science fiction today, insisted in the introduction to his dishonestly marketed anthology “Engineering Infinity” that things like zombie cyborgs were definitely permissible in contemporary hard science fiction. And in the October 2010 Locus, a reviewer baldly stated that the Campbellian tradition in SF should be no longer considered important today. The many suck-ups and sycophants to Charles N. Brown’s overrated and unfortunate legacy are legion….

Comments are closed.