Over at Pacific Standard this week, I look at Arizona State University’s fascinating Project Hieroglyph – a project to inspire us to think big with science fiction. The project, inspired in part by Neal Stephenson, just put out an excellent anthology of SF edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, featuring thought experiments worked out as SF stories.
In the preface to the anthology, Stephenson looks back at the great technological achievements of the mid-20th century, notably the Apollo program, and worries that we are no longer a society that can get big things done. We’re unwilling to think big, attempt truly ground-breaking ideas, or solve society’s biggest problems. We need to unshackle our imaginations, and SF can help us do that.
You can read my response at Pacific Standard, but here’s the tl/dr version:
Scientists and engineers have plenty of imagination. What they don’t always have are the incentives and support to take big intellectual risks. Making the case that we should tackle big ideas that might fail is Project Hieroglyph’s most valuable contribution. Neal Stephenson writes that “the vast and radical innovations of the mid-twentieth century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.” Pursuing insanely dangerous ideas—like nuclear weapons—is probably not the best way to build a better society. But risking failure is critical in science and technology. Unfortunately, failure is expensive, and the lack of money is probably the best explanation for why our society isn’t “executing the big stuff” that Stephenson wants to see. Scientists facing increasingly poor career prospects become risk-averse. Venture capitalists who complain that they only have 140 characters instead of flying cars are nevertheless hesitant to fund the expensive and risky development of technology that could be genuinely transformative. We certainly need imagination in science, and we should tell inspiring stories about big ideas. But to realize those ideas, we have to pay for them.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The New Adam and Eve” (1843)
Before we move on to the 20th century works of what Josh has aptly named the “post-apocalyptome,” let’s recap what happened in the 19th. Basically, early writers of post-apocalyptic fiction came up with just about all of the major themes, plots, characters, and settings of the genre that we know and love today (the zombie apocalypse excepted). Plagues, comets, environmental catastrophes, or a dying sun lead to ruined cities, collapsed civilizations, and roving bands of marauders; there is the next evolutionary step, a reversion to barbarism and superstition, and the lonely Last Man.
It all pretty much started in 1805 with de Grainville’s The Last Man, a Miltonian, futuristic religious fantasy authored by a French priest. At first this book seems to have little to do with science fiction — it’s an inversion of Genesis, featuring a Last Couple that has to choose whether to obey God and fulfill his plan or pursue their own desires. But despite the heavy Gothic atmosphere, The Last Man is one of very first futuristic romances of the century: there are airships, great engineering projects, and scientific discoveries of unlimited sources of power. It’s as much a vision of scientific progress as it is one of religion, and is the first solid entry in the Dying Earth sub-genre. Humans, through their technology, control nature until God decides to wrap it all up. Continue reading
H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898)
During the new wave of future fiction of the last decades of the 19th century, stories of catastrophic future wars were especially popular. The trend began in 1871 with George Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking”, a story about a surprise invasion of England by something that sounds like the Prussian military. Writers continued to present increasingly elaborate visions of ever more destructive weaponry right up through the outbreak of World War I. And then there was H.G. Wells, who in 1898 took this popular and overworked late-Victorian genre and completely transformed it into modern science fiction with the classic story of alien invasion.
Swapping Martians with Germans isn’t the only feature that makes The War of the Worlds so different from what came before. Most writers were largely interested with the military and geopolitical aspects of future war, but Wells was interested in the civilians. In fact, War of the Worlds isn’t really about the Martians or their advanced technology; it’s about our cosmic insignificance, and how we react when the security of civilization is demolished. Continue reading
Neal Stephenson and Arizona State University want scientists and engineers to think bigger – with science fiction. Therefore, they’ve created Project Hieroglyph: “If we want to create a better future, we need to start with better dreams.”
Some of those dreams are laid out in a new anthology of stories and essays, many of which you can now read online. The book features a skeptical foreword by Lawrence Krauss, and a bullish preface by Neal Stephenson. Some comments should be made about Stephenson’s claims regarding the relationship between science and science fiction, but those are for another day. In the mean time, check out the project, it’s well worth your time.
Gabriel Tarde’s The Underground Man (1896)
In the decades before the First World War, End of the World visions were influenced by major scientific discoveries of the 19th century. People became aware that the sun, the earth, and the human species itself were moving on a historical trajectory, one that would come to an end naturally, without any need for some divine entity to drop the curtain. The astronomer Camille Flammarion explored different natural scenarios for the End of the World in his 1893 novel La fin du monde, while H.G. Well’s pathbreaking The Time Machine (1895) described the evolutionary deterioration of humanity and the gradual extinction of all life on earth under a dying sun.
But French sociologist Gabriel Tarde would have none of this cosmic fatalism. In his brief, bizarre 1896 novel, Fragment d’histoire future (published in 1905 in English under the title The Underground Man, with an introduction by none other than H.G. Wells), the extinction of the sun is the best thing that ever happens to us. Living deep underground, cut off entirely from nature, surviving humans have a perfect society where they go about nearly naked in the geothermal warmth, eat synthetic food, and devote all their efforts to happiness and aesthetic achievement. Continue reading