Hieroglyphs: when science meets fiction

Hieroglyphs is an interesting idea. I put it on my reading list a while ago when a friend sent me a link to the original project.

There’s a lot of material up on the website – you may want to check it out there. My rough understanding after reading the book, Hieroglyphs: Stories and visions for a better futureis that there was a process to select writers, who worked with scientists to write pieces of science fiction that are in many ways plausible or potential, and explore the shape of possible future worlds. [If I have that wrong, do correct me].

It’s an exciting idea – part of why I found the idea of reading it so attractive.

It’s a collection of short stories, and within that there are some strong pieces- I’ll go through those in a little more depth below. But there are also some real misses, to the point where I ended up just paging through them quickly, trying to get to the end of the book. I’m still interested in what comes out of the project, and I think it’s an exciting idea, but I’d recommend giving this one a miss.

  • Atmosphaera Incognita by Neal Stephenson is a fun read. A twenty kilometre tower is a fascinating idea. But what makes it work is that there’s a story – a character with real challenges.
  • Girl in wave: Wave in girl by Kathleen Ann Goonan features an interesting idea – what would universal literacy mean for society? I think it overestimates the power of knowledge, though, and underestimates the power of moral decisions. But more importantly, there isn’t much of a story driving this one; it’s simply a set of recollections, so it’s hard to stay engaged.
  • By the time we get to Arizona by Madeline Ashby is a beautiful piece. It’s a reflection on what happens as big data and surveillance technology merge, and how that plays out in border politics. Why it’s a great story though has everything to do with fiction, and nothing to do with science; it’s because there are engaging protagonists, making difficult choices.
  • By the time we get to the moon is one of the stronger pieces. It gets off to a slow start, but again, it’s a place where the science underpins the fiction without overwhelming it – it’s just as much a story about humans doing difficult things.
  • Johnny Appledrone vs the FAA by Lee Konstantiou is an interesting one. The technology, the characters in this one are slightly garish, fascinating because they feel lurid. The story itself is interesting, but not gripping.
  • Degrees of Freedom by Karl Schroeder was the only piece in the book where, having read the story, I went away to look up the technology. You can read more about it here. Having said which, the underpinning story was interesting rather than gripping; I’ve enjoyed other writing by Schroeder more.
  • Two scenarios for the future of solar energy by Annalee Newitz is at least honest. There is no story here, just two scenarios. Maybe if you find the science in itself interesting, this is worth reading. Packing it in something that reads like fiction feels like the wrong approach. I’d read a long-form piece of journalism on the future of solar; I’m not convinced about reading it in fiction form.
  • A hotel in Antartica by Geoffrey Landis feels … awkward. Like it’s an interesting idea but hasn’t been through an editing process. There just doesn’t seem to be a narrative backbone to the story.
  • Periapsis by James Cambias is fun – the story isn’t groundbreaking, but there’s narrative, and some interesting ideas about what a different future might look like.
  • The man who sold the stars by Gregory Benford is … weird. There’s just barely a story in there, but it’s not a good one – just a powerful man going out and conquering the world, without any meaningful challenge or change.
  • Entanglement by Vandana Singh stands out in my memory as the most difficult to read, but not in a rewarding way. Which is why after a certain point I didn’t bother.
  • Elephant Angels by Brenda Cooper is one of the better pieces in this collection. It has a narrative and people that it’s easy to care about, and the story is at the front. The technology is interesting, but in a ‘that seems like something that might happen in a few years’, rather than requiring a radical re-think of how the world would work. The more fundamental shift is the political one that would require that amount of funding to be devoted to conservation.
  • Covenant by Elizabeth Bear was I think my favourite in the collection. Certainly one of the more memorable. It combines a great story with a set of fascinating questions about technology – if we could do this, what would it mean for humans? Definitely worth reading.
  • Quantum Telepathy by Rudy Rucker imagines a world where technology is magic, connecting minds and transmogrifying people. It’s fun enough, but doesn’t feel like it breaks ground on the science, or has particularly interesting people.
  • Transition generation by David Brin is a reflection on how technologies adapt to new tech – in this case, the ability to move through the air. There’s a superficial storyline there, that holds things together, but it doesn’t make for a brilliant read.
  • The day it all ended by Charlie Jane Anders is about a marketing executive who decides to quit his high paying job and go back to his non-profit roots. But in doing so, he discovers that an entire company has been built around selling products people don’t need, that will be triggered to force them to pollute less. It’s feels as plausible as it sounds.
  • Tall Tower by Bruce Sterling was not enjoyable to read, but I did so because it was the last one left.



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