For a couple of generations, it’s been a truism that good science fiction is grim science fiction. Technology is out of control, democracy is failing, the environment ruined. Think Hunger Games, Minority Report, The Matrix, and Blade Runner, all the way back to 1984. But science fiction writer and astrophysicist David Brin believes we’ve gotten too fond of these bummers. “It’s so easy to make money with a tale that says: ‘Civilization is garbage. Our institutions never will be helpful. Your neighbors are all useless sheep,’” he laments. “’Now enjoy a couple of characters running around shooting things and having adventures in the middle of a dystopia.’”
Dystopias are bad? That’s heresy for science fiction. But a few people are starting to agree with him, like Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash. A few years ago, Stephenson was on a panel discussion with Arizona State University President Michael Crow, and Stephenson started complaining that there were no big scientific projects to inspire people these days. Crow shot back, “You’re the ones slacking off!” In Crow’s view, it was the writers who weren’t pulling their weight, supplying the motivating visions for science and technology.
From that discussion, Crow and Stephenson have collaborated on The Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU. And Stephenson founded a group called Project Hieroglyph, which recruits science fiction authors to write more optimistically about the future. “I guess I had never given science fiction writers enough credit of being leaders of innovation,” Stephenson says. The writers who contribute to Project Hieroglyph don’t have to consult with scientists or engineers, but doing so “shows they’re on the right track.” Stephenson says. Only three rules: no hyperspace, no holocausts and no hackers. Coming from Stephenson, the bard of hackers, that’s quite a challenge.