Saving Spaceship Earth

By Matthew SnyderOctober 23, 2014

Saving Spaceship Earth

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future by Ed Finn, Kathryn Cramer, and Neal Stephenson

THE RESULTS ARE in: we’ll make it after all. Good morning dear sister, dear brother, dear child, dear moon. Good morning dear sun—the bright, glowing everything of our awesome all. And to the next animals facing the guillotine of the Sixth Great Extinction: Good morning again Chinese Alligator, Iberian Lynx and the Pied Tamarin. Good morning too, sweet Dama Gazelle – in all of just ten years we saved you all from becoming museum bones for the Smithsonian. And lastly, good morning to you, Dear Earth — our small planet of blue and green. You were humanity’s first spaceship, hurling us through the universe at 2.9 million miles an hour. You were hiding three skips from the sun, left waiting and wondering what our plans were beyond the usual climate catastrophes. Granted, we fucked you up royally, but we will race to put you back together via the triptych of fusion energy, biomimicry, and solar fuel cells. We will rewire brains by using open-source technologies that create universal literacy for all the world’s children, by combining the best innovations in nanotechnology, neuroscience, and learning theory; we will even make a new a tower to the stars — instead of some Yahweh-baiting Babel — that will surge 20 kilometers though sky in order to accelerate space travel. We will do “big things” for a future that humanity most certainly deserves.

These big things — grand, hopeful innovations for our future-possible — make up the foundational premise for the new volume Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer and published in conjunction with Arizona State University and HarperCollins Publishers. The big things that contributors in the volume anticipate will be rapid transit to space at half the travel cost and use of energy; creating a sophisticated Drone Commons, where activists, intellectuals, artists, and dronepunk collectives seek to free-up information from corporate and government dictatorships; sprouting solidarity networks called Million Eyes, which will foster collaboration among diverse parties, such as scientists, retirees, or rural children in India, all of whom hope to stop and reverse the effects of climate change. And, yes, we will live in a world without the Steve Jobs and the black-turtleneck comrades of his ilk, with their greenwashing and co-opted talk of “The Revolution.” Instead, we will live in a world where people like one of the volume’s fictional protagonists, Bruce Grinnord, a VP of the DiZi corporation, who has a crisis of conscience and relents from the delusions found in techno-driven consumption. Drifting from despair to anger to hope, Grinnord dreams that his company’s dreary and wasteful gizmos might transform into magical amulets for ecological sustainability. Gadgets once meant for First World distract-a-thons — or for the sad disposal leakings on Third World land-heaps — will be replaced by gadgets that tranform the Earth’s despair and its jangled cartilage of cyber-trash into newfound forms of optimism. And in this violet hour, our dreams finally awoke from the seizures found in a paradox: drowned in deserts, burnt by floods and choked by too much of the wrong air, we took our waste and rinsed this sickness into Earth’s rebirth. Go ahead and call it what you want: a shared vision, a collective action, or just a warbled cry of confusion that finally managed to find the flashlight. It was dark, the Duracells were low, but we found our way out of Plato’s cave and into the freakish swirls of starlight. Or perhaps paint it for what we couldn’t see then: people doing what they could, when you least expect it from them: leaves, blown back in the air, reattaching to their branches; humans becoming a shining and resplendent example of a fuck-up in reverse. And so this book, then, is an oak-noble attempt to reattach humans to Spaceship Earth.

While Hieroglyph’s cover is too phoned-in to publish in this column (and which looks remarkably like my middle school’s Chemistry in the Community textbook from the 1980s), my review copy came with the postcard visualizations of the stories, and justly do service to the book’s central aim to inspire a diverse array of wonder in readers. Yet more important than the foible of simply judging a book by its cover (or inserts) is that — from reading Hieroglyph straight through — one can surmise the ingenuity and thoughtfulness in the selections, as well as the felicitous arrangement in how the anthology’s stories flow from section to section. Certainly, these twin accomplishments are noteworthy hallmarks of Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer’s editing gifts and the endless rafts of emails they must have conducted to control the movements of this seventeen-story goliath. Each story ends with a short reflection by the author on the influences and research involved, as well as the discussions the writer had with scientists in the field working on the ideas explored in each story. This is the equivalent to having a director’s commentary inside a book, and is tremendously gratifying to read, each time — especially since further articles and responses can be found on ASU’s Project Hieroglyph website (which is another marvel to behold). Other smart moves: the editors have the anthology begin with Neal Stephenson’s techno-thriller about a 20-kilometer tower, filled with rigorous technical and scientific information, and then later end the anthology with that same tower, but this time have Bruce Sterling recast the narrative centuries into future, replacing Stephenson’s concern with science to stories about the religions and mythos that form around the structure’s base and summit. While authors from the Global South, the Middle East, and Asia are largely absent from the anthology (and such an oversight is a cause for concern) the editors do collect stories that display gender balance and a solid mix of relatively unknown and newer authors (Vandana Singh; Madeline Ashby; Cory Doctorow) with hard-hitters and SF stalwarts (Bruce Sterling; Gregory Benford; Rudy Rucker). So just by a simple scansion of the index and biographies, there is a great range and diversity to be had for an anthology wanting to embrace a future that the Earth so desperately deserves.

Yet beyond the early incentives of Heiroglyph’s index diversity, the book doesn’t start out that well. It comes with a foreword by Lawrence M. Krauss, who rehearses the old, debatable saw that SF doesn’t anticipate future science. Actually, in several cases, SF does anticipate scientific discoveries as seen in Jules Verne’s depiction of the submarine in 1869 with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; Edward Bellamy’s idea of the credit card in Looking Backward (1888); Arthur C. Clarke’s idea of virtual reality games in his The City and the Stars (1956); Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey’s envisioning of iPads (and which was used as trial evidence in Samsung & Apple’s long-running legal dispute); or more recently with Charlie Kaufman’s stunning and elegiac Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind’s, which is now, given recent breakthroughs with mice, a proof-in-the-pudding visualization of memory erasure (2004). To accommodate Krauss’ claim, somewhat: certainly SF isn’t accurate as to when these technologies will exist. (I’m still waiting for my Blade Runner hovercar and Obi-wan Kenobi lightsaber.) As the late, great Frederick Pohl aptly stated in his J.W. Eaton Lifetime Achievement Address in 2009, predicting when technology will surface or exist is a notorious and dreadful exercise in hubris. Another bafflement occurs when Lawrence M. Krauss goes on to assert that “the imagination of the natural world far exceeds that of even the most gifted science fiction writer.” While Krauss is certainly knowledgeable about physics and cosmology, this cavalier dismissal of SF’s ability to imagine makes for an awkward introduction to a volume of fiction devoted to such an enterprise. Once more, anyone cradled in the mind-bending complexity of a genre that regularly produces such masters as Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Geoff Ryman will disagree vociferously.

What then follows Krauss’ introduction is a wonderful preface by Neal Stephenson on the more concrete origins for the book. The impetus for this SF anthology, and ASU’s Project Hieroglyph more generally, springs from “Innovation Starvation”— Stephenson’s now-legendary essay that was published in the World Policy Institute. Regardless of who is to blame for the lack of techno-optimism — whether by the fault of the scientific community bereft of state funding or by the science fiction industry that can’t think beyond the next dystopia — the notable author’s essay argues that we have gone from thinking and doing “Big Stuff” to working in small means and in smaller ways, losing the grand ambitions that spurred the innovation of the Space Race and the Golden-Age optimism of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Since the essay’s publication in 2011, Stephenson’s plaintive and articulate statement of melancholy and dejection has, in a very remarkable way, shifted the dialogue away from Vernor Vinge’s famous 1993 essay, “The Coming Technological Singularity” (aka A.I. will take-over) and made the case that humans still matter in the age of the internet and kitty GIFs.

And in accepting this responsibility, the task at hand requires that humans should begin — most immediately — to make plans for this future; and furthermore that, in turn, we should prevent our harrowingly immoral DUI of the planet’s resources from becoming a bio-collapse of political cul-de-sacs. With a society gone hog-wild for dystopian fiction — where Maze Runner, Divergent and the Uglies attempt to wrest away the Young Adult crown from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy — it’s hard to imagine a future for the young that doesn’t involve worse outcomes than what we are currently cellophaned in: dying economies, dying eco-systems, and the vanquishing of human aspiration and inspiration.

What happens to our positive visions for any future when science and its attendant fictional domain, SF literature, can no longer push back against these savage waves and will our imagination into a physical grace-force for the future? This is precisely the aim of Neal Stephenson’s essay proper, reprinted in the anthology: to ask those questions and make these demands. He starts his brilliant piece by reminding readers that there was a vision of the future that didn’t involve illegally hunting in District 12 or taking more Tesserae to feed your siblings: “My lifespan encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. This summer, at the age of 51—not even old — I watched on a flatscreen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars?”

Thankfully (or at least seemingly for some), Stephenson seems to understand how misplaced or privileged this space-age nostalgia might seem to black folks in Ferguson waiting for social justice. How do grand calls for a new era of sepia-toned scientific benchmarks reconcile with a reactionary zeitgeist in which defenders of police abuse believe the victim grabbed an officer’s gun from 35 feet away, but still demand proof of global warming? The author’s nostalgia might seem trivial given the fact that 2.2 billion humans live on less than $2 a day. His demand for a ticket to Mars might seem a spoiled first-world whine when most Earthlings lack clean drinking water, fail to receive basic housing and education, or cannot imagine living free from religious and state persecution. Stephenson readily admits: “Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled.” As support for this riposte, Stephenson might have quoted Kurt Vonnegut, a withering critic of the postmodern depthlessness of the Apollo moon landings: “It was a thunderingly beautiful experience—voluptuous, sexual, dangerous and expensive as hell [. . . And] nobody was [there] to tell the outside world that NASA was running the goddamnedest massage parlor in history.”

So if we are to use human capital, labor, resources, bonds, money, state taxes and so on for the development of another space launch instead of education or healthcare, is it ultimately worth the cost? Why build up there when we need to build down here? So it goes. But are Vonnegut’s pat moralizing equations that worrisome of a charge considering how badly big-science, consumer-oriented research and development in STEM has taken us? Comically as seen in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006), this satirical director also finds the change in our scientific innovation both baffling and absurd. The film’s unknown narrator charts America’s de-evolution in a baritone deadpan: “Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. The years passed and mankind became stupider at a frightening rate. Some had high hopes that genetic engineering would correct this trend in evolution. But sadly, the greatest minds and resources were focused on conquering hair loss and prolonging erections.” While “prolonging erections” in Idiocracy or developing anti-aging creams in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake might comically send up dire warnings about our real societal needs, it also sends up warning flares that our current priorities within these fields should be questioned with a surgical earnestness.

In Stephenson’s “Innovation Starvation,” he declares: “Researchers and engineers have found themselves concentrating on more and more narrowly focused topics as science and technology have become more complex. A large technology company or lab might employ hundreds or thousands of persons, each of whom can address only a thin slice of the overall problem.” And he goes on to argue — that for managers at publically-traded companies — taking risks is tantamount to workplace suicide: “Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation killer of our age.” And henceforth, “Any strategy that involves crossing a valley — accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance — will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.” Most aptly, the author cites the case of the Space Shuttle’s external tanks (ET), which could have been used to build a space station that “would have humbled today’s International Space Station” but for “reasons both technical and political” were sent to their fiery death after liftoff. As Stephenson poignantly remarks: “Viewed as a parable, it has much to tell us about the difficulties of innovating in other spheres.”

After Stephenson’s laudatory salvo, the anthology’s editors have him firmly come up to bat in the first inning with a short story that's dangerously aluminum. Or rather wooden — because halfway into “Atmosphera Icognito” — we get the sense that the author is more enchanted with the idea of a 20-kilometer tower made of steel than with the characters who inhabit the propulsive techno-optimism that pushes the story forward. The two main characters, a lesbian real estate advisor, who functions as our erstwhile narrator, and Carl, the trusty and sarcastic do-gooder billionaire, feel ultimately incidental and piecemeal; and furthermore, little complexity is given to their interplay or relationships, even though flashbacks of their childhood or mutual interests might help. Additionally, no motive is given as to why Carl would want to build a 21st Century Babel for the ages, other than the soft-serve ice cream we are given that rich guys like him “took special pride in having created countless blue-collar jobs.” As the narrator continues: “Carl had always been more comfortable with him than with the crowd at Sun Valley or TED, and when he passed, the outpouring of grief from those people had been raw and unaffected.” Although Stephenson’s nerd-listing and info-dumping does contain charms for readers interested in architecture and design, there is a disconcerting polemic under these descriptions about the tower’s airfoils, lateral braces, and its Dead Zone; one that is hard to gloss over. Beyond the heavy jargon and technical specifications that the story sadly devolves into, critics of neoliberal poesy and Stephenson’s thinly-veiled subscription to Randian sentiment, might take offense: something must be rotten in Denmark.

Stephenson's desire to make readers believe in a better future becomes altogether more suspect to some hoping more for a utopian vision where everyone benefits rather than a maladjusted vision for an Ayn Rand's future, where no-nonsense billionaires trammel over big government and the little people, the takers and leeches, who make up what Mitt Romney genially called President Obama’s 47%. With this SF story and with Gregory Benford’s “The Man Who Sold the Stars,” both authors promulgate the John Galt myth — the right-libertarian fantasy that if we only had the right kind of Starry-eyed Executive or C.E.O., the First World and its woeful comrades from the “developing world” could be built back to the glorious possibilities we had in the past. Billionaires could build a 20-kilometer tower, or in the case of Benford’s story, the John Galts of the world could successfully mine material from asteroids for future space travel — if only those darn big governments would get out of the way for the billionaires to dream and do “big stuff” (and avoid tax evasion or their obligations to everyone else). Neal Stephenson’s recent article at Slate, “Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation” reiterates this claim more explicitly than what is surreptitiously implied the false enchantments of “Atmosphera Icognito.” In David Graeber’s much wiser “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” the anthropologist remarks that we’ve gone from creating poetic technologies (the moon shot) to bureaucratic technologies (your boss texting to your smart phone). In order to get beyond this barrier of devising technologies that extend class warfare: “Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin. And if we’re going to invent robots that will do our laundry and tidy up the kitchen, then we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power — one that no longer contains either the super-rich or the desperately poor willing to do their housework.”

Perhaps in direct contrast to this slavish devotion to the leader-worship found in Stephenson and Benford’s narratives is Karl Schroeder’s slow burning beauty, “Degrees of Freedom,” which celebrates the power of decentralization and participatory democracy. Perfectly realized, thoughtful, and even lyrical at times, Schroeder’s SF piece provides one of the most utopian visions in the book (a word the authors here are too reticent to use, but a word that we shouldn’t hide from; for indeed a better world is possible). “Degrees of Freedom” is the only science fiction story I can recall that is so sustained in its utopian vision of what might be possible with open uses of Augmented Reality (AR). While some early cautionary descriptions are given to AR’s application in corporate and government spheres, by way of corruption and deception, the narrator’s son shows what’s possible when new systems of AR are allowed use by the supposed “takers”—namely Canada’s First Nations. Shuttled and shunted to the side are the dystopian tales of AR in M.T. Anderson’s Feed or Eran May-Raz and Daniel Lazo’s terrifying film short, Sight. Here, in this SF narrative, AR has the ability to allow for democracy where a one-vote, one-voice system can hibernate and thrive online. Output: old systems, top down decision-making, exploitation and trickery. Input:, Dorians, Liaisons, Padgets and Project Cybersyn. While the Canadian government is at standstill with First Nations after a potential tanker spill in British Columbia, and the increasing dangers of the Alberta tar sands remind us of what’s at stake, the Haida respond with surprising agility and perseverance. And unlike the conflicts and miseries of the past, it’s the indigenous who are able to effectively use the tools from the slave-master’s house to disabuse him of his power, and create a counterforce and model for a world where administrators and bureaucrats are just haphazard placemats for old sandals. “Degrees of Freedom” is not just about ideas, though. This masterful SF work is a haunting story about the generations of the past and future — of a father and his son — of nature and the future of the AR and how it affects people on the margins as well as ones cushioned by state-power. Taken together, Robert the father and Terry the son, both powerfully illustrate the secrets we keep, and the paradoxical costs we incur for both letting go and not letting go of the old ways that sing and swing inside our sleep.

There are several other SF works in the anthology that are notably top-shelf inclusions; and strangely enough, none of them come from the greybeard SF authors found in the book: Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Girl in Wave: Wave in Girl” — which is a gorgeously lyrical and profound meditation on a girl’s learning disability and the power of “OPEN” medicine to create universal literacy, and thereby emancipate the stunted empathy that humanity is increasingly incased by; Vandana Singh’s “Entangled” — which given the title, sounds like the start of bad Harlequin romance novel, but in fact inspires and delights in its ability to sew rich characterization and symbolism to the technologies of online solidarity-networks, which try to combat the cruel effects of climate change; Madeline Ashby’s “By the Time We Get to Arizona” — which is more dystopian than utopian, reminiscent of BBC’s The Prisoner, and is therefore not entirely well-suited to the collection, but nonetheless provides a near-sighted improvement to the lives of the undocumented by giving them the right to stay in US communities based on a city’s resident voting patterns (albeit with American Idol fault-lines of racism and double-voting); and finally, there is some well needed humor, which comes from Charlie Jane Ander’s curveball “The Day It All Ended” — a creative and clever send-up to something akin to George Saunders’ short story canon, where gadgets come with denial, depression, and the possibilities of hope.

A common and curious refrain found inside Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future is that several characters, in various short stories, say thusly, “We can’t go back. The genie is out of the bottle.” Whether it’s found in Neal Stephenson’s “Atmosphera Icognito,” in Robert’s epiphany on the last page of Karl Schroeder’s “Degrees of Freedom,” or in Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Girl in Wave: Wave in Girl,” we are repeatedly told that “once the incalculable power of creativity was released, and evenly distributed, it was like an atomic reaction: we could not put the genie back in the bottle.” And certainly, it would be reckless to imagine a future of primitivism Derrick Jensen naively suggests. Yet, this collection certainly warrants that symbol of the genie, and deservedly marks a major break in how SF currently uploads stories about itself, as well as the worlds that exist outside this increasingly important genre of ideas. This new anthology justly deserves to be ranked alongside the very best collections published within SF: Terry Carr’s Universe, Damon Knight’s Orbit or Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions. Only time will tell if Hieroglyph transcends the stately influence that Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions has maintained over readers and writers alike.

But one lasting question can also be raised: did this anthology do enough to raise the consciousness of its tired and destitute readers, many of whom live alongside a vanishing biosphere, with increased work hours, decreased wages, full-scale digital surveillance, and who exhale with a diminishing sense of the possible? As Ursula K. Le Guin said in Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction (2009):

“I may agree with Shelley that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but he didn’t men they really get many laws enacted, and I guess I didn’t ever really look for definable, practical results of anything I wrote. My utopias are not blueprints. In fact, I distrust utopias that pretend to be blueprints. Fiction is not a good medium for preaching or for planning. It is really good, though, for what we used to call consciousness-raising.”

Perhaps, then, the biggest blinders to this otherwise masterful collection is that it relies too much on Hard SF to do the job for its consciousness-raising; much like the tragic division found at most universities in the US, where science flies high on the east side of the campus (with the rising sun of admin-love and alumni endowments), while the ridiculed and dismembered remnants of the humanities fall on west side of campus (along the path of a dying sun: where higher tuition, coupled with no jobs for writing or teaching, means that less students will enroll for these traditional majors). One might suspect that these cold war divisions aren’t exactly healthy. While we need STEM for the innovations of the future, we also desperately need the intellectual interrogation and questioning that the humanities can so readily supply, such as how do we use these technologies ethically or deploy them with more even distribution. To not just have a “better world” (whatever that means: more parking spaces?), but to build something grander: a utopian world characterized by direct democracy, classlessness, ecological balance and stateless socialism (our only survival). To demand the impossible requires Soft SF and a recommitment to listening to our ancestors, the arts, and the questions left out of this very anthology. Maybe a nostalgic reminder of an American TV show might help. In 2013, upon being given a miniature Starship Enterprise during Japan’s Gay Pride Parade (a country notorious for its silencing of queerness), George Takei once said that the enduring affection Star Trek holds with viewers resides from the notion “That [this ship] is our Utopian future. This Enterprise is a metaphor of Starship Earth with all of its diversity — not only the diversity of race and culture and history but also the unseen diversity of orientation, all coming together working in concert for a better future.”

Suffice to say, the innovations that must come from the future will not surface with more gadgetry, gene-splicing or nanotechnology; it will have to come from the way we arrange our social structures, possessions and relations to objects. And so, it must be duly noted that the greatest utopian fiction largely came from authors that largely wrote within the confines of Soft SF: Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962); Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1976); and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) So just imagine then: What if there was a global movement that worked to enact national amendments to get private wealth out of politics and forever sever corporate power from humanity’s bought and sold governments? Or paint out an alternative history: what would the anarchist revolution of Catalonia (1936-37) look like if smart phones and solar power, permaculture, and social networks existed? What would an anthropologist and SF author create by transferring diverse kinship cultures to the destabilized and isolated islands of modern US migration patterns, where family networks no longer exist in the same city, let alone state due to jobs and geography? What story would a radical economist and Soft SF author create within the strictures of a time-bank currency, resource or gift-based economy? Certainly, there is the science fiction that explores the perverse and assertive affects technology might create for all of us; but there is also the science fiction of how we wish to treat each other. There is fascination and cleverness in the former; but let’s not forget that there is democracy of the everyday, of the sublime, that can only be found in the latter. So here’s hoping for Hieroglyph, Part Two: The “Soft-Love” Edition.


Matthew Snyder received his Ph.D. from UC, Riverside and is a lecturer at the University Writing Program.


LARB Contributor

Matthew Snyder received his Ph.D. from UC Riverside's Department of English. His dissertation, entitled, Welcome to the Suck: Film and Media Phantasms of the Gulf War is an extended cultural studies work on the cinema of that war and its critical refraction of Colonialism, Inc. — as seen in the films of Werner Herzog and David O. Russell. Since completing his dissertation in 2008, he has undergone Jedi “potty-training” in SF, and has written on Children of Men, Avatar and Moon for Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA). Beyond the Ivory Maze, he is an activist in the Anti-War and Occupy Movements, and is a recent co-founder of The 28ers — an organization calling for a 28th Amendment to get money out of politics. As the quasi-religious photo on the left suggests, he just became a tenured lecturer in the University Writing Program at UC Riverside. He tries to avoid flying cake.


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