It’s probably just coincidence that the week after pulp hero John Carter, Warlord of Mars finally made it to the big screen, Neal Stephenson appeared in the pages of Smithsonian with his latest project – a challenge to science fiction authors to stop being such gloomy twerps and actually inspire people to do science again:
He got the idea at a futurist conference last year. After lamenting the slow pace of technological innovation, Stephenson was surprised when his audience leveled blame at sci-fi authors. “You’re the ones who have been slacking off,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and co-founder of the forward-looking think tank the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes.
To be sure, 20th-century sci-fi prefigured many of today’s technologies, from smart phones to MRI scanners, as you can see if you spend 30 seconds on YouTube reviewing such “Star Trek” gadgets as communicators and tricorders. Yet Stephenson argues that sci-fi’s greatest contribution is showing how new technologies function in a web of social and economic systems—what authors call “worldbuilding.”
The Hieroglyph project’s first concrete achievement will be a sci-fi anthology from William Morrow in 2014, full of new stories about scientists tackling big projects, from building supertowers to colonizing the moon. “We have one rule: no hackers, no hyperspace and no holocaust,” Stephenson says. He and his collaborators want to avoid pessimistic thinking and magical technologies like the “hyperspace” engines common in movies like Star Wars. And, he adds, they’re “trying to get away from the hackerly mentality of playing around with existing systems, versus trying to create new things.”