Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Project Hieroglyph: Scientifically Responsible Fiction

"The reason that I think that the Hieroglyph project... won't work is because of the 'should' element."
- Jonathan Strahan, 09/13/2014, episode #201 Coode Street Podcast

Gary Wolf and Jonothan Strahan debated each other (and themselves, as they so charmingly are wont to do), for nearly 20 minutes about the new anthology, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (about 39 minutes into ep. #201). The aspect of Project Hieroglyph that they object to is the notion that Science Fiction - meaning the genre as a whole - should have a purpose. But is that what this anthology is really about?

I attended the Los Angeles book launch of the anthology last week. To be honest, I did get the impression that Lawrence M. Krauss and some other scientists present at the event, really do feel that science fiction should have a function. I think it's clear that Neal Stephenson thinks it is a good thing for at least some science fiction to have a function, and is proud that some of his work has both inspired scientists and engineers. Perhaps the stronger sentiment, though, was that Science Fiction should be more optimistic.

The notion that science fiction can provide a vocabulary of ideas for engineers within large institutions to use as short-hand when working together on projects is one that I find appealing. For much of my IT career I have often been reminded of concepts from science fiction and been a little frustrated that most of my colleagues are unfamiliar with these concepts. But perhaps they have helped me to be a better programmer, analyst, and project manager because I have these concepts in my own head.

Even if those involved with Project Hieroglyph are making a value judgment on science fiction based on its function, I can't bring myself to get too excited about that. It's the nature of art. There will always be differing opinions, and I think that is fine. I like the idea of science fiction sometimes serving such a purpose, and it does reflect on the value of the genre as a whole, but I don't think it all needs to. And this is ultimately what Strahan and Wolf seem to agree on toward the end of their podcast.

In addition to being scientifically responsible (reflecting good science, and ideas that are useful to science and related fields), Stephenson and Krauss said several times during the talk that it was essential to have a good story. So, it's not just about the science, not just about the ideas. Stephenson talked about moving away from a certain period in the genre's past where character and plot were unimportant.  Readers will have to judge if Hieroglyph is successful in this.

I simply look at the book as a themed anthology. I hope it is successful, and I hope there will be more. At the end of the talk, I got to ask a question of the panel. What new opportunities for writers might come out of this project?

That proved a tough question to answer. I thank Stephenson for taking my question seriously. He acknowledge the issue of compensating writers for their art, and said that could be an hour-long discussion all by itself.

I was hoping, though, that he might provide more details about future anthologies, or even novels, sponsored by Project Hieroglyph. Perhaps this project, along with the MIT's 12 Tomorrows anthologies, will emerge as a new trend in publishing. Could it contribute to a resurgence in short fiction? That would be an important development for the future viability of a full-time career for writers.

On that front, Strahan also reports in the podcast, Kathryn Cramer, one of the editors of the Hieroglyph anthology, has tweeted that there will be more projects to come.

I also contacted some of the faculty in University of California Riverside's Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies program. All three Professors of the department were present at the Hieroglyph talk: Rob Latham, Sherryl Vint, and award winning author, Nalo Hopkinson. In an email conversation after the event, I asked Dr. Vint if there might be a UCR sponsored anthology, or maybe a series of on-campus talks with the writers. She did say she was talking with Arizona State University, who partnered with Stephenson to make this anthology happen, but it is unclear if anything will come of that:
"Ed Finn [Director of ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination] and I have begun a dialogue to explore opportunities to collaborate in the future. We have yet to work out any details." 
- Sherryl Vint, Professor of Science Fiction Media Studies, UC Riverside
This is shaping up to be a momentous year for science fiction at UCR. There are lots of exciting possibilities, and also some challenges. They received a prestigious $175,000 Sawyer Seminar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which will include public talks on "ethnic futurisms." The Eaton Collection (world's largest collection of SF/F that's publicly accessible) received a $3.5 million gift.

But prior to that gift, concerns emerged about the Eaton Collection being threatened. Then it appeared that Dr. Steve Cullenberg, Dean of the college that houses the SFTS program, would try to facilitate a dialogue and help address the faculty's concerns about the collection. However, Dean Cullenberg later announce he was stepping down from his position. After the event in LA, I emailed Dr. Latham and asked about where things stand with the Eaton Collection, but he said there would not be much to report until later this fall.

“We hope to have more clarity soon after the Fall term begins. A new college-level committee will be in place then to address some of the faculty’s concerns, and the Senate-wide Library Committee will also be addressing the issue.”
- Rob Latham, Professor of English, UC Riverside
In 2009 Annalee Newitz called UCR a "haven for science fiction studies." I hope this reputation continues. (If you would like to support the SFTS program it UCR, you can donate here.)

As a UCR alumnus and current member of the staff, I would be proud and excited to see UCR participating in Project Hieroglyph. That would be a sign that the project is successful. And the turnout at the talk in LA is another. Reservations for the event filled up before some of my friends could sign up, and the auditorium was packed, people watching from the lounge TV outside. And as soon as I arrived, I purchased the very last copy of the anthology that the bookseller, Skylight Books, brought to the event. They continued to take mail orders and hand out book plates for signing for the rest of the night.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this personal blog are my own unless otherwise explicitly attributed, and not the official opinion of my employer.

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