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Saturday, August 1, 2015

A New Science Fiction Radiates a Rosier View

November 1931 issue of Everyday Science and Me...
November 1931 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine living in a weird science-fiction story where everything you dreamed up actually came true.

Well, for decades science-fiction writers have been making bold predictions. But now writers are starting to realize that in predicting the future, they have helped shape it.

For example, sci-fi authors first envisioned credit cards, which go all the way back to 1888 when Edward Bellamy wrote about them in his novel “Looking Backward.”

Additionally, solar power and radar were envisioned by Hugo Gernsback in his 1911 magazine stories; H.G. Wells anticipated voice mail in 1923; in- ear headphones and large flat-screen TVs were in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, “Fahrenheit 451”; virtual reality was dreamed up by Arthur C. Clarke in 1956; Jules Verne told stories about electronic submarines all the way back in 1870; and Martin Cooper, who created the first mobile phone, said the idea came to him after watching “Star Trek.”

But not all of the predictions have been rosy. Atomic bombs first appeared in Wells’s 1914 novel “The World Set Free”; George Orwell aptly predicted -- and maybe contributed to -- a surveillance state in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”; and writers have been envisioning destructive weapons of all shapes and sizes, including biological warfare, for centuries.

Now some of these visionaries have banded together to offer stories that are more utopian, which they hope will contribute to a more positive future.

In 2011, Arizona State University’s president, Michael Crow, challenged Neal Stephenson, the author of several sci-fi novels, to stop writing dystopian stories, and offer ideas with a brighter outlook. The concept caught on and last month a group of writers, in collaboration with the university, released “Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future,” which hopes to be a blueprint for these new concepts.

“Sci-fi stories have helped shape technology at crucial points,” said Kathryn Cramer, co-editor of Hieroglyph. “But a lot of the past was dystopian. We’re hoping to show that there are a lot of things we can do better.”

Writers are pushing back in particular against Hollywood’s depiction of the future -- you know, where robots roam the earth killing puppies and enslaving humans.

For example, “Transcendence, “an action film this year, stars Johnny Depp, who plays a brilliant scientist who is resurrected as an artificial intelligence program that becomes evil. Or “12 Monkeys,” in which a man-made virus wipes out most of the planet’s population.

“I got into a little bit of a rut thinking that the way to be cool was to be cynical and dark,” Mr. Stephenson said. “I don’t regret that at all. Now I have a license to go out and try something with a different tone.”

His story in the new collection is about an engineer’s effort to build a 20-kilometer-tall skyscraper. Other tales envision an alternative Internet that is free from government snooping and corporate tracking, and is powered by thousands of homemade drones. Another story is about a group of hardware hackers and Burning Man devotees who build an autonomous 3-D printing robot that goes to the moon. A third imagines a future world without border fences.

The stories still offer plenty of drama, death and destruction, but many have a sort of happy ending. Cory Doctorow, a contributor to Hieroglyph, wrote that the stories are not “optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Instead they are hopeful about it.”

Last month, the editors of the collection took a trip collection took a trip around Silicon Valley, giving talks at big companies, including Google- which is building a bunch of robots that may one day roam the earth, but (one hopes) won’t enslave people-to try to persuade engineers to think differently.

While Mr. Stephenson isn’t so naïve as to think that these sci-fi narratives will make the world a better place, he hopes that they can have a constructive influence.

“There’s definitely some kind of a feedback loop,” he said, “between science fiction and technological fact.” 

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, The New York Times International Weekly, October 11, 2014