Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project and Relationships and Technology in Science Fiction

I was reading through Annalee Newitz’s piece in last month’s Smithsonian about Neal Stephenson’s efforts to create a more optimistic science fiction in the wake after reading Emily Nussbaum’s piece on Community and Doctor Who in the New Yorker, and the combination struck me. The thing that I’m most interested in seeing in my science fiction right now is not solely new technology, and not solely explorations of what relationships might look like in the future: I’m interested in explorations of what our relationships to our new technology are going to be like.

One of the things Emily praised about Doctor Who in its latest incarnation was its exploration of how a specific technology—time travel—affects characters’ relationships to each other, and enhances fears of abandonment, missed chances, and the need for profound patience with the people you love. Stephenson, Annalee writes, has a more concrete set of motivations:

“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.”Stephenson’s greatest hope is that young engineers and scientists will absorb ideas from the stories and think, “If I start working on this right now, by the time I retire it might exist.”

I think what I’m curious about is a fusion of the two. Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel 2312 is about precisely that dilemma: what happens when humans who are interconnected to their personal computing devices to the point of having them embedded in their bodies, discover that computing’s evolved to a higher level such that they aren’t sure they trust something they’re intimately connected to? What happens when they date someone or get involved in professional relationships where someone wants them to detach? These aren’t exactly new questions—Orson Scott Card posed a lot of them with his character Jane, a sentient expression of the internet, in Speaker for the Dead—but Robinson feels like he’s riffing off Siri, the Apple personal assistant that doesn’t work as well as we’re told it will, but that we’re supposed to want to like quite a bit.

And these aren’t the only technologies that pose those kinds of questions. Watching Star Trek a couple of years ago, I was struck watching Bones repeatedly stab Kirk with injections. I have a nut allergy, and my Epi-Pens are a source of both great comfort and anxiety to me. I’m glad they exist, but I’m terrified of actually having to jab myself with one, and I was both uncomfortable and fascinated to see Bones doing that repeatedly as if it was no big thing. I’d be curious to hear from long-time Trekkies in the audiences whether there are episodes of the show or movies I might have missed that address what it’s like to have medical technology that good. Do people take more risks? Do doctors overmedicate patients? Does it lead them into error? I feel like we have a lot of science fiction, whether it’s John Scalzi’s work or The Forever War that discusses how medical technology changes decision-making by soldiers. But from a doctor’s perspective, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a tool that powerful at your disposal, and I’d love to see a futuristic medical show that explores some of those questions. I’d totally watch a show about a futuristic Atul Gwande (or, who am I kidding, Shonda Rhimes 2032 show Space Mistresses).

Good gadget design or carefully thought-out rules are a first step towards good science fiction. But just putting those tools or those rules into action without meditating on them aren’t the only way to tell stories with them.