Mike's Reviews > Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future

Hieroglyph by Ed Finn
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liked it
bookshelves: from-tbr, bought-when-price-dropped, well-edited

As a techno-optimist (and SF writer) myself, with a strong distaste for dystopias, I was keen to read this volume of stories which started out with the premise of writing about a future that was in some way better than the present.

It's hard to make utopias interesting (not that these are really utopias). It's hard to make hard SF interesting, what with the strong temptation to idiot lectures and observer protagonists. These authors don't always succeed at these difficult tasks; nor do all of them manage to avoid the dystopian. With those caveats, a book filled with mostly OK stories about fascinating ideas.

After a foreword and preface that introduce the idea of the book, Neal Stephenson's "Atmosphaera Incognita" is the first story. I'm fairly sure I detected the influence (conscious or unconscious, I'm not sure) of Murray Leinster's classic story about putting up a space platform; this one is about a 20km-high launch tower. While Leinster's stories were remarkable for their time in giving female characters roles as engineers and military officers, he never made them protagonists, and Stephenson outdoes him here; the first-person protagonist is a woman (and a lesbian, at that). There's also a hat-tip to Heinlein with "the door dilated," the first of a number of Heinlein tributes in this volume.

Stephenson is known for sprawling stories that contain a great deal of material that isn't really plot, as such; he has written a series called the "Baroque Cycle," and baroque is a good metaphor for his style, with a lot of flourishes that are purely ornamental. He does it well, and mostly it doesn't drag. He incorporates a human story into what is primarily an exploration of an idea, and has something go wrong, which the characters have to cope with, at about the point I was expecting it to; but plot and character are not really the heart of the story. It's about the ideas - but they are at least dressed up in a reasonably interesting story.

Kathleen Ann Goonan's "Girl in Wave: Wave in Girl" is much more obviously an exposition of ideas, and the author's note afterwards in which she explains the background sounds almost exactly the same as most of the story. There is a story - of a woman who, as a child, had had a treatment to overcome her dyslexia, explaining it to her teenage great-granddaughter through a kind of mind-meld called a grok (there's Heinlein again). But it's pretty much an illustrated lecture.

Madeline Ashby's "By the Time We Get to Arizona" is the first story which fails to avoid the dystopian, giving us a panopticon in which Mexican would-be immigrants to the US are trying to win votes, in the style of a reality show, to be allowed in, and the main characters discover an accidental pregnancy which would sink their chances and scramble to smuggle in abortion drugs. It's a story of a future, certainly (and more storylike than those earlier in the book), but it doesn't read to me like a better future.

Cory Doctorow's "The Man Who Sold the Moon" takes its title directly from Heinlein, its somewhat meandering manner perhaps from Stephenson, and the phrase "a television tuned to a dead channel" from Gibson. There are a lot of things that happen, and he describes them interestingly and always through the viewpoint of a character who's emotionally engaged with them, but many of them are not what you might call plot-relevant. His stories, from those I've read, don't tend to be especially strong on plot, preferring character and ideas, and this is certainly that way. I enjoyed it, despite the fact that Doctorow's worldview and mine have some significant differences, which is how I usually react to his stories.

Lee Konstantinou's "Johnny Appledrone vs the FAA" is another example of a story that fails to avoid dystopia, with a leader of the open-net resistance to a corporate-dominated internet being assassinated in the first paragraph. The rest of the story goes back and explains how this happened. The narrator is more observer than participant, which tends to be a feature of hard SF, one that I've never cared for. (This is not what would usually be called hard SF, as such, but it has the same feel.)

Karl Shroeder's "Degrees of Freedom" is well done, if heavily weighted down with explanation at times, and explores alternative methods of collective decision-making. It shows them at work in the context of indigenous Canadian rights, and has a strong backbone of story with the Minister of Indigenous Affairs (a Haida who has rejected his heritage) and his son, on what initially seem to be opposite sides.

Annalee Newitz's "Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy" doesn't even try to be a story; it's what it says on the tin. The futures are interesting, but it's an illustrated lecture.

Geoffrey A. Landis's "A Hotel in Antarctica" has a bit more of a story, though I wouldn't say that plot is its strong point. It's an entrepreneur-as-hero story, as a number of the stories in this volume are, and concludes with what I felt was too easy a victory (and a somewhat unlikely victory, at that). It doesn't really explore the idea of an actual hotel in Antarctica very deeply, focusing instead on the process of working towards creating one.

There's a New Zealander in it. I don't think I've ever seen any non-New Zealander attempt to write New Zealand dialect before, but it comes out pretty much as I'd expect: too many colloquialisms crammed into too small a space, and doesn't quite ring true to a native speaker.

James L. Cambias's "Periapsis" tells the story of a teenager from Mars competing to become one of the elite citizens of Deimos in a reality-TV-style contest. It has relationships and drama and intercultural envy and resentment, and explores a few ideas on the side, a different balance from most of the stories here.

Gregory Benford's "The Man Who Sold the Stars" is again tipping its hat to Heinlein in the title, but unlike the Doctorow story it also presents politics very similar to Heinlein's. It manages to be about a "better" future, in fact, by focusing on one of the few people for whom the future is better - one of the super rich - in a time where most people are struggling to get by (or are benefiting from the largess of the super rich and their entrepreneurial innovations; the author seems to want to have it both ways). There's a strong implication that the entrepreneur deserves all his easy success, and that the struggling masses are struggling because they just don't approach life in the right way, which to someone of my mildly socialist political views is both naive and repugnant. The protagonist doesn't struggle much, since pretty much everything (we are told, more than shown) goes his way. Also rife with interrobangs, and contains one of the few typos in the book. You may have got the impression that I didn't like it, and if so, you're correct.

Vandana Singh's "Entanglement" gives us a group of people around the world connected by an experimental app, encouraging one another as they deal with the consequences of climate change. I felt it was too diffuse and not connected enough; it was a good premise, but needed to be pushed further.

Brenda Cooper's "Elephant Angels" shows us volunteers using technology (including drones) to protect endangered species. Here, the connections between the people in different parts of the world were tighter, and I felt the story worked well.

Elizabeth Bear's "Covenant" I'd read elsewhere (the Long List Anthology, I think), and read again because I remembered it distinctly as an excellent exploration of a clever idea: a serial killer, reformed by brain-normalising implants, and now with a female body, almost falls victim to another serial killer. For me, the best story in the book, and not least because it focused on the character's experience far more than on the technology.

Rudy Rucker's "Quantum Telepathy" is... a Rudy Rucker story, which isn't quite like anything else, unless it's a rather drug-addled Fredric Brown story. You just have to go along for the ride.

David Brin's "Transition Generation" I'd read before, in his Insistence of Vision collection. It has some classic Brin faults, like exclamatory narrative and commas where they have no business being, but overall is a mildly amusing exploration of the idea that every generation complains about its means of transport, even if that's the (unexplained) ability to fly like superheroes.

Charlie Jane Anders' "The Day it All Ended" is a satire on overpriced technology and the pretentious people who consume it, with a well-executed bait and switch. All of Anders' characters seem to be hopeless losers, which is why I don't love her work more than I do; it's beautifully executed.

Bruce Sterling's "Tall Tower" is a characteristically emotionally stunted Sterling story, which narrates a sequence of odd events and then stops, rather than having a clear introduce-develop-resolve structure (as far as I could see). It could be set in the same world as the first story, since it also has a tall launch tower, but takes place generations later.

The volume closes out with a good interview with scientist Paul Davies about science fiction and science popularisation, and the usual back matter.

Overall, though there were some good stories, I felt this collection failed to live up to its premise and potential. To get four stars from me it would have needed a better story:idea ratio and to have more ruthlessly excluded pessimistic futures. The ideas were certainly interesting, but it wasn't what I was expecting.

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Reading Progress

November 9, 2014 – Shelved
November 9, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
December 15, 2014 – Shelved as: from-tbr
June 11, 2017 – Started Reading
June 17, 2017 – Shelved as: bought-when-price-dropped
June 17, 2017 – Shelved as: well-edited
June 24, 2017 – Finished Reading

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