Friday, March 4, 2016

Story Review: "Atmosphæra Incognita" by Neal Stephenson

In preparation for writing my Master's thesis, I'm getting the opportunity to read a lot of Sci-Fi and SpecFic masterworks. Part of the dilemma I'm running into as someone who wants to spend their academic career studying this area of literature is a lot of pushback claiming that "genre fiction" isn't really worth studying because its only real purpose is entertainment. I can't begin to tell you how much I disagree with that, and if you read either SpecFic or this blog on a regular basis, odds are that you take issue with that claim as well.

Well dear reader, thankfully we're not the only ones. Project Hieroglyph, headed by Arizona State University and Neal Stephenson, among others, is a group of writers and scientists intent on demonstrating to the world how science and science fiction depend on one another. Using cutting-edge science, writers craft stories of near-future events using the technology that we already have as a starting point. Many of these stories and the corresponding essay sources that helped to inspire and inform them are collected in a wonderful book that came out last year, entitled "Hieroglyph: Stories for a Better Future." All of them focus on the beneficial ways that science and science fiction help to support and inspire one another, and are part of the research that I'm doing in preparation for defending my thesis.

The first story in this collection is entitled "Atmosphæra Incognita," by Neal Stephenson. It's the story of the world's first space elevator, from conception to construction to the First Bar in Space at the top. Using information about current engineering technology and creative ways of tackling some of the unknown dangers and complications that a real-life space elevator could create, Stephenson has crafted a story of human ingenuity, practical production and politics, and thoughts about the reality of undertaking such a project. The world in which it takes place is recognizable as our own, despite the incredible undertaking of building a space elevator: people still contract cancer, unknown forces present unresolved problems, and there are "unholy alliances" formed between politicians and corporations. But there are also hints at the "better future" that Project Hieroglyph hopes to inspire: the space elevator is indeed built, homosexual couples deal with everyday questions of location and jobs instead of being constantly terrified by the prospect of hate crimes, and a part of the space elevator itself is left open-ended for some kind of project or development that might be yet to come. The founder of the project doesn't even know what it might be used for somewhere in the future.

Stephenson's image of a space elevator and what it could mean for the founders, the builders, the architects, engineers, and other parties involved in the project seemed pretty accurate to me. It presented a genuine sense of excitement tempered by the enormous amount of risk involved in such a venture. But it preserved the idea that the value of taking such a big leap forward is greater than the value of staying "safe" with the status quo and not pushing our boundaries.

As I continue reading "Hieroglyph" I look forward to my introduction to more new ideas about the technology at our disposal right now, and where it could take us in the very near future. If we were to turn our minds and technology to something like Stephenson's imagined space elevator instead of funny cat videos and iphone games, what else could we accomplish? I'm excited to find out as I continue to work my way through this volume. "Hieroglyph" came out last year and is available now through your favorite local, independent bookstore.

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