hieroglyphHieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, Ed Finn & Kathryn Cramer, eds. (Wm. Morrow, 2014, 532 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This collection of 16 short stories and one novella is largely a product of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, of which Finn is the founding director.  The book’s back cover describes it as “a manifesto and a blueprint . . . a clarion call to people everywhere to reclaim our future from grieving over what once was to celebrating all that can be achieved.”

The book succeeds — in part. Some of the stories describe innovations that seem entirely possible and achievable in the short term. The standouts here are two stories that concern the liberatory possibilities of the Internet, “Degrees of Freedom, ” by Karl Schroeder, and “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA,” by Lee Konstantinou. The Schroeder story particularly stands out, because of its entirely believable, rather unsympathetic protagonist, and the changes wrought in his outlook through interaction with the technologies Schroeder describes.

A number of the other stories are less inspiring. The first story in the collection, “Atmosphera Incognita,” by Neal Stephenson, falls  in this category, due to its being almost entirely exposition. It reads more like a very long outline for a novel than a short story.

Others that are lacking include Madeline Ashby’s “By the Time we Get to Arizona,” due to her obvious unfamiliarity with southern Arizona (where I’ve lived for decades) and northern Sonora, and “Periapsis,” by James L. Cambias, in that its social/political background is very hard to buy.

Gregory Benford’s “The Man Who Sold the Stars” stumbles right out of the blocks, with the description in its third paragraph of a biker picking up a Honda Hawk motorcycle and throwing it “all the way across the street” on top of a Kawasaki motorcycle. At that point, I went, “Yeah, right,” and stopped reading, as would anyone else even remotely familiar with motorcycles. A Honda Hawk weighs 393 pounds dry, 412 pounds (187 kilos) fueled and lubricated. (Yes, I did just look that up.)

There are, though, several good pieces in the collection beyond the Schroeder and Konstantinou stories, including Cory Doctorow’s amusing novella, “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” Vandana Singh’s “Entanglement,” and Rudy Rucker’s flat out hilarious “Quantum Telepathy.”

But the real standout in the collection is Charlie Jane Anders’ very funny “The Day It All Ended,” the next-to-last story in the book; it concerns methods of fighting global warming through carbon capture, and contains a hilarious putdown of what certainly appears to be Apple:

‘Your products are pure evil. You build these sleek little pieces of shit that are designed with all this excess capacity and redundant systems. . . . [I]t’s the ultimate glorification of form over function —  you’ve been able to convince everybody with disposable income to buy your crap, because people love anything that’s ostentatiously pointless. . . . You use glamour and marketing to convince people to fill their lives with empty crap instead of paying attention to the world and realizing how fragile and beautiful it really is. You’re the devil.’ . . .

‘You missed one, I think,’ Jethro said, ‘The one about overproliferation. That’s where we convince people to buy three different products that are almost exactly the same . . .’

Up to that point, I’d been mulling over whether or not to recommend Hieroglyph. Of the 16 stories and one novella, I enjoyed only the six pieces mentioned above, disliked about an equal number, and was indifferent to the rest.

“The Day It All Ended” tipped the scales.

Recommended — especially if you can find a used copy or can borrow one from the library.

* * *

(Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover

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