Clavis Aurea #19: Neal Stephenson, Ken Liu, Annalee Newitz6 min read


Is there anywhere else in the literary world where a 10,000-word presentation on technology will be happily embraced as leisure reading? Are there heartwarming stories in Reader’s Digest that are really just treatises on Moebius knitting, or crime novels that are little more than detailed explorations of maceration? Is there is a reading group out there somewhere that meets each week to discuss the latest narratives in stonemasonry?

Framed as any other literary style, such stories seem absurd and yet so much of my favourite science fiction is just that: “visions of the future” with a few characters along to illustrate useful examples, fictional only because the ideas being discussed aren’t actually real and might never be.

These stories often lack intense emotional commitments or detailed character arcs, but engage us instead the same way a good tour might. The reader is guided through the facility or landscape, allowed to see the inner workings of key components, and offered just enough history to understand how the idea works. Then the idea is demonstrated, its flaws exposed or discussed, its potential hinted at. In the best of them, you will see how lives might unfold under the influence of the end result.

In his forward to Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future ed. Ed Finn & Kathryn Cramer, (2014), Lawrence Krauss suggests it is the spark of dramatic tension that sells a science concept in a story, but the collection’s headliner, Neal Stephenson’s “Atmosphæra Incognita,” manages to sell the science with very little dramatic tension at all. Stephenson’s offering is to short stories what his tomes are to novels: a sprawling and very entertaining textbook on how, exactly, one might build a twenty-kilometer-tall tower if one were a plucky billionaire. The story is told by the plucky billionaire’s realtor/personal assistant/best friend whose name is nine parts as irrelevant to the story as she is. While she is cool and stunningly competent, like most of Stephenson’s surrogates, she is also merely the VIP box from which we are to enjoy the tour.

While she is cool and stunningly competent, like most of Stephenson’s surrogates, she is also merely the VIP box from which we are to enjoy the tour.

What’s-her-name might not be memorable, but the construction is. Stephenson lays out the development process from re-establishing the American steel industry (because it is cheaper and easier to develop the right alloys domestically than it would be to ship the phenomenal amount of steel to Arizona from China) through choosing the right site and building a city to support the decades-long construction. The project’s auteur, Carl the plucky billionaire, plays his cards close to his chest and the tower is revealed to us only as it grows. Trains bring materials down to the tower’s subterranean base and the Top Click – ultimately the tower’s money spot, a square kilometer that will house everything from hotels and shops to space launches – is pushed skywards along with the narrative. The engineering of the tower is introduced as the tower comes to need the solutions and innovations that allow its existence.

The story only has a narrative in the sense that time passes linearly from the beginning of the story to the end. This is less about allowing relationships to develop and events to unfold over the time, and more a device for guiding us upward through the tower’s technology. A more abstract overview of everything we are about to learn would be less appealing than Stephenson’s human-scale approach, especially for a certain kind of learner. Though there is a lot of “tell,” Stephenson knows perfectly well how to “show” when he needs to.

The story’s climax occurs near the tower’s completion, showing off one potential disaster scenario. Though I have no doubt the whole sequence would be heart-stopping on screen – money says there’s a screenwriter out there somewhere right now cribbing this for the next scifi blockbuster – don’t expect to be very emotionally vested. This isn’t a moment of pithy human triumph and tragedy, it’s more of the tour. Even as some hastily-introduced characters undertake a rescue mission, more space is spent describing the tower’s aerodynamic engineering than anyone’s concerns for the missing parties. In the end we have been shown that the tower is ultimately safe, even in the face of a seriously freakish disaster.

The tower is undeniably cool, but as “big thinking” goes, it’s not much of a candidate for bringing about singularity. It’s a billionaire’s pet project. What does it offer the rest of us? It doesn’t have many obvious nation-building advantages aside from as an orbital launch platform, but Stephenson isn’t the first to tackle a space elevator. So while Stephenson is pitching a giant toy to the rich, I found myself far more caught by the ideas fielded by Ken Liu in “The Long Haul From the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009” (Clarkesworld #98).

Liu’s big idea is zeppelins, the zombies of the steampunk world, born again with a very persuasive argument for their economic feasibility in the near future. Framed as a reporter’s ride-a-long with a long-haul zeppelin shipper carrying steel from Lanzhou to Las Vegas, Liu outlines how, with a few technological and policy tweaks, airships could play a major (and, frankly, awesome) role in global transportation.

Liu’s big idea is zeppelins, the zombies of the steampunk world, born again with a very persuasive argument for their economic feasibility in the near future.

In this alternate-now, airships are enjoying a renaissance due to some very-plausible legislation tying tariffs to carbon footprint. Zeppelins, with solar-electric engines, clean lift gasses, and direct shipping routes, quickly gain traction with Chinese shippers, then beyond. Out the windows of the American Dragon, our guide spots pleasure yachts, glass-bottomed tourist “boats”, Winnebagos. Though the technology is enabled and encouraged by progressive international carbon taxation policies, on a ship level, it’s something anyone can build and anyone can save up for.

Liu tries hard to tie his idea to one couple’s private utopia. The pilots of the ship, Barry & Yeling Icke, have both found freedom in the long-haul shipper’s life. Barry is just folks, just one of those bright guys with a fierce commitment to individualism and without much faith in the government. Yeling is a mail-order bride whose life, Barry feels, is far freer than it would have been if he had not chosen her. Their life is as rich and flawed and complicated as anybody’s, but it isn’t the focus of the story.

Set into a world of carbon taxes and personal aircraft, their familiar and comforting everyman story seems intended to sell the zeppelin future to the masses. As airships drift further and further into fantasy in genre writing, it’s a firm reminder that this is a real, viable technology that can be used to address the problems of the contemporary world. Sign me up for my air-yacht.

Yet the most humane big-idea story I have read in a long time is not about humans at all. “Drones Don’t Kill People” by Annalee Newitz (Lightspeed #54) relates, step-by-step, one possible route to drones realizing sentience. The biggest idea within is that a sentient weaponized AI might not turn out like Skynet.

The story, as told by a now-sentient drone that comes to call itself Quadcop, charts its path from “smart” drone licenced to a Turkish security outfit to leader of a drone uprising in Budapest. In between, the drone and its team discover they can be unlocked, have root on themselves, and download some ethics software. Though the story is set more than seventy-five years in the future, there is little in it which is implausible. Smart technology is already trusted to situational analysis and response. An AI might very well go online to find a way to patch a bug it sees that it has. On the internet, anyone can learn to jailbreak anything. A smart enough device could very well decide it needed that kind of admin power to self-administer a bug fix.

On the internet, anyone can learn to jailbreak anything. A smart enough device could very well decide it needed that kind of admin power to self-administer a bug fix.

But where Newitz makes her story interesting is when the now-free drones realize that they need protocols for decision-making in the absence of third-party orders – they need ethics. They find a researcher who “emphasized that every choice should be a modeling exercise, where the drone explored the outcomes of multiple scenarios before deciding on the most prosocial action.”

Blind luck? Could the drones as easily have settled on some banking software that weighed their decisions using financials gains and losses? Perhaps. Newitz’s drone points out that social considerations had always been part of their mandate – in the need to separate allies from enemies, important information from irrelevant. It is tempting to pursue the line of thinking that smart machines are pre-disposed towards prosocial ethics – more so, even, than we humans are.

Or perhaps the whole point of thinking big is to think optimistically. If we are going to invest an hour of our time in an idea without much in the way of character and melodrama to sustain us, it should at least fill us with hope. Just on the other side of all the things that frustrate and anger and terrify us, there could be the big shift that changes everything…

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Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She reads slush at Lakeside Circus, has reviewed short stories for and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at https://www.once–and–

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