Project hieroglyph: deep down, do we all just want to watch the world burn?


Disastrous and depressing visions of the future are everywhere; from 1984 to The Hunger Games, there are scores of books and films that imagine our future as pretty bleak, with all the worst elements of society dragged out to extreme levels. Try and think of fiction that puts a positive spin on the future and it’s a lot harder; so why are we so addicted to the dark, doom laced versions of the future?

Project Hieroglyph, a new book of short sci-fi stories, published in September, was inspired by a desire to project a more positive vision of the future onto readers. With a preface by Neal Stephenson and including stories from popular science fiction authors including Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling, the book tries to predict possible futures where we aren’t being used as batteries for robots or informing on our neighbours if they fart in an unpatriotic tone. The idea is nice. As my GCSE english teacher told the class on many occasions, however, nice isn’t a good word. It’s almost an insult; as in you can’t be bothered to think of anything else. It’s like saying, oh yeah, great, whatever. Who cares.

Because really who cares about nice ideas about how nice the future could possibly be? The stories are all bound to be well written with exciting ideas and good structure, etc, but the general idea just inspires in me a feeling of not giving a shit. I’m not interested in the Star Trek version of the future; where humankind are a kindly benevolent race that lives peacefully without money and aims to spread this goodwill across the universe like a bunch of extremely smug and oddly dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses. Star Trek was saved from being tedious drivel by all the non-human characters that forced the members of Star Fleet to actually do something. Thank god for the aggressive, war loving aliens that filled the Star Trek universe, because without them Captain Picard would just be swivelling in his big beige chair (even the furniture was dull) while they pootled around space examining exciting new plant life.

Why do we pick the negative over the positive so often in our sci fi? Is it just that the idea of a future where everything is lovely and people are happy feels like a cop out? If the machines don’t ever rise up to make us their slaves, won’t it be a bit of a let down? Maybe people like the idea of a dystopian future because they want to know how the story ends. It’s clear as a race that we’re a destructive force; for some reason we’ve all agreed that rather than deal with the waste we create we’re just going to bury it in a big hole and hope for the best (or even better, burn it all).

Perhaps this lack of foresight is just the opposite; we’ve finally realised that if we don’t hurry up and do something about it then we’re going to miss the end of the world by dying inconveniently. After all, nature isn’t doing anything to help hasten the apocalypse so we’re better get on it ourselves. If it’s worth doing and all that… On the other hand, maybe disaster just makes a better story. Would you watch a film or read a book where everyone starts off happy, no one does anything terrible or stupid, all the characters are fully rounded humans with no issues that screw up their lives or relationships, and then it ends with something really extra nice happening. If that film existed it would be an art house independent Scandinavian film with sparse dialogue and lots of shots of lovely scenery. And no one would watch it as anything other than a test of how high their threshold is for being really bloody bored.

As a book about ideas, Project Hieroglyph sounds like an interesting concept, but it seems unlikely that we’ll be seeing a sudden decrease in dystopian fiction, on screen or in books, anytime soon. No one really wants to live in the Happy Valley, do they?

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