The Science Fiction of Science: Collaborative Lexicons and Project Hieroglyph

July 18, 2013, 13:30 | Long Paper, Embassy Regents C


The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University is the institutional home for the Hieroglyph project, an innovative collaboration that pairs leading science fiction writers with scientists and engineers to craft techno-optimistic narratives set in the near future. The project asks these writers to create stories that radically extend real technologies and ideas that are at least conceptually possible. Hieroglyph draws its name from the notion that we have been inspired by certain iconic fictional ideas—Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships and Isaac Asimov’s robots, for example—that have come to shape our visions of the future.

In addition to organizing this project and serving as a co-editor of its culminating anthology, I am also researching Hieroglyph as a site of collaborative communication. By tracking the spread and contextualization of keywords during the project, I will explore the role of shared language in framing collaborations. Using empirical data as well as interviews and close readings, my research will consider how successful Hieroglyph is in living up to its name, asking how narrative keywords can serve as catalysts for stories that extend scientific discourse into the realm of science fiction.


Hieroglyph is a collaborative project between the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University and a collective of science fiction writers led by Neal Stephenson. The project’s end goal will be an anthology of near-future, techno-optimistic fiction that engages with technologies already visible on the horizon. The project is unusual in that it asks these writers to collaborate directly with scientists and engineers on their ideas, and to do so primarily through the medium of a website where they can converse and share work in progress.

The Hieroglyph site serves as both a community and a serial publication platform, regularly releasing work in progress, interviews and other contributions as a kind of “Hieroglyph Magazine” so that subscribers can experience the project online and through mobile apps. In this way the site incorporates multiple discourse communities within the same platform, creating spaces for interaction, collaboration and play between science fiction writers, their fans, research scientists and engineers.

Hieroglyph is a bold experiment because it brings together several diffuse communities into a microcosm of new cultural practices. By asking science fiction authors to work directly with scientists and engineers, the site formalizes and compresses a long-running informal relationship that has mutually informed readers and writers of science fiction for many decades. At the same time, the project creates a public performance aspect for these collaborations through its serial publication, inviting a general reading public to track work in progress and engage with both the science and the personalities behind the stories under development.


I propose to evaluate the success of Hieroglyph and its individual collaborations by bringing a literary frame to the quantitative analysis of interdisciplinary collaboration. This approach draws together Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, Pierre Bourdieu and John Guillory’s concepts of social and cultural capital and my own evolving mixed-methods computational and close reading approach to these collaborations (Latour 2005; Bourdieu 1993; Guillory 1993; Finn 2012). My presentation at Digital Humanities 2013 will focus on several key research questions:

How do authors and their technical collaborators converge on shared understandings of technical and domain-specific concepts? By tracing the deployment and adoption of keywords in both collaborative exchanges and the ensuing fictions, can we identify patterns of transference? What role does shared language play in successful collaboration, and how do keywords operate both behind the scenes and within the framework of the science fiction narrative?

How do authors structure relationships between multiple knowledge domains and extend those domains into uncharted territory? When writers transgress disciplinary boundaries and, indeed, the boundaries of scientific knowledge as a whole, how will their collaborators react? In parallel, how do scientists and engineers describe their own field paradigms and establish points of consilience (or not) with other academic fields (Wilson 1998)?

What relationships will these authors, scientists and engineers develop beyond individual collaborations? Will participants develop broader collective dialogs, perhaps even an emergent paradigm for the project, or remain primarily engaged in small groups? This research question extends the concept of consilience and a collaborative lexicon to Hieroglyph itself, potentially creating opportunities for writers and researchers to create technological and narrative threads that bridge multiple stories in the final anthology.

Finally, how will readers and broader fan communities engage with the ideas embedded in these collaborations? To what extent will keyword discussions among the Hieroglyph collaborators translate to the discussions conducted among the project’s subscribers and fans?


By focusing on the definition and transmission of keywords, this project adopts a social network analysis methodology to the process of collaboration (Wasserman and Faust 1994). As new conceptual keywords are introduced in various collaborations (i.e. “symmetry” or “solar sail”) they will be mapped based on the sender(s) and recipient(s) of the relevant correspondence. Collaborators will have a number of communication options available to them, ranging from email and in-person interactions to private small-group blogs, public restricted-authorship blogs and totally open public forums. [1] By mapping these networks over time, we can identify relationships between keywords and evolving groups of participants.

The project will identify keywords as they propagate across subject domains, adopting an approach inverse to the typical applications of statistical modeling (where algorithms are used to identify key terms within specific knowledge domains or discourses). For this reason, the project will combine statistical modeling Termine or another term extraction tool with direct interventions, including user-initiated tagging, surveys and editorial analysis (National Centre for Text Mining). For example, collaborators will be asked to identify and define active keywords in their conversations at regular intervals, and editors will offer their own keyword analyses of the writers’ work in progress. By combining these different quantitative and qualitative approaches, we can address the research questions listed above at the level of individual actors, small collaborative teams and broader discourse groups.

These multilayered groupings of terms and participants will inform a “middle ground” reading of the collaborations in Hieroglyph, looking at the collective crafting of fact-driven narratives as a form of cultural production. By including the interactions of the site’s reading public as well as its official collaborators, the project also allows us to explore the discourse boundaries between scientists, engineers, science fiction writers, science fiction fans and other groups.


Hieroglyph defines a new direction in the study of scientific collaboration by embedding the importance of narrative and broad public engagement into the core of the collaborative process. Asking scientists and engineers to work directly with science fiction writers (and vice versa) forces each group to question assumptions and move beyond the terministic screens that define their individual artistic practices and knowledge domains (Burke 1968). Hieroglyph seeks to open up a creative space for experimentation by all participants, allowing them to step outside of traditional discourses and explore new ideas through new language.

This research project will trace the success or failure of the Hieroglyph experiment using a mixed-methods approach including keyword extraction, tagging, user surveys and traditional literary close reading of the collaborative fiction. Its middle ground approach will allow us to see how writers, scientific experts and the general public interact in the making of science fiction, that most accessible literature of ideas.


Bourdieu, P. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production. Ed. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press.
Burke, K. (1968). Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. University of California Press.
Finn, E. (2012). New Literary Cultures: Mapping the Digital Networks of Toni Morrison. In Lang, A. (ed.) From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, University of Massachusetts Press.
Guillory, J. (1993). Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. University of Chicago Press.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press.
National Centre for Text Mining. TerMine. http://www.nactem.ac.uk/software/termine/.
Wasserman, S., and K. Faust. (1994). Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf.


1. While it will probably prove impossible to capture every interaction, the Hieroglyph digital and procedural structure is designed to archive most exchanges.