Vaster Than Empires

“It’s all one,” Osden said. “One big green thought.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin, “Vaster than Empires”

Vaster Than Empires Project 

How can science and speculative fiction around the concept of “collective intelligence” inspire to materialize beneficial futures?

Vaster Than Empires is a Writer’s Workshop and Retreat in and near Los Angeles. The project takes its name from Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 story in which a human crew encounters an alien, more-than-human, collective planetary intelligence. Writers will test Le Guin’s hypothesis that what we call “intelligence” extends far beyond the human mind, an explosive field of scientific, social, and philosophical inquiry.

The project is driven by the ethos that storytelling creates and continues communal mythos. In sci-fi and speculative fiction, we fabulate about worlds beyond our present, beings athwart to our immediate perception, and non-human temporalities that boggle our brains — staging a plurality of possible futures to pursue, technologies to tinker with, and epistemologies to engineer. How are we learning to more deeply appreciate non-human intelligences, those on Earth (like bees and bats), those who we create (like AI), and those who we envision beyond our present knowledge (like extraterrestrials)?

Future Humans probes how intelligence, cognition, sentience, and sapience are concepts undergoing cataclysmic redefinitions the more we learn about other-than-human ways of being. Atomistic individualism is giving way to entangled embodiment; closed consciousness is succumbing to collective inhabitations. Vaster than Empires homes in on the concept of collective intelligence through various spatial and temporal registers, from the quantum to the planetary to the cosmological.  This exploration will continue to generate the Berggruen Institute’s repertoire for imagining the future — its tools, metaphors, and models — in speculative worlds that reach for greater inclusion, justice, multispecies mutualism, cross-species communication, and empathy with more-than-human Others vital to preserving our planet — and perhaps worlds and beings beyond Earth.

Workshop and Retreat

In late May 2023, a selected group of twelve writers will join the Berggruen Institute community in a Workshop in Los Angeles, immersed in the city’s science fiction cinemascape. The workshop will be led by renowned authors Ken Liu and Qiufan Chen 陈楸帆. A Salon, research at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a movie night at the Hearst Estate, and visits to Sci-Arc and the Academy Museum, will be inspirational fodder for the Retreat. There, writers will engage in intensive writing exercises in gorgeous Topanga Canyon. The Writers are invited to submit a final piece of creative work — a short story, a screenplay, a script, a piece co-authored with more-than-human intelligence — at the end of the summer.


Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction and winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy award. As a futurist, Liu has helped numerous organizations with articulating visions of the future. His most characteristic work is the four-volume epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty, in which engineers, not wizards, are the heroes of a silkpunk world on the verge of modernity.

Qiufan Chen 陈楸帆 is an award-winning Chinese speculative fiction author. His works include the debut novel Waste Tide which sets in the near-future China haunting by electronic waste and the ghost of Extractionism, as well as AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, co-authored with Dr. Kai-Fu Lee innovatively blends science fiction with tech analysis, exploring the chances and risks in an AI-Human coevolving era.

Associate Director of Future Humans Claire Isabel Webb leads Vaster Than Empires in collaboration with the Institute’s production team, Alex Gardels, Director of Studio B and Nathalia Ramos, Associate Director of Studio B; and Jennifer Bourne, Director of Fellowships.

Future Humans will announce the inaugural class of Vaster Than Empires Writers mid-May 2023.

composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.