Why I Read Science Fiction

Yesterday morning I spent the day at my semi-annual MIT Sloan Executive Advisory Board meeting.  During breaks, I got into two separate conversations about a book I read last week called Breakpoint by Richard A Clarke.  Clarke was chief counter-terrorism adviser for Clinton and Bush and – among other things – has become a superb science fiction writer. Breakpoint – like Daemon – is an absolute must read in the cyber-thriller category (BTW – thanks Kwin for the recommendation.)

The conversations started out around the book, but quickly evolved in the work that I do and how I think about investing.  As part of that, I explained that I learn an enormous amount by both thinking about the future, but also reading science fiction from the past that maps to the present time.

For example, I decided this would be “the summer of Dick.”  I bought all of Philip K. Dick’s books (about 60 of them), put them on a shelf in my Keystone house, and have been systematically working my way through them whenever I’m in Keystone (I’ve read about 15 of them).  I’m completely fascinated by how Dick – in the 1960’s – thinks about computers and travel in the early part of the 21st century.  Some of his projections of what computers will be like completely miss (Auxtape, Magtape, or some other variation of “tape” is the storage device", computers have sexy voices) while others are a lot closer (computers have evolved into learning machines that are self-correcting).  Travel, on the other hand, is a complete miss – you can get from Europe to the US in five minutes in Dick’s worlds.

When Kurt Vonnegut died, I did the same thing as tribute to him – I bought all the Vonnegut books and read them in order (I still have a few left).  As I read Dick, I recalled that I felt Vonnegut sometimes got computers right and sometimes got them wrong, but also completely missed it on travel.

After seeing the latest Star Trek in the theater, Amy and I Netflixed Star Trek Season 1 and started watching it from the beginning (I’ve seen most of them, but I was never fanatical about Star Trek so there are a few I missed.)  Same drill – it’s cool to see Spock’s “bluetooth-like ear implant communicator thingy”, but why the fuck does the elevator take so long to get between levels on the Enterprise?  And what’s with the sexy computer voices and all the flashing lights?

When I think about all of the information I synthesize both by going backward in time and reading forward (Dick, Vonnegut, Heinlein, Asimov) as well as starting today and going forward 5 – 30 years (Clarke, Suarez, Stross, Banks, Stephenson, Gibson, Sterling) I realize that I’m creating a subconscious framework in my brain for a lot of the stuff I’m investing in.  Sometimes it maps directly; sometimes it’s the stuff that misses that it so interesting.

Oh – and it’s really fun!  BTW, where is that jetpack I was promised (still my favorite West Wing moment of all time):

Leo McGarry: My generation never got the future it was promised… Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel is exactly the same. We don’t even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped.
Josh Lyman: The personal computer…
Leo McGarry: A more efficient delivery system for gossip and pornography? Where’s my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?”

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  • Great tip! My first boss after MIT said he hired me from among several candidates because I also read SF;-)

    Be sure to sample Joe Haldeman's Forever War and more recent works — btw, Joe teaches SF writing at MIT every Fall semester! — plus Robert Forward's Dragon's Egg, James Halperin's Truth Machine & The First Immortal and other favorites — http://www.maximizingprogress.org/search/label/SF

    And these do indeed provoke real-world action. For example, the Truth Machine is one of my personal inspirations for starting and running the MIT Neurotechnology Ventures class I co-teach w/ Ed Boyden & Rutledge Ellis-Behnke at MIT — http://neuro.media.mit.edu/classes/neuroven/09.fa

    Plus it's interesting how many roboticists and engineers generally say they were inspired by Star Wars! Helen Greiner, MIT alumna and co-founder of iRobot of Roomba fame comes to mind — http://www.notablebiographies.com/news/Ge-La/Grei


  • Nice post Brad. I read SciFi like crazy, but actually like far future type of stuff and alternate reality as well. What I like best is to realize that some of the things that are so important to us know (race, religion, class warfare) can be rendered quaint with the promise of tomorrow. Orson Scott Card is one you should add to your list as well.

  • DaveJ

    Is that really *why* you read SF? Or do you read it because it's fun, and it happens to have those benefits?

    • I'll need to check with the Merovingian on cause and effect on that one.

  • Jessica Schallock

    When I'm at school, I always like to have a novel going, even if I only have time to read a couple pages a day – and for some reason, it's always science fiction. I went through my cyber-thriller phase last year with lots of William Gibson, and currently I'm read Red Mars for the first time. My all-time favorite (living) author – whose website I watch in anticipation of publication of his next books – is Alastair Reynolds; if you haven't heard of him I highly recommend it (if you don't mind a little goth mixed in with the hard SF).

    • I haven't read Reynolds but I'll had him to the list, especially since I like a periodic dose of Goth.

  • I used to read a lot of sci fi but eventually found that it had stopped "doing the trick" for me. I read Daemon at your recommendation and loved it – is the sequel ever going to be published?

    I'll put this on my list. Thank!

    • The rumor is the sequel is coming soon.

  • WestIndianArchie

    WRT to Sexy Voices…3 letters


  • Gabe Tuerk

    I'm a huge fan of Philip K Dick (a man who did not want to be typecast as a SF writer…)

    You should read some of his 50s Americana (Voices from the Street, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, etc). These were only published posthumously and are a big departure from his SF stuff – A Scanner Darkly is a good bridge for these two distinct genres.

    Dick was clearly prescient in a lot of ways (and more than just by writing a short story about prescience…); give him a break for missing on travel

    • He totally gets a break from missing on travel – especially since pretty much everyone has missed on predicting the future of travel (I’m still flying around on 30+ year old airplanes).

      Re: Dick’s non-science fiction, I just read Mary and the Giant.  It’s a dynamite example of his writing that isn’t scifi.

  • Max Lybbert

    I've been listening to a writing podcast largely out of curiosity. The writers on the podcast are largely science fiction/fantasy. One of the writers recently mentioned that science fiction/fantasy books have a much steeper learning curve than the average.

    I have to admit I find that learning curve somewhat fun — trying to piece out who's who and what's what. And, as a programmer, I use similar skills when I'm working on an unfamiliar code base. I have a hunch (1) many science fiction/fantasy fans also actually enjoy that part of the genre, and (2) many of the people who do not enjoy the genre have a hang up about this particular issue.

    I can't say it's the main reason I read science fiction/fantasy, but I think it's on the list.

    • Interesting.  My guess is this is some of the appeal to me also, especially since I love to wind my way through the triology+ formats that seem to wind on forever.  Donaldson comes to mind.

    • Max, what is the name of that podcast? I recently started listening to podcasts and have been looking for some shows focused on genre fiction.

      • Max Lybbert

        The podcast is Writing Excuses ( http://www.writingexcuses.com/ ).

        One of the authors is Brandon Sanderson; who is in the process of finishing the Wheel of Time for Robert Jordan who recently passed away. The Wheel of Time is definitely a series that winds on forever. Sanderson was hired to write only the last book, but decided that he could not tie up all the plot threads in only one book. Instead, he is writing three books, which will bring the series to 14 books (plus an Encyclopedia, and a prequel book).

  • Peter Hoven

    I just watched Back to the Future Trilogy with my daughters. It was really interesting to see the ideas of what 2015 would be like.

    • Neat suggestion – I just tossed it in my Netflix queue.

  • Thanks for the recommendation. After a summer of spy fic, I'm looking for something a little less current. Clarke will probably be a good transition.

    Jetpacks–right. Hell, I'd even take a flying car. When an iPhone app can find you in a stadium and tell you where the nearest restroom is, there is no excuse for not having flying cars.

  • I am currently working through all of Asimov's books. And find that I am drawn more to SF than Fantasy. I guess its because I relate more to the characters in SF books (who tend to be very technical). I cant wait for the sequel to Daemon and I really need to start on the Robot series (lacking the first and 3rd book of the series).

  • David Scholes

    I share the same fascination with Philip K Dick's work.

    He must have been only about 54 when he died in 1982. I wonder what elses he might have written had he lived another 20 years?

    I've been reading science fiction for 50 years now and decided it was past time to put something back into the genre. You can check out my new book here:


    Or if you would like to sample some free stuff, here: http://www.sffworld.com/community/story/3744p0.ht


    • He was incredibly prolific – writing 36 novels and 121 short stories during his 54 years on the planet.  The time frame he was alive was also a fascinating one for scifi and much of his great stuff was done in the 1960’s.

      I just ordered your book online and am looking forward to reading it.

  • Nice post Brad. I like sci-fi as much for what it says about the future os society as the future of tech. Banks is fantastic in this regard.

  • Breakpoint is a terrific book. Sometimes you can tell more fact through fiction, right?

    • Definitely.  Apparently Clarke realized this also.  Someone told me that he was so disappointed in the sales of his first (non-fiction) book that he decided to try fiction as a way to getting the facts across.

  • Great science fiction is a lot like great technology implementation – it takes the human factor and puts it front and center. Stories 3500 years in the future where the heroes still utilize microfilm fail in seeing the technology side because they fail to understand how peole think. I find Douglas Adams to be one of the most insightful writers when it comes to understanding humans’ relationship with technology – one that blends fascination and frustration.

    • Douglas Adams is another one of my favorites. I should have included him in the list.

  • The majority of intelligent people I know love Science Fiction. 🙂

    For classic, thoughtful series read Asimov's "Foundation" series. Read also Niven, Card, Clarke, Bear, Brin, Vinge (Especially "Across Realtime")

    BUT, by far the best Scifi/cyberpunk book I've read in last 20 years is "Snowcrash" (1992) by Neal Stephenson. The book appeared on Time magazine's list of 100 all-time best English-language novels written since 1923.

    If you are involved deeply in the internet/web and havn't read "Snowcrash" you have yet to read the "Dead Sea Scrolls" of the internet generation. Read and have your mind blown by what this man envisioned and set to print before the WWW the web was launched on the general public.


    • Hearty agreement on "Snowcrash". I had read "Cryptonomicon" and the System of the World trilogy prior to reading this, and I was still blown away. "Anathem" is also brilliant once the adjustment of the first 100pp is complete.

      What would you recommend as the best place to start with Niven?

      • I think Niven’s Ringworld Series is still one of the most durable scifi series ever written.

    • Niven and Pournelle are some of my favorites.  I haven’t gotten into Vinge yet, but I’ve got a few on my Kindle and am planning to read them soon.

      Snowcash is a classic and is a key to this genre, as is Gibson’s Neuromancer.

  • Thanks for the reminder. I have Daemon on my shelf, a gift from Jordan Greenhall, but haven't started in to it. Doing so tonight. And added Breakpoint to the Kindle…

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  • Darrell

    Thanks for the tip on Breakpoint. I am a huge cyber-thriller reader and always searching for that next book –

  • Hi…
    I have just completed my graduation this year. Reading is my hobby specially Science Fiction. First time I started reading SF because my father suggested me to read it. I think the science fiction and fantasy genre is an oeuvre of weird and wondrous. It turns out the answer may be in my psychological makeup.

  • sdsasd
  • psyphi

    also, i would recommend adding "nSpace" by Melhee


  • So, some tip about this issue are welcome and really sorry if my question is very simple. Thanks in advance

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