Geeks read. Geeks read books that probe dreams, envision life on Mars, posit hyperspace, reconstruct history, remake the world and reshape the notion of what it means to be human, or even just alive.
The great geek works of fiction inspire engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs to dream their biggest dreams – or at least to muster the courage to light the way toward the future. These great books deserve to be celebrated. If you haven’t read all of them, you should.
One of the most celebrated works of science fiction ever, William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, is devoid of white-collar, IBM-like engineers. Instead, Gibson’s novel is populated with washed-up freelance hackers who associate with nefarious corporate shills wanting dirty deeds done dirt cheap inside the infinite blackness of “cyberspace.” All this burst on the public consciousness at a time when most of the planet had no desire to own a computer and couldn’t even imagine the World Wide Web, still a decade away.
Neuromancer gave dystopia a good name. Gibson’s work included the saved consciousness of individuals (in both RAM and ROM states), cybernetic implants, holograms, AI, cloud computing and ninjas. Gibson’s “cyberspace” inspired a legion of hackers.
John Brunner’s fast-paced 1975 novel features, among other things, “worms” (a term Brunner coined) propagating through massive cloud-like computer systems. It also includes hero hackers, real-time global connectivity, prediction markets, a mobile workforce, genetic engineering, identity theft, cougars and an economy and culture largely guided by Big Data and related algorithms. It is one of the most prescient works of speculative fiction ever written.
In The Shockwave Rider, smart people adopt various online personas in part to elude the government surveillance state. They also take pharmaceuticals to help them cope in a world of continuous change.
The many works of Robert Heinlein have inspired at least two generations to unleash their inner geeks, hone their tech skills, and to focus less on the business side of things than on where real change happens: in the basement or in the garage, where all the equipment is.
Heinlein’s works laud tinkering, inventing and science. His novels, no matter how speculative, were always well-grounded in science. As a forerunner of the soft libertarianism that pervades Silicon Valley, Heinlein was always ready to challenge the standards of his day, and clearly favored individual liberty over all else.
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) is one of Heinlein’s most popular works. The protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, is quite literally an outsider: the son of astronauts, raised by Martians, he possesses psychic and teleportation abilities – along with highly provocative views on sex, religion, relationships, and those who control government and religion. This book is also where we get the word “grok” from. Go for the uncut version.
In 1979, Arthur C. Clarke wrote this novel about the construction of a space elevator using “hyperfilament.” Instead of using rockets, payloads and people – including space tourists – could take the space elevator up to a satellite in geostationary orbit. The plan succeeds despite a man-made hurricane from a hijacked weather-control satellite, which destroys the Earth base station.
Clarke was never one to shy away from suggesting how his visions could actually be realized during or shortly after his lifetime. Since its publication, NASA has repeatedly discussed Clarke’s concept, and a successful Kickstarter project from last year is exploring the feasibility of a limited space elevator.
In 1989, Dan Simmons released Hyperion. High school geeks have never stopped devouring it. Though set in the 28th century, core elements of the world Hyperion envisions – including instant interstellar space travel, AI, galaxy-spanning connectivity, and implants that alter body, mind and emotions – will arise sooner than later. At MIT and Google, NASA and Genentech, for example, geek readers are already working on technologies that connect man and machine, that link the human brain with computing, and which may propel humanity beyond the solar system.
A dense, literary work, Hyperion deftly takes the reader on a journey through time, space and almost-magical worlds (possibly insufficiently distinguishable from advanced technology) via a plot that mirrors the The Canterbury Tales of the 14th century.
Humanity has spread across the galaxy thanks to the creation of instant interstellar travel via “farcaster” – think Star Trek’s transporter with unlimited distance and without the messy de-materialization. As with a fully connected Earth, a connected galaxy profoundly alters the economy and shifts power to those most capable of manipulating and managing technology – the TechnoCore.
Prominent in the book is the Shrike, a deadly humanoid-like creature that appears across the various stories within the story, and may remind geek movie action fans of Predator.
Is there any programmer in Silicon Valley – or anywhere, possibly – that has not memorized Isaac Asimov’s “three laws of robotics?” Asimov’s work takes place in the 21st century, and intelligent robots are everywhere, taught to value human life above all else.
Engineering students that have read I, Robot over the past 60+ years have come surprisingly close to achieving Asimov’s vision. The “positronic brain” is, in our world, the microprocessor – which continues to advance. Great strides have been made in artificial intelligence, even if in forms not imagined by Asimov. Robots – as pets, vaccuum cleaners and autoshop welders – do surround us, albeit rarely in human form.
A collection of related short stories, I, Robot not only correctly scouted out much of the present that surrounds us today it inspired geeks to create it. See, for instance, the rescue robots battling it out in DARPA’s virtual robotics challenge.
And although Asimov wrote these stories in America in the 1950s, they feature the extremely smart Dr. Susan Calvin, expert in physics, cybernetics and psychology.
While not as fun as Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s 1999 novel Cryptonomicon inspired readers to explore the opportunities presented by complex maths, coding, cryptography – and erasing one’s digital footprints.
Its heroes are World War II codebreakers and, in an overlapping story, 1990s computer programmer entrepreneurs. The 1990s team takes advantage of outside funding, brings together a group of savvy computer, telecom and math experts – and start-up veterans – and works to build a global digital currency. In the world of Cryptonomicon, it’s always better if you were smart and tech-savvy.
Cryptonomicon is a long work, filled with codes, ciphers, scripting, multiple characters – some of them historical figures – and the challenges of tackling major computing problems under incredible time restrictions. Geeks, hackers and engineer-entrepreneurs are revealed to be not only cool, but even world-saving.
Great Books Remain
When Amazon’s Kindle was released, Steve Jobs scoffed at the very idea of it:
It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.
Wrong. Geeks read. The do-ers, the hackers, those boys and girls who stumble upon a great novel and know, from that very day, that it will always leave a mark.
No doubt, great works such as those by Connie Willis will be rediscovered by a new generation of budding geeks, via Kindle or in whatever format they are distributed. More recent works, from the Harry Potter series, to the accessible and referential works of John Scalzi, to Jo Walton and her alternate world fantasies, will likewise come to influence generations of smart, determined world-builders.