Sep 18 2009

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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