Commentary

What Science Fiction Books Does A Futurist Read?

One of science fiction's jobs is to give humanity a map of where we're headed. From Jules Verne to William Gibson, sci-fi authors have described their versions of the future, and how people might live in it.

Those ideas came up in a recent conversation I had with Brian David Johnson, who works for Intel as a futurist — a title that gives him one of the tech world's cooler business cards.

Johnson says that his job lies at the intersection of science fiction and science fact. With that in mind, I asked him to name some of his favorite sci-fi books. His list is below, with stock summaries of the books. If you scroll below the list, you can read what Johnson thinks of them:

6 Science Fiction Picks From A Futurist

Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Marilyn Butler

Paperback, 261 pages, Oxford Univ Pr, $8.95, published June 25 1998 | purchase

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Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus
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The 1818 Text
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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Marilyn Butler

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A young Swiss scientist's discovery of the cause of generation leads to the creation of a hideous monster

Robot Novels/the Caves of Steel/the Naked Sun/the Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov

by Isaac Asimov

Paperback, 671 pages, Random House Inc, $27, published August 1 1988 | purchase

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Robot Novels/the Caves of Steel/the Naked Sun/the Robots of Dawn
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Isaac Asimov

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Lije Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, investigate the murders of a famous robotocist, an isolated inhabitant of Solaria, and Jander Panell, an advanced robot

The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke

by Arthur C. Clarke

Paperback, 320 pages, Gardners Books, $11.95, published September 26 1991 | purchase

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The Sentinel
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Arthur C. Clarke

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A collection of short stories by the author of Childhood's End and 2001: A Space Odyssey showcases the author's storytelling skills in such works as "The Sentinel," "Guardian Angel," "The Songs of Distant Earth," and "Breaking Strain." Reprint.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

by Cory Doctorow

Paperback, 416 pages, St Martins Pr, $9.99, published April 13 2010 | purchase

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Little Brother
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Cory Doctorow

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After being interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security after a major terrorist attack on San Francisco, Marcus is released into what is now a police state and uses his expertise in computer hacking to set things right.

Halting State by Charles Stross

by Charles Stross

Paperback, 324 pages, Berkley Pub Group, $7.99, published June 24 2008 | purchase

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Halting State
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Charles Stross

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Sergeant Sue Smith is called in to investigate a daring Edinburgh robbery at a dot-com startup company, a crime perpetrated by a band of marauding orcs with a dragon in tow in the virtual reality land of Avalon Four, but she soon discovers that events in the virtual world could have a devastating impact on the real one, especially when an unknown enemy launches attacks on both. Reprint.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

by Vernor Vinge

Hardcover, 364 pages, St Martins Pr, $25.95, published May 16 2006 | purchase

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Rainbows End
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Vernor Vinge

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In a near-future western civilization that is threatened by corruptive practices within its technologically advanced information networks, a recovered Alzheimer's victim, his military son and daughter-in-law, and his middle school-age granddaughter are caught up in a dangerous maelstrom beyond their worst imaginings. By the Hugo Award-winning author of A Deepness in the Sky.

Johnson started out with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, calling it "a foundational classic. One of the first ever, and still very, very important for today."

He also includes Isaac Asimov. "The Robot series was one of the first times where logic was brought in to science fiction, there was actually a logic system — you know: The robot would do this, or wouldn't do this."

Many readers will know that those rules centered on a central idea: that robots were forbidden from harming humans. And many of those rules were first laid out in Asimov's I, Robot.

Johnson also recommends Arthur C. Clarke's The Sentinel, a short story that is often cited as holding the seeds of his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story centers around the discovery of a pyramid-like relic on Earth's Moon.

Moving on to writers working today, Johnson mentions Cory Doctorow, whose Little Brother "gets into some of the messy ideas around surveillance, and around ubiquitous computational power — and what does that mean."

"Charlie Stross has some really interesting books that look at near-future technology. He wrote a book called Halting State, which is really interesting. It looks at device connectivity, especially around policing."

"I'm always a huge fan of Vernor Vinge. Vernor came up with the term 'singularity.' He always has a really good eye for this stuff," Johnson says. "He wrote a great book called Rainbows End, where he was looking about 10-15 years out, and what that future might look like."

Rainbows End, Johnson says, is "kind of a mystery novel," in which a man wakes up from a coma to find himself in a world full of new advances. To be specific, the protagonist, who had been an Alzheimer's patient, wakes up in the San Diego of 2025.

In telling his story, Vinge "has some fun - he makes fun of laptops, he makes fun of a lot of things," Johnson says. "What I love about Rainbows End is that it's a small book that really has an interesting view of technology."

If you'd like even more suggestions to help you read some interesting sci-fi, you might want to check out NPR's voluminous Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books, suggested by our readers.

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