Science fiction has a reputation for nerdy escapism, but according to a host of experts, the much scoffed at genre is far more than an excuse to wear geeky costumes or argue over the finer points of Star Trek cosmology.

Sci-fi has predicted major innovations, including submarines, tasers, and radar. In fact, the cell phone you use every day was inspired in part by the Star Trek communicator. These aren't just lucky guesses or funny coincidences. The exercise of imagining future technology is a great way for business leaders to think through real world innovation, according to a recent Harvard Business Review blog post by author Eliot Peper.

"By presenting plausible alternative realities, science-fiction stories empower us to confront not just what we think but also how we think and why we think it. They reveal how fragile the status quo is, and how malleable the future can be," he writes.

Maybe that's why MIT offers a course that encourages tech leaders of tomorrow to use science fiction as a tool to consider our fast-changing future. "These authors do more than merely prophesy modern technologies--they also consider the consequences of their fictional inventions in great detail," explains professor Sophia Brueckner. In an interview, she details several student projects that were inspired by their sci-fi readings.

So which titles will spur your thinking and help you prepare for fast-paced innovation? I looked to some of the smartest names in tech and entrepreneurship for a few recommendations to get you started:

  1. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. This recommendation comes from Elon Musk, who credits the trilogy with inspiring him to dream big and work hard in order to keep humans moving forward with technological progress.
  2. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. This book is a favorite of both Richard Branson and Musk, who claims it taught him that "the question is harder than the answer."
  3. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel apparently spent a weekend discussing this highly influential novel before founding PayPal. It's also one of Sergey Brin's favorite books.
  4. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. One of Bill Gates's favorite books, this massive novel about the imminent end of life on Earth "rekindled my love for sci-fi," says the billionaire, though he cautions that "some readers will lose patience with all the technical details."
  5. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. This title is included in the MIT class mentioned above. Brueckner notes that "the devices [Dick] describes in his writings can be very humorous and satirical but are truly profound."
  6. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. According to Mark Zuckerberg's early Facebook profile, this popular tale of a video game prodigy who gets involved in a real-life war is one of his favorites.
  7. The Three-Body Problem by Ci Xin Liu. A slightly more mature Zuckerberg included this one by a Chinese sci-fi author in his book club picks. It's the first of a trilogy.
  8. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Peper's post is full of recommendations, including this one in which rising sea levels prompt "hedge fund managers and real estate investors to create a new intertidal market index. As climate change accelerates and the world economy becomes ever more concentrated in megacities, rethinking infrastructure becomes an ever more urgent priority."
  9. Change Agent by Daniel Suarez. Another Peper pick, this one explores the looming impacts of synthetic biology.
  10. The Last Firewall by William Hertling. VC's love sci-fi too. Brad Feld says his reading in the genre creates "a subconscious framework in my brain for a lot of the stuff I'm investing in." His blog is packed with recommendations, including this book, which he deems "spectacular."

What other titles would you recommend to sci-fi newbies looking to explore the genre?

Published on: Jul 18, 2017