Tag: Neal Stephenson

Fiction that Influences and Inspires

Reading nonfiction is a fantastic way to expand your mind and give you an edge in this world. It’s especially useful when we have a specific idea or concept that we’d like to learn more about. However, it’s important not to over-look everything we can learn from fiction.

Fiction resonates with us because it shows us truths about the human condition through great storytelling and compelling narratives. Through an engaging story we can be introduced to big ideas that just don’t resonate the same way in nonfiction: the medium allows for freedom of thought through creativity.

With this short book list, we’d like to take a look at a handful of novels that have inspired some truly extraordinary thinkers, especially today's leaders in technology. Some of these you're probably already aware of. Some not. But they're all worth a look.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Considered one of Fitzgerald’s greatest works, the novel follows the story of the wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchanan during the roaring 1920s. With its focus on wealth, excess, status and privilege some have called this a cautionary tale regarding the great American dream.  It's also just a hell of a yarn.

This is one of Bill and Melinda Gates favorite books. Mr. Gates says it's “the novel that I reread the most. Melinda and I love one line so much that we had it painted on a wall in our house: ‘His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.’”

It’s not only the Gateses who adore this book, the author Haruki Murakami has called it one of his favorites and Chuck Palahnuik has said it was a source of inspiration for Fight Club. “It showed me how to write a ‘hero’ story by using an apostle as the narrator. Really it’s the basis of the triangle of two men and one woman in my book, Fight Club. I read the book at least once a year and it continues to surprise me with layers of emotion.”

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The story paints a spiritual portrait of the quintessential English butler as his world changes from World War I era to the 1950s. The themes of professionalism and dignity versus authenticity are prevalent throughout the novel.

This is Jeff Bezos favorite book. “If you read The Remains of the Day, which is my favorite book of all time, you can’t help but come away and think, I just spent 10 hours living an alternate life and I learned something about life and about regret.”

Actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson has also cited this book as one of her favorites. “When I was growing up, my family, particularly my father, were very stoic. Part of me is very resentful of this British mentality that it's not good to express feelings of any kind – that it's not proper or brave.” She has said she appreciates the book for how it expressed the consequences of this type of discretion.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The book that introduced us to the ever loved and ever hated Holden Caulfield. The unique narrative gives us a glimpse into the mind of a 16 year old boy and the events surrounding his expulsion from prep school.

Bill Gates has said, “I read this when I was 13. It’s my favorite book. It acknowledges that young people are a little confused, but can be smart, and see things that adults don’t.”

Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, also lists this as one of his favorite books.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

The second book centered around a teenager is A Wrinkle in Time, which brings us into Science Fiction. Some of the most innovative ideas of the last two centuries (trains, planes, robots) were considered science fiction at one point and made appearances in stories before they came about in real life. Science fiction is thus a window into our visions of the future, and tells us a great deal about what people of certain eras were both looking forward to and afraid of.

A Wrinkle in Time follows high schooler Meg Murry as she travels through space and time on a quest to save her father. The novel uses Meg’s extreme/out of this world situations as a way to explore the very real trials of teenagers.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has called A Wrinkle in Time her favorite book as a child.

I wanted to be Meg Murry, the admittedly geeky heroine of “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved how she worked with others to fight against an unjust system and how she fought to save her family against very long odds. I was also captivated by the concept of time travel. I keep asking Facebook’s engineers to build me a tesseract so I, too, could fold the fabric of time and space. But so far no one has even tried. Jeff Bezos also loved the book. “I remember in fourth grade we had this wonderful contest — there was some prize — whoever could read the most Newbery Award winners in a year. I didn't end up winning. I think I read like 30 Newbery Award winners that year, but somebody else read more. The standout there is the old classic that I think so many people have read and enjoyed, A Wrinkle in Time, and I just remember loving that book.”

Seveneves / Snow Crash / Cryptnomicon by Neal Stephenson

The sci-fi author Neal Stephenson comes up multiple times in the reading lists of some incredibly successful individuals. Above are three that seemed to come up the most.

Bill Gates has said that Stephenson’s novel Seveneves rekindled his love for sci-fci, a genre he thinks can be used as a vehicle to help people think about big ideas. With Seveneves in particular, he was struck by “the way the book pushes you to think big and long-term. If everyone learned that the world would end two days from now, there would be global panic, plus a big dose of hedonism. But what if it were ending two years from now? Would people keep going to work? Would kids go to school? If they did, what would you teach them?

The novel gives us an idea of what might happen if the world were ending and we were forced to escape to space. If that idea wasn’t interesting enough, the book also shoots forward 5,000 years and has the humans going back to what once was Earth.

Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has Stephenson’s Snow Crash in his list of favorite books.

That story takes place in a future America where our protagonist Hiro is a hacker/pizza delivery boy for the mafia in reality and a warrior prince in the Metaverse. Stephenson gives us a glimpse of a what a world would look like where much of our time and definition of self is explored in a shared virtual space and effortlessly weaves together concepts of religion, economics, politics, linguistics and computer science.

Meanwhile, Samuel Arbesman, the complexity scientist and author of The Half-Life of Facts (whom we interviewed recently), told us that Stephenson's Cryptnomicon is one of the best books he's ever read, saying:

The idea that there can be a book that weaves together an amazing plot as well as some really really profound ideas on philosophy and computer science and technology together, that was, I think one of the first times I had seen a book that had really done this. There were these unbelievably informational pieces. It’s also an unbelievable fun read. I’m a big fan of most of Stephenson’s work. I love his stuff, but I would say Cryptonomicon was one in particular that really demonstrated that you could do this kind of thing together.

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was another author who appeared on multiple lists, his Foundation Series in particular has influenced an extraordinary number of people. The novel centers on a group of academics (The Foundation) as they struggle to preserve civilization during the fall of the Galactic Empire.

In more than one interview, Elon Musk has expressed that he was greatly influenced by the Foundation Series. He said the books taught him, “The lessons of history would suggest that civilizations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far — the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We're obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it's been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we'd be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”

The series also influenced the likes of George Lucas and Douglas Adams. Speaking of…

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The story chronicles earthling Arthur Dents’ amazing voyage through space after he escapes the destruction of Earth.

Elon Musk considers Douglas Adams one of the great modern philosophers. It was Adams that taught him that “The question is harder than the answer. When we ask questions they come along with our biases. You should really ask, ‘Is this the right question?’ And that’s hard to figure out.

It’s interesting to note that Musk happened upon the book at a time that he says he was going through and existential crisis (between the ages of 12 to 15). He first turned to Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer but found what he needed through Douglas instead. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy also lists this as one of his favorite books.

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This is in no way an exhaustive list of fiction that has influenced people whom we admire, but we hope that it has inspired you to find more places for those big ideas. Happy Reading!

If you enjoyed this post, check out a few other book recommendation lists we've put out recently:

Book Recommendations by the Legendary Washington Post CEO Don Graham – Among his answers are his favourite fiction and non-fiction books and the book that will stay with him forever.

A Short List of Books for Doing New Things – Andrew Ng thinks innovation and creativity can be learned — that they are pattern-recognition and combinatorial creativity exercises which can be performed by an intelligent and devoted practitioner with the right approach. He also encourages the creation of new things; new businesses, new technologies. And on that topic, Ng has a few book recommendations.

The Need for Biological Thinking to Solve Complex Problems

“Biological thinking and physics thinking are distinct, and often complementary, approaches to the world, and ones that are appropriate for different kinds of systems.”

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How should we think about complexity? Should we use a biological or physics system? The answer, of course, is that it depends. It's important to have both tools available at your disposal.

These are the questions that Samuel Arbesman explores in his fascinating book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension.

[B]iological systems are generally more complicated than those in physics. In physics, the components are often identical—think of a system of nothing but gas particles, for example, or a single monolithic material, like a diamond. Beyond that, the types of interactions can often be uniform throughout an entire system, such as satellites orbiting a planet.

Biology is different and there is something meaningful to be learned from a biological approach to thinking.

In biology, there are a huge number of types of components, such as the diversity of proteins in a cell or the distinct types of tissues within a single creature; when studying, say, the mating behavior of blue whales, marine biologists may have to consider everything from their DNA to the temperature of the oceans. Not only is each component in a biological system distinctive, but it is also a lot harder to disentangle from the whole. For example, you can look at the nucleus of an amoeba and try to understand it on its own, but you generally need the rest of the organism to have a sense of how the nucleus fits into the operation of the amoeba, how it provides the core genetic information involved in the many functions of the entire cell.

Arbesman makes an interesting point here when it comes to how we should look at technology. As the interconnections and complexity of technology increases, it increasingly resembles a biological system rather than a physics one. There is another difference.

[B]iological systems are distinct from many physical systems in that they have a history. Living things evolve over time. While the objects of physics clearly do not emerge from thin air—astrophysicists even talk about the evolution of stars—biological systems are especially subject to evolutionary pressures; in fact, that is one of their defining features. The complicated structures of biology have the forms they do because of these complex historical paths, ones that have been affected by numerous factors over huge amounts of time. And often, because of the complex forms of living things, where any small change can create unexpected effects, the changes that have happened over time have been through tinkering: modifying a system in small ways to adapt to a new environment.

Biological systems are generally hacks that evolved to be good enough for a certain environment. They are far from pretty top-down designed systems. And to accommodate an ever-changing environment they are rarely the most optimal system on a mico-level, preferring to optimize for survival over any one particular attribute. And it's not the survival of the individual that's optimized, it's the survival of the species.

Technologies can appear robust until they are confronted with some minor disturbance, causing a catastrophe. The same thing can happen to living things. For example, humans can adapt incredibly well to a large array of environments, but a tiny change in a person’s genome can cause dwarfism, and two copies of that mutation invariably cause death. We are of a different scale and material from a particle accelerator or a computer network, and yet these systems have profound similarities in their complexity and fragility.

Biological thinking, with a focus on details and diversity, is a necessary tool to deal with complexity.

The way biologists, particularly field biologists, study the massively complex diversity of organisms, taking into account their evolutionary trajectories, is therefore particularly appropriate for understanding our technologies. Field biologists often act as naturalists— collecting, recording, and cataloging what they find around them—but even more than that, when confronted with an enormously complex ecosystem, they don’t immediately try to understand it all in its totality. Instead, they recognize that they can study only a tiny part of such a system at a time, even if imperfectly. They’ll look at the interactions of a handful of species, for example, rather than examine the complete web of species within a single region. Field biologists are supremely aware of the assumptions they are making, and know they are looking at only a sliver of the complexity around them at any one moment.

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When we’re dealing with different interacting levels of a system, seemingly minor details can rise to the top and become important to the system as a whole. We need “Field biologists” to catalog and study details and portions of our complex systems, including their failures and bugs. This kind of biological thinking not only leads to new insights, but might also be the primary way forward in a world of increasingly interconnected and incomprehensible technologies.

Waiting and observing isn't enough.

Biologists will often be proactive, and inject the unexpected into a system to see how it reacts. For example, when biologists are trying to grow a specific type of bacteria, such as a variant that might produce a particular chemical, they will resort to a process known as mutagenesis. Mutagenesis is what it sounds like: actively trying to generate mutations, for example by irradiating the organisms or exposing them to toxic chemicals.

When systems are too complex for human understanding, often we need to insert randomness to discover the tolerances and limits of the system. One plus one doesn't always equal two when you're dealing with non-linear systems. For biologists, tinkering is the way to go.

As Stewart Brand noted about legacy systems, “Teasing a new function out of a legacy system is not done by command but by conducting a series of cautious experiments that with luck might converge toward the desired outcome.”

When Physics and Biology Meet

This doesn't mean we should abandon the physics approach, searching for underlying regularities in complexity. The two systems complement one another rather than compete.

Arbesman recommends asking the following questions:

When attempting to understand a complex system, we must determine the proper resolution, or level of detail, at which to look at it. How fine-grained a level of detail are we focusing on? Do we focus on the individual enzyme molecules in a cell of a large organism, or do we focus on the organs and blood vessels? Do we focus on the binary signals winding their way through circuitry, or do we examine the overall shape and function of a computer program? At a larger scale, do we look at the general properties of a computer network, and ignore the individual machines and decisions that make up this structure?

When we need to abstract away a lot of the details we lean on physics thinking more. Think about it from an organizational perspective. The new employee at the lowest level is focused on the specific details of their job whereas the executive is focused on systems, strategy, culture, and flow — how things interact and reinforce one another. The details of the new employee's job are lost on them.

We can't use one system, whether biological or physics, exclusively. That's a sure way to fragile thinking. Rather, we need to combine them.

In Cryptonomicon, a novel by Neal Stephenson, he makes exactly this point talking about the structure of the pantheon of Greek gods:

And yet there is something about the motley asymmetry of this pantheon that makes it more credible. Like the Periodic Table of the Elements or the family tree of the elementary particles, or just about any anatomical structure that you might pull up out of a cadaver, it has enough of a pattern to give our minds something to work on and yet an irregularity that indicates some kind of organic provenance—you have a sun god and a moon goddess, for example, which is all clean and symmetrical, and yet over here is Hera, who has no role whatsoever except to be a literal bitch goddess, and then there is Dionysus who isn’t even fully a god—he’s half human—but gets to be in the Pantheon anyway and sit on Olympus with the Gods, as if you went to the Supreme Court and found Bozo the Clown planted among the justices.

There is a balance and we need to find it.