Sep 15, 2019

Read sci-fi to boldly go where no entrepreneur has gone before

written by Lisa Eason

Which genre of fiction should entrepreneurs read? Thrillers? Romance? Literary? Westerns? It seems to me there is one obvious type of novel that should hold special appeal to those who build business empires — science fiction.

Of course, I’m biased — when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I loved science fiction, and I still read the occasional SF book. I’ve always known it is an esoteric niche with limited appeal to mainstream readers. During school holidays, I used to trek to a specialist bookshop in Soho, Forbidden Planet, because conventional bookstores didn’t carry many sci-fi titles and Amazon didn’t exist.

The fact that science fiction is a minority genre shouldn’t put off entrepreneurs, because founders are not mainstream anyway: they are dreamers, adventurers, visionaries, risk-takers, chancers. They imagine a different future and want to change the world. And more than any other type of story, science fiction is about the future — it is the literature of innovation and ideas.

Really, science fiction could have been named technology fiction, because from the beginning, the books were about new inventions. The two fathers of sci-fi are H G Wells, with works such as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, and Jules Verne, with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Both wrote about extraordinary contrivances, such as Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, or the epic contraption that Time Traveller uses to visit the future. And perhaps the very first sci-fi novel was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the terrifying tale of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the monster he creates using strange chemical processes and electricity.

Many works of science fiction concern space travel and life on other planets. It cannot be a coincidence that three of the most prominent tycoons of our era are engaged in a sort of billionaires’ space race: Elon Musk with SpaceX, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin and Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic.

SpaceX “designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft”. Blue Origin wants to “build a road to space with our reusable launch vehicles, so our children can build the future”. Virgin Galactic is designing a new generation of space vehicles “to open space for everyone”. Their grand plans would make a good sci-fi novel.

Science fiction novels and films have dealt with many technologies that have only recently become reality — such as personalised advertising (Minority Report) and autonomous vehicles (Total Recall). Important areas of technology, such as robotics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality have been written about by science fiction authors.

Not only can such stories inspire entrepreneurs, but they can also deal with the risks, benefits and moral issues surrounding emerging science.

A memorable sci-fi tycoon is Thomas Jerome Newton in Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, played by David Bowie in the film adaptation. And if you want a villainous business magnate, then I recommend Palmer Eldrich in Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich.

Dick is unquestionably my favourite sci-fi writer — I believe I have read his entire oeuvre. Sadly, he died aged only 53, just before the release of the seminal film Blade Runner, which is based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It secured his reputation and revived the entire genre.

I prefer science fiction to fantasy, which deals with supernatural affairs. I like speculation about man-made progress and the complications of technology. Given the practical mindset of most entrepreneurs, I suspect they might agree with me. Although there are many pessimistic sci-fi novels (Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is a classic) I think the genre is ultimately optimistic.

Most literary critics do not consider science fiction to be a serious form of writing, but several of the most influential novels of the 20th century — Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, for example — fall into the genre. Moreover, in film sci-fi and fantasy is huge — from Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings; and on television there is Dr Who to Star Trek, and Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead.

Entrepreneurs should read science fiction because it deals with the impact of new technology and addresses the challenges that society might face in the future.