The first four SF books you should read if you’re working in social media

by marycw on February 22, 2009

daemon book cover

The continued mainstreaming of social media has resulted a fountain of speculation about the future of social networking, always-on connectivity and the increasingly ubiquitous internet.    The usual sides are being taken between technophiles and technophobes, people who see utopia around the (virtual) corner and people who think that we’re going to hell in a (virtual) handbasket.

But there’s a group of people who’ve already spent a great deal of time thinking about where these technologies are taking us:  speculative fiction / science fiction (SF) writers.

A few years back, there seemed to be a rule that nobody was allowed to write anything about online culture without  mentioning Snow Crash (perhaps we should have called that phenomena Stephenson’s Law.)

But now for some reason I rarely see SF referenced  in articles about online culture/ social media / social technologies (at least, not in those articles authored by non-engineers).     (I was inspired on this topic by a discussion on the great site Mashable, where almost nobody cited SF examples; impossible to imagine a similar discussion happening on old-school Slashdot without SF getting referenced.)

SF books seem to be one of those love-or-hate things.  People either read them prolifically or not at all.  Which is a pity, since near-term SF (stories that occur in the next few years-decades,  instead of hundreds of years in the future) have a lot to say about where our technology might be taking us — a nuanced view between techophile idealism and technophobe cynicism.

Note that this doesn’t mean that near-term SF is intended to be an factually accurate prediction of our future.   Great stories aren’t contingent on factual accuracy.   Fiction is about the exploration of the human condition; fiction isn’t meant to be reality TV or a crystal ball.

As Will Hindmarch wrote — accuracy isn’t the ultimate goal of SF, or of any fictional work.   Tolkien’s fans know that Middle-earth isn’t actual ancient earth history, and people still read Jules Verne and HG Wells despite the fact that these authors’ visions of the future are now quaint.  As Hindmarch says, “are we done with Neuromancer because of the ways it seems dated?”

SF can also help to influence the future.  Some of the early readers of Neuromancer (just like some of the early viewers of the original Star Trek series) were very influenced by it, and then made decisions to focus their life’s work on things from the book that had inspired them.  (In Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science, Mark Brake and Neil Hook talk about the interactions and bi-directional influence between fictional works and scientific works, going back to the 1600s.)

So if you work in social media — you need to read some near-term SF.   Here’s a few places to start:

Daemon by Daniel Suarez (2008). A top game designer has died, but he left behind a legacy — an online “game” that has its own agenda. As the scheme unfolds, a handful of people are assembling the clues as to where this game is leading.  Out of all the books listed here, this one is probably written in a style that the most accessible / straightforward to the casual reader.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. Published 2003 and already both outdated and eerily predictive.  The heroine is a cool hunter and pop culture maven who consults to brands and designers.  She’s hired to ferret out the story behind some mysterious online videos and along the way meets “power-hungry marketeers, industrial saboteurs, high-end hackers, Russian mob bosses, Internet fan-boys, techno archeologists, washed-out spies, cultural documentarians…”

spook country book cover

Spook Country also by Gibson (2007)  An ex-rock-star turned journalist researches “locative art” (which uses goggles and GPS to project ghost images/overlays).  But GPS and 3D imaging wizardry are also popular with international spies and criminals looking for a technical edge in moving covert material around the globe.

Rainbows End by Vernor Venge (2006).  Set a little further in the future than the two Gibson books, in mid-century 2000s.   A elderly man is brought back from dementia by a new drug, but has to take remedial classes at the local high school to learn to adapt to a world where virtualization has become deeply imbedded in everyday life.  Meanwhile his teenaged granddaughter stumbles into a plot related to the virtualization of traditional libraries.

I’ll stop there, although there’s plenty more that could be mentioned.

(And if you’re one of the people who doesn’t read SF, be aware that your kids are, and that SF young adult books are forming their ideas about what the future looks like.)

rainbows end book cover

{ 7 trackbacks }

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{ 29 comments }

Will Hindmarch 02.22.09 at 2:25 pm

It's always a treat to see genre fiction getting noticed as the sort of cultural brainstorming it can be, so thanks for this post. I'm compelled to write, however, to correct your spelling of my name. It's Hindmarch, with a "ch." The nature of Google requires me to be pedantic about it. Anyway, thanks!

Vicki 02.22.09 at 6:18 pm

Add "Halting State" by Charles Stross – a daring bank robbery inside a virtual reality game, everyone hooked into a worldwide communications net.

marycw 02.22.09 at 7:43 pm

Ooh good call — you're right, that's great one that also seems eerily prophetic these days (the US on the verge of bankruptcy, virtual world/online gaming banks as a key part of the plot, etc.)

Alison Lowndes 02.23.09 at 3:16 pm

Interesting post, found via Mashables debate, personally I don't have time to read books.
I wrote a post here if you're interested .. http://bit.ly/3pGkH

Andy Bowler 02.26.09 at 4:11 pm

I think it's pretty funny that Gibson is on this list twice. I love him too, but there's got to be other authors out there, right?

Mary Walker 02.26.09 at 5:04 pm

Hi Andy — thanks for dropping by! I wanted to focus on books that were both accessible and very near-term SF — books that non-SF readers would have a chance of actually appreciating and getting through.

A lot of great SF is impenetrable to people who don't often read SF. (Just like high-literary fiction is another walled garden, so it's not just SF.)

And, despite the fact that I work in Silicon Valley — the great majority of the businesspeople I know, don't read SF *at all*. (They may have seen movies/adaptations like Minority Report — although many haven't even done that — a lot of midcareer business people I know don't seem to go to movies that much either).

I've seen it happen multiple times, in book clubs and with other friends, where the non-SF readers don't enjoy or finish an SF book. Things get a little too weird, the language a little too inventive, or the plot a little too strange (from those readers' perspectives) and they get turned off and drop it.

For example, a friend of mine suggested that Accelerando by Charles Stoss be on the list. But I've seen multiple non-SF readers not be able to get through it.

The good thing about Pattern Recognition and Spook Country is that they're both pretty accessible. Most people have heard of of cool-hunting and so can relate to that angle in PR, and many people can grok the basics of the 3D tech discussed in SC. (And, most people have actually heard vaguely about Gibson, and that's also useful.)

So that's why the list isn't longer, and why there are two books from the same author. I just wanted to put a few initial suggestions out there, that won't overwhelm non-SF readers.

Mary Walker 02.26.09 at 5:06 pm

Hi Andy — thanks for dropping by! Yeah, you're right, ordinarily a reading list wouldn't include the same author twice. :-)

I wanted to focus on books that were both accessible and very near-term SF — books that non-SF readers would have a chance of actually appreciating and getting through.

A lot of great SF is impenetrable to people who don't often read SF. (Just like high-literary fiction is another walled garden, so it's not just SF.)

And, despite the fact that I work in Silicon Valley — the great majority of the businesspeople I know, don't read SF *at all*. (They may have seen movies/adaptations like Minority Report — although many haven't even done that — a lot of midcareer business people I know don't seem to go to movies that much either).

I've seen it happen multiple times, in book clubs and with other friends, where the non-SF readers don't enjoy or finish an SF book. Things get a little too weird, the language a little too inventive, or the plot a little too strange (from those readers' perspectives) and they get turned off and drop it.

For example, a friend of mine suggested that Accelerando by Charles Stoss be on the list. But I've seen multiple non-SF readers not be able to get through it.

The good thing about Pattern Recognition and Spook Country is that they're both pretty accessible. Most people have heard of of cool-hunting and so can relate to that angle in PR, and many people can grok the basics of the 3D tech discussed in SC. (And, most people have actually heard vaguely about Gibson, and that's also useful.)

So that's why the list isn't longer, and why there are two books from the same author. I just wanted to put a few initial suggestions out there, that won't overwhelm non-SF readers.

Mary Walker 02.26.09 at 5:06 pm

Hi Alison — thanks for dropping by and commenting. Yeah, the time crunch impacts everything. But it's tricky figuring out what you're not going to do — there's a cost to not doing stuff — but you can't do everything either.

I'd love to read your blog post but the bitly url is just putting me on the main Facebook page — I'm not seeing your page or a post….there are 2 Alison Lowndes on FB so I assume one of them is you? maybe FB won't let me through to your FB home page….

Mary Walker 02.26.09 at 5:07 pm

Hi Will — D'oh! Fixed it (back when you first reported it). Thanks for the catch; that's what I get for writing blog posts at 2 am. :-P

And I like your comment about "cultural brainstorming" — that's a great concept.

Alison Lowndes 02.26.09 at 10:38 pm

Hi Mary, I've sent an FB invite (probably to wrong email address) but couldn't find you in first 3 pages of Mark Walkers !! Add me and then the post should be visible but my profile is open anyway ??? Complicated security stuff !

Cat Vincent 02.26.09 at 11:18 pm

Though 'Pattern Recognition' and 'Spook Country' are excellent books, they are *not really* SF… being set in the past of our real world and having no actual tropes of the genre. The *feel* of them is certainly *like* SF – not a surprise, considering the author.

If you're going to put up actual SF books for social media folk to read (and have to put two books by a cyberpunk author in the list) how about Bruce Sterling's 'Distraction' and his new novel 'The Caryatids'?

Will Hindmarch 02.27.09 at 1:51 am

Much obliged, Mary.

Mary Walker 02.27.09 at 1:59 am

Hi Cat — thanks for coming by !

Both of those great books! But they didn't fit the purpose of my post as well as the others. The filter I was using for the post was books with the following characteristics:

- near term future which is very like today's world (ie same national states, similar lifestyles, similar economic system etc — ie no apocalypse / post apocalypse)
- the protagonists are basically today's people, with somewhat more/better net tech
- the net tech / social tech / social media is an important piece of the book/plot

Again, these recommendations were meant for people who don't usually read any of this stuff. These aren't recs for the genre cognoscenti who know this stuff inside and out.

There's a whole bunch of people for whom the Sci Fi section of the bookstore is off limits; they don't get it, don't enjoy it, don't read it. As one person told me, "That stuff is so ridiculous, I've tried but I just can't get into it. It's too silly." So "SF / not really SF" etc. — those aren't distinctions those people make. Their preferred reading is authors like John Grisham and Jodie Picout. They don't want "weird" stuff like apocalypses, clones, singularities, etc; they want fiction that looks a lot like the world they see today.

So I tried to suggest a few books that might be enjoyable for them, but that also had examples of future uses of social tech / high connectivity societies.

Mary Walker 02.27.09 at 2:07 am

Yeah, my name is pretty common (Mary not Mark :-P ) My email is mary at interwalk dot com — that may help you find me on FB. FB interface can be annoying — I clicked on all 5 Alison Lowndes and each one says they have to confirm me before it gives me access to anything…

Matt Devost 02.27.09 at 2:21 am

I'd add four to your list:

Interface (Neal Stephenson)
Global Frequency (Warren Ellis graphic novel)
Eastern Standard Tribe (Cory Doctorow)
Gridlinked (Neal Asher)

Mary Walker 02.27.09 at 7:11 am

Thanks for the suggestions! I had actually thought about Doctorow's Little Brother for the post.:-) I'm not familiar w/ the Global Frequency series, though, I'll have to check it out.

caspararemi 02.27.09 at 10:01 am

Hi,
Great list! Would it be possible for you to add Amazon UK links? I'd like to buy them through you so you get affiliate money but when we go and click 'Shop in the UK' it dumps you on Amazon UK's front page. I think I can search it and you'll still get a little fee, but not as much if you link direct (or at least that's how it used to work!).

Anyway, great list, I'm looking forward to reading them (though the first one isn't out over here yet, but will be on my wish list).

Caspar

Martin White 02.27.09 at 12:02 pm

I would add Accelerando by Charles Stross. The first section of the story fits your criteria, but then the rest of the book extrapolates through the next few generations.

Its a great book, and I really recommend it.

caspararemi 02.27.09 at 12:04 pm

Spooky, I just finished that 2 nights ago! I agree, it's a great story – right up until the last few pages, which made no sense to me at all.

Mary Walker 02.27.09 at 3:03 pm

Hi Caspar – hmm that's a great suggestion — it didn't occur to me but of course the Amazon links would be country-specific. I'll look into how to do the UK links.

But in the meantime, don't hold off buying books. Thanks so much for thinking of my affiliate money but no reason to hold off.

(also — some additional good books were mentioned in the comments, so definitely check the other comments if you're thinking about buying something).

Mary Walker 02.27.09 at 3:08 pm

Aha great minds think alike — that's the book a friend of mine recommended to me awhile back, and he suggested it for this list too (Paul Henderson — a brilliant guy, does business strategy and IP consulting, and reads an enormous range of books, including a lot of SF — you can find him on LinkedIn).

Just like you mention though — I was worried that the later parts of the book would lose people. Again I was trying to pick books that were super accessible to non SF readers and that stayed pretty close to today's world.

Actually now that you mention Stross, Halting State would have been a pretty good one for the original post…shoulda had that one in there….

Gordon Mullan 03.01.09 at 11:52 am

Always been a huge SF fan, and particularly love this kind of 'near future' stuff. Thanks for the recommendations – just ordered all four!

Mary Walker 03.02.09 at 4:50 pm

Hi Gordon — glad the list was useful — thanks for letting me know!

ChrisG- Art Director 03.18.09 at 11:19 am

Just came across this post n DIGG (and dug it). I'm a reader, but I generally confine myself to non-fiction. I've been searching for some good SF recently for the very reasons you state. The only thing I had on my "must read" so far was Snow Crash (also, I would attribute the decline in Snow Crash's status directly to the decline of Second Life, for which the book was sighted as the primary influence on founder, Philip Rosedale).

I think most people in the social media space are extremely short sighted about where things are headed.
http://www.socializedpr.com/what-do-current-apps-…

As a non-fiction reader, I would recommend:

Out of Control:
The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World
by Kevin Kelly

Global Brain:
The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century
by Howard Bloom

The Singularity Is Near:
When Humans Transcend Biology
by Ray Kurzweil

Thank you for your list. I will definitely read some of them.

psyphi 11.05.09 at 12:21 am

interesting list, I would also recommend
"nSpace" by Dovin Melhee
completely out of the box sci fi novel

http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/nspace…

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