Tim O'Reilly on Science Fiction

July 1998

Reprinted with permission from Borders.com

First, I want to mention a special book, unfortunately out of print, that has given me a lot of liberty, in my own mind, to give as much credit to my youthful and recreational reading as to books read as part of more serious pursuits. This book, The Meaning of Culture, by John Cowper Powys, makes a marvelous case that culture, properly understood, is the art of assimilating the books you read, the music you listen to, and the paintings or sculptures you look at, into a tool that shapes and enriches your subsequent encounters with life and with the arts. A truly cultured person appreciates what has really shaped his world view, and uses literature and the arts as a tool to get more out of life.

A small example that might make Powys' point, in the context of science fiction, is a visit I made about ten years ago, to the salt mines near Salzburg, on the border of Bavaria and Austria. If I hadn't read Tolkien, and thrilled to the passage through the mines of Moria, the vast underground caverns of the salt mine with their crumbling wooden structures a mile beneath the mountain would have been impressive enough, to be sure, but they would have lacked the resonance with my childhood imagination, which was in turn enriched by the experience that a place not unlike the Moria of fantasy does in fact exist in southern Germany!

But on to the book list.

  • Dune, by Frank Herbert

    I have to start off the list with Frank Herbert's Dune, since of course I cut my teeth as a writer on a critical study of Herbert's books, Frank Herbert, and also edited a collection of Herbert's essays, The Maker of Dune.

    I first read Dune as a 12 year old, and have always remembered my father's comment when I brought it home from the library: "It's sinful that so large a book should be devoted to science-fiction." I wasn't quite mean enough to quote that in the preface to the book when I wrote it :-)

    More seriously, Dune is one of the all time science-fiction classics, both because it's a great story and because it is chock full of really thought-provoking ideas.

    This is a book that really shaped my thinking in a few important ways (see my discussion of The Meaning of Culture above). It is a book that still remains useful to me. (Actually, when I refer to Dune, I really refer to the entire trilogy. As Frank made clear when I interviewed him for my book, the trilogy was designed as such from the beginning. I particularly think of Dune Messiah as integral to the story.) For example, in trying to manage my company, I've often thought of a line in Dune in which Liet Kynes, the anthropologist, notes how Duke Leto, Paul's father, compels loyalty from his men because he himself is totally committed to them.

    Another book that drove the same point home to me, and at about the same age, was Hope Muntz's wonderful historical novel about Harold, the last of the Saxon kings, entitled the Golden Warrior. Harold's leadership was of the same kind. He marched to face William at Hastings so soon after his victory against Tostig and the Vikings up in Yorkshire not because he was convinced he could win but because William's men were raping and pillaging in the south, and that was the deal in being king-people followed you, and you were comitted to stand by and protect them.

    But I digress. Let me just say that the Dune trilogy is one of the works that anyone interested in science fiction simply must read.

Some other classics in the "must read" category include:

  • Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

    This is the book that introduced the word "grok" to the English language, and that was a close second to Tolkien as *the* pop book of the late sixties.

  • Lord of the Rings, by John Ronald Ruel Tolkien

    The grandaddy of the entire heroic fantasy genre, and one of the most genuine works of literature to grace the entire field.

  • Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card

    Intricate hard-science fiction with an incredibly human face. Together with its prequel, Ender's Game, this book also has a great view of the power of the Net in the future. But its greatest contribution is the concept in the title. A speaker for the dead is someone who comes around after someone dies, researches their life, and tries to speak on their behalf WHY they did what they did, seeking to justify even the most flawed and difficult life by finding the meanings that it was an attempt to flesh out. I find this a most valuable concept.

  • Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

    While Gibson's Neuromancer, the book that lanuched the "cyberpunk" subgenre, is somewhat depressing, Snow Crash wraps a great, fun science-fiction story around its ideas. This is a fabulous story, and still the best view yet of virtual reality in science fiction.

Going away from obvious classics to some more personal favorites, I have to remark on the wonderful, underappreciated juveniles of Andre Norton. While her later books got away from me, the ones she wrote in the late fifties and early sixties still have a special place in my heart. The Stars are Ours, which depicts the flight from earth of the last remnants of the scientific community, crushed by a totalitarian anti-science government, was probably my single favorite book as a young teenager.

It was followed closely by the Time Traders (and sequels The Defiant Agents and Key Out of Time), which described the competition by the US and Russia to exploit the time and space travel technology found in a crashed spaceship buried under Antarctic ice. Juvenile ex-con (Ross Murdoch-was that the name?) gets a second chance, racing Russian agents across bronze-age Europe in search of another crashed alien ship. If these books aren't currently available, they should be!

Other Norton favorites from the same period included Star Guard, Star Gate, Lord of Thunder, and the Beast Master.

The other absolute master of juvenile science fiction was of course Robert Heinlein. His Tunnel in the Sky, Time for the Stars, Have Space Suit Will Travel, and Farmer in the Sky (to mention only a few) stirred many a youthful imagination! (Among his adult titles, I also have to call out the wonderful Moon is a Harsh Mistress, with its memorable motto, TANSTAAFL-There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.)

Other books that especially caught my fancy when I was a kid included John Campbell's Mightiest Machine, E.E. Smith's Skylark and Lensman series, and of course the whole oevre of Edgar Rice Burroughs, including not only the incomparable Tarzan (especially Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar and Tarzan and the Ant Men) but also the Venus series ( Lost on Venus, Carson of Venus, etc.) and the Pellucidar series, featuring the exploits of David Innes, Abner Perry and yes, even Tarzan, in the prehistoric world At the Earth's Core (the first book of a series of seven).

Other fabulous adventure books that no one interested in science fiction should fail to read are Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Mysterious Island. I always liked these better than the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Jumping to more serious books once again, I've always had a special soft spot for Edmond Hamilton's The Haunted Stars.

You see, in the thirties, Hamilton had written a lot of what is now called space opera-in which a young scientist makes a breakthrough discovery, and before long is halfway to ruling the galaxy. Now, in the fifties, he showed a new attitude towards science. Man makes it to the moon, and on the far side discovers the ruins of a shattered base. Painfully reconstructing the technology for star flight left there by our defeated ancestors, we get back out to the stars only to find that they are still closed to our young, arrogant and too-violent race. The book is incredibly evocative, and yes, haunting.

Other books that evoked for me the majesty and wonder of time and space were Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars and Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men.

I'm also extremely fond of Colin Wilson's Mind Parasites, and Eric Frank Russell's Sinister Barrier, both of which explore how human potential is limited and distorted, using the fancy of a secret intervention by inimical beings invisible to us.

Finally, I have to mention a special personal favorite, Rissa Kerguelen, by F.M. Busby. I always think of this book in counterpoint to Dune. Where Dune explores the consequences of being able to see the future, and the ways that absolute prediction can and perhaps must lead to paralysis, Rissa explores how the time dilation of interstellar travel forces one to take the long view-paradoxicallly also forcing you more than ever to act in the moment.

I particularly like the depiction in this book of small entrepreneurial companies as subversive forces in a future world dominated by enormous corporations. I read this book just at the point when I was making the leap from being an author to being a businessman, and I can honestly say that if I hadn't read this book, O'Reilly & Associates might not now exist.

Another book I found very thought provoking was Philip Slater's The Glory of Hera. Not really a classics book; more a modern sociologist looking at some of the persistent (and sometimes pernicious) residues of ancient Greek culture.

Something I would like to mention is historical fiction, which has come to be one of my favorite fictional venues. I am particularly fond of Dorothy Dunnett, a Scottish novelist whose intricate depictions of the 15th and 16th century are fascinating for incredible character studies, their unbelievably complex plots, and a level of historical detail that keeps even professional historians guessing. Larry Wall's wife Gloria, who is also a Dunnett fan, describes these books as being "what it's like to be smarter than everyone else around you."

Personally, what I found most stimulating in the books was the main characters, who have a wonderful way of ignoring public opinion while going after goals that other people can't even see (until the denouement of the series, some six books hence!).

(c)1998 Tim O'Reilly. All rights reserved.