Grok This: Forget The Business Books, Go Sci-Fi To Stoke Your Imagination

One thing I get a lot of are review copies of various business books. A very few are worth the read, although mostly I like the case studies for learning about business and technology history, rather than the lessons they necessarily teach. Most books are a chapter of advice with a whole lot of additional junk thrown in to make it book thickness.

There are exceptions, of course, and we’ll occasionally review a business book here on TechCrunch either because it is exceptional or because it provides unique historical insights. But my advice for most entrepreneurs is to ignore most business books. Reading too many of them will only confuse you anyway, since so many of them have conflicting advice on how to grow your company, or how to be a better manager, or how to get more done by working less. Most of the really successful people I’ve met certainly don’t read them – they’ve forged their own path to winning.

If you really want to stoke your imagination, spend all those hours reading science fiction instead. Every good entrepreneur needs a certain amount of imagination to envision the future. Science fiction books tend to keep the imaginative juices flowing. And the better ones have moral or other life lessons that are a lot more fun to read entwined with the drama of an unfolding story that involves spaceships, time travel or other worlds.

Here are a few of my favorite science fiction books, and what I learned from them (they are roughly in my favorite order):

Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965): 20,000 years in the future, a noble family leaves pleasant planet for hopeless desert planet called Dune at order of emperor. Tragedy ensues, but the son fulfills his destiny to become a great and powerful leader. This is my favorite all time science fiction book by a long stretch. Besides giving us an incredibly rich and varied view of an interstellar empire, Herbert has a lot to say about leadership, heroism and strategy in crisis. Dune is the kind of book you really don’t want to end. Herbert wrote five sequels: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune. Skip the 1984 movie though, it didn’t do the book justice.

Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov, 1951-1953) These three books are a small part of what’s now called the Foundation Series, but they’re the best in my opinion and can be read on their own. I read these when I was very young and plan on hitting them again soon. It’s a massive story, covering a thousand years of galactic empire meltdown far in Earth’s future. The key plot line is that a group of scientists become able to predict the future, given very large population numbers, and seeing the bleakness that’s coming they decide to preserve what’s known of art, science, and technology and begin a new empire. It’s massively entertaining and has had a tremendous impact on science fiction writers ever since (for example, the Encyclopedia Glactica in the Foundation Trilogy is humorously mentioned in HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: “In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words “DON’T PANIC” inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” A key takeaway from the novel, besides the importance of guessing the future: resource constraints are actually a competitive advantage. Those with less do more with it, which also explains why so many startups shoot ahead of huge, well capitalized companies and essentially perform their R&D for them before they are acquired (or become disruptive and take the top spot).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, 1978-2001): Not sure what you’ll learn from HHGTTG, but it’s one of the funniest series of books of all time and if you haven’t read it you pretty much have to. It’s actually a five book series that’s called a trilogy, and if Adams hadn’t died of a heart attack at age 49 in 2001 there would have likely been more books written. HHGTTG and the WWII epic Catch-22 are among my favorite books when contemplating the meaninglessness and hilarity of life (HHGTTG begins with the Earth being destroyed to to make way for a hyperspatial express route). Like Dune, skip the movie, it doesn’t do the books justice.

Anathem (Neal Stephenson, 2008): I read Anathem about six months ago when it was first released. Neal Stephenson is another author where I drop everything and read whatever he’s published as soon as possible. I’ve read all of his books: The Big U (his first book), Zodiac (eco-thriller), Snow Crash (world chaos, envisions a future Internet called the Multiverse), The Diamond Age (nanotech), Cryptonomicon (cryptography, computer history), and The Baroque Cycle (historical). Anathem is completely new and deals with an imaginary world where monk-like mathematicians have segmented themselves from the rest of society, mostly ignoring their wars and other petty issues. The avouts occasionally venture out from their sanctuaries to mingle with everyone else. Besides creating an entirely new vocabulary and writing a beautiful story, Stephenson also shows how even large problems can be overcome with intelligence, if you have enough time on your hands. Just don’t give up on the book early, it gets better and better as it goes on. And when you’re done, go read everything else he’s written.

The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks, 1984): A creepy book narrated by the 16-year old protagonist Frank Cauldhame. It’s not really science fiction but it was Banks’ first novel and well worth the read, and he has become a giant of science fiction since. Make sure to read all of his Culture novels that may very well lay out the future of humanity. Humans and computers live together harmoniously in a vast galactic empire. Computers are vastly more intelligent than people and treat them with a sort of paternalistic compassion. Whole planets are created to allow larger populations, and people are genetically modified to look however they want. They also tend to live for as many centuries as they like until they get bored and off themselves. These books are very entertaining, and the scope of imagination needed to create this universe is staggering. I highly recommend reading the Wasp Factory and then jumping into the Culture novels. You won’t be unhappy you did so.

Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein, 1961): Valentine Michael Smith is a human raised by Martians on Mars, orphaned when the crew of a human expedition to the planet died. He comes back to Earth as an adult when a subsequent expedition finds him. He is initially weak because of the high gravity of Earth, but recovers. He’s superhuman and psychic, and teaches these skills to others. Just about everyone in power on Earth wants him and his followers dead. In addition to being an absolutely great book, Heinlein also coined the term grok for the first time in the novel. He also invented the notion of the waterbed in the novel.

Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1818): Shelley wrote this book as a teenager, and most of us read it in high school. Often credited as the first science fiction novel. You can read just about any political viewpoint you want into the book, and there are strong undertones that technology isn’t all good. But what I get out of it is the creativeness that can come with solitude, and how new technology can be misunderstood, even perhaps by the creator (see Twitter). Key thing to remember: Frankenstein is the name of the scientist/creator, not the Monster. Everybody forgets that.

There are, of course, many other great science fiction novels – these are just a few of my favorites. The point I want to make is that time spent reading books that make you think about what could be isn’t necessarily leisure – you may just get the juices flowing enough to come up with the next great product that just yesterday would have been considered science fiction itself. So get to work, people. And let me know what your favorites are, too.

Author’s note: If I do ever write a business book, and I may, don’t go pointing back to this post and criticizing me. I promise to make it as entertaining as possible.