After the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2022 and are eligible for the 2023 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.
For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.
Biographies of prominent SFF and SFF-adjacent people are quite common on the Hugo ballot and today’s featured non-fiction book is just such a biography.
Therefore, I am pleased to welcome Alec Nevala-Lee, author of Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller to my blog today.
Tell us about your book.
Inventor of the Future is the first comprehensive biography of Buckminster Fuller, the architectural designer best known for the geodesic dome and the concept of Spaceship Earth. During his lifetime, Fuller was the most famous futurist in the world, and he had a particularly strong influence on the founders of Silicon Valley.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction was a Hugo and Locus Awards finalist in 2019. On the fiction side, I’ve published three suspense novels with Penguin and many hard SF stories in Analog, which will be releasing my latest novella, “The Elephant Maker,” sometime next year. I studied classics at Harvard University. My favorite writer is Jorge Luis Borges, and my other big influences include the movies of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The X-Files, and the Pet Shop Boys. I’m half Chinese and half Finnish/Estonian, I identify as bisexual, and I live with my wife and daughter in Oak Park, Illinois.
What prompted you to write/edit this book?
I’ve been interested since high school in Fuller, whom I first encountered in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog. After Astounding, I was looking to expand the range of subjects that I could cover as a writer, and Fuller was an obvious choice—his life expresses many of the themes that I’ve explored in my earlier work, and until now, there’s never been a reliable biography that covered his entire career using the best available sources. I hoped that writing it would be a real intellectual adventure, and it was.
Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?
Norman Spinrad once referred to Fuller as “a science fiction hero in the real world,” and his career offers a case study in how a certain kind of technologist might attempt to realize these ideals in practice. Fuller believed in solving social problems through design and engineering rather than politics or activism, which was part of the reason that he had such an impact on so many key players in the personal computer revolution. His approach didn’t always work as intended, and I see him as both a role model and a cautionary tale for enacting the values of science fiction in real life. (The book also features cameo appearances from numerous science fiction writers, including H.G. Wells, L. Ron Hubbard, and Arthur C. Clarke.)
Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?
One fact that I discovered too late to include in the book is that the director George Miller—of Max Max fame—is a huge Fuller fan. According to a recent profile in the New York Times, a lecture by Fuller that Miller attended in medical school inspired him to pursue filmmaking as well as medicine: “He synthesized so much that was rumbling around loosely [in] my mind.”
SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?
There are dozens of books that ought to be written about the history of science fiction, both because it’s inherently fascinating and for the insights that it can provide for authors and fans who are trying to make sense of the genre for themselves. (I’ve learned a lot about how to survive as a writer—and as a human being—from the lives that I’ve studied.) Since the financial rewards for this kind of work aren’t always great, a Hugo Award that was expressly designed to honor serious nonfiction would encourage a wider range of scholars, which is why I’m in favor of establishing a separate category for Best Nonfiction Book, while keeping Best Related Work as it is.
Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?
The best works of SF nonfiction that I’ve ever read—aside from Astounding, of course—are probably Isaac Asimov’s memoirs In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, as long as you remember that there are less attractive aspects of his personality, particularly his harassment of women, that aren’t reflected there.
Where can people buy your book?
Inventor of The Future will be available everywhere on August 2, although I’d prefer that people support their independent bookstores, e.g. by searching for the book on Indiebound.
Where can people find you?
I have a blog at www.nevalalee.com, which isn’t particularly active these days, although the “Science Fiction Studies” page includes hundreds of thousands of words of history and criticism that I wasn’t able to fit into Astounding. If you want to see what I’m currently doing, you can follow me on Twitter at @nevalalee.
Thank you, Alec, for stopping by and answering my questions.
Do check out Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, which just came out yesterday. And if you haven’t read it already, also check out Alec’s other SFF-related non-fiction book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which is probably my favourite non-fiction book of recent years.
About Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller:
From Alec Nevala-Lee, the author of the Hugo and Locus Award finalist Astounding, comes a revelatory biography of the visionary designer who defined the rules of startup culture and shaped America’s idea of the future.
During his lifetime, Buckminster Fuller was hailed as one of the greatest geniuses of the twentieth century. As the architectural designer and futurist best known for the geodesic dome, he enthralled a vast popular audience, inspired devotion from both the counterculture and the establishment, and was praised as a modern Leonardo da Vinci. To his admirers, he exemplified what one man could accomplish by approaching urgent design problems using a radically unconventional set of strategies, which he based on a mystical conception of the universe’s geometry. His views on sustainability, as embodied in the image of Spaceship Earth, convinced him that it was possible to provide for all humanity through the efficient use of planetary resources. From Epcot Center to the molecule named in his honor as the buckyball, Fuller’s legacy endures to this day, and his belief in the transformative potential of technology profoundly influenced the founders of Silicon Valley.
Inventor of the Future is the first authoritative biography to cover all aspects of Fuller’s career. Drawing on meticulous research, dozens of interviews, and thousands of unpublished documents, Nevala-Lee has produced a riveting portrait that transcends the myth of Fuller as an otherworldly generalist. It reconstructs the true origins of his most famous inventions, including the Dymaxion Car, the Wichita House, and the dome itself; his fraught relationships with his students and collaborators; his interactions with Frank Lloyd Wright, Isamu Noguchi, Clare Boothe Luce, John Cage, Steve Jobs, and many others; and his tumultuous private life, in which his determination to succeed on his own terms came at an immense personal cost. In an era of accelerating change, Fuller’s example remains enormously relevant, and his lessons for designers, activists, and innovators are as powerful and essential as ever.
About Alec Nevala-Lee:
Alec Nevala-Lee was a 2019 Hugo and Locus Awards finalist for Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which was named one of the best books of the year by The Economist. His latest book is Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller (Dey Street Books / HarperCollins), which will be released on August 2. He is the author of three novels, including The Icon Thief, and his nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Salon, and The Daily Beast. His short stories have been published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Lightspeed, and two editions of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, as well as the audio collection Syndromes.
Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.