The importance of science fiction to entrepreneurship
By Ben Narasin
Oct 8 2016
There are three types of science fiction (in my view): crap, serialized crap and hard-science science fiction. The last type contains a wealth of visions of the future, many of which we enjoy today, and is referenced in the names of, or has influenced, many tech startups and world-class entrepreneurs.
When I started fashionmall.com in 1993, there were few people trying to commercialize the newly born web, and widely conflicting views on how, or even if, it could be done. A single science fiction paperback preemptively helped me understand how the web would evolve — without it, I may not have been able to take my company public six years later.
At the time, most assumed the web would be a great egalitarian community where everything was equal, just a click away. If you built it, they would come. When I read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (a book I later learned Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel spent a weekend discussing before PayPal was created), I saw a more geographic metaphor; one where the point of entry was the most valuable land and the further away you were from that point, in a series of single clicks, the more remote and barren your neighborhood would be.
Based on that insight, I spent two years negotiating deals with what would later be called portals; eventually landing AOL, Excite, Yahoo, Netscape, Microsoft and others. We ultimately became larger than most of them combined for the categories we focused on, became a portal in our own right and took the company public — aided in part by the vision from one book.
SciFi, fantasy, D&D and comics are a common root interest in founders and funders alike, and I’d argue they are interests we cannot afford to lose. They show us visions of the future we sometimes go on to build, or that we seek to fund. Charles Stross’s writing on gaming economics, AR and VR has ideas embedded within it that are better than most startup pitches I see. Diamond Age from Stephenson remains the most compelling edtech startup concept never built. Mother of Storms from John Barnes predicted global warming impacts, patent trolls, citizen journalism and private satellite launches far before they became even remotely early ideas for most.
Even China has figured out the importance of SciFi to success. Neil Gaiman recountsa conversation he had with a Chinese party official during their “first-ever state-sponsored science fiction convention in 2007,” when he asked why the event was being held: