"I became an engineer," begins John Hersey's 1956 novel, A Single Pebble. The book, which describes an American engineer's search for potential dam sites on the Yangtze River, mightily captivated a then-31-year-old engineer named Samuel C. Florman, a vice president at the Kreisler Borg Construction Co., in Scarsdale, N.Y. "For the first time in my experience I was conscious of viewing my profession through a prism of fictional imagination," explains Florman, now a partner in that firm.
Florman went on to devour all the novels he could find with engineers as protagonists; that experience led him to write a magazine article in 1959 about the engineer as a character in fiction. It was the first piece of a literary sideline that now encompasses some 250 articles and six books.
Not many engineers can claim Florman's literary credentials. But our survey of 14 eminent technologists shows that all of them were powerfully affected at some time in their lives by a work of fiction. We asked them which single novel had had the most impact on them personally or professionally. Surprisingly, nearly half of our respondents mentioned books that had no obvious thematic connection to science or technology. Vinton Cerf, for example, picked The Lord of the Rings series because it "tells us to look beyond the surface to what is inside each person." Virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier remembers being "haunted" as a teenager by James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
A Single Pebble, which does have technology as a backdrop, was cited not only by Florman but also by Henry Petroski, of Duke University, in Durham, N.C. Yes, two civil engineers with literary careers were moved by the same book, 43 years apart. Gravity's Rainbow was also the choice of two respondents—Steven W. Squyres of Cornell University and David Mindell of MIT. Published in 1973, Gravity's Rainbow was written by Thomas Pynchon, a one-time engineering student at Cornell and technical writer at Boeing. (According to legend, Pynchon wrote the book's manuscript on graph paper.)
Not surprisingly, works of science fiction are well represented on our list. But, notably, most of them are by a single author: Robert A. Heinlein. Vernor Vinge (himself a successful sci-fi author), Danny Hillis, and James Isaak all fondly recalled how works by Heinlein fired their youthful imaginations.
Science fiction probably did as much as anything else in the 20th century to push youngsters into engineering. So it's natural to look at the genre today and wonder if, amid the electronic clutter of modern adolescence, paper books still retain their power to enthrall and inspire. If they haven't, it certainly isn't for lack of material. Sci-fi is enjoying a mini-renaissance lately, as authors like Vinge, Alistair Reynolds, John C. Wright, and Tony Daniel have ingeniously resuscitated the space opera by giving it modern themes and a harder, more plausible technological edge. And a British writer, Neal Asher, has forged a steamy, contemporary version of pulp sci-fi, with a big dose of tech—one of his short story collections, published in 1998, is titled The Engineer. And let's not forget Wil McCarthy, who is an engineer, and whose novels are known for their deep-tech themes.
Vinge and Reynolds, too, have serious tech credentials: Vinge is a former computer science professor at San Diego State University, and Reynolds, an astrophysicist, worked on a superconducting optical detector for the European Space Agency. And though Wright, Daniel, and Asher lack degrees in engineering or science, the physics and technology in their books ring true almost all the time.
They all portray a more morally nuanced universe than Heinlein usually did. But they also share the master's enthusiasm for vivid, gripping adventure and for the role of technology in humankind's ultimate diaspora.
If you're young, give one or more of these books a try: you may find the pictures in your head even better than the ones on your game or TV screen. If you're older, you may find something even better: the familiar fizz that comes from idly pondering the possibilities of technology and humanity's future.
Here are our technoluminaries' book choices, together with some of their comments.