One of the most enjoyable nonfiction reads of my past five years has been Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The book, which originally came out in 2000, concerns the viral nature of ideas and the way behavioral patterns can reach a critical mass and spread out into "epidemics." Though the idea is not new, Gladwell identifies three personality types crucial in the spread of memes: Connectors, who bring people together, Mavens, who love to pass along knowledge, and Salesmen, skilled at convincing the unenlightened. In the book, Gladwell explores this notion in examples as diverse as Paul Revere's ride, the drop in crime in New York City, and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The book was very influential in shaping my thinking about thinking and forms the basis of a lot of my own ideas about marketing. (I read Gibson's Pattern Recognition on the heels of The Tipping Point, and was so struck by the similarities that I spent a few months trying to get each to admit that they read the other, then, when that failed, to try to get each to read the other.) And though I've not read the author's follow-up, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the book jacket combined with the few interviews I've heard has convinced me that he's describing the way my own decision making process operates.
So, Gladwell's endorsement on the cover, combined with that of the friend who had recommended Gladwell to me, was enough to get me to pick up Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. The book operates on the frequently expressed premise that if morality is how we want the world to work, economics is how it actually does. Inside its pages, the authors cover cheating in sumo wrestling, suggest that Roe vs. Wade has dramatically decreased the crime rate (ironically discrediting Gladwell's own position on the matter), and has some interesting statistics on the effects (or lack thereofs) on popular high and low income names on a child's eventual achievements. Now, don't get me wrong, the book had some interesting ideas in it, but it was hardly the fodder for "a thousand cocktail parties" worth of stories as the jacket promised. Sadly, its slender 256 pages read all to much like what they are, a heavily-padded expansion of the New York Times profile that Dubner wrote of Levitt in 2003. And, in fact, while Dubner sings Levitt's praises to the point that the reader begins to feel embarrassed for him, there's little in the book to convince one that Levitt is the maverick genius his co-author insists he is. (He may be, but the book doesn't sell it.) Most of the research cited is that of other economists and researchers, and there really are only about six or so case studies in the whole book, each stretched out and reiterated to the point of engendering irritation. A fun read for an airplane, but not the revolution in thinking I was hoping for.
Which is why I was so glad to discover this: The Edge Annual Question - 2006: What is Your Dangerous Idea? Founded in 1988, the mandate of the Edge Foundation is "to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society." Every year, The Edge asks over one hundred scientists and thinkers a question, and the results of the 2006 question, which should be required reading for any serious science fiction writer, are positively fascinating. I'm mainlining 119 ideas in its 75,000 online words, from such notables as Freeman Dyson, Ray Kurzweil, Rupert Sheldrake, and Frank Tipler- not all of which I agree with, of course, but that is hardly a prerequisite for enjoyment or enlightenment, and it's so much more intellectually satisfying than Freakonomics proved to be. I was glad to see two bona fide science fiction writer in the bunch, Gregory Benford and Rudy Rucker, with comments on the Kyoto Accords and panpsychism respectively. Still, pondering both the new ideas and the familiarity of those concepts which I have already encountered through genre fiction, I would love to see the question put to such illustrious members of our community as Charles Stross, Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan, Neal Stephenson... It is times like these that the dignity of our genre impresses itself upon me. Perplexing it is to me that when the greater world at large acknowledges daily that we are living the stuff of science fiction, that science fiction is not called upon to explain such stuff more often than it is.