Sunday, August 28, 2022

Q&A with Alec Nevala-Lee


Photo by Brian Kinyon



Alec Nevala-Lee is the author of the new biography Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller. Nevala-Lee's other books include Astounding, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Lightspeed. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois. 


Q: What inspired you to write this biography of architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), and how did you research his life?

A: I’ve been fascinated by him ever since high school, when I first encountered Fuller and his geodesic domes in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog.


As a followup to my previous book, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Fuller seemed like a natural choice. During his lifetime, he was the most famous futurist in the world, and he offered me the chance to explore some of my favorite themes on a greater scale.


Researching the book involved spending a lot of time in Fuller’s papers at Stanford—they amount to perhaps the single largest archive for a private individual in history—and interviewing as many of his surviving relatives, students, and colleagues as possible. It took me about three years of nonstop work, which is actually pretty fast for a book of this size and complexity.

Q: You begin the book with a meeting between Fuller and Steve Jobs. Why did you decide to start there, and how would you describe the dynamic between the two?

A: It was important for me to connect Fuller with the generation of Silicon Valley founders embodied by Jobs, and I had originally intended to start with Fuller’s posthumous appearance in the Apple commercial that introduced the slogan “Think Different.”


While I was researching the book, I learned from Jobs’s friend Daniel Kottke that the two men had actually met, which was a fact that had never been revealed before in print. It was clearly a fantastic opening for the book, since my central thesis is that Fuller was the prototype for the modern startup founder.


Unfortunately, we don’t know what Jobs and Fuller said to each other in private. It’s obvious that Jobs was a fan of Fuller, who was initially less than impressed by the Apple II computer—he said afterward that he thought it was “a toy,” although he eventually came to see it as the fulfillment of everything that he had predicted.

Q: In a New York Times review of the book, Witold Rybczynski wrote, “The strength of this carefully researched and fair-minded biography is that the reader comes away with a greater understanding of a deeply complicated individual who overcame obstacles — many of his own making — to achieve a kind of imperfect greatness.” What do you think of that description?

A: I love that review, and I think that Rybczynski gets at the heart of what I was trying to do.


Most of the previous books about Fuller present a very idealized, uncritical picture, and I’m no longer interested in that kind of myth. At this point, most of us have started to realize that becoming a figure like Fuller—or Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk—is impossible without some kind of personal cost.


I still think that Fuller is an incredibly useful role model for people who want to produce change, but for his example to be instructive, we need to be honest about the downside, as well as the ways in which he fell short of his own high standards.


My greatest hope is that readers will come away with a better sense of how and why Fuller accomplished so much, as well as the hidden consequences of his choices, which went largely unacknowledged during his lifetime.

Q: How would you describe Fuller's legacy today?

A: You can see Fuller’s influence everywhere—in physical structures like Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center, in catchphrases like “synergy,” in the cult of the startup founder—but I also think that he would be surprised by the extent to which he has fallen out of the conversation.


His values and assumptions have been absorbed by our culture, but Fuller himself isn’t as widely known as he used to be, in large part because he had trouble creating a lasting movement that wasn’t driven by the power of his own personality.


One of my goals in writing this biography was to provide readers with an accurate portrait that would allow Fuller to be rediscovered by an audience that hasn’t been served by previous works. I still think that Fuller’s story is incredibly valuable, and I’d like to think that this book will encourage people to seek out his ideas firsthand.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got a few shorter nonfiction pieces that I’d like to write before tackling my next project—I wasn’t able to work on much of anything else while I was writing this book, and there are a lot of other subjects that I’ve been meaning to tackle.


After that, I do have an idea for another ambitious biography that would build on Inventor of the Future, in the same way that this book builds on Astounding, but I’m not quite ready to reveal the details yet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Although the more critical aspects of this book have received a lot of attention, I want to make it clear that I admire Fuller, and I think that nearly everyone would benefit from knowing more about his work. He had a huge positive impact on my life, and I’d like nothing better than for this book to introduce him to a new generation of fans.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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