Neal Stephenson is the LeBron James of sci-fi

I know how you people are, so I know after the first 50 words, you stop reading my column and end up mistaking me for columnist Nathaniel Miller at the grocery store.

So this week, I want you to know you have a homework assignment. Go to, like the page and do your best to answer the STAAR exam questions education reporter Caylor Ballinger posts to the page each day. You will not be graded, but you may have the satisfaction of being able to say you’re smarter than a ninth grader. Maybe.


The other day, Ray Bradbury died at age 91.

He was of that age and stage of career that people can be forgiven for asking, “Wait a minute: he was still alive?”

(Harlan Ellison occupies that role as Bradbury vacates it.)

After all, Isaac Asimov died old and full of years, but that was 20 years ago. Arthur C. Clarke died in 2008 — and still active — but away from it all in Sri Lanka as he had for decades. And Robert Heinlein still isn’t dead; I don’t care what anyone says. One day that fascist hippie will appear at the head of a dictatorship mandating military service, incestuous promiscuity and ritual cannibalism for everyone who wishes to enjoy full citizenship.

If you don’t know, the three aforementioned men are science fiction authors famous primarily for the work in the 1940s through ’70s, and who earned a “Big Three” grouping nickname, remarkably without winning a single NBA championship.

There’s nothing I can think of that Bradbury did as good as Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein at their best, yet surely Bradbury is more widely read than all of them combined, having been forced on tens of millions of school children across several generations.

You’ll probably never read anything as short and good as Asmiov’s “The Last Question,” at least in sci-fi.

Despite really unnecessary sequels, Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama is brilliant hard sci-fi, the sort of mysterious, one-sided look at aliens we in all likelihood would actually get if we interacted with them. And, spoiler alert, they don’t even notice humans; we’re just in their way as they go somewhere else.

For all the deserved jokes at Heinlein’s expense for his philosophy and tendency to hit you in the face with author surrogate characters, the dude came up with military powered exoskeletons in 1959. It’s 2012 and that still seems 60 years off.

But we do read Bradbury and will for the foreseeable future.

Look, not to kick a guy while he’s dead, but as dystopias go, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are easily superior to Fahrenheit 451 in my estimation; Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We certainly sounds more interesting, though I’ve never read a page of it.

Plus, am I wrong to say that the whole book-burning thing has aged badly? You will never be able to censor anything comprehensively again because despite what the RIAA and MPAA say, it ain’t exactly the same thing to steal a car as it is to “steal a movie.” Because if I could copy your BMW and drive off in mine while leaving yours still parked, I probably would. And plenty of people would love to copy my BMW, too. And I would let them. Digital info is by its nature fecund and prolific.

But, and as I’ve written about before, the fellow was really good at predicting flat-screen televisions and iPods and people not wanting to read books anymore and it being a really strange thing to go out for a walk just to think on something a bit.

To my knowledge, Mechanical Hounds have not yet set upon any of them as stand-ins for enemies of the state, but then again, God only knows what Obama or the next president or border sheriffs will use predator drones for next.

Ha ha! So maybe he got that right, too.

But I learned also from his New York Times obituary that he proudly disdained formal education in favor of reading lots of books, which for a writer is absolutely correct. You don’t get an English degree to write the next Great American Novel; you do it because you suck at math. (Full disclosure: I’m an English minor. I don’t know what that means, especially by transitive property.)

The point of books isn’t that they’re books but the way they’re organized and what happens when you read them by whole and chapter, rather than verse and factoid.

Next week’s column will be about more of that. In the meantime, go online and do your homework.

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