I wonder if Alec Nevala-Lee will get a reputation as a visionary killer. After his book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Gold Age of Science Fiction came out, John W. Campbell’s name was removed from the award created to honor him, and the reputations of Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard, and the science fiction Golden Age declined. As I read the first part of Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller Nevala-Lee made me strongly dislike Buckminster Fuller by carefully chronicling Fuller’s personal faults. But by the end of the book, I was willing to overlook them. Bucky never redeems himself, but Nevala-Lee’s excellent biography brings everything into perspective. It brings closure to some of my hippie and New Age fantasies.
Inventor of the Future is a remarkable book about a remarkable person. I was constantly impressed by Nevala-Lee’s writing and research as I read Inventor of the Future but I never could stop thinking about the problems biographers must have in these woke times. How do you present a remarkable person without also throwing them under the bus of moral condemnation? Nobody is without sin, so it’s best not to be throwing stones because it might inspire a stoning by the hordes. But a great biography will always tell it like it is.
After I finished the book I watched some older documentaries about Buckminster Fuller and they left out the negatives. Maybe they didn’t even know them. Alec Nevala-Lee could have done that too, but I’m glad he didn’t. I had an epiphany the other day. I had just finished reading a history book about the first Crusade and then caught a movie about the Crusades on TCM. The difference between what happened in history and how we remember it in Technicolor was striking. In history, the Knights of Christendom slaughtered all the citizens of Antioch and Jerusalem, men, women, and children. And instead of returning the territory to the Holy Roman Empire, the crusaders claimed it for themselves.
We constantly cover up history. My epiphany revealed that is why we don’t change.
We don’t like remembering ourselves as the bad guys, so we whitewash history. It’s why the conservatives fight to keep Critical Race Theory out of education and why liberals want to erase racists from our collective memories. We don’t want to remember that our ancestors were killers, slavers, and routinely committed genocide, or even that our parents and grandparents were racists, sexual predators, and misogynists.
I’m on the third volume of a three-volume history of the world by Susan Wise Bauer and it added to that epiphany. How can we stop being evil if we keep forgetting who we really were? Buckminster Fuller was not evil, but he had enough personal failings that in our woke times many will want to dismiss him. But if we choose to forget him for the darkness in his life, we also throw out the light, the visionary insights.
When I was growing up in the 1960s Buckminster Fuller was a counter-culture hero, especially to hippies who wanted to create communes. Stewart Brand popularized Fuller with his Whole Earth Catalog. We thought Fuller was a genius. We thought Bucky was a futurist, a visionary, a seer. We thought Fuller was a prophet who would lead us into a new society. Then for decades, he was forgotten until people like Steve Jobs started talking about Buckminister Fuller again.
Nevala-Lee’s last biography painted John W. Campbell, Jr. as a racist and crackpot, and he got tarred and feathered by the genre. Buckminster Fuller is not described as a racist, but Inventor of the Future portrays him as a crackpot who used a lot of other people’s money to build inventions that didn’t work. Nevala-Lee quotes Fuller bragging about patronizing over a thousand brothels in Chicago after he was married. Nevala-Lee also writes about several of his love affairs with younger women whom he promised to marry but never did. But I was most disturbed by Bucky’s lying, it reminded me too much of Donald Trump.
However, in the second half of the book, Nevala-Lee clearly shows us how Bucky became the inspiration to more than one generation. People considered him the Da Vinci of the 20th century. And he tirelessly traveled the world promoting his philosophy about saving Earth and making it a better place. He could hold audiences spellbound for hours with his off-the-cuff talks about how the universe works.
Buckminster Fuller became a New Age guru in a dark suit and tie. I first heard about Fuller when the Montreal Expo 67 was in the news. Right after that, I encountered him again in The Whole Earth Catalog. During the 1970s I followed all the New Age, Mother Earth News, and Intentional Community movements. Fuller was a prophet to them all. But then I got married, went to work, and forgot about all those dreams. Most of my hippie and New Age friends did too. Then in the 1980s, Fuller’s name would come up again with my computer heroes. Nevala-Lee biography begins with Bucky meeting Steve Jobs. Then I went for years without hearing much about Buckminster Fuller, until the discovery of buckminsterfullerenes. For the most part, though, I had forgotten all about Bucky.
I loved Nevala-Lee’s Astounding (see my review), even though he revealed personal aspects of my heroes that disappointed me. And I’m quite taken with Inventor of the Future, which fills in many details I didn’t know. Both are well-written biographies, and I happen to be partial to biographies.
The thing is, both books revealed things about myself. I’ve consumed a lot of crackpot ideas back in the 20th century as did the science fiction fans, hippies, and New Agers that were my friends. Buckminster Fuller, John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Isaac Asimov were all idealists about the future. We got so much hope from them, and those men inspired endless speculation. They are just the tip of the iceberg because there were so many other men and women with them that were also visionaries in the 20th century. Bucky knew many of them. And I’m pretty sure none of them were saints.
Those seers warned us about all the ways the sky was falling and the utopias we could build. They were our spiritual leaders, our prophets. Just because they got some details wrong, or they were assholes at times, or even psychopaths, doesn’t mean we didn’t resonate deeply with their dreams.
James Wallace Harris, 8/14/22