Guest Editorial: A Fuller Future
by Alec Nevala-Lee
In the September 1972 issue of Analog, the editor Ben Bova wrote, “Science fiction stories have forecast not only new inventions and discoveries; they have also predicted the evolution of a new type of human being—the competent, intelligent, self-reliant man of the future. Turns out he’s been right here among us, all along!” If Bova had been introducing a work of fiction, his words barely would have registered with most readers, who had seen countless stories about “the competent man.” Remarkably, however, they were written for a nonfiction profile of a seventy-seven-year old man whom its author, Norman Spinrad, called “a science fiction hero in the real world.”
When the article appeared, the architectural designer, inventor, and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller was famous to a degree that can be hard to grasp today. In the last decades of his life, he appeared on the cover of Time, lectured across the globe, and collected honorary degrees and awards that culminated in the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At Disney World, the iconic Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center would be named for his most celebrated metaphor, and after his death, he received an even greater accolade in a newly identified type of carbon with affinities to a geodesic sphere. His ideas provided crucial insights to the scientists responsible for its discovery, who called it buckminsterfullerene, or the buckyball.
At the peak of his fame, Fuller—who was once voted the most influential futurist of all time—was renowned for his avowed optimism that technology could “make the world work” for all humanity. His message centered on the figure of a generalist known as the comprehensive designer, “an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist” who sounded a lot like a character in a Robert A. Heinlein novel. In an era that was skeptical of politics, Fuller’s argument for a radical science of design—which emphasized sustainability, efficiency, and universal housing—offered a seemingly plausible program for achieving change outside conventional institutions.
Fuller’s reputation as a genius on the level of Leonardo da Vinci was based largely on the geodesic dome, a hemispherical structure used in everything from industrial buildings to hippie communes. Its triangulated geometry evoked the technology of tomorrow, as much for its aesthetics as for its actual strengths, and it became a cultural touchstone. The protagonist of both the novel and the film Slaughterhouse-Five was held in a dome by the aliens of Tralfamadore; the spaceship in Silent Running—which was recycled for the television series Battlestar Galactica—featured greenhouses inspired by a dome at the Missouri Botanical Garden; and similar structures can be seen in more recent works ranging from The Martian to Westworld to Foundation.
Not surprisingly, Fuller was frequently associated with science fiction, and he is one of perhaps only two men—along with Heinlein—who lived long enough to meet both H. G. Wells and Norman Spinrad. Fuller was introduced to Wells in 1934, while he was promoting his Dymaxion Car, an experimental automobile with three wheels that was often compared to a flying fish. In New York, Wells became “pleasantly high” with Fuller on mint juleps before taking a ride in the car, which he promised to consider for his futuristic movie Things to Come. (The film did feature a streamlined aircraft with a similar profile, but the design was credited to others.)
Fuller failed to make much of an impression on Wells, but he caught Heinlein’s attention at an impressively early stage. In December 1934, long before Fuller was a household name, Heinlein—who was still years away from selling his first story to this magazine—wrote to ask him for more information about the hexagonal Dymaxion House, which existed only as a model. Noting that he had written a year earlier but had received no response, Heinlein enclosed a polite list of questions, telling Fuller, “I am very much interested in advanced thought in house design.”
Although he never got a reply, Heinlein became equally intrigued after World War II by the aluminum Wichita House, which was the closest that Fuller ever came to realizing his dreams of manufactured housing. In an unpublished essay, Heinlein recalled that he was disappointed again: “I tried to order one of [Fuller’s] houses. I didn’t get it because he never got rolling.” They never met in person, but they later testified separately before the House of Representatives on applications of space technology for the elderly and handicapped in July 1979.
Fuller claimed that Phil Nowlan, the creator of Buck Rogers, used his ideas in the thirties as inspiration for his comic strip, but his first real encounter with a writer from the golden age had to wait until around 1938. He was friends with Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the Arctic ethnologist famed for his research in Canada and Alaska, who was the president of the prestigious Explorers Club in New York. It may have been through Stefansson that Fuller met L. Ron Hubbard, a pulp author who had talked his way into a membership. Stefansson became friendly at the club with Hubbard, whom Fuller encountered in passing.
In 1950, Fuller crossed paths with Hubbard again. In May of that year, he heard from John Moehlman, a design consultant, about Hubbard’s book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Two weeks later, he received a form letter for “an intensive professional course” on Hubbard’s therapy in Elizabeth, New Jersey, from the physicist W. Bradford Shank. In a handwritten addendum, Shank said, “Don’t miss this—it’s the thing for which we have all been seeking.”
Fuller was receptive, and he gave a talk at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth on August 1, 1950. No record of any meeting has been preserved, but he almost certainly saw Hubbard, who delivered a lecture there the next day. The two men had striking similarities. Both drew inspiration from the navy; both named foundations after themselves to operate outside the academic establishment; both envisioned a new type of human, variously called the comprehensive designer or the clear; and their stories would intersect again in the future.
In the seventies, Fuller was actively courted by members of the Church of Scientology, which Hubbard founded, and while he was never formally affiliated with the church, a portion of the proceeds of one of his books, Buckminster Fuller to Children of Earth, was earmarked for Narconon, a controversial drug treatment program based on Hubbard’s ideas. Although they never saw each other again, Fuller reportedly inscribed a copy of another book to Hubbard, who praised him in a bulletin for Scientologists as “an engineer and architect of some renown.”
When Fuller visited New Jersey in 1950, he may also have met John W. Campbell, the editor of this magazine. Campbell was at the foundation on a daily basis, but no record survives of any personal interaction. The editor seems to have mentioned Fuller in Analog just once, in a May 1968 editorial about science’s inability to predict technology: “Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome designs are, gradually, being accepted as being in actuality what they ‘obviously’ can’t possibly be. They appear so fragile and bubble-like as to seem flimsy—but engineering experience has proven Fuller’s original point. They are, by reason of their linked-tetrahedral design, fantastically rigid and rugged.”
Like many of their contemporaries, Campbell saw Fuller as a living example of the possibilities of science fiction. In practice, the geodesic dome had severe limitations as a shelter, and some observers were skeptical of Fuller himself. This may explain why he never became close to Isaac Asimov, although they encountered each other at least twice. They both appeared as guests on a New York radio show in 1971, followed a few years later by a panel on the future of land use for the July 1976 issue of National Geographic. (In a photograph of the latter meeting, Asimov is removing his glasses to peer closely at one of Fuller’s geometric models.)
Curiously enough, however, Asimov never mentions Fuller in his incredibly detailed memoirs, which otherwise seem to cover nearly every day of his life. Although the true reason will presumably never be known, I sometimes suspect that Asimov and Fuller—who were similarly brilliant, used to dominating the room, and far more complicated than could be seen in their public personas—had trouble occupying the same space. The only published correspondence between them is a friendly but impersonal 1980 birthday letter to Fuller from Asimov, who wrote, “Each one of your minutes is worth ten of the average person’s.”
Of all the writers of the golden age, Fuller was the closest to Arthur C. Clarke, whom he visited in Sri Lanka in 1978. At their first meeting at a symposium many years earlier, Clarke had been amused by the bullhorn that Fuller used as a hearing aid, and they occasionally appeared together as experts on the future, as well as at a viewing party for the Apollo 11 landing on July 20, 1969, which was also attended by Kurt Vonnegut. Fuller saw Clarke as “one of the important exceptions” to specialization, which was fatal to both species and societies, while Clarke hailed him as “one of the world’s most valuable natural resources” for promoting science to young people: “I think he’s the world’s first engineer-saint.”
Clarke, who was gay, had left his native England to settle in the ’50s in Sri Lanka. During Fuller’s visit, Clarke took him around the island for two days by car and helicopter, focusing on locations from his upcoming novel, The Fountains of Paradise, which revolved around a space elevator. Fuller felt characteristically compelled to claim priority, and he told Clarke that he had devised an analogous idea years ago for a ring—based on the structural concept that he called tensegrity—that would float above the equator, with “traffic vertically ascending to the bridge.”
Fuller exerted an even stronger pull on writers of a younger generation, such as Robert Anton Wilson, who profiled him for High Times and included him as a minor figure in the Illuminatus! trilogy. Perhaps his single most intriguing encounter was with Spinrad, who conducted his interview with Fuller for Analog in Pacific Palisades, California. When Fuller appeared, he struck Spinrad as “a short elderly man in quite sturdy and trim shape for his seventy-five years,” with thick glasses, a black suit, and three wristwatches—one for his home in Illinois, one for his current location, and one for wherever he was going.
Taking a seat on a couch, Fuller changed the battery on his hearing aid as Spinrad started his tape recorder, which made him think of “two cyborgs adjusting our respective extended memory and sensory systems.” Over the marathon conversation that followed, Spinrad was most impressed by Fuller’s thoughts on computers, which he said would lead to the end of specialization. Reflecting on the possibility that every person might become “a potential Leonardo,” Spinrad wrote:
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Needless to say, as a science fiction writer and therefore a comprehensivist and a generalist at heart, I found this notion highly seductive, even a little flattering. It also helped explain why Buckminster Fuller was becoming something of a cult-figure in the counterculture (and en passant, why science fiction has become the favored literature of the young). . . . His congenial picture of the coming open, universal, synergetic man, the full flowering of the thwarted genius within us all, is quite similar to the intellectual ideal of such science fiction thinkers as John W. Campbell, Theodore Sturgeon, and Robert A. Heinlein, which in turn has much in common with the countercultural vision of the new adult personality as the polymorphous intellect of childhood grown to glorious, unfettered manhood.
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Spinrad naturally saw Fuller in terms inspired by science fiction, which he identified as part of his appeal. “In many ways,” Spinrad wrote, “Fuller sounds a lot like the hero of a certain musty old species of science fiction story; the maverick, the pragmatic seat-of-the-pants engineer, the eccentric inventor who happens to be a genius, and who saves the day by building a hyperdrive out of toothpicks and coat hangers when the pompous orthodox scientists with all their degrees and book-larnin’ are powerless to do anything more than sputter ineffectually.”
In short, Fuller was the embodiment of the competent man, the protagonist that Campbell and his writers, especially Heinlein, had refined in the thirties as a response to the stock heroes of the pulps. Like many of his fictional precursors, Fuller was apparently comfortable with the tools of the mechanic’s trade, but he was also blessed with an unusual gift for lateral thinking and intuitive insight. “Instead of building up his discoveries and analyses out of many small pieces of information,” Spinrad shrewdly observed, “he seems to derive them from a few basic generalized topological and mathematical ‘ideograms’ in his mind.”
This recalls numerous characters in science fiction, but it also evokes the figure of the “clear,” the idealized individual—with complete control over the powers of the brain—promised by Scientology. Both of these potential supermen were expressions of a need that was visible in the genre from the beginning, which hints in turn at a darker side to Fuller’s story. Like many of the authors mentioned above, his career can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of attempting to enact this kind of narrative in real life, and while Fuller hid his flaws more capably than Campbell and Hubbard did, he privately suffered some of the same personal consequences.
In his old age, Fuller was widely seen as a benevolent grandfather figure, “the planet’s friendly genius,” which was partly an accident of timing. He reached the height of his celebrity late in life, after the earlier episodes had been forgotten, and the image that his fans embraced was the result of a lifelong struggle against his worst impulses. Fuller frequently clashed with his collaborators, especially over credit, and like many writers of the golden age, he had fraught relationships with the women who served as his romantic and creative partners.
I admire Fuller enormously, but I’ve come to believe that his life illustrates the limits of the answers that a certain kind of science fiction provides. Because he advocated technological solutions to social issues, he tended to ignore political factors, and he treated all problems as subsets of engineering. At the time of his interview with Spinrad, this tension was evident in both science fiction and the culture as a whole. Just a few years after the triumph of the Moon landing, America was more divided than ever, and the passage of time has only confirmed that not every challenge that we face can be addressed solely through design.
After he finished his interview with Fuller, which lasted for six hours, Spinrad drove off into the night, his mind reeling. While he had no doubt of Fuller’s greatness, he was equally struck by “a certain amount of crankiness and odd notions spawned not by analysis or intellection but by the vagaries of his personal fate,” and he was ultimately left with an impression of profound loneliness. “Inside his head is a dazzling work of art which only he will ever really see,” Spinrad concluded. “It must be a heavy and a glorious burden to bear.”
Portions of this essay are adapted from the book Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, which was published by Dey Street Books/HarperCollins in August. Alec Nevala-Lee’s previous book, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, was a 2019 Hugo Award finalist for Best Related Work. His novella “The Elephant Maker” is forthcoming in Analog.
Copyright © 2022 Alec Nevala-Lee