Richard Stallman is the infamous inventor of several brilliant software tools, as well as the founder of the free software movement. He influenced an entire generation of computer nerds who took his ideas to heart and created software that you can freely modify — if you're reading this with free software browser Firefox, and I know that the majority of you are, then you're benefiting directly from Stallman's ideas. He's also an avid science fiction reader, and over the years has loaned me several books from his collection. Here are three of the most interesting book recommendations I've gotten from one of the geek world's greatest living visionaries.
Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold, is a story set on a planet entirely populated by gay men, who reproduce via artificial wombs and eggs supplied by various shady egg-trading agencies. Each man earns the right to have a child by racking up "domestic points" for performing social services — when he gets enough points, he's rewarded with a baby. Panic breaks out among the planet's elite when a new shipment of ovarian tissues turn out to be fake. The planet has lost a ton of money in the deal, and they send our hero Ethan offworld to get their much-needed reproductive materials back. In the process, Ethan encounters his first female — with some truly unexpected results. What's great about this novel is that it's genuinely action-packed spy stuff layered on top of a cool social experiment in the gay world of Athos.
The Witling is one of Vernor Vinge's early novels, about a planet full of beings who can control the weather with their minds and fly, along with having many other extremely cool mental powers. Occasionally, however, a "witling" is born among them — a person who is perfectly alert mentally, but who lacks the ability to do telekinesis, weather control, and flying. One such witling turns out to be a prince, whose failings the rulers have tried to hide because he would be viewed as feebleminded by the populace. Enter a rocket full of visitors from Earth, who have come to study the local culture. One of the scientists is a surly, chubby woman whose body type is fairly abohorrent to Earth men but turns out to be the most delectable embodiment of beauty to the beings on the planet. As a war unfolds on the planet, we're treated to a fascinating novel about how our self-images are created largely by the way our society views us — and perhaps that can never change.
The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance, is a classic 1950s science fiction novel that explores the ever-popular Sapir-Whorf hypothesis from linguistics: the idea that you can change the way people think by teaching them a different language. When the rulers of the undeveloped planet Pao decide to industrialize, they do it by separating the population into three castes: technical, mercantile and warrior. Each caste is educated in a specialized language that enables them to become rapidly good at science, production and defense respectively. This social experiment is the backdrop for a tale of mind-control, spies, and intrigue, for there is a secret offworld plott to control Pao and make use of its natural resources. Will the reeducated population be able to fend for itself, or will the languages of Pao reduce them to mind-controlled masses who do whatever their leaders tell them?
I highly recommend all three books, and thank Richard for kindly loaning them to me and never asking for them back. Information should be free.