Book Review:  Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee

Reading this book is a natural progression after recently reading Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff. Brand was one of Fuller’s many admirers, so much so that pages three and four of Brand’s The Last Whole Earth Catalog are devoted to quotes and poems by Fuller and plugs for his books. To verify this, I pulled out my own worn frayed copy of the catalog, which I had purchased when I was conducting research for my novel set in the late 1960s The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen. At the beginning of page three Brand writes: “The insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog.” Shortly after he writes: “Fuller’s lectures have a raga quality of rich nonlinear endless improvisation full of convergent surprises.” Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, Fuller was one of the most influential architects, futurists, and lecturers in the world. He was particularly popular with the counterculture, who used his geodesic dome ideas in their construction of housing in high-profile communes, but he was equally in vogue with many world leaders and well-known artists. The book opens with an anecdote about someone bringing Fuller to Apple headquarters unannounced, and when Steve Jobs heard he was there, he dropped whatever he was doing and insisted on leading Fuller around for a private tour, just the two of them.

In this fascinating biography, Nevala-Lee delves into Fuller’s life story, personality, and intellect, and also into people’s reactions to him. Fuller was a constant volcano of ideas, which he spent his life promoting. Many of the ideas were ultimately impractical, but they were so audacious and revolutionary that they changed the world nonetheless, albeit in the hands of others. Although Fuller’s brilliance is brought out obviously in the course of the narrative, the author is also unsparing in exposing Fuller’s faults. For instance, he always insisted on complete control and decision-making authority on any project he was involved with; and not only that, but he had a tendency to appropriate the ideas of others and claim them as his own, insisting that since it was his project, he deserved all the credit. He was also shameless in using his admirers and acolytes as sources of free labor. Since he often couldn’t afford to fund the research and development to bring his ideas to practical fruition, he would use the students from university classes he taught as an alternative to paid assistance. Although he was constantly on the move, teaching, lecturing, and advising around the world, he burned through the money he earned faster than it came in and almost always experienced financial difficulties.

I have to confess that though the book kept my interest throughout, sometimes I found the details hard to follow. There were too many projects, too many people associated with them, too many colleges at which he taught, and too many world tours to keep track of them all. I suppose it is important in a comprehensive biography to be thorough, but the price of this thoroughness is occasional density in the narrative.

Still, it is an important book about an important life. Fuller was regarded as a genius by many of his contemporaries, and he gave us (or popularized) concepts such as the geodesic dome, Dymaxion cars and houses and maps, the World Game approach to the solving of Earth’s problems, the study of systems known as Synergetics, and the concept of Earth as a spaceship through his book Operating Manuel for Spaceship Earth.

Nevala-Lee, who also wrote the important history called Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, does an excellent job telling a complex story about an exceedingly complex man. It is difficult to comprehend the confusing era of the sixties and seventies without understanding Fuller’s place in it. This book helps to put his life in proper perspective.

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