The sci-fi books by Neal Stephenson that actually get the economics right on the institutions that organize society

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve spent the past two decades as a behavioral economist using game theory and experiments to understand how trust, identity, and inequality structure human society. I also love big ideas that transcend disciplinary boundaries (I have 7 degrees from Stanford and MIT). And care very much about the institutions that make the world a better place (I worked for the White House across two different administrations). Stephenson’s novels tap deeply into all of these big themes but stuffs them inside fun breezy action thrillers. My favorite college classes used novels to teach economics—I’ve long been meaning to teach a similar class using just these books.


I wrote...

Why Trust Matters: An Economist's Guide to the Ties That Bind Us

By Benjamin Ho,

Book cover of Why Trust Matters: An Economist's Guide to the Ties That Bind Us

What is my book about?

Have economists neglected trust? Trust is the foundation of the institutions that hold civilization together. Every time we interact with another person, to make a purchase, work on a project, or share a living space, we rely on trust. Ben Ho reveals the surprising importance of trust in how we understand our day-to-day economic lives. Starting with the earliest societies and proceeding to the modern economy, examining institutions from contracts and banking to blockchain and the sharing economy to health care and climate change, Ho shows how trust shapes the workings of the world. 

Bringing together insights from economic research in an approachable format, Why Trust Matters shows how a concept that we rarely associate with the discipline of economics is central to the social systems that govern our lives.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Cryptonomicon

Benjamin Ho Why did I love this book?

This 1999 novel is what got me hooked on Stephenson. A book about cryptocurrencies and blockchain that came out a decade before they were even invented. Set both during World War II and the modern day, Stephenson writes a gripping page-turning action thriller in the style of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, but about big ideas like how cryptography was crucial to winning World War II, and how cryptocurrencies teach us something about the true nature of money and how blockchains could be the key to saving democracy. (Also love it because the novel includes code written in perl, my favorite programming language, and a chapter that is a paean to cap’n crunch).

By Neal Stephenson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Cryptonomicon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With this extraordinary first volume in an epoch-making masterpiece, Neal Stephenson hacks into the secret histories of nations and the private obsessions of men, decrypting with dazzling virtuosity the forces that shaped this century.

In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse—mathematical genius and young Captain in the U.S. Navy—is assigned to detachment 2702. It is an outfit so secret that only a handful of people know it exists, and some of those people have names like Churchill and Roosevelt. The mission of Waterhouse and Detachment 2702—commanded by Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe-is to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence…


Book cover of Snow Crash

Benjamin Ho Why did I love this book?

Stephenson is credited for coining the suddenly ubiquitous term, the “metaverse” in his first big novel, Snow Crash which came out in 1992 about a near future where everybody is always online in virtual reality. Beyond its novel ideas about technology, and galaxy brain ideas about how memes can infect human brains in the same way that viruses infect computers, the part that got me is its ideas on how society is organized which echoes my own work on how game theory helps us understand political institutions. It helps us understand the fundamental building blocks of government and what might fill the void when those pieces fall apart. Facebook’s Supreme Court is one example of how corporations start governing instead of governments.

By Neal Stephenson,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked Snow Crash as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The “brilliantly realized” (The New York Times Book Review) breakthrough novel from visionary author Neal Stephenson, a modern classic that predicted the metaverse and inspired generations of Silicon Valley innovators

Hiro lives in a Los Angeles where franchises line the freeway as far as the eye can see. The only relief from the sea of logos is within the autonomous city-states, where law-abiding citizens don’t dare leave their mansions.

Hiro delivers pizza to the mansions for a living, defending his pies from marauders when necessary with a matched set of samurai swords. His home is a shared 20 X 30…


Book cover of Termination Shock

Benjamin Ho Why did I love this book?

One of Stephenson’s most recent novels, Termination Shock is a present-day story about an eccentric billionaire who takes on climate change. As the former lead energy and transportation economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers who helped craft a lot of the legislation that governs climate change policy today, I’m often annoyed at how often writers are wrong about both the science and the economics of climate change. This novel is one of the more accurate representations of both the urgency and scope of the climate problem that avoids the fearmongering, while still telling a fun adventure story about princesses and queens and surprising true stories about feral hogs and rock-throwing Indian and Chinese martial artists fighting a real war recorded by social media.

By Neal Stephenson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Termination Shock as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The #1 New York Times bestselling author returns with a visionary technothriller about climate change

'Stephenson's reputation as a sci-fi titan is deserved' Sunday Times

'His most visionary, and timely, book yet' Chicago Review of Books

'Absorbing speculative fiction' Guardian

'Brilliantly entertaining... at science fiction's cutting edge' SFX

'Ingenious and sometimes prophetic' Telegraph

Neal Stephenson's sweeping, prescient new novel transports readers to a near-future world where the greenhouse effect has inexorably resulted in a whirling-dervish troposphere of superstorms, rising sea levels, global flooding, merciless heat waves, and virulent, deadly pandemics.

One man has a Big Idea for reversing global warming,…


Book cover of Anathem

Benjamin Ho Why did I love this book?

Anathem is one of my favorite Stephenson novels, full of “big ideas” about post-apocalyptic academia. Like Station Eleven, this post-apocalypse story is not a Mad Max story about the dissolution of the institutions that hold society together returning us to a time where life is “nasty, brutish and short,” but instead, it is about sometime later, when institutions have had time to rebuild. As an academic myself, Stephenson’s story of an alternative academia is an illuminating funhouse mirror into my world, and the strange ways we as a society construct knowledge.

By Neal Stephenson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Anathem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since childhood, Raz has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians. There, he and his cohorts are sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable "saecular" world, an endless landscape of casinos and megastores that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, dark ages and renaissances, world wars and climate change. Until the day that a higher power, driven by fear, decides it is only these cloistered scholars who have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe. And, one by one, Raz and his friends, mentors, and teachers are summoned forth…


Book cover of Seveneves

Benjamin Ho Why did I love this book?

The time is the present, the moon explodes, and the people of earth have just a year to figure out a way to escape using current technology. A fascinating deep dive into the limits of what we can accomplish today with current-day engineering if we put the whole world’s mind to it, with loving detail put into explaining orbital mechanics and reproductive biology. But I’m most interested because as the catastrophe causes all of our institutions to start to dissolve, forcing humanity to rebuild them, the novel recapitulates a lot of the themes of trust in institutions across human history that I explore in my book, but the premise allows Stephenson to shake things up in fascinating ways.

By Neal Stephenson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Seveneves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The astounding new novel from the master of science fiction.
President Barack Obama's summer reading choice and recently optioned by Ron Howard and IMAGINE to be made into a major motion picture.

What would happen if the world were ending?

When a catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb, it triggers a feverish race against the inevitable. An ambitious plan is devised to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere. But unforeseen dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain...

Five thousand years later, their progeny - seven distinct races now three…


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A House on Liberty Street

By Neil Turner,

Book cover of A House on Liberty Street

Neil Turner Author Of A House on Liberty Street

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Reader Traveler Inquisitive Family guy Writer

Neil's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Meet Tony Valenti. His high-flying corporate law career just cratered. His society marriage blew up in a bitter divorce. He's returned to the Chicago suburbs to lick his wounds and regroup in the haven of the Valenti family home. But time to heal isn't in the cards.

Tony's elderly father inexplicably shoots a sheriff's deputy on their front porch. Nobody knows why, and Papa isn't talking. Then their house becomes an unlikely target for condemnation and expropriation by corrupt local officials and their cronies.

With money and hope dwindling, Tony steps up to defend his father and take to city hall, and quickly finds himself in peril when he unearths sinister connections between the cases. The audacity of the plot against them fuels a gritty determination to get to the bottom of what really happened—regardless of the risks and ultimate cost to himself. To win, Tony must earn his father's trust and outwit his wily opponents.

A House on Liberty Street

By Neil Turner,

What is this book about?

A father. A son. A murder.

Meet Tony Valenti. His high-flying corporate law career just cratered. His society marriage blew up in a bitter divorce. He’s returned to the Chicago suburbs to lick his wounds and regroup in the haven of the Valenti family home. But time to heal isn’t in the cards.

Tony’s elderly father inexplicably shoots a sheriff’s deputy on their front porch. Nobody knows why, and Papa isn’t talking. Then their house becomes an unlikely target for condemnation and expropriation by corrupt local officials and their cronies.

With money and hope dwindling, Tony steps up to defend…


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