Journal tags: books

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Talking about sci-fi

I gave my sci-fi talk last week at Marc’s Stay Curious event. I really like the format of these evening events: two talks followed by joint discussion, interspersed with music from Tobi. This particular evening was especially enjoyable, with some great discussion points being raised.

Steph and I had already colluded ahead of time on how we were going to split up the talks. She would go narrow and dive into one specific subgenre, solarpunk. I would go broad and give a big picture overview of science fiction literature.

Obviously I couldn’t possibly squeeze the entire subject of sci-fi into one short talk, so all I could really do was give my own personal subjective account. Hence, the talk is called Sci-fi and Me. I’ve published the transcript, uploaded the slides and the audio, and Marc has published the video on YouTube and Vimeo. Kudos to Tina Pham for going above and beyond to deliver a supremely accurate transcript with a super-fast turnaround.

I divided the talk into three sections. The first is my own personal story of growing up in small-town Ireland and reading every sci-fi book I could get my hands on from the local library. The second part was a quick history of sci-fi publishing covering the last two hundred years. The third and final part was a run-down of ten topics that sci-fi deals with. For each topic, I gave a brief explanation, mentioned a few books and then chose one that best represents that particular topic. That was hard.

  1. Planetary romance. I mentioned the John Carter books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss, and the Riverworld saga by Philip José Farmer. I chose Dune by Frank Herbert.
  2. Space opera. I mentioned the Skylark and Lensman books by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds, and the Machineries of Empire books by Yoon Ha Lee. I chose Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
  3. Generation starships. I mentioned Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. I chose Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.
  4. Utopia. I mentioned the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. I chose The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
  5. Dystopia. I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I chose 1984 by George Orwell.
  6. Post-apocalypse. I mentioned The Drought and The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I chose Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
  7. Artificial intelligence. I mentioned Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan and Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I chose I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.
  8. First contact. I mentioned The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, Childhood’s End and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and Contact by Carl Sagan. I chose Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang.
  9. Time travel. I mentioned The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, and The Peripheral by William Gibson. I chose Kindred by Octavia Butler.
  10. Alternative history. I mentioned A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. I chose The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
  11. Cyberpunk. I mentioned Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson. I chose Neuromancer by William Gibson.

Okay, that’s eleven, not ten, but that last one is a bit of a cheat—it’s a subgenre rather than a topic. But it allowed me to segue nicely into Steph’s talk.

Here’s a list of those eleven books. I can recommend each and every one of them. Still, the problem with going with this topic-based approach was that some of my favourite sci-fi books of all time fall outside of any kind of classification system. Where would I put The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, one of my all-time favourites? How could I classify Philip K. Dick books like Ubik, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, or A Scanner Darkly? And where would I even begin to describe the books of Christopher Priest?

But despite the inevitable gaps, I’m really pleased with how the overall talk turned out. I had a lot of fun preparing it and even more fun presenting it. It made a nice change from the usual topics I talk about. Incidentally, if you’ve got a conference or a podcast and you ever want me to talk about something other than the web, I’m always happy to blather on about sci-fi.

Here’s the talk. I hope you like it.

Speaking about sci-fi

I’m going to be speaking at the Beyond Tellerrand “Stay Curious” event on June 16th. But I’m not going to be talking about anything (directly) web-related…

The topic for the evening is science fiction. There’ll be a talk from me, a talk from Steph, and then a discussion, which I’m really looking forward to.

I got together with Steph last week, which was really fun—we could’ve talked for hours! We compared notes and figured out a way to divvy up the speaking slots. Steph is going to do a deep dive into one specific subgenre of sci-fi. So to set the scene, I’m going to give a broad but shallow overview of the history of sci-fi. To keep things managable, I’m only going to be talking about sci-fi literature (although we can get into films, TV, and anything else in the discussion afterwards).

But I don’t want to just regurgitate facts like a Wikipedia article. I’ve decided that the only honest thing to do is give my own personal history with sci-fi. Instead of trying to give an objective history, I’m going to tell a personal story …even if that means being more open and vulnerable.

I think I’ve got the arc of the story I want to tell. I’ve been putting slides together and I’m quite excited now. I’ve realised I’ve got quite a lot to say. But I don’t want the presentation to get too long. I want to keep it short and snappy so that there’s plenty of time for the discussion afterwards. That’s going to be the best part!

That’s where you come in. The discussion will be driven by the questions and chat from the attendees. Tickets are available on a pay-what-you-want basis, with a minimum price of just €10. It’ll be an evening event, starting at 6:30pm UK time, 7:30pm in central Europe. So if you’re in the States, that’ll be your morning or afternoon.

Come along if you have any interest in sci-fi. If you have no interest in sci-fi, then please come along—we can have a good discusison about it.

See you on June 16th!

Reading resonances

In today’s world of algorithmic recommendation engines, it’s nice to experience some serendipity every now and then. I remember how nice it was when two books I read in sequence had a wonderful echo in their descriptions of fermentation:

There’s a lovely resonance in reading @RobinSloan’s Sourdough back to back with @EdYong209’s I Contain Multitudes. One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction, but they’re both microbepunk.

Robin agreed:

OMG I’m so glad these books presented themselves to you together—I think it’s a great pairing, too. And certainly, some of Ed’s writing about microbes was in my head as I was writing the novel!

I experienced another resonant echo when I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell and then starting reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind. Both books share a common theme—that human beings are fundamentally decent—but the first chapter of Humankind was mentioning the exact same events that are chronicled in A Paradise Built in Hell; the Blitz, September 11th, Katrina, and more. Then he cites from that book directly. The two books were published a decade apart, and it was just happenstance that I ended up reading them in quick succession.

I recommend both books. Humankind is thoroughly enjoyable, but it has one maddeningly frustrating flaw. A Paradise Built in Hell isn’t the only work that influenced Bregman—he also cites Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Here’s what I thought of Sapiens:

Yuval Noah Harari has fixated on some ideas that make a mess of the narrative arc of Sapiens. In particular, he believes that the agricultural revolution was, as he describes it, “history’s biggest fraud.” In the absence of any recorded evidence for this, he instead provides idyllic descriptions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that have as much foundation in reality as the paleo diet.

Humankind echoes this fabrication. Again, the giveaway is that the footnotes dry up when the author is describing the idyllic pre-historical nomadic lifestyle. Compare it with, for instance, this description of the founding of Jericho—possibly the world’s oldest city—where researchers are at pains to point out that we can’t possibly know what life was like before written records.

I worry that Yuval Noah Harari’s imaginings are being treated as “truthy” by Rutger Bregman. It’s not a trend I like.

Still, apart from that annoying detour, Humankind is a great read. So is A Paradise Built in Hell. Try them together.

Books I read in 2020

I only read twenty books this year. Considering the ample amount of free time I had, that’s not great. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Yes, I may have spent more time watching television than reading, but I’m cutting myself some slack. It was 2020, for crying out loud.

Anyway, here’s my annual round-up with reviews. Anything with three stars is good. Four stars is really good. Five stars is practically unheard of. As usual, I tried to get an equal balance of fiction and non-fiction.

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

An enjoyable sequal to Ninefox Gambit. There are some convoluted politics but that all seems positively straightforward after the brain-bending calendrical warfare introduced in the first book.

The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society by Norbert Wiener

★★★☆☆

The ur-text on systems and feedback. Reading it now is like reading a historical artifact but many of the ideas are timeless. It’s a bit dense in parts and it tries to cover life, the universe and everything, but when you remember that it was written in 1950, it’s clearly visionary.

The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★☆☆

Simultaneously a ripping yarn and a spiritual meditation. It’s Vietnam and the environmental movement rolled into one (like what Avatar attempted, but this actually works).

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

★★★★☆

Here’s my full review.

A Short History Of Irish Traditional Music by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

★★☆☆☆

A perfectly fine and accurate history of the music, but it’s a bit like reading Wikipedia. Still, it was quite the ego boost to see The Session listed in the appendix.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

★★★☆☆

McEwan’s first foray into science fiction is a good tale but a little clumsily told. It’s like he really wants to show how much research he put into his alternative history. There are moments when characters practically turn to the camera to say, “Imagine how the world would’ve turned out if…” It’s far from McEwan’s best but even when he’s not on top form, his writing is damn good.

The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch

★★★☆☆

I’ve attempted to read this before. I may have even read it all before and had everything just leak out of my head. The problem is with me, not David Deutsch who does a fine job of making complex ideas approachable. This is like a unified theory of everything.

Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

The third and final part of Aldiss’s epic is just as enjoyable as the previous two. The characters aren’t the main attraction here. It’s all about the planetary ballet.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

★★★★☆

A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.

A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★☆

There’s a real pleasure in finally reading books that you should’ve read years ago. I can only imagine how wonderful it would’ve been to read these as a teenager. It’s an immersive world but there’s something melancholy about the writing that makes the experience of reading less escapist and more haunting.

Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

★★★★★

Absolutely superb! I liked Angela Saini’s previous book, Inferior, but I loved this. It’s a harrowing read at times, but written with incredible clarity and empathy. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Purple People by Kate Bulpitt

★★★★☆

Full disclosure: Kate is a friend of mine, so I probably can’t evaluate her book in a disinterested way. That said, I enjoyed the heck out of this and I think you will too. It’s very hard to classify and I think that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Technically, it’s sci-fi I suppose—an alternative history tale, probably—but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s all about the characters, and they’re all vividly realised. Honestly, I’m not sure how best to describe it—other then it being like the inside of Kate’s head—but the description of it being “a jolly dystopia” comes close. Take a chance and give it a go.

How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford

★★★☆☆

Good stuff from Adam Rutherford, though not his best. If I hadn’t already read Angela Saini’s Superior I might’ve rated this higher, but it pales somewhat by comparison. Still, it was interesting to see the same subject matter tackled in two different ways.

Agency by William Gibson

★★☆☆☆

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Agency, but there’s nothing particularly great about it either. It’s just there. Maybe I’m being overly harsh because the first book, The Peripheral, was absolutely brilliant. This reminded me of reading Gibson’s Spook Country, which left me equally unimpressed. That book was sandwiched between the brilliant Pattern Recognition and the equally brilliant Zero History. That bodes well for the forthcoming third book in this series. This second book just feels like filler.

Last Night’s Fun: In And Out Of Time With Irish Music by Ciaran Carson

★★★☆☆

It’s hard to describe this book. Memoir? Meditation? Blog? I kind of like that about it, but I can see how it divides opinion. Some people love it. Some people hate it. I thought it was enjoyable enough. But it doesn’t matter what I think. This book is doing its own thing.

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

The third book in the Machineries of Empire series has much less befuddlement. It’s even downright humourous in places. If you liked Ninefox Gambit and Raven Strategem, you’ll enjoy this too.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

★★★☆☆

The central thesis of this book is refuting the Hobbesian view of humanity as being one crisis away from breakdown. I feel like that argument was made more strongly in Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball. But where this book shines is in its vivid description of past catastrophes and their aftermaths: the San Francisco fire; the Halifax explosion; the Mexico City earthquake; and the culmination with Katrina hitting New Orleans. I was less keen on the more blog-like personal musings but overall, this is well worth reading.

Blindsight by Peter Watts

★★☆☆☆

I like a good tale of first contact, and I had heard that this one had a good twist on the Fermi paradox. But it felt a bit like a short story stretched to the length of a novel. It would make for a good Twilight Zone episode but it didn’t sustain my interest.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I’m still reading this Hugo-winning novella and enjoying it so far.


Alright, time to wrap up this look back at the books I read in 2020 and pick my favourites: one fiction and one non-fiction.

My favourite non-fiction book of the year was easily Superior by Angela Saini. Read it. It’s superb.

What about fiction? Hmm …this is tricky.

You know what? I’m going to go for Purple People by Kate Bulpitt. Yes, she’s a friend (“it’s a fix!”) but it genuinely made an impression on me: it was an enjoyable romp while I was reading it, and it stayed with me afterwards too.

Head on over to Bookshop and pick up a copy.

Bookshop

Back at the start of the (first) lockdown, I wrote about using my website as an outlet:

While you’re stuck inside, your website is not just a place you can go to, it’s a place you can control, a place you can maintain, a place you can tidy up, a place you can expand. Most of all, it’s a place you can lose yourself in, even if it’s just for a little while.

Last week was eventful and stressful. For everyone. I found myself once again taking refuge in my website, tinkering with its inner workings in the way that someone else would potter about in their shed or take to their garage to strip down the engine of some automotive device.

Colly drew my attention to Bookshop.org, newly launched in the UK. It’s an umbrella website for independent bookshops to sell through. It’s also got an affiliate scheme, much like Amazon. I set up a Bookshop page for myself.

I’ve been tracking the books I’m reading for the past three years here on my own website. I set about reproducing that list on Bookshop.

It was exactly the kind of not-exactly-mindless but definitely-not-challenging task that was perfect for the state of my brain last week. Search for a book; find the ISBN number; paste that number into a form. It’s the kind of task that a real programmer would immediately set about automating but one that I embraced as a kind of menial task to keep me occupied.

I wasn’t able to get a one-to-one match between the list on my site and my reading list on Bookshop. Some titles aren’t available in the online catalogue. For example, the book I’m reading right now—A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit—is nowhere to be found, which seems like an odd omission.

But most of the books I’ve read are there on Bookshop.org, complete with pretty book covers. Then I decided to reverse the process of my menial task. I took all of the ISBN numbers from Bookshop and add them as machine tags to my reading notes here on my own website. Book cover images on Bookshop have predictable URLs that use the ISBN number (well, technically the EAN number, or ISBN-13, but let’s not go down a 927 rabbit hole here). So now I’m using that metadata to pull in images from Bookshop.org to illustrate my reading notes here on adactio.com.

I’m linking to the corresponding book on Bookshop.org using this URL structure:

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/{{ affiliate code }}/{{ ISBN number }}

I realised that I could also link to the corresponding entry on Open Library using this URL structure:

https://openlibrary.org/isbn/{{ ISBN number }}

Here, for example, is my note for The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. That entry has a tag:

book:ean=9780356506999

With that information I can illustrate my note with this image:

https://images-eu.bookshop.org/product-images/images/9780356506999.jpg

I’m linking off to this URL on Bookshop.org:

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/980/9780356506999

And this URL on Open Library:

https://openlibrary.org/isbn/9780356506999

The end result is that my reading list now has more links and pretty pictures.

Oh, I also set up a couple of shorter lists on Bookshop.org:

The books listed in those are drawn from my end of the year round-ups when I try to pick one favourite non-fiction book and one favourite work of fiction (almost always speculative fiction). The books in those two lists are the ones that get two hearty thumbs up from me. If you click through to buy one of them, the price might not be as cheap as on Amazon, but you’ll be supporting an independent bookshop.

A decade apart

Today marks ten years since the publication of HTML5 For Web Designers, the very first book from A Book Apart.

I’m so proud of that book, and so honoured that I was the first author published by the web’s finest purveyors of brief books. I mean, just look at the calibre of their output since my stumbling start!

Here’s what I wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Jason wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Mandy wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Jeffrey wrote ten years ago.

They started something magnificent. Ten years on, with Katel at the helm, it’s going from strength to strength.

Happy birthday, little book! And happy birthday, A Book Apart! Here’s to another decade!

A Book Apart authors, 1-6

Reading

At the beginning of the year, Remy wrote about extracting Goodreads metadata so he could create his end-of-year reading list. More recently, Mark Llobrera wrote about how he created a visualisation of his reading history. In his case, he’s using JSON to store the information.

This kind of JSON storage is exactly what Tom Critchlow proposes in his post, Library JSON - A Proposal for a Decentralized Goodreads:

Thinking through building some kind of “web of books” I realized that we could use something similar to RSS to build a kind of decentralized GoodReads powered by indie sites and an underlying easy to parse format.

His proposal looks kind of similar to what Mark came up with. There’s a title, an author, an image, and some kind of date for when you started and/or finished reading the book.

Matt then points out that RSS gets close to the data format being suggested and asks how about using RSS?:

Rather than inventing a new format, my suggestion is that this is RSS plus an extension to deal with books. This is analogous to how the podcast feeds are specified: they are RSS plus custom tags.

Like Matt, I’m in favour of re-using existing wheels rather than inventing new ones, mostly to avoid a 927 situation.

But all of these proposals—whether JSON or RSS—involve the creation of a separate file, and yet the information is originally published in HTML. Along the lines of Matt’s idea, I could imagine extending the h-entry collection of class names to allow for books (or films, or other media). It already handles images (with u-photo). I think the missing fields are the date-related ones: when you start and finish reading. Those fields are present in a different microformat, h-event in the form of dt-start and dt-end. Maybe they could be combined:


<article class="h-entry h-event h-review">
<h1 class="p-name p-item">Book title</h1>
<img class="u-photo" src="image.jpg" alt="Book cover.">
<p class="p-summary h-card">Book author</p>
<time class="dt-start" datetime="YYYY-MM-DD">Start date</time>
<time class="dt-end" datetime="YYYY-MM-DD">End date</time>
<div class="e-content">Remarks</div>
<data class="p-rating" value="5">★★★★★</data>
<time class="dt-published" datetime="YYYY-MM-DDThh:mm">Date of this post</time>
</article>

That markup is simultaneously a post (h-entry) and an event (h-event) and you can even throw in h-card for the book author (as well as h-review if you like to rate the books you read). It can be converted to RSS and also converted to .ics for calendars—those parsers are already out there. It’s ready for aggregation and it’s ready for visualisation.

I publish very minimal reading posts here on adactio.com. What little data is there isn’t very structured—I don’t even separate the book title from the author. But maybe I’ll have a little play around with turning these h-entries into combined h-entry/event posts.

A reading of The Enormous Space by J.G. Ballard

Staying at home triggered a memory for me. I remembered reading a short story many years ago. It was by J.G. Ballard, and it described a man who makes the decision not to leave the house.

Being a J.G. Ballard story, it doesn’t end there. Over the course of the story, the house grows and grows in size, forcing the protaganist into ever-smaller refuges within his own home. It really stuck with me.

I tried tracking it down with some Duck Duck Going. Searching for “j.g. ballard weird short story” doesn’t exactly narrow things down, but eventually I spotted the book that I had read the story in. It was called War Fever. I think I read it back when I was living in Germany, so that would’ve been in the ’90s. I certainly don’t have a copy of the book any more.

But I was able to look up a table of contents and find a title for the story that was stuck in my head. It’s called The Enormous Space.

Alas, I couldn’t find any downloadable versions—War Fever doesn’t seem to be available for the Kindle.

Then I remembered the recent announcement from the Internet Archive that it was opening up the National Emergency Library. The usual limits on “checking out” books online are being waived while physical libraries remain closed.

I found The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard and borrowed it just long enough to re-read The Enormous Space.

If anything, it’s creepier and weirder than I remembered. But it’s laced with more black comedy than I remembered.

I thought you might like to hear this story, so I made a recording of myself reading The Enormous Space.

Living Through The Future

You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.

Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.

On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.

But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.

When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?

At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.

Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.

For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).

In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.

I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:

Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.

The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.

Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.

I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.

I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:

The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.

Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”

Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.

Nice

Yesterday was Wednesday. Wednesday evening is when I play in an Irish trad session at The Jolly Brewer. It’s a highlight of my week.

Needless to say, there was no session yesterday. I’ll still keep playing tunes while we’re all socially distancing, but it’s not quite the same. I concur with this comment:

COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.

It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.

But it’s not the same though, is it?

I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”

Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:

It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.

Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.

I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

I got an email a little while back from Michael at Repeater Books asking me if I wanted an advance copy of Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology From Capitalism by Wendy Liu. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I said “Sure!”

I’m happy to say that the book is most excellent …or at least mostly excellent.

Contrary to what the book title—or its blurb—might tell you, this is a memoir first and foremost. It’s a terrific memoir. It’s utterly absorbing.

Just as the most personal songs can have the most universal appeal, this story feels deeply personal while being entirely accessible. You don’t have to be a computer nerd to sympathise with the struggles of a twenty-something in a start-up trying to make sense of the world. This well-crafted narrative will resonate with any human. It calls to mind Ellen Ullman’s excellent memoir, Close to the Machine—not a comparison I make lightly.

But as you might have gathered from the book’s title, Abolish Silicon Valley isn’t being marketed as a memoir:

Abolish Silicon Valley is both a heartfelt personal story about the wasteful inequality of Silicon Valley, and a rallying call to engage in the radical politics needed to upend the status quo.

It’s true that the book finishes with a political manifesto but that’s only in the final chapter or two. The majority of the book is the personal story, and just as well. Those last few chapters really don’t work in this setting. They feel tonally out of place.

Don’t get me wrong, the contents of those final chapters are right up my alley—they’re preaching to the converted here. But I think they would be better placed in their own publication. The heavily-researched academic style jars with the preceeding personal narrative.

Abolish Silicon Valley is 80% memoir and 20% manifesto. I worry that the marketing isn’t making that clear. It would be a shame if this great book didn’t find its audience.

The book will be released on April 14th. It’s available to pre-order now. I highly recommend doing just that. I think you’ll really enjoy it. But if you get mired down in the final few chapters, know that you can safely skip them.

Three books

Lurking: How a Person Became a User by Joanne McNeil will be published on February 25th.

In Lurking, Joanne McNeil digs deep and identifies the primary (if sometimes contradictory) concerns of people online: searching, safety, privacy, identity, community, anonymity, and visibility. She charts what it is that brought people online and what keeps us here even as the social equations of digital life—what we’re made to trade, knowingly or otherwise, for the benefits of the internet—have shifted radically beneath us. It is a story we are accustomed to hearing as tales of entrepreneurs and visionaries and dynamic and powerful corporations, but there is a more profound, intimate story that hasn’t yet been told.

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson will be published on May 12th:

Henry Every was the seventeenth century’s most notorious pirate. The press published wildly popular—and wildly inaccurate—reports of his nefarious adventures. The British government offered enormous bounties for his capture, alive or (preferably) dead. But Steven Johnson argues that Every’s most lasting legacy was his inadvertent triggering of a major shift in the global economy. Enemy of All Mankind focuses on one key event—the attack on an Indian treasure ship by Every and his crew—and its surprising repercussions across time and space. It’s the gripping tale one of the most lucrative crimes in history, the first international manhunt, and the trial of the seventeenth century.

How To Future: Leading and Sense-Making in an Age of Hyperchange by Scott Smith with Madeline Ashby will be published on July 3rd:

Successfully designing for a future requires a picture of that future—a useful map of the horizons ahead that can be used for wayfinding, identifying emerging opportunities or risks. Accurately developing this map means investing in better awareness of signals about the future, understanding trends in context, developing rich insights about what those signals indicate—relative to companies, people, citizens or stakeholders. It also means cultivating ways to share these future insights through tangible yet provocative scenarios or stories, turn these into prototypes, or connect them to strategies.

Books I read in 2019

I read 26 books in 2019. That’s not as many as I’d like, but it is an increase on 2018.

Once again, I tried to maintain a balance between fiction and non-fiction. It kinda worked.

Here, in order of reading, are the books I read in 2019. For calibration, anything with three stars or more means I enjoyed (and recommend) the book. I can be pretty stingy with my stars. That said…

Kindred by Octavia Butler

★★★★★

Kindred is a truly remarkable work. Technically it’s science fiction—time travel, specifically—but that’s really just the surface detail. This is a study of what makes us human, and an investigation into the uncomfortable reach of circumstance and culture. Superbly written and deeply empathic.

The Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder

★★☆☆☆

This is a well-regarded book amongst people whose opinion I value. It’s also a Pulitzer prize winner. Strange, then, that I found it so unengaging. The prose is certainly written with gusto, but it all seems so very superficial to me. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a chronicle of a bunch of guys—and oh, boy, are they guys—making a commercial computer. Testosterone and solder—not my cup of tea.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

★★★☆☆

A thoroughly entertaining space adventure, although my favourite parts are the descriptions of the inner magic of mathematics. This is a short read too, so go ahead and give it a whirl. Recommended.

The Order Of Time by Carlo Rovelli

★★★☆☆

The writing is entertaining, sometimes arresting, though it definitely spills over into purple prose at times. As a meditation on the nature of time, it’s a thought-provoking read, but I think I prefer the gentler musings of James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

★★☆☆☆

Another highly-regarded book that I just couldn’t get into. That’s probably more down to me than the book. I can see how the writing is imaginative and immersive, but the end result—for me, at least—was no more than perfectly fine.

Reading this kind of reminded me of reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. They’re both perfectly fine books that were lavished with heaps of praise for their levels of imagination …which makes me think that people need to read more sci-fi and fantasy.

A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented The Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

★★★★☆

A terrific biography! Admittedly you’ll probably want to be interested in information theory in the first place, but how could you not?

This book could probably have been a little shorter without losing too much, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s a great companion to James Gleick’s The Information.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

★★★☆☆

This is like the love child of Craig Mod and Umberto Eco …and I mean that in the nicest possible way. A thoroughly entertaining genre-crossing jaunt that isn’t going to stress you out. Fun!

Inferior: The True Power Of Women and the Science that Shows It by Angela Saini

★★★☆☆

Superbly researched and deftly crafted. This is an eye-opening journey into the cultural influences on experimental science.

Resilient Management by Lara Hogan

★★★★☆

I’m getting kind of cross with Lara now. First she writes the definitive book on web performance. Then she writes the definitive book on public speaking (I’ve loaned it out so many times, I’ve lost track of it). Now she’s gone and written the definitive book on being a manager. It hardly seems fair!

Seriously, this book is remarkably practical, right from the get-go. And the one complaint I have about most management books—that they’re longer than they need to be—definitely doesn’t apply here. If your job involves managing humans in any way, read this book!

The Future Home Of The Living God by Louise Erdrich

★★☆☆☆

There’s nothing wrong with this book, per se. But I think it’s situated too much in the shadow of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to stand on its own merits.

Binti Home by Nnedi Okorafor

★★★☆☆

The second novella in the Binti series. Just as much fun as the first. I’m looking forward to reading the third and final book in the series.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

★★★☆☆

I really enjoyed this evolutionary tale. It’s equal parts biology and philosophy. I will never look at cephalopods quite the same way again.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

★★★☆☆

Just as entertaining as Robin’s first book, this has a fun vibe to it.

By pure coincidence, I followed Sourdough with…

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

★★★★☆

I wrote:

There’s a lovely resonance in reading @RobinSloan’s Sourdough back to back with @EdYong209’s I Contain Multitudes. One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction, but they’re both microbepunk.

To which Robin responded:

OMG I’m so glad these books presented themselves to you together—I think it’s a great pairing, too. And certainly, some of Ed’s writing about microbes was in my head as I was writing the novel!

I Contain Multitudes is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining work. You might not think you want to read a book all about microbes, but trust me, you do.

I stand by this appraisal:

They’re both such wonderful books—apart from the obvious microbial connection, there’s a refreshingly uncynical joy infusing the writing of each of them!

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

★★★☆☆

An first-contact novel with a difference. The setting, the characters, the writing—everything is vivid and immersive. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.

Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker

★★★☆☆

The sheer joy of the writing is infectious. If you’ve got some long-haul flights ahead of you, this is the perfect reading material.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

★★★★☆

This has stayed with me. This is Ann Leckie’s first foray into more of a fantasy realm, and it’s just as great as her superb science fiction.

Internal consistency is key to world-building in works of fantasy, and this book has a deeply satisfying and believable system that is only gradually and partially revealed. Encore!

The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

★★★☆☆

This book has an unusual structure. At times, it’s like a masterclass in writing. At other times, it’s deeply personal. I don’t know quite how to classify it, but I like it!

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

★★★★☆

Brilliant, as expected. Some of the stories in here have stayed with me long after I finished reading them. If you haven’t already read this or Stories of Your Life and Others, you’re in for a real treat.

Is Exhalation quite as brilliant as Ted Chiang’s debut book of short stories? Maybe not. But that bar is so high as to be astronomical.

Now we just have to wait a few more decades for his third collection.

Motherfoclóir: Dispatches From A Not So Dead Language by Darach O’Séaghdha

★★★☆☆

I don’t know if this will be of any interest if you don’t already understand some Irish, but I found this to be good fun. There were times when an aside was repeated more than once, which made me wonder if the source material was originally scattered in other publications.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

★★★☆☆

An alternative history novel with a thought-provoking premise. The result is like a cross between Mercury 13 and Seveneves. There’s a dollop of wish fulfillment in here that feels like a guilty pleasure, but that’s no bad thing.

1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire by Rebecca Rideal

★★★☆☆

This is how you bring history to life! The style of writing feels much more like a historical novel than a dry academic work, but all of the events are relayed from contempary source material. The plague is suitably grim and disgusting; the sea battles are appropriately thrilling and frightening; the fire is unrelentingly devestating. I know that doesn’t sound like there’s much enjoyment to be had, but this is the best history book I’ve read in a while.

Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

I know I joke about seeing pace layers everywhere but seriously, Brian Aldiss’s Heliconia series is all about pace layers. Each book deals with one point in time, where we’re concerned with the dynastic concerns of years and decades, but the really important story is happening on the scale of centuries and millennia as the seasons slowly change.

This one was just as good as Helliconia Spring and I’m looking forward to rounding out the series with Helliconia Winter.

The Canopy Of Time by Brian Aldiss

★★☆☆☆

I decided to stay on a Brian Aldiss kick, and grabbed this pulpy collection of short stories. It’s not his best work, and there’s an unnecessary attempt to tie all the stories together into one narrative, but even a so-so Brian Aldiss book has got a weird and slightly haunting edge to it.

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

★★★☆☆

The sequel to The Calculating Stars and the last in the Lady Astronaut series. Good space-race entertainment.

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

I’ve just picked up this sequel to Ninefox Gambit. So far it’s not as bewildering as the first book—where the bewilderment was part of its charm. I’m into it. But I won’t rate it till I’ve finished it.


Alright, time to pick my favourite fiction and non-fiction books of the year.

Certainly the best fiction book published this year was Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. But when it comes to the best book I’ve read this year, it’s got to be Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Hard to believe it’s forty years old—it’s shockingly relevant today.

As for the best non-fiction …this is really hard this year. So many great books: A Mind At Play, Inferior, 1666, Other Minds; I loved them all. But I think I’m going to have to give it to Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes.

Only 10 of the 26 books I read this year were by women. I need to work on redressing the balance in 2020.

Marty’s mashup

While the Interaction 19 event was a bit of a mixed bag overall, there were some standout speakers.

Marty Neumeier was unsurprisingly excellent. I’d seen him speak before, at UX London a few years back, so I knew he’d be good. He has a very reassuring, avuncular manner when he’s speaking. You know the way that there are some people you could just listen to all day? He’s one of those.

Marty’s talk at Interaction 19 was particularly interesting because it was about his new book. Now, why would that be of particular interest? Well, this new book—Scramble—is a business book, but it’s written in the style of a thriller. He wanted it to be like one of those airport books that people read as a guilty pleasure.

One rainy night in December, young CEO David Stone is inexplicably called back to the office. The company’s chairman tells him that the board members have reached the end of their patience. If David can’t produce a viable turnaround plan in five weeks, he’s out of a job. His only hope is to try something new. But what?

I love this idea!

I’ve talked before about borrowing narrative structures from literature and film and applying them to blog posts and conference talks—techniques like flashback, in media res, etc.—so I really like the idea of taking an entire genre and applying it to a technical topic.

The closest I’ve seen is the comic that Scott McCloud wrote for the release of Google Chrome back in 2008. But how about a romantic comedy about service workers? Or a detective novel about CSS grid?

I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about Marty Neumeier’s book next time I’m struggling to put a conference talk together.

In the meantime, if you want to learn from the master storyteller himself, Clearleft are running a two-day Brand Master Workshop with Marty on March 14th and 15th at The Barbican in London. Early bird tickets are on sale until this Thursday, so don’t dilly-dally if you were thinking about nabbing your spot.

Building links

In just over a week, I’ll be giving the opening talk at the New Adventures conference in Nottingham. I’ll be giving a workshop the day before too. There are still tickets available for both.

I have to admit, I’m kind of nervous about this talk. It’s been quite a while since the last New Adventures, but it’s always had quite the cachet. I think I went to most of them. It’s quite strange—and quite an honour—to shift gears from attendee to speaker.

The talk I’ll be giving is called Building. That might be a noun. That might be a verb. You decide:

Every new medium looks to what has come before for guidance. Web design has taken cues from centuries of typography and graphic design. Web development has borrowed metaphors and ideas from the world of architecture. Let’s take a tour of some of the most influential ideas from architecture that have crossed over into the web, from pattern languages to responsive design. Together we’ll uncover how to build resilient, performant, accessible and beautiful structures that work with the grain of the materials of the web.

This talk builds upon the talk I gave at last year’s An Event Apart called The Way Of The Web. It also reflects many of the ideas in Resilient Web Design. When I gave a run-through of the talk at Clearleft last week, Andy called it a “greatest hits.” For a while there, I was feeling guilty about retreading some ground I’ve covered in previous talks and writings. Then I realised it was pretty arrogant of me to think that anyone in the audience would be familiar with any of it.

Besides, I’ve got a whole new avenue of exploration in this talk. It’s about language and metaphor—how we talk about what we do on the web. I’ve just finished giving another run-through at the Clearleft studio and I’m feeling pretty good about it. That’s good, because I find that giving a talk in a small room to a handful of colleagues is way more stressful than giving a talk to hundreds of people at a conference.

Just as I put together links related to last year’s talk, I figured I’d provide some hyperlinks for anyone interested in the topics raised in this new talk…

Books

Articles

Audio

Books I read in 2018

I read twenty books in 2018, which is exactly the same amount as I read in 2017. Reflecting on that last year, I said “It’s not as many as I hoped.” It does seem like a meagre amount, but in my defence, some of the books I read this year were fairly hefty tomes.

I decided to continue my experiment from last year of alternating fiction and non-fiction books. That didn’t quite work out, but it makes for a good guiding principle.

In ascending reading order, these are the books I read in 2018

A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

★★★☆☆

I started this towards the end of 2017 and finished it at the start of 2018. A good sci-fi romp, but stretched out a little bit long.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick

★★★★☆

I really enjoyed this, but then, that’s hardly a surprise. The subject matter is tailor made for me. I don’t think this quite matches the brilliance of Gleick’s The Information, but I got a real kick out of it. A book dedicated to unearthing the archeology of a science-fiction concept is a truly fascinating idea. And it’s not just about time travel, per se—this is a meditation on the nature of time itself.

Traction by Gino Wickman

Andy was quite taken with this management book and purchased multiple copies for the Clearleft leadership team. I’ll refrain from rating it because it was more like a homework assignment than a book I would choose to read. It crystalises some good organisational advice into practical steps, but it probably could’ve been quite a bit shorter.

Provenance by Ann Leckie

★★★☆☆

It feels very unfair but inevitable to compare this to Ann Leckie’s amazing debut Imperial Radch series. It’s not in quite the same league, but it’s also not trying to be. This standalone book has a lighter tone. It’s a rollicking good sci-fi procedural. It may not be as mind-blowingly inventive as Ancillary Justice, but it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, with guest editor Juliet Ulman

★★★☆☆

This book is free to download so it’s rather excellent value for money. It alternates sci-fi short stories with essays. Personally, I would skip the essays—they’re all a bit too academic for my taste. But some of these stories are truly excellent. There’s a really nice flow to the collection: it begins in low Earth orbit, then expands out to the Mars, the asteroid belt, and beyond. Death on Mars by Madeline Ashby was a real standout for me.

The Best of Richard Matheson by Richard Matheson, edited by Victor LaValle

★★★★☆

For some reason, I was sent a copy of this book by an editor at Penguin Classics. I have no idea why, but thank you, Sam! This turned out to be a lot of fun. I had forgotten just how many classics of horror and sci-fi are the work of Richard Matheson. He probably wrote your favourite Twilight Zone episode. There’s a real schlocky enoyment to be had from snacking on these short stories, occassionally interspersed with genuinely disturbing moments and glimpses of beauty.

Close To The Machine: Technophilia And Its Discontents by Ellen Ullman

★★★☆☆

Lots of ’90s feels in this memoir. A lot of this still resonates today. It’s kind of fascinating to read it now with the knowledge of how this whole internet thing would end up going.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

★★★★☆

This gripped me from the start, and despite its many twisty strands, it managed to keep me with it all the way through. Maybe it’s a bit longer than it needs to be, and maybe some of the diversions don’t entirely work, but it makes up for that with its audaciousness. I still prefer Goneaway World, but any Nick Harkaway book is a must-read.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

★★★★☆

Terrific stuff. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve got about one tenth of the story. The book charts a longer arc and provides much deeper social and political context.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

★★★☆☆

This is filled with interesting ideas, but the story never quite gelled for me. I’m not sure if I should continue with the rest of the Lilith’s Brood series. But there’s something compelling and unsettling in here.

Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

★★☆☆☆

Frustratingly inconsistent. Here’s my full review.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

★★★★☆

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

★★★☆☆

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

★★★☆☆

I devoured these books back-to-back. The Fifth Season was terrific—packed to the brim with inventiveness. But neither The Obelisk Gate nor The Stone Sky quite did it for me. Maybe my expectations were set too high by that first installment. But The Broken Earth is still a fascinating and enjoyable series.

Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks

I was really looking forward to this one, but I found its stiff academic style hard to get through. I still haven’t finished it. But I figure if I could read Sapiens through to the end, I can certainly manage this. The subject matter is certainly fascinating, and the research is really thorough, but I’m afraid the book is showing its thesis roots.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

★★★☆☆

This plays out its conceit well, and it’s a fun read, but it’s not quite a classic. It feels more like a Neil Gamain or Lauren Beukes page-turner than, say, a Margaret Atwood exploration. Definitely worth a read, though.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

★★★★☆

The world-building (or maybe it’s world rebuilding) is terrific. But once again, as is often the case with Kim Stanley Robinson, I find the plot to be lacking. This is not in the same league as Aurora. It’s more like 2312-on-sea. It’s frustrating. I’m torn between giving it three stars or four. I’m going to be generous because even though it’s not the best Kim Stanley Robinson book, it contains some of his best writing. There are passages that are breathtakingly good.

A Thread Across The Ocean by John Steele Gordon

★★★★☆

After (temporarily) losing my library copy of New York 2140, I picked this up in a bookstore in Charlottesville so I’d have something to read during my stay there. I was very glad I did. I really, really enjoyed this. It’s all about the transatlantic telegraphic cable, so if that’s your thing—as it is mine—you’re going to enjoy this. It makes a great companion piece to Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet. Come for the engineering, stay for the nautical tales of derring-do.

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

★★★★☆

Not as disturbing as the Southern Reach Trilogy, but equally unsettling in its own way. Shades of Oryx and Crake, but in a more fantastically surreal setting.

The Airs Of Earth by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

A good collection of short stories from the master of sci-fi. I’ve got a backlog of old pulpy paperback Aldiss collections like this that make for good snackfood for the mind.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

A Christmas present from my brother-in-law. I just cracked this open, so you’ll have to come back next year to find out how it fared.

Alright. Now it’s time to pick the winners.

I think the best fiction book I read this year was Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon.

For non-fiction, it’s a tough call. I really enjoyed Hidden Figures and A Thread Across The Ocean, but I think I’m going to have to give the top spot to James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History.

But there were no five star books this year. Maybe that will change in 2019. And maybe I’ll read more books next year, too. We’ll see.

In 2017, seven of the twenty books I read were by women. In 2018, it was nine out of twenty (not counting anthologies). That’s better, but I want keep that trajectory going in 2019.

Books I read in 2017

Here are the books I read in 2017. It’s not as many as I hoped.

I set myself a constraint this year so that I’d have to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction: no reading two fiction books back-to-back, and no reading two non-fiction books back-to-back. I quite like the balanced book diet that resulted. I think I might keep it going.

Anyway, in order of consumption, here are those books…

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

★★★☆☆

I had already seen—and quite enjoyed—the first series of the television adaption of The Expanse so I figured I’d dive into the books that everyone kept telling me about. The book was fun …but no more than that. I don’t think I’m invested enough to read any of the further books. In some ways, I think this makes for better TV than reading (despite the TV’s shows annoying “slow motion in zero G” trope that somewhat lessens the hard sci-fi credentials).

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

★★★★☆

This was recommended by James Box, and on the whole, I really liked it. There’s a lot of anecdata though. Still, the fundamental premise is a good one, comparing the attitudes towards risk in two different industries; aviation and healthcare. A little bit more trimming down would’ve helped the book—it dragged on just a bit too long.

The Separation by Christopher Priest

★★★★★

I need to read at least one Christopher Priest book a year. They’re in a league of their own, somehow outside the normal rules of criticism. This one is a true stand-out. As ever, it messes with your head and gets weirder as it goes on. If you haven’t read any Christopher Priest, I reckon this would be a great one to start with.

Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George

★★★★☆

Recommended by both Jessica and Danielle, this is a well-crafted look into life on board a cargo ship, as well as an examination of ocean-going logistics. If you liked the Containers podcast, you’ll like this. I found it a little bit episodic—more like a collection of magazine articles sometimes—but still enjoyable.

Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler

A false start. This is a short story, not a novel—I didn’t know that when I downloaded it to my Kindle. It’s an excellent short story though. Still, I felt it didn’t count in my zigzagging between fiction and non-fiction so I followed it with…

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

★★★☆☆

Science fiction from the 1930s. The breadth of imagination is quite staggering, even if the writing is sometimes a bit of a slog. Still, it seems remarkably ahead of its time in many ways.

The Sense Of Style by Steven Pinker

★★★★☆

I spent a portion of 2017 writing a book so I was eager to read Steven Pinker’s take on a style guide, having thoroughly enjoyed The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate. This book starts with a bang—a critique of some examples of great writing. Then there’s some good practical advice, and then there’s a bit of a laundry list of non-rules. Typical of Pinker, the points about unclear writing are illustrated with humorous real-world examples. Overall, a good guide but perhaps a little longer than it needs to be.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

★★★★★

I loved everything about this book.

Writing On The Wall by Tom Standage

★★☆☆☆

I’ve read of all of Tom Standage’s books but none of them have ever matched the brilliance of The Victorian Internet. This one was frustratingly shallow. Every now and then there were glimpses of a better book. There’s a chapter on radio that gets genuinely exciting and intriguing. If Tom Standage wrote a whole book on that, I’d read it in a heartbeat. But in this collection of social media through the ages, it just reminded me of how much better he can be.

Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

★★★☆☆

Recommended by Jessica and Denise, this was my first Sheri S. Tepper book. It took me a while to get into it, but I enjoyed it. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s a solid planetary romance.

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

★★★☆☆

This has been recommended to me by more people than I can recall. I was very glad to finally get to read it (myself and Amber did a book swap: I gave her A Sense Of Style and she gave me this). As a guide to writing, it’s got some solid advice, humorously delivered, but there were also moments where I found the style grating. Still worth reading though.

The Gradual by Christopher Priest

★★★★☆

I just can’t get enough of Christopher Priest. I saw that his latest book was in the local library and I snapped it up. This one is set entirely in the Dream Archipelago. Yet again, the weirdness increases as the book progresses. It’s not up there with The Islanders or The Adjacent, but it’s as unsettling as any of his best books.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

★★★★★

I think this was the best non-fiction book I read this year. It’s divided into two halves. The first half, which I preferred, dealt with the sweep of human history as told through our genes. The second half deals with modern-day stories in the press that begin “Scientists say…” It was mostly Adam Rutherford gritting his teeth in frustration as he points out that “it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Thoroughly enjoyable, well written, and educational.

A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

★★★☆☆

I had read the first book in this series, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and thought it was so-so. It read strangely like fan fiction, and didn’t have much of a though-line. But multiple people said that this second outing was a big improvement. They weren’t wrong. This is definitely a better book. The story is relatively straightforward, and as with all good sci-fi, it’s not really telling us about a future society—it’s telling us about the world we live in. The book isn’t remarkable but it’s solid.

The Dream Machine: J.C.R Licklider And The Revolution That Made Computing Possible by M. Mitchell Waldrop

★★★★☆

This is the kind of book that could have been written just for me. The ARPANET, Turing, Norbert Wiener and Cybernetics, Xerox PARC, the internet, the web …it’s all in here. I enjoyed it, but it was a long slog. I’m not sure if using J.C.R. Licklider as the unifying factor in all these threads really worked. And maybe it was just the length of the book getting to me, but by the time I was two-thirds of the way through, I was getting weary of the dudes. Yes, there were a lot of remarkable men involved in these stories, but my heart sank with every chapter that went by without a single woman being mentioned. I found it ironic that so many intelligent people had the vision to imagine a world of human-computer symbiosis, but lacked the vision to challenge the status quo of the societal structures they were in.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

★★★☆☆

Lauren defies genre-pigeonholing once again. This is sort of a horror, sort of a detective story, and sort of a social commentary. It works well, although I was nervous about the Detroit setting sometimes veering into ruin porn. I don’t think it’s up there with Zoo City or The Shining Girls, but it’s certainly a page-turner.

Accessibility For Everyone by Laura Kalbag

★★★★☆

Because the previous non-fiction book I read was so long, I really fancied something short and to-the-point. A Book Apart to the rescue. You can be guaranteed that any book from that publisher will be worth reading, and this is no exception.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★★☆

There was a lot of buzz around this book, and it came highly recommended by Danielle. It’s thoroughly dizzying in its world-building; you’re plunged right into the thick of things with no word of explanation or exposition. I like that. There were times when I thought that maybe I had missed some important information, because I was having such a hard time following what was going on, but then I’d realise that the sense of disorientation was entirely deliberate. Good stuff …although for some reason I ended up liking it more than loving it.

High Performance Browser Networking by Ilya Grigorik

★★★☆☆

A recommendation from Harry. The whole book is available online for free. That’s how I’ve been reading it—in a browser tab. In fact, I have to confess that I haven’t finished it. I’m dipping in and out. There’s a lot of very detailed information on how networks and browsers work. I’m not sure how much of it is going into my brain, but I very much appreciate having this resource to hand.

A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

I picked up a trade paperback copy of this sci-fi book at The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver when I was there for An Event Apart earlier this month. I had heard it mentioned often and it sounds like my kind of yarn. I’m about halfway through it now and so far, so good.

There you have it.

It’s tough to pick a clear best. In non-fiction, I reckon Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived just about pips Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style. In fiction, Christopher Priest’s The Separation comes close, but Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora remains my favourite.

Like I said, not as many books as I would like. And of those twenty works, only seven were written by women—I need to do better in 2018.

2016 reading list

I was having a think back over 2016, trying to remember which books I had read during the year. To the best of my recollection, I think that this is the final tally…

Non-fiction

  • Endurance by Alfred Lansing
  • The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
  • The Real World of Technology by Ursula Franklin
  • Design For Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher
  • Practical SVG by Chris Coyier
  • Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan
  • Working The Command Line by Remy Sharp

Fiction

  • The Revenant by Michael Punke
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
  • Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss
  • High Rise by J.G. Ballard
  • The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
  • Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel
  • Greybeard by Brian Aldiss
  • Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Seems kinda meagre to me. Either I need to read more books or I need to keep better track of what books I’m reading when. Starting now.

Starting out

I had a really enjoyable time at Codebar Brighton last week, not least because Morty came along.

I particularly enjoy teaching people who have zero previous experience of making a web page. There’s something about explaining HTML and CSS from first principles that appeals to me. I especially love it when people ask lots of questions. “What does this element do?”, “Why do some elements have closing tags and others don’t?”, “Why is it textarea and not input type="textarea"?” The answer usually involves me going down a rabbit-hole of web archeology, so I’m in my happy place.

But there’s only so much time at Codebar each week, so it’s nice to be able to point people to other resources that they can peruse at their leisure. It turns out that’s it’s actually kind of tricky to find resources at that level. There are lots of great articles and tutorials out there for professional web developers—Smashing Magazine, A List Apart, CSS Tricks, etc.—but no so much for complete beginners.

Here are some of the resources I’ve found:

  • MarkSheet by Jeremy Thomas is a free HTML and CSS tutorial. It starts with an explanation of the internet, then the World Wide Web, and then web browsers, before diving into HTML syntax. Jeremy is the same guy who recently made CSS Reference.
  • Learn to Code HTML & CSS by Shay Howe is another free online book. You can buy a paper copy too. It’s filled with good, clear explanations.
  • Zero to Hero Coding by Vera Deák is an ongoing series. She’s starting out on her career as a front-end developer, so her perspective is particularly valuable.

If I find any more handy resources, I’ll link to them and tag them with “learning”.

Machine supplying

I wrote a little something recently about some inspiring projects that people are working on. Like Matt’s Machine Supply project. There’s a physical side to that project—a tweeting book-vending machine in London—but there’s also the newsletter, 3 Books Weekly.

I was honoured to be asked by Matt to contribute three book recommendations. That newsletter went out last week. Here’s what I said…

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

A book about the history of telegraphy might not sound like the most riveting read, but The Victorian Internet is both fascinating and entertaining. Techno-utopianism, moral panic, entirely new ways of working, and a world that has been utterly transformed: the parallels between the telegraph and the internet are laid bare. In fact, this book made me realise that while the internet has been a great accelerator, the telegraph was one of the few instances where a technology could truly be described as “disruptive.”

Ancillary Justice: 1 (Imperial Radch) by Ann Leckie

After I finished reading the final Iain M. Banks novel I was craving more galaxy-spanning space opera. The premise of Ancillary Justice with its description of “ship minds” led me to believe that this could be picking up the baton from the Culture series. It isn’t. This is an entirely different civilisation, one where song-collecting and tea ceremonies have as much value as weapons and spacecraft. Ancillary Justice probes at the deepest questions of identity, both cultural and personal. As well as being beautifully written, it’s also a rollicking good revenge thriller.

The City & The City by China Miéville

China Miéville’s books are hit-and-miss for me, but this one is a direct hit. The central premise of this noir-ish tale defies easy description, so I won’t even try. In fact, one of the great pleasures of this book is to feel the way your mind is subtly contorted by the author to accept a conceit that should be completely unacceptable. Usually when a book is described as “mind-altering” it’s a way of saying it has drug-like properties, but The City & The City is mind-altering in an entirely different and wholly unique way. If Borges and Calvino teamed up to find The Maltese Falcon, the result would be something like this.

When I sent off my recommendations, I told Matt:

Oh man, it was so hard to narrow this down! So many books I wanted to mention: Station 11, The Peripheral, The Gone-Away World, Glasshouse, Foucault’s Pendulum, Oryx and Crake, The Wind-up Girl …this was so much tougher than I thought it was going to be.

And Matt said:

Tell you what — if you’d be up for writing recommendations for another 3 books, from those ones you mentioned, I’d love to feature those in the machine!

Done!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven made think about the purpose of art and culture. If art, as Brian Eno describes it, is “everything that you don’t have to do”, what happens to art when the civilisational chips are down? There are plenty of post-pandemic stories of societal collapse. But there’s something about this one that sets it apart. It doesn’t assume that humanity will inevitably revert to an existence that is nasty, brutish and short. It’s also a beautifully-written book. The opening chapter completely sucker-punched me.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

On the face of it, this appears to be another post-Singularity romp in a post-scarcity society. It is, but it’s also a damning critique of gamification. Imagine the Stanford prison experiment if it were run by godlike experimenters. Stross’s Accelerando remains the definitive description of an unfolding Singularity, but Glasshouse is the one that has stayed with me.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

This isn’t an easy book to describe, but it’s a very easy book to enjoy. A delightful tale of a terrifying apocalypse, The Gone-Away World has plenty of laughs to balance out the existential dread. Try not to fall in love with the charming childhood world of the narrator—you know it can’t last. But we’ll always have mimes and ninjas.

I must admit, it’s a really lovely feeling to get notified on Twitter when someone buys one of the recommended books.