Journal tags: fiction

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A Few Notes on A Few Notes on The Culture

When I post a link, I do it for two reasons.

First of all, it’s me pointing at something and saying “Check this out!”

Secondly, it’s a way for me to stash something away that I might want to return to. I tag all my links so when I need to find one again, I just need to think “Now what would past me have tagged it with?” Then I type the appropriate URL: adactio.com/links/tags/whatever

There are some links that I return to again and again.

Back in 2008, I linked to a document called A Few Notes on The Culture. It’s a copy of a post by Iain M Banks to a newsgroup back in 1994.

Alas, that link is dead. Linkrot, innit?

But in 2013 I linked to the same document on a different domain. That link still works even though I believe it was first published around twenty(!) years ago (view source for some pre-CSS markup nostalgia).

Anyway, A Few Notes On The Culture is a fascinating look at the world-building of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. He talks about the in-world engineering, education, biology, and belief system of his imagined utopia. The part that sticks in my mind is when he talks about economics:

Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is — without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset — intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.

Those three paragraphs might be the most succinct critique of unfettered capitalism I’ve come across. The invisible hand as a paperclip maximiser.

Like I said, it’s a fascinating document. In fact I realised that I should probably store a copy of it for myself.

I have a section of my site called “extras” where I dump miscellaneous stuff. Most of it is unlinked. It’s mostly for my own benefit. That’s where I’ve put my copy of A Few Notes On The Culture.

Here’s a funny thing …for all the times that I’ve revisited the link, I never knew anything about the site is was hosted on—vavatch.co.uk—so this most recent time, I did a bit of clicking around. Clearly it’s the personal website of a sci-fi-loving college student from the early 2000s. But what came as a revelation to me was that the site belonged to …Adrian Hon!

I’m impressed that he kept his old website up even after moving over to the domain mssv.net, founding Six To Start, and writing A History Of The Future In 100 Objects. That’s a great snackable book, by the way. Well worth a read.

Solarpunk

My talk on sci-fi and me for Beyond Tellerrand’s Stay Curious event was deliberately designed to be broad and expansive. This was in contrast to Steph’s talk which was deliberately narrow and focused on one topic. Specifically, it was all about solarpunk.

I first heard of solarpunk from Justin Pickard back in 2014 at an event I was hosting. He described it as:

individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.

The sci-fi subgenre of solarpunk, then, is about these communities. The subgenre sets up to be deliberately positive, even utopian, in contrast to most sci-fi.

Most genres ending with the -punk suffix are about aesthetics. You know the way that cyberpunk is laptops, leather and sunglasses, and steampunk is zeppelins and top hats with goggles. Solarpunk is supposedly free of any such “look.” That said, all the examples I’ve seen seem to converge on the motto of “put a tree on it.” If a depiction of the future looks lush, verdant, fecund and green, chances are it’s solarpunk.

At least, it might be solarpunk. It would have to pass the criteria laid down by the gatekeepers. Solarpunk is manifesto-driven sci-fi. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s one thing to apply a category to a piece of writing after it’s been written, but it’s another to start with an agenda-driven category and proceed from there. And as with any kind of classification system, the edges are bound to be fuzzy, leading to endless debates about what’s in and what’s out (see also: UX, UI, service design, content design, product design, front-end development, and most ironically of all, information architecture).

When I met up with Steph to discuss our talk topics and she described the various schools of thought that reside under the umbrella of solarpunk, it reminded me of my college days. You wouldn’t have just one Marxist student group, there’d be multiple Marxist student groups each with their own pillars of identity (Leninist, Trotskyist, anarcho-syndicalist, and so on). From the outside they all looked the same, but woe betide you if you mixed them up. It was exactly the kind of situation that was lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with its People’s Front of Judea and Judean People’s Front. Steph confirmed that those kind of rifts also exist in solarpunk. It’s just like that bit in Gulliver’s Travels where nations go to war over the correct way to crack an egg.

But there’s general agreement about what broadly constitutes solarpunk. It’s a form of cli-fi (climate fiction) but with an upbeat spin: positive but plausible stories of the future that might feature communities, rewilding, gardening, farming, energy independence, or decentralisation. Centralised authority—in the form of governments and corporations—is not to be trusted.

That’s all well and good but it reminds of another community. Libertarian preppers. Heck, even some of the solarpunk examples feature seasteading (but with more trees).

Politically, preppers and solarpunks couldn’t be further apart. Practically, they seem more similar than either of them would be comfortable with.

Both communities distrust centralisation. For the libertarians, this manifests in a hatred of taxation. For solarpunks, it’s all about getting off the electricity grid. But both want to start their own separate self-sustaining communities.

Independence. Decentralisation. Self-sufficiency.

There’s a fine line between Atlas Shrugged and The Whole Earth Catalog.

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.

Broad Band

I like to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is often of the science variety. Actually, so is the non-fiction.

There was a non-fiction book I had queued up for a while and I finally got around to reading. Broad Band by Claire L. Evans. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it earlier. I think I might’ve been remembering how I found Mar Hicks’s Programmed Inequality to be a bit of a slog—a fascinating topic, but written in a fairly academic style. Broad Band covers some similar ground, but wow, is the writing style in a class of its own!

This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.

It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.

I absolutely loved it. So did Cory Doctorow:

Because she is a brilliant and lyrical writer she brings these women to life, turns them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life stories, frustrations and triumphs.

Even the most celebrated women of tech history – Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper – leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I didn’t.

Yes! That!

Read it for yourself and see what you think.

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!

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.

T E N Ǝ T

Jessica and I went to cinema yesterday.

Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in our current circumstances, it was something of a momentous decision that involved a lot of risk assessment and weighing of the odds. We’ve been out and about a few times, but always to outdoor locations: the beach, a park, or a pub’s beer garden. For the first time, we were evaluating whether or not to enter an indoor environment, which given what we now know about the transmission of COVID-19, is certainly riskier than being outdoors.

But this was a cinema, so in theory, nobody should be talking (or singing or shouting), and everyone would be wearing masks and keeping their distance. Time was also on our side. We were considering a Monday afternoon showing—definitely not primetime. Looking at the website for the (wonderful) Duke of York’s cinema, we could see which seats were already taken. Less than an hour before the start time for the film, there were just a handful of seats occupied. A cinema that can seat a triple-digit number of people was going to be seating a single digit number of viewers.

We got tickets for the front row. Personally, I love sitting in the front row, especially in the Duke of York’s where there’s still plenty of room between the front row and the screen. But I know that it’s generally considered an undesirable spot by most people. Sure enough, the closest people to us were many rows back. Everyone was wearing masks and we kept them on for the duration of the film.

The film was Tenet). We weren’t about to enter an enclosed space for just any ol’ film. It would have to be pretty special—a new Star Wars film, or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune …or a new Christopher Nolan film. We knew it would look good on the big screen. We also knew it was likely to be spoiled for us if we didn’t see it soon enough.

At this point I am sounding the spoiler horn. If you have not seen Tenet yet, abandon ship at this point.

I really enjoyed this film. I understand the criticism that has been levelled at it—too cold, too clinical, too confusing—but I still enjoyed it immensely. I do think you need to be able to enjoy feeling confused if this is going to be a pleasurable experience. The payoff is that there’s an equally enjoyable feeling when things start slotting into place.

The closest film in Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue to Tenet is Inception in terms of twistiness and what it asks of the audience. But in some ways, Tenet is like an inverted version of Inception. In Inception, the ideas and the plot are genuinely complex, but Nolan does a great job in making them understandable—quite a feat! In Tenet, the central conceit and even the overall plot is, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. But Nolan has made it seem more twisty and convuluted than it really is. The ten minute battle at the end, for example, is filled with hard-to-follow twists and turns, but in actuality, it literally doesn’t matter.

The pitch for the mood of this film is that it’s in the spy genre, in the same way that Inception is in the heist genre. Though there’s an argument to be made that Tenet is more of a heist movie than Inception. But in terms of tone, yeah, it’s going for James Bond.

Even at the very end of the credits, when the title of the film rolled into view, it reminded me of the Bond films that would tease “The end of (this film). But James Bond will return in (next film).” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the very end of Tenet’s credits finished with “The end of Tenet. But the protagonist will return in …Tenet.”

The pleasure I got from Tenet was not the same kind of pleasure I get from watching a Bond film, which is a simpler, more basic kind of enjoyment. The pleasure I got from Tenet was more like the kind of enjoyment I get from reading smart sci-fi, the kind that posits a “what if?” scenario and isn’t afraid to push your mind in all kinds of uncomfortable directions to contemplate the ramifications.

Like I said, the central conceit—objects or people travelling backwards through time (from our perspective)—isn’t actually all that complex, but the fun comes from all the compounding knock-on effects that build on that one premise.

In the film, and in interviews about the film, everyone is at pains to point out that this isn’t time travel. But that’s not true. In fact, I would argue that Tenet is one of the few examples of genuine time travel. What I mean is that most so-called time-travel stories are actually more like time teleportation. People jump from one place in time to another instaneously. There are only a few examples I can think of where people genuinely travel.

The grandaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, is one example. There are vivid descriptions of the world outside the machine playing out in fast-forward. But even here, there’s an implication that from outside the machine, the world cannot perceive the time machine (which would, from that perspective, look slowed down to the point of seeming completely still).

The most internally-consistent time-travel story is Primer. I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who didn’t like Tenet and people who wouldn’t like Primer is a circle. Again, it’s a film where the enjoyment comes from feeling confused, but where your attention will be rewarded and your intelligence won’t be insulted.

In Primer, the protagonists literally travel in time. If you want to go five hours into the past, you have to spend five hours in the box (the time machine).

In Tenet, the time machine is a turnstile. If you want to travel five hours into the past, you need only enter the turnstile for a moment, but then you have to spend the next five hours travelling backwards (which, from your perspective, looks like being in a world where cause and effect are reversed). After five hours, you go in and out of a turnstile again, and voila!—you’ve time travelled five hours into the past.

Crucially, if you decide to travel five hours into the past, then you have always done so. And in the five hours prior to your decision, a version of you (apparently moving backwards) would be visible to the world. There is never a version of events where you aren’t travelling backwards in time. There is no “first loop”.

That brings us to the fundamental split in categories of time travel (or time jump) stories: many worlds vs. single timeline.

In a many-worlds story, the past can be changed. Well, technically, you spawn a different universe in which events unfold differently, but from your perspective, the effect would be as though you had altered the past.

The best example of the many-worlds category in recent years is William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It genuinely reinvents the genre of time travel. First of all, no thing travels through time. In The Peripheral only information can time travel. But given telepresence technology, that’s enough. The Peripheral is time travel for the remote worker (once again, William Gibson proves to be eerily prescient). But the moment that any information travels backwards in time, the timeline splits into a new “stub”. So the many-worlds nature of its reality is front and centre. But that doesn’t stop the characters engaging in classic time travel behaviour—using knowledge of the future to exert control over the past.

Time travel stories are always played with a stacked deck of information. The future has power over the past because of the asymmetric nature of information distribution—there’s more information in the future than in the past. Whether it’s through sports results, the stock market or technological expertise, the future can exploit the past.

Information is at the heart of the power games in Tenet too, but there’s a twist. The repeated mantra here is “ignorance is ammunition.” That flies in the face of most time travel stories where knowledge—information from the future—is vital to winning the game.

It turns out that information from the future is vital to winning the game in Tenet too, but the reason why ignorance is ammunition comes down to the fact that Tenet is not a many-worlds story. It is very much a single timeline.

Having a single timeline makes for time travel stories that are like Greek tragedies. You can try travelling into the past to change the present but in doing so you will instead cause the very thing you set out to prevent.

The meat’n’bones of a single timeline time travel story—and this is at the heart of Tenet—is the question of free will.

The most succint (and disturbing) single-timeline time-travel story that I’ve read is by Ted Chiang in his recent book Exhalation. It’s called What’s Expected Of Us. It was originally published as a single page in Nature magazine. In that single page is a distillation of the metaphysical crisis that even a limited amount of time travel would unleash in a single-timeline world…

There’s a box, the Predictor. It’s very basic, like Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. It has a button and a light. The button activates the light. But this machine, like an inverted object in Tenet, is moving through time differently to us. In this case, it’s very specific and localised. The machine is just a few seconds in the future relative to us. Cause and effect seem to be reversed. With a normal machine, you press the button and then the light flashes. But with the predictor, the light flashes and then you press the button. You can try to fool it but you won’t succeed. If the light flashes, you will press the button no matter how much you tell yourself that you won’t (likewise if you try to press the button before the light flashes, you won’t succeed). That’s it. In one succinct experiment with time, it is demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist.

Tenet has a similarly simple object to explain inversion. It’s a bullet. In an exposition scene we’re shown how it travels backwards in time. The protagonist holds his hand above the bullet, expecting it to jump into his hand as has just been demonstrated to him. He is told “you have to drop it.” He makes the decision to “drop” the bullet …and the bullet flies up into his hand.

This is a brilliant bit of sleight of hand (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) on Nolan’s part. It seems to imply that free will really matters. Only by deciding to “drop” the bullet does the bullet then fly upward. But here’s the thing: the protagonist had no choice but to decide to drop the bullet. We know that he had no choice because the bullet flew up into his hand. The bullet was always going to fly up into his hand. There is no timeline where the bullet doesn’t fly up into his hand, which means there is no timeline where the protagonist doesn’t decide to “drop” the bullet. The decision is real, but it is inevitable.

The lesson in this scene is the exact opposite of what it appears. It appears to show that agency and decision-making matter. The opposite is true. Free will cannot, in any meaningful sense, exist in this world.

This means that there was never really any threat. People from the future cannot change the past (or wipe it out) because it would’ve happened already. At one point, the protagonist voices this conjecture. “Doesn’t the fact that we’re here now mean that they don’t succeed?” Neil deflects the question, not because of uncertainty (we realise later) but because of certainty. It’s absolutely true that the people in the future can’t succeed because they haven’t succeeded. But the protagonist—at this point in the story—isn’t ready to truly internalise this. He needs to still believe that he is acting with free will. As that Ted Chiang story puts it:

It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t.

That’s true for the audience watching the film. If we were to understand too early that everything will work out fine, then there would be no tension in the film.

As ever with Nolan’s films, they are themselves metaphors for films. The first time you watch Tenet, ignorance is your ammuntion. You believe there is a threat. By the end of the film you have more information. Now if you re-watch the film, you will experience it differently, armed with your prior knowledge. But the film itself hasn’t changed. It’s the same linear flow of sequential scenes being projected. Everything plays out exactly the same. It’s you who have been changed. The first time you watch the film, you are like the protagonist at the start of the movie. The second time you watch it, you are like the protagonist at the end of the movie. You see the bigger picture. You understand the inevitability.

The character of Neil has had more time to come to terms with a universe without free will. What the protagonist begins to understand at the end of the film is what Neil has known for a while. He has seen this film. He knows how it ends. It ends with his death. He knows that it must end that way. At the end of the film we see him go to meet his death. Does he make the decision to do this? Yes …but he was always going to make the decision to do this. Just as the protagonist was always going to decide to “drop” the bullet, Neil was always going to decide to go to his death. It looks like a choice. But Neil understands at this point that the choice is pre-ordained. He will go to his death because he has gone to his death.

At the end, the protagonist—and the audience—understands. Everything played out exactly as it had to. The people in the future were hoping that reality allowed for many worlds, where the past could be changed. Luckily for us, reality turns out to be a single timeline. But the price we pay is that we come to understand, truly understand, that we have no free will. This is the kind of knowledge we wish we didn’t have. Ignorance was our ammunition and by the end of the film, it is spent.

Nolan has one other piece of misdirection up his sleeve. He implies that the central question at the heart of this time-travel story is the grandfather paradox. Our descendents in the future are literally trying to kill their grandparents (us). But if they succeed, then they can never come into existence.

But that’s not the paradox that plays out in Tenet. The central paradox is the bootstrap paradox, named for the Heinlein short story, By His Bootstraps. Information in this film is transmitted forwards and backwards through time, without ever being created. Take the phrase “Tenet”. In subjective time, the protagonist first hears of this phrase—and this organisation—when he is at the start of his journey. But the people who tell him this received the information via a subjectively older version of the protagonist who has travelled to the past. The protagonist starts the Tenet organistion (and phrase) in the future because the organisation (and phrase) existed in the past. So where did the phrase come from?

This paradox—the bootstrap paradox—remains after the grandfather paradox has been dealt with. The grandfather paradox was a distraction. The bootstrap paradox can’t be resolved, no matter how many times you watch the same film.

So Tenet has three instances of misdirection in its narrative:

  • Inversion isn’t time travel (it absolutely is).
  • Decisions matter (they don’t; there is no free will).
  • The grandfather paradox is the central question (it’s not; the bootstrap paradox is the central question).

I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet again. Though it can never be the same as that first time. Ignorance can never again be my ammunition.

I’m very glad that Jessica and I decided to go to the cinema to see Tenet. But who am I kidding? Did we ever really have a choice?

Television

What a time, as they say, to be alive. The Situation is awful in so many ways, and yet…

In this crisis, there is also opportunity—the opportunity to sit on the sofa, binge-watch television and feel good about it! I mean just think about it: when in the history of our culture has there been a time when the choice between running a marathon or going to the gym or staying at home watching TV can be resolved with such certitude? Stay at home and watch TV, of course! It’s the only morally correct choice. Protect the NHS! Save lives! Gorge on box sets!

What you end up watching doesn’t really matter. If you want to binge on Love Island or Tiger King, go for it. At this moment in time, it’s all good.

I had an ancient Apple TV device that served me well for years. At the beginning of The Situation, I decided to finally upgrade to a more modern model so I could get to more streaming services. Once I figured out how to turn off the unbelievably annoying sounds and animations, I got it set up with some subscription services. Should it be of any interest, here’s what I’ve been watching in order to save lives and protect the NHS…

Watchmen, Now TV

Superb! I suspect you’ll want to have read Alan Moore’s classic book to fully enjoy this series set in the parallel present extrapolated from that book’s ‘80s setting. Like that book, what appears to be a story about masked vigilantes is packing much, much deeper themes. I have a hunch that if Moore himself were forced to watch it, he might even offer some grudging approval.

Devs, BBC iPlayer

Ex Machina meets The Social Network in Alex Garland’s first TV show. I was reading David Deutsch while I was watching this, which felt like getting an extra bit of world-building. I think this might have worked better in the snappier context of a film, but it makes for an enjoyable saunter as a series. Style outweighs substance, but the style is strong enough to carry it.

Breeders, Now TV

Genuinely hilarious. Watch the first episode and see how many times you laugh guiltily. It gets a bit more sentimental later on, but there’s a wonderfully mean streak throughout that keeps the laughter flowing. If you are a parent of small children though, this may feel like being in a rock band watching Spinal Tap—all too real.

The Mandalorian, Disney Plus

I cannot objectively evaluate this. I absolutely love it, but that’s no surprise. It’s like it was made for me. The execution of each episode is, in my biased opinion, terrific. Read what Nat wrote about it. I agree with everything they said.

Westworld, Now TV

The third series is wrapping up soon. I’m enjoying this series immensely. It’s got a real cyberpunk sensibility; not in a stupid Altered Carbon kind of way, but in a real Gibsonian bit of noirish fun. Like Devs, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is, but it’s throroughly entertaining all the same.

Tales From The Loop, Amazon Prime

The languid pacing means this isn’t exactly a series of cliffhangers, but it will reward you for staying with it. It avoids the negativity of Black Mirror and instead maintains a more neutral viewpoint on the unexpected effects of technology. At its best, it feels like an updated take on Ray Bradbury’s stories of smalltown America (like the episode directed by Jodie Foster featuring a cameo by Shane Carruth—the time traveller’s time traveller).

Years and Years, BBC iPlayer

A near-future family and political drama by Russell T Davies. Subtlety has never been his strong point and the polemic aspects of this are far too on-the-nose to take seriously. Characters will monologue for minutes while practically waving a finger at you out of the television set. But it’s worth watching for Emma Thompson’s performance as an all-too believable populist politician. Apart from a feelgood final episode, it’s not light viewing so maybe not the best quarantine fodder.

For All Mankind, Apple TV+

An ahistorical space race that’s a lot like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut books. The initial premise—that Alexei Leonov beats Neil Armstrong to a moon landing—is interesting enough, but it really picks up from episode three. Alas, the baton isn’t really kept up for the whole series; it reverts to a more standard kind of drama from about halfway through. Still worth seeing though. It’s probably the best show on Apple TV+, but that says more about the paucity of the selection on there than it does about the quality of this series.

Avenue Five, Now TV

When it’s good, this space-based comedy is chucklesome but it kind of feels like Armando Iannucci lite.

Picard, Amazon Prime

It’s fine. Michael Chabon takes the world of Star Trek in some interesting directions, but it never feels like it’s allowed to veer too far away from the established order.

The Outsider, Now TV

A tense and creepy Stephen King adaption. I enjoyed the mystery of the first few episodes more than the later ones. Once the supernatural rules are established, it’s not quite as interesting. There are some good performances here, but the series gives off a vibe of believing it’s more important than it really is.

Better Call Saul, Netflix

The latest series (four? I’ve lost count) just wrapped up. It’s all good stuff, even knowing how some of the pieces need to slot into place for Breaking Bad.

Normal People, BBC iPlayer

I heard this was good so I went to the BBC iPlayer app and hit play. “Pretty good stuff”, I thought after watching that episode. Then I noticed that it said Episode Twelve. I had watched the final episode first. Doh! But, y’know, watching from the start, the foreknowledge of how things turn out isn’t detracting from the pleasure at all. In fact, I think you could probably watch the whole series completely out of order. It’s more of a tone poem than a plot-driven series. The characters themselves matter more than what happens to them.

Hunters, Amazon Prime

A silly 70s-set jewsploitation series with Al Pacino. The enjoyment comes from the wish fulfillment of killing nazis, which would be fine except for the way that the holocaust is used for character development. The comic-book tone of the show clashes very uncomfortably with that subject matter. The Shoah is not a plot device. This series feels like what we would get if Tarentino made television (and not in a good way).

Modified machete

The Rise Of Skywalker arrives on Disney Plus on the fourth of May (a date often referred to as Star Wars Day, even though May 25th is and always will be the real Star Wars Day). Time to begin a Star Wars movie marathon. But in which order?

Back when there were a mere two trilogies, this was already a vexing problem if someone were watching the films for the first time. You could watch the six films in episode order:

  1. The Phantom Menace
  2. Attack Of The Clones
  3. Revenge Of The Sith
  4. A New Hope
  5. The Empire Strikes Back
  6. The Return Of The Jedi

But then you’re spoiling the grand reveal in episode five.

Alright then, how about release order?

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. Return Of The Jedi
  4. The Phantom Menace
  5. Attack Of The Clones
  6. Revenge Of The Sith

But then you’re front-loading the big pay-off, and you’re finishing with a big set-up.

This conundrum was solved with the machete order. It suggests omitting The Phantom Menace, not because it’s crap, but because nothing happens in it that isn’t covered in the first five minutes of Attack Of The Clones. The machete order is:

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. Attack Of The Clones
  4. Revenge Of The Sith
  5. Return Of The Jedi

It’s kind of brilliant. You get to keep the big reveal in The Empire Strikes Back, and then through flashback, you see how this came to be. Best of all, the pay-off in Return Of The Jedi has even more resonance because you’ve just seen Anakin’s downfall in Revenge Of The Sith.

With the release of the new sequel trilogy, an adjusted machete order is a pretty straightforward way to see the whole saga:

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. The Phantom Menace (optional)
  4. Attack Of The Clones
  5. Revenge Of The Sith
  6. Return Of The Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. The Last Jedi
  9. The Rise Of Skywalker

Done. But …what if you want to include the standalone films too?

If you slot them in in release order, they break up the flow:

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. The Phantom Menace (optional)
  4. Attack Of The Clones
  5. Revenge Of The Sith
  6. Return Of The Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. Rogue One
  9. The Last Jedi
  10. Solo
  11. The Rise Of Skywalker

I’m planning to watch all eleven films. This was my initial plan:

  1. Rogue One
  2. A New Hope
  3. The Empire Strikes Back
  4. The Phantom Menace
  5. Attack Of The Clones
  6. Revenge Of The Sith
  7. Solo
  8. Return Of The Jedi
  9. The Force Awakens
  10. The Last Jedi
  11. The Rise Of Skywalker

I definitely want to have Rogue One lead straight into A New Hope. The problem is where to put Solo. I don’t want to interrupt the Sith/Jedi setup/payoff.

So here’s my current plan, which I have already begun:

  1. Solo
  2. Rogue One
  3. A New Hope
  4. The Empire Strikes Back
  5. The Phantom Menace
  6. Attack Of The Clones
  7. Revenge Of The Sith
  8. Return Of The Jedi
  9. The Force Awakens
  10. The Last Jedi
  11. The Rise Of Skywalker

This way, the two standalone films work as world-building for the saga and don’t interrupt the flow once the main story is underway.

I think this works pretty well. Neither Solo nor Rogue One require any prior knowledge to be enjoyed.

And just in case you’re thinking that perhaps I’m overthinking it a bit and maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands …the world has too much time on its hands right now! Thanks to The Situation, I can not only take the time to plan and execute the viewing order for a Star Wars movie marathon, I can feel good about it. Stay home, they said. Literally saving lives, they said. Happy to oblige!

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.

The Rise Of Skywalker

If you haven’t seen The Rise Of Skywalker, avert your gaze for I shall be revealing spoilers here…

I wrote about what I thought of The Force Awakens. I wrote about what I thought of The Last Jedi. It was inevitable that I was also going to write about what I think of The Rise Of Skywalker. If nothing else, I really enjoy going back and reading those older posts and reminding myself of my feelings at the time.

I went to a midnight screening with Jessica after we had both spent the evening playing Irish music at our local session. I was asking a lot of my bladder.

I have to admit that my first reaction was …ambivalent. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either.

Now, if that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s pretty much what I said about Rogue One and The Last Jedi:

Maybe I just find it hard to really get into the flow when I’m seeing a new Star Wars film for the very first time.

This time there were very specific things that I could point to and say “I don’t like it!” For a start, there’s the return of Palpatine.

I think the Emperor has always been one of the dullest characters in Star Wars. Even in Return Of The Jedi, he just comes across as a paper-thin one-dimensional villain who’s evil just because he’s evil. That works great when he’s behind the scenes manipulating events, but it makes for dull on-screen shenanigans, in my opinion. The pantomime nature of Emperor Palpatine seems more Harry Potter than Star Wars to me.

When I heard the Emperor was returning, my expectations sank. To be fair though, I think it was a very good move not to make the return of Palpatine a surprise. I had months—ever since the release of the first teaser trailer—to come to terms with it. Putting it in the opening crawl and the first scene says, “Look, he’s back. Don’t ask how, just live with it.” That’s fair enough.

So in the end, the thing that I thought would bug me—the return of Palpatine—didn’t trouble me much. But what really bugged me was the unravelling of one of my favourite innovations in The Last Jedi regarding Rey’s provenance. I wrote at the time:

I had resigned myself to the inevitable reveal that would tie her heritage into an existing lineage. What an absolute joy, then, that The Force is finally returned into everyone’s hands!

What bothered me wasn’t so much that The Rise Of Skywalker undoes this, but that the undoing is so uneccessary. The plot would have worked just as well without the revelation that Rey is a Palpatine. If that revelation were crucial to the story, I would go with it, but it just felt like making A Big Reveal for the sake of making A Big Reveal. It felt …cheap.

I have to say, that’s how I responded to a lot of the kitchen sink elements in this film when I first saw it. It was trying really, really hard to please, and yet many of the decisions felt somewhat lazy to me. There were times when it felt like a checklist.

In a way, there was a checklist, or at least a brief. JJ Abrams has spoken about how this film needed to not just wrap up one trilogy, but all nine films. But did it though? I think I would’ve been happier if it had kept its scope within the bounds of these new sequels.

That’s been a recurring theme for me with all three of these films. I think they work best when they’re about the new characters. I’m totally invested in them. Leaning on nostalgia and the cultural memory of the previous films and their characters just isn’t needed. I would’ve been fine if Luke, Han, and Leia never showed up on screen in this trilogy—that’s how much I’m sold on Rey, Finn, and Poe.

But I get it. The brief here is to tie everything together. And as JJ Abrams has said, there was no way he was going to please everyone. But it’s strange that he would attempt to please the most toxic people clamouring for change. I’m talking about the racists and misogynists that were upset by The Last Jedi. The sidelining of Rose Tico in The Rise Of Skywalker sure reads a lot like a victory for them. Frankly, that’s the one aspect of this film that I’m always going to find disappointing.

Because it turns out that a lot of the other things that I was initially disappointed by evaporated upon second viewing.

Now, I totally get that a film needs to work for a first viewing. But if any category of film needs to stand up to repeat viewing, it’s a Star Wars film. In the case of The Rise Of Skywalker, I think that repeat viewing might have been prioritised. And I’m okay with that.

Take the ridiculously frenetic pace of the multiple maguffin-led plotlines. On first viewing, it felt rushed and messy. I got the feeling that the double-time pacing was there to brush over any inconsistencies that would reveal themselves if the film were to pause even for a minute to catch its breath.

But that wasn’t the case. On second viewing, things clicked together much more tightly. It felt much more like a well-oiled—if somewhat frenetic—machine rather than a cobbled-together Heath Robinson contraption that might collapse at any moment.

My personal experience of viewing the film for the second time was a lot of fun. I was with my friend Sammy, who is not yet a teenager. His enjoyment was infectious.

At the end, after we see Rey choose her new family name, Sammy said “I knew she was going to say Skywalker!”

“I guess that explains the title”, I said. “The Rise Of Skywalker.”

“Or”, said Sammy, “it could be talking about Ben Solo.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

When I first saw The Rise Of Skywalker, I was disappointed by all the ways it was walking back the audacious decisions made in The Last Jedi, particularly Rey’s parentage and the genetic component to The Force. But on second viewing, I noticed the ways that this film built on the previous one. Finn’s blossoming sensitivity keeps the democratisation of The Force on the table. And the mind-melding connection between Rey and Kylo Ren that started in The Last Jedi is crucial for the plot of The Rise Of Skywalker.

Once I was able to get over the decisions I didn’t agree with, I was able to judge the film on its own merits. And you know what? It’s really good!

On the technical level, it was always bound to be good, but I mean on an emotional level too. If I go with it, then I’m rewarded with a rollercoaster ride of emotions. There were moments when I welled up (they mostly involved Chewbacca: Chewie’s reaction to Leia’s death; Chewie getting the medal …the only moment that might have topped those was Han Solo’s “I know”).

So just in case there’s any doubt—given all the criticisms I’ve enumerated—let me clear: I like this film. I very much look forward to seeing it again (and again).

But I do think there’s some truth to what Eric says here:

A friend’s review of “The Rise of Skywalker”, which also serves as a perfect summary of JJ Abrams’ career: “A very well-executed lack of creativity.”

I think I might substitute the word “personality” for “creativity”. However you feel about The Last Jedi, there’s no denying that it embodies the vision of one person:

I think the reason why The Last Jedi works so well is that Rian Johnson makes no concessions to my childhood, or anyone else’s. This is his film. Of all the millions of us who were transported by this universe as children, only he gets to put his story onto the screen and into the saga. There are two ways to react to this. You can quite correctly exclaim “That’s not how I would do it!”, or you can go with it …even if that means letting go of some deeply-held feelings about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened if it were our story.

JJ Abrams, on the other hand, has done his utmost to please us. I admire that, but I feel it comes at a price. The storytelling isn’t safe exactly, but it’s far from personal.

The result is that The Rise Of Skywalker is supremely entertaining—especially on repeat viewing—and it has a big heart. I just wish it had more guts.

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.

Cat encounters

The latest episode of Ariel’s excellent Offworld video series (and podcast) is all about Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.

Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.

This is a timely discussion. There’s a new book by Daniel Oberhaus published by MIT Press called Extraterrestrial Languages:

If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?

You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:

Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.

Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.

It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.

But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.

The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:

  1. Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
  2. Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.

This is the raycat solution.

Near miss

When I was travelling across the Atlantic ocean on the Queen Mary 2 back in August, I had the pleasure of attending a series of on-board lectures by Charles Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society.

One of those presentations was on the threat of asteroid impacts—always a fun topic! Charles mentioned Spaceguard, the group that tracks near-Earth objects.

Spaceguard is a pretty cool-sounding name for any organisation. The name comes from a work of (science) fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 book Rendezvous with Rama, Spaceguard is the name of a fictional organisation formed after a devastating asteroid impact on northen Italy—an event which is coincidentally depicted as happening on September 11th. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The impact happens on the first page of the book.

At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky.  Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens—at first in utter silence—it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.

Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged.  They were the lucky ones.

Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.

Later in the same lecture, Charles talked about the Torino scale, which is used to classify the likelihood and severity of impacts. Number 10 on the Torino scale means an impact is certain and that it will be an extinction level event.

Torino—Turin—is in northern Italy. “Wait a minute!”, I thought to myself. “Is this something that’s also named for that opening chapter of Rendezvous with Rama?”

I spoke to Charles about it afterwards, hoping that he might know. But he said, “Oh, I just assumed that a group of scientists got together in Turin when they came up with the scale.”

Being at sea, there was no way to easily verify or disprove the origin story of the Torino scale. Looking something up on the internet would have been prohibitively slow and expensive. So I had to wait until we docked in New York.

On our first morning in the city, Jessica and I popped into a bookstore. I picked up a copy of Rendezvous with Rama and re-read the details of that opening impact on northern Italy. Padua, Venice and Verona are named, but there’s no mention of Turin.

Sure enough, when I checked Wikipedia, the history and naming of the Torino scale was exactly what Charles Barclay surmised:

A revised version of the “Hazard Index” was presented at a June 1999 international conference on NEOs held in Torino (Turin), Italy. The conference participants voted to adopt the revised version, where the bestowed name “Torino Scale” recognizes the spirit of international cooperation displayed at that conference toward research efforts to understand the hazards posed by NEOs.

Mirrorworld

Over on the Failed Architecture site, there’s a piece about Kevin Lynch’s 1960 book The Image Of The City. It’s kind of fun to look back at a work like that, from today’s vantage point of ubiquitous GPS and smartphones with maps that bestow God-like wayfinding. How much did Lynch—or any other futurist from the past—get right about our present?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Lynch invented the term ‘imageability’ to describe the degree to which the urban environment can be perceived as a clear and coherent mental image. Reshaping the city is one way to increase imageability. But what if the cognitive map were complemented by some external device? Lynch proposed that this too could strengthen the mental image and effectively support navigation.

Past visions of the future can be a lot of fun. Matt Novak’s Paleofuture blog is testament to that. Present visions of the future are rarely as enjoyable. But every so often, one comes along…

Kevin Kelly has a new piece in Wired magazine about Augmented Reality. He suggests we don’t call it AR. Sounds good to me. Instead, he proposes we use David Gelernter’s term “the mirrorworld”.

I like it! I feel like the term won’t age well, but that’s not the point. The term “cyberspace” hasn’t aged well either—it sounds positively retro now—but Gibson’s term served its purpose in prompting discussing and spurring excitement. I feel like Kelly’s “mirrorworld” could do the same.

Incidentally, the mirrorworld has already made an appearance in the William Gibson book Spook Country in the form of locative art:

Locative art, a melding of global positioning technology to virtual reality, is the new wrinkle in Gibson’s matrix. One locative artist, for example, plants a virtual image of F. Scott Fitzgerald dying at the very spot where, in fact, he had his Hollywood heart attack, and does the same for River Phoenix and his fatal overdose.

Yup, that sounds like the mirrorworld:

Time is a dimension in the mirror­world that can be adjusted. Unlike the real world, but very much like the world of software apps, you will be able to scroll back.

Now look, normally I’m wary to the point of cynicism when it comes to breathless evocations of fantastical futures extropolated from a barely functioning technology of today, but damn, if Kevin Kelly’s enthusiasm isn’t infectious! He invokes Borges. He acknowledges the challenges. But mostly he pumps up the excitement by baldly stating possible outcomes as though they are inevitabilities:

We will hyperlink objects into a network of the physical, just as the web hyperlinked words, producing marvelous benefits and new products.

When he really gets going, we enter into some next-level science-fictional domains:

The mirrorworld will be a world governed by light rays zipping around, coming into cameras, leaving displays, entering eyes, a never-­ending stream of photons painting forms that we walk through and visible ghosts that we touch. The laws of light will govern what is possible.

And then we get sentences like this:

History will be a verb.

I kind of love it. I mean, I’m sure we’ll look back on it one day and laugh, shaking our heads at its naivety, but for right now, it’s kind of refreshing to read something so unabashedly hopeful and so wildly optimistic.

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.

Sapiens

I finally got around to reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s one of those books that I kept hearing about from smart people whose opinions I respect. But I have to say, my reaction to the book reminded me of when I read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:

It was an exasperating read.

At first, I found the book to be a rollicking good read. It told the sweep of history in an engaging way, backed up with footnotes and references to prime sources. But then the author transitions from relaying facts to taking flights of fancy without making any distinction between the two (the only “tell” is that the references dry up).

Just as Matt Ridley had personal bugbears that interrupted the flow of The Rational Optimist, 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.

When the book avoids that particular historical conspiracy theory, it fares better. But even then, the author seems to think he’s providing genuinely new insights into matters of religion, economics, and purpose, when in fact, he’s repeating the kind of “college thoughts” that have been voiced by anyone who’s ever smoked a spliff.

I know I’m making it sound terrible, and it’s not terrible. It’s just …generally not that great. And when it is great, it only makes the other parts all the more frustrating. There’s a really good book in Sapiens, but unfortunately it’s interspersed with some pretty bad editorialising. I have to agree with Galen Strawson’s review:

Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism.

Towards the end of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari casts his eye on our present-day world and starts to speculate on the future. This is the point when I almost gave myself an injury with the amount of eye-rolling I was doing. His ideas on technology, computers, and even science fiction are embarrassingly childish and incomplete. And the bad news is that his subsequent books—Home Deus and 21 Lessons For The 21st Century—are entirely speculations about humanity and technology. I won’t be touching those with all the ten foot barge poles in the world.

In short, although there is much to enjoy in Sapiens, particularly in the first few chapters, I can’t recommend it.

If you’re looking for a really good book on the fascinating history of our species, read A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford . That’s one I can recommend without reservation.