Journal tags: fiction

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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.

2001 + 50

The first ten minutes of my talk at An Event Apart Seattle consisted of me geeking about science fiction. There was a point to it …I think. But I must admit it felt quite self-indulgent to ramble to a captive audience about some of my favourite works of speculative fiction.

The meta-narrative I was driving at was around the perils of prediction (and how that’s not really what science fiction is about). This is something that Arthur C. Clarke pointed out repeatedly, most famously in Hazards of Prophecy. Ironically, I used Clarke’s meisterwork of a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick as a rare example of a predictive piece of sci-fi with a good hit rate.

When I introduced 2001: A Space Odyssey in my talk, I mentioned that it was fifty years old (making it even more of a staggering achievement, considering that humans hadn’t even reached the moon at that point). What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was fifty years old to the day. The film was released in American cinemas on April 2nd, 1968; I was giving my talk on April 2nd, 2018.

Over on Wired.com, Stephen Wolfram has written about his own personal relationship with the film. It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the typography of 2001 (see also: Typeset In The Future) right through to the nature of intelligence and our place in the universe.

When it comes to the technology depicted on-screen, he makes the same point that I was driving at in my talk—that, despite some successful extrapolations, certain real-world advances were not only unpredicted, but perhaps unpredictable. The mobile phone; the collapse of the soviet union …these are real-world events that are conspicuous by their absence in other great works of sci-fi like William Gibson’s brilliant Neuromancer.

But in his Wired piece, Wolfram also points out some acts of prediction that were so accurate that we don’t even notice them.

Also interesting in 2001 is that the Picturephone is a push-button phone, with exactly the same numeric button layout as today (though without the * and # [“octothorp”]). Push-button phones actually already existed in 1968, although they were not yet widely deployed.

To use the Picturephone in 2001, one inserts a credit card. Credit cards had existed for a while even in 1968, though they were not terribly widely used. The idea of automatically reading credit cards (say, using a magnetic stripe) had actually been developed in 1960, but it didn’t become common until the 1980s.

I’ve watched 2001 many, many, many times and I’m always looking out for details of the world-building …but it never occurred to me that push-button numeric keypads or credit cards were examples of predictive extrapolation. As time goes on, more and more of these little touches will become unnoticeable and unremarkable.

On the space shuttle (or, perhaps better, space plane) the cabin looks very much like a modern airplane—which probably isn’t surprising, because things like Boeing 737s already existed in 1968. But in a correct (at least for now) modern touch, the seat backs have TVs—controlled, of course, by a row of buttons.

Now I want to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again. If I’m really lucky, I might get to see a 70mm print in a cinema near me this year.

Books I read in 2017

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

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

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

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

★★★☆☆

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

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

★★★★☆

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

The Separation by Christopher Priest

★★★★★

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

Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George

★★★★☆

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

Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler

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

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

★★★☆☆

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

The Sense Of Style by Steven Pinker

★★★★☆

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

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

★★★★★

I loved everything about this book.

Writing On The Wall by Tom Standage

★★☆☆☆

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

Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

★★★☆☆

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

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

★★★☆☆

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

The Gradual by Christopher Priest

★★★★☆

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

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

★★★★★

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

A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

★★★☆☆

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

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

★★★★☆

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

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

★★★☆☆

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

Accessibility For Everyone by Laura Kalbag

★★★★☆

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

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★★☆

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

High Performance Browser Networking by Ilya Grigorik

★★★☆☆

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

A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

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

There you have it.

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

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

The Last Jedi

If you haven’t seen The Last Jedi (yet), please stop reading. Spoilers ahoy.

I’ve been listening to many, many podcast episodes about the latest Star Wars film. They’re all here on Huffduffer. You can subscribe to a feed of just those episodes if you want.

I am well aware that the last thing anybody wants or needs is one more hot take on this film, but what the heck? I figured I’d jot down my somewhat simplistic thoughts.

I loved it.

But I wasn’t sure at first. I’ve talked to other people who felt similarly on first viewing—they weren’t sure if they liked it or not. I know some people who, on reflection, decided they definitely didn’t like it. I completely understand that.

A second viewing helped to cement my positive feelings towards this film. This is starting to become a trend: I didn’t think much of Rogue One on first viewing, but a second watch reversed my opinion completely. 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—an event that I once thought would never occur again.

My first viewing of The Last Jedi wasn’t helped by having the worst seats in the house. My original plan was to see it with Jessica at a minute past midnight in The Duke Of York’s in Brighton. I bought front-row tickets as soon as they were available. But then it turned out that we were going to be in Seattle at that time instead. We quickly grabbed whatever tickets were left. Those seats were right at the front and far edge of the cinema, so the screen was more trapezoid than rectangular. The lights went down, the fanfare blared, and the opening crawl begin its march up …and to the left. My brain tried to compensate for the perspective effects but it was hard. Is Snoke’s face supposed to look like that? Does that person really have such a tiny head?

But while the spectacle was somewhat marred, the story unfolded in all its surprising delight. I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of having the narrative rug repeatedly pulled out from under me.

I loved the unexpected end of Snoke in his vampiric boudoir. Let’s face it, he was the least interesting part of The Force Awakens—a two-dimensional evil mastermind. To despatch him in the middle of the middle chapter was the biggest signal that The Last Jedi was not simply going to retread the beats of the original trilogy.

I loved the reveal of Rey’s parentage. This was what I had been hoping for—that Rey came from nowhere in particular. After The Force Awakens, I wrote:

Personally, I’d like it if her parentage were unremarkable. Maybe it’s the socialist in me, but I’ve never liked the idea that the Force is based on eugenics; a genetic form of inherited wealth for the lucky 1%. I prefer to think of the Force as something that could potentially be unlocked by anyone who tries hard enough.

But 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! Anil Dash describes this wonderfully in his post Every Last Jedi:

Though it’s well-grounded in the first definitions of The Force that we were introduced to in the original trilogy, The Last Jedi presents a radically inclusive new view of the Force that is bigger and broader than the Jedi religion which has thus-far colored our view of the entire Star Wars universe.

I was less keen on the sudden Force usage by Leia. I think it was the execution more than the idea that bothered me. Still, I realise that the problem lies just as much with me. See, lots of the criticism of this film comes from people (justifiably) saying “That’s not how The Force works!” in relation to Rey, Kylo Ren, or Luke Skywalker. I don’t share that reaction and I want to say, “Hey, who are we to decide how The Force works?”, but then during the Leia near-death scene, I found myself more or less thinking “That’s not how The Force works!”

This would be a good time to remind ourselves that, in the Star Wars universe, you can substitute the words “The Force” for “The Plot”—an invisible agency guiding actions and changing the course of events.

The first time I saw The Last Jedi, I began to really worry during the film’s climactic showdown. I wasn’t so much worried for the fate of the characters in peril; I was worried for the fate of the overarching narrative. When Luke showed up, my heart sank a little. A deus ex machina …and how did he get here exactly? And then when he emerges unscathed from a barrage of walker cannon fire, I thought “Aw no, they’ve changed the Jedi to be like superheroes …but that’s not the way The Force/Plot works!”

And then I had the rug pulled out from under me again. Yes! What a joyous bit of trickery! My faith in The Force/Plot was restored.

I know a lot of people didn’t like the Canto Bight diversion. Jessica described it as being quite prequel-y, and I can see that. And while I agree that any shot involving our heroes riding across the screen (on a Fathier, on a scout walker) just didn’t work, I liked the world-expanding scope of the caper subplot.

Still, I preferred the Galactica-like war of attrition as the Resistance is steadily reduced in size as they try to escape the relentless pursuit of the First Order. It felt like proper space opera. In some ways, it reminded of Alastair Reynolds but without the realism of the laws of physics (there’s nothing quite as egregious here as J.J. Abrams’ cosy galaxy where the destruction of a system can be seen in real time from the surface of another planet, but The Last Jedi showed again that Star Wars remains firmly in the space fantasy genre rather than hard sci-fi).

Oh, and of course I loved the porgs. But then, I never had a problem with ewoks, so treat my appraisal with a pinch of salt.

I loved seeing the west of coast of Ireland get so much screen time. Beehive huts in a Star Wars film! Mind you, that made it harder for me to get immersed in the story. I kept thinking, “Now, is that Skellig Michael? Or is it on the Dingle peninsula? Or Donegal? Or west Clare?”

For all its global success, Star Wars has always had a very personal relationship with everyone it touches. The films themselves are only part of the reason why people respond to them. The other part is what people bring with them; where they are in life at the moment they’re introduced to this world. And frankly, the films are only part of this symbiosis. As much as people like to sneer at the toys and merchandising as a cheap consumerist ploy, they played a significant part in unlocking my imagination. Growing up in a small town on the coast of Ireland, the Star Wars universe—the world, the characters—was a playground for me to make up stories …just as it was for any young child anywhere in the world.

One of my favourite shots in The Last Jedi looks like it could’ve come from the mind of that young child: an X-wing submerged in the waters of the rocky coast of Ireland. It was as though Rian Johnson had a direct line to my childhood self.

And yet, 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.

That said, I completely understand why people might take against this film. Like I said, Rian Johnson makes no concessions. That’s in stark contrast to The Force Awakens. I wrote at the time:

Han Solo picked up the audience like it was a child that had fallen asleep in the car, and he gently tucked us into our familiar childhood room where we can continue to dream. And then, with a tender brush of his hand across the cheek, he left us.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, thrusts us into this new narrative in the same way you might teach someone to swim by throwing them into the ocean from the peak of Skellig Michael. The polarised reactions to the film are from people sinking or swimming.

I choose to swim. To go with it. To let go. To let the past die.

And yet, one of my favourite takeaways from The Last Jedi is how it offers a healthy approach to dealing with events from the past. Y’see, there was always something that bothered me in the original trilogy. It was one of Yoda’s gnomic pronouncements in The Empire Strikes Back:

Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.

That always struck me as a very bro-ish “crushing it” approach to life. That’s why I was delighted that Rian Johnson had Yoda himself refute that attitude completely:

The greatest teacher, failure is.

That’s exactly what Luke needed to hear. It was also what I—many decades removed from my childhood—needed to hear.

Nosediving

Nosedive is the first episode of season three of Black Mirror.

It’s fairly light-hearted by the standards of Black Mirror, but all the more chilling for that. It depicts a dysutopia where people rate one another for points that unlock preferential treatment. It’s like a twisted version of the whuffie from Cory Doctorow’s Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. Cory himself points out that reputation economies are a terrible idea.

Nosedive has become a handy shortcut for pointing to the dangers of social media (in the same way that Minority Report was a handy shortcut for gestural interfaces and Her is a handy shortcut for voice interfaces).

“Social media is bad, m’kay?” is an understandable but, I think, fairly shallow reading of Nosedive. The problem isn’t with the apps, it’s with the system. A world in which we desperately need to keep our score up if we want to have any hope of advancing? That’s a nightmare scenario.

The thing is …that system exists today. Credit scores are literally a means of applying a numeric value to human beings.

Nosedive depicts a world where your score determines which seats you get in a restaurant, or which model of car you can rent. Meanwhile, in our world, your score determines whether or not you can get a mortgage.

Nosedive depicts a world in which you know your own score. Meanwhile, in our world, good luck with that:

It is very difficult for a consumer to know in advance whether they have a high enough credit score to be accepted for credit with a given lender. This situation is due to the complexity and structure of credit scoring, which differs from one lender to another.

Lenders need not reveal their credit score head, nor need they reveal the minimum credit score required for the applicant to be accepted. Owing only to this lack of information to the consumer, it is impossible for him or her to know in advance if they will pass a lender’s credit scoring requirements.

Black Mirror has a good track record of exposing what’s unsavoury about our current time and place. On the surface, Nosedive seems to be an exposé on the dangers of going to far with the presentation of self in everyday life. Scratch a little deeper though, and it reveals an even more uncomfortable truth: that we’re living in a world driven by systems even worse than what’s depicted in this dystopia.

How about this for a nightmare scenario:

Two years ago Douglas Rushkoff had an unpleasant encounter outside his Brooklyn home. Taking out the rubbish on Christmas Eve, he was mugged — held at knife-point by an assailant who took his money, his phone and his bank cards. Shaken, he went back indoors and sent an email to his local residents’ group to warn them about what had happened.

“I got two emails back within the hour,” he says. “Not from people asking if I was OK, but complaining that I’d posted the exact spot where the mugging had taken place — because it might adversely affect their property values.”

Brian Aldiss

After the eclipse I climbed down from the hilltop and reconnected with the world. That’s when I heard the news. Brian Aldiss had passed away.

He had a good innings. A very good innings. He lived to 92 and was writing right up to the end.

I’m trying to remember the first thing I read by Brian Aldiss. I think it might have been The Billion Year Spree, his encyclopaedia of science fiction. The library in my hometown had a copy when I was growing up, and I was devouring everything SF-related.

Decades later I had the great pleasure of meeting the man. It was 2012 and I was in charge of putting together the line-up for that year’s dConstruct. I had the brilliant Lauren Beukes on the line-up all the way from South Africa and I thought it would be fun to organise some kind of sci-fi author event the evening before. Well, one thing led to another: Rifa introduced me to Tim Aldiss, who passed along a request to his father, who kindly agreed to come to Brighton for the event. Then Brighton-based Jeff Noon came on board. The end result was an hour and a half in the company of three fantastic—and fantastically different—authors.

I had the huge honour of moderating the event. Here’s the transcript of that evening and here’s the audio.

That evening and the subsequent dConstruct talks—including the mighty James Burke—combined to create one of the greatest weekends of my life. Seriously. I thought it was just me, but Chris has also written about how special that author event was.

Brian Aldiss, Jeff Noon, and Lauren Beukes on the Brighton SF panel, chaired by Jeremy Keith

Brian Aldiss was simply wonderful that evening. He regaled us with the most marvellous stories, at times hilarious, at other times incredibly touching. He was a true gentleman.

I’m so grateful that I’ll always have the memory of that evening. I’m also very grateful that I have so many Brian Aldiss books still to read.

I’ve barely made a dent into the ludicrously prolific output of the man. I’ve read just some of his books:

  • Non-stop—I’m a sucker for generation starship stories,
  • Hothouse—ludicrously lush and trippy,
  • Greybeard—a grim vision of a childless world before Children Of Men,
  • The Hand-reared Boy—filthy, honest and beautifully written,
  • Heliconia Spring—a deep-time epic …and I haven’t even read the next two books in the series!

Then there are the short stories. Hundreds of ‘em! Most famously Super-Toys Last All Summer Long—inspiration for the Kubrick/Spielberg A.I. film. It’s one of the most incredibly sad stories I’ve ever read. I find it hard to read it without weeping.

Passed by a second-hand book stall on the way into work. My defences were down. Not a bad haul for a fiver.

Whenever a great artist dies, it has become a cliché to say that they will live on through their work. In the case of Brian Aldiss and his astounding output, it’s quite literally true. I’m looking forward to many, many years of reading his words.

My sincerest condolences to his son Tim, his partner Alison, and everyone who knew and loved Brian Aldiss.

Aurora

I remember when I was first recommended to read Kim Stanley Robinson. I was chatting with Jon Tan about science fiction, and I was bemoaning the fact that dystopias seem to be the default setting. Asking "what’s the worst that could happen?" is the over-riding pre-occupation of most sci-fi. Black Mirror is the perfect example of this. Mind you, that’s probably why the ambiguous San Junipero is one of my favourites—utopia? dystopia? dystutopia? You decide.

Anyway, Jon told me I should check out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias; one book describes a dystopia, one book describes a utopia, and the other—his debut, The Wild Shore—is more ambiguous. I liked the sound of that, but I decided that if I were going to read Kim Stanley Robinson, I should start with his most famous work, the Mars trilogy.

So I read Red Mars. I liked it, but I found it tough going. It’s not exactly a light read. I still haven’t read Green Mars or Blue Mars, though I plan to. I can see why Red Mars is regarded as a classic of hard sci-fi, but it left me somewhat cold. Jessica read The Years of Rice and Salt and had a similar reaction—good premise, thoroughly researched, but tough going.

When I heard about 2312, I couldn’t resist its promise of a jaunt around the solar system. Again, I enjoyed it, but the plot—such as it was—didn’t grab me. I loved the ideas presented in the book. Heck, it inspired one of my Science Hack Day projects. Still, I found that its literary conceit wasn’t enough to carry the book—a character from Saturn who’s saturnian in nature meets a character from Mercury who’s mercurial in nature.

So I was kind of bracing myself for Aurora. Again, the subject matter really appealed to me. I’m a sucker for generation starships. Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop was a fun read, although in typical Aldiss style, it was weird to the point of psychedelia (even if it looks positively tame next to the batshit crazy world of Hothouse). I was looking forward to reading Robinson’s hard science take on the space ark idea, but I was worried about how much of a slog the writing might be. I read some reviews and listened to some podcasts, and my heart sank when I heard about how the story is partly told by the ship’s AI, who is simultaneously trying to work out how to tell a story. It sounded just like one of those ideas that would be fine for a brief period, but which I could imagine Kim Stanley Robinson dragging out for hundreds of page.

Imagine my surprise when Aurora turned out to be an absolute pleasure. Not only does it have the thoroughly-researched hard science angle of Robinson’s other books, it’s also a rip-roaring tale, in my opinion. I had read of misgivings with the structure of the book—complaints that the story climaxes before the book is halfway done—but I think that misses the point of the story. This is not your typical tale of colonisation. Far from it. Kim Stanley Robinson is quite open about the underlying idea here, that there are certain endeavours that are simply beyond our capacity.

I know that sounds like a very pessimistic view, but I found the book to be a real testament to human ingenuity. But it certainly ruffled quite a few feathers. Like I said, the default setting for most sci-fi is to go negative, but for a sci-fi writer to claim outright that something cannot be done is audacious, and flies in the face of sci-fi tradition.

Gregory Benford wrote a review over on one of my favourite blogs, Centauri Dreams. He takes Robinson to task for stacking the deck against the crew of the ship in Aurora—an inversion of the usual deus ex machina plot devices. I find that criticism puzzling when another review, also on Centauri Dreams, by Stephen Baxter, James Benford and Joseph Miller, takes the book to task for being scientifically naïve.

For me, Aurora was perfectly balanced. It simultaneously captured the wonder of scientific exploration and our own insignificance in the universe. Best of all, it featured central characters that I was utterly invested in—one human, and one artificial. Given my previous experiences with Kim Stanley Robinson books, that was perhaps its greatest achievement. Whereas I might have previously recommended something like 2312, I would have certainly caveated the recommendation. But I wholeheartedly recommend Aurora. It’s easily the best Kim Stanley Robinson book I’ve read so far, and one of the finest science fiction books of recent years. It makes a great companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves—not only are they both dealing with space arks, they’ve also got some in-depth descriptions of angular momentum in action, and they’re both thoroughly enjoyable stories that stretch beyond a single human lifespan.

I’m looking forward to digging back through Kim Stanley Robinson’s back catalogue, and I’m very intrigued by his newest book, New York 2140. From listening to his Long Now talk at The Interval, it sounds like the book has as much to say about near-future economics as it does about climate change.

It’s ironic though. Kim Stanley Robinson was first recommended to me because he was one of the few sci-fi writers unafraid to depict a utopia. But his writing never clicked with me until I read Aurora, whose central message sounds like the ultimate downer …that some scientific achievements will forever remain out of reach for humanity.

A minority report on artificial intelligence

Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.

It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.

At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.

Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.

The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.

But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:

It helps not to think of them as human.

To which the response is:

No, they’re so much more than that.

Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.

Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.

Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.

Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.

Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.

When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.

Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…

Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.

At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.

Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.

There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.

The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:

SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.