A profile of the life and work of the brilliant Octavia E. Butler.
Saturday, November 19th, 2022
Monday, October 17th, 2022
This observation feels spot-on to me:
The shift that I noticed, totally anecdotally, is literary writers are starting to write more dystopian climate futures and science fiction writers are starting to write about climate solutions.
Tuesday, September 27th, 2022
I really like the format of this bit of journo-fiction. An interview from the future looking back at the turning point of today.
It probably helps that I’m into nuclearpunk just as much as solarpunk, so I approve this message.
Atomkraft? Ja, bitte!
Thursday, September 15th, 2022
As designers, with every new project we tend to leverage existing symbols and reinforce their meaning to be able to benefit from mental associations people will naturally make. But we also have the power to modify and repurpose those symbols, should that be our intention.
Tuesday, September 13th, 2022
Wednesday, July 20th, 2022
Not much stays in one place for one long, especially when it comes to digital artifacts. When the Yahoo Groups archive was summarily deleted by parent company Verizon just a few years ago, fandom suffered massive losses, just as it had during the Livejournal purges of the late 02000s, and during the Tumblr porn ban in 02018. Fandom preservation, then, ties into the larger issue of digital preservation as a whole, and specifically the question of how individual and group emotions and experiences — which make up so much of what it means to be a fan — can be effectively documented, annotated, and saved.
Tuesday, July 19th, 2022
Monday, July 11th, 2022
We have been seduced by Harari because of the power not of his truth or scholarship but of his storytelling. As a scientist, I know how difficult it is to spin complex issues into appealing and accurate storytelling. I also know when science is being sacrificed to sensationalism. Yuval Harari is what I call a “science populist.” (Canadian clinical psychologist and YouTube guru Jordan Peterson is another example.) Science populists are gifted storytellers who weave sensationalist yarns around scientific “facts” in simple, emotionally persuasive language. Their narratives are largely scrubbed clean of nuance or doubt, giving them a false air of authority—and making their message even more convincing. Like their political counterparts, science populists are sources of misinformation. They promote false crises, while presenting themselves as having the answers. They understand the seduction of a story well told—relentlessly seeking to expand their audience—never mind that the underlying science is warped in the pursuit of fame and influence.
Harari has seduced us with his storytelling, but a close look at his record shows that he sacrifices science to sensationalism, often makes grave factual errors, and portrays what should be speculative as certain.
Wednesday, June 29th, 2022
I’ve mentioned before that I like to read a mixture of fiction of non-fiction. In fact, I try to alternate between the two. If I’ve just read some non-fiction, then I’ll follow it with a novel and I’ve just read some fiction, then I’ll follow it with some non-fiction.
But those categorisations can be slippery. I recently read two books that were ostensibly fiction but were strongly autobiographical and didn’t have the usual narrative structure of a novel.
Just to clarify, I’m not complaining! Quite the opposite. I enjoy the discomfort of not being able to pigeonhole a piece of writing so easily.
Also, both books were excellent.
The first one was A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s sort of about the narrator’s obsessive quest to translate the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. But it’s also about the translator’s life, which mirrors the author’s. And it’s about all life—life in its bodily, milky, bloody, crungey reality. The writing is astonishing, creating an earthy musky atmosphere. It feels vibrant and new but somehow ancient and eternal at the same time.
By contrast, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood is rooted in technology. Reading the book feels like scrolling through Twitter, complete with nervous anxiety. Again, the narrator’s life mirrors that of the author, but this time the style has more of the arch detachment of the modern networked world.
It took me a little while at first, but then I settled into the book’s cadence and vibe. Then, once I felt like I had a handle on the kind of book I was reading, it began to subtly change. I won’t reveal how, because I want you to experience that change for yourself. It’s like a slow-building sucker punch.
When I started reading No One Is Talking About This, I thought it might end up being the kind of book where I would admire the writing, but it didn’t seem like a work that invited emotional connection.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I can’t remember the last time a book had such an emotional impact on me. Maybe that’s because it so deliberately lowered my defences, but damn, when I finished reading the book, I was in pieces.
Sunday, June 5th, 2022
A century of sci-fi book covers.
Sunday, May 29th, 2022
Cardigans are not entirely necessary for a show or a film to fit within the Cardigan sci-fi subgenre (although they certainly help). It’s the lack of polish in the world, it’s the absence of technological fetishism in the science fiction itself. The science or the tools or the spaceships do not sit at the heart of Cardigan sci-fi — it’s all about the people that wear the cardigans instead.
Thursday, April 28th, 2022
The best climate fiction can do more than spur us to action to save the world we have — it can help us conceptualize the worlds, both beautiful and dire, that may lie ahead. These stories can be maps to the future, tools for understanding the complex systems that intertwine with the changing climates to come.
Monday, January 31st, 2022
Chip Delaney and Octavia Butler on a panel together in 1998 when hypertext and “cyberspace” are in the air. Here’s Octavia Butler on her process (which reminds me of when I’m preparing a conference talk):
I generally have four or five books open around the house—I live alone; I can do this—and they are not books on the same subject. They don’t relate to each other in any particular way, and the ideas they present bounce off one another. And I like this effect. I also listen to audio-books, and I’ll go out for my morning walk with tapes from two very different audio-books, and let those ideas bounce off each other, simmer, reproduce in some odd way, so that I come up with ideas that I might not have come up with if I had simply stuck to one book until I was done with it and then gone and picked up another.
So, I guess, in that way, I’m using a kind of primitive hypertext.
I’ve only read three of these five books, but after reading this rollicking interview with Eric Schwitzgebel, I’ve added the other two recommendations to my wishlist.
Thursday, December 30th, 2021
Books I read in 2021
I’m glad that I’m tracking my reading here on my own site. About halfway through the year I thought that I was doing a pretty good job of reading a mix of books from men and women, but a glance at my reading list showed that wasn’t the case at all and I was able to adjust my intake accordingly. I wasn’t doing as badly as some but by just keeping an ongoing reading list is a handy to spot any worrying trends.
I continued my practice of alternating between fiction and non-fiction. It’s working for me.
Now that the year is at an end, I’m going to my traditional round-up and give a little review of each book. I’m also going to engage in the pointless and annoying practice of assigning a rating out of five stars for each book.
- a one-star book would be rubbish,
- a two-star book would be perfectly fine,
- a three-star book would be good,
- a four-star book would be excellent, and
- a five-star book is unheard of.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
I was reading this at the end of 2020 and finished it at the start of 2021. I let it wash over me, which I think is how this impressionistic and rightly short book is meant to be enjoyed. But I might just be telling myself that because I wasn’t following it closely enough.
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
A terrific book about human nature. As I wrote at the time, it makes a great companion piece to—and is influenced by—Rebecca Solnit’s excellent A Paradise Built In Hell.
The only frustrating facet of Bregman’s book is that it’s also influenced by Yuval Noah Harari’s mess Sapiens. That’s probably where it gets its wrong-headed fantasy about the evils of the agricultural revolution and the glories of a pre-civilisational nomadic lifestyle. Fortunately it sounds like this pernicious myth is in for a well-earned skewering in Davids Graeber and Wengrow’s new book The Dawn of Everything
Apart from that though, Humankind is pretty darn wonderful.
The Stinging Fly Issue 43/Volume Two Winter 2020-21 — The Galway 2020 Edition edited by Lisa McInerney and Elaine Feeney
Reading this collection of stories, poems and essays was my way of travelling to Galway when a global pandemic prevented me from actually going there. The quality was consistently high and some of the stories really stayed with me.
The Moment of Eclipse by Brian Aldiss
Another pulp paperback of short stories from Brian Aldiss. I wrote about reading this book.
Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood
Reading a title from A Book Apart almost feels like a cheat—the books are laser-focused into a perfectly brief length. This one is no exception and the topic is one that every web designer and developer needs to be versed in.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
A thoroughly enjoyable first-contact story set in Nigeria. It’s absolutely dripping in atmosphere and features fully-formed characters that feel grounded even when in the middle of fantastical events.
Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans
Yeah, that’s right: five stars! This books is superb, the perfect mix of subject matter and style as I wrote as soon as I finished it. What a writer!
British Ice by Owen D. Pomery
This is a bit of a cheat on my part. It’s a short graphic novel, and the story is told more through pictures than words. The story is somewhat slight but the imagary, like the landscape being described, is hauntingly sparse.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
This one divided opinion. I thought that, on the whole, the novel worked. There are moments of seeing the world through a robot’s eyes that feel truly alien. It’s not in the same league as Never Let Me Go, but it does share the same feeling of bleak inevitability. So not a feelgood book then.
It pairs nicely with Ian McEwan’s recent Machines Like Us to see how two respected mainstream authors approach a genre topic.
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez
Sharp and scathing, this is a thorough exposé. Sometimes it feels a little too thorough—there are a lot of data points that might have been better placed in footnotes. Then again, the whole point of this book is that the data really, really matters so I totally get why it’s presented this way.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Properly good human-level space opera with oodles of political intrigue. I will definitely be reading the next book in the series.
My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn
I really enjoyed this account of the friendship between Tracey Thorn and Lindy Morrison. I’m a huge Go-Betweens fan, but the band’s story is almost always told from the perspective of the boys, Grant and Robert. You could say that those narratives have (puts on sunglasses) …Everything But The Girl.
Anyway, this was a refreshing alternative. Writing about music is notoriously tricky, but this might be the best biography of a musician I’ve read.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
I loved this! If I tried to give a plot synopsis, it would sound ridiculous, like someone describing their dreams. But somehow this works in a way that feels cohesive and perfectly internally consistent. Just read it—you won’t regret it.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
I enjoy reading books about the craft of writing and this is one that I had been meaning to read for years. It didn’t disappoint. That said, I think I might have enjoyed it more as an autobiography of an American childhood than as a guide to writing. Some of the writing advice is dispensed as gospel when really, that’s just like your opinion, man.
A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction edited by Jack Fennell
A quirky collection of 19th century and early 20th century short stories. Today we’d probably classify them as fantasy more than science fiction. What was really interesting was reading the biographies of the writers. The collection has an impressive amount of stories by fascinating women. Kudos to Jack Fennell for the curation.
Let The Game Do Its Work by J.M. Berger
An enjoyable little study of dystopian film sports (I’ve always wanted to do a movie marathon on that theme). The format of this work is interesting. It’s not a full-length book. Instead it’s like a quick exploration of the topic to see whether it should be a full-length book. Personally, I think this is enough. Frankly, I can think of plenty of full-length non-fiction books that should’ve been more like this length.
The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
Sci-fi? Fantasy? Magical realism? This has a premise that’s tricky to pull off, but it works. That said, I think it could’ve been shorter. I enjoyed this but I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any sequels.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Roennlund
Wonderful! A book about facts and figures with a very human soul. It can be summed up in this quote:
The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.
Sometimes the self-effacing style of the late Hans Rosling can be a little grating, but overall this is a perfectly balanced book.
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison
Dripping with creepy Brexity atmosphere, this is more of a slow rising damp than a slow burn. But while the writing is terrific at the sentence level, it didn’t quite pull me in as a book. I admired it more than I enjoyed it.
The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
More escapist wish fulfilment in the Lady Astronaut series. These books aren’t great literature by any stretch, but I find the premise of an alternative history of the space race very appealing (like For All Mankind). This third book has a change of narrator and a change of scene: the moon.
Let It Go: My Extraordinary Story - From Refugee to Entrepreneur to Philanthropist by Dame Stephanie Shirley
Absolutely brilliant! Both the book and the author, I mean. Steve Shirley is a hero of mine so it’s gratifying to find that she’s a great writer along with being a great person. Her story is by turns astonishing and heartbreaking. She conveys it all in an honest, heartfelt, but matter-of-fact manner.
I didn’t expect to find resonances in here about my own work, but it turns out that Clearleft wouldn’t have been able to become an employee-owned company without the groundwork laid down by Steve Shirley.
If you’re ever tempted to read some self-help business autobiography by some dude from Silicon Valley, don’t—read this instead.
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
The third in the Binti series of novellas is just as good as the previous two. This is crying out to be turned into a television show that I would most definitely watch.
Design For Safety by Eva PenzeyMoog
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Excellent writing once again from Octavia Butler. Like Kindred, this can be harrowing at times but there’s a central core of humanity running through even the darkest moments. I’ll definitely be reading Parable of the Talents.
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
I wasn’t that into the first book in the Wayfarers series. I enjoyed the second one more. When it came to this third installment, I was completely won over. I was in just the right mood for it after the heaviness of Parable of the Sower. There’s not much in the way of threat, but plenty in the way of warmth. I’m also a sucker for stories of generation starships.
The Road from Castlebarnagh: Growing Up in Irish Music, A Memoir by Paddy O’Brien
An enjoyable series of vignettes told from the viewpoint of a young boy growing up in rural Ireland. I was hoping for more stories of the music, but if you’re involved in trad music in any way, this is well worth a read.
Now it’s time to choose one book of the year from the fiction stack and one book of the year from non-fiction.
In any other year I think Parable of the Sower would be the fiction winner, but this year I’m going to have to go for Piranesi.
There’s stiff competition in the non-fiction category: Humankind, Factfulness, and Let It Go are all excellent. But it’s got to be Broad Band.
Most of these books are available on Bookshop if you fancy reading any of them.
And for context, here’s:
Sunday, November 7th, 2021
Ben is writing a chapter a day of this cli-fi story. You can subscribe to the book by email or RSS.
Sunday, October 24th, 2021
“Dune,” “Foundation,” and the Allure of Science Fiction that Thinks Long-Term — Blog of the Long Now
Comparing and contrasting two different takes on long-term thinking in sci-fi: Dune and Foundation.
In a moment of broader cultural gloominess, Dune’s perspective may resonate more with the current movie-going public. Its themes of long-term ecological destruction, terraforming, and the specter of religious extremism seem in many ways ripped out of the headlines, while Asimov’s technocratic belief in scholarly wisdom as a shining light may be less in vogue. Ultimately, though, the core appeal of these works is not in how each matches with the fashion of today, but in how they look forward through thousands of years of human futures, keeping our imagination of long-term thinking alive.
Wednesday, October 20th, 2021
A great little sci-fi short film from Superflux—a mockumentary from the near future. It starts dystopian but then gets more solarpunk.
Sunday, October 3rd, 2021
Twelve short stories of solarpunk cli-fi “envisioning the next 180 years of equitable climate progress.”
Whether built on abundance or adaptation, reform or a new understanding of survival, these stories provide flickers of hope, even joy, and serve as a springboard for exploring how fiction can help create a better reality.
Saturday, October 2nd, 2021
These days I tend to think of dystopias as being fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent, because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through.
Kim Stanley Robinson on dystopias and utopias.
The energy flows on this planet, and humanity’s current technological expertise, are together such that it’s physically possible for us to construct a worldwide civilization—meaning a political order—that provides adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, education, and health care for all eight billion humans, while also protecting the livelihood of all the remaining mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, plants, and other life-forms that we share and co-create this biosphere with. Obviously there are complications, but these are just complications. They are not physical limitations we can’t overcome. So, granting the complications and difficulties, the task at hand is to imagine ways forward to that better place.