The Ballad Of Halo Jones is 35 years old this year.
Where did she go? Out.
What did she do? Everything.
The Ballad Of Halo Jones is 35 years old this year.
Where did she go? Out.
What did she do? Everything.
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.
Speculative fiction as a tool for change:
We need to think harder about the future and ask: What if our policies, institutions, and societies didn’t have to be organized as they are now? Good science fiction taps us into a rich seam of radical answers to this question.
Nick Harkaway on technology in fiction:
Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet.
SF is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, SF has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that.
And on Borges:
He was a genius, and he left this cryptic, brilliant body of work that’s poetic, incomplete, astonishing. It’s like a tasting menu in a restaurant where they let you smell things that go to other tables and never arrive at yours.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frustratingly inconsistent. Here’s my full review.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A deep dive into Pixar’s sci-fi masterpiece, featuring entertaining detours to communist propaganda and Disney theme parks.
The terrific Hugo-winning short story about inequality, urban planning, and automation, written by Hao Jinfang and translated by Ken Liu (who translated The Three Body Problem series).
Hao Jinfang also wrote this essay about the story:
I’ve been troubled by inequality for a long time. When I majored in physics as an undergraduate, I once stared at the distribution curve for American household income that showed profound inequality, and tried to fit the data against black-body distribution or Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution. I wanted to know how such a curve came about, and whether it implied some kind of universality: something as natural as particle energy distribution functions, so natural it led to despair.
Chris is putting his examination of interfaces in science fiction on pause while he examines a more pressing matter for today’s political climate—an examination of depictions of fascism in science fiction:
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.
From Frederik Pohl’s 1966 novel:
The remote-access computer transponder called the “joymaker” is your most valuable single possession in your new life. If you can imagine a combination of telephone, credit card, alarm clock, pocket bar, reference library, and full-time secretary, you will have sketched some of the functions provided by your joymaker.
Essentially, it is a transponder connecting you with the central computing facilities of the city in which you reside on a shared-time, self-programming basis.
A near-future sci-fi short by Hannu Rajaniemi that’s right on the zeitgest money.
The app in her AR glasses showed the car icon crawling along the winding forest road. In a few minutes, it would reach the sharp right turn where the road met the lake. The turn was marked by a road sign she had carefully defaced the previous day, with tiny dabs of white paint. Nearly invisible to a human, they nevertheless fooled image recognition nets into classifying the sign as a tree.
A collection of sci-fi short stories, featuring Becky Chambers and Madeline Ashby …and it’s free!
Between the utopian and dystopian, which vision of the future seems more likely to you? Which vision seems more true to how we currently live with technology, in the form of our smartphones and social media apps?
Prompted by his time at Clearleft’s AI gathering in Juvet, Chris has been delving deep into the stories we tell about artificial intelligence …and what stories are missing.
And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?
This forthcoming documentary on Ursula K. Le Guin looks like it will be very good indeed.
I’ve been enjoying the stories over on Upsideclown so it’s great to get a peak inside Matt’s writing brain here.
I also happen to really, really like his four stories:
I wouldn’t say I’m great at writing fiction. I find it tough. It is the easiest thing in the world for me to pick holes in what I’ve written. So instead, as an exercise—and as some personal positive reinforcement—I want to remind myself what I learnt writing each one, and also what I like.