Sunday, January 6th, 2019
Friday, December 28th, 2018
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.
Thursday, December 6th, 2018
A deep dive into Pixar’s sci-fi masterpiece, featuring entertaining detours to communist propaganda and Disney theme parks.
Wednesday, November 21st, 2018
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.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
Saturday, September 22nd, 2018
Thursday, September 6th, 2018
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:
Sunday, September 2nd, 2018
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.
Sunday, August 5th, 2018
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.
Thursday, July 12th, 2018
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.
Monday, July 9th, 2018
A collection of sci-fi short stories, featuring Becky Chambers and Madeline Ashby …and it’s free!
Wednesday, June 27th, 2018
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?
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
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?
Sunday, June 3rd, 2018
This forthcoming documentary on Ursula K. Le Guin looks like it will be very good indeed.
Friday, June 1st, 2018
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.
Monday, May 28th, 2018
Thursday, May 17th, 2018
Robin Sloan smushes the video game Fortnite Battle Royale together with Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem trilogy and produces a perfect example of game theory, cooperation, and the prisoner’s dilemma.
Based on my experiments in the laboratory of Fortnite, I think Liu Cixin is wrong. Or at least, he’s not entirely right. Fortnite is more Dark Forest theory than not, and maybe that’s true of the universe, too. But sometimes, we have a lever against the vise of game theory, and in this case, it is a single bit of communication. I mean “bit” in the programmer’s sense: a flag with a designated meaning. Nothing more. My heart emote didn’t make Fortnite cuddly and collaborative, but it did allow me to communicate: “Hold up. Let’s do this a different way.”
Tuesday, April 17th, 2018
Design fiction from the UK parliament. I mean, it’s not exactly a classic of speculative fiction, but it sure beats a white paper.
Friday, April 6th, 2018
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.
There was a time, circa 2009, when no home design story could do without a reference to Mad Men. There is a time, circa 2018, when no personal tech story should do without a Black Mirror reference.
Black Mirror Home. It’s all fun and games until the screaming starts.
When these products go haywire—as they inevitably do—the Black Mirror tweets won’t seem so funny, just as Mad Men curdled, eventually, from ha-ha how far we’ve come to, oh-no we haven’t come far enough.