Tags: nonfiction

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Monday, July 11th, 2022

The Dangerous Populist Science of Yuval Noah Harari ❧ Current Affairs

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.

This tracks.

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.

Thursday, December 30th, 2021

Books I read in 2021

I read 26 books in 2021, which is a bit more than I read in 2020. That said, some of them were brief books. I don’t think I actually read any more than my usual annual allotment of words.

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.

To calibrate:

  • 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

★★★☆☆

Another excellent addition to the canon of A Book Apart. I found myself noting down quotations that really resonated.

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.

Responsible JavaScript by Jeremy Wagner

★★★☆☆

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that this book was right up my alley. I was nodding my head vigorously at many passages. While I might talk about progressive enhancement at the theoretical level, my fellow Jeremy dives deep into the practicalities. If you write JavaScript, you have to read this book.

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:

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Broad Band

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

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

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

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

I absolutely loved it. So did Cory Doctorow:

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

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

Yes! That!

Read it for yourself and see what you think.

Thursday, December 31st, 2020

Books I read in 2020

I only read twenty books this year. Considering the ample amount of free time I had, that’s not great. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Yes, I may have spent more time watching television than reading, but I’m cutting myself some slack. It was 2020, for crying out loud.

Anyway, here’s my annual round-up with reviews. Anything with three stars is good. Four stars is really good. Five stars is practically unheard of. As usual, I tried to get an equal balance of fiction and non-fiction.

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

An enjoyable sequal to Ninefox Gambit. There are some convoluted politics but that all seems positively straightforward after the brain-bending calendrical warfare introduced in the first book.

The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society by Norbert Wiener

★★★☆☆

The ur-text on systems and feedback. Reading it now is like reading a historical artifact but many of the ideas are timeless. It’s a bit dense in parts and it tries to cover life, the universe and everything, but when you remember that it was written in 1950, it’s clearly visionary.

The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★☆☆

Simultaneously a ripping yarn and a spiritual meditation. It’s Vietnam and the environmental movement rolled into one (like what Avatar attempted, but this actually works).

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

★★★★☆

Here’s my full review.

A Short History Of Irish Traditional Music by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

★★☆☆☆

A perfectly fine and accurate history of the music, but it’s a bit like reading Wikipedia. Still, it was quite the ego boost to see The Session listed in the appendix.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

★★★☆☆

McEwan’s first foray into science fiction is a good tale but a little clumsily told. It’s like he really wants to show how much research he put into his alternative history. There are moments when characters practically turn to the camera to say, “Imagine how the world would’ve turned out if…” It’s far from McEwan’s best but even when he’s not on top form, his writing is damn good.

The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch

★★★☆☆

I’ve attempted to read this before. I may have even read it all before and had everything just leak out of my head. The problem is with me, not David Deutsch who does a fine job of making complex ideas approachable. This is like a unified theory of everything.

Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

The third and final part of Aldiss’s epic is just as enjoyable as the previous two. The characters aren’t the main attraction here. It’s all about the planetary ballet.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

★★★★☆

A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.

A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★☆

There’s a real pleasure in finally reading books that you should’ve read years ago. I can only imagine how wonderful it would’ve been to read these as a teenager. It’s an immersive world but there’s something melancholy about the writing that makes the experience of reading less escapist and more haunting.

Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

★★★★★

Absolutely superb! I liked Angela Saini’s previous book, Inferior, but I loved this. It’s a harrowing read at times, but written with incredible clarity and empathy. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Purple People by Kate Bulpitt

★★★★☆

Full disclosure: Kate is a friend of mine, so I probably can’t evaluate her book in a disinterested way. That said, I enjoyed the heck out of this and I think you will too. It’s very hard to classify and I think that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Technically, it’s sci-fi I suppose—an alternative history tale, probably—but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s all about the characters, and they’re all vividly realised. Honestly, I’m not sure how best to describe it—other then it being like the inside of Kate’s head—but the description of it being “a jolly dystopia” comes close. Take a chance and give it a go.

How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford

★★★☆☆

Good stuff from Adam Rutherford, though not his best. If I hadn’t already read Angela Saini’s Superior I might’ve rated this higher, but it pales somewhat by comparison. Still, it was interesting to see the same subject matter tackled in two different ways.

Agency by William Gibson

★★☆☆☆

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Agency, but there’s nothing particularly great about it either. It’s just there. Maybe I’m being overly harsh because the first book, The Peripheral, was absolutely brilliant. This reminded me of reading Gibson’s Spook Country, which left me equally unimpressed. That book was sandwiched between the brilliant Pattern Recognition and the equally brilliant Zero History. That bodes well for the forthcoming third book in this series. This second book just feels like filler.

Last Night’s Fun: In And Out Of Time With Irish Music by Ciaran Carson

★★★☆☆

It’s hard to describe this book. Memoir? Meditation? Blog? I kind of like that about it, but I can see how it divides opinion. Some people love it. Some people hate it. I thought it was enjoyable enough. But it doesn’t matter what I think. This book is doing its own thing.

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

The third book in the Machineries of Empire series has much less befuddlement. It’s even downright humourous in places. If you liked Ninefox Gambit and Raven Strategem, you’ll enjoy this too.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

★★★☆☆

The central thesis of this book is refuting the Hobbesian view of humanity as being one crisis away from breakdown. I feel like that argument was made more strongly in Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball. But where this book shines is in its vivid description of past catastrophes and their aftermaths: the San Francisco fire; the Halifax explosion; the Mexico City earthquake; and the culmination with Katrina hitting New Orleans. I was less keen on the more blog-like personal musings but overall, this is well worth reading.

Blindsight by Peter Watts

★★☆☆☆

I like a good tale of first contact, and I had heard that this one had a good twist on the Fermi paradox. But it felt a bit like a short story stretched to the length of a novel. It would make for a good Twilight Zone episode but it didn’t sustain my interest.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I’m still reading this Hugo-winning novella and enjoying it so far.


Alright, time to wrap up this look back at the books I read in 2020 and pick my favourites: one fiction and one non-fiction.

My favourite non-fiction book of the year was easily Superior by Angela Saini. Read it. It’s superb.

What about fiction? Hmm …this is tricky.

You know what? I’m going to go for Purple People by Kate Bulpitt. Yes, she’s a friend (“it’s a fix!”) but it genuinely made an impression on me: it was an enjoyable romp while I was reading it, and it stayed with me afterwards too.

Head on over to Bookshop and pick up a copy.

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

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.

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019

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.

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.

Sunday, September 2nd, 2018

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.

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

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.