Favourite books this year
Books have always been an important part of how I understand and connect with the world. Here are some books that made an impression on me in 2016.
In principle, books have always had the power to change my opinions. However, this was the first year that I actively tried to seek out contrary points of view. I may not be consistent at this, but I think it is a worthy goal. And I think that decision was rewarded: some books that I wouldn’t even have considered reading several years ago have been both insightful and enjoyable, and a few of them have made their way onto this list. Naturally, I didn’t include any of the books that I still disagreed with after reading them - mostly in the area of apologetics.
This was also the year I was introduced to fanfiction. I vaguely knew of its existence, and assumed it would be rubbish (it doesn’t have the best reputation). But actual experience has changed my mind. Yes, I still believe there is a lot of fanfiction which is rubbish, some of which I have skimmed through, most of which I have not. Other fanfiction works have very interesting premises, but the writing style is so terrible that it completely puts me off reading it. But some are carefully developed and have a loyal following because they have interesting premises and good writing. And those are the ones that make my list.
While I love science, I have always preferred the “hard”, mathematically based sciences, like physics, and have dismissed biology as the “squishy science”. You may judge my surprise at finding that my three top picks for the non-fiction section all had a lot to do with biology. In fairness, they also have connections to other areas I’m interested in, particularly history, society, and religion. I’ve also read a number of other memoirs and historical books, but while they have been interesting they haven’t had the impact of these books.
(note: they are numbered for convenience, not in order of preference).
1. Why Evolution is True
I think this is a thorough, well-argued book. But to understand what it meant to me this year, you need to understand where I was at when I read it.
When I started this book, I didn’t really believe in God. I also knew of various pieces of evidence that pointed towards evolution having occurred, and thought “Since it’s the most popular explanation which doesn’t involve God, I guess I should accept it.” But I still had concerns with evolution, and didn’t really intellectually accept that it was sufficient to explain the diversity of life on earth. This book showed me that my concerns were ill-founded. It gives evidence from a wide range of areas: embryology, biogeographical distribution, the fossil record, genetics, the new species originating today (both in the lab and in the wild), and several other areas. It demonstrates why we would expect to see the evidence we do see (rather than the croco-ducks and missing links loved by creationists), and what that evidence shows. And, unlike what you may hear about evolution being unscientific because it’s all past history, it also shows predictions made in advance that were confirmed by later fossil discoveries, reproduced in the lab, or explored through various simulations.
Basically, though, it made sense, it was interesting, and it taught me a lot that I was unaware of. Put together, that meant I was able to conclude with confidence that evolution had the best explanatory power of all the theories I knew, not just “I guess I’ll have to accept it”. If I had still believed in the Christian God, this book would probably have pushed me into being a reluctant “Theistic Evolutionist” or “Evolutionary Creationist”. Seeing as I did not, it was probably the last step in acknowledging to myself that I was an atheist, since the beauty of creation was my last real hold out. A lot of weight to freight one book with, perhaps. But even without all those personal biases it’s still a pretty interesting book.
2. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
This book suggests that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction event, and that it is human caused. There are really two threads interleaved through this book. The first is a discussion of the past five mass extinction events: how we learned about them, what we know (or guess) about their cause, and what the results were. The second is a discussion of (mostly) human caused extinctions in the recent past, and current threats. How we have subverted the “natural order” to stay alive and to spread round the world, and some of the consequences (mostly unintended) of our resource hunger and need to control and shape the world.
It comments on the curious fact (probably not coincidental) that we only started to learn the full magnitude of past extinction events as we set up a present one. Without global travel we might never have known the full diversity of life and how much geographical isolation was responsible for it. But that same global travel completely undermines that geographical isolation and changes the balance of species. We are picking the winners and losers: sometimes deliberately, but often accidentally.
One of the most important things I took from the book was the reminder that the traits that make a species successful don’t guarantee that that species will stay successful. There are times when the rules change. Faced with the unexpected, those successful characteristics could even become fatal. This has been shown in past mass extinction events (most famously the dinosaurs), and more recently when humanity came to the party and drove mammoths, mastodons, and our own Australian mega-fauna to extinction. It is shown in the present as more otherwise well-adapted species slide to endangered and then “presumed extinct”. And it is true for humanity, as well. We have been spectacularly successful, and now cover the globe and dominate it. But that is no guarantee that we will continue to be successful.
Finally, an interesting reminder: mammals were around when the dinosaurs ruled, but really only got their chance when the dinosaurs were wiped out in the last mass extinction. That has resulted in much of the biodiversity we see around us, including us. If we fall, in a mass extinction event of our own making, what new species will emerge? How will the world look? Among other things, this book suggests that the adaptability and global spread of rats could put them in a good position to diversify, grow in size, and ultimately perhaps develop intelligence and take over. It is not a history that any of us will see (none of us can really expect to see the extinction of humanity), but it is interesting to think about. What would highly intelligent giant rats look like?
Sapiens tells the grand story of human history sweepingly and elegantly, and it makes a lot of sense. It reminds us of where we’ve come from and some of the key breakthroughs, shows us where we are now, and speculates on what the future might look like. It is very clear, with lots of single sentence descriptions of a complex concept where I was left thinking “of course that’s the right way to present that concept”.
As a software developer, one of the most interesting ideas was that much of the success of homo sapiens was due to software, native adaptability, and tools rather than to hardware changes (e.g. genetics). This allowed humanity to move much more swiftly than ordinary evolutionary timelines allow, doing things like dominating the oceans with boats and the Arctic with borrowed fur coats. The book demonstrated that much of our social organisation is based on “shared myths” rather than an objective reality or a genetic basis. At times this is challenging: who really wants our core values dismissed as “shared myths”? But it is also liberating: like software, these ideas can be altered and propagated without fiddling with genetics. This means we have the power to work together to change and improve the way we view the world. The status quo now is different from the status quo several hundred or several thousand years ago, and we can continue to change it.
I liked the way this book presented a view of humanity and its progress that was both positive and negative. It was positive in that you can see a history of remarkable improvements that we just take for granted. It was negative in that it shows over and over again that these improvements don’t necessarily make us happier or better off, and that we continue to face an uncertain future.
Exploring that future, it also surveys longer-term possibilities for humanity based on current and possible technologies. Things like genetic engineering, cyborgs, and uploading brains to the cloud. If we face the challenges and continue to adapt, how long before we can’t really be called homo sapiens any more?
One of the things I notice is that, while my list has more fiction than non-fiction, there is a lot of non-fiction in these books. Whether it’s the thought experiments of Ted Chiang, the counter-apologetics of Cross Examined, the rationalist approach of HPMOR, or the serious occurrences of In God’s House, great fiction is not just about made up stories and escapism. Fiction can often be used to explore ideas and concepts, to persuade, to present a worldview, or to shine a new light on humanity. Personally, I try to alternate my reading fifty-fifty between fiction and non-fiction, though I still expect to learn from the fiction I read.
1. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR)
The premise for HPMOR is very simple: imagine if, rather than being brought up by uncaring Muggles, Harry Potter had been brought up by a loving couple and trained to use the scientific method. But that simple premise leads to a well-written and exceedingly long book. In among many fascinating plot twists are large chunks of the author’s writings and thoughts on rational thinking (I said I liked non-fiction…) If you’ve ever wondered about arbitrary parts of the originals, things like “Why do you need three drops of Veritaserum?” and “What limits apply to the use of Time Turners?”, HPMOR suggests answers. JK Rowling’s universe was carefully thought out, but this universe is generally much more logical.
Several characters with minor roles in the originals are developed in more detail and done well: particularly the very professional and realistic paranoia of “Constant Vigilance” Alastor Moody and the diligence, loyalty, and “normalness” of Professor McGonagall. And as for Professor Quirrell, he’s a whole new character entirely.
The rationalist approach also makes it darker than the originals. Not just because it has violent scenes, but because it delves much more into moral conundrums where there is no perfect “right” answer. It includes many thinly veiled swipes at the originals. Some plot arcs feel like they go on for a hundred pages and could easily be omitted. But in spite of its seriousness, it also contains a lot of humour. I probably laughed more while reading HPMOR than any other book I have read this year, and that’s not just due to its length. (don’t trust me on that, though, as I’m known to have a warped sense of humour).
Overall I thought it wonderful, and incredibly gripping. On several occasions it kept me up reading after 3 AM (once till 5 AM), which I don’t think I ever found with the originals (though they may just have kept me up after 2 AM). It also contains some of the most beautiful and inspiring passages I’ve ever read. Chapters 19 - 20 and chapter 45 come particularly to mind, though I don’t know how much sense those chapters make without reading the rest of the book.
2. Following the Phoenix
As this is a “single point of departure” spin-off (starting from HPMOR chapter 81), it doesn’t make sense reading it without having first read HPMOR. It was well-written, had some great sections, and is in a style that seemed consistent with HPMOR. It is also probably even more violent than HPMOR.
As a generalisation, I prefer HPMOR. But I think the conclusion of this version is considerably more satisfying than the conclusion of HPMOR. And the Epilogue is absolutely beautiful. It picks up on one of the most beautiful sections of HPMOR referenced above, and amplifies it to the point where it can make me cry (though, as above, I don’t warrant my sense of beauty is any more reliable than my sense of humour).
3. Harry Potter and the Nightmares of Futures Past (NoFP)
As with HPMOR, this story has a simple premise: The 30 year old Harry Potter wins, but has nothing left to live for. That is, until he finds a way to send his memories through time to the 11 year old Harry Potter, to give him a chance to do it all again and do it better.
The timelines diverge (as you would expect), and it becomes a fairly independent world with some awesome scenarios. But, despite the diverging timelines, sometimes it sticks very close to canon. And sometimes it doesn’t. And you can never quite tell which is which in advance. Just be aware that it was started before Deathly Hallows was released, and the different world assumptions made as a result can be jarring until you get used to them.
Like HPMOR, it is very long. Unlike HPMOR, it is more focused, with fewer digressions of marginal relevance. Characters are developed in a way that is generally consistent with canon, but sometimes at completely different speeds (talking of character, it reminded me how much I like Luna Lovegood as a character. And she’s certainly not the only character to like in NoFP). Like HPMOR, I binge-read it at times, and read to the end one long Saturday when I probably had better things to do. I don’t know if that’s a recommendation or not (trivia: despite being a completely different work, I came across it because it was recommended by the author of HPMOR).
Unfortunately, it is far from finished, and as the author has had serious health problems it could be a while before it is continued. The last published chapter has just had the names chosen for the Tri-wizard Cup, which is less than half-way through Harry’s seven year adventure. But, finished or not, I think it’s well worth reading.
On a personal level, it also taught me some lessons on friendship I didn’t know I needed (though I won’t say I’m a great student!)
4. Cross Examined
If you’ve ever read a Christian novel where an unbeliever eventually embraces the saving name of Christ, this book is similar but in the opposite direction. The author runs the Cross Examined blog (which I highly recommend), and you could be forgiven at times for thinking sections have migrated directly from the blog to the novel. Since I like the blog and I like non-fiction, that suits me fine, but your mileage may vary. If nothing else, it was good to see Christians didn’t have a monopoly on enjoyable but unrealistic novels partially driven by wishful thinking.
At the time, I thought it good but not great, so it surprised me that it ended up on this list. However, I’ve referred back to it a number of times in the six months since I read it, so it was clearly important to me. I think it portrays the process of doubt, of debate, and of apologetic reasoning with great clarity in some sections. Some of the debate feels artificial and unrealistic, but the characters are real characters with their own particular struggles and quirks.
5. Stories of your Life and Others
I was introduced to Ted Chiang by a co-worker. “Story of your Life”, he said, was one of his top three science fiction short stories. (It is also the basis of the 2016 film Arrival. I haven’t yet seen it so don’t know how close it is, but I have heard good reviews).
Ted Chiang stories are really thought experiments: In each story, he imagines a world or technology different from ours (though it may be similar), and illustrates some of the consequences of this world. There are some startling conclusions too. This book contains a collection of his short stories. All are interesting, and a few are real gems. If you’re still not convinced, the first short story I read by him is freely available online, and has some fascinating thoughts on the malleability of memory. That convinced me to buy and read this collection, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I don’t have the answers to all the thought experiments presented. Some of them may not have very good answers. But I’m very glad that I’ve seen the questions posed and explored.
6. In God’s House
This is a story of the Catholic child abuse scandal, written by the lawyer who originally fought to expose it. As a result, it is not always pleasant, but it is important. I don’t know how much of it is fact and how much is fiction, but I believe it to be accurate as well as being well-written and engaging. At its core, it is one person’s fight for what he believes right against heavy odds, and it also demonstrates the high price that can be paid for taking up that fight. Even the main character faces conflicts of interest and difficulty knowing whether he was doing the right thing: there are no easy answers here.
I’m sure some will just focus on the fact that it’s about the Catholic church. Maybe I’d be expected to follow suit, as an atheist who believed the Catholic church wrong long before I became an atheist. But to me that’s not the reason why this book made it on my 2016 book list. If I just wanted to bash the Catholic church, there are more easily available non-fiction sources of information. Tragic things have happened, and many thousands of lives have been affected, and I don’t want to minimise that. But to me the most valuable part of the book was in showing how organisations work, and how most people can be pressured to cover up problems rather than exposing and fixing them. That trying to do the right thing is sticking out your neck, and those who do don’t always fare well. This is also clear from whistleblower reports, but this book exposed organisational problems that I wasn’t aware of, presented a number of important moral dilemmas, and remained eminently readable while doing it. So yes, the Catholic church was bigger and had more to lose than most organisations, but I think we can learn more from their failings if we stop just blaming them and recognise that we are also subject to pressures to conform rather than doing what we believe right.