Here are some books that made an impression on me in 2018.
Note: Last year I stated the numbers were for convenience. I generally don’t like picking “bests”, because often things are good for such different reasons they can’t be compared. However, this year the number order is much closer to my order of preference. Which does show space much closer to the top than I might have expected.
1. The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed
The best way I can describe Scott Parazynski’s memoir is “The story of an adventurous life”. While of course I first picked it up because he was an astronaut, I enjoyed it because there’s so much more to it than that: Travel, luge (near Olympic level), pilot training, medical training, mountain climbing (including Everest). And mixed in with all those adventures the challenges of “ordinary life”. He also talks about various key lessons he learned from his experiences, and how he continues to apply those lessons.
There’s years spent in childhood with his family in various parts of the world, living in Senegal, Lebanon, Greece, and Iran, and travelling to many more. There’s the dream of becoming an astronaut. And there’s a systematic approach to achieving his goals while living life on his own terms. It’s things like taking a NASA fellowship while training as a doctor to be “a small part of the space program”, or taking his internship in Denver so he could go mountain climbing in the Rockies (the internship may take long hours, but “You sleep when you die”).
Then there’s being accepted as an astronaut by NASA first try, and everything that led to: Some very memorable experiences in space, particularly a lengthy operation to repair a broken solar panel. The joys and challenges of marriage, of parenthood, and of family life. Dealing with losing friends and colleagues on the Columbia, and trying to find the right way to commemorate them.
At one point he reflected on what might have been if he’d had a “normal” upbringing in white-picket-fenced suburbia. And I found that interesting because I was wondering what my life might have been like if I’d had his upbringing. He concluded that he sometimes longed for consistency and predictability, but mostly he reveled in the change and the adventure. While I in my turn might sometimes long for a little more excitement, but am mostly happy with my life. For me right now I know I’m much better reading about his life than trying to follow it.
2. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
I’ve said before that I love Sapiens, with its sweeping story of human history, concluding with the humans taking the position of the gods. Well, in Homo Deus Yuval Noah Harari continues where he left off, and it ended up a much more challenging read, but still in my opinion worth reading.
Because much of his argument about what the future could look like is drawn from the past, significant sections feel like they are just a re-run of Sapiens. I also found it much more difficult to follow - while individual sections were fascinating and/or disturbing, I couldn’t quite see how they contributed to the overall argument (though I felt I’d kind of got more of the picture by the end of the book).
It starts by chronicling success: Humanity’s defeat of famine, plague, and war - things that were historically left to the gods, and considered part of their will.
Most people rarely think about it, but in the last few decades we have managed to rein in famine, plague and war. Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them.
Leading to the striking observation:
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.
So, what next? He shows some of the future possibilities: bio-technology, AI, etc. And demonstrates how it will be difficult to stop most of these occurring - because even if they have a dark side, most of them will also have a benefit. Things that are at first treatment for the few in particular need (better prosthetic limbs, for example) may well become enhancements for the many. Where and how can that line be drawn?
As with Sapiens, a lot of what is discussed is the power of particular shared myths, coming together to form inter-subjective realities. Here, he focuses more on the position of humanity in the cosmos, and how that may change with different shared myths. He discusses how theistic religions like Judaism justified much of the Agricultural Revolution by placing humans over animals, but under God. And how the scientific revolution ended up basically removing God and putting humans in his place, justified in story by various versions of humanism.
But, as he points out, religious claims rely on conclusions based on both ethical judgements and factual statements. While science cannot say whether the ethical judgement is right or wrong, it can question the facts used. And the concept of universal human rights is just as susceptible to this as, say, the concept of human superiority based on possessing an immortal soul.
And this is where, to me, it got most challenging. If there is no indivisible “you” - and he presents some of the scientific reasons used to question it - how can there be inherent human rights for that “you”? It doesn’t matter if you feel like you have free will and follow your own desires - can you choose those desires? And if there is no authentic individual, can you continue to support shared myths that rely on the existence of that authentic individual?
Or will we need to develop new religions? He presents a few candidates, depending on whether we develop some kind of techno-humanism (trying to explore new brain states made available by new hardware, drugs, etc.), or decide it’s really the data that’s important, and information wants to be free whether it’s processed by humans or not. And while the resulting discussions were fascinating, I won’t discuss them here as I’m not convinced I completely understood them.
Earlier, he had discussed how domesticating animals made them more useful to humans, but at the expense of minimising their similarity to humans and ignoring their complex emotional needs. And that was perhaps tougher than it should have been to accept. While, in principle, I accept that humans are part of the same evolutionary tree as other mammals and share much in common, there is still a lot of me that wants humans to be special and different. And it’s certainly much easier to justify, say, eating meat on that basis.
But from a “human future” perspective, the bigger idea was that when a new story takes over, humans themselves could be sidelined or domesticated like they sidelined animals. The idea was frequently presented of the brain as an algorithm - could it not be replaced by other algorithms? So perhaps the upshot for me is that I’m much less confident that what we have now is “right” than I was.
Now that is only a taste of some of the ideas that grabbed me from the book. I still don’t think I can do it justice - it really needs reading and pondering, and it’s six months later and I’m still not sure of my reaction - but I am glad I read it.
The rise of AI and biotechnology will certainly transform the world, but it does not mandate a single deterministic outcome. All the scenarios outlined in this book should be understood as possibilities rather than prophecies. If you don’t like some of these possibilities you are welcome to think and behave in new ways that will prevent these particular possibilities from materialising.
However, it is not easy to think and behave in new ways, because our thoughts and actions are usually constrained by present-day ideologies and social systems. This book traces the origins of our present-day conditioning in order to loosen its grip and enable us to act differently and to think in far more imaginative ways about our future. Instead of narrowing our horizons by forecasting a single definitive scenario, the book aims to broaden our horizons and make us aware of a much wider spectrum of options. As I have repeatedly emphasised, nobody really knows what the job market, the family or the ecology will look like in 2050, or which religions, economic systems and political structures will dominate the world.
3. The science behind science fiction
As it turned out, during the year I read three different books about the science of space travel and related topics.
First, Wizards, Aliens, and Starships. This went in depth into various concepts of space travel, space colonisation, etc. There was a lot of maths, and while I didn’t always check it carefully, what it particularly emphasised to me was the sheer amount of energy required, distances to be covered, time involved, etc., particularly in inter-stellar travel or in changing a planet’s orbit or terraforming it. It’s easy to hand-wave solutions, but much more difficult to ignore the scaling factors - squares, cubes, etc. - that make it very much harder to do what we want to do. Maybe even making it impossible with any known technology.
Second, there was Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction. Like the previous one, this was about the reality of hard Sci-Fi. It was a more broad survey - while it covered some of the same areas in much less detail, it also covered areas like communicating with aliens (linguistics, evolution of language, and a bunch of other interesting topics), artificial intelligence and super-intelligences, upgrading humans (it did not surprise me that this chapter included Homo Deus in the reference list), the para-normal, time travel, and searching for aliens.
Both cited large numbers of Sci-Fi novels and short stories exploring the concepts being discussed. Far too many for someone like me to actually read, though many of them sound fascinating…
Of the two, Trope-ing the Light Fantastic is probably the better book because it’s intended for a more general audience and it covers a much wider range of topics. However, Wizards, Aliens, and Starships goes into more detail in an area I’m interested in, and I read it first so it may have had more of an impact on me.
Then there was the third one: The Science of Star Wars. To me, while I learned a few things from it, this was more for amusement value, particularly since I already knew many of the basic facts presented about man’s exploration of space.
Star Wars is not Hard Sci-Fi - it’s space opera. That meant for many of this book’s questions I just answered “Because the script-writers wanted it that way” or “Yep, it was them script-writers again”. There’s no way that the creators considered details like the size and mass of the Death Star, or the density and atmosphere of Bespin when writing their tale of cosmic justice. So no matter how ingeniously you calculate those numbers, you won’t find anything new about the story from the numbers.
However, in spite of that some of it was very memorable. For example, it talked about the economic impact of destroying the Death Star, referring to this study:
In this case study we found that the Rebel Alliance would need to prepare a bailout of at least 15%, and likely at least 20%, of GGP in order to mitigate the systemic risks and the sudden and catastrophic economic collapse. Without such funds at the ready, it likely the Galactic economy would enter an economic depression of astronomical proportions.
I just love the fact that this kind of research is actually being done.
It also painted a vivid picture of what debris from the second Death Star could do to the rejoicing Ewoks on Endor. Maybe it’s good Star Wars wasn’t realistic…
Everything on the surface of Endor would be annihilated. The moon’s atmosphere would also suffer. It would be broiled by the exploded particles, tearing a path from the blast to the crater. The seas of Endor would flash into steam, as the forests began their long burn into a global firestorm lasting into the night.
4. In Praise of Idleness
This book is one of Bertrand Russell’s collections of essays published in 1935. As always, some essays are better than others, but I thought there were a few that stood out and are still applicable today (83 years later).
The title essay questioned the idea that work, in and of itself, is virtuous. Among other things, he called for the benefit from greater automation going to the people, the need for people to be able to use their leisure well, and four hour days as the longest that should be required. And I think the conclusion still rings true:
Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.
(though I’m probably like Bertrand Russell in agreeing that work for the sake of work shouldn’t be necessary, but still doing a lot of work myself…)
The second essay, on “Useless” knowledge, is probably the one from the collection that I’ve seen cited most. And as someone who spends a lot of my leisure time learning and even writing about things that I don’t need to know for my job, I whole-heartedly agree with it. In particular, he suggests that a deeper knowledge of things in the world can make our appreciation of simple pleasures deeper, while a deeper understanding of the bigger picture can help put our own problems in perspective.
There are a few other essays that caught my attention, but I’ll stop there.
5. Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen
I found this an interesting memoir, written by a fifteen year old about her experiences growing up transgender. She knew she was a girl born in a boy’s body from very early on, and her parents allowed her to begin socially transitioning at age 5. And while she was in a supportive family environment, not everyone outside the family was happy with it. And I think the book is a reminder that policies aimed at restricting people to their biological sex aren’t just abstract discussions: They affect real people. Beliefs have consequences.
It feels like underlying a lot of the book is the question “Why can’t I just be treated as normal?” And I think part of that is that she got enough support from family and friends that she didn’t grow up with it as “not normal” to the extent many others do (though I’m not saying it was easy). As a result, she was able to see the discrimination she faced as a problem rather than just accepting that’s the way the world is. Personally, I don’t think society will change as fast as she wants it to - but I’m glad she got that upbringing and could give that perspective.
For the record, I got this audiobook free from this year’s Sync audiobooks for teens. While the program is not exactly targeted at me, it always has some thought-provoking fiction and non-fiction (as well as some I completely pass on).
As with the non-fiction, while I cannot perfectly compare works of fiction in very different styles, this list is roughly in order of preference.
1. The Mistborn Trilogy
I loved Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire so much that I almost immediately went out and got the two sequels (and they didn’t disappoint). It’s rare for me to read sequels so quickly - so consider that a recommendation!
The series has a well-developed magical system that makes sense (fitting for the creator of Sanderson’s Laws of Magic). Frequently I questioned details and apparent inconsistencies, only to find later that they all made sense as part of a larger context that neither I nor the characters were yet aware of.
It also has a well-developed (if often harsh) social system, a social system that faces significant disruption over the course of the trilogy. This takes it well and truly into the realm of fascinating politics, asking questions like “Is tyranny necessary to restrain and organise a population for the greater good?” (or “If you overthrow it, will you be able to make a better system?”). And I know that much of this is guided by actual human history, by decisions that we have made over the years, often in search of Utopia, which have had unexpected consequences. So it’s very thought-provoking.
But also in that backdrop is the question of trust. The heroine grew up among thieves, where no-one trusted anyone. She has to learn the importance of trust and of friendship in her new group, which can be both appealing and terrifying. And it’s not just about trusting people. With a lot of the history either lost or corrupted, the characters can never be completely sure what is right, and yet they have to act on what they find - sometimes with unexpected results.
Which takes me to the characters, which I also loved. Each have their own particular quirks and strengths, and I love how they all combine. I also loved the fact that not only do major characters grow over time, but as some die minor characters step up and play larger roles that are completely different but still make sense for that character.
Then there’s one final area sure to grab my attention: religion. This story would be nowhere without religion and its impact on society: establishing the set order for society, providing prophecies that guide people’s actions, providing motivation and hope for many, and recording the memories of society. It’s integral enough to the plot that I can’t really put what I liked and didn’t like about its portrayal of religion without spoilers, but there was far more that I liked than that I didn’t.
unequivocally* the best** fiction I’ve read all year.
* See the next book.
** For “best”, read “Has the most interesting blend of my own personal preferences and prejudices”. Or maybe just that of all the fiction in this list, I read this trilogy most recently…
2. The Fault in Our Stars
This story has so much about meaning, purpose, and the futility of life, seen from the perspective of a cancer patient, in a world with both “cancer perks” and a daily struggle to keep going in a world where everything is a “side effect of dying”. In some ways it’s relatively matter-of-fact, even snarky, as the characters accept the reality of life with cancer and take down the noble virtues and platitudes everyone likes to spout about suffering and death. And yet it’s not just that.
There are so many other things I could say about it, but I’m not sure I can say anything that would do justice to it. It’s wonderful and it’s sad and it’s funny and it’s beautifully written and I think I’ve written quite enough about it.
And now I feel bad about pitting this against Mistborn, because they really are such totally different works it’s mad to try and compare them. I write this with tears in my eyes that sure weren’t provoked by Mistborn. Maybe delete the word “unequivocally” from the previous section…
3. Daniel Deronda
I’ve been wanting to read Daniel Deronda for years, and since I was writing so much about Judaism this year, it seemed appropriate to make this the year. And I loved it.
The book really has two separate sub-plots: One deals with more conventional Victorian topics, like society, marriage, and property. The other deals seriously with the Jews as a separate nation-within-a-nation, separate from “Christians” with their own history, culture, religion, and aspirations. The two sub-plots are united by the titular character with a foot in each world, and both were well-written, but to me it was the Jewish sub-plot that set this book apart.
George Eliot acknowledges the persecution Jews have faced, and is far more sympathetic to them than most Victorian writers. And she paints a fascinating range of responses, whether it’s from prosperous middle-class Jews, or from the persecuted poor. Whether it’s those who wanted to escape the servitude of a harsh religion and culture, or those who saw its learning and felt drawn to it. In particular, one of the characters argues for and works for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine - and some later Zionists cited the book as an influence on them.
This book (by Carl Sagan) was a book that I kept trying to get a handle on and couldn’t, and that was part of what kept my attention. There were numerous times during the second half of the book where I thought “OK, now I know where this is going”, and each time it went off in an unexpected direction.
At its very simplest level it’s the story of first contact with an alien species, first through radio messages, then through building and operating The Machine as specified by The Message. And the many impacts that that whole process has on humanity. As a founder of the SETI project, this search for alien life is one of Sagan’s own specialist areas.
However, there’s much more to the story than this. The main protaganist, Ellie, is female, and is interested in science and reason and understanding how the world works. This is not a popular choice, and she has to learn how to deal with being considered different (or just ignored).
Reason also leads to her dismissing the Christianity she is taught, discovering well-known contradictions that could be found on most atheist blogs around. However, while Sagan is critical of fundamentalist, literalist religion, he is much more sympathetic to the more open-minded religion of one character, with his “larger god”.
Which leads to one of the things I find most interesting about this book: While a lot of it is anti-religious, I found it quite a religious book. There is the sense of wonder in the universe (and buried deep in numbers like pi). There are frequent references to or experiences with the numinous. I can’t say more without serious spoilers, but even from rational scientist Ellie there is much more appeal to personal experience than I was expecting, and those experiences are fascinating.
5. A Wizard of Earthsea
This is the story of a young wizard’s early life, training, and need to accept the consequences of some of his actions. It was not to be an easy path:
This was Duny’s first step on the way he was to follow all his life, the way of magery, the way that led him at last to hunt a shadow over land and sea to the lightless coasts of death’s kingdom. But in those first steps along the way, it seemed a broad, bright road.
And it was well-written and a fun road to follow.
However, what I really liked about the book is Ursula Le Guin’s concept of wizards as people with great power who needed to understand the consequences of using that power, not the miracle-workers the general population wanted them to be. For example (talking of his initial trainer):
She knew nothing of the Balance and the Pattern which the true wizard knows and serves, and which keep him from using his spells unless real need demands.
And some of the consequences of manipulating weather:
The weatherworker’s and seamaster’s calling upon wind and water were crafts already known to his pupils, but it was he who showed them why the true wizard uses such spells only at need, since to summon up such earthly forces is to change the earth of which they are a part.
‘Rain on Roke may be drouth in Osskil,’ he said, ‘and a calm in the East Reach may be storm and ruin in the West, unless you know what you are about.’
This is something that we all must face - our actions have consequences, and the more power we have the more consequences there may be.