Superfluous Matter
Books - Sapiens and Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

My mom recommended these two books to me, and apparently they've also been featured on reading lists from all sorts of famous people.

In "Sapiens" the author examines the history of our species, from emergence in Africa to the present day, focusing on the major revolutions (cognitive, agricultural, industrial, scientific, etc) and how they shaped us into the dominant life form on the planet. His primary thesis is that we are separated from other animals by our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. This ability arises from our capacity to believe in things that exist purely in our imaginations (e.g. god(s), nations, money, human rights, etc). Such concepts provide a unifying force that binds together groups of people, even when the people in a group don't directly know all of the others in the same group. It's a pretty interesting theory, and one that is hard to dismiss after his extensive presentation of the history of our species.

In "Homo Deus" he projects his theories into the future, discussing how we might change and what new "religions" might evolve as the unifying force to replace the liberal humanism we have now. Much of the book is devoted to the idea that technology will become better than humans at almost everything, so we will have to find meaning in other places.

The books are on the long side, and can be repetitive and hyperbolic, but all of the predictions are hedged and alternate possibilities are regularly presented. All the predictions seemed reasonable, which means they're probably wrong and will feel dated a few years from now. But the historical analysis seemed pretty good.

I enjoyed the whirlwind trip through 70,000 years of homo sapiens and in particular I liked how equally he treated all of the stories we've told ourselves over the millennia. The various religions, ideologies, beliefs, and systems of our history are all arbitrary and fictional but yet so powerful. They are the things that propelled us to where we are, and new fictions will be required to keep us moving forward in the future as we deal with advanced computational systems, genetic and biological engineering, climate change, and whatever else happens next. Fun stuff.

Books - The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

I snagged this book from the library after seeing it recommended in a few places. It's a dystopian near-future look at what the American Southwest might be like when water truly becomes scarce (as is likely to happen in light of climate change). Living in California, the world of the book definitely resonated with me and I found myself thinking about it long after I was done.

It was an exciting read, but for the first time ever I found bits of the book to be too violent. I'm not sure if it was especially bad, or if my tolerance has changed. I just remember being unsettled at a couple points by the descriptions. Still worth a read, just be warned.

Books - The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin

I've decided that if I'm reading series of books then I only need to do one review post for the whole series. Maybe that's lazy, but I've been doing a ton of web development and content generation over on our wedding website so I'm not super inspired to blog as well.

This trilogy though is, wow, one of the best I've ever read. It blends sci-fi and fantasy in a far future, post-apocalyptic earth that is rapidly approaching another apocalypse. The world has become a place where the earth regularly (every few decades) produces global scale seismic or volcanic catastrophes leading to prolonged periods of extreme hardship (nuclear winter style) that are called "fifth seasons." The culture of the people in the world is centred around being prepared to survive such events. Additionally, there are certain individuals who can manipulate seismic events, drawing on power from the earth or any nearby heat source. Those people (called orogenes) can help manage the unstable world, but are regularly feared, enslaved, and/or killed by the regular people.

The first two books, "The Fifth Season" and "The Obelisk Gate" both won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The final book, "The Stone Sky" is a popular favourite for the Hugo award this year. The achievement of winning two years in a row (or maybe three) is stunning, especially since just writing three amazing books in three years is a tremendous accomplishment on its own.

Definitely read these books!