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!

Books - Old Man's War Series, by John Scalzi

We've been busy with wedding planning (and wedding website design/creation) so while I've been reading, I couldn't get up the energy to blog about it. Fortunately I was reading a six book series so I pretended it would be ok to just blog about them all when I finished.

"Old Man's War" is a really fun sci-fi series where humans have made the transition to interstellar travel and exploration, only to find that the galaxy is full of other intelligent life all vying for colonization space on the relatively few habitable worlds. The humans responsible for space travel, defense, and colonization live apart from those on Earth and tightly control Earth's access to technology and travel. Earth citizens can choose to join the "Colonial Defense Forces" for a term of ten years once they reach the age of 70, but may never return to Earth. So a person can die of old age or join the space army and never come home. Of course most join the army because of the promise of extended healthy life and the ability to see the galaxy.

The book follows several characters through this transition and beyond, touching on many themes like mortality and what it means to be human. The characters were well developed and the adventures are great. The people and organizations in the books are not solely good or evil and exhibit a decent amount of complexity and realism. Scalzi is a pretty solid author.

Books - Star Wars: The Aftermath Trilogy, by Chuck Wendig

This trilogy of canon novels serves as a bridge between the Star Wars films "Return of the Jedi" and "The Force Awakens." The writing is not very good, but if you're a huge nerd it's fun to get a bit of connective tissue for the movies. The novels focus mostly on new characters, but Han, Leia, Chewie, Lando, Mon Mothma, and a few others make appearances. Thrawn even gets a brief mention.

Books - Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

This book is awesome, but it's extremely hard to communicate why. Ostensibly it's a dystopian science fiction novel, although that is a fairly inadequate descriptor.

The book was written in 1980 and follows a set of characters living in the English countryside about 2000 years after an apocalyptic nuclear war. The technological level of humanity has only just returned to iron age status and many people are still hunter-gatherers. The story focuses on a young man, Riddley, as he comes of age and embarks on an adventure to rediscover a bit of lost knowledge from the past.

The culture of the society in which Riddley lives is an eclectic set of hybridized and bastardized myths sourced from generally misunderstood material from Christianity, antiquity, science, and half destroyed bits of leftover technology. This culture is distributed and maintained through puppet shows in the style of Punch and Judy (a British tradition I'd never heard of before, but which is a whole interesting topic in itself).

The text of the novel is written in a hypothetical version of English that has devolved from what we understand the language to be today. It's often described as almost Chaucerian, but that's a bit backwards. It's more accurate to say that the people in the novel find the pre-apocalypse version of English as difficult to read and understand as the average person today finds the works of Chaucer. Further complicating the language is the fact that the version in this book devolved from a version of heavily accented rural English that also made use of Cockney-style rhyming slang.

I've made it sound like this is a hard book to read, and it is, but it's also strangely absorbing. The characters survive despite terrible conditions, but they all seem to carry an unspoken sense of loss for knowledge that led humanity to such heights (and eventual destruction). For me the struggle to understand the text had a very neat parallel with the struggles of the characters as they attempt to reclaim that knowledge.

Here's a sample of the text (it sometimes helps to say the words out loud):

I dont think it makes no diffrents where you start the telling of a thing. You never know where it begun realy. No moren you know where you begun your oan self. You myt know the place and day and time of day when you ben beartht. You myt even know the place and day and time when you ben got. That dont mean nothing tho. You stil dont know where you begun.

This is definitely a book that warrants multiple readings. It was only at the end that I felt I had a pretty good handle on "Riddley-speak" and when I re-read it I think I'll catch a lot more. Despite the challenge I thoroughly enjoyed the story and I'm grateful for having discovered it in an article listing the favourite books of famous authors. "Riddley Walker" was the choice of Margaret Atwood, obviously.

Books - The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

When friends of mine invited us to a picnic at Jack London State Historic Park I realized that I'd never read anything by the famous author. I grabbed the eBook of "The Call of the Wild" from the SF public library and read it last Sunday afternoon. It was great!

The story is told from the point-of-view of a large dog, Buck, kidnapped from his home in California and taken to work as a sled dog in gold-rush Alaska. Jack London believably captures what might be the thoughts of a dog in such a situation, while also giving an interesting perspective on life in the north during the gold rush.

Books - Thrawn, by Timonthy Zahn

Timothy Zahn is best known for his "Heir to the Empire" trilogy of books that served as the official sequel trilogy to the original three Star Wars movies until Lucasfilm "de-canonized" them. The books are still near-and-dear to the hearts of many fans as well as to many members of the Lucasfilm story group. This is evident in the resurrection in recent "canon" works of the main villain of the books, Grand Admiral Thrawn.

That resurrection is completed with this book, which brings Zahn back to write an official, canon, origin story for this amazing character.

I liked the book, but it's not exactly high literature. I'm pretty sure that anyone who might enjoy it already plans to read it and doesn't need to read my recommendation.

Books - The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, by Peter Temin

I can't remember what pointed me to this book, but the concept intrigued me so I bought the e-version. Peter Temin is an economist at MIT and argues that America has regressed to a dual economy situation closely resembling that of many nations in the developing world. In such a situation a minority of the population has access to advanced education, health care, housing, and employment while the majority suffers with substantially worse versions of these necessities of life.

Temin further argues that not only does a minority of America's citizens have access to the "good life" but that that same minority (especially the upper 1%) actively work to prevent the advancement of the underclass majority through control of the political system.

Each section and chapter rigorously cites other studies and focuses on pointing out facts rather than drawing concrete conclusions. However the presentation leaves little doubt to the reader what such conclusions would be. Not only is America severely broken, but the breakage was intentional and motivated by a combination of racism and blind greed. It's hard to disagree with the mountain of statistics, studies, and anecdotes. The discussion of education vs. incarceration was particularly horrifying.

It's been a while since a book left me so cold and horrified.

Working Trip to Europe

Earlier this Spring Sarah had to go to Amsterdam and London on business and so I tagged along, spending some time working out of the ILM London offices. It was a great combination of personal and professional adventure! Read more here.

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