A list of books I read in 2016.
A beautiful introduction to chaos theory and what eventually became the science of complexity. This book turned “chaos theory” into a household phrase and made James Gleick famous as a science writer. IMO, the study of complex systems is one of the most important areas of modern fundamental research. Definitely worth reading.
Of all the possible pathways of disorder, nature favors just a few.
Shallow ideas can be assimilated; ideas that require people to reorganize their picture of the world provoke hostility.
Farmer said, "On a philosophical level, it struck me as an operational way to define free will, in a way that allowed you to reconcile free will with determinism. The system is deterministic, but you can't say what it's going to do next. At the same time, I'd always felt that the important problems out there in the world had to do with the creation of organization, in life or intelligence. But how did you study that?"
The premise here: being vulnerable will help you in every aspect of life. The author defines “vulnerability” as authentic self-expression without holding back due to the fear of criticism. Great reminder to take the little risks as well as the big ones.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Similar to Daring Greatly in its message. From the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Take risks, express your true feelings, be curious, and embrace “good enough” productivity over perfectionist hesitation.
Recognizing that people's reactions don't belong to you is the only sane way to create.
Argue for your limitations and you get to keep them.
The Big Picture
The best pop science book of the 2010s. I wrote a long review of The Big Picture earlier this year.
Those swirls in the cream mixing into the coffee? That’s us. Ephemeral patterns of complexity, riding a wave of increasing entropy from simple beginnings to a simple end. We should enjoy the ride.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
A layperson’s guide to the science of expertise. Valuable inspiration for anyone who wants to learn and master a skill. Natural talent is a myth. Becoming an expert takes hard work and deliberate practice, not magic.
So here we have purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.
This book spoke to me on a personal level. Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of the author’s childhood in poverty-stricken rural Appalachia. The author’s experience parallels my own early life and the upbringing of almost everyone I knew in Eastern Kentucky, an area ignored and misunderstood by mainstream America. I applaud J.D. for speaking his mind about the situation back home, and I’m thankful for the attention this book has drawn to the suffering of the people who live there.
I take issue with some of Vance’s characterizations of the people and their problems. There’s a tone of anger and blame permeating the book, and the author holds the hillbilly people responsible for their issues. While I can understand that logic, and I certainly felt the same way as a teenager, I can no longer blame the people themselves. The situation in Appalachia is dire, but like everything else that happens in the universe, it isn’t really anyone’s fault. All we can do now is try to understand the problems and help fix them.
"They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves."
"I don’t believe in epiphanies. I don’t believe in transformative moments, as transformation is harder than a moment."
The final entry in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (the Chinese sci-fi series beginning with The Three-Body Problem). It completes the series in a satisfying way – each book expanded the scope of the story until it encompassed greater stretches of space and time, and Death’s End escalates this to its ultimate conclusion.
If you like sci-fi, this trilogy is worth your time. You’ll love the Chinese perspective, the somber tone and the author’s unique alternate physics concepts.
Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars)
Kim Stanley Robinson’s magnum opus: a series of novels about the colonization of Mars. A masterful work that touches on every aspect of the human condition as it exists and as it might be: philosophy, religion, science, technology, ecology, politics, economics, sexuality, health and happiness. In each book, Robinson showcases his knowledge, empathy and insight into humanity.
The series begins with the colonization of Mars by scientists from several Earth nations. They attempt to create a utopian society, and to some degree, they succeed. The scientific achievements that arise from their efforts lead to the terraforming of the planet, advancements in space travel, the extension of the human life span, and new economic and political systems.
It doesn’t happen smoothly, however; the introduction of life extension technology disrupts an already unstable situation on Earth, where residents face overpopulation, the breakdown of governments, and ecological failure. As nation-states fade away, Earth gradually falls under the control of large transnational corporations (“transnats”). All of these scenarios seem believable to me; some of them seem to be happening right now. Robinson describes some encouragingly plausible solutions to these problems (though some of them take a while).
Due to the longevity treatments, we get to hang out with the same cast for a long time. This provides for a depth of character development not seen in most hard science fiction. At times, this can introduce a “soap opera” feeling – but at the end of the day, that’s what human life is actually like. By the conclusion of the series, you really feel for these characters; I particularly identified with Sax Russell, the cold, analytical geek who gradually learns to open up.
The Mars trilogy deeply affected me in an emotional and spiritual sense. I hope that humanity can solve its problems like this, and I will live my life in the pursuit of that goal.
"Very few people ever bother to find out what other people really think. They are willing to accept whatever they are told about anyone sufficiently distant."
"Economics was like psychology, a pseudoscience trying to hide that fact with intense theoretical hyperelaboration."
The Obstacle Is The Way
In 2014, exposure to Stoic philosophy caused me to rethink my perspective on how to live life. The author invokes lessons from Stoic masters like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus that relate to facing our fears and directly attacking the obstacles in our paths.
Uncertainty and fear are relieved by authority. Training is authority.
Ego Is The Enemy
Similar in spirit to The Obstacle Is The Way, this book follows in the Stoic tradition and suggests that our ego is the source of much of our suffering.
A Fire Upon the Deep
A unique mix of Golden Age-style space opera, medieval fantasy and an exploration into the nature of mind. A group of human researchers accidentally unleash a powerful enemy, run away, crash on an unknown world, and then encounter the dog-like creatures who live there. The aliens, known eventually as the Tines, operate in packs, with their consciousness distributed among the pack members through a kind of high-frequency sonic “telepathy”.
The Tines are the stand-out characters and conceptual innovation of the book. The story explores what society would look like if its constituents were made up of multiple parts. What does it mean for the concept of identity when you can swap out parts of your mind? What advantages and disadvantages would a mind like this have?
There are some other cool ideas, too –- the galaxy is divided up into “zones” with different FTL speed limits, it’s so far in the future that Earth is mostly forgotten, and everyone communicates on a low-bandwidth Usenet-like forum system with lots of trolling and spam. Even without all that, it’s worth reading for the Tines alone.
The Children of the Sky
The sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep. I was hoping for more exploration into the future of the Tines, and I got what I wanted. Recommended if you read the first book.
Neal Stephenson, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Madeline Ashby, Cory Doctorow, Lee Konstantinou, Annalee Newitz, Geoffrey Landis, James L. Cambias, Gregory Benford, Vandana Singh, Brenda Cooper, Elizabeth Bear, Rudy Rucker, David Brin, Charlie Jane Anders, Bruce Sterling
Amazon · Audible · iBooks
The idea appealed to me: Neal Stephenson argues that sci-fi authors actually lay the metaphorical foundation for technological progress. He says that the blueprints and “roadmaps” provided by speculative fiction inspire people to make those worlds real, and that the trend toward dystopian and down-to-earth sci-fi since the 80s has caused a lack of positive “big picture” thinking. It’s an interesting idea, and I bet there’s some truth to it. He rallies a number of writers around this concept and curates a collection of utopian big-idea short stories.
Kim Stanley Robinson presents a detailed, believable vision of interstellar space travel. Humans launch a multi-generational voyage to Aurora, an Earth-like planet in the nearby Tau Ceti system. It’s standard stuff up front, but the treatment turns out to be quite unique. At the point in the trip when the story begins, all of the characters were born on the ship; their primary concern is keeping the ship and its ecosystems running, and none of them care much about the original mission to settle a faraway planet. Many of them have anxiety about actually reaching Aurora, fearing the end of their way of life and questioning the viability of colonizing an alien world.
Maintaining the ship and its crew for hundreds of years turns out to be exceedingly difficult. The designers of the mission failed to consider many important details, some of which were obvious and some of which were impossible to foresee. And what’s supposed to happen once they actually get to the planet? Robinson explores all these ideas and delivers gratuitous scientific descriptions of everything that happens.
Aurora shines in its narration and its philosophical considerations on space travel and artificial intelligence. The story is narrated by the Ship itself –- or, rather, its AI program designed to regulate the spacecraft’s systems and act as a user interface for the crew. One of the passengers instructs the ship to write the story of their journey. Over time, Ship gains self-awareness as a result of constructing the narrative; its explorations into the process of writing stories gradually gives rise to its own “narrative self”. I thought some of Ship’s musings on the subject were quite profound: in particular, its proposal that the notion of “as if”-ness lies beneath not just narrative text, but all human-like thought. In other words, any mental model of the world depends on the idea that “it is as if the world is as such”. Similarly, since the generation of thoughts depend on your internal mental model, all thought could be considered to stem from these “as if” constructions.
"We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention."
"Ship, are you conscious now?" "My speaking establishes a subject position that might be conscious."
A classic by sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke. Outside of the 2001 series, this is his most famous work. Written in 1953, the story involves the arrival of benevolent aliens on Earth and the subsequent changes to human society. An obvious inspiration to all science fiction that came after it.
"...no one of intelligence resents the inevitable."
No utopia can ever give satisfaction to everyone, all the time.
A pop science introduction to information theory. These ideas underlie everything in our modern civilization; the people involved deserve far more credit in the history books than they’ve received so far. James Gleick does his part to correct that. Even as a self-proclaimed computer guy, there was a lot in here I didn’t know. One of the best books I read in 2016. Don’t skip it.
The universe is computing its own destiny.
It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in this universe.
The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games
I started this series after seeing SyFy’s TV adaptation. You might wanna watch that first to get some motivation; they really got the casting and world-building right.
The whole thing seems like an attempt to clone Game of Thrones for an audience steeped in science fiction… and it succeeds. These isn’t the sci-fi you read for the cool concepts – you read this for the action, the details, the plotting, and the suspense. These guys know how to write incredible action scenes. Tension builds from sentence to sentence in the way that great action movies build tension from shot to shot. Very few authors can pull that off.
Everything the typical sci-fi series gets wrong, The Expanse gets right. The characters and cinematic feeling keep you moving from one book to the next. As always, everything’s a tradeoff. While there are some interesting ideas here and there, you’re not going to lie awake at night thinking about the implications of this stuff. But it’s fun.
Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory
A look into the inner workings of modern pop music. Song Machine talks about the “hit factory” concept pioneered by Swedish songwriters like Denniz Pop and Max Martin, the development of late 90s teen pop stars, the evolution of Top 40 into “Contemporary Hits Radio”, as well as the industry effects of Napster, the iPod and streaming services like Spotify.
As a big Max Martin fan, I liked hearing about the story behind his success, and the stories behind the artists he wrote for (Ace of Bass, the Backstreet Boys, N*SYNC, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, etc). I kept wishing for more technical information about their songwriting processes, but Song Machine is an overview for the mainstream audience, not a technical manual for musicians.
It’s got flaws – there’s a lot of rambling and quite a bit of gossip, some of which seems questionably one-sided. Regardless, I’d recommend it for anyone interested in the music industry.
After reading Permutation City, I wanted more Greg Egan. Diaspora didn’t disappoint. Set in the year 2975, the book tells the story of Yatima, a posthuman “Citizen” (machine consciousness) born in a virtual world, starting from birth and the first moments of conscious awareness. Yatima and ver friends embark on an adventure across our Universe and beyond, touching on bizarre new physics and philosophies.
I enjoyed the treatment of the Citizen characters; Egan presents them as both relatable and alien. And it’s refreshing to see a story where humanity isn’t just “on the way out” but mostly gone from the world.
"Understanding an idea meant entangling it so thoroughly with all the other symbols in your mind that it changed the way you thought about everything."
My first exposure to the brilliant Greg Egan. This book blew my mind; the first page begins by introducing the concept of “copies” (the classic idea of mind uploading). From there, it gets crazier by the chapter. Simulated reality is the overarching theme, but this isn’t the standard Matrix fairytale — Egan’s treatment of the idea establishes it as a practical possibility and expands it in fantastic ways I had never imagined. For instance, what does it mean for a simulated society when some simulations run faster than others? If we wanted to build a physics simulation that could evolve complex life, how complex and how close to our own physics would it really have to be?
This is one of Egan’s earlier works, and it’s a bit rough around the edges: the characters are all kinda bland, and a few awkward scenes left me wondering why he wanted to write them at all. But that’s par for the course for hard sci-fi, and it’s all excusable in exchange for the ideas here: mainly, the Dust Theory and Autoverse.
Essential material for anyone interested in simulated reality. I listened to the Audible version, and if you’re considering doing the same, here’s a warning: the narrator will probably annoy you. Still worth it for the ideas, though, and eventually I found him endearing.
“Simulated consciousness” was as oxymoronic as “simulated addition."