Short book reviews by Jacob Williams from 2022. Send feedback to

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett

Blessed be the oblivion—a godsend is death.

Someone somewhere needs to inscribe that line on a mausoleum.

The biggest villain in this story is restrictive immigration law, which imprisons the poor within borders where their future looks so bleak that they would risk death to escape. I see the law as the root of the protagonists' suffering, too: they are forced to choose between ignoring a mother's desperate plea to smuggle her child out of the country, or risking criminal punishment if they act compassionately.

Some reviews assert this book is based on notes from a 2004 court case. I'm frustrated that I haven't been able to find details about it.

A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys

One of the major factions of humanity in this novel - a group of eco-utopias calling themselves "watershed networks" - relies on carefully-designed discussion forum software to implement a sort of direct democracy:

Encoded in algorithms and input interfaces, their root was a set of ideas: that everyone brought worthwhile perception and insight to the decisions that shaped society, that our technologies embodied our values, that they should be consciously designed to do so.

I really like this emphasis on the importance of decision-making technology - where "technology" includes societal practices and norms as well as hardware and software. Currently, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become a significant part of our society's decision-making apparatus. But they weren't designed for that role, and the things they're optimized for (like maximizing engagement and increasing ad revenue) are tangential or opposed to things we'd want an ideal decision-making platform to optimize for: integrating disparate viewpoints, seeking consensus, finding satisfactory compromises... It feels like there could be enormous value in creating - and convincing people to use - a plaftorm explicitly designed to promote productive civic engagement. (There's an interesting 80,000 hours episode interviewing Taiwan's Minister of Digital Affairs on her attempts to do so there.)

Several things in the novel made me roll my eyes, but my biggest complaint is that until near the end, there is very little discussion of the most obvious solution to the core conflict. Aliens want humans to leave Earth because planet-bound species tend to go extinct; the people of the watershed networks don't want to leave. So... why not just let them stay, and take the many humans who do want to go?? There is some discussion of why the watersheds don't want this to happen - they don't want the other human factions' ideologies to become prevalent throughout the cosmos - but it's unclear how they could possibly hope to prevent it, short of violence. And since their primary fear is that they themselves will be forcibly relocated, it's kind of maddening that most of their discussions with the aliens seem to assume that either everyone leaves or no one does.

Toward the end, we do get more insight into why a mere partial relocation is psychologically difficult for the aliens to accept. I like that it derives from part of their value system that is defensible and oriented toward public good, not self-serving, yet comes into terrifying conflict with human values. It would have helped if this had been made clearer earlier.

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd

I'd like to be the sort of person who enjoys poring over a novel's details, ferreting out secret implications and hidden layers of meaning. But I don't have the patience - especially when it's unclear whether the effort would pay off, or if the details that seem mysterious are actually just meaningless. For example, are we supposed to infer something about what Tomiko's strange payment was for, or is it just there as a general signal that there are unseen stresses in Tomiko's life? One reviewer of The Hole wrote that the "skill, of presenting readers with a mystery but never providing a clear-cut solution, is arguably one of Oyamada's greatest strengths" (Jessie Carbutt, Metropolis magazine). But if the mystery is entirely open-ended, it's not so much a mystery as it is an unfinished story, in which the task of writing the rest has been delegated to the reader.

Of course, it doesn't help that I'm reading this in translation. In addition to the uncertainty about whether I'm missing things because I'm not thinking hard enough, there's the uncertainty about whether I'm missing things because I don't have the cultural context. In any event, I still find Oyamada's prose very engaging and she's great at creating tantalizing situations. But as with The Factory, I wanted more explanation of the events - or at least something to make me believe that there is some coherent explanation.

In the Between: 21st Century Short Stories edited by Brice Particelli

None of these are must-reads, but nearly all of them are good.

In Vanessa Hua's "Accepted", a student is unable to accept that Stanford won't admit her. Although the character seems to see her rejection as emblematic of the struggles faced by immigrant families and of the callousness of the elite, the detail that "Stanford was the only school to which [she had] applied" makes it read more like a story about an individual with a psychotic level of obsession and entitlement.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "The Thing Around Your Neck", an immigrant from Nigeria navigates a relationship with a cringe-inducing guy who has a fetish for everything African. I appreciate that the story sees the possibility of progress and meaningful connection within that relationship, however slow and incomplete.

Rion Amilcar Scott's "Juba" starts with a scene of police violence that will make your blood boil, and ends with an unexpected turn into a discussion of the importance of local, subculture-specific dialect.

Ryka Aoki's "To the New World" considers the inner struggles and insecurities of a Vietnamese-American trans woman, and her relationship with a supposedly-woke but frustratingly narrow-minded friend. (I feel the need to comment on the sentence beginning: "She really was sad that she had been born with male privilege..." It's one thing to be sad about the existence of oppression and inequity, but it's fucked up when the people around you insinuate that you should feel guilty about your genes.) The protagonist finds a lovely point of connection between herself and her late grandmother despite their radically different lives.

Phil Klay's "After Action Report" explores the emotions of soldiers who kill a child who was shooting at them. I didn't actually understand what was being implied at the end, so if you read it and do, please enlighten me.

Joy Baglio's "Ron" has probably the most memorable premise in the collection - a woman secretly dating a dozen or so different men named Ron and organizing a party for them all to meet. It presents a view of modern dating that's very alien to my own experiences (except in it being fundamentally dismal, which I think we can all agree on).

Alice Hoffman's "In the Trees" is a grim but poetically-written account of the impact of regressive attitudes toward women on a teenage girl's life.

In Akhil Sharma's "Surrounded by Sleep", a young Hindu boy searches for answers in religion after a tragedy befalls his family. One thing that struck me, reflecting on the commonalities between his attempts to negotiate with and placate the gods and my own attempts as a young Christian, is how some of our religious impulses seem to come from a conviction that we should be able to achieve the same sort of reciprocity with the universe that we have with each other in society. An impulse which tells us that if we're being harmed, someone must be harming us, and we need to repair our relationship with them so that they will stop.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz's "The Art of Translation" focuses on the protagonist's search for an adequate way to express himself after a brutal hate crime is perpetrated against him.

In Nancy Fulda's "Movement", the protagonist's dad has a "shoulder laser" for automatically zapping mosquitoes. That's not what the story is about, I just needed to call out how awesome that is.

In Bryan Hurt's "Moonless", a sexually frustrated astrophysicist casually creates and destroys worlds in his basement. I don't know what to do with that.

One gripe: I'm starting to lose patience for stories in which the characters are deeply dissatisfied, consider doing something about it, and then just... don't. That describes a few of these, to varying degrees. I did appreciate how Casey Robb's "The Devil's Grip" addresses and rejects that sort of fatalism.

The Age of Em by Robin Hanson

By em, Hanson means emulated mind - a copy of the information that constitutes a human mind, extracted from a brain and running on a computer instead. He tries to predict the details of how this technology would impact society. I appreciate the relatively principled approach he brings to the subject:

Among the few who consider em social implications, most paint heaven or hell scenarios, or try to invent the new social sciences they imagine are needed to describe new social eras. In contrast, I seek to straightforwardly apply today's standard academic consensus science to these novel assumptions about the future. I try not to be creative or contrarian, other than by pursuing this unusual question in unusual breadth and detail.

Nevertheless, to demand predictions that we can have confidence in would be asking way too much. All I was looking for were thought-provoking ideas with some degree of plausibility. On that, Hanson delivered. The book is packed with both interesting social science references and fascinating speculation; my highlights-to-pages ratio was significantly greater than 1.

To me, it does seem like a pretty safe bet that if society survives long enough, we'll eventually develop the technology for mind emulation. There are two straightforward corollaries of that technology: we'll be able to create as many copies of any given mind as we want, and we'll be able to run minds at faster or slower speeds. Much of Hanson's book is working out the implications of those capabilities.

Some of the most unpleasant conclusions he draws also seem the most difficult to argue with, namely:

The sting of the first point is at least lessened a bit by Hanson's argument that, although (non-em) humans collectively will have little power, individual humans should generally be relatively wealthy, and perhaps able to finance making a few em copies of themselves and giving them comfortable endowments. There are silver linings on the second point as well; he points out that ems will have been selected for their suitability for this lifestyle (so, imagine a world full of voluntary workaholics, I guess), and also that even a poor em is free of many problems humans face: they have no physical diseases, they never go hungry, they have more control over death, they have control over their own physical appearance...

Something Hanson notes, but maybe underemphasizes, is how much would depend on exactly which humans end up being the most copied. If most political and economic power ends up in the hands of copies of a tiny subset of humans, it matters a great deal what political and moral views those humans happen to hold.

We Had to Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets

Maybe falling in love isn't filling up a loyalty card with feelings and actions so much as just adding two things together: desire plus fear.

One memorable part is the birthday gift the protagonist receives from her love interest - a letter from a veterinarian meant to help her let go of guilt about the death of her childhood pet. The protagonist later attempts to reciprocate in an unexpected and appalling way: knowing that her (now ex-)lover is haunted by the memory of a video of a teen engaging in self-harm, who had subsequently committed suicide, the protagonist tracks down the teen's parents in search of absolution on her ex-lover's behalf.

The protagonist copes with the horrors she sees largely by trying not to think about them. I appreciated the vivid description of the problematic state of mind this leads to:

Why was my love doing this? We'd done such a good job of keeping this crap out of this house, and now all of a sudden Sigrid wanted to talk. It felt as if she wasn't just soiling the toilet bowl but the whole room. Yes, I think I felt like her words would leave dark streaks on the tiled walls, send raw sewage flowing back up the shower drain...

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

I enjoyed reading this, but I would've enjoyed it less if I'd known ahead of time that it was going to be entirely devoid of explanations. Presumably, the nonsensical and unexplained nature of events in the book is a commentary on the meaningless and absurd nature of many jobs in the modern economy, but that's a slightly underwhelming payoff for ~100 pages of text. The prose is pretty good, though.

I'm grateful to the book for reminding of the existence of nutria, aka coypu, which you should go google some images of. Big rodents are so cute!

How to Focus by Thích Nhất Hạnh

I have a weakness for tiny books on display in bookstores. Most books are too long; I appreciate authors who get to the point and don't pad things out. (Unlike I'm doing right now.) Hence, this very short volume grabbed my attention.

I'm skeptical of anything that promises to be a universal solution, and claims like "[y]ou can enjoy every moment of your daily life when you have mindfulness and concentration" stray a little close to that. Toothaches and heartbreaks are both quite effective at demanding one's undivided attention, but that hardly makes them any more enjoyable. But the claim that "with mindfulness and concentration, we find that many neutral feelings are actually quite pleasant" rings true. What speaks to me most in this book is the reminder of how much joy is available in an average moment if we can just manage to banish the past and the future from our minds.

To breathe with full awareness is a miraculous way to untie the knots of regret and anxiety and to come back to life in the present moment. If we're imprisoned by regrets about the past, anxiety for the future, or attachment and aversion in the present, we're not free to be in contact with life.

People have varying conceptions of what "meditation" is supposed to be. I like the term Nhất Hạnh uses, "one-pointedness of mind":

We use our breathing to bring all the energy of our mind consciousness to one point. ... The object of our concentration ... may be our breathing, a leaf, a pebble, a flower, a situation we are in, a person we want to understand better, or whatever else we want to make the object of our meditative focus. It's like putting a spotlight on the object of our concentration ... in order to get a breakthrough and understand it better.

This is more appealing to me than conceptions that emphasize emptiness or lack of thinking, perhaps because I'm naturally prone to getting very focused on things anyway. But it's come less easily to me in recent years, both from internal uncertainty (is this really the best thing I could be doing right now?) and external temptation (sure, this is good, but I could be doing this AND listening to a podcast at the same time!). That's a huge loss, and something I want to rectify.

I also like Nhất Hạnh's reminder that what we expose ourselves to and focus on can have a large effect on how much we suffer:

When something has come to be, we have to acknowledge its presence and look deeply into it to discover the kinds of nourishment that have helped it come to be and continue to feed it. Nothing can live without food; whether it's our love, our hate, our thinking, our depression--it can't continue without nourishment.

Statements like "[n]ot only children need to be protected from violent and unwholesome programs, films, books, magazines, games, and social media" raise my hackles, because I tend to associate such self-imposed censorship with concerns about purity and sin that I think are misguided. But it is nevertheless true that the media we consume affects us, and it's worth periodically checking in on whether we actually like the effect. (Have I told you the good news about not going on Twitter? You're allowed to just not use Twitter. It's great!)

The idea of cataloging "mental formations" - Nhất Hạnh's tradition recognizes 51 of them - is interesting to me. It's common for us to recognize when we're in one of a handful of broad mental states - anger, sadness, joy - and it's common to inspect our feelings in extreme detail during deep conversations or therapy or journaling. I'm not sure it's as common to try to categorize our state of mind at an intermediate level of detail; perhaps the habit of doing so could reveal some illuminating patterns.

Reinforcement Learning: An Introduction by Richard S. Sutton and Andrew G. Barto

This is a wonderful textbook that's surprisingly available for free. I used this while taking the machine learning and reinforcement learning courses for OMSCS.

Lexicon by Max Barry

Keeps you guessing about what's going to happen as well as how you should feel about the characters. The central conceit that speaking the right words to a person can give you complete control of them is made more unsettling by all the little reminders that that it's only mostly fantastical. We in the real world are quite vulnerable to being manipulated, and we're perhaps a little too blasé about the existence of entire industries designed to manipulate us.

How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur

I'm not really in the target audience of this book since I'm already pretty familiar with philosophical ethics. But I did glean a few new things from it.

For one, I loved this Nietzsche quote that Schur mentions in passing:

Some moralists want to vent their power and creative whims on humanity; some others, perhaps including Kant, suggest with their morality: "What deserves respect in me is that I can obey--and you ought not to be different from me."

This resonates with me because, from a young age, I implicitly believed that the most important thing in life was following the rules (of morality). I thought that as long as you behaved conscientiously, everything else that mattered would follow naturally. (Spoiler: it didn't.) For too long I failed to see how much the things that make life worthwhile, the things that bring happiness to ourselves and enable us to bring happiness to others, depend on acquiring skills and practicing creativity. Don't get me wrong, it's important not to be an asshole; but learning how to create beauty and joy and community are crucial, too.

The discussion of "integrity" was thought-provoking for me too:

[Bernard] Williams uses the word integrity to attack the utilitarians--less in the sense of "honesty and moral uprightness" than "wholeness," or "undividedness." He says that their worldview causes a crack in the basic foundation of an individual's being--the sense that "each of us is specially responsible for what he does, rather than for what other people do."

As a fundamental objection to utilitarianism, I don't buy it. But I do think that violating one's own sense of integrity is something that should be considered as a cost in consequentialist calculations. Further, I think a sense of integrity about who I am in relation to others is one important motivation for moral behavior. I value having authentic, trusting, caring relationships with other people, which requires that I and them be able to rely on each other to behave in principled ways. It makes sense to violate those principles in extreme, exceptional scenarios; but someone who made their everyday decisions on the basis of direct, raw utilitarian calculations would probably be very difficult to relate to.

Another thing I like is Schur's term "Moral Exhaustion", which I totally agree should become part of the vernacular. Our culture bombards us with things to be morally concerned about - in particular, the indirect effects of every purchasing decision we make - and I'm not sure we grapple enough with how overwhelming this can be. I generally protect myself from that by just assuming the marginal impact of my decisions will be too small to be worth worrying about, but that's probably not great.

When people complain about billionaires not doing enough to help others, I'm generally a little ambivalent. For one thing, they sometimes manage to overestimate the wealth billionaires have, or rather to underestimate the scale of the planet's problems; keep in mind that if Jeff Bezos divided his mind-boggling net worth evenly across all people on earth, it would only come to something like $20 per person. Moreover, many (not all!) of the people making these complaints are themselves very wealthy by world standards and - just like billionaires - could give more to charity if they were willing to give up some luxuries. They don't have a clear idea of how much luxury is too much, they just assume that they have the right amount of luxury and people richer than them have an unacceptable amount. It smells of hypocrisy. But Schur provides a way of thinking about this that I really like:

When a public health crisis affects everyone on earth at the same moment...our responsibilities scale up depending on our socioeconomic situations. As one example, if we have people who work for us in some capacity--dog walkers, babysitters, and so on--and we can afford to pay them (whether a whole or partial salary) even if they aren't actively working for us during a shutdown, we should. In a crisis, people lucky enough to have money to spare ought to give it to people who need it.

...A basic calculation shows that Bezos could personally pay all of his 250,000 minimum-wage employees their full yearly salaries and still have about $175 billion left over.

By focusing us on the people we already have some level of relationship with, and asking us to attend to their welfare in proportion to our ability, this line of thinking resolves both the hypocrisy objection (because it makes some demands of the average American software engineer, for example), and the practicality objection (because it non-arbitrarily identifies a subset of people for Bezos to help that is small enough that he can actually make an enormous difference).

Many examples in this book are politically charged with a liberal/leftist perspective; that's not a complaint, but I do think it limits who the book can reach.

Weird random facts: an "auto-icon" of Jeremy Bentham built from his skeleton is on display at University College London; WW2 veteran Jack Lucas jumped on two grenades at once to save his fellow soldiers and lived to age 80, also surviving a parachute malfunction and a hitman hired by his wife

Interesting references: Ordinary Vices by Judith Shklar ("she makes a compelling argument that cruelty ... is actually the worst human vice"); What We Owe to Each Other by T. M. Scanlon (I enjoy Schur's description of this as the "Quick-Start Guide" analog to Kant's work); The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh; On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt and "On Smarm" by Tom Scocca

Cultish by Amanda Montell

"To my core," Tasha answered, when I asked if she truly believed the group's promise that if she committed a serious offense, like sleeping with her guru or taking her life, she'd come back as the world's most reviled insect [a cockroach]. Tasha also believed that if you died in the presence of someone holy, you'd reincarnate higher. Once, she spotted a cockroach in a public restroom and was convinced it was a swami who'd done something awful in a past life and was trying to come back on a higher vibration. "I was like, 'Oh my God, he's trying to die around me because I am an elevated teacher.'" Tasha shivered. When the cockroach scuttled up into the full sink, Tasha opened the plug so it wouldn't have the honor of drowning in her proximity. "I freaked out and ran out of the bathroom," she recounted. "That was probably the pinnacle of my insanity."

Early on, the author ponders why people find cults so fascinating. She doesn't think it's "that there's some twisted voyeur inside us all that's inexplicably attracted to darkness"; rather, it's that we want to know why people end up in cults - and whether we're susceptible, too.

Frankly though the "twisted voyeur" theory feels like a truer analysis of my own interest in the subject. Weird stuff is interesting. Individuals' reasons for doing weird stuff are often interesting too, but I'm not sure those reasons are mysterious. In my experience, becoming deeply emotionally attached to wildly improbable ideas and having unshakable confidence in them is just ordinary everyday human behavior. It seems like the default position throughout human history.

But maybe I just think so because I was in a cult? I wouldn't describe my quasi-fundamentalist background as a cult, but some people do, and to an extent they have a point. (A certain sense of kinship or solidarity with former cult members might be another reason the topic interests me.) The notion that an omnipotent being is going to torture you literally forever if you screw up a history exam about 1st-century Palestine is not a much more plausible belief than the notion that aliens will take you to a higher plane of existence if you kill yourself at the right moment. It just happens to be a more popular one. Tens or hundreds of millions of people believe it deeply enough that they want public policy to be shaped by it. Often they believe it deeply enough, believe it's so clearly and incontrovertibly true, that they think everyone else secretly knows it's true too and is just being obstinate by pretending not to. (Meanwhile, outsiders often think fundamentalist beliefs are so absurd and inconsistent that people must only be pretending to believe them. That's a mistake.)

The question of whether any particular group is a cult makes me a little uncomfortable, because it often seems to presuppose that there's a clear delineation between normal, safe ideologies and crazy, dangerous ideologies. But mainstream ideology often has its own share of destructive insanity; history is a parade of people doing horrible things for stupid reasons.

Montell mentions one of the tactics Scientology uses to quash questions: if you question something while doing your assigned reading, it will be blamed on a "misunderstood word" (which is apparently a concept they felt the need to have an abbreviation for: "MU"), and you will be required to look up that word in a dictionary. If doing so doesn't quell your doubts, you may be required to look up words from that word's definition, too, and so on recursively.

From the most obscure polysyllabic term down to the tiniest preposition, every MU must be word-cleared. If you look up an MU and still can’t word-clear it, you must track down its derivation, use it in a sentence, then sculpt a physical demo of the sentence using Play-Doh.

This reminds me of one of the ways fundamentalist Christians respond to doubts. If something in the Bible seems contradictory, mistaken, or immoral, you're told that this is due to insufficient understanding of the original Greek and Hebrew texts, or of the historical/cultural context surrounding them. It's implied that if you study long and hard enough, everything will make sense and the Bible will be vindicated. But learning all that stuff is an enormous time investment, and there is no end to it; you could spend your entire life digging into the literature and continuously learning new things. In the eyes of the community, the only possible way to prove that you've dug deeply enough is by reaching their desired conclusion. This creates an environment in which you feel guilty or arrogant for having doubts, since those doubts are portrayed as evidence of a failure on your part - a failure to search as long or hard for the truth as you could. (The community understandably finds this much more palatable than admitting that their supposedly-omniscient God seems to have remarkably poor communication skills.)

Anyway, Montell provides a balanced look at the similarities and differences of a range of groups that have cult-like qualities, from Jonestown at one extreme to SoulCycle at the other.

Some say people who join cults are “lost.” But all human beings are lost to some degree. Life is disorderly and confusing for absolutely everyone. A more thoughtful way to think about how people find themselves in precariously cultish scenarios is that these folks are actively searching to be found, and—because of variations in genes and life experiences and all the complicated factors that make up human personalities—they’re more open than the average person to finding themselves in unusual places. To stay safe requires just the right combination of fact-checking, cross-checking, and amenability to the idea that spiritual fulfillment may very well come from unexpected sources.

Miscellaneous points from the book:

Some of the groups/people discussed: Synanon, where the author's dad grew up; the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization; Manson; Jonestown; Teal Swan, an influencer sometimes accused of being a "suicide catalyst"; the Children of God ("God is love, love is sex"); Bikram Yoga...

Intriguing references: Strange Rites by Tara Isabella Burton; the Jonestown Death Tape and the Heaven's Gate Exit Statements; Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Jay Lifton; Dangerous Words by Gary Eberle; anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann's "studies of contemporary witches and 'charismatic Christians'"; White Nights, Black Paradise by Sikivu Hutchinson...

Readymade Bodhisattva

People think that science works as a tool for humanity, following orders like a genie in a lamp. No way! The more we develop science, the more science changes us. We're inseparable from our tools. (Pak Seonghwan, "Readymade Bodhissattva")

I didn't get much out of the first few stories, although Jong Soyeon's notion in "Cosmic Go" of space programs recruiting "lower-body amputees and those with paralysis of the legs who would not need to support the weight of their bodies once they returned to Earth after living in low gravity conditions" is fascinating.

Some of the stories probably require greater acquaintance with Korean culture and history than I possess; Choi In-Hun's "Empire Radio, Live Broadcast", for example, is purely a sociopolitical monologue. Kim Bo-Young's "Between Zero and One" is a commentary on the treatment of South Korean schoolchildren, but as an outsider it is difficult to distinguish how much is depiction of present reality and how much is dystopian prediction. Kim Jung-Hyuk's "Where Boats Go" is an even bleaker social commentary.

Yun I-Hyeong's "The Sky Walker" grapples with a difficult psychological issue: how to deal with the realization that you must live within severe and unchangeable constraints that some people do not have. It does not provide a memorable solution, but it is a somewhat memorable presentation of the problem.

One of my favorites is Djuna's "The Bloody Battle of Broccoli Plain", not necessarily because of the story itself, but because the "Linker Universe" it's set in seems to be a perfect background for episodic sci-fi adventures. A collection of their work translated to English, Everything Good Dies Here, is coming in October and I'd like to read it at some point.

Park Min-Gyu's "Roadkill" considers one of the bleaker possible futures that could result from humans becoming economically useless. I can only hope society gets our act together in time to achieve the utopian alternative instead.

Kim Changgyu's "Our Banished World" is my other favorite, even though its "overtly political" nature (according to the intro) was lost on me; it's also just a good simulated universe story. Both it and "Between Zero and One" share a theme of the harm that adults can inflict on the young when we become too set in our ways and sure of ourselves.

Slippery Creatures by K. J. Charles

A villain gets the best line:

Why do we count the cost of change but not the cost of the world staying the same?

Though I'm also fond of:

We appear to be locked in competition as to who has less of a spine.

If you're not good at imagining a British accent, I suggest the audiobook, because that's an important component.

The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer

The romance is clunky, although perhaps it would have made more sense if I hadn't kept forgetting that the characters are supposed to be teenagers.

I did enjoy how the premise of finding oneself as an unwilling crew member on a generation ship - and thus coming to realize that your opportunities in life have been radically and irrevocably narrowed by decisions that you had no say in - is used as a metaphor for life in general.

"Just to die later?"

"Well, yes. That was how life on Earth worked too. People did a lot of tasks and tried to keep death as far away as possible."

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

...even though he knew how much pain that choice had brought to others. How much pain he'd caused himself. It was worth it, in the end--it was worth seeing the universe as it was.

After a slightly disappointing third installment, I'm happy to report this one is as enjoyable as the first two.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

I was more than 2/3 through this book before I really felt any investment in its characters, and the fact that it had to kill one of them to make that happen isn't a great sign. I'll also admit to being a bit disappointed with the Exodans. One of my favorite details of Chambers's universe is that humans have a reputation in the galaxy for being pacifists - it's a charmingly optimistic take on our ability to actually learn from our mistakes as a species. When we finally see this human society up close, though, it's a little boring. There are some interesting ideas, like the ships whose layouts are carefully designed to promote egalitarianism, but mostly Exodan society sounds like any other half-baked commune of the sort whose real-world longevity tends to be measured in months.

The last 1/3 is good, though, and I'm thoroughly enjoying the fourth book so far.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

This series is just very soothing.

At one point the protagonist muses about how animals are born with no purpose in life, and concludes that we don't need a grand purpose tying together our whole lives - a purpose for the moment is enough. This reminds me of a passage in Chambers's Psalm for the Wild-Built: " is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. ... You are allowed to just live. That is all most animals do." I think the structure of her novels is an expression of this attitude. The characters exist for their own sakes, not to further any grand plot; and the scenes we see of their ordinary lives are not backdrops for greater dramas, but invitations to appreciate the fulfillment that can be found in ordinary lives. Hence, among other things, the focus on food and drink and social rituals.

Machine Learning by Tom M. Mitchell

This is part of the required reading for the machine learning class in Georgia Tech's online master's program. I think it's weird that they use a book from the 90s, and that's especially annoying because it's expensive and relatively hard to find. It is a really well-written textbook, though.

Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal

This book has a sort of this revolutionary concept will change EVERYTHING tone to it that I find off-putting. Also, chapter 1's declaration that "[c]ompared with games, reality is too easy" is not a very relatable opening.

I enjoyed Part One the most, which is an analysis of the key elements of games and what makes them compelling. Notably, "unnecessary obstacles" and "hard work" are essential; though I would suggest the popularity of, say, Animal Crossing calls into question the universality of the "hard work" part. Another key element is "voluntary participation" - which is why I'm skeptical about how far gamification can go in schools and workplaces.

The book talks a lot about positive psychology. Chapter 10 has an interesting discussion about how easy access to research on happiness hasn't led to us being happier:

It turns out that knowing what makes us happy isn’t enough. We have to act on that knowledge, and not just once, but often. And it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it is just not that easy to put scientific findings into practice in our everyday lives.

One of the reasons she lists for this difficulty is that "self-help isn't typically social, but so many happiness activities are meant to be."

Ideally, happiness needs to be approached as a collective process. Happiness activities need to be done with friends, family, neighbors, strangers, coworkers, and all the other people who make up the social fabric of our lives.

McGonigal discusses in detail many games designed to provide social benefits. The example I found most fascinating is a game that the UK newspaper the Guardian commissioned in order to get the general public involved in finding government corruption (specifically, by scrutinizing over a million expense reports of members of parliament). Other cool examples include:

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

First of all: favorite interspecies romance scene ever. That's not a thing I was looking for, but... 🤷

If I'd been in a different mood, I might not have liked this book at all. There are no mind-blowing ideas or enthralling mysteries or moments of startling eloquence. Some scenes feel didactic - as if they exist entirely to say see, here's how good people live and behave, imitate them - which I normally find annoying. But I've been reading a lot of depressing stuff lately, and a chill story about sane people dealing with their problems in reasonable ways was incredibly refreshing. I'd definitely enjoy spending some more time with these characters.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

...if your organization represents the people who will be born after us, well, that's a heavy burden! ... You have to do what they would do if they were here."

"I don't think they would countenance murder."

"Of course they would!"

The opening chapter is a horror story about a climate-change-induced heat wave. It feels like Robinson is grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you and saying, wake up, we're heading for an unfathomable disaster and we have to do something! It's the most memorable and effective part of the book.

It becomes a fundamentally optimistic book, but I'm not sure how much optimism it actually inspires in me. Apart from the geoengineering stuff and carbon coins, most of the optimism seems to rely on humans becoming uncharacteristically like-minded en masse. Capitalism is blamed for essentially everything and economics is portrayed as mostly bullshit; Robinson seems to channel the common leftist feeling that the main obstacle to a better world is a relatively small group of fat cats who need to be removed from power. I think this underestimates the depth of disagreements among ordinary people about how to organize society and day-to-day life and about what values and lifestyles need to be accommodated within society. If the world wars couldn't shock us all into being on the same page about the important stuff, I doubt climate disasters are going to do it either.

Still, as Robinson puts it: "no matter how massively entrenched the order of things seems in your time, there is no chance at all that they are going to be the same as they are now after a century has passed, or even ten years." As hard as it may be to believe in a future in which billions of us are (literally, at one particularly eye-roll-inducing point in the book) singing in harmony, there's no fundamental law of the universe saying it can't happen. Continuing to imagine and try ideas to get us there is important.

This is also a sort of travelogue for Zürich. It'll make you wish you were in Switzerland right now.

It's not really a novel, it's a combination of infodump and speculation and inspirational writing. It's too long, but there's a decent amount of good stuff in it.

Miscellaneous interesting things:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

If at any point this had abruptly declared, "and then an asteroid struck the earth and everyone died, the end", it would have been an enormous relief.

Not that it's not a good book; it's just so stressful. I have a deep-seated aversion to lying, so a point-of-view character who lies by default is uncomfortable. I also find it very frustrating to hear/read/watch people behave in obviously self-destructive ways. This is a 19-hour audiobook that's effectively optimized to make me maximally anxious for the entire duration. By the end I was listening at 2x speed just to be done with it.

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

There's a part in this book where a llama beats up a bear. I have never wanted a video of something more in my life.

I know it's in the title, but, somehow I didn't think this was going to be quite so bear-centric. This is not a book about a political movement that happened to include an incident with a bear. This is a book about politics that is also a book about bears. Politics and bears get equal air time. I propose that cable news networks should be required to follow that principle, too.

Just how intelligent are bears? Is toxoplasmosis making bears more risk-tolerant? Was that an unusually aggressive llama or an unusually timid bear? This book raises important questions.

As for the humans and their political squabbles... you could look at the train-wreck that was the Free Town Project and think ha, those stupid Libertarians but I think there's a more general lesson: trying to overhaul society from first principles is generally a bad idea. Hardcore Libertarians build up extensive theories to show that reorganizing government according to a few simple principles will make everything better. Theories built in the abstract like that tend to crumble on first contact with the complexities of reality. A while ago I read a book called Two Hundred Years of American Communes, which chronicles a bunch of towns founded on socialist ideals; they were almost all failures and frequently failed in farcical, pathetic ways, just like the Libertarian experiment on display in this book.

An interesting paper referenced: "State government public goods spending and citizens' quality of life"

Elasticsearch: The Definitive Guide by Clinton Gormley and Zachary Tong (2022-04-02)

This book is dated, but the deep dive into search scoring concerns in parts 2 and 3 was fascinating and still seems very useful. Platforms like Elasticsearch offer all sorts of tools you can configure to - theoretically - improve the results of full-text search, like stemming and n-grams and stopwords and phonetic matching, but there are quite a few caveats and non-obvious tradeoffs involved.

Another (very basic) thing I find interesting about Elasticsearch in particular is its approach to sharding: you can't change the number of shards after you create an index. But you can query multiple indexes at once, even using a wildcard on the index name, and this has essentially the same performance characteristics as querying a larger number of shards within a single index. So to deal with your data outgrowing the number of shards, you're encouraged to just create more indexes.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2022-03-29)

I really liked Mexican Gothic so I was interested in reading more of Moreno-Garcia's work, but this one isn't as memorable. It's primarily a romance, but the god who serves as the love interest is not a well-developed character. Also, even his good characteristics are essentially external to him - human traits he has involuntarily borrowed from the protagonist - which makes it hard to view the romance as particularly meaningful.

I do always appreciate an ending that tries to envision a constructive future for everyone, even the villains, though.

The audiobook narration leaves something to be desired; the emphases and pauses often do not fit the content of the dialogue.

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2022-03-14)

A great follow-up to Children of Time. Tchaikovsky continues to come up with interesting aliens. Here, he gives us hyperemotional octopi who influence each other's thoughts by touch, and a sentient microorganism which views the infection of human hosts as a grand adventure. That it ends with peace, love, and a celebration of diversity will come as no surprise if you'd read some of his previous works, but predictable or not, it still gives me warm fuzzy feelings to read this kind of optimistic sci-fi.

Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna (2022-03-12)

"'Studying philosophy' really means gorging yourself on a stew of every idea imaginable!" - the comic has Bertrand Russell say this with a grimace, frustrated at his inability to find absolute knowledge in that field. Personally, I think it's a delightful advertisement for philosophy.

This desire for total certainty among early-20th-century intellectuals is one of the main themes of Logicomix. We follow Russell as he searches for a firm foundation for mathematics, culminating in the publication of Principia Mathematica, which not only falls short of this dream but in fact lays the groundwork for Gödel to crush the dream entirely via his incompleteness theorems. Logicomix does a good job of bringing this milieu to life.

The book is littered with fun facts about its characters. By "fun" I mean "horrifying": Frege was intensely anti-semitic; Hilbert couldn't be bothered to visit his own son after consigning him to an asylum; Cantor was committed to an asylum after becoming obsessed with conspiracy theories about Shakespeare and Jesus*. It's a reminder that genius and expertise are perfectly compatible with evil and stupidity. We humans contain multitudes.

Finally, I was happy to be introduced to this Russell quote, which has not become less relevant with the passage of time:

The luxury to disparage freedom is the privilege of those who already possess it.

* Those are two separate conspiracy theories, to be clear. Although if it hasn't been tried already, I do think some enterprising fabulist should start a rumor that Shakespeare wrote the gospels.

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey (2022-03-02)

Most of the characters in this novel are utterly terrible people, which can make it tough to listen to. But the plot is enthralling enough that it's equally hard to stop listening. Xe Sands's audio narration fits the book perfectly.

Food for thought: Is Evelyn correct that the clone of Nathan is innocent of his crimes? If people don't have souls, there's a case that a full copy of your mind is as much 'you' as the original is. In this case the copy was made before the original became a murderer; but the copy still has much the same personality, and seems to share the same goal (having a tailor-made domesticized clone of his wife). Is there much reason to doubt that he would have approved of the original's actions, and repeated them if placed in the same situation? Perhaps Evelyn's "programming" makes him sufficiently different, and obviously it's better to err on the side of caution when deciding whether to mete out the death penalty to someone. But Martine's desire to hold him accountable doesn't seem wholly unreasonable either.

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday (2022-02-28)

Did you know that "regurgitalite" is the word for fossilized vomit? Now you're stuck with that information! Also, if you need some nightmare fuel, think about the fact there was once a species of crocodilian that could be described as "agile and catlike".

If I wanted to retain anything from this at all, I should have gone for the print version instead of the audiobook. I find it almost impossible to really pay attention to the details in meandering descriptions of landscapes and species and ecosystems. But I have no regrets, because Adetomiwa Edun's voice is incredibly soothing.

88 Names by Matt Ruff (2022-02-17)

When the thing standing between you and your heart's desire is another person with their own wants and needs, the answer is never as simple as just laying down the law. We all understand this when someone else tries to tell us what we can and can't do, but conveniently forget it when it's our turn to give orders.
People do change, but they change in their own time, for reasons that make sense to them. They don't change just because we want them to, or because it would be convenient to our own desires if they did.

I picked this up because I loved Lovecraft Country. 88 Names isn't as memorable, but it's a fun quick read. I expect I'll be reading more of Ruff's books in the future.

The book taught me some things about North Korea. I hadn't heard of the Songbun system, in which the government sorts all citizens into three classes: "core", "wavering", or "hostile". Or about Kim Jong-Il kidnapping filmmaker Shin Sang-ok.

While discussing the dictator's personal film collection, Ruff raises a fascinating thought: if you want to make sure unauthorized copies don't escape into the general population, you might be best off keeping the movies on actual, physical film. The equipment to make copies will be much holder to get ahold of!

Ruff has thought-provoking takes on the roles VR and gaming may have in our lives in the near future. I was never into MMORPGs, but I did go through an FPS phase, so a lot of the abusive player behavior he describes feels familiar. Imagining what such behavior will be like within highly immersive VR is a distressing exercise. Imagining what VR will do to our sex lives is a perhaps happier but much weirder exercise.

I look forward to the "kinetic photoshopping" he describes, where you flail your arms around gracelessly and the game fudges the movements in just the right ways to make you look like a martial arts master :)

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill (2022-02-10)

Nobody can really make themselves happy. But they can make other people happy.

There's a very similar quote in O'Neill's Daydreams of Angels. I can't decide whether it's a depressing perspective or an inspiring one. The theme shows itself in a few ways in this book: performers transmuting their suffering into joy for others (the rich "want to see experience and pain up on display. We have heaps of that!"); Pierrot's music brightening the lives of strangers after he himself has given up on life:

I've no right to keep a good tune for myself. I have to let it go out into the world...It wants to have its own life in other people's hearts.

One perspective I definitely find depressing here is that happiness is only really found in childhood. (It's an especially surprising perspective given that the book begins with chapter after chapter of child abuse.) O'Neill suggests that if we could choose any moment of our lives to return to, most of us would choose a moment from our childhoods. I don't think that's true for me, even though I was a pretty happy kid.

The best thing about O'Neill's works is the wealth of strikingly eloquent little self-contained remarks she sprinkles them with. This one is no exception, though listening to the (well-narrated) audio version limited how many I could take note of.

A young girl's body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.
Pierrot felt very wary of anyone who insisted that they were trustworthy. People who really were trustworthy believed the attribute to be implicit and the assumed normal way to be.

Anyway, I wasn't too into the story at first but it almost made me cry by the end.

Also, there's a poodle named "Treacherous Stormcloud" and that's obviously the best thing ever.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, Harmony Becker (2022-02-07)

After depriving them of their homes and possessions, and while still imprisoning them for no crime whatsoever, the US government had the audacity to give Japanese Americans a survey asking if they were "willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States" and "swear unqualified allegiance to the United States". What an absurd demand to make in the middle of abusing someone! But this way of thinking - in which the country is presumed to deserve everyone's unconditional loyalty, and failure to pledge such loyalty is seen as an obscene and suspicious antisocial act - was taken for granted in my childhood and is still common today. We should remember how often our government has not only failed to earn the allegiance of entire swaths of its population, but has actively proven itself unworthy of it.

A lot of the details in this book were new to me: the survey mentioned above and its consequences, the desire to keep the victims out of sight by keeping train windows closed, the attempt to pressure people into renouncing their citizenship so they could be deported after the war. This should be standard reading in schools.

It was also inspiring to read about a couple individuals outside the Japanese-American community who tried to stand up to the injustice, particularly the lawyer Wayne Collins who helped prevent many cruel deportations.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong (2022-02-05)

If there was a time machine, only whites would be able to go back in time in this country. Most everyone else would get enslaved, slain, maimed, or chased after by feral children.

I have a confession to make. Minor Feelings sat on my shelf for months after I bought it. Whenever I'd pick it up and look at the table of contents, I'd see the chapter titled "The End of White Innocence" and think: I don't have the emotional energy for this right now. What triggers that reaction? It doesn't come from being reminded of the numerous and ongoing sins of white people. Nor does it come from being accused of flaws in my own behavior (at least, not primarily). But when I suspect that someone holds me responsible for things I have no control over, it is difficult not to become defensive. Fundamentally, it's the fear of someone treating me first and foremost as the representative of a group - a group I did not choose - and only secondarily as a person. Each of us wants to be treated as a human with intrinsic worth whose hopes and sufferings matter.

I do recognize the absurdity and irony in this reaction. Whites have done unfathomable physical, economic, and emotional harm to countless people and treated the members of so many groups as less than human. For me to be subject to some resentment is a very trivial concern by comparison. And of course, my fear that such resentment indicates that the person expressing it refuses to see me as an individual may be no more than that: a fear, reflecting my insecurities rather than reality. Hong makes a relevant distinction:

Two thousand and sixteen was the year of white tears. Memes circulated around the Internet of a black, brown, or Asian woman taking a long leisurely sip from a white mug embossed with the words "White Tears." Implied in the meme is that people of color are utterly indifferent to white tears. Not only that, they feel a certain delicious Schadenfreude in response to white tears. Of course, "white tears" does not refer to all pain but to the particular emotional fragility a white person experiences when they find racial stress so intolerable they become hypersensitive and defensive, focusing the stress back to their own bruised ego.

It's reasonable that people of color would expect white people to just get over such feelings. But it's also predictable that many will instead either become defensive or retreat from conversation entirely; it's a natural human response to having one's feelings scorned or ridiculed. I'm not sure to what extent (if at all) Hong hopes for this book to encourage change in white readers, but if that is among her goals, statements like "you vivisected my ancestral country in two" seem likely to substantially narrow the audience that she can reach. It suggests that young and middle-aged white readers are stained from birth with a guilt that we neither could have avoided nor have any clear path to absolving. This book is suffused with loathing for the contemporary world, but does not offer a vision of how the future ought to be, let alone how to get there. Anger that offers no achievable terms for reconciliation encourages continued alienation.

Nevertheless, it's surely not healthy to ask the victims of racism to censor their true feelings just because some of those feelings are undiplomatic. Hong indicates throughout this book that she and many other Asian Americans feel an intense pressure to self-censor. That's an excruciating way to live and I'm glad she's been willing and able to put her thoughts onto paper.

One thing this book helped me understand better is how some seemingly positive stereotypes associated with Asian Americans are reflective of traumatic demands made by white society. Hong's discussion of the 2017 incident when David Dao was violently forced off a flight highlights this:

Asian friends of mine and Asian American journalists who wrote about Dao said the same thing: "Dao reminds me of my father." It wasn't just that he was the same age as our fathers. It was also his trim and discreet appearance that made him familiar. His nondescript appearance was as much for camouflage as it was for comfort, cultivated to project a benign and anonymous professionalism. His appearance said: I am not one to take up space nor make a scene.


While I agree with his defenders that his rap sheet is irrelevant to the United Airlines incident, it's relevant to me, since it helps us to see Dao in a more complex, realistic light. Dao is not a criminal nor is he some industrious automaton who could escape the devastation of his homeland and, through a miraculous arc of resilience, become an upstanding doctor whose kids are also doctors. For many immigrants, if you move here with trauma, you're going to do what it takes to get by.

Another heartbreaking tidbit that stood out to me:

...Korean women are so self-conscious about the size of their faces that they will go under the knife to shave their jawlines down (a common Korean compliment: "Your face is so small it's the size of a fist!").

There's also a lot in this book that I just don't know what to do with. Hong seems to have a great deal of angst focused on questions of identity: of who she is, of who she should think of as "we", of how to live in a way that rejects "whiteness" without thereby being defined in relation to whiteness. To me, such questions hint at a fundamentally essentialist outlook, as if people and cultures had pure original forms which must be excavated and disentangled. But each of us is largely the product of our experiences and interactions. We can react against the negative parts of our pasts, we can use our experiences to decide what would make a better future; but to imagine who we would have been if a major strand of influence had never touched us is effectively just to imagine that entirely different people had existed instead of us. That may be a fruitful creative exercise, but to set it up as the only way to locate your true identity sounds like a recipe for unending frustration.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (2022-01-30)

I spent last week unexpectedly stranded in a midwestern exurb. By the time I finally boarded a plane yesterday, my state of mind was defined entirely by the desperate desire to get home to the city as soon as possible. To occupy myself during that flight I turned on this audiobook, which opens with:

Sometimes, a person reaches a point in their life when it becomes absolutely essential to get the fuck out of the city.

What I'm saying is, Chambers and I may have gotten off on the wrong foot.

Panga's societies are cast in a utopian light that mostly makes me roll my eyes. A couple examples:

- At one point Dex feels themself to be in a "conundrum" because the custom of sharing food with others is very important in their society, but this cannot be done for the robot (Mosscap) since it does not eat. I assume we're supposed to feel warmed by how deeply ingrained communitarian spirit is in Dex's culture, but to me it brings to mind how often cultures encourage people to fixate on abstract values at the expense of actual attentiveness to the needs of others.

- Mosscap explains that the robots voluntarily chose to include death in their society, rather than making themselves immortal. Attempts to make death seem good or in some way beautiful always seem very sour-grapesy to me. Would you truly choose death - and encourage your loved ones to choose death - if you had the option of immortality? Or, in the face of something awful that you are utterly powerless to stop, have you resorted to trying to convince yourself it's not so awful?

I did like the conversation about meaning in life toward the end of the book, though. is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don't need to justify that or earn it. You are allowed to just live. That is all most animals do.

Emmett Grosland does a fantastic job narrating the audiobook.

Don't Panic by Neil Gaiman (2022-01-28)

Hitchhiker's Guide is something I liked but not necessarily something I loved; it wasn't a formative influence on me. I enjoyed the books less than the radio series (3/5 of which, I've only just become aware, were produced after Adams's death) and I remember the film adaptation very fondly, despite Gaiman's negative evaluation of it in this book. So perhaps Adams's style appeals to me most when it's tempered by other influences. But reading this has made me want to revisit his work.

I'm struck by how little success Adams had before H2G2. Even his collaboration with Graham Chapman of Monty Python, which must have felt like being on the verge of a big break, didn't really go anywhere. I can only imagine how demoralizing it was to go from that to doing manual labor for a while. The massive success of Hitchhiker's Guide seems quite sudden.

Adams can also be an inspiration for all of us who've wished to create something but find the actual process of creation an immense struggle:

Writing comes easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds. ... All writers, or most, say they find writing difficult, but most writers I know are surprised at how difficult I find it.

Gaiman notes that only one of Adams's books was written at home. My takeaway is that if you're having trouble getting work done, you should try taking a vacation.

Before sharing some of the fan mail Adams received, Gaiman quotes some of Adams's thoughts on fame: how it's important "not to expose yourself too much to people who are going to tell you you are God's gift to the human race - which you're not." I wonder how much of the human desire to become famous is driven by a hope that others will tell us we're amazing - and a belief that if they do, it will mean it's true.

A few of my favorite tidbits from the book:

- The first theatrical adaptation of the Guide involved seating the audience on a movable hovercar. I'm jealous of those audiences.

- The TV series included an expensive animatronic second head for Zaphod, which largely went to waste both because it was frequently broken and because the actor sometimes forgot to turn it on.

- One fan letter included an elaborate argument that the Ultimate Question was encoded in Morse code within the number 2^42.

I was totally unaware of Adams's interest in endangered species (he traveled around the world to help create the documentary Last Chance to See) and also of his book The Meaning of Liff. The thing I was most eager to try after reading this, though, is the Hitchhiker's Guide game.

Fiasco by Stanisław Lem (2022-01-25)

You're the kind of friend that if you give your word that you'll jump in after me, you keep it. And if you swear that you'll stand there and watch me drown, you jump in anyway.

There's a lot going on in this novel. At first it seems like a man-vs-nature tale - or rather, a man-in-a-giant-mech-vs-nature tale. As the hero traipses across Titan, Lem spends a lot of time painting an image of an alien landscape, trying to communicate a sense of overpowering awe and foreignness.

It was only in places where eternal, still death reigned, where neither the sieves nor the mills of natural selection were at work, shaping every creature to fit the rigors of survival, that an amazing realm opened up - of compositions of matter that did not imitate anything, that were not controlled by anything, and that went beyond the framework of the human imagination.

But this is just a prologue for a very different story. The theme tying it all together, perhaps, is obstinate pursuit of a goal. The rivalry between the two bases on Titan creates the conditions that cost two strider pilots their lives; determination to rescue the lost pilots against all odds dooms first Pirx, then Parvis. The crew attempting to make first contact with Quinta is so unwilling to admit defeat that they end up destroying the entire civilization they had hoped to learn about. Cynical, but more believable than the scenarios of, say, Star Trek.

There's an odd subplot about the identity of Mark Tempe, who is either Pirx or Parvis brought back to life. We never find out which, and I'm not sure what the point was. It's interesting to me that, when the doctors must choose between saving one of two men, they feel the need to pretend that there is some objective basis for which they choose. The assumption seems to be that everyone would understand saving a healthier person over a person who had suffered greater injuries, but that choosing at random would be almost unconscionable. I would expect, if anything, the opposite.

An amusing bit: the ship computer performs continuous psychological evaluation of the crew, but it won't tell you what it's concluded about you, because just hearing its evaluation might induce psychological pathologies.

The Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll (2022-01-23)

Telling a technical story in a way that's both comprehensible and entertaining can be tough, but Stoll does a good job.

After detecting a hacker in his university's network, Stoll didn't close the security holes. Instead, for months, he just watched the hacker's activity. He didn't want them to know he was aware of them until he was able to track them down. I admire the guts it took to take that short-term risk in order to solve the larger problem. And the methods he used to interfere with the hacker without giving himself away are fascinating - from physically injecting noise into the network traffic, to rigging systems to perform more and more slowly the longer the hacker used them, to building elaborate ruses.

One thing that stands out is the extent to which stopping the hacker depended on one person's relentless determination despite lack of reward or even support. I suspect the continued functioning of our society often depends on such people, people who are driven to do things right even when their incentives point in the other direction.

This was written three decades ago. Stoll's girlfriend complained about the pager he was carrying around with him, calling it an "electronic leash". Today's world, in which millions of people who already have smartphones shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of literally strapping an Internet-connected watch to their wrist, would presumably have sounded downright dystopian to her. There was also an optimistic perspective in the air that looks both heartwarming and hopelessly naive in retrospect. Many saw their networks as founded on a cooperative, community spirit, and were angry at hackers for threatening the sense of trust this was based on. Today, the Internet feels like a jungle where attackers are everywhere and proactive defense is crucial. It's hard to imagine now how things could be any other way, yet early sysadmins seemed to worry about this as a worst-case-scenario outcome rather than an inevitability.

The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks by Simone Caroti (2022-01-09)

"There it was, a future, drawn out in trajectories across hyperspace, told through the serene clear agency of godlike AI, and spelled out in a voice modulated so that the pain of one's existence became a small section of a far larger context."

The Culture series made a special impression on Caroti, as it did on me and many others. Here he defends its significance not only for the genre of space opera, but as a utopian work - "one of the very few literary utopias most of us actually agree would be nice to live in." His primary concern is to reject cynical interpretations of the series, in which "the whole notion of the Culture as a utopia is a smokescreen deployed to hide the reality that this utopia is, in fact, every bit as imperialistic as every other society"; based on statements by Banks and on the texts themselves he believes "Banks was, in fact, dead serious about imagining a society one could genuinely call utopian." This matches my own interpretation - while I think Banks wants us to see the complexity of the decisions his characters face, and to face the fact that unambiguously correct answers may elude even the best-intentioned and best-equipped decision-makers, he nonetheless means to draw an optimistic and inspiring vision of a possible future: one where the decision-makers really do have everyone's best interests at heart, where the powerful take their ethical responsibilities very seriously, and where equality and happiness are the day-to-day reality of the masses.

Caroti recaps each of the Culture novels and draws out a number of connections and patterns I had missed. He also discusses Banks' pre-Culture literary novels, and gives some background on Banks himself, who sounds like a pretty entertaining character - you gotta love someone who takes up a hobby called "Drunken Urban Climbing."

Tales of Pirx the Pilot by Stanisław Lem (2022-01-08)

...whenever he would ponder, with cheeks aglow, the great galactic silence, the lonely valor of men, he always had trouble picturing a hero of eternal night, a loner, having such a -- dimplepuss.

The first story in this is pretty funny, and the next two are interesting mysteries. I was a bit bored with the remaining two, although I appreciated the final one's spooky notion of echoes of dead personalities inadvertently living on in the brain of a robot.

I enjoy the anachronisms of old sci-fi (this was published in 1966); there's something cozy about an imagined future where rocketships need to carry shelves full of physical books, and pilots still need Morse code. Sometimes, though, you run into an offhand remark that really drives home how much the world has changed: a bout of the measles: sooner or later everyone was bound to get them.

Ethics in the Real World by Peter Singer (2022-01-03)

...hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and the fact that racists and sexists must pay this tribute is an indication of some moral progress.

This has only reaffirmed my high opinion of Singer. These essays get right to the point; they don't beat around the bush, but aren't gratuitously incendiary either; and they offer thoughtful takes on a wide range of issues.

Many of these are on the kind of subject you'd expect from Singer - animal rights, euthanasia, charity - but some are surprising, like the one on the ethics of cheating in sports. Discussing soccer players who managed to hide something from the refs that would have hurt their team, and later expressed pride for having done so successfully, Singer laments the missed opportunity: if they had instead spoken up at the time, they could have set an example for everyone watching, challenging us all to prioritize honesty and integrity over winning. It's a reminder not just to think of the narrow context you're acting within, but of what your actions say about your values.

Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson (2022-01-03)

—Hers aren't the interesting things to be right or wrong about. Those are just the way things are.

—But that's what she wants to know.

—Sure. So does everyone. But things we can know in that way are a very small part of what matters. So it's a form of looking away. You get to the hard questions, [she] just looks away.

Distant prehistory seems, to me, like a difficult setting for a novel - how do you make the characters relatable without abandoning realism? But Robinson does it very effectively. My only real complaint about this book is that it's much too long.