I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked throughout 2017, and most of the times ended up entertaining myself with some sci-fi escapism (or not, given how I tend to go for the bleak stuff). Still, I would like to highlight a few books that left an impression:
Laurent Binet’s HHhH would be a very thrilling account of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of high-ranking nazi Reinhard Heydrich by a czechoslovak commando during World War II. Even though it would be wrong to describe reading this book as a joy, given the book’s description of the rise of nazism and of nazi atrocities, it is true that I found HHhH unputdownable, mostly because of the book’s narration from the point of view of its author, researching the book as it is written — eg. finding a crucial detail in a museum in Prague while on holiday there, commenting on how an old film adaptation of the events gets a few things wrong, being constaly unsure of the color of the car Heydrich was in during the assassination, etc.
I really liked the worldbuilding on Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books, of which I’m halfway through The Will to Battle, the third in what is expected to be a tetralogy. I’m still a little bit unsure about the premise (There’s going to be a war! Why? Because there’s going to be a war!), and the structure of the books tends to be a bit boring sometimes, specially in the second volume (a dialogue scene, then another dialogue scene, and another, and another), the utopian future world Palmer describes is very consistent and really stays with me, a marvel I would like to see like no other in earthly sci-fi. I see some hints in The Will to Battle that Ada Palmer may be improving at writing action, and if so I can’t hardly wait for the final chapter. And given the worldbuilding, the number of interesting characters, the operatic style, the blood and the constant menace, I hope HBO comes calling. That I would watch.
I’ve also given much thought to Cixin Liu’s bleak Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. While parts still feel very unsophisticated (such as the very weak writing of female characters), it’s very interesting to read hard sci-fi with a chinese point-of-view. And most of all (a spoiler for the second volume, The Dark Forest, follows), Liu offers one very interesting and extremely unsettling theory about why we haven’t yet found any other signs of life in the universe: every advanced civilization is hiding, as demonstrations of intelligent life are swifly met with extermination before they can grow to be a threat. Add the SETI project to our list of existential threats.
I haven’t watched the series, but did feel inclined to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Despite being written in the 1980s, I agree that it is a dystopia that captures many anxieties of 2017, and for all the ways it may strike us implausible that something as Gilead may be implemented in the West, we should never forget it has happened multiple times before (eg. just look at how Afeghanistan devolved from an emerging developing country to Taliban rule in less than two decades). Therein lies the power of distopia. We may never agree on the utopia we want — Ada Palmer’s books shows how her multiple choice utopia breaks (and that one is only made possible because of free energy and a highly unplausible transport technology). However, we may agree on what we don’t. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum!
I’ve also read quite a few online articles, of which I recommend the following:
There is no alternative?
- Evict the Rich, Peter Moskowitz, The Outline;
- The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millenial, Venkatesh Rao, Ribbonfarm;
- Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture, Brianna Rennix & Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs;
- The Ins and Outs of Europe’s Deep Establishment, Stan Persky, LA Review of Books;
- The Legion Lonely, Stephen Thomas, Hazlitt;
- This is Not a Simulation, Carmen Petaccio, The New Inquiry;
- The Rise of the Thought Leader, David Sessions, New Republic;
- Against Domesticity, Amber A'lee Frost, Current Affairs;
- Against Willpower, Carl Erik Fisher, Nautilus;
- Why time management is ruining our lives, Oliver Burkeman, Guardian;
- Twenty-first Century Victorians, Jason Tebbe, Jacobin.
Sciences & philosophy
- The Machiavelli series, Ada Palmer;
- The Logic of Risk-taking, Nassim Nicholas Taleb;
- The Sadness of Saturn, Sam Kriss, The Outline;
- How Information Got Re-invented, Jimmy Soni & Rob Goodman, Nautilus;
- Bad Things Happen for a Reason and other Idiocies of Theodicy, Jason Blum, Aeon.
The decline of academia
- Publication, Power, and Patronage, Chad Wellmon & Andrew Piper, Critical Inquiry;
- Laboring Academia, Maximilian Alvarez, The Baffler.
When technology backfires
- What Bitcoin Shows Us About How Money Works, Tim Babb;
- The Death of the Internet, Joshua Topolsky, The Outline;
- The Great Tech Panic: The Internet Is the Uncanniest Valley, Virginia Hefferman, Wired;
- Eliminating the Human, David Byrne;
- Build a Better Monster: Morality, Machine Learning, and Mass Surveillance, Maciej Ceglowski, Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference;
- When Good Intentions Backfire, danah boyd, Data & Society: Points.
Art and media
- What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?, Claire Dederer, The Paris Review;
- Lynch, Time, and Comedy, Elise Moore, Bright Wall, Dark Room;
- Salvation Mode — the forgotten joys of the screen saver, Zack Hatfield, The Paris Review;
- Return of the KLF, Andrew Harrison, Guardian;
- Mike Judge, the bard of suck, Willy Staley, New York Times Magazine;
- Thoughts on Software for the Visual Arts, Casey Reas, Processing Foundation.
- Everything I Am Afraid Might Happen If I Ask New Acquaintances to Get Coffee, Hallie Cantor, New Yorker;
- A Selection of the 30 Most Disappointing Under 30, Bess Kalb, New Yorker.