There is now such a thing as “evolutionary robotics,” if you can believe it. An article published in Wired Magazine a few months ago called Robot ‘Natural Selection’ Combines Into Something New describes how this new branch of scientific research is attempting to improve the design of robots by simulating the process of natural selection. For example, one of the things that’s proven tricky to program robots to do is walk on various types of terrains. But researchers in Australia have shown how using a simulated natural selection process leads to unusual-looking but more effective robot leg designs.
Of course, in this case, it is computer code rather than genetic code that is being reproduced, and the variations caused by mutations in DNA reproduction are simulated by “adding ‘noise’ to the marriage of data.” As one of the researchers puts it:
The beauty of evolution is that it stumbles upon bonkers ideas all the time. No one, for example, designed a fungus to invade ants’ bodies and mind-control them around the rainforest — that unusual strategy emerged thanks to generation upon generation of random mutations and natural selection.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find such appreciation for the process that led to the parasitic mind-control of ants somewhat disturbing. I can only assume the researcher would heartily approve of the evolutionary horror show that is the tarantula wasp’s method for raising its young by laying their eggs in the bodies of still living and feeling but paralyzed tarantulas.
Just a Splash of Mutation, Please
The article was also interesting for the unabashedly optimistic tone the author had for these endeavors. Toward the end of the article, he claims
The resulting designs may be surprising, but they won’t be detrimental to our species, unless a designer tells the robots to evolve to kick as much human ass as possible. Unlikely, of course. …[This] could also unleash a new kind of engineering creativity, and almost certainly won’t lead to the machines taking our place as the dominant species on Earth.
Am I the only one troubled by the use of the qualifier “almost” in that last sentence? We are talking about the possibility of having robots overthrow and possibly enslave us, right? Is that something we want to enable even a tiny chance of happening? Also, asserting that the introduction of a mutation that might cause robots to try and control us is unlikely because humans are in charge of the mutations makes me think the author must have never interacted with actual humans before.
Plus, it sounds like doublethink to say, on the one hand, we’re going to improve the design of robots by replicating natural selection, while on the other hand claiming we will somehow remain in control of it, so it doesn’t lead to anything too bonkers?
Silly Robot, Natural Selection is for AIs!
Finally, saying that only humans will forever remain in charge of governing the extent of the mutations is naive. It’s only a matter of time before AIs will be used to manage all sorts of scientific research. They’ve already far surpassed us in complex, “perfect information” games like chess and Go, and have reached the top echelons of complex, “imperfect information” games like StarCraft II, where you can’t always see everything your opponent is doing. For the former type of games, AIs are inventing novel strategies no human player has ever tried. Plus, they develop the capability to play at this level, starting from scratch, in a matter of hours rather than years.
Now, some AI researchers are also experimenting with combining deep learning algorithms with principles lifted from evolution to develop increasingly novel solutions (Computers Involve a New Path Toward Human Intelligence, Quanta Magazine). So it’s quite likely that the process of modifying code, be it DNA or Python, will very soon be done much better and faster by computers than people ever could.
Strangely, the process of natural selection we are starting to model our technology after appears to have produced a foundational dissatisfaction in ourselves with that process — at least as it applies to us. The old software engineering joke says, “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature,” but when we consider ourselves we seem to lose our good humor about the situation. You’d think we’d be nothing but pleased and grateful to have had the good fortune to stumble our way into being the most sentient species on Earth, but we aren’t. Instead, we fixate on all the things we don’t have and can’t do.
As a result of this pathological need to fill our perceived gaps, we’ve launched into activities like cutting and pasting our genes for whatever reasons we see fit. Today it’s to cure diseases for specific individuals, tomorrow perhaps a germline edit to ensure no one has to suffer the ignominy of dying of old age. So I can’t help but find it ironic that we’re employing natural selection to build better robots. If that’s the best process for developing them, why is it so inadequate for us?
1984 has long been at the top of my “Books I’m Embarrassed to Never Have Read” list. It piqued my interest again a couple of years ago when I heard about a surge in its popularity after the election of Donald Trump. I found it interesting that a book written 70 years ago would be one that large numbers of people would turn to in response to a change in current world events.
I’d already read The Handmaid’s Tale, written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, and Brave New World, written in 1931 by Aldous Huxley, both of which were also being revisited by readers. I was curious how Orwell’s dystopian vision would compare to Atwood’s and Huxley’s, so when I saw the Kindle version on sale later I bought a copy.
However, 1984 continued to languish on my Kindle (along with about 50 other books, LOL) until a couple of months ago when my son’s 7th grade English teacher assigned it to him to read. For whatever reason, I couldn’t bear for him to have read it while I had not. I was really busy with work at the time though, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it on my Kindle, so I sacrificed an Audible credit to get the audiobook version as well.
I’m glad I did because the narration by Simon Prebble was wonderful. Even though the parts I re-read on my Kindle later on my Kindle were still great, they didn’t have the same impact as when Mr. Prebble read them. The accents he did, both male or female, were impeccable, and his native British accent gave the dialog a depth that I would have totally missed had I read it on my own. So if you decide to read this book, whether again or for the first time, I highly recommend the audiobook version.
Of course, the writing, as one might expect for a book that has endured in popularity for so long, is excellent. The prose is simple but beautiful, with the assured voice of someone who knows they are a master of their craft.
For those of you like me who haven’t read it before, the story concerns a man named Winston Smith who works as a member of the Party, an unopposed governmental organization in what was once England but is now known as Airstrip One. Airstrip One is part of Oceania, one of three superstates that all of human society has been partitioned into. Everything in the story takes place in London, the largest city in Airstrip One.
The general population, known as Proles (proletariat), live in a never-ending subsistence level existence that keeps them from rising up to overthrow their oppressors. Winston is a member of the Outer Party, a middle-echelon group that spends all of its time working to maintain the propaganda-fueled revisionist history sent down by anonymous members of the topmost Inner Party.
Secretly, Winston loathes the Party and the work he does. Yet he slogs along, out of fear of being outed as disloyal, which he knows will automatically result in his being tortured and then “vaporized.” To be vaporized means not only your body but any and all other physical evidence of your existence is destroyed as well so that it is as if you never existed.
The Inner Party uses continuous warfare (or at least imagined warfare) as a means of eliminating the excess material goods produced by the Proles to keep the latter in a state of perpetual poverty. It also keeps them in a state of fear which prevents the populace from rising up against the Party. The use of never-ending war, propaganda, and economic hardship is the hamster wheel around which Orwellian society endlessly turns.
In order to keep track of everyone, particularly members of the Party itself, devices called telescreens are used to record everything people do or say, as well as track other things such as a person’s breathing and heart rate. Telescreens are everywhere so that everything people do can be observed by members of the Party at any time.
The author does a magnificent job of making you feel what such an oppressive, claustrophobic existence would be like. He describes an existence in which the party in power’s obsession with rooting out any opposition to it, even in people’s minds, leads to an existence totally detached from reality.
The plot is thin, particularly by the standards of today’s impatient readers, but that’s the point. In this future individual privacy no longer exists, at least not for members of the Party. Even the tiniest deviation is seen as a threat to the status quo of the inner party being in power. The result is a stifling, static existence against which Winston’s meager effort at rebellion simply by starting a diary packs a great dramatic punch. I won’t reveal any more of the plot in case you haven’t read it, because you really should. I’ll just say that it is as beautifully devastating as any book I’ve ever read, and leave it at that.
It is easy for me now to see why people who read this book years ago would now turn to it again given the current political climate. The best science fiction books are great thought experiments, and 1984 is undoubtedly one of the greatest ever. It brilliantly simplifies the world in a way that allows the author to explore what sort of world could result from our ever-accelerating advancements in technology combined with the immutable human lust for power. Orwell invented a number of terms to help build his world, including “doublethink,” “telescreens,” and “the Two Minutes Hate.” Some of the terms, such as “thought police” and “Big Brother” even made their way into our broader cultural lexicon.
When you look at the recent developments in areas such as the Kashgar region of China I wrote about recently, it is impossible not to think that the telescreens of 1984 have come true in the modern world. Indeed, it is perhaps on a path to being even worse than Orwell imagined. Even Mr. Orwell’s cynical view did not foresee that we would actually carry telescreens around in our pockets! The nascent capabilities of supercomputing, artificial intelligence, and brain-computer interfaces are right now making the constant monitoring of every person’s inner mind a plausible reality. Not perhaps in five years, but certainly in 50 or 100.
I read Yuval Harrari’s nonfiction masterpiece Sapiens last year, and 1984 felt very much like a novel Mr. Harrari might have written. The belief in the eventual ability to deconstruct and manipulate facts and history through constant observation, and the discovery and exploitation of brain-hacking techniques, are the central tenets of both works.
Social media has indeed thrown us into a world where facts are regarded by many not as facts but as malleable constructs to be reshaped as one sees fit. Orwell simplified things so this activity was entirely controlled by the Party, but in reality, it’s more of a free-for-all. Nonetheless, I am amazed — as I was with Brave New World — at the author’s perspicacity and how many elements of the world he imagined have come to pass.
But there's one area where I think Orwell's vision missed the boat, and that's how it views what happens to science and technology. In 1984, in order for the Party to maintain control over society it has to put a moratorium on scientific progress. But can anyone imagine anything really stopping the development of science and technology? I think the real endgame of humanity is to gain ultimate power over nature itself. It is a compulsion that goes beyond the need to control over other people, although new technologies will certainly be applied to that end along the way.
Ironically, I see the same sort of mental contortions the members of the Party use in 1984 to justify the nightmarish existence they impose on other humans being applied today to justify the unfettered pursuit of scientific knowledge. There is ample evidence over the course of human history that new technologies will be used for evil as well as good. But regardless of the awesome powers of the forces we are now playing with, we employ the 1984 concept of doublethink to simultaneously be aware of the evil that could be wrought with the technologies we are inventing, but simultaneously convincing ourselves that any doomsday scenarios will never come to pass.
I can’t help but wonder what Mr. Orwell would think if he could see us now. Then again, maybe someday soon we’ll discover how to reanimate the dead and he can tell us himself.
Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the end of Game of Thrones and still plan to watch it at some point, read no further.
If you have been a fan of Game of Thrones, chances are that like me, you are still reeling from the ending a couple of weeks ago. I use the word ‘ending’ generously, in the way that in the movie "Flight" one might call turning the plane upside down and then right-side up again just before crashing into a field a ‘landing.’ Put simply, it was an epic mess.
What made it even more bitter for me personally was that like many people, my wife and I spent the previous 2 months re-watching almost every episode from seasons 1-7 again before season 8 came out. After putting that much work into regrounding ourselves so we could be ready for whatever symbolism and prior references the final season might have up its sleeve, the way it ended was a nightmare. Not only did it fail to answer numerous questions it had posed along the way, but it also had numerous characters do things that were totally out of character in service of wrapping up the plot.
The thing is, it was only the last two episodes where everything really fell apart. While there were elements going back to season 7 that started to challenge my suspension of disbelief (Bron shooting Drogon out of the sky on just his second shot ever from a giant crossbow comes to mind), I really think if things been done differently in the just those episodes it could have come in for a shaky but still satisfying conclusion. The way Arya took out the Night King was excellent, and the preparation for marching on King’s Landing in the next episode was kind of boring but still okay. So what went so wrong at the very last?
The Three Scenes that Doomed the Ending of GoT
1. The inexplicable inattention into detail regarding the transition Daenerys from beloved savior to worse-than-Cersei sociopath.
I get that there were plenty of signs that, if left to her own devices, Daenerys had a dark side that popped up whenever she was presented with even modest challenges to her rule. She had always been dependent on the advice she got from her confidants like Ser Jorah and Melisandre to keep her from defaulting to those tendencies, particularly in moments of stress.
However, there still needed to be something more to make her abandonment of the principles she had espoused for so long believable when she decides to raze King's Landing and kill a couple hundred thousand innocent people. To suddenly cut away from the close point of view we’d experienced with her up until then and only show distant shots of her riding Drogon as he burns everything in sight without providing any explanation as to her mental state at that moment was baffling. It was particularly noticeable because of the great care the show normally took to make sure every plot twist and turn along the way was presented in a way that made sense to the audience, even if it wasn’t what we expected or wanted.
2. When Jon kills Daenerys in the throne room.
It was cool that this scene showed how Daenerys' vision of snow/ash falling on a destroyed throne room back in Qarth in season 2 came had come to fruition, but with an unexpectedly dark twist. And the way Drogon gently picked up her body and flew away to who knows where was touching as well.
What didn’t work was everything in between. For Daenerys to go down with a whimper the way she did was a total letdown, again because the show didn’t better depict her state of mind. She’d clearly gone nuts, but she wasn't stupid and by then was also quite paranoid and feeling like she couldn't trust anyone. She would have known Jon would be horrified at what she did and have taken steps to have some guards close at hand. If they’d done a better job of showing her desperation to have someone, anyone, be there for her, be someone she could trust, such that it would cause her to drop her guard and allow Jon to get that close to her it would have made things much more believable.
Then, having Drogon torch the throne either because his mommy died by being stabbed by one of the sharp things on it (dumb Drogon theory), or because he recognizes his mommy’s desire for the throne was indirectly what led to her death (smart Drogon theory), it didn’t work no matter which way you look at it. Given that Tyrion had mentioned in a much earlier episode how smart dragons were supposed to be, I think it was pretty clear they showrunners were opting for the second explanation.
Problem is, they never did anything else in the entire show before that demonstrated the dragons possessing that level of intelligence. Even just one example at an earlier point would have made his melting the throne believable because we'd know he could understand metaphorically what it represents. But the way they sprung it on us with nothing more than a one-time expository comment from Tyrion many episodes earlier wasn’t nearly enough. It's a good example of the age-old writer’s axiom "show don’t tell."
3. The scene in which Bran is elected by the remaining lords and ladies to be the next ruler of the Iron Throne.
Over the past two seasons, poor Peter Dinklage has been forced to apply his acting gravitas to try and mask Tyrion’s increasingly idiotic thought processes as best he can. However, no actor alive or dead could have sold the impossibly stupid idea his character comes up with in the finale that the ruler of the seven, er, six kingdoms should be based on how "interesting" (whatever that means) one’s life story is.
This is about the most idiotic rationale for choosing a ruler imaginable, even in a world modeled after the latter part of the middle ages. The only part that made any sense is that it was the dumbest idea yet to come from a once clever and compelling character whose arc for the past few seasons has been reduced to trying to convince other characters to continue to accept his increasingly bad advice. A wartime consigliere you are not, Tyrion.
Then, using the rationale of having an interesting story as justification for quality leadership, Tyrion recommends Bran as the one who should sit on the Iron Throne, (er, Slagheap). I mean, come on. Pretty much every other character in that scene⸺Arya, Sansa, Brienne, Ser Davos, Greyworm, Jon Snow (although he wasn’t in the scene directly), and Tyrion himself⸺all have far more interesting stories by any stretch of the imagination. Bran’s character (and this is a criticism of the books too) only seems to exist in order to serve as a deus ex machina contrivance for dribbling out interesting bits of backstory whenever it became narratively convenient to do so. Outside of that Bran the Bland served no purpose and was the least interesting character in the whole story.
Then, to drop a neutron bomb of stupid on top of an awful idea followed by an utter failure to apply that idea correctly, all the other assembled lords and ladies, some of whom have most likely never heard of Bran let alone met him, shrug their shoulders and say "Yeah, sure, he’ll do." For a show in which people can hardly get through breakfast without having a swordfight over some minor transgression, for there not to be one iota of discussion let alone enraged screaming about what a stupid idea that is was inexcusable. Thus, in about five minutes this scene took one of the two big questions that served as the backbone of the plot for the entire series (along with whether humanity would survive the White Walkers) and turned the answer into dragonfire ash.
What makes the whole debacle even more painful is HBO supposedly would have been willing to pay for more episodes if the showrunners had wanted them. Maybe someday someone will do a proper postmortem interview with the showrunners to figure out why they decided six episodes was enough, along with the dozens of other things that went horribly wrong at the end. It’sa shame because up until the last few episodes the show was an amazing translation of George R.R. Martin’s books to the small screen. But it’s a good example of the difference between original screenplays and adapted screenplays. The showrunners did a magnificent job bringing Mr. Martin’s books to life, but when they had to take the story baton and run with it on their own, they dropped it right as they crossed the finish line.
What SHOULD have happened
Here’s my alternate ending which I think would have salvaged the end of the series just by changing up the scenes above as well as a couple more:
What do you think? Regardless, it's interesting to consider how just a few well-placed changes could have radically changed the outcome.
Oh yeah, two more improvements:
Book review of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison
This review contains no spoilers.
I didn’t expect much going into this because this short story was originally published 1967 and most of the older sci-fi stories I’ve read in the past few years have disappointed me. Not because their core stories fell short of the mark, but for the dehumanizing ways in which anyone that wasn’t a white male, particularly women, were depicted.
At first, I thought Harlan Ellison’s most famous work had fallen on its face in this regard as well, for the way in which the one female character, Ellen, who is also black, was portrayed. But after reading the "memoir" chapter about the writing of I Have No Mouth..., which at 19 pages was actually longer than the story itself, I realized my initial interpretation was incorrect. Apparently, quite a few readers over the years have made the same mistake, but once you realize the narrator is unreliable (which Mr. Ellison acknowledges he may not have made obvious enough) it becomes clear Ellen is in fact a very noble character.
The story depicts a post-apocalyptic world in which a sentient and omnipotent computer called "AM" has destroyed all of humanity except for five people it chose to keep alive and torture in a variety of ways as a means of amusing itself. Given its brevity, I can’t say any more about the plot without spoiling the whole thing, but suffice it to say it’s totally worth the 20-30 minutes it will take you to read it. I will repeat the opening line here, however, because it had me hooked right from the start.
Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette; unsupported—hanging high above us in the computer chamber; and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern.
I love this sentence for how it instantly immerses you in the disorientation and terror felt by the characters in the story. I also love it because it has to be the only time in the history of writing when someone used two semicolons and an em dash in the same sentence and got away with it. Seriously, even the ancient Sumerians must have had rules against grammatical structures like that. Nonetheless, whatever editor allowed it to pass inspection did the right thing because it totally works.
Certainly, this wasn’t the first conception of a powerful computer that gains sentience and turns against humanity. However, it is impossible not to think this particular vision didn’t significantly influence many subsequent stories of technological hellscapes such as 2001 and The Terminator. I also think Mr. Ellison must have been influenced himself by contemporary works such as Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, which came out just three years earlier. The AM computer in his story to me seems very much like an R-rated version of IT in the latter.
I always enjoy stories about computers gaining sentience and turning against humanity, but it is one science fiction trope I personally believe is truly fictional. My next book, the sequel to The Infinet, will depict a future in which the real problem is not superintelligent computers that become conscious, but superintelligent computers that don’t become conscious. The latter scenario raises the rather harrowing possibility of…well, you’ll have to wait until the book is published to find out. 😛
Book review of Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
This review contains minor spoilers.
I’d heard about Altered Carbon a couple years ago from a friend who said it was one of her favorite sci-fi books (and she has read quite a few). Then Netflix came out with the series based on it last year and I decided to watch that instead. I didn’t think much of it and almost gave up watching at one point but wound up seeing it through to the end of Season One.
Then I was in LaGuardia airport recently and to my surprise I discovered a very nice independent bookstore in Terminal B called McNally Jackson Books. They had a small but well-curated sci-fi and fantasy section with several books I had on my to-read list, including Altered Carbon. Fortunately, in addition to my friend’s recommendation, I’d recently seen it mentioned on a list of best genetic engineering books on the Best Sci-Fi Books blog. So, I decided to give it a shot.
I am so glad I did because this was one amazing book. It is a perfect fusion of my two favorite sub-genres, cyberpunk and noir. The story is set 400+ years in the future, in a world in which humans have learned how to transfer their consciousness into a small piece of hardware called a cortical stack. A stack can be transferred into any human body through a process given the wonderfully disgusting name of “resleeving.” Or, as in the case of Takashi Kovacs, the man from whose perspective the story is told, it allows people to serve prison sentences decades, even hundreds of years long.
In the prologue, Kovacs and a girlfriend get into a shootout with the police in which their bodies are killed but their stacks remain intact. Then, in chapter one, Kovacs wakes up in a new "sleeve" – but with 117 years still remaining to be served on his sentence. He's been taken off stack early at the behest of Laurens Bancroft, an extremely wealthy and powerful man who wants Kovacs to conduct a special investigation into Bancroft’s own death just a few weeks earlier.
Bancroft has multiple copies of his original body and backups of his stack automatically updated every 48 hours, an arrangement has enabled him to stay alive for more than 350 years. This makes him a “Meth,” a nickname based on the character of Methuselah in the Bible for the elite class of persons who have used this technology to stay alive far beyond the normal human lifespan. Bancroft doesn't buy the police department's conclusion that his death was a suicide, so he offers Kovacs, an ex-soldier and “envoy” with special psychological and physical combat training, the chance to have the rest of his prison sentence commuted in exchange for figuring out who really killed him and why.
This clever premise sets the stage for some wonderful thought experiments about consciousness, identity (including gender identity, since a stack can be plugged into any sleeve, male or female), eternal life, and much more. It does so against the backdrop of a well-paced murder mystery and a very believable and well-constructed world.
The writing in this book is excellent, with fantastic setting descriptions, clever dialog, and some unexpectedly profound observations about humanity. One of the signatures of Mr. Morgan's writing style is his use of vivid, powerfully descriptive verbs. Here's one example.
The fact that this was Mr. Morgan's first novel is astonishing to me. Granted, it took him over a decade to finish it (he taught English as a second language while he wrote it), but this is a more impressive effort than any other first-time breakthrough sci-fi authors I can think of, including Andy Weir’sThe Martian and Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One. Trust me, it's that good.
They only warning I'd give is there is a lot of violence, including one torture scene. You could skip a couple of pages to avoid that scene, but if you skip all the violence there wouldn't be much book left. OK, it's not quite that bad, but there's definitely a lot of shooting and mayhem throughout. There are also a couple of graphic sex scenes but they were tastefully done in my opinion.
I have no idea what the people who did the Netflix series were thinking, but they changed a ton of stuff and added a bunch of stuff, and in my opinion, almost none of it worked. I often wish books that are made into movies had been made as serials so they could have included the extra detail from the book that gets missed. In this case, however, I felt the opposite, where it seemed like the writers were struggling to come up with extra side stories in order to fill 10 episodes. Personally, I think it would have been better to make this a stand-alone movie or at most a four or five episode miniseries.
Anyway, if you love sci-fi mixed with a great noir murder mystery, do yourself a favor and skip the Netflix series and read the book instead.
Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
A couple of weeks ago I finally decided I'd had it with WordPress. I'm a user experience designer in my day job, and from the day I started using WordPress three years ago I've been amazed at how difficult it is to use. WordPress now drives more than 30% of the websites in the world, which I find staggering considering what a piece of crap user interface it has. For anyone who manages a WordPress website and is wondering if there is something better, I recommend checking out Weebly. I'm only a couple of weeks into using it, but so far I've been delighted. It has nice themes, an excellent drag-and-drop interface, and allows you to fully customize the design if you so choose. It also has plenty of third-party integrations. I looked at Wix as well but apparently you can't change the theme without losing all of your content, which for me was a non-starter. One thing I know about myself is I will change my mind. :)
I've still got some work to do, primarily around re-posting all of my book reviews, but those should be up in he next few days. I hope you like the new site - feel free to let me know what you think.
Book review of We Are Legion (We Are Bob), by Dennis E. Taylor
This review contains some minor spoilers.
This book first came to my attention because it was named Audible's best sci-fi book of 2016. Then I learned it was another indie author success story, in which the author, Dennis E. Taylor, couldn't get a traditional publishing deal, so he released it through his agent's publishing imprint. But when he published an audiobook version, it exploded in popularity. So I decided to check out the audiobook for myself.
The plot centers around a guy named Bob, the founder of a successful mid-size software company who is able to retire early after selling his company. Rather comically, however, Bob gets killed in a car accident shortly after he sells his company and before he can enjoy the fruits of all his hard work over the years. However, since he was a science nerd with some extra cash on hand, he paid a company to cryogenically preserve his body in the event of his death, in hopes that technology in the future would be able to bring him back to life.
The preservation succeeds, but not quite as he had intended. Bob is indeed brought back to life 117 years into the future, but as a computer simulation rather than a human. Despite his shock and disorientation at his newfound condition, Bob must quickly adjust to his situation and try to find ways to continue to preserve himself. This proves difficult in a world in which some nations and religions have become increasingly ideologically polarized and many nations now have nuclear weapons. The rest of the book details Bob's quest to survive the ticking time bomb that is Earth and to explore the galaxy.
The tone of the book is very similar to The Martian, equal parts erudite and snarky. It spends a lot of time mocking religion, as well as human beings in general. However, despite the irreverent sense of humor, this is very much a hard sci-fi book, with lots of conceptually interesting stuff like Von Neumann probes, artificial intelligence, the physics of space travel, and more. The author takes the time to explain the more technically challenging stuff for less-technical readers, which probably explains why the book has found as broad of an audience as it has.
I found my interest waning a bit toward the end because it got challenging to keep track of all the characters and what they were doing, but overall it was still a very fun read. The audiobook version was outstanding. Narrator Ray Porter captured the author's sarcastic tone perfectly. I have no doubt this is one of those cases where the audiobook was better than reading it on my own would have been.
We Are Legion (We Are Bob), by Dennis E. Taylor
Book review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
This is the most important book that I have ever read.
I realize that probably sounds a tad hyperbolic, but I mean it. This book has fundamentally changed the way I look at the world and the human species. And to add something even more over the top, I believe the ideas in this book represent a new ideology for which there isn’t a name yet, but the understanding and adoption of which is required if humanity is to survive as a species. Those who have read this book will recognize that statement is somewhat ironic given what Sapiens is about, but for those of you who haven’t read it, allow me to explain.
The central thesis of this book is that the ability of humans to tell each other stories and to engage in cooperative activity based on those stories is what distinguishes humanity from all other species on earth and has enabled us to dominate all other sentient life-forms. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is, at least until you realize the scope of what Mr. Harari considers a story. He presents a compelling argument that almost everything humans consider to be ‘reality’ is nothing more than collectively shared and agreed-upon stories. Corporations. Nations. Money. Religion. To Mr. Harari, these are all equally fictional concepts with far less objective reality to them than a puff of air.
One of the things I found remarkable about this book was the simple, matter-of-fact manner in which the author breaks down the aforementioned entities and exposes them for what they truly are. He starts by showing how the French car company, Peugeot, is really just an idea, even though various attributes such as the cars themselves, the employees, the offices they work in, and so on, are all real. But what binds them all together is just a jointly agreed-upon cognitive construct. There is no actual physical entity Peugeot that exists in nature.
Similarly, he points out that concepts such as “human rights” which are foundational elements of the United States government are not real. In a somewhat amusing if macabre example, he notes that you cannot cut a human being open and find their human rights inside of them. It’s just an idea. However, the shared belief in that and many other ideas form what we call the United States of America, and are the underpinnings of the coordinated behavior of more than 300 million people who are, by and large, complete strangers.
It would be easy to focus on the author’s brilliance in formulating this idea and explaining in such a simple way literally anybody can understand it. But that would obscure what I think is the most important quality of Mr. Harari’s thesis, and that is its intellectual honesty. While Mr. Harari is a historian by education (he has a PhD from Oxford and is a lecturing professor in history at the University of Jerusalem and Israel), this tone of his book is as frank and dispassionate it is as if his training was in anthropology. He affords humans none of the emotional and intellectual favoritism that most observers of human behavior and history grant their subjects because they themselves are humans with years of indoctrination about our uniqueness and importance. Instead, he regards humanity with the dispassionate eye of an alien from a distant world with no particular concern for us other than an innate curiosity about what makes us tick.
In addition, the simple, matter-of-fact tone of Mr. Harari’s writing belies its tremendous impact. Because the implications of the reduction of almost everything we normally view as comprising our day-to-day reality is staggering when you think about it, particularly with respect to the various ideologies that collectively form the backbone of our civilization. Sapiens implicitly dismisses the assertions of any ideology, be it religious, political, social, or economic, as being the most important, most valid, most approved by God, etc., by noting they are all still human ideas rather than incontrovertible facts of nature.
But anti-establishment thinkers should not jump onto the author’s arguments as evidence that whatever “-isms” currently in vogue are a bunch of malarkey. I’ve listened to several podcasts Mr. Harari has been on, and in them he talks about how many of the stories we have created are positive and lead to good outcomes for us and the world. What he stresses is the fundamental importance of never losing sight of what our stories truly are, and the need to ensure that we adapt our stories so that they serve us and the world and not the other way around. That is, we need to update our stories, or replace them with new ones, to attain better results, rather than slavishly adhering to stories that may have been useful decades, centuries, or even millennia ago, but may not be effective now given the much different technological, environmental, and social conditions in which we find ourselves.
There is a lot more to this book than just this central thesis though. It is a wonderfully succinct distillation of human evolution and civilization, going all the way back to the dawn of humanity 2.5 million years ago. Mr. Harari deftly summarizes millions of years of human evolution in just a few pages, and in a way that you can remember and recount to someone else afterward. One of the most fascinating chapters, called History’s Biggest Fraud, explains how, contrary to popular belief, the Agricultural Revolution that happened around 10,000 years ago was not a great leap forward for humankind, but actually made things worse for us! In the vein of Richard Dawkins’ seminal work, The Selfsh Gene, Harari points out that
The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes.
Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo Sapiens to multiply exponentially
This is the case even though human agriculturalists lived under worse conditions than their forager forebears. You’ll have to read the book to learn all the evidence in support of this argument, but it’s knowledge drops like this that left me feeling a lot smarter after reading Sapiens than I did before. As I mentioned at the beginning, this book has fundamentally altered my worldview in many ways, and I’m truly grateful to Mr. Harari for creating such an important and foundational story (ha!).
I joke, but that actually brings up the one area I felt Mr. Harari could have dug into more, and I hope he will in his other writings, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which I plan to read very soon. That area is whether some of our knowledge constitutes more than just stories. For example, an opinion about the nature of God is one thing, but the knowledge of the recipe for how to combine specific ratios of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter before applying an open flame to produce an explosion is another. And while it is easy to poke logical and factual holes in stories such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc., there are, I believe, fundamental truths to be found in them, even if they are buried under a lot of details that, when regarded from a neutral vantage point, can be seen to be no more than vain human attempts to appear more knowledgeable than we really are.
In an age where human beings are struggling to agree with each other on what things are facts and what things are opinions, it seems risky to me to imply that all knowledge can be deconstructed into just “stories.” This would not only be wrong but dangerous, and that is certainly not Mr. Harari’s intent. But it seems clear that some human knowledge can and should be regarded as immutable natural facts, even if the only verifiable occurrences of them require human actors to instantiate them. It would be a great service, in addition to the one he has already rendered in writing this book, if Mr. Harari could break down the difference for us in the same compelling way he so artfully decomposed corporations, nations, and well, pretty much everything else. I’m not kidding when I say that, were he to do so, he might just save humanity from itself.
Review of The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
There are no spoilers in this review.
I decided to combine my reviews for the remaining two books in N. K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth trilogy because for me they are all seamless continuations of a fantastic overall story. As with my review of the first book, The Fifth Season, I really can't say enough good things about the second and third books, or The Broken Earth as a whole series. It's the best series I've read since the Lord of the Rings, and it has proven to me that the sequels in a series can be every bit as good as the first one.
I'm not going to get into the details of the epic challenge the characters in these stories face, as it would reveal too much that I think readers should discover on their own. I will say that it offers a brilliant, incisive commentary on human hubris and our collective attitude toward the Earth. Namely, how most of us treat it as an endless resource to be exploited, rather than something to be cherished and nurtured.
The characters, world-building, and writing quality of the two sequels are every bit as good as in The Fifth Season, which is to say, fantastic. Again, my only quibble is at times the pace gets a bit slow for me. Particularly during action sequences, the characters often have extensive inner monologues that would more appropriate when someone else isn't trying to kill them with a knife or whatever. Of course, I would say the pacing in The Lord of the Rings gets somewhat poky sometimes as well, so I guess no book is perfect.
In the end, I think what resonated for me with these books was the author's view of humanity that I would call objectively pessimistic. Although the world portrayed in these stories is the Earth thousands of years in the future, it is still the Earth, and still the same old humanity, only now struggling to deal with a changed set of natural and technological rules. Jemisin sees this world as still being very much like our own, and she depicts it as she sees it, without enhancement, diminishment or distortion through any obfuscating mythologies. Her epic story is a parable about the consequences down the road if we continue to divorce ourselves from nature by using ever more powerful technology to penetrate its depths and then extract and exploit the riches for no better reasons than to satisfy our curiosity and convenience.
I mustn't forget to add that I listened to the audiobook versions of these books as well, and once again Robin Miles did a splendid job narrating them. Frankly, I'm shocked that she didn't win the Audie award for the best science fiction narration (although I consider this is epic fantasy, not sci-fi). Regardless, I can't recommend the audiobook versions of all three of these stories highly enough.
Book review of The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
There are no spoilers in this review.
This is the first book of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Recently the third book in this series, The Stone Sky, won the Hugo award for best novel, making it the third book in the series to win that award. That’s right, every book in this series has won the Hugo award for best novel, three years in a row. Wow! No author has ever done that before. So yeah, my expectations were pretty much through the roof on this one.
I’m delighted to report that all the hype was all fully deserved because this was one of the best books I’ve ever read. In fact, it was so good that I immediately went ahead and got the next one immediately afterward and started on it right away. That’s probably the greatest praise I can bestow upon it because I almost never read the other books in series right away. I think the last time that happened was when I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy back when I was a teenager.
The plot centers around three different stories involving three different women who all live in an imagined future Earth in which some cataclysmic past event has led to the rise of massive periodic earthquakes (“shakes”) that destroy everything every few thousand years. The periods afterward are called Seasons and can last hundreds or even thousands of years. Humanity has somehow managed to survive through all of this, but life is a much more tribal and brutal affair.
In this future world, there are people called orogenes who can control the movement of the earth, such as causing or quelling shakes. The book begins with an extended prologue in which a super-powerful orogene causes a massive rift in the planet’s main continent, creating a shake so massive it appears it will bring about the end of the world, or at least of humanity as a species. The three women, one a young child, one a young adult, and one middle aged, all are orogenes. Their stories deal with their struggles to survive in the short term, in a world in which regular people fear and hate them for their powerful abilities, as well as the question of how, or whether, humanity can survive the Rift.
The writing quality of The Fifth Season is absolutely top-notch, on a par with and perhaps even better than Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (see my review of American Gods). I reviewed the latter recently and had expected it to serve as the measuring stick against which I compared future writers, but now I’m not sure. One of the characters is written in second person, which is rarely done and very tricky to pull off, but here it is done splendidly. The characters in The Fifth Season are wonderfully developed and as compelling as any I’ve read, and the plot, while at times just the tiniest bit slow for my taste, was very engaging. And the world-building was as grand in scope and as meticulously planned as anything I’ve read.
I think the thing that bothered me the most in the book was the author’s use of words like “rust” as expletives, for example, “What the rust is going on here?” or “Evil earth!” This is probably the only aspect of world-building that didn’t work for me, it just came off as a bit overdone. But when that’s the worst complaint you can come up with, you’re talking about a rusting amazing book (see, it doesn't really work). I also thought the cover design was kind of generic, nothing bad but nothing special either.
Lastly, I need to mention that the performance by narrator Robin Miles (I listened to the audiobook version) was absolutely amazing. Again, I’d thought George Guidall’s reading of American Gods would be my standard-bearer for narration for quite some time, but Ms. Miles found a level 11 on the dial I had not previously been aware existed. Bravo!
I highly encourage everyone to read this book right away, and if you are on Audible definitely opt for that version!
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