Book Thread 2024

The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz is a far-future science fiction novel about the people who are setting up an Earth-like ecosystem on another planet. Different forms of life and technology have been used through the process over thousands of years, and older ones are phased out as conditions change…or are supposed to be. Some have stuck around, and there’s conflict between those being left behind and those who are meant to inherit the changing world. And everyone on the planet is beholden to some extent to offplanet corporate overlords, in some cases as outright slaves. There are a lot of parallels here to colonialism and the treatment of indigenous peoples, which plays a significant role in the plot, and there’s no doubt whose side the author is on. But to me, the really interesting part of this book was in the social and cultural dynamics underlying what it means when all sorts of lifeforms have sentience, from cats and rats to a variety of engineered humans to technological bodies like drones and vehicles. For many it’s a dystopia, with people beholden to the corporation that created them; but there are also some groups that live in a kind of communal culture, where everyone shares in work, food, living space, etc and votes on decisions. The underdogs in the story are romanticized somewhat, to be sure, but that didn’t bother me too much as all the characters were imperfect enough to be relatable. I enjoyed this one, a well written story that presents concepts worth thinking over.

Moonshots and the New Industrial Policy (open access, so no charge to read it) collects economics papers aimed at the idea of “mission economy” policies in government. This concept of a top-down approach to accomplishing some big societal goal is often referred to as a “moonshot” since one of the main examples is the Apollo Program. The papers in this collection use a wide variety of arguments to push back on this idea, instead suggesting that a bottom-up approach that makes it easier for private actors to spur innovation and solution creation is a better use of government resources. There’s a huge amount of detail in this book and even I didn’t read all of it, instead going through the summaries and doing a full reading of a few of the papers that looked most interesting.

The basic arguments are probably no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the subject area: government intervention is inefficient, distorts market incentives, causes actors to spend resources on influencing the government rather than useful economic activity. The introductory paper lays this out, with what I felt was a fairly combative tone (in a scholarly sense) against the “moonshot” literature. But when you get into some of the supporting papers, they acknowledge that there are still cases where those negatives are outweighed by the positives of stimulating a beneficial societal outcome. Mostly this comes in the form of using government intervention to build up economic fundamentals to establish an environment for entrepreneurs - education, job mobility, infrastructure, and so on. But there’s also acknowledgement that there will be times that direct government intervention will be necessary, just in a much more limited fashion than the big “mission” approach would call for. My biggest takeaway on the top-down “mission” vs bottom-up “entrepreneur environment” argument was that both seem to agree on the various policy components, with the difference being in how much of each to use to address a given problem.

The collection is a good source if you have interest in the subject matter, though be warned that it is definitely written from a scholar’s point of view. It takes some work to parse through some of the language and you probably don’t want to read all the details. But if you go through the summaries and pick out what interests you most, I think you’ll find some good food for thought.

I recall, for my Geography A-Level (end of High School) I had to write a paper comparing top down and bottom up approaches to development in the 3rd world.

It was very very interesting.

I started out thinking top down was obviously the way to go, because of the £$£$, but my conclusion ended up being the opposite.

So I am mildly interested in this Moonshots analysis, although probably not interested enough to read it :stuck_out_tongue: as I have a long reading list to get through.

Speaking of, I may be late to the party, but I recently came accross Thomas Sowell. Several people I follow online (podcasts etc) independently mentioned him.

So I have read Economic Facts and Fallacies, which was…interesting. Really got my attention, and also made me think it is likely to be misquoted to feed various agendas.

Anyone here read his stuff?

I have ordered another 5 or so of his books…:no_mouth:

I have not, but several of his books do look interesting, thanks for mentioning him!

Conqueror is a series I can recommend. Written by Conn Iggulden, a good writer, using the available written history of Genghis Khan creates an interesting story of he and his sons and their goal of conquering a large part of the world. I liked reading about the lives of his family and others who joined him. Even the battles were exciting. I just finished book #5 and hated to see it end.

I haven’t read his books but I have watched some of his videos. He is very soft spoken but not afraid to talk about issues. I think he is one of the wisest men I have ever listened to.

I think I have read it.

Is there a bit where

Ghengis kills his older brother because he was hoarding food

?

Thanks for the recommendation! I see the audiobooks are also part of an audible subscription so even though I’m out of credits until late August, I can still check out this series as part of my membership. Perfect.

That is correct.

The Invisible Library By Genevieve Cogman is not about your average library. This one is extra-dimensional and able to access a wide variety of alternate universes, and the Librarians go on missions in these realms looking to retrieve rare and unique books of all sorts. Of course, there’s bigger and more dangerous things than missing books out there as well, including an ongoing war between forces of chaos and order. It’s a fun premise and the protagonists Irene and Kai are fun people to follow as they go after their targets, solving mysteries and barely surviving attacks and traps, utilizing a variety of techniques from investigation and intrigue to outright larceny. The mystery aspects are fairly predictable, can’t say I was surprised by any of the revelations by the time they came up, but there’s enough dangerous action and character development that it didn’t really matter. I had a good time with it, and since this is the first in a series and there’s plenty of open mysterious questions remaining, I’ll probably be spending some more time with this library.

That sounds like the “Librarian” tv show plot. Maybe it was based on the book.

I’m nearly done with Red Rabbit because of this thread and I want to give you all a hug. This book is amazing. I don’t like fantasy much anymore but this is a wonderful blend of fantastic and Western elements that works largely because the storytelling is so damn good and the characters so well done. So many wonderful moments of dialogue as people surprise each other.

Cogman’s series is fun, charming, and lightweight. Don’t think too hard while reading and you’ll be fine.

I don’t think they’re related. The TV show is more of an urban fantasy setup, not alternate realities.

I like that, lightweight and charming are perfect descriptors.

To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

I thought this novella was pretty good and has probably the most distinct vibes of any Chambers’ work that I’ve read. It’s still “cozy”, in that the four characters all get along quite well, and the tension almost entirely is due to external factors that are (quite literally) far away–with the exception of one bit where there crew suffer from a fair bit of depression and mental stress. I liked this because it was an upbeat tale of space exploration, and the philosophy of space exploration, while still engaging with (though in a somewhat tangential manner) serious problems like climate change and the dissolution of society. On the other hand, there’s very little worldbuilding compared to her other works, which is (in my opinion) one of the strengths of her other novels. (Though there is a good amount of imagining setting foot on exoplanets, which is fun.) I would recommend this one if you like Chambers’ prose, but maybe want to see her characters deal with a bit more conflict than you find in, say, the Monk and Robot duology.



The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi

On the other hand, this novella most decidedly not cozy. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot, as there’s a pretty good drumbeat of reveals (about the titular lies), but it involves a boy coming of age and setting out to free his people from, well, the lies of the Ajungo. It is a bleak and violent. We struggle to figure out who we can trust (well, perhaps it is more evident to the reader than the protagonist) and watch innocents suffer. There’s a definite YA flavor to it, as youth-coming-of-age vs the corrupt system is a pretty central theme. Overall I liked it. It has roots in Nigerian culture, and as such I think it’s a good representative of the broadening of SF/F.

OK, I finished Exordia by Seth Dickinson, who also authored the Baru Cormorant books.

Exordia was definitely not what I expected, though I’m not sure what I expected. It is an alien invasion novel: kind of a Predator meets The Three Body Problem meets Independence Day? The khai are, uh, kind of a predatory 8-headed snaky species who wield advanced physics based on narrative constraints and the destiny of souls. There is quite a bit of very geeky physicsy talk here, interspersed with novel neologisms like wrongspace and atmanach and serendure, all of which warm and excite my very geeky heart. Ssrin and Iruvage represent two sides of a factional war and both narratively entangle a chosen human avatar. Conflict ensues, which mostly takes place in Kurdistan and involves probably the most explosions. Ever. In any book or film. Just when you think the explosions can’t get more, they do.

Oh boy is this book both very dense and very fun. It’s got the embedded philosophical sci-fi brain-twistiness of something like Blindsight but is just joyfully extreme in every possible way. It’s all here: spycraft, special forces action, body horror, secret government agencies, big idea physics, complex geopolitics, more discursive exposition than a Stephenson novel. The setting and details throughout the novel are well researched, revealing, and often surprising. Dickinson is not especially good at writing sympathetic characters, but is really good (better than Stephenson) at prose, and especially at imbuing his writing with a fundamental humanism that is empathetic and refreshing. I don’t think Exordia is for everyone–it’s a bit exhausting and wordy–but it was definitely for me.

Sounds good.

Anna Sinjari―refugee, survivor of genocide, disaffected office worker―has a close encounter that reveals universe-threatening stakes.

I read this as universe-threatening snakes…

That is correct! I started reading this yesterday, almost halfway done (it’s long) and I can recommend it. Very kinetic, all forward motion, the writing is competent if not exceptional. It’s really kinda charming for how little it beats around the bush, you are in the story and the plot is screaming ahead almost instantly, it’s quite noticeably different from most other thrillers.

Lots and lots of military, science, and techno-babble included, as well as a ton of cultural references but not in a Ready Player One clunky way. I’m just saying if you aren’t a particular kind of geek it may be overwhelming.

Lol, if the shoe fits…

Shout out for my favorite author, James Lee Burke, who won the Edgar (again :)).

FLAGS ON THE BAYOU Won the Best Novel Edgar Award. On May 1, FLAGS ON THE BAYOU won the coveted Edgar Award for Best Novel from Mystery Writers of America!