Some books I enjoyed in 2023

10.53, Thursday 28 Dec 2023

The books I enjoyed most over the year:

Sci-fi re-reads

Rainbows End felt like near future in 2006 and it feels like a parallel timeline now: it’s set in a perfectly realised world of pervasive augmented reality and virtual reality… “ubicomp.” Pick up Vinge’s same universe short story Fast Times at Fairmont High to add 3d printers and drone delivery. Great stuff.

The Cyberiad (1965, translated 1974) is so funny, so witty, so effervescent. Here’s a taster, hosted by gwern, in which the constructor Trurl creates a cybernetic muse and Klapaucius challenges it to write poetry: The First Sally. (The poem about a haircut is just perfect.)

Babel-17 (1966), as previously mentioned: linguistics sci-fi. Delaney is so deft. I love this every time I pick it up.

Genius (1994) is a wonderfully readable biog of Richard Feynman, birth to death, that immerses in the subject matter and doesn’t get bamboozled by Feynman’s self-mythologising. Now, Feynman was a physicist at a time when modern physics was being invented; Gleick goes deep on the physics too. That’s what you want! This isn’t just a character study! More than that, Gleick is in utter control of his craft and it is a joy to simply be present: the tempo rises and falls without being contrived; his turns of phrase are spot on. There’s an extended diversion on the matter of genius about halfway through that had me gripped.

A couple books that shifted my worldview

I picked up I Am the Law (2023) because I was into Judge Dredd when I was a kid. There’s a bunch of stuff from the comics, sure. Mainly this is an utter evisceration of policing. By the end I was asking myself: for the problems that the institution of “the police” is intended to solve, surely there are other approaches that would work better? And even if this is the best approach, why is the current setup so prone to awful error? That’s where this UK-focused, heavy-on-the-evidence book takes you. What once had the weight of naturalness now feels so very contingent.

The Discarded Image (1964) is C S Lewis’ non-fiction overview of the Medieval cosmology, the “Model” as Lewis calls it. Outline on Wikipedia.

I have dogeared oh so many pages! It is incredible to inhabit, even just a tiny bit, this way of seeing. If Earth is the centre and “down” then the Medieval Model is vertiginous. The stars have height! The fairies! The reliance on old books! The senses! The vegetable soul!

Anyway, the introduction is about how it is important to know your literary references, and Lewis is hilariously punchy with it:

There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives. They have their reward. I have no quarrel with people who approach the past in that spirit. I hope they will pick none with me. But I was writing for the other sort.

Thank you Robin Sloan for the recommendation. Sloan has been reading C S Lewis and others in preparation for his upcoming novel Moonbound. That’s the mini-site. Can’t wait.

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