Book reviews

Notes on some books I’ve read in the relatively recent past. I’m happy to hear recommendations for more books or views, but my “to read” list currently grows about twice as fast as it shrinks. Might contain spoilers.

Mars

“Voyage” Stephen Baxter (1996). Alternate history of Apollo hardware going to Mars. I found 80% of it great and 20% of it tough going, so I haven’t reread it.

“Moving Mars” Greg Bear (1993). Great read. Lots of really beautiful ideas.

“How We’ll Live on Mars” Stephen Petranek (2015). Far be it for me to criticize short books e-published on Amazon but this one didn’t grab me.

“The Martian” Andy Weir (2011). My technical review. I love this book. The movie is also beautiful, though I was quite distracted by the industrial design of the hab, which seemed to over-rely on Boeing 767 galleys and 8020 aluminium extrusion.

“The Right Kind of Crazy” Adam Steltzner (2016). The best book I’ve read on actual Mars exploration as historically conducted by actual humans, some of whom are colleagues and good friends. Heroes!

“Packing for Mars” Mary Roach (2010). Once I got over my disappointment that this book was not a literal shopping list of stuff, it was every bit as enjoyable and engaging as Roach’s other work. Which is to say, very.

“Mission to Mars” Buzz Aldrin (2011). The ghost writer tries hard but cannot quite erase the traces of Aldrin’s unbridled enthusiasm and glee when talking about this stuff. I don’t buy the cycler plan and I don’t like the rugged pioneer settler analogy for Mars, but otherwise it’s a fun book.

“A Princess of Mars” Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912). Notwithstanding its fame as an early and influential work in the genre, wow, this book is so racist its trenchant sexism and unremitting violence seem quaint by comparison.

Robert Zubrin

I read most of these about when they were published, and during my formative years. As I’ve matured as an engineer and scientist I’ve often revisited their ideas and recipes with a more critical eye, but always in the spirit of constructive development.

“How to Live on Mars” Robert Zubrin (2008). Very funny, the lowest pain technical(ish) book I’ve ever read. Accuracy is quite good too.

“First Landing” Robert Zubrin (2002). A fiction companion to “The Case for Mars” with some dubious dramatics but otherwise very readable.

“The Case for Mars” (1996). A great intro to Mars stuff and the Mars Direct plan. I have amused myself recently by reading the earliest papers and presentations on this concept. It seems maybe that it was built around using nuclear rockets but then the nuclear part was taken out. Zubrin started as a fusion researcher and a lot of his writing has an emphasis on nuclear power in space.

“Entering Space” (2000). Some readable ideas about building a space faring civilization.

“The Case for Space” (2019). The latest on Zubrin’s ideas. I did a read-along tweet thread.

Kim Stanley Robinson

I got to interview KSR for the Caltech student newspaper and so my appreciation for his work is colored by my impression of his exceptional kindness and wisdom. I’ve read nearly all his novels. I’ve also been greatly enjoying the Marooned! On Mars podcast, which approaches his work from a literary perspective. It has filled in a lot of the blanks for me, and helped me appreciate the parts I wasn’t quite able to understand before. Links to wiki articles about his books.

I wanted to read the Mars Trilogy when they were published and I was in primary school, but I couldn’t afford them and the library didn’t have them. I finally got into them in my early 20s, then started reading the other books. I think I’ve had more galaxy brain moments reading them than any other author. Maybe?

KSR told me that each book is intended as a stand-alone contribution to a sub-genre of science fiction, and that he’s committed to writing utopias because it avoids the moral hazard associated with teaching people that the future will definitely suck.

KSR and I spoke about technical accuracy in scifi and he remarked that he tries to get it right because his readership is often more technical than he is, and technical glitches throw them out of the narrative. We discussed some of the minor errors in Red Mars and he pointed out that many of them were corrected after the 18th printing. Touche!

“Icehenge” (1984) – Not yet read.

“The Memory of Whiteness” (1985) – Wow this is weird and wonderful. How many people can write engaging fiction about the experience of music? I felt the story was undermined by the protagonist being blinded by drug abuse, but getting robot eyes. How hard is it for a character to stay blind?

“A Short, Sharp Shock” (1990) – Not yet read.

“Antarctica” (1997) – So awesome. My wife was in Antarctica when I read this, and it really speaks to the wildness of the place. Ever since I’ve been trying to work out how to build a greenhouse on a nunatak as close as possible to the south pole. This novel, like a few others, also features environmental direct action as a plot driver, something I’ve become less enamored of over the years.

“The Years of Rice and Salt” (2002) – I read this most recently, to keep up with the podcast. A beautiful and harrowing book. Quite unlike many other books by KSR. It’s an alternate world history told in 10 installments between about 1400 and 2000, featuring a continually re-incarnated set of characters. I felt the central 8 chapters were very strong, but the first and last chapters were not quite at the same level. Of course, getting into and out of an alternate history is the hard part. I’m waiting to see if the podcast changes my mind.

“Galileo’s Dream” (2009) – Lovely book. Time travel. KSR does really beautiful writing about landscapes and this is full of them.

“2312” (2012) – I’m not really down with the abuse of future dates in book titles but I guess KSR’s publisher knows more about marketing than I do. This was the first book of KSR that I read after the Mars Trilogy and so I was not prepared for how much weirder it is. It took me some time to realise after finishing that it was quite deliberate about failing to pander to my expectations.

“Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age” (2013) – Not everyone loves this book. They’re wrong. It’s awesome. It really unpacks how it is that homo sapiens is sapiens. It undermines the misleading view that because our neolithic ancestors were generalists and died young that they were primitive.

“Aurora” (2015) – Interstellar travel! Of all of KSR’s books this one bothers me most on a technical level but it’s important to realize that KSR is not trying to win “hardest scifi award” and isn’t actually a trained scientist. I like it. The evolution of the narrative voice is also a lot of fun.

“New York 2140” (2017) – The Big New York novel. A really fun read. I think it’s a mistake for KSR to be prescriptive about details of physics or economics, and fortunately this novel misses out on most. It also has some airships which I’m increasingly obsessed with.

“Red Moon” (2018) – I learned more about how to think about Chinese politics from this book than a decade of reading major media newspapers. It’s a “chase novel” where a huge chunk occurs in various hiding places. Delightful and subversive. I’ve never really been a moon person but again, KSR has seduced this hardened physicist with a compelling landscape. I made a mediocre animation of how Earth-rise might look from the Chinese moon base.

“The Ministry for the Future” (October 2020) – I’m waiting intently.

Three Californias Series

“The Wild Shore” (1984) – KSR says he was still experimenting with the novel form while writing this and I can see that. It’s a beautiful, strange book. Now every time I drive to San Diego I look at the non-descript valley above San Onofre and see it has a hand holding a few damp survivors of some disaster.

“The Gold Coast” (1988) – This world of overdevelopment is, at least aesthetically, closer to our present day than any other. And yet the humans within find truth and beauty.

“Pacific Edge” (1990) – Probably KSR’s first published “what if” utopia and one that comes close to aspects of LA 2020’s mind state. Like many of KSR’s novels, it contains a thinly disguised lecture by the author, a disconcertingly weird sex scene, and high drama on the baseball field.

The Mars trilogy

“Red Mars” (1992), “Green Mars” (1993), “Blue Mars” (1996), “The Martians” (1999). Like all good trilogies, this one has four books. All of them are masterpieces and were showered with awards. A few other readers I know dig the hard sci-fi of the first one and then resent the endless political machinations of the later books. I’ve read them probably five or six times and I see them differently. The style of the books evolves through the series and in later books time speeds up and the voice becomes, in a way, a lucid ultra-marathon through some intense Hilbert space of ideas. The series is a recipe for the construction of a Mars civilization in our hearts and minds, rather than with our hands. The prose flies.

Science in the Capital series

I haven’t read this one yet. Saving it.

“Forty Signs of Rain” (2004), “Fifty Degrees Below” (2005), “Sixty Days and Counting” (2007), Collected and condensed omnibus edition released as “Green Earth” (2015).

Neal Stephenson

What a wonderful thing it is to be alive in North America at the same time as so many excellent sci-fi authors. If one author has enjoyed as comprehensive reading (by me) as KSR, it’s Neal Stephenson. Also celebrated for thought provoking writing, weird sex scenes, and lots of swords. A bit of a Zeppelin deficit though. Thus far! If you’re reading this, Neal.

As far as I know, neither NS nor KSR has read much of the other, or thinks too much about it. There’s a bit of a cultural disconnect between the cyberpunk stream and the literary utopian stream, and I think it’s a crying shame. Especially when reading the two bibliographies side by side show just how much of various ideas were “in the water” at various times in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

Neal Stephenson’s bibliography can be read on wikipedia. NS’s novels, to me, are often extended explorations of a “what if” scenario. For example, Diamond Age is a riff on nanobots and Anathem on mathematical platonism. Where by riff, I mean highly non-trivial linear transformation.

“The Big U” (1984). NS’s first published novel and one of my favorites. Like KSR’s early work, it contains many of the same themes as later novels but in a less polished, more organic form. One can see the skeleton with less powerful X-rays. And it’s awesome. What if universities, recognized as the longest-lasting cultural artifacts, were therefore employed as natural places to store and study dangerous industrial and nuclear waste. What if pipe organ music really was an act of war?

“Zodiac” (1988). A riff on the activism of the group that eventually became Sea Shepherd, and a reminder of just how effective they once were. I didn’t even go to MIT, Harvard or BU and these two books gave me a connection to that city.

“Snow Crash” (1992). I have reread this a few times. Most recently, I was amused by how much narrative effort is expended to explain how the internet can be combined with viruses and ancient languages to hack the human brain, when Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and online advertising found a way to do it much more easily. NS’s metaverse, a Gibson-esque vision for how the internet may have reached the masses, nevertheless contains a consensus on the rules of reality. I am counting down the days until I can order a pizza from a Tesla Cybertrukk deliverator.

“Diamond Age” (1995). A wild and captivating exploration of nanotechnology, though I found some of the later sequences unnecessarily rapey.

“Cryptonomicon” (1999). NS’s first LONG book. I am reminded of a Patrick McKenzie observation that the cost of most books is proportional to the mass of paper rather than the value of the entropy contained within. I read this after the Baroque Cycle and was a bit confused by it – it didn’t initially conform to my expectations. My father had been trying to get me to read it forever. On rereading, the author’s intentions and misdirection is a little more clear.

“The Baroque Cycle” (“Quicksilver” 2003, “Confusion” 2004, “System of the World” 2004) was the first NS I read, thanks to an insightful friend. I’ve reread it a few times despite the overwhelming length and am never disappointed by the scope and the quality of the writing. When my wife was in Antarctica and the voice connection too terrible to actually discern meaning, we read these books to each other. I eventually tracked down a lot of the primary sources and read them too – so NS is responsible for me knowing anything at all about European early modern history.

“Anathem” (2008). This book divides readers. I love it. Holey moley. Like many other books it starts with “what if this impossible thing was true” and goes wild from there. Mathematical platonism is axiomatically false, but if it were true then this book is the best way it could possibly turn out. I’ve reread it a few times and one of these days I’ll write a technical commentary with a glossary explaining why all the physics puns are hilarious to people who didn’t spend a decade in grad school. I even did some conceptual sketches for how the various concents might actually look.

“The Mongoliad” (2010) – haven’t read it yet. I visited Mongolia in 2010 and absolutely loved it. I was inspired to visit by a friend who visited in the 90s and still dreams of it, and I still dream of it. So I hope it’s a good book.

“Reamde” (2011). Haven’t read it yet.

“Seveneves” (2015). Probably the weirdest NS book I’ve yet read. Especially the last third. I like it but I also found it deeply sinister and troubling. I remember contrasting the cannibalism depiction with the same in The Martian, and how differently they made me feel.

“Rise and Fall of DODO” (2017). Haven’t read it yet.

“Fall; or, Dodge in Hell” (2019). This is a very long book. Roughly speaking, about half is set in our world and half in a cyber-fantasy-world inhabited by scans of brains of people who have died. The Ameristan Sequence (apparently re-written just prior to publication) was an absolute stand out for me, unfortunately overshadowing much of the rest of the novel, that didn’t have quite the same degree of frustration and anger that I think drives some of NS’s best writing.

“Atmosphaera Incognita” (2013). A fun short story about building a huge tower in the desert.

Matthew Reilly

Matthew Reilly is an Australian action author who I met at Caltech once when he was researching ways to destroy the world. Our family used to enjoy his fast-paced novels around Christmas time and I have kept up with his work – it’s not a painful thing to do!

I’ve always preferred the Shane Schofield novels to the Jack West Jr stuff, as I prefer the political rather than cosmic plot devices. Not that it makes much difference. All the novels leap off the page. I think MR has been trying to get some films made and I can’t wait to watch them. No-one will abuse physics to better ends!

“Contest” (1996) – not read.

“Temple” (1999) – really good.

“Hover Car Racer” (2004) – More of a children-oriented novel that isn’t centered around absurdist depictions of extreme violence, it’s a great read and lots of fun.

“The Tournament” (2013) – somewhat strange for MR, this is a historical novel set largely in Constantinople and centering around a chess tournament. I thought some of the later sequences were unnecessarily rapey.

“Troll Mountain” (2014) – not read.

“The Great Zoo of China” (November 2014) – amazing. Such a fun read. Better than Jurassic Park.

“The Secret Runners of New York” (March 2019) – not read.

Shane Schofield novels

“Ice Station” (1998) – very silly and fun. Sink the French aircraft carrier!
“Area 7” (2001) – Awesome.
“Scarecrow” (2003) – One of the darker novels but still fun.
“Hell Island” (2005) – Good stuff.
“Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves” (2011) – More excellent action.

Jack West Jr novels

These novels have more character development, sometimes I even cry while reading them. They’re fun and silly!

“Seven Ancient Wonders” (2005)
“The Six Sacred Stones” (2007)
“The Five Greatest Warriors” (2009)
“The Four Legendary Kingdoms” (2016)
“The Three Secret Cities” (2018)
“The Two Lost Mountains” (2020)

Iain M Banks Culture series

What’s not to love about fully automated space communism? List of novels can be found on wikipedia. I finally got around to starting these some years after SpaceX kept naming things after them.

“Consider Phlebas” (1987). A fun, dark story centered around a character who can change his physical appearance at will. Later novels suggest that anyone in the Culture can do this too (since in Excession they can even change species) but by the end of this novel the narrative consequences of “I look different now” are played out. Which is, I think, why Banks killed off the species.

“The Player of Games” (1988). A really masterful story centered around the Culture exercising cultural hegemony through games. Richly evocative writing.

“Use of Weapons” (1990). I found aspects of this story a bit dark for my tastes but otherwise enjoyed the discussion and the world building. Enough with the fighting though – we’re post scarcity now.

“The State of the Art” (1991). A fun story though I feel the main character could probably have been stretched in a more full-length version.

“Excession” (1996). Interesting in that it centers the Culture ships rather than some identifiable protagonist. I felt it was more abstracted than earlier novels but I may just be learning to read the author. Also uses the word “fettled” twice in one book, so uncomfortable.

“Inversions” (1998). Not yet read.
“Look to Windward” (2000). Not yet read.
“Matter” (2008). Not yet read.
“Surface Detail” (2010). Not yet read.
“The Hydrogen Sonata” (2012). Not yet read.

William Gibson

“Johnny Mnemonic” (1986). Very early cyberpunk, actually written on a typewriter I believe. First read in high school. Made a deep impression and set me off on a dystopic sci-fi jaunt for a few years.

Sprawl series: “Neuromancer” (1984), “Count Zero” (1986), “Mona Lisa Overdrive” (1989). I read these expecting an expansion of the world view and story of Johnny Mnemonic and so I never really appreciated what they were doing in their own right. I kept waiting for the story to go sideways and it never really did.

Leadership

“Industrial Megaprojects: Concepts, Strategies, and Practices for Success” Charles Merrow (2011). Incredible insights into the complexities of executing on large scale projects.

“Normal Accidents” Charles Perrow (1984). Did not finish. Unlike (the rhyming) Merrow above, Perrow does not seem to have a technical background and made a series of errors I found distracting. Fortunately the wiki article provides a good summary of his findings and rediscovery of Conway’s Law. In general I have no problem with reading books on technical subjects by non-technical authors, but I have a strong aversion to feeling that faking is occurring.

“Dealing with people you can’t stand” Ricks Kirschner and Brinkman (2012). Like many books of this genre (Lencioni being the most extreme exponent) this book contains about two pages of insight padded with hypothetical anecdotes and repetition. I still learned something from it.

“Masters of Doom” David Kushner (2003). A rollicking yarn about the origins of some of the most famous computer games ever written and the fascinating personalities behind them. Much to be learned from these real-world examples. I never played computer games growing up but many of my friends did and it fascinates me that so many of them were written in the same room.

“Only the Paranoid Survive” Andy Grove (1999). Fascinating account of the origins of Intel, all the more interesting in contrasting this with the leadership and cultural evolutions that have occurred since publication.

“Zero to One” Peter Thiel (2014). Unlike some other accounts here (noteably Grove’s and Horowitz’), Thiel endeavors to give the impression that his particular professional experience has resulted in a universal insight. This tendency to overgeneralize, I think, undermines the otherwise interesting and sometimes contrarian points of view in the book. I hate to have to say it but Thiel does give the impression of never having encountered anyone he thought was smarter than him.

“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” Ben Horowitz (2014). I learned a lot about how the sales side of a company works from this book. There are also some good insights into decision making on a “war” footing.

“Bad Blood” John Carreyrou (2018). I find there is much to learn from business failures as well as successes. Bad Blood is a really good read about how unchecked ambition can lead to a rejection of reality and fraud. I believe that wishful thinking is a universal temptation and so maintaining some degree of integrity in business can’t happen by accident.

“Bullshit Jobs” David Graeber (2018). Hilarious extended disquisition on why modern jobs are often unsatisfying, if less physically and mentally demanding than jobs in the past. I essentially agree that the material needs of humanity can be met with a 5 hour (or less) work week, but I’m not sure that this means that working more than that can’t generate additional value. I’m also not sure that any organization is axiomatically capable of operating with perfect efficiency. Or that UBI is apt to address the class divides that manifest as lives wasted on pointless labor. In short, an incredibly thorough examination of part of the problem.

“How NASA Builds Teams” Charles Pellerin (2009). I learned more about team organization from this book than all the others put together. Charles Pellerin was a manager of the Hubble Telescope and NASA does some extraordinary, tough, distributed teams based work. I also learned way more than I ever wanted to about Pellerin’s Japanese woman dating strategy.

“The Killing Zone” Paul A. Craig (2013). Very thorough examination of the 23(ish) most common causes of fatal accidents in general aviation. The Federal Aviation Regulations are probably the most bloody, boring set of text in existence. Each of the thousands of rules is about 25 words and each has been proved by multiple fatalities. Like many big and complex systems, there are no obvious or easy answers. Just the life long hard work of thousands of people. This book is a great reminder of the variety of human frailties.

“The 48 Laws of Power” Robert Greene (1998). This book read like “How to Win Friends and Influence People” but for psychopaths. Many of the 48 rules are contradictory, but the anecdotes are well chosen and well told, and the lessons learned are broader – namely that there are no hard and fast rules, only that optimal actions rely on incisive judgement.

“Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX” Eric Berger (2021). A fast-paced immersive account of the origins of the most famous private space company. An excellent companion to Ashlee Vance’s biography.

“Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century” Tim Higgins 2021. Filling out my collection of Musk-related corporate histories. Some interesting anecdotes about how Tesla survived various incarnations but relatively few technical insights.

Politics

“The Trial of Henry Kissinger” Christopher Hitchens (2001). Good read, and relatively quick. I’m sad that Hitchens isn’t alive to see what’s been happening recently. Always interesting to read about how the sausage actually gets made.

“The Missionary Position” Christopher Hitchens (1995). Here Hitchens has a go at another likely target, a rather revealing set of research on a complex and fairly unsavory character.

“No-one left to lie to” Christopher Hitchens (1999). Like the previous two, a searing indictment of both the person and the culture within which their career prospered.

“Red plenty” Francis Spufford (2012). Probably the best single book account of how the Soviet economy functioned that I’ve ever read. Deep insights into the rapid industrialization of the frozen country. Some really beautiful writing. I’ve visited the parts of Akademgorodok described in the book and it felt alive. Throughout the period of five year plans the stated Soviet intent was to equal western standards of living by 1980. In some ways they did but by then the glue that held the project together had weakened and, in many ways, it no longer mattered. It’s important to remember that in 1958 Sputnik wowed the world, an achievement from a nation torn apart only 13 years previously in the Second World War. In that post war decade the USSR managed to build, for example, enough housing that nearly everyone no longer had to share communal apartments. While Soviet growth was never as fast, at any point, than development in the US or other capitalist nations, there was a brief moment where it seemed like it could compete.

“Permanent Record” Edward Snowden (2019). Fascinating read, and goes well with the film and the documentary. I followed Snowden’s leaks with some interest when they first occurred, and generally shared his concern that online surveillance presented the potential of grave harm to civil liberties and our way of life. Like Snowcrash, I have been deeply bemused since in the ways that my intuition turned out to be wrong. While I was anxious about Facebook and others being a front for US and foreign spooky agencies via the PRISM program and others, those same social media companies were pioneering weapons-grade propaganda for no better reason than an incremental increase in their ability to execute greed. In other words, so far, the front door has turned out to be much more worrying than the back door.

“Diary of a Foreign Minister” Bob Carr (2014). While I am assured by friends in the foreign service that much of this book (except for the notorious leak of classified info) was at least partly fictional, I found it a fascinating window into the mind and life of a senior Australian politician. Bob Carr was the premier of NSW while I was in school, so I was able to read the book in his voice. It talks candidly about various successes and failures in the job, and gives some good insight into how foreign relations actually gets done.

“Legacy of Ashes” Tim Weiner (2007). Bob Carr talks about this book in his memoir but I was unable to finish it. My appetite for consuming media of violence has diminished markedly in recent years.

“Dirty Wars” Jeremy Scahill (2013). A deeply important, troubling book. It took me more than a year to complete, and not just because the prose is rather dense. Again, look past the partisan political bickering in Washington to the reality that much of foreign relations and war is, and has been for a long time, very bipartisan. Ongoing undeclared wars in seven or eight countries. How did we get here? Are we helping? What is the outcome we want, and are we getting closer?

“The Last Battle” Stephen Harding (2013). Fascinating story about the last battle in the European theater of WWII, in which US and German forces joined forces to prevent the SS from assassinating captured French politicians.

“Dark Emu” Bruce Pascoe (2018). Amazing historical analysis of pre-European contact agricultural practices in Australia. Rewrites the standard Australian history texts. Underscores just how wrong the standard line in high school history and resulting white cultural norm is. “Salt” is also a good read with lots of short stories and essays.

“The Burglary” Betty Medsger (2014). Exhaustive account of activists burglary of FBI office materials, leading to public revelation of racist surveillance and domestic terrorism by the FBI (COINTELPRO). I got to meet Medsger and John and Bonnie Raines as part of the book tour when writing for the Caltech student newspaper. It was humbling to be in a room with people who you imagine to be 12 feet tall and shoot lightning bolts from their eyes, only to find that they’re happy, softly spoken grandparents who once did something quite remarkable.

“Open Borders” Bryan Caplan (2019). Comprehensive and readable examination of the futility and stupidity of classifying people by geographic area of birth.

“The Accidental Superpower” (2014), The Absent Superpower (2016), and “Disunited Nations” (2020) by Peter Zeihan. I found these books interesting enough to read back to back. I didn’t agree with everything they said but I learned a lot and appreciated a polymathic and fairly rigorous approach to making an argument. Zeihan employs geopolitical analysis as a lens or ideology to interpret history and make predictions. The greatest weakness in this approach, as presented, is the failure to acknowledge its limitations. Generally speaking, predictive texts get zero points for predicting events that have already occurred!

It’s also worth pointing out that while Zeihan acknowledges geopolitics was a strand of overtly racist nationalistic thought in the late 19th century, he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to avoid frankly racist generalizations and omissions in his own text.

The book is a mix of history, geography, demography, and predictions. The historical review is generally pretty good for a general-audience work (no citations/primary sources) though the perceptive reader can usually tell where Zeihan’s background knowledge is more than one book deep.

Geographic and demographic methods are threads of an “American style” remote intelligence analyst approach, as opposed to a more “British style” rooted in deep (generational) familiarity with the particulars of an area borne of copious first hand, lived experience. As a result, Zeihan’s analyses are about as good as one can reasonably expect for a product that generally lacks local knowledge. The method’s general applicability is its greatest weakness, in that it shares with pseudoscience the tendency to accrete complexity to explain things that buck the trend on the first pass. For example, it’s easy to add spatial resolution or “cultural factors” until a particular historical occurrence seems to be an inevitable consequence of some set of numbers that can be looked up on the CIA world fact book.

Of course, if geography and demography were actually determinative, then the historical review would be completely irrelevant. That is, from a reasonably small set of axioms plus the measurable physical reality of the Earth (derivable, say, from NASA orbital data) it should be possible to inductively predict history, rather than relying on historical records. Of course this is ridiculous, ergo one must take Zeihan’s predictions with a grain of salt. For example, over-reliance on historical analogy predicts that a world without the Pax Americana will by default return to wars of expansion and technological stasis. While Zeihan is correct in stating the underlying factors of security and stability, principally access to energy and food, I think inadequate attention is given to ways in which 20th century technological developments have changed the fundamentals of human and state interaction, forever.

On wars of expansion – violence has gone out of style in a big way. It is no longer necessary to move a border that, in most cases, is fairly transparent anyway. Thanks to several generations of economic integration, the easiest way for neo-imperialist countries to get access to markets and resources they need is to exploit the existing transnational corporations that, in all likelihood, already run the system. Smashing up the infrastructure just wastes money.

On geography in general, agricultural capacity and margins are higher now than they’ve ever been, by a substantial margin. Trucks and planes render previous constraints on movement of people, cargo, and armies largely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that, for example, Romania can hunker down behind the Carpathian mountains if their likely adversaries can fly over and drop bombs – a technology that’s more than 100 years old!

On demography, Zeihan points out that most of the developed world suffers inverted demography, with substantially more old people than young people. This is a problem because as the Boomers retire, their high productivity tax base collapses and their investments switch to sucking up capital. I think this, too, is overblown. Only a small fraction of people of any age work in truly high productivity jobs, so market forces on wages can readily cause either delayed retirement in Boomers or early promotion in Gen Y to fill the gap. I do broadly agree, however, that consumption is declining the world over and that, in particular, China, Japan, and Russia are in fairly dire straits. Zeihan remarks several times that, for some unknown reason, people stopped having children in 1965. The contraceptive pill allowed women to decide, en masse, that having a lot of children was a bad deal. Declining birth rates show that no country on Earth has placed a fair price on having children, though some have at least tried.

Of course criticizing is easy, predictions are hard. To Zeihan’s credit, some of the things he talked about in 2015 have turned out to be true. Some others, less so, and many more turned out to be irrelevant. But what are my predictions, or more precisely what are the major factors that undermine Zeihan’s analysis?

My perspective is grounded much more in emerging technologies and development than retrospective analysis, so I think I have the tools to anticipate how it is that we might get out of the 21st century with civilization intact.

  • Compactification of the industrial stack, through automation and space development. It will matter less if your domestic market is smaller if your country can support a fully diversified industry despite being the size of Iceland. This won’t happen overnight but building a city on Mars requires it…
  • Climate change/mitigation, and cheap renewables. Zeihan points out correctly that much of the world is not amazing for solar or wind power. Fortunately, if solar panels are 100x cheaper than coal, it doesn’t really matter. Electricity is already getting crazy cheap and the trend is accelerating. This will render access to oil largely moot within a decade or two – if we can hold it together for that long. Even fracking will be irrelevant when methane can be directly synthesized more cheaply than it can be drilled.
  • Education/labor market evolution. The explosion of demand for software engineering, narrow AI, and the growth of the internet will continue to change traditional career paths. In particular, the educational model of putting 30 children in a room with an authority figure for a decade is a fairly inefficient way to download data.

Other Sci-fi

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” Robert Heinlein (1966). See my review. A fun read ahead of its time in many ways. The worst thing about it are the people who like it a bit too much.

“Diaspora” Greg Egan (1997). I would love to read more Egan. This book exceeded my expectations on every level. Egan is also delightful on Twitter.

“Foundation Series” Isaac Asimov (1942-1993). Among sci-fi of this era, I’ve always preferred the much more fluent sexism of Willy Ley’s “At the Perihelion” than Asimov’s weird brand of misogyny. Yes, there are spaceships and some clever ideas about predestination but in no way did these books live up to the hype. Waaay too many dudes.

“The mad scientists club” Bertrand R Brinley (1965-2005). My father read his first edition copy of the book to my brother and I as kids, and now I’m a dad I started rereading some of the “classics” to prepare for the coming years. Brinley actually wrote four books but due to an ill-timed bankruptcy on the part of his publisher, two were not published until much more recently. In my view the earlier books are better anyway, though there were some cool ideas in the later ones. As for my children, I’m on the look out for books that are a bit more modern. Brinley was essentially writing about his childhood in the 1930s, which was a long time ago!

“Artemis” Andy Weir (2017). Artemis on the moon, before it was cool. A different novel to “The Martian” and strong in its own ways. Incredible world-building.

“Project Hail Mairy” Andy Weir (2021). Fun read, plenty of twists and turns. Solid science (after the usual maguffin) and the gentle, tight writing we love. Oh, to have access to a power source like Astrophage. Which, of course, could enable artificial stars and planetary-scale thermal control, but whatever.

“The Calculating Stars” Mary Robinette Kowal (2018). I began this on the recommendation of a friend but got hung up on some aspects of characterization and the variable pacing. I intend to finish it.

“Contact” Carl Sagan (1985). I was hanging out with Jill Tarter when I realised that I was an adult and I could read this book on my phone, so I did. It’s quite different from the film, in ways that make sense, and quite thought provoking.

“Norstrilia” Cordwainer Smith (1975). Delightfully mind bendingly peculiar.

“Manna” Marshall Brain (2003). A recent recommendation piqued my interest due to my enjoyment of Brain’s “HowStuffWorks” website in my teen years. Full of ideas but the exposition suffers when it tries to explain things that are evidently not areas of the author’s expertise.

Popular Science

“The Perfectionists” Simon Winchester (2018). A very unoffensive tour through a few centuries of improvement in precision measurement and manufacturing.

“Slide Rule” Nevil Shute (1954). A fascinating first hand account of the creation of one of the few non German airships to not crash on the first flight, followed by Shute’s career in fixed wing aircraft at Airspeed, the underdog of British aviation. Many interesting insights into project management combined with aggressive tech development.

“My Airships” Alberto Santos-Dumont (1904). Just prior to the development of controllable fixed wing aircraft, Santos-Dumont built and flew several hydrogen-filled dirigibles, mostly around Paris. One of them he used routinely to get to his favorite coffee house. An engaging account of mechanical ingenuity.

“How Innovation Works” Matt Ridley (2020). This book is roughly equal parts approximate historical review and prescription for innovation. I think it’s an insightful, if incomplete study of the subject. The historical anecdotes are necessarily abridged and occasionally inaccurate, certainly they give the impression of being derived from other secondary material. I don’t need to re-enact Rashomon to demonstrate that poorly documented historical narratives often miss important parts of the picture. In the most general sense, reasoning by analogies is often only correct by accident. I don’t mean to be overly critical here – I recommend reading it – but parts of it feel like preaching to the choir and, most notably, Ridley completely misses the ongoing solar energy revolution.

“The Control of Nature” John McPhee (1989). Brilliant prose descriptions of human engineering encountering the physical world. Part of one story occurred a few houses down from mine.

“Safe Is Not An Option” Rand Simberg (2003). This book had one interesting insight, namely that NASA’s loss of the Shuttles Challenger and Columbia was unsustainable not because of a shortage of astronauts, but because the Shuttles were too expensive to easily replace. A maturing transportation sector therefore needs reliability to enable cheap financing of the vessel!

“The Grid” Gretchen Bakke (2016). Like many books in this segment, an interesting non-technical account of the history of electrification in the US that falls down only when it attempts to describe some technical detail. It’s also unfortunate that its coverage of solar energy was just a few years early.

“The Box” Marc Levinson (2016). Fascinating account of the origins and growth of the shipping container revolution. I remain interested (in the Chinese curse sense) that every possible intermodal transfer (between ships, trains, and trucks) is routinely performed, except ship to ship. If we could work out how to do real-time blue water container transfer, ports would be more interesting places.

“The Perfect Machine” Ronald Florence (1995). Probably the single best account of how 20th century absurd telescope building developed in Pasadena, California, and all the associated ramifications. Inspiring and beautiful.

“The High Frontier” Gerard O’Neill (1977). See my technical review. The Urtext of giant space station cities. Many wonderful ideas. Falls down on an economic level, since the proposed basis for trade doesn’t really exist.

“A New History of Life” Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink (2016). Fascinating insights from the very latest research into the origins and history of life on Earth. Would be six times better at half the length.

“Structures” J. E. Gordon (2003). Lots of insights into the origins and practice of structural engineering, as well as practical materials science.

“The Right Stuff” Tom Wolfe (1979). Detailed, raw account of the origins and sacrifices of supersonic aircraft development and early space flight. Probably leans a little heavily on Yeager’s evidently generous interviews. I drive out to Edwards occasionally for work and it is through Wolfe’s eyes that I see the place.

“The Retreat of the Elephants” Mark Elvin (2006). Not yet finished, but fascinating story mirroring McPhee’s story Atchafalaya about how Chinese civilization became interlinked with the perils and costs of total hydrological control, and the resulting environmental impact.

“Eccentric Orbits” John Bloom (2017). Fascinating account of the history of the Iridium network. Lots of hilariously pointed observations about the interactions of engineers, marketers, sales people, consultants, regulators, senior leadership.

“Reinventing fire” Amory Lovins (2011). I think I first heard about this on Alex Honnold’s reading list and had several pleasant exchanges with the author on a common mailing list. Despite recent publication (my edition in 2013) many aspects of the book have not aged well. Oddly the conclusions, while ideologically motivated, are correct, while the arguments are mostly not correct. For example, in the chapter on cars, much ink is spent singing the praises of very lightweight cars for improved efficiency. Yet without exception every case study mentioned either never went into mass production or lost a lot of money. In contrast, Teslas are famously overweight and yet are also outselling practically everything. A thorough explanation of this effect is beyond the scope of this summary but must be understood to innovate effectively.

Other

“The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” Joan Aiken (1962). I was toying with the idea of writing a novel for young adults and decided that I could do worse than reading Aiken instead. A deceptively linear plot mercilessly exploits what we would call the Overton window of expectation. I found this interesting because so many of my favorite authors endure a chasm of me not understanding their narrative choices, but Aiken just takes us along for the ride.

“The House At World’s End” Monica Dickens (1970) and three sequels. Charming, readable books for young readers set in a nostalgic 1970s Britain. I was read these as a boy by my mother, who probably read them when first published as part of her horse enthusiasm. The writer grew up wealthy in interwar Britain before striking out on her own, so like “The Mad Scientists Club” aspects of the story bridge two more generations of nostalgia.

“A Woman Makes a Plan” Maye Musk (2019). Very readable account of an unusual life.

“Don’t tell Mum I work on the Rigs” Paul Carter (2007). Every now and then one encounters, in the course of life, entire professions whose origins and entrees seem completely unknown. For example, how would one go about becoming a civil servant in the FAA? Or a saturation diver on an oil rig? I think many of the professional jobs that do not require a university degree lean heavily on the armed services to provide recruits. But I digress. Paul Carter is an Australian writer who is blessed by both the ability to survive constant harrowing danger and to write engaging anecdotes about it. The stories of many of the world’s most accident-prone people are never written down and then lost forever. Carter’s stories of life in the oil drilling trade, and other adventures in followup books “Is That Thing Diesel”, “Ride Like Hell And You’ll Get There”, and “This Is Not A Drill” are some of the funniest things I have ever read.

“How to American” Jimmy O. Yang (2018). Although I never set out, in a conscious way, to become an immigrant, here I am. No two immigrants have the same story, as they adjust to life in a new place. Jimmy’s story is unusual, sad, happy, and funny.

“The Divine Comedy” Dante Alighieri, translation by Clive James (2001). While more familiar with James’ work through “Unreliable Memoirs” and the five book trilogy it created, I decided to tackle his translation of Dante’s master work. Where by tackle, I mean just read it – James did all the hard work of translating it. It’s the best full translation of Italian that I’ve ever read, though that’s saying more about me than the book. I enjoyed it, though it’s not my usual fare.

“City of Thieves” David Benioff (2008). I read this on a friend’s recommendation. I’ve enjoyed reading a few books set in Russia since my journeys there as a young man, and I enjoyed this book. I did find something about the final act unsatisfactory, in a way that I don’t think was intended.

“Kolyma Tales” Varlam Shalamov (1970-1976). See my article on the Mask of Sorrow. When I visited the Russian Far East, including many places that occur in the book, I was mostly unaware of the particulars of the history and not very interested in it. I was more interested in the present-day occupants and the landscape. On my return the parallels between the gulag and the convict origins of European occupation in Australia led me to read this book, mostly because it was much shorter than Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”. It’s not a fun book, but it is probably the best introduction to this topic.

“He Died with a Felafel in His Hand” John Birmingham (1994). This book, and its sequel “The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco” are incredibly funny accounts of the author’s dramas living with a broad cast of housemates in Australia. I read them just as I was experiencing my (amazingly awesome) share house phase and loved them. At a certain point, one does wonder why Birmingham has failed to “age out” of some of the antics, but that’s why we read the book – to engage in some safe schadenfreude.

“Ghost Fleet” P. W. Singer (2015). I don’t read much techno-thriller stuff but I found this book readable and entertaining, with the appropriate degree of suspended disbelief.

“American Psycho” Bret Easton Ellis (1991). I stopped about half way through, thinking that I’d gotten the point. I have used it (and the film) as a reference when designing business cards, though.

“Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore” Robin Sloan (2012). I read this with high expectations after rave reviews but I found the final act fairly disappointing. All secret-society novels set in the real world have to contend with the fact that they can’t actually center too much magical power in unusual places, or else the world building doesn’t work. “The Lord of the Rings” avoids this problem by hiding, then destroying the magical artifact. “The Dark is Rising” has a similar problem – a titanic battle for good or evil that actually turns out to not have any practical consequences.

“Moonraker” Ian Fleming (c. 1954). I decided to revisit the James Bond novel after an ill-advised foray into “Thunderball” when I was about nine. I had read that this was considered one of the better novels but it did not meet my expectations.

“Wishful Drinking” Carrie Fisher (2008). Equal parts funny and sad. Somewhat disjointed.

“The Hunt for the Red October” Tom Clancy (1984). It met my expectations. The characterization was not deeply thoughtful but the submarine sequences were a good read and, in a mathematical way, quite thought provoking.

Zeppelins

As part of my general obsession with terrible business plans (Mars cities being the prime example) I’ve been reading widely on airships for about a year. Of these, the Hindenburg was perhaps the greatest – certainly the biggest. Unfortunately, nearly all publicly available literature and media focuses on the Hindenburg disaster, while I’m more interested in how it worked, how it was built, and what it was like. A previous airship the “Graf Zeppelin” didn’t explode unexpectedly and also has some good info available, but that name space is quite crowded, complicating searches.

I am particularly interested in discovering if any Zeppelin design documents survive. I’m reasonably certain that structural plans exist or could be easily recreated, but the calculations that underpin them are more obscure. If you know of a source, please let me know.

“LZ 129 Hindenburg” Barbara Waibel (2013). Small but densely packed book full of lovely photos and high level information on aspects of design.

“Airship: Design, Development, and Disaster” John Swinfield (2012). Reasonably comprehensive history of rigid airships worldwide with some photographs. Some areas of the book are noticeably more detailed than others. Provides an interesting counterpoint to some of Nevil Shute’s speculations on the fate of R101. In general, kids, things are complicated.

“Zeppelin Hindenburg” Dan Grossman, Cheryl Ganz, and Patrick Russell (2017). Grossman is also runs airships.net, a fun website full of info. Lots of interesting info on the origins of the Hindenburg, the scrappy development phase, the political and business machinations on nascent airlines all over the world. The latter half of the book leans heavily on photographs and accounts by an American airship fan who documented each arrival at Lakehurst, New Jersey. It also contains some renders derived from the Hindenburg 3DA VR project.

“Eckener Unabridged” Hugo Eckener, translated by Alastair Reid (2019). This edition restores about 40% of the text abridged from a previous publication, much of it concerning political details. Fascinating, terrifying book – probably my pick for best of the last year. Eckener was a deep thinker and passionate advocate for the Zeppelin concept. His memoir concerns Zeppelin developments in the inter war years, though of the ~130 Zeppelins built only 6 were built between 1918 and 1938, and only one (the Graf Zeppelin) got most of the action. By his own account, Eckener backed away from the possibility of entering politics to counter the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists in 1932, preferring to focus on keeping the Zeppelin concern solvent. Even then it barely made money. By 1935 he had been sidelined at the company, survived a few mistimed assassination attempts, and forced to watch his creations co-opted first for propaganda then misused to the point of hazard, culminating in the catastrophic demise over Lakehurst of the Hindenburg. In the closing pages of the book, the image of the wreckage crumpled on the landing field is an apt foreshadowing of the inevitable ruin that Nazi aggression would bring upon Germany courtesy of unavoidable American involvement. Could things have turned out differently?

“25 years of Zeppelin airship construction” Dr Ludwig Dürr, chief designer. Predates Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. Insights into aspects of design and early lessons. Light on technical detail.

“Graf Zeppelin – The first flight to America” Rolf Brandt and Hugo Eckener. Brandt’s account is a nice companion to Eckener’s in his memoir (above). Not much technical detail.

“The Hindenburg – Germany’s latest airship” Rolf Brandt. Published only 8 years later, this one is far heavier on Nazi propaganda and Zeppelin hype. Some nice descriptions of the crew spaces along the keel corridor, interesting references to now obscure locations, events, and people. One of the few books on Zeppelins that doesn’t focus on the Hindenburg disaster, as it predated it.

Probably other books, but I haven’t remembered them yet.

5 thoughts on “Book reviews

  1. “Titan” by Stephen Baxter. Apollo writ large. Absolutely readable with a fun ending.

    “The Listeners” by James E Gunn. Early 70’s search for ET. Great echos (pun intended) of Sagan, Fermi and Drake.

    “Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes. Pulitzer prize winner. The scientific excitement and trepidation flies of the pages. From the discovery of the neutron to a functional device in 13 years – whoa – what sort of scientific crack were they smoking?

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  2. Since you mention Stephen Baxter and Zeppelins so frequently in this article, you should know that the Pratchett/Baxter collaboration The Long Earth features Zeppelins heavily. I’m currently reading the third book in the series, The Long Mars, which would tie in a third interest of yours (scifi, Zeppelins, Mars)

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  3. “the Shuttles were too expensive to easily replace”

    The cost to build Endeavour is listed as $2.2 billion. That’s not appreciably more expensive than an SLS block 1B (when the EUS replaces the ICPS of block 1).

    This does not bode well for the SLS program.

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