2008 in books

So I read crap. A lot of it. In fact, there’s only one book in this list that most people would consider decent literature — I’ll let you figure out which one :). Consider yourself warned.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein) is a decent story about politics and organizing people without any formal rule of law. The computer character driving the plot is the most annoying aspect of the book, but don’t let that get in the way. The descriptions of how bookmakers can become insurance companies, and how judges (and juries) can be “created” by verbal agreements are two examples of the things Heinlein explores in the book. The polyandries are also interesting: since the moon colony started out as a penal colony, there’s two men for every woman. Since there’s a vacuum right outside, the men are also very polite about it, lest their friends toss them out in the cold. Pretty enjoyable read.

Unfortunately, the next one from him was not that great. I just could not get into Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein). The backstory was sort of interesting, but I could not care about any of the characters. The premise was also pretty phony: a kid from a failed expedition to Mars is raised by martians and has superpowers. By the time the second expedition arrives, he is the only human alive in Mars, so he has a legitimate claim to the planet. Hence, people on Earth want to kill him. I gave up about 200 pages in.

Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein), on the other hand, is a really great book – of the three books by Heinlein, I would suggest this one above all. Given that I am pretty much a tree-hugging hippie when it comes to the military, this is saying a lot. If you don’t like scifi, skip the chapters where they shoot at crap and just read what’s essentially a political essay. Well worth it.

Anathem (Neal Stephenson). I liked the backstory of this a lot more than the plot (which is not really bad). In the book, nerds are essentially locked away from the real world and denied most of technology because of the “Terrible Events” that happened in the past. I have to say that the idea of hiding away for life in a place dedicated to learning and studying, shielded from email and television and cell phones is something to think long and hard about. A lot of people seemed to have been turned off by the funny words Stephenson peppered throughout the text, but I didn’t find them to be that bad. I’d put this halfway between Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. If your favorite Stephenson was the 80%-action, 20%-thought balance of Snow Crash, stay away from this one. You’ll be missing out on a great book, though.

Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum is not the easiest book to read by any measure, but if you like Neal Stephenson and have heard of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, pick this one up instead. If for no other reason, think of this: what other books have BASIC code, brazilian magic rituals, medieval myths and typesetting discussions? The main story arc is hilarious, tragic, and ultimately pointless. But don’t worry: by the time you realize this, you’ll have loved the book.

A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge). There are two sci-fi points to this book: first, the author explores an alien race that communicates thoughts through sounds. This race does it so effectively that groups of animals actually start behaving as a single “individual”. Since each pack “communes” through sound, they have to stay close to one another, and never get too close to another pack. The setup allows for all kinds of good writing, and Vinge really pulls it off well: from describing the architecture to their reaction to radio communications. The second and much more interesting point is the exploration of what would the universe look like if 1) there were hard physical limits to how fast computation could be performed at any point in space, and 2) this limit actually changes throughout space and time. For example, sufficiently powerful computers can pull off faster-than-light travel, but how fast they can go depends on where you are. This is the backstory for an internet crossing the entire galaxy, full-speed video communications using a couple of bits per second of bandwidth, and much more. The idea that struck with me the most is that computation will become universal: in the book, historians trade computer programs as part of their research. This is a good vision. I then tried the prequel A Deepness in the Sky, but gave up about 150 pages in.

By far, the most haunting book I have read this year is The Road (Cormac McCarthy). It’s a story about a dad and his kid trying to find somewhere to go after the whole world went belly up, presumably because of some monstrous catastrophe. The writing is just perfect and disturbing and sad and scary. It’s awesome. I have to confess it’s the first book I actually had to stop reading for a while – it was too much of a punch in the gut to read at once.

Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is dumb. There, I said it. Asimov makes Arthur Clarke’s characters read like Dostoevsky’s, complex and full of nuance. I thought the Foundation books were one-dimensional (here comes Hari Seldon from the skies – now let’s go chase the Mule that can manipulate your thoughts. Argh), but I, Robot takes the cake. Skip this.

The Audacity of Hope is a surprisingly good book that I confess I only bought because it was dirt cheap. If Barack Obama really believes what he wrote in the book, the next four years should be interesting, in particular because he will clearly disappoint people in the left – his views on family and values are much more conservative than what you typically see in the media. Pick it up and read it – it’s a lot lighter than I expected too.

The other non-fiction book I read is Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. Really really great, much better than any self-help book should be. In fact, don’t think of it as a self-help book. “You don’t get to pick which cards you are dealt, but you get to pick how you play them”. It sounds corny, but it is not. Read this – well worth the two hours.

Beautiful Code is the one technical book I feel like writing about. It is a collection of essays from many different programmers that got asked to talk about some code that they consider “beautiful”. Part of the appeal of this book is the realization that “beautiful” has very different meanings to the authors (and I have to say that few of them match my particular taste). However, there is one chapter in particular that is absolutely great, and that is Jon Bentley’s analysis of quicksort. Don’t miss it.

I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy last year, and loved it, so I didn’t have much choice when I saw the entire climate change trilogy for sale on paperback the other day. I have finished Forty Signs of Rain, and am currently reading Fifty Degrees Below. They’re ok books, and while I can’t help but enjoy reading a book where the characters review NSF proposals, they are nowhere as good as the Red Mars books. I’ll probably finish the trilogies, but just because I want to see where it goes (nothing happens on the first book. It rains a lot, I guess)

Instead of a TV/movie post, I’ll do a paragraph. Go watch Once, and Slumdog Millionaire. Crawford is good, and most important, free. Arrested Development is just great, and Californication is funny, even when it tries too hard. Koyaanisqatsi is weird and good, and has the first Philip Glass soundtrack I actually enjoyed, so that has to count for something.

Next year’s resolutions: read more! Holy crap, am I ever jealous of this.


One response to “2008 in books

  1. Apparently I read crap too, because I’ve read most of what’s on your list. I’m guessing the great literature was Foucault’s Pendulum? I’m not sure whether McCarthy is considered great literature these days or what, but The Road was indeed spectacular. I was able to finish it in an afternoon, though I perversely enjoy terrible bleakness.

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