Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sci-fi books that my brain thinks about long after I read them

Books books books! I'm taking a short break from work to tell you about some books I've read, the links between the fictional book world tech and the real world, and based on random things I remember (and can't forget) about the books, maybe why you should read them, too!

1. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

I discovered some friends working on education apps hadn't read this book! I checked on Goodreads and a lot of folks there have read it, so good job. Maybe you loved it, maybe you're confused by the ending, maybe my 'review' will reveal that I forgot a large chunk of what happened. No matter! Here's what I do remember:

There are these electronic book things (the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer) that some kids get that are like an adaptive, interactive, fancy-schmancy textbook for learning all the things that a child ought to learn. Like reading and arithmetic and different animals and construction machines. So it can read aloud to the kid and then teach the kid to read and be kind of wikipedia-like in teaching about whatever the kid is interested in. No teacher? This book can do it! Or maybe it augments a teacher? I don't really remember, because the main character girl who was not in the right socioeconomic group to get one (or school) did actually get her hands on one. It (kind of) made me think of the plan to drop OLPCs all over Africa and have kids teach themselves computers. Then there's another main character of the book, the woman who does the reading aloud and communicating through the book, who winds up getting to know the little girl using the book as she grows up.

Basically, it's like you need Siri to be more intelligent, but she's not, so you have your app plug into Mechanical Turk and get a human to take care of it. Kind of like VizWiz, the app that lets blind people take a picture and have a turker tell them what they're looking at. But then some of those workers start getting paired with the same app users and they might wind up getting involved in each other's lives! The human touch! It's important! Will artificial intelligence ever be advanced enough to give us that emotional connection? Is the the human element necessary for learning? Stephenson seems to think so!

Also, the idea of adaptive learning is what's hot in education (and game design for education) these days.

I think people want something like the Illustrated Primer... interactive, personalized, unbounded learning. In your pocket! We're already headed in that direction with tablets and interactive e-books (like Al Gore's climate book... are there more? Why is that the only one I can remember?) and interactive data visualizations (like in the NYT) and MOOCs making education more widely available and universal. There are a lot of kinks still to work out, though. The biggest one I know/care about is how "interactive" content is still pretty static, like someone has to design the levels for the math game or the widgets for the website or the homework for the MOOC. But that is why Adam and friends are working on design automation! And that is why I build things that let humans contribute new content!

Anyway. Don't wait to read The Diamond Age on your own Illustrated Primer in 20 years! Read it now!

P.S. I had just finished Anathem on my Kindle and I asked Adam to suggest another Neal Stephenson book, and he was like, "Oh, you should totally read the Diamond Age because it's about a girl with an electronic book like you have there."

2. All 4 books in the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons, especially the last 3 books

The story for me reading these books is that I was in the Twice Sold Tales on 45th and the Ave, perusing books with Adam when I was fresh into grad school, and he pointed out Hyperion and said, "Mike said that was good". It is good! I think it might have been the first "people living all over space" (not just Mars) book I read, since I tend to relate all other space colonization books (see the next two on this list) to this series. My review is not going to do it justice.

My memory of the first book: Spaceship tree! Religious quest that I don't understand. Woman who comes from a planet with higher gravity that makes her short and stocky. The SHRIKE is SCARY. Guy with baby who's getting younger and younger every day. Drunk poet guy.

The next few books: I finally get to know and appreciate more of the characters. There's a spaceship with a personality. People are all over space! They live on different planets, but thanks to the some fancy-shmancy technology, they can connect the planets together. One guy (the drunk poet) has a house with different rooms on different planets. There's a main street and a river that are connected in a huge multi-planet loop. One of the books involves traveling on a raft through down this river (and all over space!), which is like that Escher staircase that always flows downhill but manages to connect in a big cycle.

3. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Speaking of humans all over space, they're all over the place in this book, too! And they travel between planets in hollowed out asteroids called terraria, that each have a different ecosystem inside. Some are savannas or full of water or totally dark.. not having been to Burning Man, I imaging different terraria offering all kinds of different experiences like different BM camps. They also keep pretty much all of Earth's animals in different terraria zoos because Earth is getting pretty run down and the animals would go extinct there. What would it be like to take a run-down Earth and put all the animals back?? Read the book to find out!

In addition to the terraria, there's also some crazy artificial intelligence that might be getting too intelligent. 

In true Kim Stanley Robinson fashion, there's a lot of drawn out boring aspects of the book, too.

The prologue about sun-walkers on Mercury is really neat, though, so you should at least get the Kindle book sample from Amazon and read that.

4. A Deepness In The Sky by Vernor Vinge

Ah, people are all over space again! But there's one planet that has not been colonized by humans, but it has some smart creatures on it, and they're going through their own technological enlightenment when the humans show up. It's all these smart, inspired characters paralleling a lot of technological advancements of the real Earth (like nuclear scientists) but at an accelerated pace! A warning, though, if you don't like spiders, maybe this book isn't for you.

Compared to the books above, this Vinge book was the most satisfying and fun to read. It's not laced with weird Stephenson sub-plots, nor is it 4 books long. You should read the Diamond Age for its historical (and future-ical) relevance, but you should read A Deepness in the Sky because it's a great story. And you should read the other books if you have time and want to think about what it would be like to live all over space.

What other books do I need to read? Ones that will CHANGE MY OUTLOOK ON LIFE??


  1. Wow, Kathleen, this is a fantastic list. The Diamond Age is full of terrific ideas -- not only for education, but also for crowdsourcing. :) I love the idea that humans ("remote actors") are needed for truly emotive speech generation. The Diamond Age is also a vision of a future with tabletop matter fabricators. Who knows how soon we'll do that on a nanoscale, but 3D printing is a step in that direction. Which will come first -- effective massive online education like the Primer, or cheap widespread 3D printing? My bet is on the printing. :)

    I haven't read 2312 yet, but all the other books you mentioned here changed my life too, and here are three more that did:

    1. The Integral Trees, by Larry Niven. Even though Niven's most popular book is probably Ringworld, and Ringworld *does* have some clever ideas in it (like a girl who's been bred for having luck by seven generations of childbirth lotteries) -- in spite that, for a truly wacky world with humans living in it, there's nothing like the Integral Trees. Picture a torus-shaped cloud of breathable gas ringing a star, with people living in it, in zero-gee, with little more than stone-age technology. Ponds that are big spheres of water. Jungles that are clumps of vegatation with tunnels through them. And trees! Oh, the trees! The Lorax would love these trees. An integral tree is kilometers long, with foliage at both ends. The foliage tufts at the ends make the trees look like super-long integral signs, hence the name. It captures water in the middle and the water runs both directions down the trunk, like streams. The tree provides gentle gravity at the ends because of tidal effects, and it supports animal life and human villages. And when a tree suffers from drought... well, that would be a spoiler, but what happens when a tree dries out is a positively brilliant idea. The whole world is fantastic and mind-bending. Hard sci-fi doesn't get any better than Larry Niven when he's thinking really hard.

    2. Gateway, by Fred Pohl. One of those novels that won both the Hugo and the Nebula. The book's human parts feel a little dated, but the scifi is great! It's an asteroid hollowed out by aliens eons ago, studded all over with tiny starships that humans don't really know how to operate, but if you pick the right one and push the right buttons, it might take you somewhere with hugely profitable alien technology that will make you a billionaire. Or it might kill you. It's a galactic lottery. My personal connection to the book is that the main character's name is "Robinette" and people are constantly calling him by some wrong nickname that he hates. Also the end of the book is one of the most painful things I've ever read.

    3. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett. Not a sci-fi book, more in the swords-and-sorcery genre, but it *is* about computer networking, using medieval technology. :) And it's the best book I've ever read about Impostor Syndrome and what to do about it.

  2. Aaaah just as I tell you that I love all your blog posts, I find you have written another!

    1. The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson is your reward for reading Cryptonomicon twenty times and being a little in love with both Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse and Bobby Shaftoe. It's about all their ancestors! And Isaac Newton! And 2nd half 1600's history! And a LADY. It's very ambitious and adventuresome on a lot of different axes (politics, economics, world travel, careers available to ladies, being somewhere on the Autism spectrum when there's no wiggle room for that societally, sexually transmitted and other diseases, puns) and the 2nd book especially made me think a lot about how relationships work, and how to keep them going over years and many life changes.

    2. Kushiel's Dart & 8 more books by Jacqueline Carey - vaguely alternate historical fantasy centered around maybe 1300's France, with a fourth religion branching out from Judaism/Christianity/Islam with the central precept of Love as you Will, and spinning out a delightfully sexually liberated society with the requisite amount of court drama, followed by ambitious and well-developed international intrigue and wars and battles and politics, and a generous helping of really hot sex scenes.

    3. Chess With A Dragon by David Gerrold is an older book, the author also wrote the famous Star Trek episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles" and Next Gen's pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint," and this is a short book about a galactic community of very different races, humans getting in a lot of trouble unintentionally, and one guy having a hell of a time getting them out of it. It has some of the freshest, most unbiased descriptions of how alien aliens could be, and on that point alone I recommend this book. It's also hilarious and has a great plot.

    4. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - Joe Mathes just finished reading this one, and I am about to start it. I've never seen him finish a book so fast, and that tells me this book is probably amazing, so you should probably read it too.

    I realize that two ("two") of my book recommendations are historical fantasy trilogies and not science fiction, and that they have remarkably similar attributes. I apologise, but I don't take them back. Also I have all these books physically and you can borrow them whenever. <3

  3. I'll definitely check some of these out! As for recommendations, I really loved China Mieville's Embassytown. There's a lot of fun alien-linguistics.