Books I read in 2021
What Kind of Creatures Are We?, Noam Chomsky (2015)
An engrossing synoptic account of the main currents in Chomsky’s thinking across his long career. He starts with his contributions to linguistics, moving into the theory of knowledge and ends with reflections on the limits of human understanding and the role and nature of scientific explanation.There is also a chapter discussing the extent to which his linguistic theories and Cartesian orientation in the philosophy of mind influences his libertarian-socialist politics. Above all, this short book demonstrates Chomsky’s deep understanding of western intellectual history from the period of the Enlightenment onwards. This is appropriate as I think of Chomsky as an expansive and interdisciplinary philosopher in the mould of Hume and Descartes working in an our age of hyper-specialisation in the social and natural sciences. We end with a thoroughly naturalised conception of human beings as biological entities endowed with faculties that both faciliate and circumscribe the systematic understanding of their environment.
Life 3.0, Max Tegmark (2017)
This provided an intelligible summary of several aspects of the engineering behind recent advances in AI but I found the self-satisfied and elitist tone of the Silicon Valley insider quite disagreeable.
Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction, P.H. Matthews (2003)
A very useful introduction to the main areas of study within the science of linguistics. This book served as a roadmap for topics I would like to study in greater depth. I found the descriptions of phonology and the physical basis of speech production boring. However I was fascinated by topics in theoretical linguistics and the systematic and computational approach to grammar initiated by the Chomskyan programme and cognitive science more broadly.
The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker (1994)
An approachable yet thorough account of Chomskyan linguistics and the fundamental assumptions of cognitive science. No doubt much of this is now outdated but even so I found the discussion of research in psycholinguistics very interesting. The empirical work that Pinker cites caused me to reconsider the validity of certain ideas in the philosophy of mind and language.
Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy, Avrum Stroll (2000)
A useful and engaging reminder of the main topics in the last 150 years of the philosophy of language in the Anglophone tradition. Notwithstanding the obvious centrality of language and philosophical logic to analytic philosophy, there was little to no coverage of other areas such as moral and political philosophy, epistemology or the philosophy of mind. This is therefore not a complete history of the tradition. The book was at its weakest when the author presumed to offer his own arguments on contemporary debates such as direct reference theories of names. I wish he had maintained an expository approach throughout since most of his arguments seemed to me to be based on misreadings and crude simplifications or frustratingly opaque gestures to the ordinary person’s use of language.
The Pragmatic Programmer, Andy Hunt & Dave Thomas (1999)
A justified classic. Although most of the examples were written in languages I do not know or use (mostly Java and C++), the discussions of abstraction, decoupling and the core concepts of object-oriented programming were invaluable.
A Man on the Moon: Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, Andrew Chaikin (1994)
A fascinating account of the Apollo programme and its precursors. The author details each Apollo mission from launch to splashdown delving deep into both the scientific objectives and the personal lives and psychology of the astronauts. Above all I was struck by the remarkable range of qualities that the astronauts possessed. Most were military officers who had long ago come to terms with their likely death in the line of service but at the same time were intellectuals who held postgraduate degrees in engineering and mathematics. Some were conservative, others were committed leftists. Many were religious and many were atheists who returned either religious or with an abiding spiritual perception of the universe they would have previously rejected.
Atomic Habits, James Clear (2018)
I am definitely guilty of buying into self-improvement and ‘productivity culture’ although I recognise the strong current of capitalist propaganda that runs through a lot of it. Bertrand Russell was entirely correct to praise idleness however I am an irredeemably goal-oriented person that finds meaning in the setting and surpassing of personal challenges. Therefore this very popular book found a most willing reader. The book is basically a handbook of techniques for developing positive habits and diminishing negative ones. The overall philosophy is summed up as the aggregation of marginal gains. A little dedication each day, at scale, adds up to a lot of progress. It has helped me to meet my personal fitness and study goals and reduce the amount of time I waste on social media and other distractions.
Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
I love sci-fi so it is strange that this was my first reading of what is widely considered to be the best science fiction novel ever written. Much is made of Herbert’s introduction of ecology to science fiction and the anti-imperialist tone of the novel. I actually didn’t find these aspects that compelling or thought-provoking however that may not be a fault of Herbert’s but rather a consequence of the fact that post-Dune these themes have become mainstays of the genre. That said, the idea of an ecologically-harmonious ‘primitive’ culture under threat from an avaricious empire that destructively extracts its resources and destroys its ancestral way of life has obvious contemporary overtones. One thinks of the disgraceful exclusion of the representatives of indigenous peoples at this year’s depressingly inadequate climate summit in Glasgow. At bottom though this is just a brilliantly realised example of world-building by an obvious master. As a work of thrilling and immersive speculative fiction it is second to none.
The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, Roger Williams (2002)
This was a really gripping tale of AI supremacy. Given that the work is a novella, the scope is really breathtaking and it reminded me in part of philosophical novels like Candide and Gulliver’s Travels. Interestingly it was written by a software engineer and self-published online in 1994. It is still available here in all it’s plain HTML glory.
Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)
Last year during the lockdowns I worked my way through Robinson’s magnum opus: the three volume Mars Trilogy first published in the early 90s. Aside from being a masterful work of hard science fiction it had a deep impact on my thinking and in particular the relationship between science and engineering and revolutionary political theory. Robinson presents his scientists as complex fully rounded intellectuals whose scientific work is consonant with an abiding moral and political understanding of their world(s). According to Reddit Aurora is supposed to be his second-best work after Red Mars. I have to disagree with the consensus. The novel had some beautiful passages it seemed rather rudderless which is ironic given that it is about an interstellar journey. This could be a consequence of the deflationary core theme: humanity’s failure spread out and inhabit other star systems. The inhabitants of the ship Aurora reach an exoplanet after travelling sub-luminally for multiple generations. A toxin on the exoplanet causes a plague and the now reduced inhabitants decide to return. They travel using hibernation techniques managed by the ship’s AI who is also the narrator of the story. In short, they return to Earth and everyone hates them for failing in their objective. It’s cool that the story is told by the AI but it is left unexplained how the story continues once the AI is destroyed about three-quarters of the way in to the novel.
The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood (1984)
Another classic I only read this year. I think I made a mistake in reading the novel immediately after finishing the remarkable TV adaptation as this probably affected by expectations. The novel is obviously highly allusive and literary but I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. The first third of the book is plain boring. The latter half becomes more stimulating as the plot quickens but overall it just seemed grey to me. I think this is a case of science fictional themes achieving ‘crossover’ and respectability simply because they have been adopted/expropriated by a literary writer.
The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008)
This is a work of Chinese science fiction that has achieved success in the west. The plot is complicated but it’s basically a rumination on the Fermi Paradox. The novel flips between two timelines: the present day and the Cultural Revolution. The depiction of the insane violence and mass hysteria of the latter period was extemely chilling and troubling.
The Dispossessed, Ursula LeGuin (1974)
Last year I read The Left Hand of Darkness and it knocked my socks off. In contrast, I was rather disappointed with The Dispossessed mainly because the plot didn’t really deliver on its promise. Set within the same Hainish universe of the earlier book it tells a story of the planet Urras and its moon Annares. Urras is an advanced capitalist civilisation, its wealth built on the exploitation and violent subjugation of its productive class. Annares is a poor communist society built on collectivist anarchist principles. A physicist from Annares travels to the planet as his revolutionary scientific ideas are poorly received by his native society and he wishes to confer with the more advanced scientific community on Urras. What follows is kind of Coming to America scenario where the anarchist struggles to understand the alien mode of production and the unneccessary suffering it engenders. At the same time he is not so closed-minded that he is unable to appreciate the material benefits and scientific advancements acheived by Urras. I think of LeGuin as writer of what I call social-science fiction. Yes there are spaceships and familiar SF tropes but above all she is interested in anthropology and sociology. These are the sciences she fictionalises and her intent, at least in the science-fiction novels, is fundamentally political. It is to her credit that even as an anarchist she does not idealise the socialism she depicts. We see that selfishness and petty jealousy persist and that the individual is in many ways subordinate to the collectivist ideal. Moreover we learn that maintaining a radically non-coercive, non-hierarchical society is extremely hard work demanding endless meetings and time investment and providing very little in the way of diversion, pleasure and comfort. Overall, the ideas were highly engaging however the plot meandered and didn’t really amount to much. In Left Hand the ideas were subordinate to the literary form but here they overburden the novel and get in the way of the telling of a compelling and satisfying story with a clear arc and resolution.
Martian Time Slip, Philip K. Dick (1964)
I used to read a lot of PKD when I was younger and I mainly picked this up as a short buffer novel in between reading two longer books. All the standard Dickian themes are in evidence: mental illness, the paradoxes of personal identity, Cold War anxieties and the heroic everyman chosing to act bravely and with integrity as reality shatters all around him.
Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks (1987)
This was my first Banks novel and it was thoroughly entertaining and funny. He writes in a very ironical vein but at the same time is clearly in love with the genre as a fan as much as a writer. I wonder what his broader message is beyond an abiding scepticism of utopian science fiction and would be interested to read academic interpretations of the Culture.
Rendevouz with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (1987)
The concept is reminiscent of 2001 and Solaris: a strange interstellar object, possibly a probe from an advanced civilisation, appears in the solar system. A crew is sent to investigate and find out what it is and what its purpose might be. However they fail utterly, their minds balking at the prospect of something so alien and unintelligible. There is no sense of a resolution or final reveal. We are left just as clueless as the investigators by the end of the novel and the inscrutable object simply continues on its onward journey past the sun and out of the system. When I finished the book I felt quite disappointed and short-changed by this unsatisfying conclusion but on reflection I think it is a rather interesting move of Clarke’s to leave us in ignorance. There is a strong sense of realism to such an ending: we understand so little about the universe and the gap between us and a truly advanced, technologically mature alien civilisation would be unbridgeable. We would be like ants crawling along the toe of a colossus.