Reading List: Q3 2021

The usual intro: I like to chronicle what I’ve read and how I’ve reacted, mostly to share my thinking about my thinking. Books are listed in the order in which I’ve finished them, which may not reflect my reading order — I sometimes have two books going at once if one is more technical or business focused and I need to season it with sci-fi or fiction. In addition to breaking most norms for travel, reading time, and interstitial time and space for relaxation, 2021 finds me reading more authors who are simply “not like me” — and I benefitted from the breadth of viewpoints.

Winners this quarter: Patti Smith, Alix Harrow and Becky Chambers, whose family-defining (gasp) sci-fi got a great nod from Wired.

31. “Year Of The Monkey,” fiction, Patti Smith, finished July 10.

A weird, textured, dream like exploration of a weird, roughly textured more than year long 2016. Much less autobiographical than her other books, and alternating between her transcribed dreams and actual events, parts of this read like E.L. Doctorow on acid. Maudlin to the core, it’s an accurate reflection of the zeitgeist of the last four years.

32–37. “Murderbot Diaries Volume 1–6,” sci-fi, Martha Wells, finished July 26.

“All Systems Red”, “Artificial Condition”, “Rogue Protocol”, “Exit Strategy”, “Network Effect”, “Fugitive Telemetry”

More like six novellas, the Murderbot series is fun, snarky and moves so quickly that I finished about one book every other evening. Murderbot is a sentient AI in a somewhat organic body who goes rogue, develops feelings for humans, and binge watches his/her way through plot devices. It’s the best of Star Trek, Marko Kloos, and Iain Banks’s Culture AI-snark rolled into one. There are some stupendous action scenes set with good basic detective story plots and as much computer as social engineering. The sci-fi isn’t hard (there are alien artifacts, space travel, bot-human derivatives and wormholes, offered as world context and without scientific derivation) but you end up liking the humanity of the characters, even the ones presented as non-human.

38. “Psalm for the Wild-Born: Monk and Robot 1,” sci-fi, Becky Chambers, finished July 28.

I loved the Wayfarers series where Chambers explored gender, families and sense of home; she goes a step further with Monk and Robot into a future where sentient AI and humans decide to go their separate ways rather than work through the thorny issues of agency and peoplehood. As I got into this, I was thinking “This is the peaceful solution to Herbert’s Butlerian Jihad” and the themes of personhood, identity, meaning, and focus resonate very loudly through this intro to a new world that also faintly echoed Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” It’s wonderful, and now I will be sorely waiting for the next in the series.

39. “Capital Allocators,” business, Ted Seides, finished August 11.

Read on the recommendation of Annie Duke (who is interviewed in Seides’ podcast, this is a view into how to build complex teams, how to allocate decisions in a manager-of-managers organization and how to handle conflict. While there’s not a tremendous amount of directly applicable content for me (i”m not running a family office or University endowment) the aperture into the operations those managers, frequently entrusted with dynastic or multi-century institutional wealth, gave me derivative ideas for my own team.

40. “Artemis,” sci-fi, Andy Weir, finished August 15.

The book between “The Martian” and “Project Hail Mary,” Weir’s moon-located crime and economic story lacked some of the pace and deep scientific grounding of its bookends. It’s still a fun book, despite his trying to make the protagonist sound “more fun” and police work that seemed less well researched than his science. There are hints of Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” in terms of self-autonomy and colonization, played forward with a much more global and current view.

41. “Citadel,” sci-fi, Marko Kloos, finished August 18.

Volume 3 in Kloos’s “Palladium Wars” picks up the quad storylines in the midst of a rebels-versus-occupying force space opera. Released a bit over a year from the 2nd installment, it took me about 7 or 8 chapters to remember all of the context and backstories, but then the 330+ pages flew by with quite a bit of action. Kloos’ physics and science are not up to James SA Corey’s in “The Expanse” but his military writing style is superb and he describes tactics in inter-planetary battles as clearly as a history lesson. He has been a prolific writer over the last decade, with a book gestating about every 9 months, so I’m looking forward to this series picking up steam.

42. “Scatter, Adapt, Remember,” science, Annalee Newitz, finished August 25.

Newitz is a new favorite sci-fi author, and her exploration of extinction level events, where 70% or more of the species on Earth are wiped out, paints a different, non-apocalyptic view of our global warming infused future. Yes, there’s global warming, and it’s part of a longer term set of massive changes in the Earth’s climate, and yes, we have massively accelerated these changes. Her message is to learn from previous attempts at human extinction ranging from the homo neanderthal to homo sapiens mutation to genocides to become resilient as a species and in particular, one with an intricate food web where lower order disruptions ripple upstream to impact humans. It’s a superbly written and researched book, and it gave me hope for human survival in the wake of large swaths of dystopian fiction. It’s also a great companion read to Monica Byrne’s “The Actual Star” because Byrne (without reading Newitz) wrote the speculative fiction book about the scattered future and strongly remembered — to the point of religion — past.

43. “The Once and Future Witches,” fantasy, Alix Harrow, finished September 17.

It takes a long time to build and reveal a plot, partly to uncover the plot mechanics of witchcraft and spellcasting, partly to lay (perhaps too much) ground work for how the craft of witching is conveyed across demographics and generations. I nearly put this down once or twice, which is exceedingly rare for me, but I’m glad I plodded through as the last third picked up pace and direction.

44. “33 Percent Rock Star,” memoir/music, S. C. Johnson, finished September 20.

The book opens with the inverse of Chekov’s gun on the mantle: The author as bass player wakes up confused and naked, and then we rewind to the beginning. But we never really find out where the gun on the mantle (or in this case, in his hand) fit into the timeline of cover bands, beer, bad relationships and long van rides. Having heard multiple tales of “in our days in the van” from touring musicians, parts of Johnson’s book were spot on; other parts felt like a justification for his lack of commitment to musicianship, love, or even honing his songwriting. Cue the bass player jokes, because they all come to (real) life in the book.

By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach