Books I read in 2023
Books that I read in 2023 and short reviews of them.
By genre, author's last name, title.
[science fiction, military, political]
(Book club - March)
House on the Borderland
William Hope Hodgson
[science fiction, horror]
Presented as a manuscript found completely intact in the ruins of a house in a remote area of Ireland, it follows the events and misfortunes that happened to a recluse who lived at that house with his sister and his dog. The man is haunted by memories of his late wife, survives an invasion of pig-faced humanoids, nearly drowns in a cave during a downpour, and then accelerates through time and witnesses the death of Earth and the Solar system. Although the plot is rather nonsensical and does not resolve, I enjoyed the writing style and the accelerated-time sequence. The remaining question is whether the recluse is telling the truth and his sister is somehow ignorant of everything, or the recluse is insane and his sister simply tolerates his behavior, including nearly setting the house on fire and shooting at doors.
(Book club - July)
[science fiction, fantasy, western]
The world, slowly revealed as a post-apocalyptic western-fantasy, was interesting and believable to an extent. Since this was originally 5 short stories, the story goes all over the place. Some descriptions seemed forced (there are noticeable excessive "X was like Y"), many did not make sense (Gunslinger did WHAT to the priest woman?), and some were hilariously bad ("teeth felt like white tombstones in pink fleshy hills"). With so much buildup, the ending was the villain drawing Tarot cards, lecturing the Gunslinger, and then self-destructing. After last chapters also throw zombies and a multi-verse into the already dense mix of fantasy + western + apocalypse, it feels like a desperate pitch for the sequels (look how much I have here) or just laziness (I don't know what to stick with). I know The Dark Tower series is supposed to be King's magnum opus, but, to be honest, this book does not make me want to read the sequels.
Overall, I have a similar feeling as I did with Cryptonomicon. It was fun to read, but looking back, there was no point or reason to much of the story. If Cryptonomicon was a teenage hacker fantasy, The Gunslinger is a teenage cowboy and knight fantasy.
(Book club - January 2024)
Left Hand of Darkness
Originally, the only thing I knew about Left Hand of Darkness is that it involves ambisexual humans in one way or another. It is, however, so much more than that. It still is a hero's journey, but from ignorance into understanding, and with themes of duality, tradition, and cultural conflict throughout. Someone in my book club compared it to Dune, but IMO, Left Hand of Darkness is better in many ways.
(Book club - August)
Out of the Silent Planet
C. S. Lewis
The story starts with the main character being kidnapped and brought to Mars. Mars is pictured as a pastel-colored, tranquil place, inhabited by multiple intelligent species that live in peace. The story eventually reveals some of the dark past of the planet and its peoples. There are also clear allusions to theism and religion when the main character meets the ruler of the planet. (It's C.S. Lewis, of course...) One thing I particularly liked are the descriptions of the things the main character sees but cannot comprehend. Overall, an entertaining adventure story, that is creative, even if it is naive measuring by our modern knowledge of Mars and space.
(Book club - May)
The Three Body Problem
[science fiction, first contact]
This is a first contact story, although it subverts many common tropes. It starts out with two parallel plots: one set after the Cultural Revolution, following a political prisoner serving at a remote outpost; and another set in modern-day (2010s) China, following a scientist experiencing strange visions and other unexplained phenomena.
(Mild spoilers ahead)
First contact is conducted in secret, and there was no spaceship arrival or broadcast from the aliens, just the news that slowly leaks decades later. To assist their mission, aliens communicate only to the select few humans, who, of course, establish a cult (complete with a ship floating in international waters). Another way to "prepare" humans is a virtual reality "game", simulating the alien homeworld, where the goal is to survive as long as possible.
Alien world, physiology and technology are all creative and fascinating. Their world is inhospitable and unpredictable. Aliens can enter suspended animation at will and can organize into biological computers. Their technology can manipulate dimensions and create intelligent particles. However, I found their attitude to be way too human-like, and the level of technology they possess does not explain why they are still stuck on their homeworld.
Later on, the book turns into more of a techno-thriller, with main characters trying to get the only copy of alien communication transcript from the cult.
Overall, good, somewhat reminiscent of older sci-fi where aliens are exotic humanoids, but not as good as the sequels.
(Book club - January)
The Dark Forest
[science fiction, crisis]
Fantastic. The sequel that, in my opinion, surpassed the original. The premise is simple: The alien spaceship armada will reach Earth in 400 years. At the same time, the Earth is under constant surveillance by the aliens, and all particle research is disrupted. Unlike the first book, there are very few aliens, and The Dark Forest is an exploration of humanity in crisis.
There are desperate global projects, such as giving unlimited power and resources to several people, hoping that they can mislead and outsmart the omnipresent alien surveillance and the cult. There are debates about which direction the technology and humanity should go, conflict, and sabotage. Further in the future, there is environmental collapse, a technological breakthrough, an encounter with the alien probe, and spaceships escaping the Solar system. There are also several elements that resemble time-travel stories.
It all ends with a rather depressing realization about the humans' place in the universe. At the same time, humans discover the ultimate weapon to deter the invaders.
Overall, the book has great ideas and realistic scenarios. If you are OK with the characters existing simply to be the observers of unfolding events, ignore occasional boomer-like complaining about future humans being weak, and tolerate the mail-order-bride situation in the first part, read it.
[science fiction, crisis, physics]
The grand finale. Some events take place during the events of the second book, with more desperate projects of the Crisis era. After the events of the second book, the humans have established a mutually assured destruction situation, and therefore, a relative peace and collaboration between Earth and the aliens. But aliens had several technological breakthroughs of their own.
(Mild spoilers ahead)
The difficult peace results in a dramatic betrayal and a turn of events where first, the entire population of Earth is forced into a concentration camp, and later, the entire Solar system is threatened with destruction. Faced with another crisis, the humans start planning how to save themselves, this time, their only options being grand space projects and altering the laws of physics.
The only things I did not like about the story are the cringey "unrequited love" plot between two main characters, and more recurrences of the boomer-y "future men are too feminine and weak".
Overall, the proper conclusion to the series. Despite multiple hints at the opposite, being compassionate does pay off.
His Majesty's Dragon
[fantasy, dragons, war]
Story about a man and his dragon, set in alternate reality Napoleonic wars. Sounds like a good premise, but felt incredibly dull. The main character is overly proper and gentlemanly, the relationship between him and the dragon is a bit too weird, bordering on romantic. Dragons, being intelligent creatures, somehow do not question war or humans using them in war. Halfway into the book, there was no real plot, conflict, or much world-building; just a guy and his dragon-with-benefits. Did not finish. There are a dozen books in the series.
(Book club - February)
The Wrong Stars
[science fiction, space opera]
Cheesy, but fun space opera, that starts out with a weird alien artifact and ends with galactic-scale genocide conspiracy. A diverse spaceship crew, non-aggressive alien species that work with humans but are incredibly secretive (they are literally called Liars), lots of banter, revived ancient humans, and two rather horny main characters. It's like Firefly or Dark Matter. Don't judge me.
(Book club - June)
The Dreaming Stars
[science fiction, space opera]
That's a mighty nice pirate base you captured, but Ancient Aliens still want to kill you all. At least one Liar stopped lying. More exploration of strange relics in space, now complete with nanotech weapons and virtual reality games. There is more inter-person interaction, and backstories to several of the characters.
[science fiction, space opera]
Set after the Inhibitors destroyed most of the humanity, a seemingly ordinary man is recruited (under threat of death) to find a weapon against the inhibitors. There are nanoweapons, fish people, mind-altering Pattern Jugglers, and lots of spaceflight. Although some scenes were intense, and I still like the cosmic horrors, there was plenty of bad dialogue and many pointlessly re-used characters.
[science fiction, nerd fantasy, long]
TLDR: See end of review.
Cryptonomicon is 900 pages of nerdy, tech-bro fantasy that has:
- World War II! Brave young American Marine Bobby Shaftoe kills many Japanese soldiers (except one), survives almost everything, and fucks a lot. His main contribution to the plot is his bastard son, Doug, father of Amy.
- Nerdy genius! Lawrence Waterhouse, a kid from Bumfuck, Nowhere, who is too smart for school, too obsessed with organs (the musical instrument), studies with Alan Turing, and becomes a top cryptographer for US and British intelligence. Then he becomes obsessed with organs (his reproductive ones), talks about masturbation, ejaculation, and theories on post-nut clarity a bit too much, but gets married and finally builds a digital computer.
- Cryptocurrency! Randy Waterhouse establishes two scammy companies and collaborates with an authoritarian government in an attempt to create the world's first digital, gold-backed currency. And to distribute the new "anarchist cookbook" to prevent the next genocide.
- Engineering! Goto Dengo builds an intricate vault with a lot of planning and forethought, and then escapes the execution squad by using the structures he just built.
- Dream girl! Amy Shaftoe, a badass (!) Asian (!!) virgin (!!!), who doesn't mind Randy being a one-pump chump (described in detail in the book). Every nerd's and incel's "ideal".
Okay, maybe I'm a bit cynical here. The book does have some brilliant parts though.
- Encryption algorithm explained using a bike chain and a sprocket.
- Inner workings of Bletchley Park and how they break encrypted messages using brute force by having multiple clerks re-typing the encrypted messages using different encryption keys on their typewriters.
- Mind games between Allied and Axis intelligence agencies, "inflating the probabiliy curve" by running fake missions to conceal the fact that Allies broke encryption.
- Solitaire cipher that Enoch teacher Randy. I don't know how good it really is, but it's a neat idea to use an everyday item for secret communication, and I could see it being used by spies.
- Randy's strategy of decrypting messages in plain sight using spacebar and keyboard indicator lights to interact with his PC using morse code while scrolling through pages of documents on screen. It's ridiculous, but it might just work in real life.
Some aspects of the book weren't so great though.
- It's long. The key plot of stolen gold is stretched very thin and most chapters feel like tangents and have nothing to do with the main storyline.
- Some chapters feel like a cheap play on lame stereotypes. Qwghlmian language, which is written in latin script and has very few vowels, feels like a parody of Welsh. The cannibals Goto Dengo encounters wear grass skirts and a bone through the nose. Shaftoes, being "country boys" are absurdly protective of their family, and dismissive of cities and chain stores to the extreme.
- Ridiculous plot armor. Bobby Shaftoe survives Guadacanal, Nordic wilderness, freezing as a stowaway, being torpedoed on a ship, multiple Japanese aerial attacks, and fighting the Japanese on the ground in Manila, while being shelled by the Allies. Goto Dengo survives his troop transport being destroyed, cannibals, malaria, penal colony, and a severe case of the bends.
- Talking about jizz, thinking about jizzing, making theories about jizzing. Throughout the book. Jizzus Christ, that's too much. Was this written by a teenager?
- The passage about Athena and Ares was interesting, but then the stupidly patriotic statement "we won the war because we preached to Athena" made me roll my eyes, especially as in one of the subsequent chapters, the allies are indiscriminately shelling Manila, with civilians and all, and Shaftoe is murdering Japanese soldiers en masse.
- The ending is a rushed mess. The Dentist suddenly fades into obscurity to be replaced by big bad General Wing. Andrew Loeb pops out of nowhere, now trying to outright kill the protagonists. And what do protagonists decide to do with all the gold in the Vault? Melt it. Because that makes sense.
There are many more things that make no sense.
- What was the purpose of Epiphyte, Randy's first company? Laying cables? That is done by specialized construction companies. Surveying? That is done by locals like Shaftoes. Building a microwave network in the Philippines? They never get around to that. The only thing they ended up doing is making Pinoygrams and making an under-the-table deal with Shaftoes to split any found treasure.
- What was the purpose of Epiphyte(2) also? The vault is owned by the Sultan and is being built by Goto Engineering. In the book, Epiphyte(2) never gets to do anything either.
- Why is the Dentist supposed to be the bad guy? If I invested into a tech startup and found out that they are paying locals to dig up treasures without splitting profits, I would sue the shit out of them too. Oh, it's the classic "lawsuits are evil" trope.
- Randy, the champion of privacy and secrecy, puts his current GPS coordinates (!) in his email's signature. And even though he is said to encrypt nearly every email, most important ones are saved in plaintext on the server.
- The EMP that fries the server, a bunch of company's hardware and Randy's laptop, magically leaves his hard drive intact. Hard drive controllers must be EMP-proof in that world. Sure, this sounds nitpicky, but for a book that claims to be as technical as this, come on.
- At the end of the book, with the gold cache found, one of the characters claims that they don't need to move the cache to be able to use it for currency backing. But just a few chapters ago, they couldn't use another pile of abandoned gold deep in the jungle.
Overall, Cryptonomicon is fairly enjoyable while reading, but afterwards, all I can think is "what was the point of any of this?"
[science fiction, anomalous zone]
Started reading this book expecting Roadside Picnic, but in addition, got Lovecraftian nightmares and government conspiracies. The main character, a nameless biologist, is sent to an anomalous Area X to gather data. The entire mission is rather vague, and there are more and more sinister details being uncovered. At the same time, the biologist is tortured by the difficult relationship with her late husband. Arguably, her coming to terms with her own feelings amidst having no answers to anything else is the key point of the plot. Although I am usually more interested in the plot, in this case, I was captivated by the style, main character's emotions, and the feeling of being lost.
(Book club - October)
[science fiction, anomalous zone]
On the other side of the border into Area X, a man who goes by Control is hired into the Southern Reach as a temporary replacement for the missing director. The entire project looks nearly abandoned - the offices have not been touched for 30 years, and there are only a few people still working. Pressured by his mother, a former government operative, and having to report to the Voice, his handler, Control investigates previous expeditions into Area X, spies on his coworkers, and interviews those who somehow returned from Area X. Just like Annihilation, there is a constant air of tension and uneasiness, and a sense of being without direction.
The Midwich Cuckoos
[science fiction, alien invasion]
Bleh. This book is, perhaps, the best argument for reproductive rights that I’ve read.
Alien ship visits a town and impregnates all the women. The born Children (or Cuckoos) grow up to be a hive-mind of 58 fast-growing, smug, overreacting, sociopathic, mind-controlling megalomaniacs who outright say “we will dominate you” to humans, yet don’t really do anything for 8 years. Meanwhile, humans, being the idiots that they are, keep the whole thing quietand put the Cuckoos in a special school. Then, an accident gets quickly escalated to an attempted murder and then a riot, leading to several deaths. It ends quite anticlimactically with a suicide bomber killing all of the Cuckoos. So much for being all-powerful and dominating the world.
The story could be engaging, but most of the book reads as a dull government report. Most characters are just background. Men speak with many words and little substance. There are some attempts of discussing interesting topics, such as how to prepare for an alien invasion and how the law should apply to non-humans, but they quickly get overshadowed by bad stereotypes, racism, denial of evolution, and political strawmanning. Not a word on abortion, which would have solved this problem in the first place, of course.
(Book club - September)
The Tangled Web We Weave
[nonfiction, internet, technology]
History of the early Internet, the key players that built it, and how much of it is still held together with duct tape in a form of quick fixes, unreliable protocols, and algorithms never intended for the scale it grew to today. None of the Internet is magic, it was built by real people to solve problems of their time.
Racing The Beam
Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort
[nonfiction, games, history]
Exploration of Atari's VCS (later 2600) console, including hardware, games, and business. Although the hardware was very limited by modern standards (and, to me, seems like it was designed specifically around 2-player games like Combat), it is impressive how it was used (or abused, if you will) to produce Space Invaders, Adventure and Pitfall. Some of the book is about the business side of Atari, and the arcade market at the time. To book also briefly goes into game concepts - for example, having multiple screens that the player can travel between (think anything starting with original Zelda) was a completely novel idea at the time.
Overall, if you are fascinated with retro technology, read it!
Toki Pona is a constructed language that is intentionally simple. There are 14 sounds, which are non-ambiguous (no pairs such as b-v or p-b), represented by latin script letters. There are around 120 words, written in either latin script or as pictograms. Each word can take on a form of a noun or verb, depending on usage. Because of such limited vocabulary, describing a specific thing can be a long and complex expression, which, to me, resembles programming. Although I never joined the Toki Pona community, it was still an interesting exploration into how simple a language can be while still expressing somewhat complex concepts.
[nonfiction, emotions, science]
Great research on emotions, and how tightly they are intergrated with the rest of our minds and bodies (as opposed to a common notion that emotions are something separate). The book covers many topics. Animals, even fruit flies (!), have emotions. Core affect, something like a proto-emotion, that has a positive/negative quality and strength. Paul Dirac was emotionally stunted well into adulthood. Motivation, the difference between liking and wanting. Determination, emotional profiles, psychogenic illnesses, and synchronization.
The Upright Thinkers
[nonfiction, science, history]
Progress of humanity, science, and philosophy, from ancient times to now. The main point, and something I always keep in my mind, is that there are no hero genius inventors - every next iteration of technology was built on work of many predecessors.
[nonfiction, engineering, mathematics]
A collection of engineering and mathematical screw-ups, some of which you probably read about on the internet, or heard as an example in a class. Interesting, entertaining, and, at times, terrifying.
Game Engine Black Book: Wolfenstein
[nonfiction, software development, games]
History of birth and development of the grandparent of all first-person shooters, Wolfenstein 3D. Although this book goes pretty deep and technical into early-90s PC hardware, it is rather easy and fascinating to read. Some optimizations and tricks seem pretty wild nowadays, such as assemblysnippets in code, 50-some unrolled functions for speeding up scaling, storing graphics in a particular order and orientation. What makes it even more impressive, is that despite these obstacles, iD Software finished the game in around six months. Read it if you are into gamedev, or just to appreciate how far the progress has come where we don't have to concern ourselves with hardware as much.
Michael Brian Schiffer
[nonfiction, history, science]
Fascinating history of electricity and invention of electrical devices before electricity was mainstream. Batteries, motors, generators (dynamos), telegraph. Neat details: Earlier scientists worked with static electricity and Leyden jars stored static charge. Only Galvani discovered conventional current. Insulation was made from silk. Many scientists were against monetizing or patenting their inventions. Morse was an artist and later, a photographer. Very many things were done unscientifically. Laying the first trans-atlantic telegraph cable took 3 tries. Although the book got rather boring in the latter parts, which were more about business than science, the history was interesting nonetheless.
Off The Books
A real-life view of the economics and relationships in a specific inner-city area. The author lived in the neighborhood for several years while researching this book. The book covers the lives and struggles of several people, including a car mechanic, a pastor, a mother, and a criminal. Any businesses change and move often. There is an uneasy relationship between the citizens, the police, and the criminals, especially over common areas, such as parks. Many of the choices would probably be judged by other, more privileged people, but that is often the best, if not only, solution at the time.