Recent Reading: January 2023

22 Ideas About the Future

Benjamen Greenaway (Editor)

A collection of short sci-fi exploring the present through elabourations of technological trends, plus essays picking at the threads the authors have raised. The ideas are more interesting than the prose, which can come across a bit amateurish—but then these are meant to be bite-sized provocations more than complete stories, so it’s hard to complain on that front. The bulk of the stories are dystopian, extrapolating the worst tendencies of our modern systems into bleak Black Mirror vignettes, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a mix of hopeful stories in with the cautionary tales, along with some that are a mix of both. Tech is rarely just one or the other, and these brief glimpses into possible futures are a great way of illustrating that mixed potential.

Journey of the Mind: How Thinking Emerged from Chaos

Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

An interesting book that doesn’t quite achieve what it promises (the humble task of resolving the age-old question of what consciousnes is and how it emerges from unconscious matter). The authors seem convinced that it does, and maybe something is lost in the translation from math-heavy research papers to accessible prose, but I don’t think I’m any closer to grasping it.

The key chapter on self makes a distinction between consciousness and self-awareness that I’m having a particularly hard time with, essentially saying that many creatures have qualia experiences of the world, but only humans are aware of themselves having them (unless they’re actively engaged in something like the mirror test, at which point a self-aware self emerges only to disappear once the mirror is removed). And I just can’t grok the concept of consciousness without awareness.

The idea of consciousness as a process, like a basketball game or hurricane, seems accurate but not exactly groundbreaking, and also an oversimplification. After all, a game is only a game because of the conscious actors playing it, and a hurricane is a dramatic example but that comparison relies on the drama of the image; a waterfall is a similarly context-dependent arrangement of water, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that saying “”consciousness is like a waterfall”” would tell me anything useful. Game, hurricane, and waterfall are all categories that emerge out of conscious beings assigning names and categories to physical processes; it’s hard to see how they can be used to explain the emergence of consciousness itself.

I did find it was wonderfully written, and its descriptions of mental processes were clear and informative. I don’t feel much closer to understanding the mystery of the self, but there’s plenty to chew on regardless (as evidinced by the fact this summary is double the length of the other three combined).

God Country

Donny Cates, Geoff Shaw, Jason Wordie

A neat pairing of Jack Kirby-style cosmic gods and rural family drama—a story about memory, loss, death, and chopping up space-demons with a sentient 12-foot sword. It’s pulp, but well-done pulp, with enough world-building to feel fleshed out but not so much that it’s bogged down in its own mythology.

Cates’ take on the cosmic realm is more coherent and grounded than Kirby, for better and worse—I’m a sucker for that Kirby krackle, and the incomprehensibility of his mythos was part of the charm. But God Country’s groundedness is a nice spin on the subject matter, and there’s no denying the book does everything it sets out to do.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Becky Chambers

If I were able to write fiction, I think this is the kind of fiction I’d like to write. The first book in the Monk & Robot series is gentle and thoughtful, but manages to pick at some anxieties I’ve been having for a long time, about purpose and direction and satisfaction. There’s not much in the way of conflict, but plenty in the way of insight, and it’s short enough that I basically inhaled it.

Even more than the characters, I want to spend more time with the book’s religious system, which is revealed in small details but still largely mysterious by the end of the book. The best fictional religions have a way of concisely showing what’s important in a given world—which I guess real religions do, too, but those are so much more multilayered and convoluted from centuries of revision and interpretation that it takes real scholarship to that heart. A religion in a fiction is more concentrated by necessity, but still abstracted enough to have that feeling of mystical importance, a distilled philosophy dressed in metaphor. I’m hoping Chambers delves into it more in the sequel.