Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas is the first of two books from Iain M. Banks that I picked up after learning that the SpaceX autonomous spaceport drone ships are named after spaceships in his Culture series. I should have written this little mini review (is that what these are?) months ago, but I'm just now getting back to it in an effort to rekindle a little more consistency with my reading (and writing) in 2018.

Overall, it's a solid book and the Culture universe contains everything you could imagine or want in a science fiction novel. Space travel, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, space pirates, high stakes games and more all make appearances in the book. I enjoyed the world-building, but the plot actually felt thin and the end was ultimately unsatisfying.

Recommend? Eh.



As occasionally happens with novels, I found my eyes glued to the pages of Aurora and finished the 450 page book in less than 3 days. Couldn’t have been better timing: Aurora ties in well to my other recent read, Accelerando. Both cover the challenges of developing an interstellar civilization and though they take dramatically different perspectives, the conclusions are surprisingly similar.

The grand scale of the book allows time to explore difficult topics in the human petri dish that is the generational starship bound for the eponymous planet Aurora. Governance and self-determination are hot topics in a tin can traveling at one tenth the speed of light with a population of a few thousand people. The ship’s AI,  the semi-omniscient narrator, offers a thought-provoking discussion of consciousness and purpose. And at every turn, there is death. But Robinson manages to normalize death in a way that comforts: a recognition that death is an inevitable part of exploration and of life itself.

Indeed, it’s a book that left me wondering: what is the purpose of life? Would we willingly doom our descendants to imprisonment in the name of exploration? Why have descendants at all?

The ending left me wanting, but the more I think about it, the more I think I understand what Robinson was trying to convey. Humans will likely always have a primal longing for Earth. Whether you were born on another planet or a generational starship, you will feel inexplicably drawn to the ecosystem that you evolved from. It seems only natural.

Highly recommend.



Right from the get-go, Accelerando assaults the imagination with a barrage of near-future possibility. The cadence of Stross’ writing along with a high density of techno-jargon that mixes reality and fiction stimulates in a way that other prose does not. This a favorite feature of many of Charles Stross’ novels and Accelerando does not disappoint. 

The story arc spans the tumultuous period of accelerating intelligence brought on by the release of the first truly sentient AI and achieving the Singularity. The plot could be a bit richer, but the book works well as a vehicle for asking intriguing questions about a future where AI is omnipresent, consciousness can be augmented by computing, and we can slip seamlessly between biological and computational existence. 

Accelerando also presents an interesting quandary surrounding the nature of space exploration. The novel makes it clear that our present understanding of the vastness of space is shockingly naive. Even when we achieve a level of immortality by transferring consciousnesses into a space-faring computer, the distances between interesting places in the universe prove to be an impossible barrier.



How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

The history of creation, invention, and discovery can be summed up succinctly: it involves a ton of hard work. For every great development, for every paradigm shift, for every innovation, and for every breakthrough, there were countless hours of effort. Hypotheses were tested and invalidated, prototypes created and destroyed. As much as we are enamored by so-called “strokes of genius,” the reality is much more mundane: creation takes ordinary effort and persistence. Ashton traces the developments of several historically significant innovations and shows that while we may perceive them as overnight successes, all of the people involved spent years on the problem before arriving at a remarkable result. This is a liberating reminder that you don’t need a special talent to make an impact, just perseverance.

Overall, the style of the book reminds me of Malcom Gladwell’s famous books: a series of anecdotes strung together to form a compelling narrative. That said, Ashton’s citations are numerous and thorough. The book is easy to read and quick to finish. Recommend.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

That we live in a world of plenty where having too much stuff can actually be a problem is strange. That we live in a world where there are books about how to reduce the amount of stuff we have is, perhaps, stranger. But I too am susceptible to the pressures of modern society and the consumerism epidemic that seems to have fully infected daily life. Marie Kondo’s book piqued my interest as a kind of antidote to all of that.

In the simplest reading, the book describes straightforward tactics to eliminate the unnecessary crap that we tend to accumulate. For me though, the book was a call to live in the present. Kondo notes late in the book that there are two reasons we hold on to things: one, to maintain a connection to the past and two, to prepare for uncertainty in the future. But we exist in the present. No number of mementos will bring us back to past happy experiences and no amount of stockpiling will prepare us for all possible futures. Don’t let the accumulation of material things trick you into believing those things are possible.