What I’ve been reading in 2020

13.24, Monday 28 Dec 2020

I would recommend these 5 non-fiction books, all of which I read over 2020:

Links are to Bookshop.org (UK site; tap the flag for different regions). Dates are date finished.

Viruses, Plagues, and History is simultaneously a social history (each chapter covers one plague: polio, measles, etc) but also a scientific education and a scientific history. Oldstone covers virology and how different vaccines work, in decent detail, and the stories of the teams that discovered the cures.

Eye-opening to read about how wars and politics have pivoted dramatically and throughout history on disease outbreaks, and the sheer complexity of the biology. One image that stuck in my head: when the polio vaccine was announced in 1955, church bells were rung across the whole of the United States. Imagine that.

Extraterrestrial Languages is another scientific history, this time of the efforts to send messages into space. What language do we speak to aliens, who may or may not be there, and with whom we share not a tongue nor a cultural context nor even our biology? And when messages are sent, are they meant for the ETs, or are they really intended as a unifying message to all us humans here on Earth? Good anecdotes – plus a throwaway comment which took me on a dive into John Lily and his weird dolphin experiments back in July.

Astounding is four intertwined biographies. John Campbell was editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding from 1937 till 1971, and bullied into the world what we now think of as “traditional” sci-fi pretty much by force of will. All those tropes about square-jawed capable men (specifically men…), scientifically and logically conquering the galaxy in their spaceships, and sci-fi being a vehicle to predict and bring about the future: that’s Campbell. He was also deeply racist alongside other troubling views, with a side interest in pseudo science – including co-developing Dianetics (which became Scientology) with L. Ron Hubbard. Fascinating stories about big personalities, and good colour on 20th century America.

Economic Science Fictions is a collection of pieces running from critical theory to experimental fiction, all ostensibly taking a run at how science fiction can inform today’s understanding of economics. But sci-fi is neither here nor there – there are many perspectives on economics, and speculation on what is fixed and what is contingent, and that’s what I found most educational. The result is a kind of disentangling or unpicking of the knot of capitalism that I have for so long taken for granted.

I found the collection influential while I was writing my essay for ThingsCon, The hard work of imagining, on utopias and dystopias and the irresistable “logics” of interconnected systems – clearly thinking about economic imperitives there.

Finally, The Institutional Revolution (recommended by Bryan Boyer) is a fourth history and a second book about economics. The premise: the modern economic world comes from the ability to reliably measure – and the institutional patterns of the modern world cover everything from wages to factories; from public provision of roads to social norms about what we now call bribes. Before reliable measurement, there was uncertainty about the wind, about time, about plagues and trust… and the result was institutions that were none-the-less extremely effective, but had a very different form. This is a history of Britain in the pre-modern era: of the aristocracy, and duels, and the private ownership of lighthouses, courts, and positions in the army.

It’s a simple question: pre-modern Britain had institutions that were almost unchanged for 300 years, in forms that we would now say were inefficient and corrupt. But taking the counterfactual that this was the most rational way to organise the economy, why did these particular institutions win? Allen takes a strongly Coasean approach of figuring out how mechanisms like aristocracy and patronage would minimise economic transaction costs, and as someone who has been previously inspired by Ronald Coase, it’s a provocative take.

Also, as a Brit, I feel like I understand the old aristocracy - a kind of mafia really - all the better for it being described by an outsider. One of those books where I was stopping every few pages to read anecdotes out loud.

2020 has been an odd year for reading. I’ve not read much that’s new. Mostly, because of lockdown and therefore self care reasons, I’ve been comfort reading old favourites.

So here are two.

Anathem (Neal Stephensen) is a story of monks on a planet not quite like Earth where philosophy and the scientific method have followed a parallel track all the way from their equivalent of the ancient Greeks. Technology comes and goes, society comes and goes. The monks take the long view. It’s terrifically well told, and somehow manages to go deep on big ideas while still galloping along. Tremendous.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (Samuel R Delany) is set in a vast, multi-species, culturally rich galaxy, and it plays games with linguistics and subjectivity. It’s also a love story, and highly erotic – suddenly and explicitly so. I find it haunting that Delany intended Stars to be the first of two books but, after separating from his partner, never wrote the second.

Both books range wildly between the macro and micro, and at all levels there is both precision detail and room for the imagination to breath. The result, which they share, is that they give me a breathless feeling of vastness – and yet for all that backdrop, they’re focused on people. They’re both novels that, when I’m halfway through, I slow down because I don’t want to leave.

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