2009 Reading List


So, this year, I read a total of 21 books, far below the total number that I was shooting for - around 40 or so. There are some large gaps - February, March, May, and much of the fall, which coincides nicely with the numerous writing projects that I had going on throughout the year. With this coming year, I'm hoping to read quite a lot more as my schedule allows, and I've got quite an extensive list, as I've been steadily expanding my own personal library - I'm up to 748 books now. That number is sure to grow in the next 12 months.

1 - Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, Matthew Stover (1-2) This was probably the last Star Wars book that's come out that I've really liked. Stover is always an interesting writer, and here, he takes cues from some of the earliest Star Wars books and plays up the pulp factor. This one is fast, engaging and entertaining. In a nutshell, it harkened back to the Bantam Spectra days of Star Wars literature, and that's a good thing. I've got a huge backlog of books from the series that I just haven't gotten around to reading, simply because I'm not all that interested anymore.

2 - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Suzanna Clarke (1-11) Jonathan Strange is by far one of my favorite books of the decade, and one of the greatest fantasy books since J.R.R. Tolkien. Elegantly written, plotted and conceptualized, Clarke has put together a masterpiece. It took me several years to get through the first half of this book, but when I finally sat down to read it, I absolutely couldn't put it down. I can't wait to read it again.

3 - The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, Thomas Disch (1-25) I completely forgot about this book, and had to look it up - it's a history of Science Fiction. It was interesting, but I took some issue with some of the things that he brought up at times. I can't for the life of me remember what, but I preferred Adam Robert's history of SF. I picked up the book because I was thinking that I was going to be reading and writing more about the origins of Science Fiction, but that never really panned out. Still, it wasn't a total loss of a read, and it did make some good points about the genre.

4 - Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Kenneth Chase (1-25) This was the only school book that I've actually gone back to, to read over again (although there's one other one that I'm planning on reading again), and that's the history of firearms. This book does a bit more than go through the motions of firearms - it examines the impact on tactics and the makeup of armies (it was revolutionary) and how the technology travelled from Asia to Europe. I used for a couple of my classes and it's highly engaging, interesting and informative.

5 - Wired for War, PW Singer (3-19) PW Singer's book on Robots in Warfare was a fantastic book, easily one of my favorites and something that I'll read in the future. Exceptionally thought out and researched, it not only looks at robotics, but the military command structure and environment, which to me, is far more interesting, and gives the book a significant party piece when it comes to talking about the future of the military. I got to see Mr. Singer talk, and he signed my book, and had a blast doing it.

6 - It's Been A Good Life, Isaac Asimov (4-1) Asimov's shorter biography, this was a quick reread that I'd wanted to do for a while. His life is pretty interesting, from his experience with the military to his start as a writer. Asimov is one of my absolute favorite Science Fiction writers, and it's interesting to see some of the behind the scenes elements to his works. It's a little self-indulgent, I think, but worth reading all the same.

7 - The Catch, Archer Mayor (4-7) Archer Mayor's book from last year, this was another fun book from him. This one introduced a couple new characters and themes, but I liked this year's better - this one was ultimately forgettable, until this year's Price of Malice, and the plot fell pretty flat for me. I think that the two of them could have been combined to become one novel, and it would have worked much better. It's a good reminder that I really need to read some of the older ones again.

8 - It Happened In Vermont, Mark Bushnell (4-16) This is a book of historical thumbnails on Vermont. Lots of fun information on a variety of topics throughout the state's history, but it misses some crucial ones that will be historically relevant in the coming years. The earlier elements provide quite a bit of detail, and some good stories about this state, but honestly, how does one not include something like Civil Unions?

9 - The Soloist, Steve Lopez (4-27) There was a movie based off of this, which looked good, and the book was only a couple of dollars in the bargain pile. It is the story of a reporter for the LA Times and a Schizophrenic man who was a musical prodigy and provides an interesting look at the homeless and LA.

10 - The Book of Lost Things, John Connolley (5-28) I really enjoyed this fantasy book by John Connolley - It's quite a dark book, but I like that. It takes a number of fantasy fairy tales, such as the knight in shining armor, the seven dwarves and a couple others, and puts a new, modern twist on them in a way that reminded me of Pan's Labyrinth.

11 - Rocket Men, Craig Nelson (6-13) This book was instrumental in my capstone and my thinking about space. This is the story of the Apollo 11 mission, and talks a lot about the mission beforehand. I gather that there are some inaccuracies, but I'm willing to let that slide because of some of the concepts that he brings up - the economics of a space program, for example.

12 - The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (6-15) Neil Gaiman's latest book was a delight to read - a wonderfully dark young adult novel that's been nominated for a number of awards, about a boy who grows up in a graveyard. I wonder when a movie will be made of this one.

13 - Explorer's House: National Geographic and the World It Made, Robert Poole (7-29) This is the type of history that I really like - looking at the world through a much smaller thing, and what is more influential than the National Geographic? This book traces the magazine and society's history from the beginning to the present day, and gives a very interesting insight to both.

14 - The Magicians, Lev Grossman (8-19) I loved this book, a modern, dark, brooding and realistic fantasy tale that takes points from the best of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia. Grossman has put forth an interesting entry into the Fantasy genre, and it's become one of my favorites.

15 - Old Man's War, John Scalzi (9-8) I've rapidly become a fan of John Scalzi because of this book, and his blog, Whatever. This is a pretty ordinary take on the super soldier/ military SF theme, but it's a fun one, and I've already picked up the sequels for some time that I'm in the mood for military Sci Fi.

16 - Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks (9-17) Banks came highly recommended to me, and this book was a fun one to read. Exceptional world building - the pacing was a bit off - and interesting characters. It's an epic space opera and adventure, and I'm looking forward to the next couple books in the series.

17 - The Windup Girl, Paolo Bachaglupi (10-6) If this book doesn't win a Hugo Award, I'm going to be very, very annoyed. This has to be the best SF book in years, with a brilliant future imagined for the planet, with multiple storylines, politics and motives from the characters. It’s an exceptional book.

18 - The Price of Malice, Archer Mayor (10-11) Archer Mayor's latest, and one that I really enjoyed, more so than The Catch, and it took on a bit from his earlier books, in my mind. I can’t wait for next year’s book.

19 - The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, George Friedman (10-19) Ugh. I didn't like this book that much, but it had some interesting points. I found Friedman's book to be an infuriating read, simply because of the assumptions and things that he missed over. Not highly recommended, but there are some good points that he makes - how to think about history and historical events, for example.

20 - Clone Wars: No Prisoners, Karen Traviss (10-20) One of Karen Traviss's last Star Wars books, it's an okay entry, nowhere as good as her Commando books. It’s a fun, throwaway reading for an afternoon. I read it in a day.

21 - Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt (11-1) The last book that I read last year was back in November, although I have a bunch started that I'm working on getting through. This book is a fantastic one to read - reminded me a lot of Wired for War, in that it's well researched and interesting, and in my mind, essential for anybody who wants to get behind the steering wheel. Already, it's helped me to understand why we drive the way we do, and it's affected how I percieve traffic problems, and how I drive.

That's what I read last year. I've already got quite a list for the coming year, and I'm excited to see how many I get through.

It's Gonna Be The Future Soon

One of the main elements of the science fiction genre is the future. Looking to the future extends far beyond just the world of Science Fiction, but to speculative fiction, religion, the business and military worlds, and indeed, is a question that everyone inevitably asks, can we predict what will happen next? George Friedman's latest book, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century purports to just that. While Friedman makes a number of interesting, and at times, good points, the resulting work is deeply flawed in its reasoning. I've since reviewed this book for io9 - much of the summary for the book can be found here.

There are three major points that I took issue with when it came to this book, which are instrumental to the book's findings: lack of sources, an overemphasis and reliance on history and the assumption that the world will return to similar political connections that characterized the Cold War. However, while this is the case, Friedman imparts a very important lesson through this book, reminding the reader that history and nations work with a sort of cause and effect mentality, where x event causes y reaction over z time. Major events take years to build and grow, and an essential thing for the reader to keep in mind is that the world and political structure can change over the course of twenty to thirty years.

This book has no index, notes or sources anywhere in the book, which is odd, considering the number of places that there should be some sort of citation, such as a UN report citing declines in birthrates, or historical information on the political stance of a country. The result of this is a lengthy opinion piece that gets stranger and stranger as the decades pile up. Unfortunately for the book, this does nothing to help with the book's credibility, despite the author's credentials, and essentially turns it into an extended op-ed. With no scholarly information to back up the author's assertions, the book rests on the idea that the author knows just what he is talking about, and given some of the things that he comes up with, I am more inclined to file this under fiction, rather than non-fiction.

Much of the book's reasoning seem fairly flawed to me. Friedman, right off the bat, suggests that what he terms the US-Jihadist war (This should probably be Western-Jihadist war, in all actuality) is merely a small problem that will go away within a couple of years. I'm not well versed in the intelligence community or up on the current information, but I would imagine that that's as far from the truth as you can get. The conflict that's ongoing in the Middle East is one that has been brewing for years, even decades. Israel, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others close by have long-seated issues with the United States and the Western world, fueled by extremists who believe that our way of life is detrimental to theirs, and have literally been killing themselves to try and stop us. This is not a problem that will vanish without many of those underlying problems being corrected, which I don't see happening. Furthermore, Friedman fails to take into account how things will change with time - the importance of petroleum, for example, which is not a sure thing. What will the effects of climate change legislation have on nations, and how will changes in these resources affect countries. Furthermore, South America, Oceania and Africa are barely mentioned throughout the book.

Friedman hangs his hat on this one assumption - that the global war on fundamentalist terrorists will go away, and that the world will resume tensions that were in existence during the Cold War. He predicts that Russia will consolidate its power and a Russian bloc in Europe. While there are indications that this is happening, I don't believe that it will be anything like what happened before, and that the US will essentially enter another Cold War. Furthermore, down the road, he predicts that the eventual demise of Russia will lead to the rise of Japan, Turkey and Poland, which I find somewhat more unlikely, at least with Poland and Japan.

Much of his reasoning in these instances depends upon historical record and what has gone on before with these countries. He notes that Japan, despite its recent pacifism, will return to warlike routes and eventually challenge the United States. Turkey will do the same. I find Turkey's case slightly more reasonable, because of its diplomatic ties, stability and economy. In addition to these two countries, he also cites German and Russian tendencies to war. This to me is a particularly dangerous assumption, because countries and cultures are redeemable, as seen with Japan. Countries will not go to war or suddenly become aggressive simply because they have done so in the past. Japan has become incredibly tame, with a culture and multiple generations of people to support that. Germany similarly. Warfare, as Clausewitz notes, is an extension of political policy, and with a culture that is largely against war and conflict supporting a political structure, a highly militant Japan rising again seems unlikely. Friedman's assertions that by the middle of the century, with lunar bases and 'Battle Stars' operated by the United States, are on the face ridiculous. (The cost alone of creating the International Space Station, which houses 6 scientists is in the trillions - the prices for stations that house people in the hundreds is magnitudes higher. Even then, with a mindset of defense against other nations, this still doesn't fly.) But, even then, the idea that the Japanese will bomb these US facilities in a Pearl Harbor-esque attack on Thanksgiving evening is just nothing sort of laughable. History certainly has its place, but it cannot be used reliably to predict the future with an instance such as this. Analyze trends and motivations, yes, but using a country's prior methods of warfare, in this manner, is pure fiction.

This is unfortunate, because the book is presented as fact and not necessarily as an exercise in history or how to think about how these events might work in the future. The result is a ridiculous and absurd argument for a return to older political thinking from people who were immersed in that world for so long.