It’s that time of year again, when I round up all the books I reviewed for my newsletter in the previous year. I posted 21 reviews last year, covering 31 books (there are two series in there!). I also published three books of my own last year (two novels and one nonfiction). A busy year in books!
Every year, these roundups remind me that I did actually manager to get a lot of reading done, even if the list of extremely good books that I didn’t read is much longer than the list of books I did read. I read many of these books while doing physiotherapy for my chronic pain, specifically as audiobooks I listened to on my underwater MP3 player while doing my daily laps at the public pool across the street from my house.
After many years of using generic Chinese waterproof MP3s players — whose quality steadily declined over a decade — I gave up and bought a brand-name player, a Shokz Openswim. So far, I have no complaints. Thanks to reader Abbas Halai for recommending this!
I load up this gadget with audiobook MP3s bought from Libro.fm, a fantastic, DRM-free alternative to Audible, which is both a monopolist and a prolific wage-thief with a documented history of stealing from writers:
All right, enough with the process notes, on to the reviews!
I. Temeraire by Naomi Novik
One of the finest pleasures in life is to discover a complete series of novels as an adult, to devour them right through to the end, and to arrive at that ending to discover that, while you’d have happily inhabited the author’s world for many more volumes, you are eminently satisfied with the series’ conclusion.
I just had this experience and I am still basking in the warm glow of having had such a thoroughly fulfilling imaginary demi-life for half a year. I’m speaking of the nine volumes in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, which reimagines the Napoleonic Wars in a world that humans share with enormous, powerful, intelligent dragons.
II. Destroyer of Worlds by Matt Ruff
The Destroyer of Worlds is a spectacular followup to Lovecraft Country that revisits the characters, setting, and supernatural dread of the original. Country was structured as a series of linked novellas, each one picking up where the previous left off, with a different focal characters. Destroyer is a much more traditional braided novel, moving swiftly amongst the characters and periodically jumping back in time to the era of American slavery, retelling the story of the settlement of the Great Dismal swamp by escaped slaves.
III. Scholomance by Naomi Novik
The wizards of the world live in constant peril from maleficaria — the magic monsters that prey on those born with magic, especially the children. In a state of nature, only one in ten wizard kids reaches adulthood. So the wizarding world built the Scholomance, a fully automated magical secondary school that exists in the void — a dimension beyond our world. The Scholomance is also an extremely dangerous place — three quarters of the wizard children who attend will die before graduation — but it is much safer than life on the outside.
IV. Tsalmoth by Steven Brust
Longrunning Brust hero Vlad Taltos has been convinced to recount the story of how he and Cawti came to fall in love, and how they planned their marriage. This is quite an adventure — it plays out against the backdrop of a gang-war within the Jhereg organization, with Vlad in severe mortal peril that he can only avoid by uncovering an intricate criminal caper of crosses, double-crosses, smuggling and sorcery. But while Vlad is dodging throwing knives and lethal spells (or not!), what’s really going on is that he and Cawti are falling deeply, profoundly, irrevocably in love. The romance that plays out among the blades and magic is more magical still, a grand passion that expresses itself through Nick-and-Nora wordplay and Three Musketeers swordplay.
V. Hopeland by Ian McDonald
Seriously what the fuck is this amazing, uncategorizable, unsummarizable, weird, sprawling, hairball of a novel? How the hell do you research — much less write — a novel this ambitious and wide-ranging? Why did I find myself weeping uncontrollably on a train yesterday as I finished it, literally squeezing my chest over my heart as it broke and sang at the same moment? The stars of Hopeland are members of two ancient, secret societies. There’s Raisa Hopeland, who belongs to a globe-spanning, mystical “family,” that’s one part mutual aid, one part dance music subculture, and one part sorcerer (some Hopelanders are electromancers, making strange, powerful magic with Tesla coils). Amon is a composer and DJ who specializes in making music for very small groups of people — preferably just one person — that is so perfect for them that they are transformed by hearing it.
VI. The World Wasn’t Ready For You by Justin Key
These are horror stories, though some of them are science fiction too, and more to the point, they’re Black horror stories. In his afterword, Key writes about his early fascination with horror, the catharsis he felt in watching nightmares unspool on screen or off the page. And then, he writes, came the dawning recognition that the Black characters in these stories were always there as cannon-fodder, often nameless, usually picked off early. “Black horror” isn’t merely parables about racism. In the deft hands of these writers — and now, Key — the stories are horror in which Blackness is a fact, sometimes a central one, and that fact is ever a complication, limiting how the characters move through space, interact with authority, and relate to one another.
VII. The Future by Naomi Alderman
A cracking, multi-point-of-view adventure novel about billionaires prepping for the end of the world. Three billionaires, the lords of thinly veiled analogs to Facebook, Google and Amazon, each getting ready in their own way. Stumbling into their midst comes Lai Zhen, a prepper influencer vlogger with millions of followers.
When Zhen becomes romantically entangled with Martha Einkorn, the top aide and chief-of-prepping for one of these billionaires, she finds herself in possession of an AI chatbot that is devoted to protecting a very small number of people from incipient danger. This chatbot determines that Zhen is being stalked by an assassin at a mall in Singapore, and guides her to safety.
The chatbot is a closely held secret among the tech billionaire cabal. It is designed to monitor world events and predict when The Event is imminent, be it disease, war, or other cataclysmic disaster. With the chatbot’s predictive powers and its superhuman guidance, the billionaires, their families, and their closest confidantes will be able to slip away before the shit hits the fan, fly by different private jets to one or another luxury bunker, and wait out the apocalypse. Once the fires raging without have died down to embers, the chatbot’s billionaire charges will emerge to assume their places as wise and all-powerful leaders of the next human civilization.
VIII. Liberty’s Daughter by Naomi Kritzer
There’s so much sf about “competent men” running their families with entrepreneurial zeal, clarity of vision and a firm confident hand. But there’s precious little fiction about how much being raised by a Heinlein dad would suuuck. But it would, and in Liberty’s Daughter, we get a peek inside the nightmare.
I. The Once and Future Sex by Eleanor Kaneaga
A history of gender and sex in the medieval age, describing the weird and horny ways of medieval Europeans, which are far gnarlier and more complicated than the story we get from “traditionalists” who want us to believe that their ideas about gender roles reflect a fixed part of human nature, and that modern attitudes are an attempt to rewrite history:
II. Pirate Enlightenment by David Graeber
In the early 18th century, the Zana-Malata people — a new culture created jointly by pirates from around the world and Malagasy — came to dominate the island. They brought with them the democratic practices of pirate ships (where captains were elected and served at the pleasure of their crews) and the matriarchal traditions of some Malagasy, creating a feminist, anarchist “Libertalia.” Graeber retrieves and orders the history of this Libertalia from oral tradition, primary source documents, and records from around the world. Taken together, it’s a tale that is rollicking and romantic, but also hilarious and eminently satisfying.
III. A Hacker’s Mind by Bruce Schneier
Schneier broadens his frame to consider all of society’s rules — its norms, laws and regulations — as a security system, and then considers all the efforts to change those rules through a security lens, framing everything from street protests to tax-cheating as “hacks.” This leaves us with two categories: hacks by the powerful to increase their power; and hacks by everyone else to take power away from the powerful.
IV. Responding to the Right by Nathan K Robinson
Robinson describes conservativism as a comforting, fixed ideology that allows its adherents to move through the world without having to question themselves: you broke the law, so you’re guilty. No need to ask if the law was just or unjust. This sidelines sticky moral dilemmas: no need for judges to ask if something is good or fair — merely whether it is “original” to the Constitution. No need for a CEO to ask whether a business plan is moral — only whether it is “maximizing shareholder benefit.” Robinson anatomizes the most effective parts of conservative rhetoric and exhorts his leftist comrades to learn from it, and put it to better use.
V. A Collective Bargain by Jane McAlevey
An extraordinary book that is one part history lesson, one part case-study, two parts how-to manual, one part memoir, and one million parts call to action. McAlevey devotes the early chapters to the rise and fall of labor protections in America, explaining how the wealthy mounted a sustained, expensive, obsessive fight to smash union power. She moves into a series of case-studies of workers who tried to organize unions under these increasingly inhospitable rules and conditions. The second half of the book is two case studies of mass strikes that succeeded in spite of even stiffer opposition. For McAlevey, saving America is just a scaled up version of the union organizer’s day-job.
VI. Open Circuits by Windell Oskay and Eric Schlaepfer
A drop-dead gorgeous collection of photos of electronic components, painstakingly cross-sectioned and polished. The photos illustrate layperson-friendly explanations of what each component does, how it is constructed, and why. Perhaps you’ve pondered a circuit board and wondered about the colorful, candy-shaped components soldered to it. It’s natural to assume that these are indivisible, abstract functional units, a thing that is best understood as a reliable and deterministic brick that can be used to construct a specific kind of wall. Peering inside these sealed packages reveals another world, a miniature land where things get simpler — and more complex.
VII. Doppelganger by Naomi Klein
This is a very odd book. It is also a very, very good book. The premise — exploring the divergence between Naomi Klein and Naomi Wolf, with whom she is often confused — is a surprisingly sturdy scaffold for an ambitious, wide-ranging exploration of this very frightening moment of polycrisis and systemic failure. For Klein, the transformation of Wolf from liberal icon — Democratic Party consultant and Lean-In-type feminist icon — to rifle-toting Trumpling with a regular spot on the Steve Bannon Power Hour is an entrypoint to understanding the mirror world. How did so many hippie-granola yoga types turn into vicious eugenicists whose answer to “wear a mask to protect the immunocompromised” is “they should die”?
VIII. Your Face Belongs to Us by Kashmir Hill
A tell-all history of Clearview AI, the creepy facial recognition company whose origins are mired in far-right politics, off-the-books police misconduct, sales to authoritarian states and sleazy one-percenter one-upmanship. Facial recognition is now so easy to build that — Hill says — we’re unlikely to abolish it, despite all the many horrifying ways that FR could fuck up our societies.
IX. Blood In the Machine by Brian Merchant
The definitive history of the Luddites, and the clearest analysis of the automator’s playbook, where “entrepreneurs’” lawless extraction from workers is called “innovation” and “inevitable.” Luddism has been steadily creeping into pro-labor technological criticism, as workers and technology critics reclaim the term and its history, which is a rich and powerful tale of greed versus solidarity, slavery versus freedom. Luddites are not — and have never been — anti-technology. Rather, they are pro-human, and see production as a means to an end: broadly shared prosperity. The automation project says it’s about replacing humans with machines, but over and over again — in machine learning, in “contactless” delivery, in on-demand workforces — the goal is to turn humans into machines.
X. Technofeudalism by Yanis Varoufakis
Varoufakis makes an excellent case that capitalism died a decade ago, turning into a new form of feudalism: technofeudalism. A feudal society is one organized around people who own things, charging others to use them to produce goods and services. In a feudal society, the most important form of income isn’t profit, it’s rent. Varoufakis likens shopping on Amazon to visiting a bustling city center filled with shops run by independent capitalists. However, all of those capitalists are subservient to a feudal lord: Jeff Bezos, who takes 51 cents out of every dollar they bring in, and furthermore gets to decide which products they can sell and how those products must be displayed. The postcapitalist, technofeudal world isn’t a world without capitalism, then. It’s a world where capitalists are subservient to feudalists (“cloudalists” in Varoufakis’s thesis), as are the rest of us the cloud peons
XI. Underground Empire by Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman
Two political scientists tell the story of how global networks were built through accidents of history, mostly by American corporations and/or the American state. The web was built by accident, but the spider at its center was always the USA. At various junctures since the Cold War, American presidents, spies and military leaders have noticed this web and tugged at it. A tariff here, a sanction there, then an embargo. The NSA turns the internet into a surveillance grid and a weapon of war. The SWIFT system is turned into a way to project American political goals around the world — first by blocking transactions for things the US government disfavors, then to cut off access for people who do business with people who do things that the US wants stopped. Political science, done right, has the power to reframe your whole understanding of events around you. Farrell and Newman set out a compelling thesis, defend it well, and tell a fascinating tale.
XII. How Infrastructure Works by Deb Chachra
A hopeful, lyrical — even beautiful — hymn to the systems of mutual aid we embed in our material world, from sewers to roads to the power grid. It’s a book that will make you see the world in a different way — forever. It’s a bold engineering vision, one that fuses Chachra’s material science background, her work as an engineering educator, her activism as an anti-colonialist and feminist. The way she lays it out is just…breathtaking.
I. Shubiek Lubiek by Deena Mohamed
An intricate alternate history in which wishes are real, and must be refined from a kind of raw wish-stuff that has to be dug out of the earth. Naturally, this has been an important element of geopolitics and colonization, especially since the wish-stuff is concentrated in the global south, particularly Egypt, the setting for our tale. The framing device for the trilogy is the tale of three “first class” wishes: these are the most powerful wishes that civilians are allowed to use, the kind of thing you might use to cure cancer or reverse a crop-failure.
II. Ducks by Kate Beaton
In 2005, Beaton was a newly minted art-school grad facing a crushing load of student debt, a debt she would never be able to manage in the crumbling, post-boom economy of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Like so many Maritimers, she left the home that meant everything for her to travel to Alberta, where the tar sands oil boom promised unmatched riches for anyone willing to take them. Beaton’s memoir describes the following four years, as she works her way into a series of oil industry jobs in isolated company towns where men outnumber women 50:1 and where whole communities marinate in a literally toxic brew of carcinogens, misogyny, economic desperation and environmental degradation. The story that follows is — naturally — wrenching, but it is also subtle and ambivalent. Beaton finds camaraderie with — and empathy for — the people she works alongside, even amidst unimaginable, grinding workplace harassment that manifests in both obvious and glancing ways.
III. Justice Warriors by Matt Bors
Justice Warriors is what you’d get if you put Judge Dredd in a blender with Transmetropolitan and set it to chunky. The setup: the elites of a wasted, tormented world have retreated into Bubble City, beneath a hermetically sealed zone. Within Bubble City, everything is run according to the priorities of the descendants of the most internet-poisoned freaks of the modern internet, click- and clout-chasing mushminds full of corporate-washed platitudes about self-care, diversity and equity, wrapped around come-ons for sugary drinks and dubious dropshipper crapola. It’s a cop buddy-story dreamed up by Very Online, very angry creators who live in a present-day world where reality is consistently stupider than satire.
IV. Roaming by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
The story of three young Canadian women meeting up for a getaway to New York City. Zoe and Dani are high-school best friends who haven’t seen each other since they graduated and decamped for universities in different cities. Fiona is Dani’s art-school classmate, a glamorous and cantankerous artist with an affected air of sophistication. It’s a dizzying, beautifully wrought three-body problem as the three protagonists struggle with resentments and love, sex and insecurity. The relationships between Zoe, Dani and Fiona careen wildly from scene to scene and even panel to panel, propelled by sly graphic cues and fantastically understated dialog.
Like I said, this has been a good year in books for me, and it included three books of my own:
I. Red Team Blues
(novel, Tor Books US, Head of Zeus UK)
Martin Hench is 67 years old, single, and successful in a career stretching back to the beginnings of Silicon Valley. He lives and roams California in a very comfortable fully-furnished touring bus, The Unsalted Hash, that he bought years ago from a fading rock star. He knows his way around good food and fine drink. He likes intelligent women, and they like him back often enough. Martin is a — contain your excitement — self-employed forensic accountant, a veteran of the long guerilla war between people who want to hide money, and people who want to find it. He knows computer hardware and software alike, including the ins and outs of high-end databases and the kinds of spreadsheets that are designed to conceal rather than reveal. He’s as comfortable with social media as people a quarter his age, and he’s a world-level expert on the kind of international money-laundering and shell-company chicanery used by Fortune 500 companies, mid-divorce billionaires, and international drug gangs alike. He also knows the Valley like the back of his hand, all the secret histories of charismatic company founders and Sand Hill Road VCs. Because he was there at all the beginnings. Now he’s been roped into a job that’s more dangerous than anything he’s ever agreed to before — and it will take every ounce of his skill to get out alive.
II. The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation
We can — we must — dismantle the tech platforms. We must to seize the means of computation by forcing Silicon Valley to do the thing it fears most: interoperate. Interoperability will tear down the walls between technologies, allowing users to leave platforms, remix their media, and reconfigure their devices without corporate permission. Interoperability is the only route to the rapid and enduring annihilation of the platforms. The Internet Con is the disassembly manual we need to take back our internet.
III. The Lost Cause
(novel, Tor Books US, Head of Zeus UK)
For young Americans a generation from now, climate change isn’t controversial. It’s just an overwhelming fact of life. And so are the great efforts to contain and mitigate it. Entire cities are being moved inland from the rising seas. Vast clean-energy projects are springing up everywhere. Disaster relief, the mitigation of floods and superstorms, has become a skill for which tens of millions of people are trained every year. The effort is global. It employs everyone who wants to work. Even when national politics oscillates back to right-wing leaders, the momentum is too great; these vast programs cannot be stopped in their tracks.
But there are still those Americans, mostly elderly, who cling to their red baseball caps, their grievances, their huge vehicles, their anger. To their “alternative” news sources that reassure them that their resentment is right and pure and that “climate change” is just a giant scam. And they’re your grandfather, your uncle, your great-aunt. And they’re not going anywhere. And they’re armed to the teeth. The Lost Cause asks: What do we do about people who cling to the belief that their own children are the enemy? When, in fact, they’re often the elders that we love?
I wrote nine books during lockdown, and there’s plenty more to come. The next one is The Bezzle, a followup to Red Team Blues, which comes out in February:
While you’re waiting for that one, I hope the reviews above will help you connect with some excellent books. If you want more of my reviews, here’s my annual roundup from 2022:
Here’s my book reviews from 2021:
And here’s my book reviews from 2020:
It’s EFF’s Power Up Your Donation Week: this week, donations to the Electronic Frontier Foundation are matched 1:1, meaning your money goes twice as far. I’ve worked with EFF for 22 years now and I have always been — and remain — a major donor, because I’ve seen firsthand how effective, responsible and brilliant this organization is. Please join me in helping EFF continue its work!
If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this thread to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog: