Three years ago I picked up some books when we were staying a few days in Freiburg, Germany, on our way to Switzerland for New Years Eve. I tend to read in the evening in bed before going to sleep and then prefer using an e-reader. Paper books get to be ignored easily. As happened to this one for two years. Early last year however I had my reading moments earlier in the evening.

I then read Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt, or The Capital. Menasse is an Austrian author, whose work I enjoy. I have most of his novels.

Thoroughly enjoyed this book as well, created as an European novel: it is set in Brussels, although the titular capital refers not merely to the seat of the EU civil service, but also to the one forever darkest spot in our European history. A European novel in the sense that it’s playing with the historic layers and multiple meanings present in every piece of this continent as well as in its individual citizens. Usually shaped as contradictions, paradoxes and ironic coincidences, but put together forming an enormous wealth of humanity with its abundant variety, interconnectedness and potential serendipity. It’s a 450 pages sized version of what E and I mean when we say Europe works. I read it in the original German, but there’s an English translation.

(I read this book a year ago, right about when I last posted something in my books feed. Having at some point last year moved all never finished draft posts in my site to these notes, and now since this weekend having a way of easily finding any draft posts as well as posting from my notes directly to my site, this draft was an unlikely yet sudden candidate for posting.)

At over 700 pages another one of Stephenson‘s books asking for a significant amount of time. The last time I read a book by him was almost exactly a year ago*, Fall or Dodge in Hell. This one is all about near future climate urgency responses, where one Texas billionaire takes it upon himself to start doing geo-engineering by launching sulfur into the stratosphere to create a veil, cool the planet and prevent sea level rise. The creation of such facts, and the termination shock tied to abandoning it again before there are more such projects in place, makes it into a new geopolitical reality. That geopolitical reality doesn’t play out in the US but in the Sino-Indian relationship, and the countries making up ‘Netherworld’, all those places around the world that have sealevel rise as an immediate concern. No wonder then that a Dutch royal is one of the characters, making a crashing entrance in Waco, Texas. While the geo-engineering is along the lines of Eliot Peper’s Veil, the various layers of narrative are more along the lines of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. Nice appearance of the performativity of war. With the geo-engineering backdrop informing the geopolitical narrative lines, it remains a humane and human centered story. It grabbed me quickly, and I enjoyed it a lot.

* This is a first post in the Books section in a year as well, so that previous Stephenson book is almost the previous posting. In between I have been looking at publishing book lists as a way of federating bookshelves. I aim to post more frequently about the books I enjoyed in a few more words than I put in those book lists. Following the book lists will give you a more complete (and timely) overview though.

Today, following a book reference by someone in a discussion thread, I ended up purposefully using the Internet Archive’s book collection for the first time. The book in question was a 1965 UK paperback. The Internet Archive offer several million books from around the world, and my Startpage search for the book led me to their collection. Being logged in with my account (I’m a monthly supporter of the Internet Archive, maybe you want to consider that too), I could hit the ‘borrow’ button and have the scanned and indexed 1965 book before me for an hour. Going through the table of content I quickly found the two things of interest to me, skipped to the two related chapters, read the relevant few pages, and hit the ‘return this book’ button after 10 minutes.

That was very useful. Following up a loose thread of information, finding the source, lift out the few relevant details, make a note of it, connect it to a few existing notes and move on. Useful and a very pleasing process.

I read Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface in the past days. I bought it already late November, directly from the author’s website (I’m trying to avoid buying through Amazon when I can), but read some other books first.

Attack Surface is a fast paced action packed novel, and I enjoyed it a lot. It takes you on a tour of both general and targeted surveillance technology and discusses how and when you can expect to be able to defend yourself against it, and when not. Reading the book was much like being in conversation with Arjen Kamphuis a Dutch it security expert who went missing in Norway two years ago, and like reading the accompanying storyline to Arjen’s 2014 book Infosecurity for Journalists.

Doctorow doesn’t explain technology much in his books, on purpose. He uses his books to make people aware of the names and terms to describe current tech, to ensure they know how to search online for explanations of the technology. On the assumption that the lack of awareness about certain tech, and the social and political implications of that tech, stems from not knowing enough to be able to search for more information. His books fill that gap.

…when I sat down in 2006 to write the first Little Brother book, I realized that facts were now cheap – anything could be discovered with a single search. The thing in short supply now was search terms – knowing what to search for.

For Attack Surface, one reader took this notion to turn it into a ‘Mashapedia‘ (Masha is the book’s protagonist), to provide a chapter by chapter glossary with links to explanations of each technology mentioned.

Doctorow describes himself as a realistic techno-optimist, not a tech-utopian, and I’m in the same position. In the final chapters of the book the characters point out that resisting surveillance tech is not about winning against that tech and permanently becoming immune to surveillance, but to create enough space to win political momentum against surveillance or those who use it. To resist surveillance in order to work political change. This hews close to the type of conversation I had during the Cph150 I had last year.
Around that time I wrote “treating [my work] as a political endeavour in its own right is different. I realise I may be in a place in my work where that deserves to have a much more deliberate role.” Doctorow reminds me to think that through some more, also as it builds on his contribution to the SF writers and economists meet-up late 2019 in Brussels I took part in, and the conversation we had there beforehand.

I read Fall or Dodge in Hell in the past two weeks, reading the Dutch book Suikerbastaard in between.
Fall is about 900 pages, so it took a bit more time than average to read.

(spoilers below the image)


Neal Stephenson discussing The Fall, image by Christopher Michel, license CC-BY

The book consists of multiple distinct large parts on a timeline. Normal beginnings where a billionaire wants his body preserved until his brain can be properly scanned, a part where the internet is becoming obsolete due to too many fakes, hoaxes and trolling, a post truth US where religious cults are rampant in Ameristan i.e. the spaces between the urban areas that are still tied to reality, the part where the rebooted brain of the billionaire creates his own world, to be unseated as main deity by newcomers, and a quest to right that wrong.

Enoch Root makes an appearance again, entering quite dramatically, and seems to indicate he comes from a plane of existence that created our world as a simulation. Towards the end Zula says ‘I understand light speed now’ as an externally applied constraint, the limit posed by the processing power available to our virtual environment. The speed at which changes propagating from an event can be calculated determines the speed of causality in the piece of spacetime we’re in. That’s the moment Enoch Root says to her his task here is complete and he vanishes into the fog, suggesting he’s leaving our sim, to return to another plane of existence. Not so much turtles all the way down, as sims all the way up?

Met plezier Suikerbastaard van Jaap Scholten gelezen. Ik kreeg het boek in september van E tijdens een weekendje wandelen in de Limburgse heuvels. Tijdens de feestdagen was er gelegenheid het te lezen. Ik las al eerder boeken van Scholten, o.a. De wet van Spengler en Morgenster. Scholten’s stijl voelt op de een of andere manier altijd meteen vertrouwd aan. Alsof je vanaf de eerste regel weet dat je bij elkaar in de kunnigheid zit: dat voorzichtige Twentse aftasten waar je familie en netwerk van vrienden op dat van de ander aansluit, die noodzakelijk is als basis voor vertrouwen in een eerste gesprek.

In Suikerbastaard gaan Twentse metaalarbeiders in de jaren 50 en 60 in Ethiopië aan de slag om suikerfabrieken te bouwen. Sommigen laten hun genetische sporen na, alvorens terug te gaan. Niet iedereen komt terug, sommigen raken verweven met het turbulente land en worden uiteindelijk opgeslokt in de zinderend hete zoutwoestijn.