Books of 2021

Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

It’s politically toxic to suggest that climate change could be addressed by geoengineering – deliberate and large-scale intervention in the climate system – because the effects would be hard to predict. But maybe we should do it anyway.

It’s the end of the 21st century and climate change is impacting most of the planet, sometimes catastrophically. Unilateral geoengineering becomes an option. Cue a giant technothriller that’s as much about teaching you about how levees work as following the trials of a ex-ranger hell-bent on revenge against a particular feral pig (there are a lot of feral pigs), or the combatants in a YouTube-led martial-arts-based ‘performative war’ at an ever-shifting India-China border in the Himalayas (it’s hard to explain), or the piloting skills of the Queen of the Netherlands (what it sounds like). And then there are the global political ramifications.

Spectacular first 50 pages. And, following the initial craziness, some plausible and often-brilliant insight into how the future could look. But it’s mostly a paean to human ingenuity, and how we interpret politics as damage and route around it.

As ever with Neal Stephenson he tries to shift the overton window of competence. Everyone is very good at their jobs. Everyone is curious, and eager to learn. And most of them can and do kick ass when needed, whether physically or verbally. This is all just normal.

Every Neal Stephenson book goes off the rails at some point – sometimes brilliantly, sometimes…less so. To read him is to be waiting for this to happen. I’m pleased to report that Termination Shock does so only at whatever point you realise it’s actually a long letter to Elon Musk.

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

The sun is fading. Not a lot, but enough to induce permawinter and kill us all off. Why is the sun fading? Dunno, but lots of nearby stars have the same problem. Except one. So let’s send a team to it in the desperate hope they can figure out what the difference is.

Bit of geoengineering in this one too, except this time to deliberately keep the planet warmer while they wait.

It’s from the guy who wrote The Martian, and the style is the same: great ideas, interesting and coherent science, and pulp-fiction dialogue where everyone precisely expresses their exact thoughts and feelings.

Go in blind to this one. Stuff happens.

The Scout Mindset, by Julia Galef

This book could not be more relevant to my interests. It’s also highly recommended by Dominic Cummings. I don’t know what to do about that.

It’s about how to think clearly. This usually means: ‘here are a list of common mistakes we all make, so don’t make those!’. But Julia Galef goes beyond this, giving practical advice on how to avoid such cognitive biases.

She emphasises that it’s often very difficult. It’s all very well being told that our rational mind often acts as press secretary for our emotions, justifying what we want rather than thinking things through from the ground up. But recognising this in day-to-day practice is tough.

Cue the advice, drawn from years of research: she started a foundation dedicated to actually investigating such things.

Her main approach is a series of questions you can ask yourself, like ‘would you support the findings of this study if it supported the other side?’, or ‘if this idea were not the status quo, would I support changing the status quo to it?’. Get into the habit of asking these, she says, and you stand a better chance. It’s some work to do this – you basically need to write a list and check it. I haven’t done this yet. But it all seems sensible, and I fully intend to do so!

If this piques your interest, this is a better review:

The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle

What makes for good culture in any group of people? You may not be able to define ‘good culture’, but we know it when we see it. And we certainly recognise the opposite.

The author argues that this isn’t as mysterious as we think: it is caused by particular approaches (not people), which can be laid out.

These approaches are:

  • First, you build psychological safety. This makes people feel like a team.
  • Then you turn this into actual trusted cooperation by encouraging the sharing of vulnerability. This sounds like Goopy wellness stuff but is just being open about weaknesses and difficulties.
  • Finally, you establish purpose by clearly showing what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to do it.
    • This is more than just having a clear purpose. It’s about knowing how you will achieve your purpose, then communicating it loudly and clearly and continually.
  • And you achieve all of these via small, everyday behaviours – or ‘signals’. These signals must be everywhere, all the time.

I found this very useful at work. It’s changed how I induct new staff, as well as how I write documentation and introduce new concepts. Worth a look if this is your bag.

The Harry Bosch novels, by Michael Connelly

I caught up on the Harry Bosch novels this year. They’re classic hard-boiled police procedurals, based in Los Angeles, and solid as hell.

I like them because everything follows from the detective work. There are no magical gut feelings, or unlikely coincidences. You can run a string from the crime to its conclusion and know it all makes sense. It’s super relaxing to have that certitude.

And Harry is a long term friend and role model. He acknowledges the complexities of criminal behaviour in a vastly unequal society, but isn’t afraid to judge. He has a diamond moral code that drives everything he does, often to his detriment. You may not always agree with his actions, but they’re coherent.

By all accounts it’s a pretty accurate depiction of the LA police force, too. It’s all real acronyms, processes, frustrations, and corruptions. Also the *city* is real: Michael Connelly famously only uses real locations, and you’ll never see someone cheatily beat the traffic at rush hour.

Harry’s getting a bit old now (worrying), and has a younger partner who isn’t just him in a different body. She’s good too. Lives in a tent. Has a dog. I like her.

You might have seen the Amazon TV show, which ended this year. I thought it started off a bit weak, but it hit its stride in series 4 and was great after that. It accords to the same principles as the books, but also plays with the form. You see a lot of unnecessary action: people walking to cars, getting coffee, standing in lifts. As a result you never know when something is going to happen. They leave open doors in the background of shots for the same reason. Plus the lead actor is a perfect fit. The Harry in my head is now 50% the guy I’ve known for 20 years, and 50% Titus Welliver.

If you need a fast, satisfying read, I highly recommend these books. There are loads of them. The first is The Black Echo. Here’s a timeline.