Nathan Hwang

Surely You’re Hamming It Up, Mr. Feynman!

I was talking to friends about Deep Work, a book about doing, well, deep work, when I realized that I had two conflicting models of how to choose what to work on, and how to work on it.

The more straightforward approach is sketched by Richard Hamming in You and Your Research, which simply asks (paraphrased) “What are the important problems of your field, and if you’re not working on them, why not?” It’s an extraordinarily dense mantra, packing lots of decision power into a simple sentence: if you’re not focused on your field, then focus on your field, and if you’re not focused on the most promising area of your field, then focus on that area, and if you’re not focused on the most important problem of that area, focus on that problem. Everything else? Strip it away as much as possible, because the rocket equation is hell[1] and we are going to Mars!

Then there’s the more playful way to find problems, which the incorrigible Richard[2] Feynman described in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. Frustrated by his research problems, he decided that he would stop slaving away and just play with whatever problems caught his fancy: “Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything… I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about importance whatsoever.” He goes on to derive equations related to the physics of a spinning plate, because why not? Later, he realizes “The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.” Feynman’s little anecdote is a direct repudiation of Hamming’s strategy, the triumph of play over a conscious effort to work on Important Things[3].

At each work’s core is a different philosophy. Hamming says “if it’s not important, you are wasting your time: by definition, how else can you do important work?”, and Feynman says “if it’s not joyful, you are wasting your time: how can you do your best work when it’s no longer important to you?”.

I flirt with both ways of thinking, but Hamming’s philosophy in particular rings in my ears. Do important work! Revel in the flow, conducting a grand symphony of gathered skills and knowledge into a masterpiece unlike any the world has seen! Though the tears, sweat, and blood blur your vision, behold your work, and see that it is good! Well, your work probably won’t actually end up being world-class, but what does it matter for a shot at glory? And never mind Hamming saying “I did sort of neglect [my wife] sometimes”, just choose a hill, the taller the better, and get ready to die on it.

Um.

You know, my current actions most closely fit a Feynman-style strategy, but I’m not even playing and learning in an effective way; instead of going to war against intractable problems, maybe I could consciously pursue a Feynman strategy and deliberately chase those “that’s funny…” moments. The problem is that it’s easier to slip into comfortable zones of thought, easier to craft trivial solutions to trivial problems, easier to wake up with the precursors of dementia and years of work even you don’t care about. And yet, gambling away the years of my life on an Important Problem[4] is a bitter proposition, and it is gambling: Hamming getting at least six different concepts named after him is a highly unusual outcome, not participation points for years of work on the right problems.

Not that we have to choose just one: the Way of the Fox tells us we should keep a stable of models and use each one when appropriate. If we recognize Hamming’s strategy as a primarily exploitative one, and Feynman’s strategy as an exploratory one, then we can just re-use the multi-armed bandit’s mechanism; we start by exploring, and gradually exploit more and more as we get to know the exploration space. Of course, like all models this doesn’t map neatly to real life, but it does indicate that mixing strategies by varying the amount of time one spends on different approaches to problems might be a workable solution. Then the question is how one should balance exploration and exploitation efforts, especially over time, which I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

Even refusing to use a mixed strategy might not turn out badly. Wienersmith points out that it’s possible to build yourself into an expert many times within a life, so you can work your way up to working on Important Problems multiple times. But keep in mind that Important Problems are the things one cracks over a career, not right after attaining mastery, so re-training every decade is exploring too often to actually make any deep progress. However, I like to read this instead as reassuring people that they don’t just have one shot at becoming an expert: if you just went to grad school, and it turns out you utterly detest your field’s Important Problems, it’s still possible to refocus. It’s a high cost, but it’s not an infinite one. And that might be the difference between paralyzing yourself with how important the choice of field is, and making a quick partially informed decision before plunging in headfirst and learning more by actually doing things.

I still don’t have an answer at this point. These are just meditations on resolving dissonance between two different respected sources. At this end, these questions remain: who will I be, and what will I do?


[1] Rocketry is hard because you need to carry your fuel: for every pound of stuff you want to put into orbit (or farther), you need the fuel to boost that pound, and then the fuel to boost that fuel, and the fuel to boost that fuel, ad nauseam. This means that if you are carrying anything gratuitous and unnecessary, then you are doing rocketry wrong and you will not go to space today. Hat tip to Sam’s Ra and Kerbal Space Program for helping solidify this concept for me.

[2] Since I’m reading Unsong, this correspondence leapt out at me. Both the scientists are Richards. Both lived from approximately 1910-1990. Both worked in Los Alamos during the war. Both are physical scientists. This Is Not A Coincidence Because Nothing Is A Coincidence.

[3] For a possible follow up, Robin Hanson recently pointed out that play must be important.

[4] Quote: “Trying to do the impossible is definitely not for everyone. Exceptional talent is only the ante to sit down at the table. The chips are the years of your life. If wagering those chips and losing seems like an unbearable possibility to you, then go do something else. Seriously. Because you can lose.”

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Mail It and They Will Come

I’m replacing my moribund social network presence with an email newsletter.

The newsletter is actually three different newsletters, which differ mainly in how often they are sent:

The content of the newsletter is currently a grab bag; I’ll talk about notable life events, announce anything I made, and comment on what I read/watched/played/listened to over the previous time period (the previous month, if you’re signed up for the monthly, etc). Sample emails are linked to on the sign up pages for the monthly and quinquannual newsletters, if you want to take a look at what you’re getting into before you sign up.

Also note that the newsletters are planned to be around the same size, despite being sent at different frequencies. This means the less frequent newsletters will focus on the larger picture and omit smaller tidbits. If you want to know about every mediocre paper I read, then choose the monthly; if you want to know when I get married (ha!), choose the semiannual.

Of course, opting out is super simple, since I outsourced the actually-send-emails-to-people part to TinyLetter, and sending email is their bread and butter.

Wait, Email? But Why?

There are many reasons to move away from existing social networks, which are afflicted by filter bubbles, rampaging toxoplasmosis memes, an Eternal Summer[3], and trends towards ever simpler content[4].

However, none of these reasons are the ultimate motivation behind moving to a newsletter platform; instead, it’s a selfish concern. When I want to show people a thing I made, then I want to make sure you all see it. However, posting to a social network means an intermediary gets to decide whether anyone will see it in the first place. For example, the YouTube teaching phenomenon CGP Grey discovered that not all of his videos were being delivered to all his subscribers. Here the label “subscriber” used by YouTube heavily implies that one wants to see everything the subscription offers: it’s not expected that a magazine subscription delivers only 9 monthly issues in a year. And yet, YouTube switched to an algorithmic delivery model anyways. What hope do mere “friends” and “followers” have?

On the other hand, it’s obvious the algorithmic approach has good results, since so many services are adopting the model. However, it primarily has good results for casual consumers trying to tame their social media fire hoses. For me, it means I have to think about whether I need to tailor my messages to appeal to a black box in order to make sure even the people that want to see what I’m doing can do so. Even if I resist this tailoring pressure, I might unconsciously fall prey to a simpler trap, with a simple percolation of dopamine upon getting more Likes subtly leading to shorter and simpler messages digestible on the toilet.

It turns out that CGP Grey’s story has a happy ending: he simply made his own email feed to make sure people got updates, a way to let people state “yes, I really do want to see everything Grey makes makes”. I’m skipping past the “become mildly famous in any way” part and going straight to the email newsletter, and optimistically predicting that I’ll be doing enough things to be a fraction as interesting as CGP Grey or Gwern (who also has a newsletter).

To forestall an obvious question, it’s true, an email newsletter isn’t really social. I don’t have a space in which to “engage my followers”, and I think that’s fine. Want to talk about or comment on something in one of my newsletters? Shoot me an email, hit me up on text, or call me up. Let’s grab coffee, perhaps mull over ideas while grazing on lunch (note I mostly expect my irl friends to take me up on this: feel free to ask me otherwise, but temper your expectations).

Perhaps it’s a quixotic quest to wrest control away from the current crop of too big to fail social networks. But, I want to try something different. At least when I rant to my grandchildren about the time before Twitbook mediated all social interactions, I’ll know why only 20% of them see it.


[1] Quinquannual is the correct spelling, which can be derived by analogy from biannual and biennial, which mean twice a year and once every two years respectively. Google currently corrects the spelling of quinquannual to quinquennial, probably because no one actually does things 5 times a year.

[2] A friend jokingly suggested doing it quinquannially, because… honestly, issuing a quarterly report is about the most corporate thing I could do. It’s a heap of pretension on an already pretentious process (I know what people want, and what they want is more of me yelling on top of a non-standard soapbox! And I’ll deliver it to my “mindshareholders” in my quarterly report!). I wouldn’t be surprised if I burst into flame after sending the 3rd such newsletter, because the universe would realize what I was doing and bend the rules to spontaneously combust me. So, what can I say? Gods bless my weird-ass friends.

[3] By analogy to the Eternal September, when the floodgates of the internet opened up and more new people “got online” than could be assimilated into the existing internet culture and etiquette. The Eternal Summer, then, is the constant influx of photos from friends and acquaintances on vacation; with just 52 friends posting pictures from 1 week of vacation each, there’s always a vacation happening in your feed. This is thought to depress people, who measure themselves against a mosaic of their friends and find themselves boring in comparison. Yes, I’m coining a new phrase for an existing concept, sorry.

[4] The super obvious example of social media forcing simpler communication is Twitter limiting messages to 140 characters. Another example, based on personal observation, is that years ago I used to be able to respond to Facebook posts with science fiction short stories I would write on the spot; I tried the same exercise a few months ago, and everything was devoid of creative handles off which I could hang a story. What stories can you pull out of someone’s vacation photos, without layers of plot contrivance, without pissing off someone that just wanted to share photos with his mom?

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E-reader Retrospective and Engelbart’s Bookstand

I’ve had my trusty e-reader for nearly 5 years, but now it’s starting to give up the ghost. The battery is starting to run down, so it isn’t quite free range any longer, and it has started shutting down randomly: waiting for your book to reboot is exactly as annoying as it sounds. After 5 years, any honeymoon effect has surely worn off, but I still think it’s a great investment. E-readers really do enable reading everywhere, even on a bustling subway, and offering an entire library on the go is great. Tough day at work? Some light science fiction is there with you. Fully awake and ready for a challenge? The weighty non-fiction works are there too. It’s a pocket library, and when you consider how small Manhattan apartments can be, compressing all my current books into a slim device is great.

I do wish that some things were different, though:

  • I originally had high hopes for reading PDFs on e-readers: the fact the Kobo Touch had a marginally better PDF reader than the Kindle weighed heavily on my e-reader choice, but after a while I gave up. It got too frustrating to manually cram a letter sized page onto a 6 inch screen, and the relatively slow redraw rates made scrolling grating.
  • At first I mostly read novels with my e-reader, but at some point I started shifting away from science fiction and towards science fact, so I wanted to start taking notes while reading. The Kobo has an integrated note taking function, but it’s clunky and capturing thoughts takes a long time. Physical books aren’t any better in this regard: writing notes in a book margin while riding the subway might be even more awkward than futzing with a touchscreen keyboard. However, the lack of options doesn’t change the fact that not being able to note on the go hamstrings reading more thoughtfully everywhere.
  • Resources like “How to Read a Book” and “How to Read a Paper” recommend initially focusing on the key points of a work (like the introduction and conclusion) to sketch out a map of ideas in the book, which then lets you cherry pick which parts of the book to read. But, trying to skip through a book with an e-reader is a slow process. Even trying to read the first sentence of each chapter is an exercise in patience, given the handful of taps and redraws required to move to the beginning of each chapter.
  • Similarly, after reading a book once, it’s difficult to browse back through the book quickly while taking notes elsewhere. The Before E-reader era of my life trained me to exploit a spatial sense while reading, letting me know that an idea felt a third of the way through a book. In contrast, the e-reading experience seems geared towards moving in a linear fashion through the latest zombie romance: as noted before, skipping from place to place is slow, while moving forward a page is a simple swipe or tap away. Having full text search does partially make up for these shortcomings, but only when the keyword is unique enough that there isn’t a squall of matching search results.
  • Footnotes are handled terribly: I don’t want to wait seconds for a footnote to come up only to find out that it says “Ibid., p. 205″. Please, give me some indication what’s behind that tantalizingly underlined number! Or even better, just let me flick my eyes down to a footnote, like God the author and publishers intended.

These point towards a common failing: e-readers are not outfitted for a full contact reading experience that starts by surveilling the book with a high powered scope, and ends with a rubber-hose powered interrogation. However, I’ve noted in places that physical books also tend to have these failings. Taking a step back, serious reading seems to simply need a desk and a sheaf of blank paper situated in a remote cabin, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

II.

Okay, I lied. The techno-optimist in me thinks it’s possible to apply enough technology to the problem so we can recreate the remote cabin in the press of Times Square. But first, let’s talk about playing the violin.

Violins are hard to play. Anders Ericsson in Peak explains:

The difficulties start with the fact that the violin’s fingerboard has no frets, the metal ridges found on a guitar’s fingerboard that divide it into separate notes and guarantee… each note played will sound neither flat nor sharp… there are various subtleties of fingering to master, beginning with vibrato… Using the bow properly poses another whole level of difficulty… Violinists control the volume of their playing by varying the pressure of the bow on the string, but that pressure must stay within a certain range… [and on and on]

However, it’s not just the effort and tenacity of a player that produces amazing music. The violin itself is engineered to make music, to be flexible enough to allow a lifetime of effort to be spent learning how to produce all the nuances. In contrast, the kazoo is an amazingly simple instrument, but with a correspondingly low ceiling on musical achievement[1]. To produce great work, human skill is one side of the equation, but the flexible tooling that allows expert expression is the other. And together, there is music.

What about technological tools? Engelbart, presenter of “the mother of all demos”, knew machine interfaces could be molded to man, but thought the best fit could be achieved by simultaneously molding man and machine at the same time. Take stenography as an example: stenographic equipment allows humans to type at 360 wpm, versus the 256 wpm attainable with QWERTY. Using the proper text entry tooling allows amazing performance with practice, which is why the stenograph is sometimes called Engelbart’s violin.

The downside is that key word, practice. Learning to use specialized tools takes longer than learning to use simpler, more general tools. Sometimes, though, you need that extra effectiveness. Consider that there are only 300,000 expected waking hours left in my life. This is not enough hours. However, barring immense technological change, that’s all I have to work with, so the tooling I use is important.

Bringing this back to reading, I’m hankering for a crafted reading machine, Engelbart’s bookstand: not necessarily a machine that allows me to speed read (speed reading probably doesn’t work), but to otherwise quickly understand the written word, even skipping that which does not need to be read: “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. A machine that would help me chart the ebb and flow of ideas, explode a book from a series of pages to the web of thoughts as it existed in the writer’s mind.

Nothing like this exists yet: even the remote cabin requires you to chart your own explorations, to impose your own structure onto blank pages. Looking at trends, though, it seems like the tsunami of data[2] might continue until we need better ways to read, and then we’ll start exploring the space of reading software in earnest. Or, maybe no one cares (people are making a big deal out of watching TV shows at 2x, after all), and I’ll have to find some time to scratch this itch myself.

Until there’s a better way, though, I’ll keep reading along with a trusty e-reader.


[1] When people use kazoos to make something that sounds like music, we applaud them not for making music using a kazoo, but for making music despite using a kazoo.

[2] People are watching TV shows at 2x speed

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Two Points of View Enter, A Better Informed Point of View Leaves

Have you noticed the typography on this blog is terrible, and wanted to let me know without hurting my feelings? Have you realized that I’m smelly, but it’s socially awkward to say so in person? Have you discovered that I’m wrong on the internet and need to go die in a fire, but can’t be arsed to find my email? Do you want to tell me I’m doing good things and wish me a wonderful day, but doing so in person is weird?

Wait no longer, because I now have a anonymous feedback form:

bit.ly/thenoviceoof-feedback

Why?

In the spirit of continual growth, I want more critical feedback. Giving criticism is usually seen as rude reminder of our fallibility, but I already know I’m failing in mysterious ways, and would like to fail less.If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but if it is broke, then I want to know as soon as possible.

One possible concern is that knowing more about yourself isn’t always a positive: learning that your leg-body ratio is perceived negatively isn’t anything you can do anything about (yet), and now lives as a negative thought niggling around in the back of your mind. However, I think this scenario is unlikely, and that learning more about myself will be a net positive.

This form is also meant to remove trivial inconveniences to giving me feedback. It’s already possible to give me anonymous feedback, whether through a throwaway email address or postcard with no return address, but it’s another step in the process. With this form, providing feedback anonymously is the default. Even if you want to provide non-anonymous feedback, this form removes the need to find my email and come up with a subject line.

Finally, cool people are doing it. Both Luke Muehlhauser and Gwern have anonymous feedback forms, and who doesn’t want to be more like them?

Usage

Keep in mind that the information you enter is as anonymous as you make it: if you tell me your email, or tell me about a specific event that only you and I know about, then the message is not anonymous. That said, I’ll make an extra effort to not to take offense to feedback coming in through this form, even if it is non-anonymous. For instance, if you tell me “You’re fat!”, I will make a great effort to not respond with “Your mom is fat!”, and instead seriously consider whether I should be dieting.

Which leads me to Crocker’s rules. I’m a little uncertain about whether asking for no-holds-barred feedback through this form is useful, but it’s a natural extension to removing trivial inconveniences. If it’s hard to figure out a polite way to tell me I’m being a fucking idiot, then drop the pretense and just give it to me straight: I want your feedback, not a limp excuse of a critical bon mot. I’ll sort it out on my end.

Hankering to give some feedback? Once more with feeling, here’s the link:

bit.ly/thenoviceoof-feedback

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Exploring Science Fiction

Don’t know if you like science fiction? Don’t know if you only like a specific subgenre of science fiction, but don’t want to wade through novels of dreck to find out what it is?

As a first step, I recommend reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Yes, an entire novel is a big time sink, but the book is built from shorter tales strung together into a larger narrative. Each tale is drawn from a different subgenre of science fiction, so you’ll get a pretty wide exposure just by reading this single book (publishers hate him!). The shared plot thread running through all these stories is also useful to make sure you finish reading all the stories in their entirety, and not just skip the ones you’re perhaps apt to abandon too quickly before you’ve let it develop.

Once you’ve read Hyperion (or don’t care about spoilers), join me after the jump.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Now that you’ve read Hyperion, I’ll point out additional books and authors that fit different aspects of each tale.

The Priest’s Tale

If you enjoyed the conflict of religion and science, A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter Miller might be up your alley. The book follows a Catholic order after a nuclear war, exploring the boundary between science and religion, and holds up remarkably well for being written in 1960.

For an interesting take on the relationship between religion and science, Peter Watts’ short story A Word for Heathens has religion symbiotically developing alongside science, but in a violent alternative history way, not in a “why can’t we all coexist” sort of way. Peter Watts’ contributions don’t stop there: if you enjoyed the, ah, biological horror aspect of the tale, then he has that covered too with his short story The Things. If you’re hooked by Watts’ blend of biological expertise and nihilism (“whenever my will to live becomes too strong, I read Peter Watts”), then might I suggest his novel Blindsight (online)?

The Soldier’s Tale

To put it mildly, there’s a fair amount of military-themed science fiction out in the wild. If you enjoyed the imagery of advanced weapons laying waste to everything, then Old Man’s War by John Scalizi is a good start. In it, green octogenarians unapologetically shoot aliens in the face on strange planets in a crowded universe. It’s a simple (if strange) core, but Scalizi dresses it up pretty well.

If you enjoyed following a competent career soldier fighting in battles across the universe, then Use of Weapons by Iain Banks is a great start. It shares some of the more thoughtful skepticism present in The Soldier’s Tale, asking in the large “for what end are we fighting?” It also doesn’t hurt that the writing quality is great: at one point, I described it as “verging on poetry”.

If you’re interested specifically in military science fiction that features sex with sharp objects, then I can’t help you. Sorry.

The Poet’s Tale

If you wanted to read more about the sort of decadent society the Hegemony embodies, the Culture series also by Iain Banks certainly describes a civilization, The Culture, that many would describe as hedonistic. Most of the novels in that universe focus on the interactions between the Culture and other civilizations, simply because that’s where the interesting conflict happens: people having a good time building planetary megastructures doesn’t make for a compelling story. However, one does pick up the structure of the Culture simply by watching the shadow it casts in each story. A good place to start is The Player of Games, which along with being a compelling story is also unusual with how long it lingers on normal life within the Culture.

However, if you are instead interested in a critique of the sort of shallow society created by the Hegemony of Man, the classic Brave New World should have you covered. A reviewer sums the book up fairly well: “Orwell [Author of 1984] feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”.

Otherwise, as one might expect of science fiction, there aren’t that many works that focus on the artistic. If you don’t mind exploring a single short story, Zima Blue from Alastair Reynold‘s Zima Blue and Other Stories collection might fit: it chronicles the rise and fall of an artist in the far future who is, in a way, searching for their muse. The other stories in the collection are more traditional Reynold, which I’ll touch on later.

I also apologize if you were looking forward to more recommendations of works with protagonists possessing vulgar nine word vocabularies.

The Scholar’s Tale

Tragic time travel stories? Unfortunately, I haven’t read much romantically imbued science fiction. My best guess is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I haven’t read it, but it certainly seems to use Time as a tragic weapon which separates the people that love each other, even if it relies on eros instead of storge as in the Scholar’s Tale.

The Detective’s Tale

Ah, this tale is pure, uncut, grade-A cyberpunk. I swear that Dan Simmons was giggling to himself while writing it, just like I imagine Neal Stephenson giggling while writing Snow Crash. Both are over the top, serve up plenty of action in physical and virtual realms, and feature gritty dystopias. Be warned that Snow Crash can be too over the top for some people’s suspension of disbelief: in this case, you might want to try Neuromancer (below) instead.

More serious in tone is Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which skews away from shiny cyberspace adventures and towards the hard-boiled noir detective side of The Detective’s Tale. It doesn’t drift too far from a cyberspace adventure, though: this detective has been downloaded into a spare body and told by an immortal to solve his murder a few days earlier. To top it all, it’s set in a San Francisco that’s dystopian enough that it ought to have rain constantly.

You might also be interested in the archetypal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer by William Gibson. I mean, it single handedly popularized the term “cyberspace” for crying out loud, and the Detective’s Tale lifts an amazing amount of virtual imagery from this book. And it’s not a “tell people you’ve read it to look cultured” sort of book: it is a legitimately good story. Where Snow Crash is over the top,Neuromancer is understated, feeling like a lived in world with believable characters. Sure, some parts of the book are cliché, but only because it spawned the literary cyberpunk genre, inspired landmark films like The Matrix, and played a part in creating the real world cyberspace we live with.

The Consul’s Tale

This is easy: a military flavored love story separating lovers with the gulf of relativity? The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is the obvious choice: two lovers are drafted into an interstellar war, but the need to travel at relativistic speeds means they will age at different rates, and may never see each other again.

If you enjoyed the slow burn of revenge, then Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie might fit your bill. Someone tried to kill the protagonist, and now she’s out for blood years later. Did I mention the protagonist is a sentient warship? The plotting can get tied up in the flashback narrative structure, but it was still fairly compelling.

The setting of a environmental sanctuary might have intrigued you: if you’re interested in hearing more about the interplay between ecology and man, the classic Dune by Frank Herbert has been hailed as “the first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale”. More than that, though, it’s one of the best selling science fiction novels, and like A Canticle for Leibowitz holds up well for being written in 1965. Highly recommended.

Other

Not all flavors of science fiction are covered in Hyperion’s tales, just a good selection of them. Here are some additional books I enjoy that didn’t fit above.

Accelerando (online) by Charlie Stross used to be my favorite book: I opened the book here in the present, then seemingly fast forwarded through 100 years of human progress, and it was so cool. The second time, I realized it was actually a horror story. If you were intrigued by Hyperion‘s inscrutable TechnoCore, or wanted something set closer to the near future, then this book might work out for you.

Alastair Reynolds does awesome scale very, very well, and his book House of Suns is an especially good example. This applies to both time and space: 200,000 years pass while the protagonists circumvent the Milky Way against a backdrop of rising and falling civilizations. “Epic” as a description would not be remiss here, and would apply equally well to many of his other books. Be aware that Reynolds sometimes violates the “show, don’t tell” rule, but he’s usually telling a story so grand that I don’t care.

For something maximally thoughtful, Anathem also by Neal Stephenson is a good bet. Plenty of the other books I recommended have interesting ideas embedded in them, but none of them quite measure up to a book about secular academic monks that have spent millennia sitting in monasteries and thinking. And not to worry, there’s enough action sprinkled in to keep the plot going. However, be warned that Stephenson also sprinkles in made up words for common objects we would call by other names, which can turn some people off.

Conclusion

I hope that this guide has gotten you started with your science fiction future. Happy reading!

Thanks to Hans Hyttinen for reading early drafts of this!

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