Book IT: Good Holiday Reads for Tech Pros
First, a confession: I've been a sci-fi fan since I discovered an undisturbed and massive trove of sci-fi classics at the U.S. Army's 130th Station Hospital library in Leimen, Germany, circa 1963. My Mom had to take us to the hospital for our annual round of injections and inspections, and she turned me loose there while she had to deal with other matters.
There, I discovered a sizable collection of the works of Heinlein, Leinster, Asimov, and even Robert E. Howard. I started reading, and I've been hooked every since. I still read at least five sci-fi books a week, and have done so more or less continuously since that fateful Saturday 55 years ago.
That's why my eyebrows lifted and my spirits soared when I saw this item in the latest GoCertify Certification Watch newsletter (Vol 21, No. 49). It's titled CompTIA Issues Holiday Reading List for IT Pros.
Score 4 out of 5 for This Long-time Sci-Fi Fan!
First off, the focus is on reading for entertainment for IT pros, and CompTIA assumed that sci-fi would be of interest to such folks. They're absolutely right where I'm concerned, but if that's not your cup of tea, you can look over their recommendations — and mine that follow — without necessarily doing anything further to dig up any of the titles mentioned.
You'll also find a link to the Popular Mechanics 16 best hard sci-fi reads of the 21st century, if you'd care to scratch a bigger area.
CompTIA's Recommendations/My Reactions
CompTIA's list is a set of real classics, most of which I read within a year of their original publication. All are worth looking over, if not reading in their entirety:
Rainbow's End (Vernor Vinge) Here's a novel about retraining from the perspective of a former prize-winning poet and professor whose body gets restored to late teens early 20s in apparent age. In a nightmarish twist, he's obligated to return to and make his way through a late 21st-century high school program so as to reintegrate himself into society and find gainful employment. It's a terrific read, and a well-informed set of futurist speculations that is tech-heavy yet also very human. Vinge is a terrific writer (and former Hugo award winner), many of whose books I have on my shelves in the "science fiction bedroom" here at Chez Tittel.
His Master's Voice (Stanislaw Lem) This novel describes the multi-disciplinary reaction and investigation of an incoming extra-terrestrial signal from a government program like SETI. It's told from the viewpoint of a mathematician on the project as they try to puzzle out the meaning of an incoming signal that appears to be deliberate and potentially full of data. Lem was an astonishing talent who managed to write speculative and deeply wise and engaging fiction in Poland while it was still a Soviet bloc country. He's probably best known for Solaris (around which a movie of the same name was made in the early 2000s that involved the likes of Soderbergh, Cameron, and George Clooney), but I think his best work is The Cyberiad myself (the ongoing adventures of two rouge-ish and mischievous robots named Trurl and Klapaucius).
Neuromancer (William Gibson) This novel helped kick off the cyberpunk phenomenon, and spells out a worldview for cyberspace that still drives people's perceptions and understandings today. It actually spawned a series of novels set in the same fictional universe, all of which are full of mind-bending and thought-provoking uses of technology and its impact on how people live their lives. Gibson has remained an important voice in sci-fi and his work has continued to engage interest up to the present day. It also has some of the most interesting and sinister takes on AI and the Singularity that I've ever read anywhere.
Gallatea 2.2 (Richard Powers) This is the only book amidst the CompTIA recommendations that I've yet to read (so you know what I'm doing soon). The blurb describes a fictional world where the protagonist author finds himself working on a project to teach a neural network to make sense of literature. An AI named Helen emerges from this work, and the author finds himself enmeshed in a relationship with Helen as the story unfolds further. The blurb states further "As we find ourselves deploying and interacting with machines that think and learn, we begin to ask ourselves what their limits might be, where they might leads and what a true conscious AI, trained by humans, would think upon waking up in our world." Sounds good!
Mission of Gravity (Hal Clement) A serious scientist with degrees in astronomy (Harvard), education (Boston University) and chemistry (Simmons College) Clement brought hard science and a beautiful imagination to his work. The Mission book imagines a world that spins so fast that surface gravity ranges from 3G at the equator to 700G at the poles. It documents the efforts involved in communicating with and getting local centipede-like inhabitants to help earth scientists recover a lost scientific probe. It's a great story for kids and sci-fi fans of all ages.
What I Would Add to this List If Asked
Of course nobody asked, but I'll answer anyway, with additional items of hard science/hard sci-fi interest that might appeal to IT pros in need of holiday reading diversion. Here goes:
M.A. Foster is a former Navy Seal who writes about bioengineered humans in a variety of contexts. All of his stuff is fantabulous, and all is available in paperback pretty cheap from used book dealers on Amazon. I'd recommend the Ler series: The Warriors of Dawn, The Gameplayers of Zan, and The Day of the Klesh. The Morphodite series is perhaps his best work: The Morphodite, Transformer, and Preserver. I'm also a big fan of his standalone book Waves.
Neal Stephenson is perhaps one of the most interesting, intelligent and far-out voices in modern science fiction. His book Snow Crash is a modern classic and another founding salvo in the cyperpunk phenomenon. Any of his stuff is worth reading, but I'm particularly fond of his Cryptonomicon, Reamde, and Anathem.
Ann Leckie is a relatively new voice on the scene. Her first and debut novel, Ancillary Justice, appeared in 2013 and won the Hugo in 2014. She's published two additional novels in the same universe that are also worth reading: Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. The primary protagonist in all three novels is a former shipmind that now inhabits a humanoid android body (an "ancillary" for military spaceships in the book's nomenclature) and makes for fascinating reading.
Iain Banks was a prolific writer who wrote many sci-fi novels as Iain M. Banks. Most of his sci-fi is set in an intergalactic context called "The Culture" that features a wild and amazing mix of shipminds, drones, humans, and other intelligent lifeforms, told mostly (and sadly) from the human perspective. His stuff is worth reading, if only for the wonderful names that he has shipminds and other artificial intelligences grace themselves with: Never Talk to Strangers, A Series of Unlikely Explanations, Synchronize Your Dogmas, Size Isn't Everything, and Not Invented Here, just to name a few. Great stuff!
I could go on, but that's more than enough to keep interested folks busy and happy for the holidays. Enjoy!