1. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
When Stephen Hawking passed away in March 2018, A Brief History of Time popped up in so many places around me. As a passionate science fiction reader, I felt the urge to read this non-fiction science classic to get a better idea of what the reality of space, time and the universe looks like.
What the book is about…
In A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking attempts to explain the theories of physics to people like you and me. He first turns to the history of physics and outlines breakthroughs along the way – from ancient Greek philosophers, Isaac Newton’s gravity equation, Albert Einstein’s relativity theory up to modern quantum mechanics. He also points out that physicists around the world are still searching for the one “unified theory that will describe everything in the universe” (p. 12).
In the following chapters, he walks us through the major theories of physics – for example, black holes, particle physics, wormholes and string theory – and addresses the big questions of our time. Where did the universe come from, where is the universe going, what happened before the Big Bang and will it be possible to travel through time at some stage?
Even though I can’t say I fully grasped all of the physical theories – Hawking’s writing seized me. I just could not put this book down.
What I found most interesting in A Brief History of Time was how Hawking repeatedly brings God and religion in relation to physics. Of course, Hawking himself was an atheist. But still, I felt that he leaves a bit of room for imagination and spirituality in between theories and equations. An example here:
“The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him?” (p. 190)
It also blew my mind how much and at the same time how little we know. Hawking points out that a lot of physical theories are, in the end, exactly that – theories: “No one has ever seen a giant tortoise with the earth on its back, but then, no one has seen a superstring either.” (p. 187)
A Brief History of Time is mindblowing, funny and my favourite book I read in 2018.
2. Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari
Another non-fiction book I read in 2018 was Homo Deus by Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari. Similar to A Brief History of Time I was interested in Harari’s thoughts on the future – and how those would fit in with the sci-fi books I had read.
What the book is about…
I find that what Homo Deus is about is not easily explained. But I will try. In his second bestseller from 2016, Harari draws lessons from the twentieth century and makes predictions for the twenty-first century.
In the first chapter Harari establishes the term “human agenda” (Loc 255). Famine, plague and war used to be on the top of the human agenda – up to the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, however, those will make way for new issues we are faced with and will have to solve – immortality, happiness and divinity (perfection of humans through, e.g. biological engineering or cyborg engineering) – ultimately the transformation from Homo Sapiens into Homo Deus.
In Part I of the book, he starts establishing who Homo Sapiens is – what distinguishes us from animals and how we conquered the world as a “superior species”. The look back in time continues in Part II, where he elaborates how we give our world meaning. Part of that is his illustration of “the most important religion of all” (Loc 2620) – humanism. Finally, in Part III, he ventures an outlook into the twenty-first century (and beyond) and asks the question: “Can the humans go on running the world and giving it meaning?” (Loc 4549) In other words – will Homo Sapiens continue to be the “superior” species on earth?
As said before, Homo Deus is not an easy book to describe. And that’s also what you feel like when you’re reading it.
But first, the positive – reading the first chapter of the book, about the human agenda, I felt purely fascinated. Here again, I could not put this book down. Harari shines an entirely different light on the present. My first reaction to his statement that famine, plague and war were issues of the past was – WHAT? What about people starving in underdeveloped countries, people dying of AIDS and the Syrian War? But, Harari brings up such cunning facts that do prove – those issues are not nearly as grave as they used to be.
Still, I think sometimes Harari has a very sober and emotionless view on humankind. He sees numbers and not human beings. Unlike Hawking, he does not leave any space for imagination or spirituality.
Also, I got a bit bored halfway through the book. With the title Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, I just expected more outlook into the future than pondering about past history. But the predictions for the twenty-first century only make up for about one-third of the book. And that is what I meant before – when reading Homo Deus, I often felt that what I’m reading is not what “I signed up for” with the title.
So all in all, an enjoyable read that gives you a whole new view on the past, present and future of humankind. But it was just not what I wished for as a sci-fi fan.
3. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger in a Strange Land from 1961 is a science fiction classic that had been on my list for ages. And it is, well, quite strange.
What the book is about…
Stranger in a Strange Land comes up with a classic “what if ” scenario. What if a human would grow up on Mars (amongst Martians) and would somehow get back to earth. How would humans react to him, how would he behave, what would his abilities be?
We see this scenario evolve around the “Man from Mars” Valentine Michael Smith, who grew up on Mars and is taken back to earth by an expedition fleet twenty years later.
There is a law that says the first person setting foot on another planet will own it – so technically, Michael owns Mars. That is a thorn in the side of powerful men on earth. Michael is in danger. The nurse Jill rescues him from the hospital he is kept in and takes him to Jubal Harshaw’s house, who grows to be Michaels legal protector and friend.
At Jubal’s mansion, Michael is confronted with the concepts of religion, love and being human, while discovering his supernatural telekinetic abilities. The book becomes weirder with every chapter and ultimately leads to Michael being a founder of a religious cult.
The story of the Man from Mars is unconventional, unpredictable and awesomely strange.
Stranger in a Strange Land has edgy, likeable characters and an unpredictable storyline that can sometimes be a little hard to follow.
It is highly amusing to see Michael trying to “grok” (Martian word for fully understanding something) things that are completely normal to us, like the concept of death or fiction through reading up on them in Jubal’s library. It makes Jubal brood over those things himself, which creates wonderfully philosophical passages from his point of view.
The book does lose a little bit of its tension towards the end when it goes into the story of Michael founding a religion. It turns to a more descriptive style and also becomes reeeeeally strange.
Stranger in a Strange Land is not an easy book to “grok” from just reading a review. There are so many little details that are great about it. So just read it yourself!
4. Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from 1968 is another science fiction classic that I read last year. It takes us into a futuristic, post-apocalyptic scenario. There is barely any life on earth, so having a living animal is the highest status symbol and ethical deed for the people that stayed behind. Sounds weird? It is.
What the book is about…
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in the post “World War Terminus” San Francisco. The earth is barely livable because of radioactive pollution. Rick Deckard and his wife are some of the few people that stayed behind, while most of the earth’s population emigrated to other intergalactic colonies.
Rick is a bounty hunter who “retires” androids that have killed their owners in the colonies and returned to earth pretending to be human. When the Rosen Association invents a new android model – Nexus-6 – that is more human-like than any android before, Rick has to make sure the well-proven Voight-Kampff Empathy Test still works on them. He uses the empathy test to find out if someone is human or android.
Six of these Nexus-6 models have escaped, and Rick has to find and retire them. He takes us with him on his bounty hunt and gets himself into a few ethical ambiguities along the way.
Philip K. Dick’s classic is a concise book (210 pages) – all events unfold within pretty much twenty-four hours. It is a short and spicy book – which I loved.
The story that was the basis for the 1982 movie Blade Runner with Harrison Ford has its twists and turns. Nothing about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is predictable or cliche robot-war-like.
The book is very timely in raising ethical questions about Artificial Intelligence and treating topics like mental health or religion. The most exciting part for me was seeing Rick’s character evolve from a stone cold bounty hunter into someone that becomes conscious of and ethical about his actions. In general, Dick knows how to create characters. Be it Rick’s wife Iran, who manipulates her emotions with a machine, or John R. Isidore, a “chickenhead” (a person who does not meet the “minimum mental faculties” to go to a colony) who works for a company repairing electric animals.
I don’t want to say too much about this story because it has quite a few unexpected turns. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I can definitely recommend it!
I hope you enjoyed reading this article. Have you read any of the books above? Do you have a different opinion on them? Leave me a comment or message me on Instagram (@leahlovesculture).
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