Thursday, 4 January 2018

December Books

I've spent my Christmas break binge-reading the various books in my to-read pile. This means I finally got around to Gregory Benford's "Deep Time", which I picked up this summer. It's a discussion of how we pass information down over extreme time scales, generally at least the ten-thousand-year span of human civilisation. There are plenty of ways this could be made into an abstract slog, but the book is nicely grounded by the perspective Benford is writing from: three of the four chapters are built on "deep time" related projects that he worked on, and the technical and social implications are well-balanced by his personal accounts. Sending messages to our future selves requires us to overcome our inherently short-term view of the world but also, it transpires, our bureaucracy.

The book's introduction is such a broad-reaching and detailed discussion of the theme that it probably should have been published as a feature article in a popular science magazine. (Was it, I wonder?) Stage set, the first and most romantic chapter addresses the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, and in particular its warning markers, which must communicate specific and (ideally) quite technical ideas to humans thousands of years in the future. The second discusses a never-constructed diamond message disk for the now-expired Cassini-Huygens probe, and gets deeply into the idea of communicating with non-humans in ages to come and upper management in the present. The third and fourth chapters consider biodiversity and the Earth climate as messages we are inadvertently writing for future generations, and how we can make the best of them.

The book came out in 2000, and there don't seem to have been any updated editions, so it makes for quite an apt capsule of the time in which it was published. There's a good perspective on these projects from when they were initiated, which can be contrasted with their current situation (farewell, Cassini!) but changes in broader concerns and themes are also noteworthy. Ecological issues here come across as more prominent and more urgent than climate change, although that was already a significant concern as seen in the final chapter. Those seem to have swapped over. The little details amuse: Benford is dubious at the suggestion of scattering CD-ROMs as a way of sending a message down the centuries, and sure enough notebook manufacturers started taking optical drives out of laptops within a decade, never mind the information security implications.

If you happen across a copy of this and the theme intrigues - it seems to be out of print - I'd highly recommend it.

I also received "Arrival" (previously published as "Stories of Your Life and Others") as a gift, a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang. Obviously the big draw here is "Story of Your Life", which was the basis for the 2016 movie after which this story collection was renamed. How we perceive the world and the quiet tragedies that arise with abrupt shifts in understanding are a common theme, naturally, but the collection also has an interesting line in taking religious concepts and playing them straight as science fiction premises. The overlap of the three is thought-provoking territory and Chiang is a first-rate storyteller. They're not all classics - there are a couple of stories where the ideas start to take over - but this was an excellent read. This may be my bias; the protagonists are almost invariably technical people (or think like them) and therefore some of the events struck me quite strongly.

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