The Spider on Mars

Finally uploaded this little bit of fiction i wrote about a guy encountering a spider on the floor of his apartment on Mars. Yes, this is the kind of thing I think about.

Mars has always been a favourite setting of mine, and I hope to supplement this story with a bunch more down the track.

Have a read and let me know what you think.

The Spider on Mars

A chance encounter with a lone arachnid causes an inhabitant of a city on Mars to reassess his place on the red planet…(Read more)

2015 in Books


This year I read 20 books. To some people that sounds like a lot, to me it is nowhere near enough (especially when you consider the fact that I purchased 51 books this year!). I had initially planned to ape Mark Zuckerberg’s year of books, but found it a bit hard to keep to the fortnightly goal of finishing a single book. Some of the books I read in 6 days, others I slogged away at for over 40 days, but on average I finished a book every 17 days.
So I figured I would keep a bit of a rundown of what I read here for future reference, and also to hopefully track my ever increasing number of yearly book reads. I initially ended up churning out pages of commentary, but I figure I’d be best to keep it to a couple of sentences for brevities sake, and perhaps one day I will flesh out some of my other thoughts into beefier posts.
Also, before I get onto the individual books themselves, I was surprised to notice that there was pretty much an even split between physical books, and books on my kindle, so I shall present them as such:

The Physical Books

Hard Rain by Barry Eisler

The first book in the John Rain series about a Japanese-American assassin who specialises in making his kills look like natural causes. Great series of books for when you want some cool action/assassin/spy thrills. The writer is very knowledgeable, and you end up having a greater understanding of how to perform surveillance runs, fight hand-to-hand combat, and enjoy a delicious single malt whisky.

4 out of 5 totally unsuspicious heart attacks 

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

An amazing book, I feel I have a whole blog post waiting inside me to praise this book, so I won’t waste my time on that here yet.
The Sixth Extinction is the one we are living in right now, it is global, it has been going on for thousands of years, and it is being caused by us. This book goes over the previous 5 mass extinction events, but it also gives a fascinating outline about the latest extinction event being cause by humans (both present, and Palaeolithic).
I initially shied away from this book when I first noticed it popping up on peoples must-read lists back in 2014 because of its slightly depressing nature (much in the way I have yet to find the time or emotional energy to watch Blackfish or The Cove). I knew humans were causing mass extinctions, but I didn’t want to be overwhelmed with the reality of this.
I have to say though, I am glad I read it, and though it may be bleak to realise that you are a member of a species irrevocably altering life on earth, I think it is an important duty that we learn all we can about these extinction events if we ever hope to try and alter our planets future in a more positive way.
5 out of 5 species lost to the ages

Redshirts by John Scalzi

I had heard a lot about this book in the past, and then this year John Scalzi was all over the Internet with his ## million deal with Tor books. So I figured it was time to check out some of his work, and I was not disappointed. How has this book not been made into a film yet?
For those not in the know, a redshirt is the unofficial name given to those extras in Star Trek who always went along with the main characters on dangerous trips to other planets, only to be killed in some way that furthers the plot. This book is about a bunch of these redshirts on some futuristic ship, who start to realise their predicament as ‘extras’ in some mysterious narrative, and begin to do something about it.
Many thumbs up, have ordered Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which is apparently some of his best work. Will report back next year…
4 out of 5 dead crewmen

Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

These two books for the latter part of a trilogy that I began last year after again hearing praise for the book all over the place. I don’t know how much detail I could go into with these stories because the world is so intricately made, and the characters so complex and fascinating, but perhaps the best way to get people interested in reading these books is to point out that the main character is a soldier who used to be a starship, and who is seeking to get revenge on the galactic dictator who killed her previous captain, and who is currently at war with various versions of herself.
Bam; read it!
4 out of 5 confusing pronoun uses (did I mention that, regardless of sex, characters all have the female pronoun?)

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

Set in an alternate world where the Dutch achieve near global hegemony due to their alchemical invention of clockwork automatons called clakkers. Their only opposition comes from a moribund French republic, fighting back from their last stronghold in Canada. The brunt of the book deals with a clakker who accidently finds itself imbued with the ability to exercise his own free will, and is then subsequently on its mission to escape the Dutch, and help free its fellow clakkers. There is also a hint of body horror that must be read, and some cool intrigue courtesy of the French spymaster (who has the cool sounding title of Talleyrand).
4 out of 5 sentient beings
(P.s. the book comes with red lined pages, which at first I thought looked cool, but then after losing minutes of precious reading time playing around with the various shades I could make by twisting my books pages, I soon realised I shouldn’t be near colourful things when I want to read.)

Emergence by John Birmingham

An ‘action-movie waiting to happen novel’ where a deep sea oil platform accidently cracks through the earth’s crust, letting lose a horde of orc like bad guys. Luckily an oil rig worker accidently receives super-powers after killing one of the beasts, and now sets about saving humanity.
An alright read for some quick action, but if you want a good book by John Birmingham I recommend his Axis of Time trilogy, about the repercussions when a futuristic military fleet is accidently transported back in time to World War II. Come for the awesome action involving futuristic weapons fighting Nazis, stay for the social commentary as modern values clash with 1940’s folksy racism/sexism.
3 out of 5 enchanted splitting mauls

Armada by Ernest Cline

When a gamer starts noticing the alien spacecraft from his favourite game flying around his local neighbourhood he firsts thinks he is insane. We then learn that all of pop-culture alien invasion stories have been secretly preparing humanity for an incoming invasion, and our main character might just be the guy to save the day.
This book was a nice little escape from reality, but it inevitably falls short to the expectation that Cline’s first book (the amazing pop-culture/virtual reality extravaganza that was Ready Player One) had brought to bear. The story is entertaining enough, but feels rushed, and could have benefited with letting the story grow more.
3 out of 5 space invaders

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

The name of the book perfectly matches its scope as the author takes a step back and attempts to give a grand view of the history of our human species. Starting off from our emergence hundreds of thousands of years ago, chronicling our interaction with the other members of the genus homo, and then driving through our long history from hunter gatherers, farmers, industrialists and so forth until it bring us all the way to you and me; the current line up in billions of progressive human individuals.
I found this book tied in well with a couple of other reads this year in that it helps me to get a better understanding of where I fit in the world, and what I want to get from life. This books does a great job of explaining how I got to where I am as a member of the human species; now what am I going to do with the world I have inherited?
5 out of 5 wise apes

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Chronicles the advent of the computer age, starting way back when Babbage and Lovelace started tinkering with the idea of a computer, stopping every step along the way (from enigma cracking machines, the development of coding languages, the invention of operating systems, the development of transistors, the birth of the Internet; literally every step of the way!), right up until Google and Wikipedia changed the way we accessed knowledge forever.
A great read if you want to understand a bit more how we managed to turn some clanking gears and the abstract idea of a computing machine, into the interconnected world we have now. Explains the concepts in a simple enough manner, but also gives a great introduction into the people who made it happen, and the worlds that they made it happen in.
4 out of 5 innovative geniuses

The eBooks

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle imagines a future where one Internet company gets so powerful, and becomes such an integral part of our daily lives, that it essentially ends up taking over large parts of who we are. Almost an attempt at a modern 1984, with a Google/Facebook mash-up as the sinister Big Brother, whose constant surveillance and demands for compliance eventually convert the main character in a Winston Smithish fashion. It’s a tale that was ripe for the telling as social media continues its inexorable charge into our lives, and though I found the world it created interesting, I think it didn’t present it in a convincing enough way. This is the kind of book where I wanted to argue with the main characters because there wasn’t enough of a dissenting voice in the story that I could hitch my wagon to.
3 out of 5 status likes

Moon for Sale by Jeff Pollard

Sequel to the first Kindle book I ever read. The story follows a character modelled on Elon Musk as he continues his quest to colonise space in competition with the sluggish government bureaucracies.

This is a good read if you like the technical details of space exploration (which I do). But the author is still finding his feet, the book needs some more editing, and the overall feel is a bit amateurish.

Lots of potential and I am invested enough to be looking forward to the next in the series, but this is more of a guilty pleasure for myself than it is a book I would recommend to others.

3 out of 5 thinly veiled references to real life Elon Musk facts

Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is shaping our Future by Ashlee Vance

This year my Musk fandom sky-rocketed like one of his falcon rockets! I can’t get enough of this guy, and his amazing plans for the future. He builds rockets, electric cars, solar utilities, ponders the danger of artificial intelligence and suggests plans for things like a Hyperloop. I am a massive Musk fan, a Muskiteer, and this book only added kerosene to the fire (kerosene is the fuel they use in SpaceX rockets after all….).

If you want a primer on all things Musk, this book is a must read. It chronicles his whole life, from a boy in South Africa, his move to America, funding of his initial start-up, then the multi-million dollar sale of PayPal, and on to his current ventures with Tesla (electric cars) and SpaceX (the eventual colonisation of Mars). More important however is that it shows you a bit of how Musk thinks, and what his plans are; and trust me, these are fascinating topics.

5 out of 5 Mars Colonial Transporters

Nexus by Ramez Naam

A cool science fiction story set in a not too distance future where an illegal drug allows some hackers to enhance their minds. It’s cool seeing how a hacking could be applied to the human mind, like when a character creates a program to help him keep his cool in tense situations, or boots up a protocol that allows him to bust Kung Fu moves on his would be attackers. And of course there are attackers because the story quickly has our hero being busted by the government, and then sent on a mission with a similarly ‘enhanced’ secret agent to spy on a mad scientist, blah blah blah. An enjoyable story that I had forgotten I read, but remembered that I enjoyed.

3.5 out of 5 cyberpunks

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

I already wrote a bit about this over here, so I won’t go into much detail. Suffice to say I love all things Kim Stanley Robinson’s, and this was no exception.

Set on the tail end of a generation ships journey to Tau Ceti, the book deals with the realities of keeping a society functioning on a starship over hundreds of years, how that impacts on them, and the challenges they must face.

5 out of 5 regressions toward the mean

Parasite by Mira Grant

An interesting story about a future where people swallow genetically engineered tapeworms as a means of controlling their health and medication. But of course something starts going wrong, and soon people are being taken over by a ‘sleeping sickness’ that may or may not be the tapeworms taking over.

I enjoyed this book, but it took a while to reveal its big twist, so by the time one of the characters finally said what we were all thinking, it had become painfully obvious. Also, this is the first in a trilogy, and it really felt like it.

3 out of 5 medication excreting tapeworms

The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend

This book is exactly what I have been looking for for a long time. I have always been conflicted when it comes to eating meat. I love animals, and I believe that it is cruel to keep them in cages their whole lives, and then slaughter them just to eat their flesh.

But on the other hand; hamburgers. And Pizza, and bacon, and spaghetti bolognese! I can’t give these things up!

The good news is, don’t have to. I don’t have to be a vegetarian. I can accept my place in the food chain as a compassionate carnivore.

This book taught me a lot about how animals get from pasture to plate, how they should be treated, and more importantly, how they shouldn’t be treated. It taught me that yes I can eat meat, but I need to be conscious of where it comes from. I can eat meat, but only from humanely cared for animals. I can eat meat, but only in appropriate portions.

Of all the books I read this year, this has had the biggest influence on me. Yes I still struggle with the moral implications of eating meat. But now at least I feel like I have educated myself on the problem. I am more considerate of my actions, and how what I choose to eat affects others, in particular the animals themselves.

The book is written by a lamb farmer, so she knows her stuff and is by no means preachy. I encourage anyone who eats meat to give it a read.

5 out of 5 grass fed steaks (with no added hormones or antibiotics)

Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s only foray into fantasy writing (unless you count the Buddhist reincarnation bits from The Years of Rice and Salt) follows the story of a strange who washes up on a beach with little memory of who he is, or where he has travelled. He follows the coastline of a seemingly planet spanning peninsula, and encounters a lot of weirdness along the way.

An interesting read, but unlike all of Kim Stanley Robinson’s other stuff, I don’t feel like I have taken anything away from this story. It was entertaining, yes; but it didn’t teach me anything new, It didn’t make me think about anything in a new way, it didn’t broaden my horizons to anything that is real. Though I suppose this is more of a disconnect with me and the fantasy realm, than it is a criticism of the book itself.

3 out of 5 men with small apple trees growing on their shoulders

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

The moon is colonised in the not too distance future, but it is an ugly place. Five massive families/corporations have a hold on the moon, and battle it out Game of Thrones style, complete with knife fights (there are no laws on the moon except contract law, so trial by combat is still a thing), and forced marriages. The story follows one of the ruling families, the Cortas’, who mine the lunar soil for Helium 3.

A great bit of hard sci-fi, with entertaining characters, and a fully realised lunar society that appears completely believable, but utterly alien; just like good sci-fi should.

4.5 out of 5 low gravity knife fights

Homo Evolutes by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

Ok, yes, you got me; I cheated. I used this little TED book to make my 19 books in 2015 become the more rounded 20 book sin 2015. Sue me.

Homo Evolutis is the name of a hypothesised new species of human that is coming about due to many changes currently under way across the world. Changes ranging from elective surgeries, gene therapy, cultural changes. Blah blah blah.

This book was interesting, though I wouldn’t really consider it a book. More of a transcribed TED talk with copious references. Now this isn’t a bad thing; I enjoyed reading it, and got a lot of information from it. But I still don’t feel entirely comfortable listing it as a book I read. So instead I will finish my list with:

Call back from 2014

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson

I started reading this book in 2014, got through the first few chapters, and then it got lost in the mix somehow until I fund it again in February, 2015. Given the fact that I have blogged about Kim Stanley Robinson in the past, and two other books of his appear on this list, you may have figured out that I am a fan.

At any rate, this novel is set simultaneously in the past, and in the distant future, as the famed scientist Galileo Galilei is flung back and forth through time to help solve the scientific and moral conundrum facing people living on the moons of Jupiter. I was initially sceptical about this read, as half of it seemed historical fiction. But it was actually great to be able to read about Galileo, and how his scientific mind worked back before a lot of the tools we had today existed.

4 out of 5 Papal betrayals

In Memory of Those Who Didn’t Make It

Each year I start more books than I finish. I usually also buy more books than I start. It is a viscous cycle, but I like to think that I am just failure proofing my reading ,so that if there is ever a catastrophe and I lose my income, I will still have a bookshelf of new reads awaiting me (now where I could house that bookshelf is another question).

This year I bought approximately 51 books, here are those that I failed to fit into my reading:

  • Mr Holmes
  • The World until Yesterday
  • The Hour between Dog and Wolf
  • The Moral Lives of Animals
  • Scatter Adapt and Remember
  • Ghost Flight
  • The Dispossessed
  • Railsea
  • My Beloved Brontosaurus
  • In The Heart of the Sea
  • The Lagoon
  • Joseph Anton
  • An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth
  • Why the West Rules For Now
  • Reamde
  • Future Babble
  • The Lab Rat Chronicles
  • The Spy
  • An Appetite for Wonder
  • Leviathan Wakes
  • The Second World War
  • Threat Vector
  • Seveneves
  • The Knowledge
  • Superintelligence
  • Solving the Procrastination Problem
  • Crux
  • How We’ll Live on Mars
  • The Three-Body Problem
  • Thinking about it Only Makes it Worse
  • Wired for Love

Let me know any thoughts you have on these books, or books that I should add to my list for this years reading.



Some thoughts on Kim Stanley Robinson’s work

Kim Stanley Robinson is the author who I would say has had the most influence on my life.

I got into his books when I was young enough that a lot of what I read I didn’t really understand. The psychological representations in Red Mars left me confused, the eco-economics and gift economy went over my head, the idea of social revolution, of building a new society free of the ‘straightjacket of history’ was fascinating, but much of the more complex themes in the book generally left my young mind perplexed (not to mention the sometimes very explicit sex scenes).

But I thoroughly enjoyed the book, enjoyed reading a science fiction story that felt more like a history book transported back in time from the future, and less like a fantastic tale of make believe. It felt real, and it was simply transformative. It helped me form a lot of the ideals and principles that still hold fast in my mind today. It gave me a way to see the world as an adult, when I was still just a kid.

Indeed it was only last year that I took it upon myself to read the Mars Trilogy again, and was shocked at how much of what I thought of the world seemed to have been ignited by that story over 19 years ago. Though while the Mars trilogy is by far my favourite of KSR’s tales, his other offerings have also left undeniable imprints on who I am.

The Science in the Capital series drew my attention to game theory, the idea of a paleo lifestyle, thoughts on how we could impact our world in opposition to climate change, and a better understanding of how other cultures ways of thinking could be incorporated into our own. It was also nice to have a protagonist who was an attentive father (which at the time I was attempting to become).

The Years of Rice and Salt was an eye opener in that it showed a world free of the cultural lens that I had viewed it through for most of my life. Reading an alternative history without a western civilisation, but still with tendrils of parallel events, experiences and social progress flowing within, helped me to understand history a bit better, and to seek out an understanding of how the world came to be as it is, and how those living at certain times may have faced the challenges of the world.

Overarching themes in Robinson’s works also embedded themselves in my mind.

My first exposure to Arab culture as a young man came through the Mars Trilogy, and then in a post 9-11 world it was fascinating to read about an Islamic world in The Years of Rice and Salt, and to be presented with compelling characters, thoughtful ideas, and a new way to view Islam; all much more interesting than the caricature of Muslims that became so prevalent in those years (and even now).

Forty Signs of Rain introduced us to a protagonist who liked to examine the world through the prism of the savannah, and the human races evolutionary origins; using game theory and sociobiological tools to understand how modern humans are a result of prehistoric human’s journey through time. Then Shaman completed the notion by giving us a first-hand account of how life may have been for those humans who were genetically so like us, but whose lives seems to disparate from what we consider a human existence today. So different, yet still so similar.

His novels are also interesting to me in that they offer me a chance to see the world through different eyes than a lot of other science fiction experiences (especially moves and TV) commonly available. Being a white male from a western society, it is easy to find characters I can seemingly identify with, but that connection always seemed so superficial. In Kim Stanley Robinsons works I was able to identify with characters from wildly different backgrounds than my own.

The Mars Trilogy gave me characters of different nationalities, as many books do, but it also eventually showed me people who have not only been born Martian, but perhaps more interesting; those that have become Martian. The Years of Rice and Salt has a cast of characters who not only seem to be reincarnated throughout history, but who are exclusively non-European. It has African, Arab, Asian and Native American protagonists in abundance. Shaman is populated by Stone Age characters, who seemingly have no corollary with today’s cultures, but nevertheless are distinctly human (except for the Neanderthal that is). And lastly 2312 introduced the post-human possibilities where people skewed both gender and family roles until it was almost unrecognisable from today’s terms.

But throughout it all they were very grounded characters; very human, and as such undeniably flawed. Just as they should be.

At any rate, I write this seemingly random fanboy post because Robinson’s new book Aurora was released a few nights ago. I had pre-purchased it on Amazon and spent the first few seconds after midnight repeatedly tapping the refresh button on my kindle until I had it firmly ensconced in the ones and zeroes of its digital storage.

I have read about 40% of it so far, and I have to say that though I am enjoying it, it does seem somewhat less optimistic than a lot of his other works, though I guess you have to push your characters down a few troughs before you can be suitably invested in them climbing back up the hill.

Strangely, the story only seems to feature one point of view character, though Robinson’s tendency to include interesting narrators for sections of his novels continues here. In the Mars Trilogy we had mythological Martian figures narrate sections, The Years of Rice and Salt had intermissions between characters set in the Buddhist afterlife (with appropriately weird narrations), Shaman even managed to have ones ‘third wind’ personified as a narrator. So I guess the fact that he utilises the ships computer (which has been tasked with constructing a narrative of the journey) to narrate a few chapters seems to make a bit more sense.

Kim Stanley Robinsons books are science fiction the way I like it; real.

I have a deep respect for science that perhaps wouldn’t have survived my transition from idealistic uni student, to pen pushing local government bureaucrat, were it not for the passion that these books ignited in me. I believe deeply that our planet, and other planets, and the environment, and so forth are an important part of who we are, and not just a resource to be used up.

Perhaps these books also have a deleterious effect on my opinions also. Maybe I am a bit too open to anarchism than I should be these days, because Arkady Bogdanov was such a charismatic figure. Perhaps I would be too willing to drop everything, grab my family, and jump on one of Elon Musk’s rockets to Mars, than caution would warrant. But really I would prefer to find an author who is able to inspire a passion and yearning for utopic ideas, than one who fails to create any such long lasting effect on my mind.