2021 Reading List

January 01 2021

This is the reading list for 2021.

  1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  2. Kiki's Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono
  3. The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
  4. Alright, Alright, Alright by Melissa Maerz
  5. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
  6. Detah's End by Cixin Liu

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This book had been on my radar for a while now, and I see it frequently makes the rounds of books that people have really enjoyed in the past few years. Sapiens is essentially a history book for humans. I mostly enjoyed the beginning of the book, when Harari describes the evolution of other human-adjacent species into Homo sapiens. He does a great job of putting things into perspective, including the discussion of whether humans were better off (in terms of quality of living) when they were still scavengers, before settling down in the agriculturual revolution.

The latter parts of the book are more a discussion of macro trends in human culture, such as how economics, religion, and other factors influenced our development. Those parts were less interesting, as they were very high level summaries of histories that most people are likely at least somewhat familiar with. Overall though, this was a very thought-provoking text.

Kiki's Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono

Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films. The movie is inspired by this book, which is really a children’s book. The movie captures the ethos of the book very well. It is a simple, heartwarming coming of age story, with Kiki the witch setting off on her own at the age of thirteen. The book is organized as a series of events/deliveries, which is similar to that of the movie. There is not the same level of conflict, either external or internal, as in the movie. Still, the book is extremely cute and was a pleasure to read.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

I had been recommended this novel by friends for a few years now. I’m not sure why I waited so long. This book is wholly original and a real page-turner. When I first started reading, I read for several hours straight, not going to bed until 2 in the morning.

It has a real Chinese element, both in terms of history and culture. It also has a pseudo Physics element, which is quite pleasurable to read. The only nitpick I have is that the ending is a little unsatisfying, and there is a bit of a deus ex machina element where some things are basically not explained at all, other than some version of “it works”. Regardless, I’m already looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Alright, Alright, Alright by Melissa Maerz

Dazed and Confused is one of my favorite movies, and Richard Linklater is one of my favorite directors (I especially enjoy the Before trilogy). I didn’t really know much about Linklater, and I just assumed he was a typical Hollywood director.

This oral history starts with an in-depth study of Linklater, and he really is a fascinating figure. He is extremely counter-mainstream. He really tries to do things in a different and unique way.

The movie itself sounded like a blast to make. All the kids in the movie basically spent an entire summer together. There were friendships, jealousies, romantic flings, and bonding.

The added bonus of the book is describing in some detail the origin story of Matthew McConaughey, for whom Dazed is essentially his first work as an actor. A big part of the movie had to be rewritten , as it turned out that one of the original main chaaracters (Pickford) was played by an actor that was very difficult to work with. McConaughey was such a sensation on set that they based the entire ending around him.

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

After a short break non-fiction break with the Dazed and Confused oral history, I decided to go back to the Three Body Problem trilogy. This one started out very slowly, and I really had a hard time getting into it. What drew me in ultimately was the sequence where Luo Ji, the main character, describes an experience in which he fell in love with a woman purely from his imagination. Ultimately, the book was very enjoyable, probably as enjoyable as the first one. The central thesis of the book, that the universe is dangerous and fundamentally there can be no “friendly cooperation” between different worlds, is a good one and compelling. It presents an alternative viewpoint to most sci-fi, where the assumption is that we’ll have agreed to understand cultural differences across planets and species. The thesis really is a lonely one: it makes it feel all the more that we (humans and Earth) are singularly alone in the universe.

The book is not without its faults. After the lovely description of the imaginary girlfriend, the plot takes a nonsensical turn where the actual woman is (almost literally) procured for Luo Ji. The book also doesn’t take much time to consider the repercussions of this fake, manufactured romance. The idea of the Wallfacers is interesting, but they all ultimately fizzle out at the end. The author also starts to really enjoy taking long detours. Where the first Three Body book was compact and forward-moving, I felt this one would dawdle for pages at a time (the climax with the Droplet is such an example). Finally, there is the oddity of reading a story in which the main character’s name is literally the Chinese word for “Logic”.

Death's End by Cixin Liu

This time, I decided not to wait, so I just plowed ahead and finished the Three Body Trilogy. Unfortunately, while this book still has the page-turner qualities of the first two books, it is not nearly as well thought out or as satisfying as a conclusion to the trilogy.

My biggest criticism is actually in story construction. The main character, Cheng Xin, simply doesn’t have anything to do. She is meant to represent “the soft side of humanity” (or something like that), but the book just makes her look weak and ineffectual at every turn. I kept waiting for her to have some turn, like a redemption arc. She makes it to the end of the book, but, again, it’s less to do with her actions, and instead it’s more about actions happening to her. That’s simply not very satisfying, and it’s all the more frustrating that the author decided to make her a female character (in contrast to the previous male protagonists who are all pretty strong-willed).

The other criticism is this book is the most “science fictiony” of the three. The first two are more like philosophy books. Their central conflicts are revealing of human nature (and perhaps, the nature of all beings). This one doesn’t really reveal anything greater about our nature. Instead, it is chock full of physics/cosmological predictions and ideas, all of which are interesting to think about, but none of which is actually compelling.

Overall, I’m happy I got through these books, and they really were entertaining. My favorite is probably the Dark Forest, simply because the game theory-like philosophy put forth is really provocative to think about.

Topics: Book ReviewsLists

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