Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
Since May, I’ve been on a project to read all the Hugo Award winners for best novel in order (more on that in a bit). There have been a lot of really good books on there, including acknowledged classics like The Demolished Man, Starship Troopers, and my favorite book in the whole world, Dune. I’ve also kept up with more recent works, like the later books in Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, and the first four books of Campbell’s Lost Fleet series. There’s been a lot of science fiction, but one which has stuck with me, and which deepens the more I think about it, is Zelazny’s Lord of Light, where posthuman space colonists have created a corrupt and decadent society based on Indian mythology, and last rebel must use all his talents in strategy, deceit, and a very personalized form of Buddhism, to break the power of the Gods. Quick, stylish, surprisingly deep, and simply epic. A great book that contemporary fans might have missed.
Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone
I don’t read much literary fiction, but by far the best was Every Man Dies Alone, an appropriately melancholy book about collaboration, survival, and death in Nazi Germany. Fallada balances the dignity and pointless sacrifice of his heroes against the cruelty and venality of the Nazi state, and immediately after the war tried to offer a vision of what could be saved. Somewhat bathetic, but quite moving, and ultimately about the strength to press on in the face of the impossible.
John Markoff, What the Doormouse Said
Palo Alto in the 1960s was one of the strangest places in the universe, a place where the future was being invented in the form of the personal computer, in the midst of political and psychedelic ferment. Through a series of astounding vignettes, Markoff reveals the hidden history of Silicon Valley, and the links between the birth of the personal computer, psychedelic exploration, and the radical politics of the anti-war movement. Turn on, log in, drop out.
James W. Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam
Most of my Vietnam War book reviews include the phrase "Vietnam was fractally fucked up". In The Perfect War, Gibson identifies the mathematical seed of that fractal; an ideology that he deems technowar, and traces its ramifications across Indochina in one of the best general histories of the war, which covers the choice to enter Vietnam, the ground war, the air war, and development and corruption. Technowar, as described by Gibson, is a war of technologically sophisticated industrial systems directed by officer-managers. Victory is achieved through qualitative and quantitative margins of superiority in armament. Cost efficient application of key military inputs (tanks, bombs, ships, soldiers) would modulate strategic outputs (victories), and the United States, by virtue of have the best military inputs, would always achieve the best outputs. More than a strategy, technowar was also a closed intellectual system. This closed intellectual system made victory impossible, since strategy was generated in a kind of fantasy world. Unable to locate victories on the ground, technowar took to measuring its own inputs: sortie rates, hamlets fortified, and above all the body count. The need to produce statistics falsified the war at all level, the lies "legitimated" in a process of institutional doublethink through medals and promotions for the most productive officers, and new names and propaganda for civilian programs. Relevant today, because technowar is still the main doctrine of the US military.
Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution
In Undoing the Demos, Brown goes full bore for the origins and nature of the current crisis of faith, an ideology which consumes labor, democracy, law, education, and life itself in the quest for every higher profits for a small group of elites. Unlike most scholars, who wave at neoliberalism to indicate everything they don’t like, Brown offers a strong definition of neoliberalism, capable adapting to it's protean forms, as the "economizing of spheres and activities" in policy, practice, and rhetoric, and everything which casts life as a matter of competition rather than community or exchange, and takes as it's best model the building of a diverse and exponentially expanding investment portfolio. The ultimate form of neoliberalism is the transformation of human beings, political entities with defined rights who form self-governing communities and live and die, into human capitals, value-increasing portfolios of skills, assets, and social networks, who are combined into ever greater portfolios for the purposes of wealth expansion. As a critique, there are no solutions and little hope, but this might be the book to help see what’s going wrong with the world as a prelude to setting it right.
Grant P. Wiggins, Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design
The best book about education I’ve read, Wiggins and McTighe make a strong argument for how to do instructional design properly, based on a clear and courageous statement of what students are supposed to understand at the end of a unit, the authentic performance based tasks that will be used to measure that understanding, and daily lessons and activities that help students gain proficiency in performance and applying understandings in new contexts. More than the empty battery of facts and skills and standardized tests favored by the accountability movement, Understanding by Design shows a way to create classes that really help students learn, and education that makes a difference in the world. Great teachers will already know this pattern, but for less confident educators, this is a vital aid to planning a curriculum.