The Top 5 Science Fiction novels I read in 2017

  1. Kim Stanley Robinson – New York 2140
  2. Charles Stross – Empire Games
  3. Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home
  4. Taiyo Fuji – Orbital Cloud
  5. Gergory Benford – The Berlin Project

KSR’s latest social-ecological science fiction novel moves further backwards in the same timeline as 2312 and Aurora, to examine a rather nearer-future New York struggling to deal with the ongoing reality of rising sea-levels. A large cast of diverse characters centred around a common connection to one particular appartment block lends the book a real humanity and, despite everything, a sense of optimism that we can overcome the worst if we all begin to realise and work with that common humanity.

While Charles Stross shares KSR’s broadly leftist politics, his work has always exhibited a far more British cynicism. I never really got into the earlier volumes of the timeline-hopping multiversal Merchant Princes sequence of which this latest book, Empire Games, is nominally a sequel, however you don’t even need to have read any of those books to enjoy this very timely SF thriller, which deals effectively with auhoritarianism, imperialism, capitalism and surveillance without laboring any of its political points. I will definitely be reading the next book in the sequence.

Nnedi Okorafor is perhaps the most exciting young SF writer around. Home is a black, African, feminist SF novella, the middle volume of the Binti Trilogy. It deals with the experience of a brilliant young Himba woman, who gains a place at the best university in the galaxy, overcomes the most violent adversity and is herself transformed in the process, and in this volume returns home, both alien and alienated and seeking deeper roots. It is really quite marvellous but written with an incredibly light touch that makes is suitable for all ages.

Taiyo Fuji is an emerging Japanese SF writer, whose 2014 novel, Genehacker, was a really prescient biotechnothriller dealing with the corporate commercial dominance of genetic modification. Orbital Cloud deals with more conventional hacking, along with Bourne-style espionage and surveillance satellites and features all kinds of political and personal machinations between the USA, Japan, North Korea and Iran.

Gregory Benford’s The Berlin Project, is a rather more subtle alternative history than most until around halfway through. Like Katherine Ann Goonen’s In War Times from a few years back, Benford uses the technique of mixing the author’s family history with alterations to what actually happened in quite an effective way. However, also like Goonan’s book, it starts to make rather implausible demands of its characters to get some of its plot twists to work.

I could write a lot more about all the books I didn’t enjoy quite so much this year that everyone else seemed to, but I won’t!

The Top 5 Academic / Non-fiction books I read in 2017

  1. Shannon Mattern – Code and Clay; Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media
  2. Achille Mbembé –  Critique of Black Reason
  3. Stuart Elden – Foucault: The Birth of Power
  4. Adam Greenfield – Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life
  5. McKenzie Wark – General Intellects: Twenty-Five Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century

I’ve only just started Shannon Mattern’s Code and Clay; Data and Dirt, but it’s already my #1 non-fiction read of the year. It’s just my kind of thing: enormous ambition, a sweeping historical scope and an infectious brillance that makes you see new things in and about cities.

Achille Mbembé’s Critique of Black Reason has finally been translated into English. It’s an extraordinary book that place the project of creating ‘blackness’ as a nonhuman category through centuries of colonial dominance, capitalist exploitation and oppression. It builds on Mbembé’s earlier development of the concept of ‘necropolitics’, transforming this from a critique of Foucauldian biopolitics into something far more central to the expansion of European power, and its current decline.

Speaking of Foucault, in a year when there has been even more intense efforts to disparage and discredit the greatest thinker of the second half of the twentieth century and even to portray him as a neoliberal fellow-traveller, it was refreshing to read the latest installment of Stuart Elden’s painstakingly researched and evidenced account of Foucault’s middle years, The Birth of Power. Elden is working backwards, the first volume having been on Foucault’s Last Decade, and he makes a convincing case for a consistent project throughout Foucault’s life, but also, in this volume, for a much more Marxist Foucault than his (frankly, much less well-read) critics often realise.

Adam Greenfield continues to produce excellent polemical but well-argued work on urban technologies. In Radical Technologies, he dispatches everything from the Internet of Things to Blockchain. Although sometimes the relentless negativity can get wearing, it’s a welcome corrective to the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley.

Finally, I used McKenzie Wark’s edited collection of his essays for Public Seminar, General Intellects, for my graduate theory class this year, and therefore read it and discussed its themes in far greater detail than I would normally do. It made for a very provocative course, and the students and I were at times infuriated with and delighted by the threads that Wark weaves through this work. At its worst, it seems like really there is only one ‘general intellect’ for Wark, and that’s Wark. But, at its best, the book asks all the right questions of those approaching social theory in this new century. It really needed a bit more a global scope – Wark considers Chinese and African thinkers elsewhere on the website but not in the book itself, which isn’t great especially when the book does find space for crap like vacuous hippy ‘philosopher’, Timothy Morton.

What I’m reading (Autumn 2017)

Adam Greenfield (2017) Radical Technologies: the Design of Everyday Life. A sceptical take on the promise(s) of utopian technologies.

Achille Mbembe (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Esssential theoretical reading from this boundary-pushing post-colonial thinker.

Nicole Starosielski (2015) The Undersea Network. Fascinating account of (mainly) Pacific undersea communications networks.

Jocelyn Wills (2017) Tug of War: Surveillance Capitalism, Military Contracting and the Rise of the Security State. A history of the Canadian satellite communications firm, MacDonald Dettwiller & Associates (MDA).

What I’m reading (Summer 2017)

Here’s what I’m currently reading, as of June 2017…

Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz (2017) The Shock of the Anthropocene. Only just starting this recent translation from the French of a 2013 work.

William E. Connolly (2017) Facing the Planetary. I had high hopes for this book but it’s turning out to be a disappointment, about which more later…

George Monbiot (2017) How Did We Get into This Mess? A passionate and popular – but not dumbed-down – account of what’s wrong with the world by The Guardian columnist

Joshua Reeves (2017) Citizen Spies. A strong, historically-drive account of contemporary US surveillance

McKenzie Wark (2017) General Intellects. This essential collection of essays on contemporary thinkers will be the base text for my graduate social theory class, starting in the Fall

#FreeAhmed: The last human rights defender in the UAE

The United Arab Emirates is the fantasy frontier of hi-tech dreams of smart cities and a frictionless economy. We are encouraged to believe that from nowhere it has risen out of the sand, almost fully formed, weightless, its glass skyscrapers a city of the future. It has become the favourite destination of western entrepreneurs and inward investment. 95% of the country’s population is now temporary foreign residents simply there to make as much money as they can before they leave. No questions are asked about how it really got this way and at what cost.

But there is a cost.

The UAE is a hereditary Sheikhdom. There is no democracy, no independent judiciary, no free speech, indeed almost none of the things that those inward investors would expect in their own countries and for themselves.

In March 2017, the UAE’s secret police arrested a man described as the last human rights activist in the sheikhdom. Since 2011, Ahmed Mansoor had been one of the few dissenting voices willing to challenge the myth of the UAE as a techno-paradise. Just like other Arab patriots in the region, he loves his country, and he wants it to be better. Not just rich, not just a smart, bright playground for foreign money, but a country where its wealth can make for a more just and equal society – just like the nations whose investment supports the UAE. He tried to draw attention to the plight of his fellow critical voices, almost all of whom have been ‘disappeared’ by the regime.

But even Mansoor’s mild and well-mannered calls for change cannot be tolerated. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, it is likely he will never be released.

It’s long past time that the countries which invest so much in the UAE begin to take some responsibility for the treatment of people like Mansoor. We can’t claim that this is nothing to do our investments, and our companies who makes so much money from the UAE.

This is why we are so pleased to see that at least Mansoor is recognised by a new exhibition at the Digital Catapult in London their first venture into digital art. The organisation, which relies so much on investment from industry, now has Ahmed Mansoor’s portrait enshrined in its floors. The installation is by London artist, Manu Luksch, who has been working on the glossy stories of hi-tech UAE and its smart city, Masdar, interviewed Mansoor last year just weeks before his arrest. The portrait is fragile, made from sand from the deserts of the UAE.  Just like Mansoor himself, his picture could vanish, disappear as if it had never existed.

Sand graffiti portrait of Ahmed Mansoor at Digital Catapult, London (Manu Luksch)

Like Mansoor himself, we need to be witnesses and recognise this courageous human being, one of the few people prepared to stand up not just to a repressive government but to the power of our corporations and governments who support them. Western governments need to speak with more than just money. Our brands of digital innovation need to have human rights at their core.

Together, Manu and I are calling for the release of Ahmed Mansoor, and other dissident voices, and for a vision of our shared future that does not see human beings as expendable in the face of ‘smart’ technological innovation.

The UAE government cares what we think. They need us. So we have a duty to speak out.

Spread the word: #FreeAhmed

Manu Luksch and David Murakami Wood


Background on Ahmed Mansoor

Ahmed Mansoor, UAE 2016

2011 – “The UAE Five”

The Arab Spring: as a telecommunication engineer and blogger, Ahmed Mansoor facilitates a discussion forum online together with five activists, later known as the UAE Five.  After signing a petition in favour of an elected parliament, Mansoor is arrested and convicted for ‘insults to the nation’s leadership’. After his release, due to international pressure, he remained without passport or licence to take on work, etc.

2015 – “the Nobel Prize for human rights.”

Ahmed Mansoor is the recipient of the Laureate Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders 2015 by Amnesty International.

2016 – “The Million Dollar Dissident”

Mansoor’s iphone is targeted by expensive spyware. A Citizen Lab report raises questions about lack of accountability and regulation in the case of spyware developed in democraties and sold to countries with shocking human rights records.

2017 – March 20: “The last Emirati human rights activist” 

Ahmed Mansoor is  detained on charges of ‘spreading hatred and sectarianism on social media’.

2017 – May 28: “Disappeared”

Mansoor is sentenced to 10 years in prison.

#FreeAhmed: Calls for Ahmed’s release

Ahmed Mansoor    Ahmed Mansoor

Ahmed Mansoor   Ahmed Mansoor

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