Version Control by Dexter Palmer (Pantheon Books, 2016)
This new science fiction book looked intimidating at first (it’s almost 500 pages long) but once I got into it, it was hard to put down. It turned out to be one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in a long time. The author, who lives in New Jersey, won an award for his first novel in 2010 and will probably be winning another for this one. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it hangs on this question: whether traveling back in time branches you off onto a new version of the universe, or overwrites the present with a new version. Physicists feature prominently in this complex story, set only a few years in the future, which also examines the ethics of online dating sites, the dangers of self-driving cars, and where artificial intelligence could be leading us. There is a side plot about racism and sexism in the sciences. The ending was very satisfying, to me anyway. I highly recommend this book.
Rise of the Rocket Girls: the women who propelled us, from missiles to the moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)
This is the true story of the women who worked at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a professional capacity from its founding in the early 1940s to the 1990s. In 2013, the author interviewed several dozen women who had worked as engineers at JPL over its history, making this into a collective biography that uses real names, photos, career highlights, and love stories. In the beginning they were called computers, because they literally used their mathematical skills to compute trajectories, escape velocities, and many other key parameters needed to guide rockets to their destinations. Though some of them had mathematics or even engineering degrees, the women who were hired at JPL in the 1940s and 1950s were not classified as engineers; they were part of a separate all-women group. Those that stuck around JPL into the 1960s were eventually reclassified, when computers came to mean digital computing machines and gender discrimination started to be frowned upon. Prior to that they suffered significant discrimination, such as when they were forced to quit when they became pregnant. Threaded throughout the book are descriptions of the various space missions that JPL supported over the years and the many technical contributions made by women engineers. The black and white photographs really made the story come to life for me.
Why America Misunderstands the World by Paul R. Pillar (Columbia University Press, 2016)
This new book by retired CIA officer Paul Pillar tries to explain why Americans “misunderstand” the world. In other words, why our foreign policy is based on a very different perception of why people in other countries behave than those people themselves have. Despite having been a representative of the American way of looking at the world for his whole career, Paul Pillar has also spent a great deal of time in other countries. He reveals a lot of insight into the psychology of American thought with regard to foreign countries. Pillar explains how American exceptionalism developed from our unique history and geographical advantages, and how our lack of interest in learning about other nations has made us even more prone to misperceptions based on ignorance. Pillar is critical of right-wing leaders (such as the Bushes) but also tends to blame “the public” for not being smart enough to avoid being misled. I don’t like the “blame the victim” mentality (we’re not the ones with the power, after all), nor Pillar’s idea that leaders sometimes have to talk the public into doing what he considers the right thing. But it was an interesting book, and he makes the point very well that it is ridiculous to expect the war on terror to be the sort of war that comes to an end one day with a treaty (presumably with the U.S. winning).