A Midsummer Reading List

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To provide a fresh voice—and thus a fresh summer reading list—we’ve asked C.W. Howell to describe his recommended reading for the summer. Chris (as he goes by in person!) is a writer, who holds a PhD in religion from Duke University. He has taught at Duke and Elon Universities, serves as a Research Associate at Duke for Kate Bowler, and is the academic director at the C.S. Lewis Foundation. His upcoming first book is a history of the intelligent design movement, to be published by NYU Press. He writes regularly on religion, science, and technology—as well as science fiction, pop culture, and C.S. Lewis—on his website.

Dream Machine and The Maniac: Fresh Perspectives on Technology

I’m excited to contribute four listings to your summer reading list: one I just read, two I plan to read, and one that I am rereading.

I recently finished The Dream Machine by science writer M. Mitchell Waldrop—a sort of composite history of computing and the internet as well as a biography of the sadly little-known J.C.R. Licklider. Licklider is sometimes called “computing’s Johnny Appleseed” because he was more influential as a visionary and ideas man than strictly as an inventor. He worked at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and helped lead Project MAC at MIT, where—along with many luminaries of computer science—Licklider participated in groundbreaking research in operating systems, theory of computation, and artificial intelligence.

But it was in conceiving of the internet and a symbiotic relationship between humans and machines that “Lick,” as his friends called him, had the most influence. His memo on the “Intergalactic Computer Network,” for instance, laid the groundwork for ARPANET, which would eventually evolve into the internet as we understand it.

From a religion and science standpoint, the book is interesting on two fronts. First, Waldrop characterizes computer scientists like Licklider as fighting back against psychological behaviorism in defense of the human mind. Computation’s influence on philosophy of mind often seems mechanistic and reductionist, but Waldrop inverts this perspective and shows that the computer revolution could be seen, in some ways, as a kind of non-reductionist humanism. Licklider, who had a background in psychology, played an important role in eroding the supremacy of hyper-mechanistic theories of mind.

Second, Licklider was especially interested in human-machine symbiosis and wanted computers to assist and support human creative endeavors. Though he had abandoned his religious upbringing, he still maintained a high view of humanity and hoped that computers could amplify and serve our creativity and flourishing. His perspective and hopes on this are worth considering as we grapple with the impact of artificial intelligence on education, media, and jobs.

Beyond Licklider, Mitchell also chronicles early technological visionaries like Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener, and John von Neumann, which leads to my second book suggestion. Benjamin Labatut’s The Maniac, which was published last year, is a strange hybrid of a book: part novel, part history, and part “fictional biography”—all focusing on the “smartest human being of the 20th century,” John von Neumann. It promises to also cover the history of artificial intelligence and the series of Go matches between Lee Sedol and AlphaGo, in which AlphaGo defeated Sedol with a stunning “divine move” and called into question humanity’s ability to defeat machines at complex games.

  • Here are links for Waldrof’s The Dream Machine and Labtut’s The Maniac.
  • The two recommended books in the second half are here (Egginton’s) and here (Wolfe’s).
  • The New York Times offered this fascinating review of The Maniac.

Explorations into Quantum Physics and Science Fiction

Another similarly creative and similarly recent book I am planning to read this summer is William Egginton’s The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Kant, Heisenberg, and the Nature of Ultimate Reality—a three-way examination of Immanuel Kant, Werner Heisenberg, and Jorge Luis Borges. Egginton focuses on the way all three figures came to change our understanding of what constitutes “reality.” Putting literature (in Borges) in conversation with science (in Heisenberg) is especially apt, considering that Borges’ 1941 short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” is an eerily prescient portrayal of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Borges also factors into the last book (or, rather, series of books) on this list.

To turn now to the realm of science fiction, I have been re-reading The Book of the New Sun (a four-part series) by Gene Wolfe. While not as famous as C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, Wolfe was one of the most accomplished and acclaimed Christian writers of science fiction and fantasy. It’s easy, however, to see why he’s sometimes overlooked: his books are dense, complicated, and bizarre. Imagine taking Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, fusing it with the most morbid of Flannery O’Connor’s tales, and then setting the whole thing thousands of years in the future. Like Ulysses, the joke with The Book of the New Sun is “never read it for the first time.”

Its influences range from sci-fi classics like Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series to high literature like Moby-Dick, In Search of Lost Time, and Borges’s stories. (Borges himself even shows up as a character in The Book of the New Sun, albeit in disguise.) Wolfe draws deeply on Greek mythology and the Bible—in fact, in an interview where Wolfe was asked what books people should read to get the necessary context for his work, he simply suggested the New Testament.

Wolfe’s books depict complicated metaphysics and esoteric theological ideas, delving much deeper into arcane topics than most science fiction writers are willing or able. The Book of the New Sun expounds a classical theist conception of God (who is called the Increate), and a Neoplatonist metaphysics in which all of creation is animated by the spark of the divine.

But it is sometimes a difficult book to recommend because the subject matter is dark. The main character, Severian, is a professional torturer and executioner, exiled from his guild because he showed mercy to a “client.” Wolfe often depicted the value of Christian ethics in an inverted fashion—creating worlds in which Christian values are absent—and The Book of the New Sun is no different. The result is a macabre world with a brutal storyline—but one in which the few flickering rays of beauty that shine forth are made all the more poignant. As Severian himself says, “If you wish to walk no further with me, reader, I cannot blame you. It is no easy road.”

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