Ask the deepest philosopher or the cheesiest pop star: we all agree that the future’s yet unwritten. Or, at least, we all accept that we can’t know which of the countless possible futures will come to pass. That said, some fantastic books – whether based in fact, or entirely fictional – try their very best to do just that.
Whether these turn out to be the work of a modern-day Nostradamus or have more in common with an author betting on sport, each of these books offer brain-tickling insight, and in that alone we find our value. Some attempt to academically ask “what happens if we all die tomorrow?” Others fictionally examine the role of virtual reality in our lives. With each insightful in different ways, here are my top books examining future’s blank pages…
By David Shambaugh
The future, we’re often told, is Chinese. With the country still formally under a communist structure with distinctly capitalist overtones, however, Beijing’s cultural present can be difficult to decipher for outsiders, let alone its likely futures. David Shambaugh is a leading scholar on the politics of the Eastern powerhouse, and looks mainly at economy and society in this 2016 book, briefly exploring a series of possible outcomes based on the state’s political behaviour.
Debt, the elderly, the environment, banking transparency and regions like Tibet and Hong Kong are just some of the Chinese ‘bottlenecks’ addressed here, and while Shambaugh’s brief text might not come up with particularly conclusive predictions for any of them, it does examine how China could sit in a decade or two, from problems with the development of a less-factory and more service-based economy to the likely consequences of differing support for relatively hardline leader Xi. Written simply but from a place of transparently in-depth knowledge, we’re given a glance at the diverse potential “roundabout exits” – be they trade or conflict – of a country that’s only getting more important.
By Yuval Noah Harari
Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari is best-known for his beguiling, condensed history of humankind Sapiens, in which he takes us through a ‘greatest hits’ of our years on Earth. In Homo Deus, he allows his mind to break free on a philosophical journey exploring human’s continued direction, however, and that makes for a far darker offering. It’s fair to say Harari is not positive about our path right now: he examines in-depth how our search for perfection – combined with developing technology – might slowly shred the very heart of what makes us human.In Harari’s future, we’re subservient to the technology we’ve created in almost every way. He questions whether the point of no return for human’s posited battle with technology has already passed. This leads to ethical questions surrounding such a concept, be they “what happens when we can no longer delude ourselves” (or, will Google negate the existence of arguments based on falsehoods), or where is the line between human and… well, not. It’s frightening, and feels starkly and shockingly close to reality.
I try to read a lot. In between the toddler, an often 60-hour working weeks and completing the first year of a degree course, I somehow squeezed in about fifty books last year, taking in a pretty broad array of genres and directions. Since I’ve found most books don’t age particularly badly (in fact, aside from Kindle, most of my books are second-hand charity shop buys anyway), I figured these are every bit as appealing as the day they came out. There are a couple here I feel like I’ve recommended to various people a dozen plus times already, so I thought I’d throw down the highlights in a post.
There are not – at least not necessarily – books released in 2016. They’re just the best ones I happened to read and feel like shouting about. There’s already another huge heap waiting to explore this year. Reading recommendations – especially based on the below – very much appreciated!
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (link)
Set in twin worlds – a grim ‘real world’ future and the huge escapist fantasy of a virtual reality computer game – Ready Player One creates those two environments beautifully, and then uses them to explore ideas of equality and power, travel and personal virtues. Based on an extreme version of ‘Easter eggs’ – hidden extras added to computer games, movies and albums for diehard fans to uncover – the main character is a minnow in a virtual world as dominated by those with economic muscle as the real one. When the creator of the virtual world dies, this triggers a kind of treasure hunt that sees players compete to solve riddles and win ultimate control. The computer game aspect aside, it’s a slightly tired plot, but one delivered so well and through such nicely-rounded, anxiety-riddled characters that any predictable edge to the story doesn’t matter, especially when every key task on the journey is taxing and unpredictable. I’ve found a lot of these more conceptual books are more interesting in theory than in reality. This was a spectacular exception.