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20 Dec 2017

Books of 2017

In late 2016, I took a short ferry flight to a small island in the area, and rekindled my love for aviation. Shortly afterwards, I started training for a pilot's license, and reading about aviation. From a literary perspective, aviation exists in the perfect goldilocks time frame of being just old enough to be thoroughly romanticized, but young enough for first-hand reports and thorough documentation to be available. What is more, powered flight has provided human observers with an unprecedented view of our world and our struggles, and is often as philosophical as it is exhilarating.

Aviation Reading List

Out of a long list of fascinating books on aviation I have read over the last two years, my favorites are:

  • Fate is the Hunter by Ernest K. Gann, a gripping memoir of the early days of aviation. It has been only a little more than a hundred years since humans first took to the skies in Kitty Hawk in 1905, yet today aviation feels as mundane as horse-drawn carriages must have felt to the Wright Brothers. Gann lived through these early days, and tells his tales from a time when aviation was still young, dangerous, and perhaps more interesting. If you want to read more like this, Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck, and The Spirit of St. Louis by Charles Lindbergh are easy recommendations as well.
  • Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins, one of the few first-hand accounts of an Apollo astronaut's voyage to the Moon. Most astronauts have published books later on, but most had them ghost-written, and none are as visceral and engaging as Michael Collins' journey on Apollo 8. It is humbling that Apollo's achievements have not been surpassed, despite our much more advanced technology and science. Other accounts worth reading are The Last Man on the Moon by Gene Cernan on Apollo 17, and How Apollo Flew to the Moon by W. David Woods, for a more technical view.
  • Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker is a more modern, and more philosophical account of how aviation has changed our perception of the world. If you yearn to fly like I do, then this book is a balm for the soul. The almost spiritual feeling of cutting your bonds with the ground is what this book is about, despite being written in today's un-romantic days of routine commercial airliners. I love it dearly. A more grounded account of aviation's history is Turbulent Skies by T. A. Heppenheimer, and maybe Slide Rule by Nevil Chute for some history on airships.

Fiction Reading List

But as much as I love aviation, my first love is still Science Fiction. We live in strange times of unprecedented prosperity, and yet we are strangely unsatisfied, as if the future didn't turn out to be the utopia it was meant to be. Or is this just a reflection of ourselves, how we do not live up to the future we built?

  • A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers describes a more distant future, when space travel is as mundane as airliners are today, and humanity is just one of several alien species. Yet, with all its technological marvels, we still yearn for meaning and love, regardless of what strange world we live in. A Closed and Common Orbit is the second book in the series, and the first book I read. I think I prefer it in this order.

  • The Laundry Files Series by Charles Stross is closer to home. Did you ever notice how computer programming is eerily similar to the arcane incantations we use to describe magic in fiction? Where is the difference between invoking a function that effects a robot, and invoking a magic spell that affects a demon? According to Charles Stross, this difference is really only playing with semantics, and we should be very careful with our incantations, lest the ghost in the machine really does have our demise in mind. These books have made me laugh out loud so many times, like when a weaponized PowerPoint turned people into zombies, or when a structured cabling project turned out to create an inadvertent summoning grid for an elder horror.
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