The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kuwzweil believes he's going to live forever and he thinks you can, too. By staying healthy and leveraging biotechnology . . . and, a while later, revolutionary genomics breakthroughs; and after that nano-technology, we might keep ourselves ticking over, well, until the sun goes out.
And that's not the trippiest bit of this bible of techno-utopianism. The mainsail of Kurzweil's ship of dreams is the assertion that, within about 20 years, we're going to have $1,000 computers with the same or greater processing power as the human brain. Not long after that, these computers are going to start designing better and smarter versions of themselves; which will in turn design even better and smarter versions. And at that point, they will leave humanity in the dust we will have been enveloped and superceded by a process not dissimilar to how we evolved from, and took over from, our single-celled predecessors.
And even that's not even the trippiest bit. But I want to leave some surprises. I will note that Kurzweil, who has a 40-year career behind him in technology, software, inventing, and futurism, has a tendency to be right about things. That said, it's very hard to see things playing out quite the way Kurzweil calls them. If they don't, I think his will be one of those sets of wrong (or not-quite-right) ideas that are nonetheless incredibly important. (See Freud, e.g.)
On the other hand, if things do turn out anything like he predicts, we are in for one hell of a ride.
Wired For War - The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, by Peter Singer
When the American military went to war in Iraq in 2003, it had zero unmanned systems. By 2008, there were over 12,000 UAVs swarming the skies (and blowing up insurgents with missiles), UGVs defusing IEDs and clearing insurgent hide-outs, USVs interdicting suspect ships. In 2008, the US Air Force trained more drone pilots than fighter pilots. The Pentagon now has to specifically justify, to Congress, spending on any system that has people in it.
But the really revolutionary stuff is still to come: Military strategists talk about "getting inside the enemy's decision loop". As that loop gets faster and tighter, the one thing there won't be room for in it is . . . humans. Autonomous systems are already shooting down incoming mortars with electric gatling guns. Very soon, they'll be taking prisoners or not taking prisoners and telling the human soldiers about it later (or not).
This is another book that's so eye-popping (and so indispensable) because things, basically, are changing a whole hell of a lot faster than we can keep track of. It's also fantastic porn for military geeks.
CyberWar, by Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake
Clarke, who studied at the knees of the guys who gave us strategic nuclear war doctrine (which, you have to admit, could have turned out a lot worse), is crying about a new wolf. In fact, according to him, the wolf is already past the door: Chinese cyber-espionage is systematically draining our IP (intellectual property); Russia, France, China, North Korea, and 20-plus other nation's militaries already have advanced, active cyberwar units; the infrastructure which underlies our entire economy, and actual physical survival electric grid, transport, that little Internet thingy are comically, morbidly vulnerable to complete remote demolition at the hands of hackers; the software and hardware we rely on are overwhelmingly and increasingly manufactured overseas where they are almost certainly having back doors laid in for future use by people who don't like us.
Revolutionary global power shifts generally happen because the current power isn't paying attention to important trends at a time of profound change.
So, let's agree to call this an important book. It's also terrifying (admittedly, in a fun way).
The War After Armageddon, by Ralph Peters
This may actually be the first genre fiction I've ever read by someone who can write. That's a big deal. I mean, this isn't literature Peters isn't going to win any Henry James sound-alike contests anytime soon. But his prose is crisp and engaging and frequently gripping and even occasionally funny. Moreover, he doesn't so much as stick his toes in those insufferable cesspools of cringe-making cliche where the majority of genre writers, certainly the absurdly popular ones, perform book-length deep dives. (See, here, e.g.)
Anyway, if you like military thrillers/actioners, but can't stomach the "writing" of most of the purveyors of those things, this is a cracking book. Gritty, gripping small-unit tactics; global conflagration; compellingly-drawn military characters from platoon sergeants to commanding generals; a terrifying(ly familiar) future dystopia. LA and Las Vegas lay in day-glow ruins, as does the former state of Israel and the American military fights to retake the Holy Land. Oh and not even a Hollywood ending. Huzzah.
Peters (a former military intelligence officer, and present-day military commentator and strategist) vividly draws for us a world where all our high-tech military advantages electronics, drones, comms have become Achilles heels, as our enemies drown out the EM spectrum and hack anything we've got that's hackable. Like the best sci-fi, it makes us re-examine our choices in the present. And again, a very fun read just the thing for people whose kind of thing this is. (disclosure statement)
How to Survive in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
This is literature. Or, at least, as we say, literary fiction. It's also a time travel story and an impressive one. I'm actually thinking of reading it again, as the best time travel stories (see Primer) tend to only start to make sense the second time through. Anyway, this was my one dutiful pick from this year's New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year list. And it proved an even better pick than I'd hoped.
Time vexes us. We're chained in a merciless, ever-moving present but plagued by future hopes and haunted by past regrets. Time, temporality, is a seriously weird, and seriously poorly understood phenomenon, one absolutely central to our existence on this wet, whirling rock. Hence, perhaps, the enduring appeal of time travel yarns.
This novel is a bit less, and a whole lot more than a yarn it is a meditation, a winding up, an unravelling of what it's like for us to be creatures in time, each piloting a perfectly crafted time machine for one, often hiding out totally outside of time, refusing to commit to the moment we are in, morphing into our fathers, getting stuck in ever-repeating loops, straining to resolve our past selves in the vast murky aquarium of our personal histories.
Yu has clearly read his Robert Heinlein; but, from his tone and prosodic tendencies, I have a feeling he's also read his DFW. This is rich, lovely, melancholy, weird (and weirdly meticulous) stuff. Steer your future self into a terrific couple of hours by collapsing your quantum waveform here.