Category Archives: Books

Ventures, Visions, Escape Velocities

Why should we go to space? To learn more about the universe and our place in it? To extract resources and conduct commerce? To demonstrate national primacy and technological prowess? To live and thrive in radically different kinds of human communities? Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities takes on the challenge of imagining new stories at the intersection of public and private—narratives that use the economic and social history of exploration, as well as current technical and scientific research, to inform scenarios for the future of the “new space” era.

Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities provides fresh insights into human activity in Low Earth Orbit, journeys to Mars, capturing and mining asteroids, and exploring strange and uncharted exoplanets. Its stories and essays imagine human expansion into space as a kind of domestication—not in the sense of taming nature but in the sense of creating a space for dwelling, a venue for human life and curiosity to unfurl in all their weirdness and complexity.

The collection is free to download in EPUB and MOBI e-book formats, as a PDF, and through Apple’s iBooks Store. You can also purchase a print-on-demand copy at cost for $20.09 (plus sales tax and shipping) from Blurb. The price covers printing costs only.

Cover image for new edition of Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds

Frankenstein: Annotated

Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds

Introduction by Charles E. Robinson


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured in the popular imagination for two hundred years. Begun as a ghost story by an intellectually and socially precocious eighteen-year-old author during a cold and rainy summer on the shores of Lake Geneva, the dramatic tale of Victor Frankenstein and his stitched-together creature can be read as the ultimate parable of scientific hubris. Victor, “the modern Prometheus,” tried to do what he perhaps should have left to Nature: create life. Although the novel is most often discussed in literary-historical terms—as a seminal example of romanticism or as a groundbreaking early work of science fiction—Mary Shelley was keenly aware of contemporary scientific developments and incorporated them into her story. In our era of synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, robotics, and climate engineering, this edition of Frankenstein will resonate forcefully for readers with a background or interest in science and engineering, and anyone intrigued by the fundamental questions of creativity and responsibility.

This edition of Frankenstein pairs the original 1818 version of the manuscript—meticulously line-edited and amended by Charles E. Robinson, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on the text—with annotations and essays by leading scholars exploring the social and ethical aspects of scientific creativity raised by this remarkable story. The result is a unique and accessible edition of one of the most thought-provoking and influential novels ever written.

Essays by
Elizabeth Bear, Cory Doctorow, Heather E. Douglas, Josephine Johnston, Kate MacCord, Jane Maienschein, Anne K. Mellor, Alfred Nordmann

About the Editors

David Guston is Professor and Founding Director of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, where he also serves as Codirector of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes..

Ed Finn is Founding Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he is also Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the School of Arts, Media, and Engineering and the Department of English.

Jason Scott Robert is Lincoln Chair in Ethics, Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences, and Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University.


“This new, remarkable annotated edition of Frankenstein with its accompanying essays brings the ‘modern Prometheus’ flawlessly into our century in a manner sure to inspire scientists and nonscientists in a conversation that Shelley herself might not have foreseen but surely would have encouraged.”
Arthur L. Caplan, Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor, founding head of the Division of Bioethics at the School of Medicine, New York University

“This wonderful new edition is a happy addition to the critical literature examining the meaning of the tale for our twenty-first-century commitments to heroic science, engineering, and technology.”
Rachelle D. Hollander, Director, Center for Engineering Ethics and Society, National Academy of Engineering

“The Promethean tale of Frankenstein is a rich source of questions about the price that scientists and the public pay for knowledge. This annotated edition rescues the classic allegory from popular culture’s caricature and presents it with a framework for exploring the questions raised. Among the many questions, perhaps the most important is, when scientists either from amoral arrogance or negligent lack of foresight present a discovery society is not prepared to deal with—nuclear weapons, engineered gene lines, climate modification—what is the scientists’ responsibility going forward? Is it merely to watch in horror as the knowledge is unleashed on society?”
Rush D. Holt, Chief Executive Officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science; Executive Publisher, Science Family of Journals

What Algorithms Want

What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing, MIT Press, Spring 2017.


The apotheosis of the algorithm is here. In the past several years we’ve hit a turning point, leaving endless debates about artificial intelligence behind in favor of tacitly accepting complex computational systems that tell us where to go, who to date and what to think about (to name just a few examples). The mythos of computation has become almost universal: with every click, every terms of service agreement, we buy into the idea that big data, ubiquitous sensors and various forms of machine learning can model and beneficially regulate all kinds of complex systems, from picking songs to predicting crime. Already these culture machines dominate the stock market, compose music, drive cars, write news articles, and author long mathematical proofs—and their powers of creative authorship are just beginning to take shape. This book proposes that we are missing the algorithmic sea change by focusing only on the crests of waves—we continue studying books, films and games when we should be paying much closer attention to search bars, mobile applications, text prediction systems and other rapidly evolving tools for thinking and authoring. Scholars and cultural critics assume algorithms are all about code. They’re actually about culture.

What Algorithms Want takes on the challenge by reading contemporary algorithms in the context of a long cultural history. The figure of the algorithm, which computer scientists use as convenient shorthand for “a method for solving a problem,” is a mythic concept much older than the invention of the computer, with deep roots in the Enlightenment and the philosophical tradition of rationalism. I excavate this historical narrative through a genealogy of the algorithm as a figure in contemporary culture, tracing its origins in cybernetics, symbolic logic and language philosophy. These foundations inform interpretive readings of a variety of algorithmically entangled cultural works: Apple’s Siri, Netflix’s House of Cards, Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker and the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, among other objects of analysis. Though seemingly very different from each other, all of these works are algorithmic forms that have been authored by complex computational systems in collaboration with (often unwitting) humans. We work with and think through these culture machines, re-enforcing and reinventing the mythos of the algorithm as we go. I develop a method I call “algorithmic reading” to offer original interpretations of these new modes of hybrid authorship, which involve millions of computer processes and human beings thinking, creating and enacting culture together. Algorithmic reading is reading by the lights and shadows of machines: the brilliant illumination of computationally enhanced cognition and the obfuscations of black boxes. As all culture comes increasingly under the sway of the algorithm, I argue that algorithmic reading will be a vital method for the humanities in the 21st century.

Beyond helping us develop a new reading method, these cultural works teach us something important about the nature of algorithms themselves: namely, that algorithms can never be separated from the conditions of their implementation. Not only are algorithms cultural all the way down, they are systems for belief as much as they are rational tools—the latest incarnations of a tradition that encompasses Liebnitz’s quasi-spiritual mathesis universalis, medieval religious automatons and contemporary representations of god-like artificial intelligence. Coming to terms with this deep culture structure ultimately reveals the interpreter to be herself complexly enmeshed within algorithmic culture machines, from search engines and word processors to the social media platforms on which she shares her work.

The stakes of this conversation are high as algorithmic thinking reorders entire industries, cultures and creative traditions. Even the engineers behind some of the most successful and ubiquitous algorithmic systems in the world—executives at Google and Netflix, for example—admit that they only understand some of the behaviors these systems exhibit. But their rhetoric is transcendent and emancipatory, equating code, bandwidth and freedom. Our standard assumptions about algorithms are historically and critically shallow, and at best we comprehend them through layers of abstraction and analogy. To understand this sea change, we need to read and experiment with algorithms as they are: cultural machines of oceanic depth and complexity.


I am the co-editor of Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. The book is the product of a thriving community of science fiction writers, scientists, engineers and many others collaborating on ambitious, technically grounded visions of the near future.

About the Book

Inspired by New York Times bestselling author Neal Stephenson, an anthology of stories, set in the near future, from some of today’s leading writers, thinkers, and visionaries that reignites the iconic and optimistic visions of the golden age of science fiction.

In his 2011 article “Innovation Starvation,” Neal Stephenson argued that we—the society whose earlier scientists and engineers witnessed the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, the computer, and space exploration—must reignite our ambitions to think boldly and do Big Stuff. He also advanced the Hieroglyph Theory which illuminates the power of science fiction to inspire the inventive imagination: “Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.”

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The Legacy of David Foster Wallace

Last week saw the arrival of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, a wonderful collection of essays by Wallace critics, friends and colleagues. My piece in the collection, “Becoming Yourself: David Foster Wallace and the Afterlife of Reception,” considered Wallace’s legacy through his communities of readership on Amazon and I feel very lucky to be in such august company. For example, my essay is nestled between Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen!

Here’s the full list of contributors:

Samuel Cohen (co-editor)
Don DeLillo
Dave Eggers
Ed Finn
Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Jonathan Franzen
Paul Giles
Heather Houser
Lee Konstantinou (co-editor)
David Lipsky
Rick Moody
Ira B. Nadel
Michael Pietsch
Josh Roiland
George Saunders
Molly Schwartzburg

Thanks very much to Lee and Sam for including me!

Wrestling the Gators of Adolescence

Swamplandia!Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this novel, from its lush descriptions of the dystopian swamp amusement park industry to the mystical experience of journeying through the deep everglades. At Swamplandia! all the alligators are named Seth. It took me a little while to figure out where Russell was setting her course between absurdity and pathos, but once I did I really started enjoying the book. The descriptions of Kiwi Bigtree’s employment at the World of Darkness, the Walmart of fun factories, were hilarious.

View all my reviews

Author Soundtrack

I feel like the soundtrack has changed recently around here from the mellow tunes of summer so something more purposeful, something with an actual beat. This is good news for the dissertation project, which has taken on steam again after a summer of revising, paper-pushing and sustained attention to the vodka-sequestering properties of watermelon lemonade.

With soundtracks in mind I was delighted to come across a reference on the Pynchon-L mailing list, wherein I occasionally lurk, to this. Music plays a big role in Pynchon’s work, and he took the delightful step of writing up a playlist to go along with his new novel, Inherent Vice. The list mingles real 1960s artists with a few of his own creations, like Carmine and the Cal-Zones.

Tripping down the shuffle soon, I hope: A return to Infinite Jest and Infinite Summer; some pithy definitions of postmodernism (not mine); and an update on networks both allusive and recommendational.

Genre Fiction & The Relentless Undead

One of the interesting questions at play in my dissertation is the way treat genre writers differently from “real” writers. Authors like Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy straddle the boundaries between “literary” fiction and different genre styles in interesting ways. There’s a great article in this weeks Sunday Times Magazine discussing Jack Vance, an apparently seminal genre writer whom I never read in all my years as a genre bookworm. According to the article Vance (and many other genre writers, I think) approached fiction as a job and a career as much as an art form. Vance and his wife would travel to exotic places, find a cheap hotel, and draft a new novel together. Nice life! That kind of commercial focus is much less acceptable among “serious” novelists.

While we’re on the subject, I will now publicly admit that I recently read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, probably the most violent fictional assault to date on the barriers dividing highbrow and pulp. My wife quite accurately calls it an “abomination.” I think she’s serious, but when I repeat it, I mean it in a good way. I would like to share my favorite paragraph here. See if you can tell what was changed from the original Austen:

But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice. He seldom appeared really animated, even at the sight of Mrs. Collins gnawing upon her own hand. What remained of Charlotte would liked to have believed this change the effect of love, and the object of that love her friend Eliza. She watched him whenever they were at Rosings, and whenever he came to Hunsford; but without much success, for her thoughts often wandered to other subjects, such as the warm, succulent sensation of biting into a fresh brain. Mr. Darcy certainly looked at her friend a great deal, but the expression of that look was disputable. It was an earnest, steadfast gaze, but she often doubted whether there were much admiration in it, and sometimes it seemed nothing but absence of mind. And upon imagining Mr. Darcy’s mind, her thoughts would again turn to the subject of chewing on his salty, cauliflower-like brain.

A Very Finite Summer

Since I’m working on the changing nature of reading and on contemporary American literature, it seemed almost obligatory for me to check out Infinite Summer, a massive blog-based reading group organized around David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest. The reading group’s pace is quite reasonable by grad student standards–75 pages a week–but in the true spirit of studentdom I started weeks late and have been struggling to catch up.

That means I haven’t yet really delved into the culture of the online exchange, but I am curious to see how things are going over there. From my brief perusal of the site so far, it seems the basic structure is for a few authors to post on their reading experiences, and the rest of the community is left to hang out in the comments. This works well for your average blog, but it seems a little limiting for a book discussion group, which would really work better with a forum architecture. Maybe there is one and I haven’t found it yet?

The site’s structure does seem to emulate the deceptive orderliness of Infinite Jest, with its footnotes and acronyms.* There are guides and summaries and a schedule, but I find the site disorienting as a whole, as a place to talk about the book, much as Infinite Jest ends up being disorienting. Readers quickly realize that the acronyms are explained inconsistently, at random, in medias res; that they’re thrown in and out of numerous plot-lines like hapless tennis balls; that the end notes and gestures toward structure are deeply satirical and philosophically agnostic about the whole idea of knowledge. Hence, on the site: the conversation goes on through a Twitter tag, comments, Tumblr, Facebook…and I just found the forum. They do have one after all.

I guess this isn’t a bad way to honor Wallace’s passing, but is it a good way to talk about his book? Obviously I’m thinking of a different kind of conversation, one where people lean forward around a table and interrupt each other, whereas Infinite Summer is a beast that can only exist online: an imaginary space full of people zooming in and out, talking about the book or not, employing various means of intellectual transportation.

I love the idea of this online reading group, so my question isn’t meant to be hostile, merely inquisitive. I’ll report back when I’ve learned more (and, say, actually read more than a handful of posts from the various zones of Infinite Summer).

* Acronyms, while cryptic, always imply a bedrock of rational thought, convention and informational structure, however ludicrous that implication might be.

Book Seer

I can’t decide whether to be excited or annoyed that somebody else has come up with the same idea I’ve been playing around with for several months now in my dissertation research. Well, the beauty of the web is that they can slap a quick implementation up overnight, whereas it’s going to be months if not years before I really get my work out into the open. Where my six professional readers can really delve into it.

So while we’re waiting for that glorious day, we can play around with Book Seer, a recommendation site that asks you for a book and then scrapes Amazon and LibraryThing to suggest further reading for you. Neat!