What I'm Reading (No. 110): uncontrollable growth
The first book I finished this week was a fun novel about a fast-growing fungus that poses a threat to humanity — very Crichton-esque.
And the second book I finished this week was a memoir about a fast-growing fungus that posts a threat to humanity: Silicon Valley. Zing! Made myself laugh with that one. I loved Uncanny Valley and am excited to share it with you.
Let’s get right to it.
Cold Storage by David Koepp (2019, 308 pages)
Since Michael Crichton died back in 2008, I’ve been looking for other authors that could match his work in the bio/tech thriller genre. There’ve been a few books here or there that were close, but none have been able to combine character/plot development with humor with truly thrilling and believable stories the same way that Crichton could. Jurassic Park, Airframe, The Andromeda Strain . . . these are all-time greats in the category.
I suppose it should come as no surprise then that perhaps the closest contender I’ve read thus far worked directly with Crichton in screenwriting the original Jurassic Park movies.
David Koepp’s Cold Storage is the story I’ve long been waiting for.
The novel starts in the 1980s: a fast-growing fungus with world-destroying potential (in simple terms, it makes people explode) is discovered in Australia. It’s successfully contained and put into cold storage deep underground by an entertaining duo from the Pentagon’s bioterrorism unit. The fungus is basically in a coma.
Thirty-ish years later, the underground unit has a self-storage facility built on top of it, having long been forgotten by anyone who matters. But, in that time, the Earth’s temperature has risen, and things start to leak. Who gets called? Our same heroes from before, now verging on elderly, along with a couple of self-storage employees.
It’s a slow build of a story, but that means Koepp gets to spend time building characters that the reader really cares about and roots for — even if they’re a little bumbling and a little less sexy than what you’d typically find in a thriller.
Once it gets into the meat of the plot, Cold Storage is nearly impossible to put down. It’s funny, unpredictable, heart-pounding, and perhaps most importantly, really fun — which is a trait that a lot of thrillers unfortunately lack, too often taking themselves far too seriously. Like Crichton, however, Koepp wonderfully conveys both the possible reality of the situation, as well as the absurdity of it.
A highly enjoyable read. Here’s to hoping he writes more books just like it.
A Lincoln Reading List
With President’s Day last Monday, perhaps you’re inspired to read more about the fellas who have led the nation. Start with the Lincoln — he was the best. Reading about him will give you hope. Here’s a few great Lincoln books:
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. Long, and a bit academic at times, but a great, full overview of Lincoln’s life. Take this on if you’re a nerd.
The Last Lincolns by Charles Lachman. Really interesting look at the Lincoln family line, which didn’t last many generations after Abe.
Giants: The Parallel Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass by John Stauffer. A nice dual biography of perhaps the two most influential men of the entire 19th century.
A Friend of Mr. Lincoln by Stephen Harrigan. A novel about young Lincoln as he’s just embarking on his career as a lawyer in Illinois.
Leadership by Doris Kearns Goodwin. While Lincoln technically takes up a quarter of this book’s pages, his story is by far the most meaningful. Largely a recap of her other books, but a more accessible version.
There’s a lot more, including a couple handfuls on my own bookshelf that I’ve not yet read. There will someday be another Lincoln reading list.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner (2020, 275 pages)
“Tech, for the most part, wasn’t progress. It was just business.”
I’ve long been a sucker for a good Silicon Valley story. Steve Jobs, Accidental Billionaires, Bad Blood, Super Pumped — some of the most memorable tales I’ve read. Most of what I’ve read in the tech realm, however, has been penned by journalists; Weiner is coming right from the belly of the beast. For five years, she worked at a couple different startups in the Bay Area, and came away with an uncommonly keen understanding of both the allure of the culture as well as it’s “brogrammer,” infantilized DNA.
It’s a truly great memoir that is joining my ranks of must-read books about tech, Silicon Valley, and internet culture in general.
Wiener is an NYC native who moves out to San Francisco to work for “the analytics startup” (throughout the book she avoids proper nouns; “the social media startup everyone hates,” for instance). She’s in customer support and doesn’t quite feel like she belongs; she makes a lot less money (and holds less equity) than the revered software engineers. Anna doesn’t mind too much, though; she’s fixing problems, while the engineers are high-ego people who are building things for a virtual world.
Startups, as she observes, try to mix work and lifestyle into one unrecognizable blob. Companies plan group outings and offer catering for meals, mostly with the hope of making work “fun” so that nobody leads a meaningful life outside of that work. Anna was pushed to be, and asked about being, “Down for the Cause” — bro speak that translates to, “Are you all in?” She was expected to give her entire life to this company that was being run by a 25-year-old man-child who didn’t seem to know much about actually running a business — something a lot of Silicon Valley startups can claim.
Anna wonderfully and astutely observes day-to-day life in startup culture as an outsider — someone who is in that world but not of that world (to use a very Christian-y phrase); it’s highly entertaining and revealing and often funny: “I would open a new browser window and begin the day’s true work: toggling between tabs.”
Silicon Valley is usually disconnected from real life and real people, and Wiener does a superb job showing us exactly how. What most moved me personally were her observations about the internet in general and our society’s obsessiveness with efficiency and productivity:
“This fetishized life without friction: What was it like? An unending shuttle between meetings and bodily needs? A continuous, productive loop? Charts and data sets. It wasn’t, to me, an aspiration. It was not a prize.”
There’s so much more I could say about this book, but what ultimately sets Uncanny Valley apart is its superb writing. I couldn’t help but compare it to another memoir written by a young woman in a toxic environment: Educated. I don’t make the comparison lightly, but there are several similarities, including the fact that Wiener is critical without being cruel or spiteful. That’s a really hard balance to find.
For a number of good reasons, this is a book that I’ll happily recommend to just about everyone.
That’s all for me this week. I’d love to hear what you’re reading; I always enjoy it. Thank you so much for the time and inbox space. It means a lot to me.