Reviews of books read last month: two novels and a non-fiction book about the benefits of using technology. 1. "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38447.The_Handmaid_s_Tale> <http://www.amazon.com/The-Handmaids-Tale/dp/038549081X> This dystopian novel was published in 1986 and is set in the near future. Religious fundamentalists have staged a coup in the United States, forming the Republic of Gilead. The new regime introduced an extreme patriarchal society, overturning many of the rights gained by women. There has been a dramatic reduction in births, so leaders of the regime are assigned "handmaids" if their wives are unable to have children. Before the coup, the narrator used to be an working woman with a husband and daughter. She was forcibly separated from her family, and assigned as a handmaid to a Commander in the regime. Her name was changed to "Offred", signifying her relationship to her master. She describes her daily life as a handmaid, which affords her some specific privileges, she has very few freedoms compared to her previous life. As long as she has the ability to conceive and stays out of trouble, she can at least avoid getting banished to work in the colonies and be branded an "unwoman". Dystopian novels can be heavy going, and not everyone's cup of tea. I seem to like reading cautionary tales like this one, which reminds us to be vigilant against the reactionary rhetoric of our political leaders. 2. "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9969571-ready-player-one> <http://www.amazon.com/Ready-Player-One/dp/0307887448> Thirty years in the future, the real world has become a bleak and rundown place. Mounting debts have weakened governments and corporations, making conditions difficult for ordinary people. Fortunately, the infrastructure of the information age has remained mostly intact. Children can get an education online, and it's usually safer to do so than in the real world. More generally, people can escape the drudgery of everyday life by logging into OASIS, a massively multiplayer online virtual reality environment. An added incentive is that the founder of OASIS, James Halliday, left some "Easter eggs" in the system, and whoever finds all of them will inherit his vast fortune. But this provides an opportunity for Halliday's bitter corporate rival, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), to send its own agents into the system and to try to usurp Halliday's business. Halliday was a child of the Eighties, so the egg hunters ("gunters") believe there are clues in cultural artifacts of that era. "Anorak's Almanac", an electronic book that compiles Halliday's interests, is the go-to guide for the gunters. This novel delves deeply into the computer games, music, movies and television of the 1980s. Readers unfamiliar with these nostalgic cultural references may find the story harder to follow and appreciate. Most of the action takes place in the virtual world, so in-game avatars can provide alternative insights into the real-life characters. Overall, I found this an enjoyable page turner. 3. "Smarter Than You Think" by Clive Thompson <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17707600-smarter-than-you-think> <http://www.amazon.com/Smarter-Than-You-Think/dp/0143125826> The author of this book challenges the view that over-reliance on technology is reducing our powers of thought and making us less intelligent. For example, tailored search results can lead to filter bubbles, where we are only present with information that confirms our biases. Easy access to search engines can lead us to rely less on our own memory. Multitasking and highly distracting social media can lead us to be "shallow". The author acknowledges that technology is not always positive. However, he argues that, when applied wisely, it can make us smarter. We can use technology as "outboard memory", freeing up our minds to concentrate on the actual problems at hand. Technology provides the ability to quickly search and cross-reference large collections of data. It facilitates increased collaboration across cultures and national boundaries. Computers can be used to do a lot of the low-level calculations necessary to work on complex problems. The use of technology has been an area of debate and controversy throughout history. For example, Socrates lamented that, compared to interactive conversation, books were an inferior medium to conduct intelligent debate. The author does a reasonable job of explaining how technology can take a load off our minds so we can work on big- picture problems. But we should remember that technology can make constant surveillance, creepy advertising and other invasions of privacy easier.