Reading Lists: Mary Anne Hobbs, John Rogers, Wil Wheaton

This week, some of my friends are telling me what they’re reading right now.

Mary Anne Hobbs, DJ, BBC Radio 6

I’ve just read ‘The Driver’s Seat’ by Muriel Spark which was recommended to me by Nick Cave and is thrilling, so strange and utterly unique.

Also.. ‘The Decisive Moment’ about how the brain works, which I’m interested to learn. The author Jonah Lehrer was discredited for lying in a subsequent text.. but he has owned-up and apologised, and I forgive him.

I’m currently reading Tracey Thorn’s book ‘Disco Bedsit Queen’ and i will follow that Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘The Importance Of Music To Girls’.


John Rogers, writer/producer, LEVERAGE, ARCANUM at Thrillbent

These are not all new books. Coming off running a show, I’m just now, 6 months later, beginning to engage that massive Kindle roster. Mostly a mix of research and new fiction:

ABBADON’S GATE by James S. A. Corey (not yet released) — third in a giant sci-fi series, great characters, twisty political plots, and Very Big Ideas. It’s "wide screen" (as a friend of mine would say) action set in a nice, grimy science fiction world.

DIRTY WARS by Jeremy Scahill — The hot buzz book of the moment, the first in-depth examination of the covert forever war and the integration of targetted assassination as an instrument of policy for the United States government. The days of Henry Kissinger cutting a side deal with friendly Chilean generals is long past …

THE DORTMUNDER BOOKS by Donald Westlake — yes, all of them. They’re the defining texts in the comedy-heist genre, and it’s been a while since I pillaged, um, referenced them.  Easy weekend reads.

DRUGS AND DRUG POLICY by Mark Kleiman — I very much enjoyed Kleiman’s examination of the American criminal justice and prison system, WHEN BRUTE FORCE FAILS.  I consider another book he contributed to, MARIJUANA LEGALIZTION by Beau Kilmer, to be the best introductory text I’ve found on the subject.  Just a smart, cynical but reformist take on modern punishment.

FIRE AND BLOOD: A HISTORY OF MEXICO by T.R Fehrenbach –part of my muddled crusade to learn Spanish, and hey, it’s a giant country that’s about a five-iron away from my house. I should know more about it.

THE HONOR CODE  by Kwame Anthony Appiah. His book COSMOPOLITANISM, about universal ethics in a multicultural world, is one of the base texts for whatever you’d call my personal ethical system. This book is about how moral revolutions evolve to overthrow traditions. He’s always a joy to read, and as a big part of my job is to just have obscure stuff in my head, it’s a two-fer.

THE HUMAN DIVISION Series by John Scalzi — His serialized story set in the OLD MAN’S WAR universe. Read the first two, fell behind, going to deep-dive the whole series this summer.

THE INFORMATION by James Gleick — just never quite crossed it off the list.

THE INTERNATIONAL BANK OF BOB by Bob Harris — Bob Harris — writer, game show winner and adventurer — goes on a trek to meet the people to whom he made micro-loans through Fun writer, interesting concept and he’s done some nice activism/coordination through the Kiva infrastructure.

LONDON FALLING by Paul Cornell — the reviews on this "hidden world" supernatural thriller are stellar, and Paul’s a filthily strong writer in general. I plan on reading this and then punching myself in envy.

THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK by Deborah Bloom — the rise of toxicological forensics in the Jazz Age, framed around famous cases. It’s an older book, but it has so many recommendations from friends I’m finally going to get to it..

REDEMPTION IN INDIGO by Karen Lord — amazing reviews, new voice. We’ll see if I dig it.


Wil Wheaton, actor, writer, presenter

I’ve been on a Joe Hill binge. I’m currently finishing Heart Shaped Box, and planning to go directly into NOS4A2 when it’s finished. Joe’s writing is very easy to read, and I love the way he tells a story. I’m very late to the Joe Hill party, but I can see myself reading his entire — what’s the literary equivalent of a discography? Library? Whatever that is — before the summer is over.

I’m also reading book three of A Song of Ice and Fire, and even though everyone I know who has read it raves about it, I’m just not finding it that amazing. There are bits that I enjoy, but it hasn’t grabbed me by the face and commanded my attention the way GUN MACHINE did. I’ll finish it in time, but it’s not the highest priority. This makes me feel a little sad, like maybe I’m missing something wonderful that everyone else can easily see, but it’s just been a lot of work to read it and
stay in the story.

Every summer, I end up reading something from the classics that I was assigned in school but didn’t fully appreciate because I was young. I don’t know what it will be this year, because I never know until I walk into the book store and see them all on the table, but I’ve just now given consideration to Fahrenheit 451.

GUEST INFORMANT: E. Paul Zehr on IRON MAN & The Real “Extremis”

By E. Paul Zehr

When I was writing the book “Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine” I took a real hard look at how Iron Man’s suit of armor could actually work with all that human biological hardware inside of it. The first step was was—in homage to Coleridge—to employ some willing suspension of disbelief—if the technology for Iron Man’s suit of armor existed, how could you link it up to a human body?

So I did a lot of thinking about Iron Man as a neuroprosthetic. The fanciest, jazziest, most ambitious neuroprosthetic ever conceived, in fact.

And that’s when I came across the Iron Man “Extremis” story arc that Warren Ellis penned and Adi Granov illustrated . I came across it and read it and I went all slack-jawed. Here was a comic book writer who had identified the exact way I had by looking at the problem through the lens of modern neuroscience. It was very cool. But at the time the problem with the concept was linking the robotic suit of armor to the nervous system of Tony Stark. How do you interface that with the brain and spinal cord?

At the time I looked at the problem in a very conventional way. Brain machine interfaces with the highest fidelity typical involve implantation of electrodes into the brain itself. So that’s how I conceived of it. An electrode array would be implanted into the brain and the spinal cord and then used to control the Iron Man suit. The trick is that to fully integrate the suit with the brain would mean many implants into the central (brain, spinal cord) and peripheral (nerves in arms and legs) nervous system.

This worked as a conceptual explanation but I wasn’t very happy with how this might work in practice. Recently, I was doing a talk for a group of high school students visiting campus, I thought about this again. I was using Iron Man as a metaphor for neuroscience and neural plasticity and suddenly realized a much better way to do this. A way that’s actually a lot closer to the Extremis interface itself.

The problem is how to create an interface between the suit of armor that will come in contact with the skin and the finely branching terminal projections of the nervous system that lie just underneath that skin? The answer is…enter the Mandarin! Umm, regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, I mean.

Even though the term “tissue engineering” wasn’t used until 1987, Francois Berthiaume and colleagues at Rutgers in New Jersey suggest that this field began way back ~3000 years ago when skin grafts were performed in India. More recently, composite living skin was created in 1981. Now tissue engineering has impacted on skin, cornea, liver, pancreas, cartilage, heart, kidney, and, with particular relevance here, neurons.


The way to integrate the Extremis concept for Iron Man with modern neuroscience is to create an interface through the skin using the basic concepts of regenerative medicine. The gist of this is shown below. Tissue would be extracted from the person for whom the interface is being created, the appropriate cells (neurons in this case) would be isolated and cultivated. In vitro the process would continue with proliferation of the neurons but in a targeted way using a tissue scaffold to direct and shape the growth. After shaping by mechanical and electrical stimulation, these artificially integrated tissues would then be implanted back into the user.

Voila. You now have the makings of an interface that could be used to link to the user. Of course you then have to add the autonomous robotic Iron Man suit of armor, ensure that the tissue continues to grow in a targeted way to connect to the natural nervous system of the user, and hope the biotech interface you created is accepted by the immune system of the user. Oh yes, and do a bunch (years) of training.

But those are considerations for another day. For now, when you read an Iron Man comic book or graphic novel, or watch the latest installment of big screen Iron Man, just marvel that the real science needed to connect that tech to human biology is rapidly advancing. The future really is now.