Matt Ridley wrote this book as a rebuttal to the ever-present, ever-changing prophesies of doom for the human race. Right now global warming and peak oil are the most popular ones, but there's still people talking up overpopulation or pollution as likely to cause a global collapse. Ridley doesn't just go after the individual theories. He's describing a comprehensive theory for how we got to our present level of wealth and power from our Stone Age origins.
In short: Trade is the root of all good. People specializing in producing something can make more of it and trade it someone else who has something they want, benefiting both parties. Keep increasing productivity and we have the extra time needed to create art, fight for freedom, or just enjoy life more without fearing next year's drought. It's not a completely new concept (Nonzero has a good take on the same issues), but he does a damn good job of pulling out evidence to show how far back trade goes, and how far things could spread geographically. Tasmania is a scary example of how a population could regress when cut off from its trading partners. Without a steady flow of tools and ideas from the mainland, the islanders couldn't maintain the technology to feed their original population and their numbers declined until they hit the minimum technology the island could support by itself.
It's not just physical goods--exchanging ideas is more important. Combinations of ideas are more powerful than individual ones. The combinations produce new ideas . . . which Ridley describes as "ideas having sex." Give that free reign and soon your society is prospering and expanding.
I strongly recommend this book for everyone. If you don't have time for the book then watch Ridley's TED talk or read his article introducing his ideas.
My favorite webcomic has won a second Hugo! You don't have to buy a book to read this, it's all online. But I'm still buying the books. They beat hell out of waiting for the webpage to load page after page. If you haven't read it, start from the beginning. Mad scientists are fun. Lots of mad scientists running around gets scary. Or funny. It depends on the experiment.
The protagonist of Darkship Thieves is a teenage girl visiting a strange new culture. But she's only superficially Podkayne of Mars. Actually she's got a lot of the Stainless Steel Rat in her, much to the dismay of many other people in the book. The setting is a few centuries into the future, with a nasty government controlling Earth to prevent technology from growing to a Singularity. Even with the fancy spaceship and biotech it's much more realistic than the typical space opera I read.
Best of all, Sarah Hoyt is coming to fencon this weekend! This is the first book of hers I've found and I'm hoping I can find some of the out of print ones beginning the other series in the dealers' room. With luck she'll be reading from the sequel to Darkship Thieves there.
"Jerry Smith's War: 2025."
I don't read many short stories these days, and this one isn't a great piece of fiction. But it is a well done scenario exploring how changes in technology and infantry tactics can revolutionize the way we wage "Small Wars." Useful reading for anyone expecting to be involved in a war in the coming decades.