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Patrick O'Brian, the Aubrey-Maturin Series of twenty novels (Norton, 1970-1999). My appreciation written for WIRED magazine: "I re-read this extraordinary series of novels because of the depth of portrayal of the major and minor characters, but also because they teach me so much about what science and technology were like two centuries ago. O'Brian shows you the world-that-was through the eyes of a Tory naval captain (Jack Aubrey), at sea since the age of 12, working his way up to admiral, dealing with the height of 18th-century technology (sailing ships and celestial navigation). I identify more strongly with his liberally-educated, physician-scientist friend (Stephen Maturin), who went to medical school in Paris during the French Revolution. You see natural history turning into a biological science, bleeding-and-purging medicine starting to learn some physiology -- and, because Maturin is also an intelligence agent for the Admiralty, you see statecraft at work during the Napoleonic Wars. These books strongly remind you about what scientific ignorance and social conventions can do to your mindset, and how the future will likely judge us as well." -- William H. Calvin You can get them all at once, so you can: The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Series (20 volumes). Depending on amazon.com's current discount, this works out to US$15-20 each (and in hardcover).
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