Ten books from 2017

Here are the ten books I most enjoyed reading this year, listed alphabetically. Most were published in 2017, but not all.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

This is an incredible imagining of a 26th century interstellar expedition to colonise Aurora, a moon identified as a possible Earth analogue in the Tau Ceti system.

The colonists travel on an interstellar ark, a vast starship designed to support some 2000 souls and the myriad lifeforms and plants required to sustain them for a voyage spanning generations, equipped with the technologies required for the moon’s terraforming.

But for all the technological wonders it describes this is a cautionary tale, profoundly pessimistic about the possibility of successful travel beyond the Solar System. For Robinson, the stars are simply too far away. His ship moves at one-tenth the speed of light, the fastest velocity astrophysics can imagine propelling a vessel of sufficient size to house the cargo necessary to sustain a colonisation mission. Even travelling at such a speed the journey to Tau Ceti takes some 170 years.

In the end the book – first published a couple of years ago – is about our planet, and the folly of thinking that the Earth could ever simply be abandoned for some other home in the stars. It makes perhaps the most ingenious case for ecological sustainability I’ve yet read. I’ve written more about Aurora elsewhere on this site.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

I’ve had the opportunity to write a few pieces about the history of 20th century classical music over the past year or so, one of which was inspired by reading Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel dramatising Germany’s spiritual decline during the first half of the twentieth century.

In Adrian Leverkühn Mann created a character so powerful that he influenced the course of the Western classical tradition he had been designed to comment upon. Mann’s story turns to the Faust legend, one of the great themes of German literature, to try to make sense of the descent of Europe’s most cultured nation into fascism. Like Faust, Leverkühn promises his soul to a demonic figure in return for supernatural gifts, in this case the creative genius that fires a series of masterworks. Mann’s account of Leverkühn’s development of the twelve-tone composing system was so vivid that Arnold Schoenberg, the real-life pioneer of the technique, feared that Mann rather than himself, would be remembered as its inventor.

Like Mann’s novella Death in Venice Doctor Faustus is suffused with a sickly ambience of gathering corruption. An excerpt from the piece I wrote about the influence of Doctor Faustus is available here.

Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by Peter Frase

This came out a couple of years ago but I only got round to reading it this year. Frase imagines four future worlds new technologies might shape, pictured through a mix of social science and sci-fi.

The ideal is a state of technologically advanced abundance, a world of ’fully automated luxury communism’ in which scarcity has been abolished. Imagine the universe of Star Trek with its ‘Replicator’ 3D printing machines and you’ve more or less got it. The second best scenario is some form of socialist society in which resources are limited but distributed equitably. Here the model is the world imagined in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, which describes the painstaking design of a post-capitalist society from first principles. The third possibility is ‘rentism’, a future world only somewhat worse than our own in which technology is controlled by an elite to which the mass of the population pay rent. And the worst outcome is ‘exterminism’, a future in which the rich deal with the poor through elimination – think Robocop – or retreating to enclaves, as imagined by the film Elysium, a picture of a 22nd century world in which the rich live in space station orbiting an impoverished, war-torn Earth.

This is a well constructed, clearly written book that makes great use of the rich resources sci-fi offers for social criticism.

No Less Than Mystic by John Medhurst

For John Medhurst the tragedy of the Russian Revolution is that the wrong group was in charge. The book, one of three published to mark the centenary of the Revolution that make it onto this list, takes its title from a quote by Julius Martov, leader of the Menshevik faction that, Medhurst contends, may have been better able to guide Russia to some form of democratic socialism than Lenin’s authoritarian Bolsheviks.

It’s a controversial suggestion. There’s no doubt that Medhurst has a rather romantic view of the capacity that any alternative leadership would have had to steer the chaos that was Russia in 1917, a vast nation on the edge of catastrophic collapse, towards a libertarian, emancipatory socialism. But the book succeeds in conveying something of the radical energy that pulsed through Russia prior to and in the years immediately following the Revolution, presenting a vast panorama taking in the Menshevik Internationalists, the Social Revolutionaries, the Jewish Bundists, Nestor Makhno’s anarchists, the Womens’ Zhenotdel movement, the Kronstadt sailors, the Soviets, the Factory Committees and the Proletkult. It would be unwise to take Medhurst’s partisan narrative as reliable history, but No Less Than Mystic works as a freewheeling introduction to a tumultuous age.

October by China Miéville

Here is the story of 1917 told by one of the best contemporary novelists in any genre, China Miéville. The first chapter of quite a long book – well over 300 pages – sets the Revolutionary year in its historical context: the rest is dedicated to a detailed account of the intrigues, uprisings, and – often farcial – political miscalculations that made the October Revolution possible.

Miéville’s pre-Revolutionary Russia crackles with the electric charge of utopian hope, as, in the words of one of his characters, millions seek to move beyond a world of war and poverty towards ‘space and light’. It’s well worth a listen to a fascinating interview Miéville recorded with Novara Media shortly after the book was published.

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield

This thoughtful and superbly written meditation on how emerging technologies are shaping our lives was probably my favourite book of 2017. Much of the book is dedicated to explaining how technologies such as bitcoin, blockchain, machine learning, artificial intelligence and the internet of things actually work, and quite intentionally so: for Greenfield one of the most perplexing political issues of our age is how few us can honestly say we understand the technologies that form the infrastructure of the modern world. If we don’t know how they work power lies with those who do. Greenfield’s patient description of the methodologies and political philosophies that underpin bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is the clearest I’ve read anywhere.

Greenfield is far from the only commentator asking searching questions about the increasing power of giants such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, but Radical Technologies does so with philosophical rigour and literary grace. The book closes by imagining a range of possible futures, some benign, most dystopian, that new technologies are making possible. He hopes that we will summon the will to direct them towards the common good. If we don’t the way is clear for the elite who own and understand them to define the future on our behalf.

The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 by Eric Lee

The third of the Russian Revolution centenary titles to make the list is Eric Lee’s superb history of the little told story of the attempt to establish a form of social democracy in the unlikely rural backwater of Georgia, south of the Caucasian mountains, east of the Black Sea.

During its brief life between 1918 and 1921 the Georgian Democratic Republic sought to pursue social and economic radicalism within the context of a liberal constitution that allowed multi-party elections and respected the independence of the press, the trade unions and the judiciary.

I’m not sure if the effort, led by the Menshevik Social Democratic Party was quite as successful or benign as Lee tries to show, or whether the Bolsheviks in Russia were quite as wilfully authoritarian as is they are depicted here. But this book, written with transparent prose, shines much new light on an neglected story. It informed the central argument of a piece I wrote for The New European about the Georgian experiment.

The Love Artist by Jane Alison

To be honest I’ve read this before, and it was first published quite a few years ago now. But I enjoyed re-reading it so much I thought I’d include it.

Jane Alison’s novel imagines the exile of the Roman poet Ovid, best known for his poem-cycle the Metamorphoses. For reasons that will perhaps never be known the poet was uprooted, some 2,000 years ago, from high Roman society and transplanted to the small town of Tomis on the west coast of the Black Sea, an outpost on the outskirts of the empire previously known to Ovid only as a place of ill omen associated with the mythological sorceress Medea.

Alison’s story imagines the poet visiting the Black Sea some time before his exile and encountering the enigmatic Xenia, an encounter that inspires the work he left unfinished when he was exiled, his telling of the story of Medea. Alison dares to imagine the world as the author of the Metamorphoses might have experienced it, alive with perpetual movement. My re-read was prompted by research for an article I wrote about the 2,000th anniversary of Ovid’s death.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

A learned, sane and often amusing guide to writing well. Pinker draws on a vast array of examples and a lifetime’s experience as a leading linguist and psychologist to suggest principles for the appropriate use of words. I’ll be writing much more about this and other style guides quite soon so I’ll leave it there. Suffice to say a most valuable resource for any writer!

The Shipwrecked Mind by Mark Lilla

Columbia professor Mark Lilla made waves at the start of the year with a widely shared New York Times commentary published shortly after Trump’s election result arguing that mainstream American liberalism has degenerated into a censorious identity politics incapable of speaking in a single voice to the nation’s diverse constituencies.

Around the same time two collections of his essays were published illuminating Lilla’s defence of a classic liberal tradition seeking to assert itself against the politics of identity and populism. The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics is an updated edition of a book first published in 2001 gathering portraits of 20th century radicals – including Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault – who hoped for revolutionary transformation. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction collects more recent essays profiling conservative writers envisaging a different utopia.

Where Lilla’s ‘reckless revolutionaries’ idealise the future, his ‘shipwrecked reactionaries’ look back to a lost Golden Age. By ‘reactionary’ Lilla does not refer to a conservative pessimism for which the world has always been fallen. Nor to the anti-intellectual populism that has come to overshadow contemporary politics. Lilla is interested in conservatives who believe in the possibility of restoration, counter-revolutionaries whose visions electrify their thought with a ’strangely exhilarating despair’.

He places them in an ancient tradition that looks to the past to light the way to the future, encompassing Hesiod and his lost Age of Gold, Cato the Elder, who blamed the Greeks for corrupting the Republic, the Christians and pagans who held each other responsible for the fall of Rome, and the Romantics who rebelled against the Enlightenment.

Lilla has a gift for entering into and capturing the essentials of the thoughtworlds of his subjects, who in this collection include Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Brad Gregory and Michel Houellebecq. I don’t share those conservative worldviews. But thanks to Lilla I understand them better than I did. I wrote about The Shipwrecked Mind in more detail here.