Last year, I did a blog post naming the best books I’d read all year. It was a lot of fun because, hey! Who doesn’t like to talk about books?
So I thought I’d do it again. I read 42 books this year. Of those, many were quite good, a few were meh, and several were outstanding. These are the outstanding ones.
With Hollywood’s corner on the entertainment market, creativity is in short supply in science fiction & fantasy novels; so many books and movies stress action at the expense of characterization, plot at the expense of playfulness. A Fire Upon the Deep is not one of these. There’s action in it, yes, but also plenty of creativity, compelling characters, and a real sense of fun.
When a rogue and powerful AI threatens the galaxy, the main characters embark on a mission to find the weapon which can destroy the AI. But the weapon is hidden with two children on a tiny planet in the backwoods of space, difficult to locate and embroiled in a civil war.
Yet summing up the plot of A Fire Upon the Deep doesn’t do the novel justice, because there’s so much more to it than plot. One of the chief delights of A Fire Upon the Deep is its extraordinarily creative aliens: a sinister race with the bodies of butterflies, a race with bodies that resemble tiny bushes that ride around on sleds, a doglike race which shares a single mind among five or six different members of its pack, and of course the AI race. With all these different races perpetually intermingling and threatening each other, and with human beings somewhat on the periphery, the world built feels a little like the world of Star Wars.
A related delight is the novel’s detailed, inventive world-building. Vinge gives us the Net, which different races use to send messages to each other and make comments – hilarious, bizarre, chilling – on galactic events; he gives us the Zones of Thought, in which the galaxy is so ordered that the further from its center one flies, the better technology works and the more developed races are, so that at its very edges are the Transcended races.
But what makes a novel truly worthwhile (for me, at least) is that it gives not only a good plot but good thinking material, and A Fire Upon The Deep does so, raising questions about AI and our use of technology, the nature of and response to evil, and the interactions between individuals and the community. Some of these questions are not as fleshed out as they could be, but if the novel doesn’t develop them as much as it could have, it also doesn’t overdevelop them, providing easy answers to what are truly difficult questions.
I read some really good nonfiction this year, including Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, a history of the United State’s difficult-to-control and often poorly controlled nuclear development program
But top prize goes to The Heresy of Orthodoxy, by Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman have suggested that in early Christianity, there was no single sacred book and consequently no single orthodox faith; people held different texts sacred, stressed different parts of their faith, and basically practiced different Christianities, all loosely related but not bound to a firm set of doctrine.
According to Kostenberger and Kruger, this thesis is the result of our contemporary culture’s emphasis on diversity. Kostenberger and Kruger do an excellent job demonstrating that the writers of Scripture and the earliest church leaders were committed to a set doctrine and a set canon of sacred text, from the very first years of Christianity; there was, in other words, only one faith.
Yet Ehrman’s belief that there were many equally valid faiths is increasingly common; I just read a summary of it over in an Atlantic article on Hobby Lobby’s Museum of the Bible. So The Heresy of Orthodoxy is very relevant, complicating the notions we like to hold about the past and insisting that we understand and commit to what is true.
Set in an alternative-timeline version of 1985 England, The Eyre Affair is technically a suspense novel: When the villainous Acheron Hades kidnaps Jane Eyre from the page of her own novel (yes, really!), Literary Tec Thursday Next ventures into the novel herself to rescue her.
But saying that’s what the novel is about is like saying Star Wars is about a son who discovers his long-lost father. The real delight of The Eyre Affair is that it brims over with literary puns and inside jokes: literal bookworms and vending machines that dispense Shakespearean verse, among other things.
I had never heard of The Eyre Affair or its author Jasper Fforde until a book-loving friend of mine recommended it to me. But I loved it. I find that since my job is fairly intellectually demanding (I’m a college instructor), a comedic book is always a delight in the evenings; and good comedy is hard to find. The Eyre Affair was perfect.