In 2017, I read and reviewed 200 books.
With that many candidates, competition for the best books of the year was bound to be fierce. Let me see if I can’t pick out some winners.
Best Academic: In Defense of Disciplines by Jerry Jacobs. The idea that we have to break down disciplinary silos and get academic eggheads working together on major issues is no longer radical, it’s the tired conventional wisdom of over a half-century of academic management. Jacob torches this conventional wisdom, using bibliographic methods and employment data to show the disciplines are robust and flexible organizations that connect the work of individual scholars to enduring questions and approaches in human history. The vaunted “interdisciplinary synthesis” is mostly applied majors like business and communications cannibalizing the traditional liberal arts, with decidedly mixed outcomes for students, and clearly negative outcomes for independent researchers.
Best Vietnam War: War Comes to Long An by Jeffrey Race. You’ve probably heard ad nauseum the phrase “Vietnam was a political war.” In a close study of a single province outside Saigon over fifteen years, Race explores the implications of that phrase. The key issue for the average villager was land reform, and the Communist front ably allied the four poorest classes of villagers against the top ranks of absentee landlords. Communists were giving out plots, while the government was demand nine year of back rents. Leadership was the second facet of the political war. The Communists were dedicated to bottom-up leadership. Local cadres could be promoted up to district, province, region, and finally the Central Committee level. Government officials were dispatched from Saigon on the basis of their political connections and formal education, with little advancement for rural figures. Finally, this was a war, and violence was key. The mass destruction of American airpower, and sweep and cordon operations could damage but not destroy the underground VC infrastructure, while 80 assassinations of government officials in 1960 was enough to cripple the official presence in the province. Every insurgency is local, and War Comes to Long An reveals enduring truths about the Vietnam War and basic flaws in the American strategy.
Best Science Fiction: Hardwired by Walter John Williams. A gem of vintage cyberpunk, Hardwired features Cowboy, a cybernetically enhanced pilot who races armored hovercrafts across the ruins of America to smuggle life-saving medicine under the guns of the orbital cartels. This is a perfect wailing power chord of a book, all neon reflections in chrome and black glass. Hardwired gets what it means to be an outlaw, that rebel spirit inherent in the best cyberpunk, which the imitators miss.
Best Fantasy: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. Baru Cormorant is perhaps the most unlikely fantasy protagonist in history. An accountant from a recently colonized land, she enters the civil service and winds up in charge of a key province rumbling with rebellion. She has to chart a course through treachery, maintaining her own counsel in the face of intrigue, assassination, and a full blown war. This is what it looks like to try and change the system from within.
Best RPG: Dog Eat Dog by Liam Lwinge Burke. Exhibit A in the case that RPGs can be art. Dog Eat Dog is a game about colonialism and power on a fictional South Pacific Island. The wealthiest player IRL is the Occupation, the game master roll. Beginning with a list of stereotypes about the natives and the occupation, the game plays out in scenes, which escalate to chance and then the Occupations fiat. At the end of the scene tokens are exchanged to indicate players who resisted or cooperated with the resistance, and a new rule about the world is added. Dog Eat Dog brilliantly uses the rules to force interesting discussions about power, culture, and benevolence.
Best History: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hothschild. The Belgian Congo was one of the greatest rolling atrocities in human history, a decades long rape of central Africa by King Leopold and the men under his command. European mercenaries used hostage-taking, mutilation, and the lash to extract millions of dollars of ivory and rubber while killing millions of Africans. The whole colossal enterprise was exposed and destroyed by one of the first international human rights campaigns, which brought together African-American missionaries and English moral reforms to influence the deadly game of 19th century imperialism.
Best Fiction: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. A classic of American letters, The Caine Mutiny holds up as a study of courage, cowardice, and the pressures of command in war. Set on an obsolete destroyer-minesweeper wandering around the Pacific Theater, it’s a tense and fascinating study of the psychology of men in combat, and the ordinary heroes of the US Navy.
Best Non-Fiction: Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. “Post-truth” was the deemed the word of the year in 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary. The conditions of this darkest timeline, vehemently anti-expertise and scornful of the ideas of a fixed reality, are no accident. Rather, they are the deliberate strategic creation of Big Tobacco lawyers, unscrupulous physicists, and hard-line conservatives, to enact a political agenda that is, bluntly, profiting off the deaths of ordinary people. I wish there was a silver bullet to slay this strategy, but for now, know it, recognize it, and give it no quarter. The time for “just asking questions” is long past.