My favourite books of 2013

I have yielded to public clamour and condescended to write (rather more than I intended) about some of the best books I read in 2013.

I've tried to pick out half-a-dozen favourites, and mention a few others in passing. Here they are, in alphabetical order. Please note they weren't necessarily published this year, and I apologise for the rather odd obsession with all things Cold War, Soviet and sci-fi this year - I think I'm moving past that. There's also quite a lot of politics in there, but that's always the case I'm afraid.

Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared, by Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown's Fishing in Utopia should be of particular interest to anyone intrigued but undecided about the possibilities for Scottish independence.

One of the most appealing arguments put by the Yes campaign is the prospect that an independent Scotland would be set free to organise itself according to the so-called 'Nordic Model', the much discussed political and economic framework that has enabled Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden to navigate the financial crisis with considerably more grace than much of the rest of Europe, austerity Britain included. They have their own problems but the Scandinavian countries have shown it's possible to sustain an effective social democratic settlement within today's hard edged globalised economy, funding generous social provision from the proceeds of investment in hi-tech skills-driven economic growth.

Brown's book is an affectionate memoir of the time he spent as a young man in 1970s Sweden, the high watermark of post-war egalitarian social democracy. While admiring the Swedish system, he notes that it isn't possible, or even desirable, if it isn't supported by a society held together by a strong communal bonds. The building of Sweden's robust egalitarian society required a certain social conformism. The Nordic system can't be imposed from above, but only built from the grassroots up. Are we too individualistic, even in ostensibly egalitarian Scotland, to make a Scandinavian-style system work? I wrote more about Fishing in Utopia in a post earlier this year.

Ill Fares the Land, by Toby Judt

Judt's Ill Fares the Land is a beautiful reflection on the development and dismantling of the social democratic consensus that prevailed in Britain and much of Europe from the end of the Second World War to the late 70s.

Those years weren't perfect, scarred as they were by industrial unrest, a rather inflexible, top-heavy state, and a certain intolerance of minorities, but they saw the development of a comprehensive social security system, universal education and health care, the rebuilding of war-torn infrastructures, the clearing out of slums with social housing, and cross-party commitment to full, stable employment. There was a belief that the state, blunt instrument as it is and was, could be used effectively to channel the wealth generated by a regulated market in pursuit of the common good.

Judt's elegiac narrative, written as he was dying, laments the turning back of so many of those advances, but emphasises that we are not powerless: things have been better in the past, and we can make them so again. If we want to.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis

As I related in a post back in March I read Tevis' classic sci-fi novel for the first time after being rather disappointed - again - by Nicolas Roeg's movie adaptation (I don't why I had hoped it to be better on a second viewing than the first).

It's a wonderful novel. Very briefly: an alien comes to Earth on a desperate mission to save his people, slowly starving on their dying planet. Disguising himself in human form, he adopts the name Thomas J Newton, and uses his superior extraterrestrial intelligence to found a global corporation that pays for the development of a space craft designed to travel to his home planet and ferry select members of his race to Earth.

The story charts his failure. The solitary member of his kind on a strange planet, burdened with an impossible responsibility, unable to share his true identity and increasingly aware of the hopelessness of his project, Newton gradually succumbs to alcoholism, indulging in wines impossibly scarce on his own planet.

Tevis invites us to see ourselves in Newton: in a sense he is Everyman, representative of the essential condition of us all. His situation is especially acute, but ultimately we are all strangers on this planet, thrown into existence, men and women who have, in a sense, fallen to Earth. The book's ultimate concern is philosophical, indeed theological, disclosed with great subtlety.

The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, by John Gray

John Gray's most recent books might be considered variations on a theme: the folly of political idealism, of the attempt to translate a utopian vision into some kind of reality. The Immortalization Commission examines the early 20th century Modernist hope that eternal life could be delivered by means of science rather than traditional religious belief in supernatural agency.

The first half of the book reveals that the spiritualist cult which flourished during the first decades of the new century had very long tentacles. Gray shows that spiritualism was actually rather respectable, its speculations studied with absolute seriousness by prominent scientists, philosophers, lawyers and politicians (including Henry Sidgwick and Arthur Balfour) many of whom participated in seances. Mediums filled thousands of volumes with 'automatic writings' supposedly transmitting the communications of the dead, which were studied carefully for concrete references to the past and plausible predictions for the future. Spiritualism was thought by many to yield empirical evidence for a connection between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The book's second half examines the evolution of the 'Cosmist' philosophy that emerged in late 19th century Russia and went on to become a major strand of the Soviet project. Cosmism held that careful exploration of the biological principles of life would enable scientists to develop a new improved men and women free of the imperfections of death and decay. This philosophy didn't seem particularly far fetched in the context of the soaring idealism of the early years of the Soviet Union, characterised by the hope and expectation that an ideal society could be engineered much like factory machinery or a gleaming Modernist skyscraper. If our political, economic and physical environment can be constructed anew, the planners thought, then why not the human being too?

As ever, Gray's tone is calm and measured, which makes the utopianism he describes sound both matter-of-fact plausible and utterly ridiculous. Fascinating and sobering reading. I wrote a review - Designing immortality - discussing the book in more detail.

The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century, by Sheri Berman

Sheri Berman's The Primacy of Politics makes essentially the same argument as Toby Judt's Ill Fares the Land, discussed above: a return to the social democratic principles that preceded the ascendancy of neoliberalism represents the only practicable hope of designing a society characterised by a measure of economic stability, environmental sustainability and social justice.

Berman's is a much more formal work, more history than elegy, concerned with charting the emergence of social democracy as a coherent political philosophy during the first decades of the last century. Essentially (and I simplify greatly) at the beginning of the 20th century the political divide across Europe was sharply ideological: on one side conservatives and liberals supportive of the rights of capital, of the free operation of the market; on the other the representatives of labour, strongly influenced by Marxist critique of capitalism as inherently unstable, headed towards an inevitable, final collapse that would clear the ground for the taking of the means of production and exchange into common ownership, and the subsequent development of a socialist society.

Berman charts how social democracy emerged as a dissident movement within the European left. Social democratic principles were defined and developed by progressives who became tired of waiting for a revolution that seemed perpetually round the corner, but ever elusive. The early social democrats argued, against their Marxist peers, that parliamentary democracy could afford opportunities for progressive social change and that the wealth generating capacities of the market could be directed towards the development of a just, prosperous society.

As the title of Berman's book makes clear, they believed in the primacy of political action today over passive hope for future revolution: existing political structures, imperfect as they were, could be reformed and directed to progressive ends. Rather than being regarded as a kind of watered-down Marxism social democracy should be respected as a political philosophy in its own right, the defining characteristic of which is a belief that progressive reforms can be effected within the context of the 'bourgeois' political settlement - parliamentary democracy, the state and the market economy - dismissed by radicals as hopelessly compromised.

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Summer hols allowed me to finally get round to a classic of dystopian literature I've not yet read, We, written in 1920 by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It's a good book to read alongside John Gray's Immortalization Commission (see above). Like Gray, Zamyatin is all too aware how quickly a utopian project flips into its opposite.

We, set a thousand years in the future, imagines a shining city state that in many respects fulfils the promises of early Soviet propaganda. Class distinctions have been abolished, and there is perfect equality between the sexes. Rational economic planning has replaced the free for all of the capitalist marketplace. Calm faith in scientific progress has replaced hope in the irrational metaphysics of traditional religion. Palaces and slums have been replaced by monumental modernist architecture (the appearance of Zamyatin's city sounds rather like contemporary Dubai). Even the vagaries of the weather have been brought under control by technologies encompassing the city within a gentle micro climate of perpetual sunshine and cerulean skies. The city is ringed by a transparent 'Green Wall' protecting its ordered world from the 'chaos' outside.

In its way it's beautiful, but Zamyatin's city is a nightmare made real. The state's pursuit of perfection requires of its citizens an absolute uniformity of aspiration and behaviour. All of the buildings are made of glass - there's no privacy. There's no democracy. There's no spontaneity, no open-ended thought. This is a society that has no understanding of the virtue of untidiness: the police state par excellence. I wrote a longer review of it earlier this year.

Other books

Those were, I think, the books I enjoyed most in 2013. A few others certainly warrant mention.

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin, Kosmonaut Zero by Richard Evans and Red Plenty by Francis Spufford all represent in various ways my odd Cold War/Soviet/Sci-fi obsession.

I've reviewed them all (see the preceding links) but, briefly: Omon Ra is an odd little tale about delusions of grandeur held by bankrupt nations; Kosmonaut Zero an intriguing story of interplanetary exploration on a shoestring, and the ethics of transhumanism; and Red Plenty is unclassifiable, a fictionalised account of the Soviet economic planning system that somehow manages to be absolutely gripping.

I read a number of books in the excellent Zero Books series. To pick out just three: Non-Stop Inertia is a heartbreaking indictment of today's culture of precarious work - I really must review this properly before long; Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism exposes our collective inability to imagine how we might move past neoliberalism; and Dead Man Working by Carl Cederstrom and Peter Fleming is a funny, frightening analysis of the meaninglessness of so much contemporary work.

I must also mention To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov, which I reviewed at length for an Impact48 hack weekend back in October. Morozov takes a close look at the potential and promise web technology holds for helping solve intransigent political problems. While acknowledging that the web can be an effective agent for positive change he highlights the dangers of 'solutionism', the dogma that issues like poverty, hunger, obesity and depression can be fixed through technology alone, without the 'messiness' of political mediation.

Finally, a word or two for Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth by Naguib Mahfouz, a brief novel that uses the enigmatic figure of the 'heretic' pharaoh Akhenaten to explore the tension between religious idealism and hard political realism.

All we really know of the historical Akhenaten is that he attempted to introduce a new religion centred on sun worship: arguably the first monotheist, he replaced the Egyptian pantheon with the worship of a single god for a time, before the old order reasserted itself. Mahfouz's Akhenaten comes to the throne espousing a gospel of universal brotherhood which serves as his reference for political decision making. Mahfouz tells Akhenaten's story from multiple perspectives, including those of courtiers, military leaders, priests and his wife Nefertiti. The novel is a wonderful parable of the dangers of attempting to rule according to ideals, and of not attempting to do so.

That's it: wishing everyone a Happy New Year.

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