Books, 2020

You might also be interested in my booklists from 201420162017,  2018, and 2019.

  1. The Big Sleep 
  2. In the Courts of the Crimson Kings 
  3. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
  4. The Mote in God’s Eye
  5. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
  6. The Brothers Karamazov
  7. Life among the Savages
  8. I Bought a Mountain
  9. The Hot Rock
  10. Waldo & Magic Incorporated
  11. Lucifer’s Hammer
  12. The Harvest of Sorrow
  13. The Ghosts of Evolution
  14. The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures:
  15. Population Genetics
  16. Marching Through Georgia
  17. Genetic Takeover
  18. The Idea Factory
  19. The Knowledge 
  20. The Alexiad
  21. In the Country of the Blind 
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83 Responses to Books, 2020

  1. really wish you would leave a 1 sentence review of each book

    • Mote in Gods Eye and Lucifer’s Hammer are decent hard SF by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven who by all accounts were/are Our Guys.
      Alexiad is accounts of the Norman invasions and court intrigues of a 12th century Byzantine Princess (and is amazing).
      Karamazov “nihilism stinks, go to Church.” -arguably top 5 novel of all time. I needed an index card to keep track of all the Russian names.
      Idea Factory: Bell Labs was amazing -working with refugees from the place at LBNL; I respectfully disagree -they just soaked up all the talent in the country for a few decades.
      Harvest of Sorrow: communism sucks.

      Others are pop sci and (mostly science) fiction things I’m not familiar with.

      • gcochran9 says:

        MY first book report, as a freshman in high school, was The Brothers Karamazov. At one point I actually had straight the color of various Russian denominations of paper money.

  2. Keith says:

    Thanks for the list. Link 18 should be Idea Factory I believe

  3. syonredux says:

    Bit surprised to see MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA make the grade. I’ve always found the alternative history in Stirling’s Draka series a tad too wacky for my tastes. Combine that with the rampant sadism and Stirling’s fetish for uber-tough Lesbian warrior-women…..

    On the other hand, I really enjoyed both IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS and THE SKY PEOPLE….

    • gcochran9 says:

      It’s good at being bad. Ever watch Theatre of Blood?

      I have a few novels simmering in my head, and somewhere there’s got to be a scene in which some beer-swilling, middle-aged couch potato beats the living hell out of some uber-tough Lesbian warrior-woman..

      Who then falls helplessly for him. Just hadn’t met the right guy.

      • syonredux says:

        “It’s good at being bad.”

        Can’t deny that.

        ” Ever watch Theatre of Blood?”

        My favorite Vincent Price movie. It’s the role that he was born to play.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        Who then falls helplessly for him. Just hadn’t met the right guy.

        Hahaha!

        It’s good at being bad. Ever watch Theatre of Blood?

        It’s great! But also a cult classic. So everyone likes it now.

    • shadow on the wall says:

      . I’ve always found the alternative history in Stirling’s Draka series a tad too wacky for my tastes.

      You are not alone.

      Something about Draka cycle just triggers people unlike any other second rate science fiction.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Domination

      In alternate history community, there used to be whole cottage industry of Draka debunkers, rigorously analyzing why Draka economy, politics, society, technology etc… could never work and whole genre of Draka hate fics where the snakes get their commeuppance.

      One of the alt-alt-universes is still there, sadly unfinished before the grand finale where allied forces of United States, Imperial Germany and Soviet Union send the snakes to hell.

      http://www.stardestroyer.net/Armour/ShepStuff/Website/DrakaWB/

      • Glengarry says:

        In alternate history community, there used to be whole cottage industry of Draka debunkers, rigorously analyzing why Draka economy, politics, society, technology etc… could never work and whole genre of Draka hate fics where the snakes get their commeuppance.

        Honestly, that was the best part of that series. The wall of text is always the sign of a good troll and many walls of text were supplied.

    • Dividualist says:

      That book annoyed me so much. He had the perfect setup for an actually reactionary country – monarchism and all that – and he manages to turn it into a modernist kind of right-wing country, representative democracy and women voters and women soldiers, combined with a bunch of Nietzschean-Nazi features. Really weird. It is literally what a 15 years old liberal would think a right-wing country would be like and has nothing to do with people he wrote settled there, from French aristocrats to Thomas Carlyle, believed in.

      • shadow on the wall says:

        He had the perfect setup for an actually reactionary country – monarchism and all that

        For good reason. “Reactionary” country ruled by inbred corrupt aristocracy that clings to their outdated lifestyle and want to preserve it at any cost is hard to make into scary world dominating Big Bad.

        In OTL, people are still afraid of Hitler, everyone laughs at king Louis and czar Nicolas.

        Really weird. It is literally what a 15 years old liberal would think a right-wing country would be like

        Nope. Stereotypical “extreme right wing” as imagined by liberals would be Nazis or Taliban style fundamentalists, none of them would be happy with Draka freewheeling LGBTQ BDSM lifestyle.

        Remember, MtG was written in 1991, when LGB content was still edgy and T was unpublishable (except in mimeographed fanzines for very exclusive clientele).

        • Dividualist says:

          ” “Reactionary” country ruled by inbred corrupt aristocracy that clings to their outdated lifestyle and want to preserve it at any cost”

          The British Empire was built by an aristocray. Inbred, because if a group of people are elites, it implies they are selected for good genes and thus they want to breed these in their own group. This is powerful, not inept. As for an outdated lifestyle, whatever, what matters is power.

          For me this genetics stuff means moderns are wrong about meritocracy, and aristocracy is more powerful.

          Aristocracy means nothing more than those who are succesful are required to marry and have kids with the descendants of those who used to be succesful.

          Pure meritocracy is merely testing for ability, but aristocracy is breeding for ability.

          Aristocracy is nothing more nothing less than what we do for racehorses.

          So I think your views on aristocracy are incorrect.

          • gcochran9 says:

            I can imagine an aristocracy that was selected, enough to be noticeably better than average at something, but the British aristocracy is not like that.

          • Philip Neal says:

            The British Empire was built by the Royal Navy and the East India Company, among the few institutions in an age of nepotism and corruption which promoted able men of modest origins like Clive of India and James Cook.

          • BenB says:

            I recently discovered Anthony Mario Ludovici, the ‘lost philosopher’ of early 20th century Britain, who made a similar case for inbreeding and aristocracy. He even went so far as to defend incest.

            His defense of the need for quality in a population (see his essay, the ‘Quest of Human Quality’) is commendable but even there he bizarrely recommends assortative mating based on physical features etc (and he recommends this within groups so it’s not a discussion of the unrelated miscegenation).

            Selection for ability or even just physical attractiveness is defensible but I never got the obsession with ‘inbreeding.’

          • shadow on the wall says:

            The British Empire was built by an aristocray.
            Nope.
            Among eminent and distinguished Victorians, you see lots of people called “first baron” “second baron” etc.. No “thirteen Earl” or “seventeenth Duke” in sight.
            Bourgeoisie built British Empire and as a reward they got some fancy titles and opportunity to marry into degenerate nobility and save their bankrupt estates with their money.

            Inbred, because if a group of people are elites, it implies they are selected for good genes and thus they want to breed these in their own group. This is powerful, not inept.

            This is the reason why this guy was the greatest genius that ever lived.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_II_of_Spain

            As for an outdated lifestyle, whatever, what matters is power.

            I do not see traditional hereditary aristocracy having any power anywhere today (outside of Arab oil states)

            Aristocracy is nothing more nothing less than what we do for racehorses.

            Of course. Never bet on horse that already won a race.
            Always bet on one whose great-great…grandpa won a race and his descendants got free fodder and luxurious stable without having to run any races ever since.

    • random observer says:

      I rather enjoyed the Draka original trilogy. The up close and personal approach of the first, with the main action being all small unit combat on the Ossetian Military Highway, with the rest of the worldbuilding as background, worked well. Similarly, the close in focus on the French characters in the second, with the worldbuilding again woven in with some care. The third one had more the quality of an alternate cold-war technothriller, albeit between two societies neither one entirely to a modern liberal taste, just one worse than the other, and although interesting and with a dark ending, was not as good. The fourth, Drakon, was interesting in its own rights as an alternate world/dimensional travel thriller, albeit one had to finally accept the lesbian warrior princess angle Stirling introduced. Since she was at least the product of a couple hundred years of genetic engineering, this struck me as less silly than using a contemporary woman in such a role.

      The appendices were fun. I still remember, all the more in today’s climate, his comment regarding civil unrest, in which any serious riot would be met by the Draka with [magic turn of phrase], “indiscriminate use of heavy weapons.” And of course Barcelona, where a rebellion that seized even temporary control of the city was met with rapid evacuation of all Draka citizens that could be found [telling phrase] and then a nuclear weapon was deployed. There was a certain thrill there. These things always depend on whose ox is getting gored.

      The effort to write a setting in which some power is a true antithesis of America is always interesting, especially when it gives you an insight into the author’s value for the word “America”. His Alliance for Democracy was a vaguely sinister military technocracy in its own right, albeit more palatable on the whole than the Domination, at least for anyone not Draka. Historically, Britain, Czarist Russia, Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and now perhaps China have been conceptualized as the opposite or mirror of America in some or many ways. Imperial Russia was seen in Lincoln’s time as both a hateful opposite [despotism] and a comparable mirror [frontier society, continental expansion, tough pioneer populations working largely outside state direction at least at first], and even ally [the Czar supported the Union, IIRC]. Imperial Germany lacked many of those points of comparison, but matched the US as rapid industrializer, pioneer of technology, advanced educator, mirror for American progressives, etc.].

      Stirling’s effort to create a comprehensive anti-America necessarily became a pastiche, and as someone pointed out, it had to be terrifying both as reaction and as modernity, which made it seem all the more fake but a more likely power to threaten America within its fictional world. The real problem was the hysterically fast technological progress, but that somewhat applied to the whole world, not only the Draka. For me, it gave it a sort of steampunk vibe avant la lettre.

      The cultural elements he put into it were at least a change from run of the mill Nazi clones or Soviets, so there was that.

      I gather Stirling went off the rails soon after, whether by politics or by starting to write eternal running series mainly of a fantasy or formulaic military SF thriller style. That seemed to happen to a lot of good authors who did their best genre work in the 80s and early 90s.

      • TWS says:

        I asked him once what was the deal with lesbian super soldier’s his reply was, ‘Some people write about lawyers.’. It’s his go to niche. The physical laws in his universe are simply different than ours. Beyond technology quitting or aliens transforming Venus and Mars human women can overcome the insurmountable physical and mental differences through willpower.

  4. LabRat says:

    Wow, no love for Murray.

  5. Pincher Martin says:

    I always enjoy and look forward to these annual West Hunter book lists. I’ve bought and read several of Greg’s recommended books. They include Three Hearts and Three Lions, Hive Mind, Microbe Hunters (excellent!), Night Comes to the Cretaceous, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, The Sleepwalkers, Song of the Sky (a surprisingly meditative and poetic book on flight and flying), and Infrastructure (partially read).

    Of course I’ve read many other books on the lists, but I read them before Greg recommended them. The ones above I took on his recommendation.

    Three Hearts and Three Lions was the only book I couldn’t get into, but I’m not much a science fiction/fantasy fan anymore. I finished the novel and thought it fine, but almost two years later I’m not even sure I can recall beyond a rough sketch what the plot was about.

    • Henry Scrope says:

      ‘Neptune’s Inferno’ is one I would have never read without the recommendation, found it a great book.

    • David Chamberlin says:

      Me too. Cochran doesn’t have to review them, especially if it was just a one sentence review as someone else suggested. The link leads right to amazon where they cleverly separate the reviews into the highest rated positive reviews to the highest rated negative reviews. The highest rated negative reviews are what I gravitate too, especially in the non fiction books. Great tool for finding out if this is a book for me and what the book’s strengths and weaknesses are.

  6. Kilo 4/11 says:

    I’m wondering if The Mote in God’s Eye and Lucifer’s Hammer would be a little too intense for a 14 year old boy. I’d rather he read Chekov’s or Faulkner’s or Joyce’s short stories, but since I haven’t had much luck getting him to read Hemingway’s stories, maybe it’s time to try sci-fi. The other one on your list I thought about was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but from the reviews it sounds like it could be a little too sweet or childish …

    • gcochran9 says:

      Nothing is too intense for a 14-year-old boy.

      • syonredux says:

        “Nothing is too intense for a 14-year-old boy.”

        Indeed. When I was 13-14, Robert E Howard was one of my favorite authors…..And that’s one of the reasons why I always recommend REH to parents of adolescent boys who are not interested in reading. If you’ve got a 13 year-old son who doesn’t get a thrill from reading “Beyond the Black River,” ya might need to get him checked out….

        • random observer says:

          I enjoyed that one again as recently as my mid-40s, not too long ago. One of Howard’s best, and a rare outing in which Conan is neither wholly the hero of the story nor the only viewpoint character.

          While I am not entirely on the same page as Howard on such things, all he thought about civilization and barbarism, and his positive with a caveat attitude to the latter, about frontier zones and the kinds of culture they breed, are all in there. It’s also his most vividly realized creation of character, setting, and dialogue, for my money.

  7. Henry Scrope says:

    Always something worth reading in your list.

  8. BenB says:

    Thought ‘The Weirdest People in the World’ would be on the list, Greg. I’d like to hear your thoughts on it as it seems like a plausible case for the gene-culture coevolution of western European individualism even if Henrich denies the genetic aspect.

  9. Man, Weirdstone takes me back. My professor of Anglo-Saxon, learning that I was a Tolkien fan, recommended it to me. It was Garner’s first, I believe, though not his best. It’s not smooth but it has that energy of first fantasies that I don’t think we get to see anymore, as there have been so many now. I still love the name “Gowther Mossock” and used him as a character in jokes I would tell to my children.

  10. akarlin says:

    Have read: #6, #19. The latter in particular would sync very well with Greg’s interests and ruminations, I suspect he enjoyed it.

    In reading list (though all quite far deep in it): #11, #15, #20

  11. dearieme says:

    This year’s reading included:

    Neil McGregor’s “Germany: Memories of a Nation”. How do you write a history of Germany? In its present form it dates only from 1990. Before then there hadn’t been a country there – wherever “there” was – between Charlemagne and Bismarck. McGregor, a museum curator sort of a chap, focuses on objects that figure large in the memory of Germans. His strategy works well; it’s a lovely book. Hats off to him.

    Graham Robb’s “The Debatable Land”. A few years ago Robb wrote “The Discovery of France”. It’s a wonderful book: if you haven’t read it do so at the first opportunity. So, being of that view, I’ve been interested to look at what he’s written since.

    Having presumably given up his Oxford Fellowship he has moved to live in the Border country. Hence this book about the eponymous patch of ground on the Scotland/England border distinguished by the fact that for centuries the two realms agreed that it belonged to neither of them. The book is as idiosyncratic as that political agreement. I found it engaging, even cheering him on when he tries his hand at shedding light on King Arthur. An oddity but you might like it too.

    • Kilo 4/11 says:

      Dearieme, thank you for calling my attention to “Germany: Memories of a Nation”. Sounds like one for me. Germany calls me through my father’s side. Also will recommend “The Discovery of France” to a Francophile American friend now living in Paris.

    • God of Thunder says:

      The Discovery of France is indeed a great book. The one on the borderlands was a disappointment to me, but that’s me. I found the Remainer hectoring a bit much. I’ll read anything he writes however.

  12. Smithie says:

    Recently read “King David’s Spaceship” by Pournelle. Set in the same universe as “The Mote in God’s Eye.” Nowhere near as good, but better than I expected.

    Probably a lot more famous, but another one I liked this year was “The Broken Sword” by Poul Anderson.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I have this vision of a industrial-war-of-production fantasy story involving tens of millions of elves and trolls locked in the magical equivalent of trench warfare. Tough old sergeant, addressing his elfin poilus:

      “Come on! Do you want to live forever??”

      • shadow on the wall says:

        Write fanfic set in Wars of Beleriand, especially the final War of Wrath.
        This is exactly the scenario you want – decades long desperate struggle with millions of casualties and magic equivalents of WMD destroying everything.

        http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Wars_of_Beleriand

        http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/War_of_Wrath

      • Smithie says:

        Elves seem remarkably war-like, despite having such low TFR. Maybe, the stakes are greater, when you are fighting trolls.

      • Kilo 4/11 says:

        It was the Devil Dogs (U.S. Marines) to whom that question was posed. The French by that time couldn’t care less.

        • random observer says:

          By some accounts, also addressed by Frederick the Great to his Guards, for hesitating under fire at the battle of Kolin. Except he called them “kerels”, which wikipedia translates as “rascals”. In some accounts, he addressed them as “Dogs!”

          “Kerels, wollt ihr den euwig leben?”

          That would likely not pass muster as troop motivation now, or at least would be the subject of media criticism. In Frederick’s defence, it was part of his Guards regiment. He was right to expect superior motivation from them. They doubtless got better rations.

      • Karl Narveson says:

        Ja, wir wollen ewig leben, is the world’s answer, given more definitively in 2020 than ever before.

  13. syonredux says:

    My Christmas gifts:

    THE HOLLYWOOD HISTORY OF THE WORLD, George MacDonald Fraser

    THE VIRGINIAN, Owen Wister

    LIBRARY OF AMERICA :JAMES THURBER: WRITINGS AND DRAWINGS, James Thurber

    THE PRAGUE CEMETERY, Umberto Eco

    A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727–1783, Paul Langford

    A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England, 1783–1846, Boyd Hilton

    TO WALK THE NIGHT, William Sloane

    THE BURNING COURT, John Dickson Carr

    The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson

    What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, David Walker Howe

  14. Jim O'Sullivan says:

    The Big Sleep? Fatally flawed. For example: who killed Owen Taylor?

    At least it’s less of a mess than the movie.

    • cthulhu says:

      Maybe flawed as a mystery, but a masterpiece of a novel. Read Chandler’s classic essay “The Simple Art of Murder” for the difference.

      Not my favorite of Chandler’s novels, although it is very good. “The Long Goodbye” is Chandler’s best, and one that can stand up to the best from Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, etc.

  15. Andrew Oh-Willeke says:

    Any significance to the order?

  16. Karl Narveson says:

    Thanks for another of these Christmas lists. In past years I have noted that the intersection of your lists with my own past reading has been far superior to chance, and have accordingly bought and enjoyed other titles on your sole recommendation. Anubis Gates comes to mind.

    But I am sorry to see you linking to the Karamazov brothers in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version. They never let you forget you’re reading a translation.

  17. Interestingly, I’ve read several of those.

    The one I read longest ago is “Waldo, and Magic, Inc.” Both stories are more than a little weird. But they might have details in them that escaped my then-teenage eyes.

    The novel “In the Court of the Crimson Kings” has a nice premise, and the execution is pretty good. It’s the kind of sci-fi story that was very common in Heinlein’s early years, but dropped out of style as interplanetary probes revealed how inhospitable Venus and Mars were.

    “In the Country of the Blind” is a provocative idea, and is pretty well-executed as a story.

    Amusingly, I finished “Lucifer’s Hammer” within a month or so of the Chelyabinsk meteor. It made the meteor seem less frightening, but more ominous. The explosion of that meteor was dangerous to Chelyabinsk, but posed little danger to the rest of the world. But a meteor the size of the one described in “Lucifer’s Hammer” would be a global catastrophe.

  18. Coagulopath says:

    Weren’t you and SM Stirling involved in a feud at some point?

  19. dearieme says:

    Tyler Cowen enters the lists with “The very very best books of 2020”.

    David S. Reynolds, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.

    Heather Clark, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath.

    Jan Swafford, Mozart: the Reign of Love.

    Has all the makings of a snoreathon I’d think.

  20. Mr. Melchizedek says:

    Genotype Revolution look interesting and imaginative, if not entirely correct.
    What did you think?

    I get the sense that its thesis might be related to a very interesting new book:

    “I am VERY impressed with this book—very important topic very well treated.” – Robert Trivers

  21. engleberg says:

    https://gizmodo.com/seemingly-ordinary-fossils-may-be-hiding-some-major-clu-1845075323?fbclid=IwAR3q87v6EHoYFFqOJ-eRERfuN7BzOxIOnOhODBkJrExI7oC6HZmP_I1yyz

    You know how chemists stopped needing German and started needing quantum mechanics? Using modern chemistry on our old fossil collections has real promise, a reverse slope if you will.

  22. Michel Rouzic says:

    Nice to see the book I’m currently reading (The Alexiad) make the list. It’s refreshing to read about events from long ago by someone who was (nearly) there written in a pretty straightforward way, without the pervasive modern colouration that academic parasites will impart on everything they touch (Anna Komnini has the misfortune of being a prime target for medieval women’s studies dissertations). The same goes for the much gloomier Florentine Histories of Machiavelli, which I recommend if you want to find out how republics and their politics could be somehow more divisive and dysfunctional than they are now.

  23. Lennart Edenpalm says:

    Greg is very fond of Science Fiction, you wonder why. In this years booklist the majority are just phantasies. Just a few are based on science/facts. Greg is a smart person, what makes him interested in stuff which is invented by the author, has no relevance in trying to understand the real world?
    Trying to understand the immune system is much more interesting/difficult than reading books about martians.

    Stupid booklist.

  24. Harold says:

    This year I read some Ann Radcliffe books. They aren’t good books, and interspersed with awful poetry, but I read them for insight into the sensibilities of an eighteenth century English woman.

    Although sometimes the plot tension depends on a physician arriving in time, or getting the advice of a good physician rather than a bad one, there was this passage, from ‘The Romance of the Forest’, expressing scepticism of the medical community: “Her kind hostess did every thing in her power to relieve her, and there was neither physician or apothecary in the village, so that nature was deprived of none of her advantages.”

    I recall someone asking for examples of such scepticism, but I can’t recall where. Perhaps in the comments here somewhere.

  25. cthulhu says:

    “The Hot Rock” is may favorite of Westlake’s Dortmunder series, but I tend to prefer the Parker novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark. And his “coffee” novel, “Kahawa”, set in Idi Amin’s Uganda, is little-known but very, very good.

  26. Steven C. says:

    I read the opening of “In the Country of the Blind”. Basically Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory from the “Foundation” series, but developed in the nineteenth century. Not very plausible but very entertaining.

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