Saturday, December 31, 2005

RALPHIES: Okay, I don't promise to do this every year, but this year I'll take Ed Cook up on his invitation to post some best-of-the-year opinions. These are all things that I have read or seen in 2005 and I make no pretense of being comprehensive or particularly objective.

We're heading to Edinburgh to spend New Year's Eve with friends, so this is likely to be my last post today.

BEST NONFICTION BOOK: Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil is a renowned inventor and AI specialist who has a good track record for predicting developments in the computer revolution over the last couple of decades. In this, his latest book, he extrapolates current technological trends, arguing that our knowledge is increasing doubly exponentially (i.e., it doubles in regular periods, with the periods themselves rapidly decreasing). He predicts miracles of genetic engineering in the next decade or two; nanotechnology, reversal of aging, and human-level computer intelligence (reverse-engineered from the human brain) by the late 2020s; cheap human-level computer intelligence -- costing about as much as a present-day PC -- in the 2030s, with "uploading" of wetware human minds not long after; and the "Singularity" in the mid-2040s. The term "Singularity" in this context was, I believe, coined by the science fiction writer and computer-science professor Vernor Vinge about 20 years ago. The Singularity is the point at which we present-day human beings can no longer understand the coming technological changes and therefore can no longer make useful extrapolations, but according to Kurzweil it will involve computation so powerful that producing trillions of interconnected human-level intelligences that operate millions of times faster than the human brain will be a trivially cheap matter.

Whether or not Kurzweil's whole scenario is right, it's hard to dispute that some of it is on the right track. Keep taking those vitamins. And get ready to grab the scruff of the tiger's neck and hold on tight, because we are going for a ride!

BEST FICTION BOOK: If you allow a book that I read in 2005 but which was actually published in 2004, then I choose Stephen R. Donaldson, The Runes of the Earth (Putnam). If Donaldson is not the best-ever writer of epic fantasy, he comes in only behind Tolkien and then only just. And he is more prolific and wider-ranging than Tolkien (also writing space opera and detective fiction). This is the seventh book of a projected ten in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and it appeared more than twenty years after the immediately preceding volume in the series. It seems that after Donaldson published the first trilogy, his publisher kept badgering him to write a sequel. The plan Donaldson finally came up with was so audacious that it has taken him until now to tackle the third and last part of the series. Ten years have passed in our world and thousands in the Land, when Linden Avery is returned to it. This is quite similar to the scenario in books four through six, but it is an entirely new situation, and the book, which unfolds at a relentless pace, is very hard to put down. And, yes, Covenant figures in it, in more ways than one. This volume sets a very promising stage for the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

If you insist on a book actually published in 2005, then it would have to be Richard "make it personal" Morgan, Woken Furies (Orion). This is the third book about his anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs. In his future world human minds are contained in durable (but not indestructible) computerized "stacks" that fit into the spinal columns of interchangeable human bodies ("sleeves"). If your sleeve is killed, your stack can be retrieved and reloaded into another sleeve, but "real death" ("RD") is an ever-present danger, especially if you're not careful about your backup files. Kovacs is a former "Envoy," a kind of mental martial artist who can be beamed from world to world by a loose interstellar government to be loaded into military-grade sleeves to put down revolutions and the like. Altered Carbon was Morgan's first novel, also about Kovacs. Not only could I not put it down; when I finished it I prompted started it again from the beginning and read it through a second time. Woken Furies is of comparable quality. Morgan has a gift for creating a realistic future with believable slang. He also gets points in my book for something he did in real life. You may recall the story of blogger Joe Gordon, who was fired from the Waterstone's book chain about a year ago. Morgan wrote a public letter to the company to protest Gordon's firing. He didn't have to do that and he took a risk to criticize in public a major distributor of his own work. Thanks in part to him and other SF writers, plus about a million bloggers, the industrial tribunal went well and Gordon was offered his old job back, but he had found a better one and so accepted a settlement from Waterstone's instead.

BEST SCHOLARLY BOOK: Frank Moore Cross et al., Qumran Cave 4 XII: 1-2 Samuel (Discoveries in the Judean Desert 17; Oxford: Clarendon, 2005). I'm reviewing this for The JSNT Booklist, so I won't say too much here. This is the official edition of some of the text-critically most interesting biblical manuscripts from Qumran. It won the award for best work on biblical textual criticism of 2005 at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog. Of course I think it was the only nomination, and I nominated it, but it still deserves it. (Full disclosure: Cross was my doctoral supervisor.) It surely also deserves the award for the longest-awaited text-critical work; more than half a century. I won't claim that I've read it all, but I've skimmed and spot-checked it pretty thoroughly and it upholds the high standards of the DJD series and it will be required reading for anyone working on the books of 1-2 Samuel for the foreseeable future.

BEST MOVIE: I'm with Ed on this one. Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the best film I saw in 2005, which is not to say that I saw many. But it was very good, far ahead of what was done to LOTR, and it left Star Wars III behind coughing in the dust. That the special effects were fantastic goes without saying (and Hollywood produces endless crap movies with great special effects). But the settings were right, the children looked and acted like the Pevensies, and the film condensed the story while consistently staying true to it. Georgie Henley (Lucy) was the best actor and did a terrific job for her age. Aslan comes in second, and he really did look just like a lion who could talk. And Tilda Swinton comes third, as a suitably evil White Witch. My only criticism was that the battle scene got a little cheesy.

BEST MUSIC: I'm sorry to say that I didn't listen to any new music in 2005.

In lieu of that, I give you the BEST TELEVISION MOMENT of 2005, at the end of "Bad Wolf," the penultimate episode of the 2005 season of Doctor Who:
DALEK: We have your associate! You will obey or she will be exterminated!
DALEK: Explain yourself!
THE DOCTOR: I said no.
DALEK: What is the meaning of this negative?
THE DOCTOR: It means no.
DALEK: But she will be destroyed!
THE DOCTOR: No! 'Cause this is what I'm going to do: I'm going to rescue her! I'm going to save Rose Tyler from the middle of the Dalek fleet, and then I'm going to save the Earth, and then, just to finish off, I'm going to wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky!
DALEK: But you have no weapons! No defenses! No plan!
THE DOCTOR: Yeah! And doesn't that scare you to death?
ROSE TYLER: Yes, Doctor?
THE DOCTOR: I'm coming to get you.

The Doctor switches off the communication link.

Happy New Year!

No comments:

Post a Comment