Our staff looks back at the books, movies, and music released (or in some cases rereleased) in 2014 and suggests a slew of gift ideas:
Ronald Bailey, science correspondent
Hannu Rajaniemi's Jean le Flambeur trilogy, which concluded this year with The Causal Angel, is simply the best-conceived post-Singularity universe ever. (The first two volumes are The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince.) It is not for the faint of heart: Rajaniemi shows rather than tells in his novels, so readers are thrown immediately into a solar system dominated by various vast and powerful forms of artificial intelligence that were once human. Among other beings, we meet Sobornost founders, who command vast armies of uploaded minds; Zoku clans, who link minds and volitions as they play cosmic games; and "wildcode," rogue nanotechnology that ravages the Earth. The trilogy traces the intriguing history and trajectory of one such intelligence, Jean le Flambeur.
Want to get an idea about how developing artificial intelligence could go right—or more likely wrong? Then Superintelligence; Paths, Dangers, Strategies is the book for you. Philosopher Nick Bostrom, who works at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, cogently explains how researchers will likely produce an intelligence explosion involving self-improving artificial intelligences sometime in this century. It could bring us a post-aging cornucopian utopia, or it could lead to the elimination of the human race. Bostrom outlines possible ways to nudge the new superintelligence toward being friendly to humanity.
Brian Doherty, senior editor
If you know someone who went wild the day the trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens was released, Chris Taylor's How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is a perfect gift: an enthusiastic, deeply researched, character-filled telling of the story of George Lucas the filmmaker and Star Wars as a set of films and an industry. Lucas didn't even know how autobiographical his movies were: the story of how a lonely tinkerer from a backwater town changed the world via interplanetary heroism. Even non-Wars-heads can learn a lot about modern popular culture and the movie business from this book, which rightly focuses on both sides of the film series' prominence: not just its creators, but the fans who made the movies into cultural phenomena.
Over Easy, Mimi Pond's graphic fictionalized memoir of her years as an art-student-turned-waitress in late-'70s Oakland, delivers nostalgia that's neither mawkish nor glamorized; it just understands to the bone what age can discern in the cusp moments of youth, recollected in, if not tranquility, at least some distance from how people can seem and scenes can mean when their complicated realities buffet you for the first time. Her cartooning is lively, lived-in, and sweet; her writing is an appealingly deep and nuanced recreation of the vertiginous and magical feelings of discovering who you are and who you will be through immersion in a troublingly lovable group bohemia.
Anthony L. Fisher, video producer
Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide is not only vital as a first-person account of how the Whistleblower of the Century first revealed himself and his shocking knowledge of massive NSA spying on American citizens. Its first 100 pages are as exciting a potboiler as anything ever written by John Le Carre.
Jonah Keri's Up, Up and Away is the perfect gift for baseball fans, who will be unable to resist Keri's gallows humor and passion for his beloved but ill-fated hometown team, the Montreal Expos. The book has a great cast of eccentric characters, especially during baseball's notorious cocaine-filled 1970s and 1980s, plus an interesting look into the strange economics and Canadian politics (including the failed Quebec secessionist movement of the mid-'90s) that ultimately led the Expos' extinction.
Nick Gillespie, reason.com editor-in-chief
First up is Anne Fortier's The Lost Sisterhood, a novel about honest-to-Athena Amazons that bounces back and forth between the contemporary world of academics and treasure-hunting and the ancient world of North Africa from which the mythical warrior-women sprang. It's tempting to try to summarize the book like a clichéd movie pitch—it's Bridget Jones Diary meets The Da Vinci Code!—but it's best to avoid that route. The plot built around the contemporary protagonist, Oxford prof Diana Morgan, is great, and so is the tale that follows the ancient warrior-priestess Myrina. It's December, but this is an awesome beach read that's packed with fascinating historical research and Big Ideas (not surprising, as Fortier holds a doctorate in the history of ideas from Denmark's Aarhus University). Go here for an interview with Fortier to get a sense of what The Lost Sisterhood is all about.
Second up is former Reason staffer Kerry Howley's widely acclaimed debut, Thrown. Part documentary realism, part fictional construct, it's impossible to easily summarize just what's going on in this tale of mixed martial arts fighters in the Midwest. Howley spent years trailing some actual MMA fighters through their training, bouts, and career reversals, and they are right there on the page, presented as living, breathing, nonfiction characters. But the story is narrated by a fictive dissolute philosophy grad student who is obsessed with the sheer physicality of guys beating the hell out of each other. Warn whoever you give this to: Block out the whole day when you start page one, because you won't stop reading until you've finished the last page.
Then there's Frank Portman's King Dork Approximately, the long-awaited sequel to his instant-classic young adult novel King Dork. Published in 2006, the first Dork was to me "an extended tour through that particular ring of hell known as high school as only the creative force of the punk band the Mr. T Experience could render it." Literally and figuratively, King Dork Approximately picks up where that one left off. The narrator, Tom Henderson, is simply one of the greatest voices of adolescence angst ever. I was turned on to King Dork by my then-teenaged son, who devoured the new book like a starving man devours his first meal in weeks. Whether you're male or female, old or young, these two books will put into words feelings that you've always struggled first to express and then to repress. Can't wait for the next one.
Finally, there's Not Cool, by Greg Gutfeld. This is a guy who cites torture defender Allen West and alt-punk icon Buzz Osborne among his pals and who once tried to open a gay bar named Suspicious Packages near the never-completed mosque near the old World Trade Center. For years now as the host of Fox News' Red Eye, Gutfeld has been the ringleader of the most interesting late-night show on the small screen. (Disclosure: I'm lucky to be a regular guest.) As far as I'm concerned, Gutfeld is to our era what Mike Douglass, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore was to theirs: a talk-show host who pulls together weird, wonderful groups of guests and forces them to crack wise and call out bullshit as they see it in a freewheeling way. But Gutfeld is even better when he's writing. A former editor at Maxim, Men's Health, and elsewhere, his pixels are always filled with the most delicious poison. Only the most tongue-clucking killjoy will fail to find laughter and insight in his extended tour of "the hipster elite and their war on you."
Todd Krainin, video producer
The only difference between No Place to Hide and a work of paranoid fiction is that No Place to Hide isn't a work of paranoid fiction. Glenn Greenwald's first-hand account of the most important news story in a generation details his discovery of the NSA's alarming ambition to "collect it all"—to secretly intercept, monitor, and analyze the world's electronic communications. Greenwald's earliest encounters with Snowden, and how his identity was strategically presented to the public for maximum effect, are thrilling to read. For anyone concerned whether Greenwald should be entrusted with the NSA's trove of secret documents, his robust moral defense of personal privacy and his withering indictment of the establishment media's cozy relationship with the politically powerful should put all doubts to rest.
Rory Kennedy's Last Days in Vietnam isn't out on DVD yet, but maybe you could buy someone a pair of tickets to see it in the theater. The documentary revives a chapter in American history we've been too eager to forget. The American ambassador's refusal to accept defeat, a belief he held until North Vietnamese Army was blasting through the city limits of Saigon, left us shockingly unprepared to evacuate the country. Astonishing footage—helicopters pushed from battleships into the South China Sea, civilians storming the U.S. embassy—reveal the tragic backstories of thousands of ordinary citizens who attempted a frantic, final-hour escape from a country on the brink of Communist control. Kennedy depicts the American presence in all its baffling complexity. A catastrophic war and the poorly conceived Paris Peace Accords somehow set the stage for a departure that was at once humanitarian and heroic. The parallels to Afghanistan and Iraq are unspoken but unmistakable: Departing a country requires as much planning as destroying it.
Ed Krayewski, associate editor
Johnny Cash's Out Among the Stars, released more than a decade after his death, comes from a trove of 1980s recordings made with pop country producer Billy Sherrill. Happily, the material doesn't appear to have been shelved for being mediocre: This is a substantive, satisfying addition to the Johnny Cash discography. It doesn't sound like most of the other, often lackluster, records Cash released around that time. Instead it has a timeless quality.
My favorite movie of 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, picks up years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which ended with the superintelligent apes leaving San Francisco. By the time the second film starts, the human race has been virtually wiped out by the "Simian Flu" and the apes are constructing a sophisticated society. At its heart, though, the story in Dawn is a human one, about the fragility of life, the importance of integrity, and the problem with leadership.
The United States of Paranoia, the latest from Reason's own Jesse Walker, was released in expanded paperback form this year. What makes it especially enjoyable is how many historical anecdotes Walker managed to pack into it while systematically outlining conspiracy theories' role in American life. The theory and the history complement each other, making it a difficult book to put down.
Katherine Mangu-Ward, managing editor
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is the latest from Randall Munroe, creator of the delightful, smugly geeky webcomic XKCD. Like all coffee table books, the main value of What If? is signaling: Gifting or reading this book (or reviewing it, for that matter) is the perfect way to telegraph that you are smart yet wacky, the manic pixie lab tech of someone's dreams. By a stroke of luck, it also happens to be a pretty good read.
Monroe tackles quasi-scientific questions submitted by his readers, such as "What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped?" (Answer: While the Earth wouldn't budge, things don't turn out too well for the participants of this whimsical experiment. "Within weeks, Rhode Island is a graveyard of billions.") Or this one: "From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?" The answer involves the phrase ablation zone. And who hasn't wondered about this: "How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?"
Stephanie Slade, deputy managing editor
It's been called "the most libertarian Hollywood blockbuster of all time," a movie in which the villains are Environmental Protection Agency regulators and the heroes jumpsuit-wearing, poltergeist-wrangling businessmen. The eminently quotable Ghostbusters, which premiered three decades ago, has been a crowd favorite ever since. To commemorate the anniversary, the movie was rereleased to theaters over the summer; a limited-edition DVD gift set (complete with its rightfully less-celebrated sequel, Ghostbusters II) is now available.
The films star Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis as paranormal experts offering their ghost-catching services to a be-haunted New York City. Not that you needed the plot recap. Named the funniest movie of the past 25 years by Entertainment Weekly, the original Ghostbusters has continued to age well.
Peter Suderman, senior editor
A mash-up of the science fiction, mystery, and political thriller genres, John Scalzi's Lock In is a highly readable and smartly constructed riff on what disability would look like in a networked near future. The book is set a few decades from now, not long after a massive virus outbreak renders four percent of the U.S. population "locked in"—fully functional mentally but with no physical capabilities to speak of. Instead, lock-ins live out their lives in virtual environments or in humanoid robot bodies. And sometimes, they ride inside unique human carriers who act as second selves. Scalzi's story is set in Washington, D.C., and cleverly imagines the ways that both the government and the private sector would respond, with giant subsidies and aggressive plays for market share. Scalzi's funny, conversational voice makes for fast, engaging reading, and his big ideas keep you thinking while the pages turn.
Scott Snyder's 10-issue comic-book series The Wake, which has now been collected as a graphic novel, was one of the best reads in what was already a great year for comics. A two-part story that takes place in both the present day and the near future, it's got the surface of a science-fiction story and the soul of an ancient horror yarn. Essentially, it's the tale of the merman apocalypse—and the decimated future world, full of adventure and political conflict, that results. Snyder's weird, frightening story benefits from cinematic art by Sean Murphy, and a limited-run approach that keeps narrative digressions to a minimum.
David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks is another time-hopping literary science-fiction/fantasy novel from the author of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell's book is built out of 100-page chunks, each of which is told from the perspective of a different character and each of which jumps a decade or so into the future. In its broadest strokes, it's about a war between two clans of immortal psychics, one whose members pass gently from old and dying bodies into young new ones, and another whose members sacrifice the young and innocent to keep themselves alive and young in perpetuity. The psychic war itself is a bit muddled, but the overall concept allows Mitchell to tell a series of highly personal stories that pit kindness and decency against greed and selfishness. His brilliantly crafted prose is a joy to read, and his story, despite its fantastical flourishes, is ultimately a very human one about what it means to live and to die.
Jesse Walker, books editor
Fred Turner's 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture went searching for the prehistory of the Internet and found it at the intersection of Cold War science and the '60s counterculture. Now he's written a sequel—or should I call it a prequel?—that digs out some even deeper roots from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. The Democratic Surround is a fascinating tour through the formative years of what we now call multimedia, written in a way that illuminates not just how we got here but where we're heading now.
If you want to watch a movie about a costumed crimefighter but want a little more intellectual heft than you'll find in the usual Marvel/DC adaptations, you're in luck: This year Criterion gave Georges Franju's 1963 picture Judex a proper DVD release. (Before this, the only version available in America was a burned-on-demand DVD-R you could order from Sinister Cinema.) The story's title character—a masked avenger battling a villainous banker from a subterranean lair—was created during World War I by Louis Feuillade, a French filmmaker who made the kind of crazy pulp serials the surrealists later loved. He was the perfect subject for a director like Franju, who had a history of drawing on both pulp fiction and surrealist art. The result is a haunting mixture of magic and terror.
Matt Welch, magazine editor-in-chief
Those of us in the political journalism business have a dirty secret that gnaws away at us in the dark hours: Most writing about politics and policy is not just wrongheaded but actively unpleasant to read. It had been years since my eyes were graced by an exception to that rule, until I happily devoured Damon Root's terrific Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The book will make waves over its clear-eyed yet (for many) counterintuitive history of the sides-switching war over judicial activism and the concurrent rise of the increasingly influential libertarian legal movement. Truly, you cannot understand the modern Supreme Court without using this marvelous decoder ring of a book. Yet when I recommend it to friends, it's the writing that I sell: So concise, declarative, not a word out of place. Not only will you finish the damned thing—unlike so many other public-policy tomes—but you'll wish that it was twice as long.