The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Year…

…was quite possibly a fiction book!

I think I’ve mentioned before that I read mostly non-fiction – probably 80-90% NF to 10-20% Fiction.  But a recent Reddit thread on “eye-opening books that have improved the quality of your life” led me to a great fiction find.

In the thread, somebody recommended Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of (Nearly) Everything” which is probably one of my Top 10 books of all-time.  Somebody else responded to that comment that if you liked the Bryson book, you should read “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter (review 1 and review 2).

They said the book was a realistic science fiction novel with the conceit that every chapter is a stand-alone but interconnected short story exploring different eras of geographic time – from 100 million years in the past to 500 million years in the future moving in exponential jumps – so 100 million years ago to 10 million to 1 million to 100 000 years to 10 000 years ago and so on, tracing that single strand of DNA that lives and evolves within us all right back to the beginning of life on earth.

The book begins with a prologue, set about twenty years in the future with humanity on the brink of not one but two potential global crises – one environmental (climate change causing massive weather changes) and one man-made (pending war between the first and fourth worlds) but with two potential solutions – advanced robotics on Mars and genetic engineering on earth.

The book then jumps back in time 100 million years.

Each of the non-human chapters (most of the book obviously) are written from the perspective of a series of slowly evolving animals – early dinosaurs, later dinosaurs then the burrowing mammals which are the earliest precursors of humans, their long path towards worldwide dominance created by the dinosaur’s extinction event.

The burrowers evolve into tree-dwelling apes which turn into chimpanzees which leave to the trees to become savannah dwellers, eventually turning into all manner of humanoids with the line known as homo sapiens obviously being the triumphant one.

But then, after a stop in Ancient Rome, we see the results of the 2031 crises before next moving forward in time in similar leaps which shows us the possible ultimate destiny of humanity (or at least our evolutionary descendants – remember, humans as they exist in 2011 are part of the journey, not the final destination.)

Along the way, the book does a masterful job of connecting numerous fields – from the origins and development of language and art, sex and war, agriculture and religion, neurology and astronomy – all linked by the common umbrellas of genetics and history.

Each year, I pick my favourite book of the year and, much like the more artistic films that are released in the fall to increase their chances of scoring Oscar nominations, “Evolution” is easily my current front-runner for my 2011 “Hammy” award for the best book I’ve read all year.

I had to bookmark this specific passage because it was so good at explaining how scientific evolution would even favour its current greatest opponent, unquestioning faith.

From a section about early humanoids:

Mother’s crude treatment had given her patient a real sense of relief from the pain of her bad back.  It was no more than what would one day be called the placebo effect:  Because she believed in the power of the treatment, the girl felt better.  But the fact that the placebo effect worked on the girl’s mind rather than her body did not make it any less real, or less useful.  Now she would be better able to care for her children — who would therefore have a better chance of survival than those of a comparable family with an unbelieving mother whose symptoms could not be relieved by a placebo — and so those children were more likely to go on to have children of their own, who would inherit their grandmother’s internal propensity for belief.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 2

  1. From Head Tale - Maybe Global Warming Isn’t So Bad? on 22 Nov 2011 at 4:52 pm

    […] I’ve just started reading Chris Turner’s “The Leap” and it might be another strong contender for the best book I’ve read this year based on the first few chapters. (translation: […]

  2. From Head Tale - 2011 “End of Year Questions” Meme on 30 Dec 2012 at 9:14 pm

    […] of the year and which both, in their own way, deal with themes of ecological crisis – “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter and “The Leap” by Chris Turner are my picks for this year’s […]

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