Preview of 2004: Non-fiction

The power and the story: America, our planet - and the universe, writes Boyd Tonkin
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The Independent Culture

Next year will see publication of the revealing new biography of an ambitious, high-handed ruler with an insatiable taste for foreign conquests, whose very name became a byword for pride and ruthlessness. But that's enough about Blair by Anthony Seldon (The Free Press). Genghis Khan by John Man (Bantam) will finally drag the Mongol marauder out of myth and into serious history.

Power, its uses and abuses, will drive several promising non-fiction titles in the early months of 2004. The influential philosopher Peter Singer offers to "take George Bush seriously" as politician and thinker in The President of Good and Evil, (Granta), while The Bush Dynasty by Kevin Phillips (Allen Lane) delves into his family business. Call it "hyperpower" or "hegemon", the United States that Dubya rules exercises many strong minds on both sides of the Atlantic. They include Timothy Garton Ash, who redefines the Free World (Allen Lane) for the post-September 11 age; Samuel P Huntington, promulgator of "the clash of civilisations", who asks his fellow-Americans Who Are We? (The Free Press); historian Niall Ferguson, who probes the emergent empire in Colossus, with a TV series attached (Allen Lane); and the BBC's own flak-jacketed prophet, Rageh Omaar, who revisits Baghdad in Revolution Day (Viking). Curtis White dissects the absence of serious dissent from Middle America in The Middle Mind (Allen Lane). The author lives - where else? - in Normal, Illinois.

American heft owed, and owes, much to nuclear pre-eminence. That topic makes a symptomatic comeback with Gerard de Groot's history of The Bomb (Cape), Brian Cathcart's account of the brains behind the breakthroughs, The Fly in the Cathedral (Viking), and Peter Goodchild's life of Edward Teller, "the real Dr Strangelove" (Weidenfeld). Jonathan Schell, who in the bomb-shadowed 1980s lamented The Fate of the Earth, re-appears with his history-cum-manifesto for non-violent politics, The Unconquerable World (Allen Lane). Schell supporters will welcome Noreena Hertz's study of Western command through Third World debt, rather than armed divisions, IOU (Fourth Estate).

After so much might, what about right? In Just Law (Chatto & Windus), Helena Kennedy will study and censure the state's expanding urge for total control and ask whether the current climate of fear is being deliberately used by the Government to roll back our liberties.

The Big Science that drove atomic research now prompts grand tours of life, the universe and everything from luminaries of the lab. Next spring, take your pick among the stars: telegenic cosmologist Brian Greene unstitches The Fabric of the Cosmos (Allen Lane), unironically flagged as "about everything"; Richard Fortey gets mud under his nails with an epic geological journey into The Earth (HarperCollins),while Roger Penrose keeps up 2004's standards of understatement in his 1000-page "complete guide to the physical universe", The Road to Reality (Cape).

After such galaxy-spanning trips, the mysteries of a single human life might well appeal. A strong season for memoirs stretches all the way from poet Owen Sheers's quest for his Rhodesian antecedents in The Dust Diaries (Faber), novelist Dale Peck's voyage around his father in What We Lost (Granta) and Karen Armstrong's witness to a life in faith and doubt, The Spiral Staircase (HarperCollins), to celebrity highlights such as Annabel by the socialite La Goldsmith (Weidenfeld) and Boy George's revelations, Straight (Century).

Children's favourite Michael Rosen recounts his own tale of illness and recovery in This is not my Nose (Viking), as the polymathic Ziauddin Sardar recalls "journeys of a sceptical Muslim" in Desperately Seeking Paradise (Granta). The career-criminal's confession is made over by Razor Smith in A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun (Viking); the Holocaust testament is transformed through a rediscovery from 1940s Hungary: Nine Suitcases by Béla Zsolt (Cape).

History, big news for several seasons, recedes into classy re-treads. David Starkey's Monarchy (Chatto & Windus) is the first in a trilogy of TV tie-ins that caper through 1500 years of British kings and queens. Richard Overy returns to a theme Alan Bullock made his own with a joint study of Hitler and Stalin, The Dictators (Allen Lane), as Frederick Taylor reexamines the RAF's destruction of Dresden (Bloomsbury).

Fresher subjects might include David Anderson's account of colonial atrocities in Kenya, Histories of the Hanged (Weidenfeld), Robert Winder's wide-angle history of immigration, A Passage to Britain (Little, Brown) and Justin Webster's survey of medieval Muslim Spain, Andalus (Doubleday). Paul Preston, the leading historian of modern Spain, will need to reconcile his professional detachment with his honoured place in Madrid society when he publishes his life of Juan Carlos (HarperCollins).

All of which still leaves tempting plums on next year's publishing tree. I expect juicy satisfactions from Francis Wheen's mordant investigation of jargon and waffle, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (Fourth Estate); Peter Biskind's picaresque romp among the Miramax generation of film-makers, Down and Dirty Pictures (Bloomsbury); Alain de Botton's witty scrutiny of our Status Anxiety (Hamish Hamilton); Umberto Eco's contemplation of Beauty (Secker & Warburg) across the ages; and from a volume of letters, Flourishing (Chatto & Windus), by Isaiah Berlin.

Even that loquacious sage might have found little to say to the formidable singer-activist Nina Simone, but I hope for illumination from Richard Williams's portrait of the much-misunderstood musician (Canongate). And, like every busy-busy media type in the middle of a "holiday" period, I should crave consolation from Madeleine Bunting's assault on our mad culture of overwork, Willing Slaves (HarperCollins). Which feels like the right moment to knock off for the year.