From Kilbeggan Library’s Science Fiction Book Club
Over the past year our book club has explored the rich seam of the science fiction genre. If you’d care to visit some of these strange worlds in 2023, here are seven science fiction classics for you to try in 2023.
You may have seen the 2021 movie, or at least the trailer; you may know that Dune is set on a desert planet inhabited by massive terrifying worms. As well as an epic adventure, it’s a story about galactic political intrigues, ecology, exotic religions, and mind-altering drugs.
You wouldn’t call it a light and accessible read. Some of our members found it to be like a blistering trek through the deep desert. Others were utterly engrossed in it. But all of us, those who only got 50 pages in and those who were reading it for the second time, found we had a lot to talk about.
The galaxy is carved up by competing noble houses, and the air is thick with plots and the threat of assassination. ‘Observe the plans within plans,’ says the grotesque villain Baron Harkonnen, as we are introduced to many moving parts in this world. The characters all have extravagant names – Gurney Halleck, Feyd-Rautha, Stilgar, Duncan Idaho – except for our main hero, who is just plain old Paul. After his family is destroyed, Paul will ally with the indigenous Fremen people to fight their common enemy, House Harkonnen. But he is plagued by visions of his ‘terrible purpose’ – prophecies of a galactic holy war in which billions will perish, and which his own actions are destined to trigger.
After that gargantuan sandworm of a novel, we found its exact opposite in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This brief novel starts with Earth being demolished to make room for an interplanetary expressway; somehow the author makes this funny instead of horrifying. We follow a survivor, Arthur Dent, as he zips around the galaxy with a bizarre group of companions.
It’s a smart and funny novel, but it grapples with interesting questions. A trade union of ‘Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and other thinking persons’ objects to the construction of a computer which will put them out of work by explaining the meaning of life. But it turns out the supercomputer can’t tell us human beings anything, until we decide what questions to ask. Artificial Intelligences are endowed with ‘real human personalities’ – but this marketing gimmick turns out to be a terrible idea, as they turn passive-aggressive and grapple with depression.
While Dune was divisive, Hitch-Hiker’s Guide was a hit all around in our book club.
Our next novel was about time travel, which was fitting because going from a novel written in the 1970s to one written in the 1890s was a bit of a shock. Ironic banter gave way to sentences like this: ‘Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back—changed!’
A time traveler sets out from the 1890s for the distant future, full of Victorian self-assurance. But like the people in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide, he can’t find any answers in the future because he doesn’t even know the questions. He finds himself in a beautiful utopia inhabited only by the childlike Eloi. But his initial assumptions about the world turn out to be totally wrong – and the closest thing he has to a survival kit is a half-box of matches which he happens to have in his pocket by accident. When his time machine is stolen, he is forced to discover the industrial cannibal netherworld that lies under the green gardens of the future – and whose origins lie in his own age.
The Time Machine, though short and fast-paced, is full of food for thought. At first glance it appears to be of its time, a story about ‘civilised men’ venturing out into exotic places (or in this case, times). But as the story unfolds, we see that Wells looks to the future with anxiety and humility. Though the old-fashioned language was an obstacle, the story itself appealed to everyone.
What is Railsea? Think Moby-Dick, but with trains instead of ships, giant moles instead of whales, and set in a wild, diesel-smelling and rust-eaten world.
Early on, we witness a mole hunt: Brakers, switchers and harpoonists busy themselves on the decks of the mole-train as it races across a web of tracks to bring down a mole the size of a large house. ‘It quivered, then settled. When next the greedy railgulls landed on the furred knoll of its body, it did not dislodge them.’ The train crew thank their gods, which gives the writer a chance to name five different deities he has invented, then to acknowledge the atheists as well, who ‘had their own awe.’
If you like a story with lots of made-up words – flatographs, clatternames, upsky, ferromaritime – set in a world that is boiling with imagination; and if you don’t mind that every ‘and’ is replaced with a ‘&’; and if you are willing to be carried along on juddering prose that stops and starts like a train, in a story that is itself like a tangle of tracks, then you will like Railsea.
That is a lot of ‘ifs’, and like Dune this was not a universal crowd-pleaser. But it too had its die-hard fans in our club.
Around Halloween we went right back to the origins of the Science Fiction genre with Frankenstein.
The story of the mad scientist who sets out to create an artificial living person is well-known in popular culture. But the book that started it all is full of surprises: the explorer who finds the scientist and the monster locked in pursuit across the polar ice; the story from the monster’s point of view, as he comes into the world fully-formed but utterly ignorant and alone.
Our discussion of the novel was rich in friendly disagreements. Is Frankenstein a good person? Is his creation really a ‘monster’? Is the ‘monster’ conventionally ugly, or is it that his appearance is just somehow ‘uncanny valley’? How reliable are our narrators, reporting events at second-hand, third-hand and even fourth-hand?
This tale from the dawn of the industrial revolution has something new to say in the age of social media and AI: it’s basically a story about an inventor who lets his creation loose on the world without taking any responsibility for it. Even more so than The Time Machine, the old-fashioned language might pose challenges to readers for whom English is an additional language. But we were all highly impressed by how beautifully it was written.
What if you dreamed of a better world, then woke up to discover that your dream had come true? Sounds nice – but really think about it.
George Orr is a modest and quiet man who wields a terrible power: his dreams can change the fabric of reality, erasing the past and rewriting it so that he wakes to a changed world. He can give people promotions or end wars; he can cause a fatal car crash or a pandemic – and he is the only one who remembers the way things used to be. Unlike the time traveler or Dr Frankenstein, Orr hates and fears his own power from the very start.
His doctor, Haber, discovers Orr’s power and begins to exploit it. He sets about reshaping the fabric of the world to suit his own ambitions and beliefs. We see ‘The worsening of the texture of life the more Haber improved it.’ Le Guin conveys a world of radical uncertainty. Colossal changes unfold before the eyes of the reader. The novel is short but its scope is global and even galactic.
The story is set in 2002, but writing in 1971, Le Guin anticipated climate change and the greenhouse effect. There is ‘the endless warm drizzle of spring – the ice of Antarctica, falling softly on the heads of the children of those responsible for melting it.’ She was wrong, however, about ‘overpopulation’ leading to hunger.
She wrote about a future inhabited by ‘old hippies’ when all the hippies were still young and the idea that they might grow old was still a novel idea. She anticipated, too, that many of the children of idealistic civil rights activists would grow up to be cynical and hard, like Orr’s lawyer Heather.
But Heather, sharp edges and all, emerges as a lovable character. If you really could knock the sharp edges off people and worlds, should you? That’s the question posed by The Lathe of Heaven, and as always with Le Guin the answers are rich and exciting. This was probably the biggest hit of the whole year among our book club.
From the first line, Binti juxtaposes science and tradition: ‘I powered up the transporter and said a silent prayer.’
The Himba people live in Angola and Namibia. Okorafor images them three hundred years in the future, conservative, suspicious of the outside world, but awesomely tech-savvy. We meet a young girl named Binti, whose father runs an ‘astrolabe shop,’ which, we are told, has a sand storm analyser, solar planes and bioluminescent plants ‘that liked to stop glowing just before sunrise.’
Binti is going to Oomza University, a famous institution on the other side of the galaxy whose student body is only 5% human. But as she travels there, her spaceship is attacked by an alien species called the Meduse. Binti has to draw both on her people’s traditions and on cutting-edge technology to survive the hijacking.
Binti is a very short novel, full of action and extraordinary ideas and descriptions. For example, the spaceship is actually a genetically-engineered creature that is apparently a distant relative of the shrimp; the Meduse are creepy and otherworldly creatures like jellyfish who can slaughter hundreds of humans in a heartbeat.
Like with the shrimp-spaceship, Okorafor takes a weird and cool new angle on familiar tropes. These strange elements hang on a story which is as old as time: a young woman defying her own people to seek broader horizons, carrying with her the fear that she will be rejected by the wider world. For our book club, it was good to end the year with this story, which took us on a fascinating journey through a rich and strange world.
Our book club will start the year with Nova by Samuel R Delany: a novel from 1968 about an interstellar journey to the heart of an exploding star. (check the library for a copy) We are meeting at 6pm on Thursday January 26th. After that, we have a whole galaxy’s worth of Science Fiction novels to choose from. If you’re in the Kilbeggan area and are interested, please get in contact.
Tel : 057-9333148
And remember, if you are taking part in our 2023 Reading Inspiration some of these titles might be a fit for prompts 5, 7 or 10.