Book Club

Montpellier’s Anglo-Sci-Fi Book Club

“People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Quick links: About usDecemberJanuaryFebruary

Previous meetings: NovemberOctober


December meeting

Due to the holidays, we will not meet this month.


January meeting

When?

TBD. Aiming for mid January. A Doodle poll will be circulated in the WhatsApp Group Chat soon.

Which book?

We are reading the following novel, nominated by Aleca and selected by Keryl:

A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick

1977

220 pp

 

  •  Awards:
    • Won 1978 British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel
    • Won 1979 Graoully d’or
    • 3rd place for 1978 Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel
  • SF Masterworks
  • Sub-genre: dystopian / near-future / paranoid fiction / philosophical lit / psychological thriller
  • Goodreads 4.0 avg. rating (72k ratings total)
  • American author

Where?

TBD. Accepting volunteers to host! Please contact Ryan.


February meeting

When?

TBD. Aiming for mid- to late-February. A Doodle poll will eventually be circulated in the WhatsApp Group Chat.

Which book?

Anyone interested can send book nominations to Ryan (e.g. via WhatsApp). One book nomination per person. If your nomination has carried over from previous months, you may swap it out with a new book if you prefer.

Nominations received so far (in alphabetical order by author’s last name):

  • Foundation — Isaac Asimov — 1951 — 320 pp
    • Awards:
      • Won 1966 Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series
    • Book #1 in the Foundation series
    • Sub-genre: Galactic empire / human development / hard sci-fi / political drama
    • Goodreads 4.2 avg. rating (342k ratings total)
    • American author
  • Surface Detail — Ian M. Banks — 2010 — 656 pp
    • Awards:
      • Nominated for 2011 Locus Award for Best Novel
    • Book #9 in the Culture series. N.B. Not necessary to have read any of the others.
    • Sub-genre: hard sci-fi / space opera / mind uploading / Galactic empire
    • Goodreads 4.2 avg. rating (20k ratings total)
    • Scottish author
  • Autonomous — Annalee Newitz — 2017 — 304 pp
    • Awards:
      • Finalist for 2018 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
      • Nominated for 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novel
      • Nominated for 2018 Locus Award for Best First Novel
    • Sub-genre: cyberpunk / robots / biotech / genetic engineering / hard sci-fi
    • Goodreads 3.6 avg. rating (7k ratings total)
    • American author
  • On the Beach — Nevile Shute — 1957 — 312 pp
    • Sub-genre: post-apocalypse / dying earth
    • Goodreads 3.9 avg. rating (30k ratings total)
    • British-Australian author
  • Spin — Robert Charles Wilson — 2005 — 454 pp
    • Awards:
      • Won 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel
      • Won 2006 Geffen Award for Best Translated Science Fiction Novel (Hebrew)
      • Won 2007 Kurd Laßwitz Award for Best Foreign Work (German)
      • Won 2008 Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for Best Foreign Language Novel
      • Won 2009 Seiun Award for Best Translated Novel (Japanese)
      • 2nd place for 2006 Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel
      • Nominated for 2006 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel
      • Nominated for 2006 Aurora Award for Best Novel
    • Book #1 in Spin trilogy
    • Sub-genre: near-future / dying Earth / apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic
    • Goodreads 4.0 avg. rating (31k ratings total)
    • American-Canadian author
  • Trouble with Lichen — John Wyndham — 1960 — 189 pp
    • Sub-genre: soft sci-fi / human development
    • Goodreads 3.7 avg. rating (3k ratings total)
    • English author

Where?

TBD. Accepting volunteers to host! Please contact Ryan.


How the book club works

“Science fiction as a genre has the benefit of being able to act as parable, to set up a story at a remove so you can make a real-world point without people throwing up a wall in front of it.”
–Joe Haldemann, author of The Forever War

When?

One gathering of roughly 1-2 hours per month. Each month the date/time will be chosen by Doodle.

Which books?

Each month, someone at random will be chosen to make the final selection from among the nominated books.

Un-selected nominations carry over to the following month. A member can choose to swap a previous nomination with a new one if they want.

What about trilogies, series, etc?

It’s fine to nominate a novel in a series, but it should be the first in the series (either by publication date or internal chronology). There’s no guarantee that we will end up reading the whole series within the club, although anyone is welcome to thereafter nominate subsequent books in the series (in the established order). Exceptions can be made in series where the books are relatively stand-alone.

How to get the books

Obtain your books however you prefer. Here are some options:

  • Support Montpellier’s independent, English-language book store, Le Bookshop. They have a small sci-fi section downstairs.
  • Local chain Sauramps has a decent English-language section at their location near Polygone.
  • E-readers can use their existing library cards to borrow online for free with the Libby app.
  • If you click any of the cover images above, you’ll be taken to the Amazon page for each book.

Where?

We will informally rotate hosting among members, but there is no obligation.

Consider bringing a little something to drink or snack on.

Who?

We’re an informal, diverse group of about a dozen people, mostly ex-pats hailing from no less than six different countries and a variety of backgrounds.

Communication

There’s no mailing list. We keep in touch via a WhatsApp Group Chat.


November meeting

We met on Friday 30 November at 20h for a couple of hours.

Darren kindly hosted this month’s gathering at his apartment.

We read this short novel, nominated by Keryl and selected by Darren:

Cat’s Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut

1963

224 pp

 

  • Awards:
    • Nominated for 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel
  • SF Masterworks
  • Sub-genre: satire / humor / apocalyptic / theological
  • Goodreads 4.2 avg. rating (300k ratings total)
  • American author

Nothing in this review is true.

So four of us sat down to review Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut last night. The novel was received very well in general.

There was very little criticism, with only the very loose plot and the lack of agency of the protagonist being held up as possible weaknesses which affected our engagement with the book, but even then there were counter-arguments put forward that the thematic strengths and the quality of writing make these concerns rather incidental.

The novel may be light on words or structure, but it’s heavy on big ideas and bleak humour, and replete with marvellous character sketches, wonderfully terse dialogue, and some phenomenal sentences. It’s a book that needs to be pored over and digested slowly, and as we conceded last night, our hour or two of discussion barely scratched the surface.

In terms of the structure and plot, or lack thereof, we also had the interesting view that the threads of Bokononism, the background philosophy of the absurd world we’re thrust into, hold the book together and echo its fatalistic message about humanity.

The range of themes and ideas in this very short book is, as someone who could easily have leapt from its pages would attest, “yuuuge”. Written in 1963, the frosty fingertips of the Cold War touch every page and leave their mark on each of the satirical vignettes that make up the book. The novel bristles with metaphor and allegory, and even the title could be interpreted a number of different ways. Among the ideas we discussed were the abuse of science for military means, man’s self-destructive nature, government corruption, the lies told by religion, and even more profound, fundamental questions like the meaninglessness of life and the nature of truth.

Perhaps the best reflection of the scope and depth of the novel were some of the lofty comparisons drawn: Vonnegut’s absurdist nihilism was likened to that of Camus; his unadorned prose was compared to Hemingway’s; the episodic structure and ironic paradoxes recalled Heller’s Catch 22; the allegorical zen parables of the fictional religion Bokononism were even compared to Fragments, the seminal work of Greek philosopher Heraclitus, by one of our more pretentious members who shall remain nameless (cough).

The novel emerged from our deliberation with an average rating of 4.18 [from the four members present, with ratings ranging from 4.0 to 4.5], strikingly similar to its official Goodreads rating, which proves we’ve obviously got our collective fingers firmly on the pulse of the literary zeitgeist. [Note from Ryan: Another member, who could not attend, later sent us his review, a 4.65, raising our group rating to 4.3.] It was a much more generous rating than that given to Joe Haldeman for last month’s book, The Forever War, with some members, again remaining unnamed, labelling Haldeman a “hack” whose prose was nothing more than “ordinary”, the book club equivalent of a swift kick to the ribs.

So in short: All hail Vonnegut and Bokononism, down with humans and their propensity for destruction, and a warm, ironic welcome to the fiery apocalypse soon to engulf us all. At least we’ll be laughing on the way out.

–Darren


October (inaugural) meeting

We met on Sunday 28 October at 20h00 for a couple of hours.

Our first meeting was hosted by Ryan in his apartment.

We read this book, nominated by Darren and selected by Marit:

The Forever War

Joe Haldeman

1974

256 pp

 

  • Awards:
    • Won the 1976 Hugo Award for Best Novel
    • Won the 1976 Locus Award for Best Novel
    • Won the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novel
  • Book #1 in The Forever War series
  • SF Masterworks
  • Sub-genre: military sci-fi / hard sci-fi / time travel / space opera / first contact / alien invasion
  • Goodreads 4.2 avg. rating (117k ratings total)
  • American author

Our reception to the book was mixed but overall positive, albeit with some fair criticism, mostly centered around the thin characterization, episodic nature of the short chapters, and the passive emotional involvement of the protagonist. Even if some or all of these could be accepted as deliberate by the author, a number of people felt these issues kept them from fully enjoying the novel. There was strong consensus that it worked very well as a commentary on war and its effects on soldiers, although there was some doubt as to whether or not the novel would stand up on its own without sufficient context — being written about the Vietnam War in particular, shaped by Haldeman’s own experiences, during an era struggling with the re-integration of veterans into society. The hard sci-fi elements of the novel were very well received, even if the book didn’t really stand up as a proper “space opera”; the author’s scientific descriptions were appreciated and the book did not succumb to the military-tech fetishism that is common in the sub-genre. Opinions were rather divided on the ending. Overall, the numerous critiques seemed warranted as the triple-award-winning novel is often placed in “top 10” or “best of” (sci-fi) lists, but members seemed happy to have read the novel, which provided a variety of interesting concepts to discuss beyond war, from hive consciousness, population control, and future sexuality, to what place exactly does a cat have on a spaceship? Individual ratings from the six members present ranged from 3.0 to 4.2, with an average of 3.6 (out of 5.0).

–Ryan