Strangers in a Strange Land
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
- 4.4 Trouble with Lichen
- 4.3 Cat’s Cradle
- 4.1 Foundation
- 4.1 Theory of Bastards
- 3.8 A Scanner Darkly
- 3.6 The Forever War
- 3.6 Spin
- 3.5 Solaris
- 3.0 Embers of War
- 2.9 Stranger in a Strange Land
2019 September meeting
TBD. Please fill out the Doodle poll circulating in the WhatsApp Group Chat.
This weird novel, nominated by Marit and selected by Prateek:
- Won 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novel
- Won 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel
- Nominated for 2015 Campbell Memorial Award for Best SF Novel
- Nominated for 2015 Locus Award
- Book #1 in the Southern Reach trilogy
- Sub-genre: new weird / psychological / monsters / man-made horrors
- Goodreads 3.7 avg. rating (122k ratings total)
- American author
Prateek will host us in his apartment. See WhatsApp Chat Group for address & directions.
2019 October meeting
How about a “monster” book for Halloween?
Frankenstein in Baghdad
2013 (Arabic), 2018 (English)
- Won 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction
- Won 2018 Kitchies Golden Tentacle Award (best debut novel)
- Won 2017 Grand prix de l’Imaginaire (roman étranger)
- Shortlisted for 2018 International Booker Prize
- Nominated for 2019 Arthur C. Clarke Award
- Sub-genre: weird (horror) / monsters / dystopia
- Goodreads 3.5 avg. rating (8k ratings total)
- Iraqi author
2019 November meeting
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):
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams — 1979 — 224 pp
- Book #1 in the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series
- Sub-genre: light/humorous sci-fi / space exploration / first contact
- Goodreads 4.2 avg. rating (1.2m ratings total)
- English author
- 2001: A Space Odyssey — Arthur C. Clarke — 1968 — 320 pp
- Book #1 in the Space Odyssey series
- Sub-genre: first contact / space exploration / human development
- Goodreads 4.1 avg. rating (214k ratings total)
- British author
- Dark Matter — Blake Crouch — 2016 — 496 pp
- Sub-genre: alternate/parallel universe / near-future / psychological / technothriller
- Goodreads 4.1 avg. rating (157k ratings total)
- American author
- Cloud Atlas — David Mitchell — 2004 — 544 pp
- Nominated for 2005 Arthur C. Clarke Award
- Nominated for 2004 Nebula Award
- Shortlisted for 2004 Booker Prize for Fiction
- Sub-genre: apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic / near-future / historical fantasy
- Goodreads 4.0 avg. rating (192k ratings total)
- British author
- Woman on the Edge of Time — Marge Piercy — 1976 — 432 pp
- Sub-genre: time travel / utopia / psychic abilities / feminist
- Goodreads 4.0 avg. rating (12k ratings total)
- American author
Looking for volunteers to host. Please contact Ryan if you’re interested.
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 Haldeman, author of The Forever War
One gathering of roughly two hours per month. Each month the date/time will be chosen by Doodle, but it is typically in the latter half of the month.
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.
We’ve found it fun, after discussing a book, for each of us to rate it on a scale of 0 to 5, based on our individual criteria. We then calculate a weighted average. (Those that did not finish a book are still welcome to rate it, but their ratings are given a 50% weight when determining the average.)
We meet in Montpellier, France.
We informally rotate hosting among our members, but there is no obligation.
Please consider bringing something to drink or snack on.
We’re an informal, diverse group of over a dozen people, mostly ex-pats hailing from no less than nine different countries and a variety of backgrounds.
We are English teachers, local business owners, students, artists, a musician, a personal trainer… you get the idea. Only a few of us are diehard sci-fi geeks — the rest are here to explore authors and books they might not otherwise have read.
There’s no mailing list. We keep in touch via a WhatsApp Group Chat.
2019 August meeting
We met on Sun 25 Aug 19h-21h at Aleca’s apartment to talk about this recent award winner:
Embers of War
- Won 2019 BSFA Award for Best Novel
- Nominated for 2019 Locus SF Award
- Book #1 in Embers of War Trilogy
- Sub-genre: space opera / military / artificial intelligence / Galactic empire / hard sci-fi
- Goodreads 4.0 avg. rating (2k ratings total)
- British author
Embers of War, Powell’s latest novel, has been very well received, from those new to science fiction to those of us generally craving more space opera in their lives. Flattering comparisons abound to the likes of Banks, Leckie, Tchaikovksy, and other modern masters of this sub-genre. Indeed EoW blends many of the usual tropes, from sentient spaceships to galaxy-sprawling,
multi-race organizations. It’s also action-packed, full of adventure, and — with its short, first-person PoV chapters — hooks the reader at the onset and maintains a breezy pace that makes it an appealing summer read, not to mention ripe for a television or big-screen adaptation.
We found the comparisons to Banks et al. did not quite hold up, however. We couldn’t help but feel that the novel had more of a “space opera light” feel to it, mashing-up too many well-established concepts without, frankly, bringing many new ideas to the
genre. It lacks the deep, intricate world-building found in its peers, instead focusing, perhaps intentionally, on the rag-tag crew aboard the Trouble Dog. But here, too, we found the characterization relatively shallow and over-reliant on genre archetypes, at times to the point of cliche. Powell’s prose is serviceable (a handful of distracting, clunky metaphors notwithstanding), but the PoV chapters seemed under-utilized in this respect, with not enough distinction in voice among them.
Judged rather as a military sci-fi novel, the story does add some welcome nuance. We appreciated the concept of an ex-military cast of characters (the AI-driven warship included) that has turned its back on war, now atoning for their pasts by working for a kind of Galactic “White Helmet” or “Red Cross” search-and-rescue group. We just wish this was reinforced with more detailed world-building or character development. It’s worth noting that one of us has already read the sequel and second novel, Fleet of Knives, of this planned trilogy; the world-building does improve, and the plot revelations do make the overly tidy ending of EoW feel a little less deus ex machina.
We collectively read a number of reviews of EoW and found them to be surprisingly uncritical of the novel’s flaws, with most people appearing to be gleefully swept away by this space romp. Perhaps we are out of touch with the zeitgeist on this one — it maintains a 4.0 rating on Goodreads with over 2k ratings and has garnered high praise from Powell’s peers, plus the respectable BSFA Award — but we personally found the novel a bit too light for our tastes.
We gave it ratings ranging from 2.5 to 3.5, with an average of 3.0.
2019 July meeting
We met on Sun 21 Jul 18h-20h at Art Mango Cafe to talk about this under-rated book, written by the renown John Wyndham, nominated by Kate and selected by Marit:
Trouble with Lichen
- Sub-genre: biotech / feminist / soft sci-fi / human development
- Goodreads 3.7 avg. rating (3k ratings total)
- English author
2019 June meeting
We met on Sat 29 Jun 16h-19h at the Woods’ to talk about this recent award-winner, and also live video chat with the author, Audrey Schulman! It was a fantastic experience.
Theory of Bastards
- Won 2019 Philip K. Dick Award
- Won 2019 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Speculative Fiction (Open Category)
- 2018 The Washington Post‘s 50 Notable Works of fiction
- 2018 Locus Recommended Reading List
- Sub-genre: human development / near-future / biotech / thriller / (post-)apocalyptic
- Goodreads 4.1 avg. rating (1k ratings total)
- Canadian-American author
2019 May meeting
We met on Thu 23 May 20h-22h at Darren’s to discuss this ultra classic, nominated by Margo and selected by Darren:
- Won 1966 Hugo Award for All-Time Best Series
- The chapter “The Encyclopedists” won 1943 Retro Hugo Award for Best Short Story
- Book #1 in Foundation Trilogy
- Sub-genre: Galactic empire / human development / hard sci-fi / space opera
- Goodreads 4.2 avg. rating (353k ratings total)
- American author
“Past glories are poor feeding” –Onum Barr, Foundation
Three of us gathered this week to discuss Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation, the first book in a trilogy that’s often cited as the single greatest ever work of science fiction. Refreshingly, all three of us had actually finished the book, a first for the SISL book club.
The reviews were very positive overall. There was some criticism of Asimov’s characters, who are quite one-dimensional and serve really just as ciphers for his ideas. It was also mentioned that all the protagonists are dudes, though given that the book was written in the late ‘40s, and deals mostly with politics, we agreed this was merely a reflection of the novel’s cultural context, and that there would be no need to tear down any statues of Asimov. It’s also worth noting that there are a number of female protagonists in the next two books of the trilogy.
The repetitive nature of the plot was also mentioned as a weakness; it was observed that each short story that makes up part of the novel follows a very similar, if clever and entertaining, formula.
In terms of what we enjoyed about the novel, it’s fair to say the most impressive aspect for all of us was the scope of ideas on display. Asimov was a fiercely intelligent and thoughtful writer, and it shows in the intricate machinations of the plot, and in the ambition and audacity of the principal idea of the novel, the concept of psychohistory. The book is shamelessly intellectual, but not in a showy or supercilious way, and it remains accessible and easily digested.
Based heavily on the classic work of history The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Asimov’s story is primarily one of social, political and historical forces. Though transposed to a fantastical Galactic setting, at its heart, like all great science-fiction, it reflects and expounds upon familiar concepts like empire, corruption, stagnation, renaissance, science, religion, war, political intrigue, and human ingenuity. It may indeed be the first utopian space opera, and its legacy in the world of science fiction is undeniable.
The characters may be a bit thin, but there were some favourites among the cast of strategists and schemers. Salvor Hardin, the level-headed mayor fond of an epigram, and Hober Mallow, the pugnacious trader, were two that stood out for us. Hari Seldon himself, despite limited appearances, also permeates the action, ever present and omniscient. and always in the thoughts of his Foundation “children” as they navigate the Seldon crises that will lead them to their destiny.
Foundation was given an average rating of 4.1, the second-highest score so far for the book club. Those of us who have read the entire trilogy (er, me) strongly encouraged the others to continue with Asimov’s epic civilisational opus, of which the next two books are, in my humble opinion, even more impressive.
2019 April meeting
We met on Wed 24 Apr, 20h-22h30, at Ryan’s to discuss this short classic, nominated by Zuza and selected by Ryan:
1961 (Polish), 1970 (English)
- Sub-genre: first contact / psychological / hard sci-fi
- Goodreads 4.0 avg. rating (60k ratings total)
- Polish author
Stanislaw Lem holds the potentially laudable title of most prominent Polish sci-fi author of all time. Laudable for obvious reasons, potential because despite being a rabid consumer of sci-fi of all stripes, I can’t name another Polish author of sci-fi. Nevertheless, Solaris has been held up as one of the quintessential genre-defining works of Science Fiction, and one of the works that other seminal authors see as being inspirational. With high hopes we embarked this month to read it, and came to the following conclusions.
Flippant synopsis: Not totally stable guy ends up on a research station, the whole operation has gone sideways, and the ocean they’re studying may or may not be alive and operating as something between intractable god and overpowered infant with no communication skills.
First, Lem sets himself apart from many of his precursors by reaching beyond the sword-and-planet pulp that littered the early 20th century, and writing his novel as a study of human psychological breakdown, trauma, and failure.
We universally found our introduction to Kelvin bizarre and off-putting. Seemingly incapable of normal human interaction, from the first words spoken by Kelvin when he disembarks his shuttle to Solaris station, his level of paranoia and inability to read a room make him probably the least functional psychologist of all time.
The atmosphere and mood-setting was intense and disturbing from the start, though as we settled into the rhythm of the book and the strange became more mundane, we generally felt the book was hampered by an overall lack of plot.
One reader expressed criticism of how the primary plot device, a product of Kelvin’s trauma-riddled history, is introduced without foreshadowing of any kind. One minute he’s just a kooky character, the next minute he’s reliving psychological trauma that has supposedly been a part of his life for years, despite having been completely unmentioned up to that point.
Something I was particularly insistent about was the ‘Seinfield isn’t funny’ effect of old sci-fi. A work that broke ground in an unconventional and stunning way in 1961 has had its best ideas stolen, refined, and elaborated over the nearly six decades between then and now. Where the Sopranos shocked the television watching world with the complexity of its adult themes in the ‘90s, it barely gets off the ground compared to the panic inducing drama of contemporary shows like Breaking Bad. Many of the stylistic points we felt as a group could have improved upon the book have become more mainstream and developed since Solaris’s initial publication, making it no great surprise that it’s not as refined as this generation’s literary torch bearers.
Reactions to the block of pseudo-science information bisecting the novel, and veiled as the main character reading the appendix of a scientific meta-analysis were mixed as well. While some of us felt it appropriately framed the context of the story and the alien being, others felt that it was unnecessary, boring, and a mood killer. It was also pointed out that the science was bunk, though once we get into the ‘living planet’ genre, even so called ‘hard’ science fiction is only paying lip service to reality.
The ending was also taken as being either beautiful and deeply sad, although preceded by some boring unnecessary filler, or as being mundane and unsatisfying. One reader mused that it might have had more emotional pizzazz for them if not for that complete lack of engagement with the character, and not deeply caring about anything the character did or said on an emotional level.
One thing we were united on was that one of the most horrifying and interesting aspects of the story was a character who was unwillingly jettisoned from the station. What happened to them? Is Kelvin really so deranged that after committing himself to such a horrific act, he cared so little that it was basically never brought up again? We want to hear more about THAT story.
All told, the idea was unique, the characterization was thin, and it doesn’t stand up well to current field leaders. Unlike some prior selections, however, we were pretty much universally able to see why the field was so indelibly shaped by its presence, and considered ourselves the better for having read it. Weighted average rating of 3.5 out of 5.0 (range 3.0 – 4.2).
2019 March meeting
We met on Wednesday 27 March at 20h a couple of hours.
Zuza kindly hosted this month’s gathering at her apartment.
We read and discussed this novel, nominated by Ryan and selected by Elliott:
Stranger in a Strange Land
608 pp (1991 uncut version)
- Won 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel
- Sub-genre: theological / human development / free love / soft sci-fi
- Goodreads 3.9 avg. rating (250k ratings total)
- American author
After an entertaining but rather critical discussion of this 60’s classic, the five of us present gave it ratings between 2.0 and 3.6, with a weighted average of 2.9 (out of 5.0).
2019 February meeting
We met on Monday 25 February at 20h a couple of hours.
Keryl kindly hosted this month’s gathering at his apartment.
We read and discussed this novel, nominated by Keryl and selected by Zuza:
Robert Charles Wilson
- 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
2019 January meeting
We met on Thursday 24 January at 20h for a couple of hours.
The Woods kindly hosted this month’s gathering at their apartment.
We read and discussed this novel, nominated by Aleca and selected by Keryl:
A Scanner Darkly
Philip K. Dick
- 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
So, firstly, I should avow that I’m a big fan of PKD (I’ll refer to him in his acronym state, because I’m sure you guys have already overdone the Dick innuendo). He’s one of my favourite sci-fi writers, and this is the sixth or seventh of his I’ve read. The first thing I’d say is that A Scanner Darkly is very different from pretty much everything else I’ve read from him. It’s a strange, melancholic, unsettling read in a lot of ways and it’s probably not a great introduction to PKD if you haven’t read anything else.
His career can be split into two acts, before and after 1974, when he experienced what he called religious experiences, and which probably had quite a lot to do with LSD and various other drugs. He believed, among other things, that he was being contacted by aliens, and everything he wrote from that point dealt with the aftermath of this. ASD was finished three years later, in 1977. He had always been quite troubled, and his earlier classics like Ubik, Do Androids Dream… and The Man in the High Castle do show evidence of a somewhat fractured psyche, with some eclectic prose and mind-bending themes, but they’re positively prosaic compared to his later stuff.
Anyway, pre-emptive fanboy defence over, let’s get onto the book. I didn’t find it as entertaining to read as his others; the prose is dense and clunky in parts, the characters are nebulous and there’s literally no plot. This is all deliberate of course, given the setting — a bunch of addicts living in a nightmarish drug-induced stupor — but it was still a bit difficult to wade through at times. The second half of the book, however, really hits hard, and I found myself far more emotionally drawn in than with any of his other books. The dark comedy of the rambling conversations and paranoia and bizarre episodes turns to acute tragedy quite quickly, and the ending is unbelievably bleak, all the more so when you read his note at the end that this was based heavily on his life and the lives of friends, many of whom he lost to addiction. The book may not be easy to read, but that’s the point. The life of addiction and substance abuse is grim, dehumanising and terrifying, and this book draws you into that world so much that by the end you feel tainted by it, invested in it, enthralled and disgusted at the same time. The story it tells stayed with me for days afterwards, which is always a sign that the author has done his job. Perhaps not his best book, but probably his most important piece of work.
The group met for a long and insightful discussion of this semi-autobiographical novel (sans Darren, unfortunately) and largely agreed with his comments — apart from his interpretation of the ending, which although bleak for the protagonist, does leave a hint of a coming reckoning for the pharmaceutical company growing Death. We gave ratings between 2.6 and 4.2, with a weighted average of 3.8 (out of 5).
2018 December meeting
Due to the holidays, we did not meet this month.
2018 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 and discussed this short novel, nominated by Keryl and selected by Darren:
- 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 4.2 [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.
2018 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 and discussed this book, nominated by Darren and selected by Marit:
The Forever War
- 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).