Waterstone's Liverpool One Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

Waterstones Liverpool One Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

"This is space. It's sometimes called the final frontier. (Except that of course you can't have a *final* frontier, because there'd be nothing for it to be a frontier *to*, but as frontiers go, it's pretty penultimate...)"
- Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures

About Us

This is the official blog for the book club held in the book lounge of Waterstones Liverpool One.

The group meet at 6pm on the first Monday of the month to discuss their thoughts and opinions on the books selected. The books range from classic fantasy to brand new science fiction short story collections.

It's a fun and friendly atmosphere and all are welcome: from those who have never read any science fiction or fantasy before, to those who don't read anything else.

The group, and this blog, are administered by Glyn Morgan, the Bookseller responsible for the Science Fiction section of the store and an avid reader of SF who is currently studying for his PhD at the University of Liverpool.

If you would like to comment on any of the books we've read, this month or in the distant past, please feel free to contribute to the comments section of the relevant posts.

Visit this club's little sister: Coffee and Comics

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

A postponed session, not unfortunately due to snow (how perfect that would have been), but just because I was away in Wales at the time.

Taking place instead on the second week of January, the discussion on Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash was both in-depth and heated.

Plot Synopsis

The only relief from the sea of logos is within the well-guarded borders of the Burbclaves. Is it any wonder that most sane folks have forsaken the real world and chosen to live in the computer-generated universe of virtual reality? In a major city, the size of a dozen Manhattans, is a domain of pleasures limited only by the imagination. But now a strange new computer virus called Snow Crash is striking down hackers everywhere, leaving an unlikely young man as humankind's last best hope.

What Did We Think?

Seemingly, the novel was enjoyed by all, although this does not mean there were no flaws to be found. A particular problem for numerous readers was that of exposition. The librarian character, nothing more than an exposition machine, would engage Hiro in pretend conversations which were in fact long monologues intended to convey a large wad of data or background information in one go. This could be seen as an example of "early-writer syndrome" (Snow Crash was Stephenson's third novel), info-dumping where a more experiences author with more faith in his readers might have drip fed it out to us over time.

Whether the book should have been longer (possibly spread over a number of volumes) or compressed into a series of short stories was a matter hotly debated. On one hand the drip feeding of information would require a longer plot with more stages in its development; on the other the plot as it stood was too unwieldy and the characters whilst interesting to look at were ultimately 2D cut-outs, too robust and unaffected by the traumas the novel imposes upon them, a short story format would compensate for that whilst also allowing us a closer glimpse at other fascinating aspects of the novel: characters such as Uncle Enzo, or the inner workings of Fedland, for example.

Its relationship to Gibson probably doesn't need to be flagged but aside from sharing a cyberpunk setting, there is the same sense of massive ideas slapped onto the page, as well as mixing science fiction action and adventure with humour.

What amazed all of us was that, unlike Gibson, Stephenson, as yet, has not returned to this world (some read the next novel The Diamond Age as a loose sequel but even that is debatable). For all the flaws in character and pacing, for all the frustrations with info-dumping, the world in which the novel is set is so colourful and lively that it is astounding that more has not been made of it - it seems perfect for a Graphic Novel or an anime.

The novel sparked extensive debate on socio-political issues regarding the nature (and identity) of control in society and the idea of anarchy. Flaws could be found in both the science and the sociology (as is almost always the case) and yet on the balance this was a novel which no one seemed to regret reading (although some would not read it a second time). It gained marks for being fun, and "cool", where otherwise the manner in which certain aspects were executed would have caused it to suffer in our abitrarty assignation of a numerical score.

The average score given to Snow Crash was 7

The votes fell as follows: 6, 7, 7, 7, 8 (in absentia), 8, 8

Have you read Snow Crash? Do you agree with what I've summarised here? Do you have an opinion you'd like to share? If so then please do comment below.

Also: because I neglected to include a pre-amble to Snow Crash you may not have seen this article about where the title comes from. Take a look if you're interested in any of the background reading.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

A Voyage To Arcturus by David Lindsey

First off, I sincerely apologise for the lateness of this posting. I've been absolutely rushed off me feet this month and had pushed this to the back of my mind. One of the reasons it probably slipped down my priority listings was because I was dreading writing it, it was quite an intense session which split opinions on major matters (such as actually liking the book) unlike any book that has come before. Nonetheless, here is the tardy write up of the session for December.

Plot Synopsis
After attending a seance, Maskull, a restless and rootless man, finds himself embarking on a journey to the planet Tormance, which orbits Arcturus. Alone, he wanders the startling landscape, open to a bewildering range of experiences from love to ritual murder, encountering new monsters at every turn, metamorphosing, constantly seeking the truth about the divinity known as Shaping, Surtur and Crystalman.

What Did We Think?
Published in 1920 by Scottish author David Lindsey, A Voyage to Arcturus is a Science Fantasy novel with extensive philosophical metaphors. Having written that, so divisive was the novel that half those in attendance would probably argue even these points.

The Science Fantasy elements of the novel were seen by some as in the Romantic tradition of the grand voyage of enlightenment, comparable to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, although very much a journey through Philosophy rather than Religion.

Other readers found the Science Fantasy element to be a major flaw, weakening the text. The framing of what is clearly a Fantasy journey with Science Fiction-like space journeys and technobabble suggested a credibility the author could not support. These readers argued that if the science had been abandoned in favour of a more dream-like spirit world instead of a physical location (the planet Tormance) then the novel would have worked better.

Further points of contention were readily found with the protagonist Maskull. Maskull, abandoned in a strange land wanders across the alien globe. As he wanders he is affected by something and sprouts new organs (third arms or multiple eyes for example) which affect his perceptions of reality and of the people he encounters. These altered perceptions are contemplated and philosophised over, normally representing an aspect of human emotion or character. Each chapter contains a new perception/philosophy and each is discarded by Maskull by the beginning of the subsequent chapter, normally resulting in the death of its proponent.

The new idea, new idea, new idea format which Lindsey adopts is another aspect which caused some readers to find flaw. The majority of the middle chapters could have been arranged in any order, or cut completely, with little impact on the opening or conclusion of the narrative. Other readers found the chameleon nature of Maskull intriguing and admired the nuance that Maskull was changed so absolutely (both physically and mentally) that, from within, he could not perceive the change.

Maskull himself is presented as a completely passive, yet ultimately destructive, force. This presents both problems and opportunities. His passivity allows a different character, or rather a different aspect of Maskull's character, to appear in each chapter; this however presents a protagonist who is hard to "root for", difficult to empathise with thus difficult to follow through the novel.

Regardless of the overall verdict for A Voyage to Arcturus, Lindsey's novel provoked intense debate and also caused multiple references, influences, descendents and comparisons to be drawn into the fray from the aformentioned Pilgrim's Progress to Homeric Myths, C. S. Lewis and Phillip Pullman, to Nietzsche and Judeo-Christian imagery.

Votes: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The range of scores awarded in this discussion illustrate the varied reception of the novel. The sheer spread of them, rather than complete polarisation show that many people can get many different things out of such a novel and, to me at least, underline the value of such discussion groups.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Postponement of Snow Crash

Dear all,

Due to my absence from Liverpool for the first few days of this week I've postponed the upcoming session on Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash until the following Monday (11th January - 6pm). Sorry for the inconvenience.

Also, due to simply being amazing hectic the notes from our discussion last month have not gone online yet. They will be posted as soon as I can get back to Liverpool, apologies for the delay.

Hope you had good Christmases and New Years,

All the best,