Archive for June, 2011

It’s literature, Jim, but not as we know it

When a number of American reading groups were asked if there were any types of books they would not read, the list of forbidden ones consisted of “romance, mysteries and science fiction bestsellers.” And the Seattle Public Library’s guidelines for starting a book club warn: “Books that are heavily plot-driven, where the author spells everything out for the reader, leave little to discuss. Most mysteries, Westerns, romances and science fiction fall into this category.”
So it was obvious from the outset that in tackling Iain M. Bank’s science fiction novel Consider Phlebas, the group was boldly going where few reading groups had gone before. As I struggled through the novel, the first in a highly successful series for the author, I felt that perhaps we should have listened to their advice. Like so many avid readers, I don’t ‘get’ sci-fi and the battles, the technology and the ‘Klingon’ names put me off from the start.
So I wondered whether I ought to wear body armour for the June meeting, in case someone literally threw the book at me. I was wrong. I wasn’t the only one to come to this novel with preconceptions, but even some who were very resistant to reading the novel were pleasantly surprised. Jacqui “really enjoyed it” and even felt it would encourage her to read more in the genre. She found the main character of Horza human enough to empathise with, but at a distance and the game of Damage highly original. She was, however, not keen on the outcome after investing in the main character, and struggled with the change of stance part-way through.
Ann C also enjoyed it, although she would not read another. She liked the ‘visual effects,’ the impressive scope of the work, the humour, the obscure character of Horza and the moving final scene. She found the work moved from space opera to allegory, and picked out central themes of the pointlessness of war and, less successfully, extremist religion. Paula also found the novel entertaining, although she’d expected to dislike it, and was interested in the themes and the notion of The Culture and utopian societies.
Helen, who’s read a lot of sci-fi and recommends Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles as a better example of the genre, was disappointed because she also loves Iain Banks’ other writing (not the sci-fi). For her, it was “schoolboy sci fi.”
Many readers didn’t manage to finish the book. Mike, who enjoys more literary science fiction such as that written by Margaret Atwood, “got bored” and failed to finish a book group book for the first time in almost three years. Margaret only made it to Pg. 35 and asked for “No more sci-fi, please.” Maisie also gave up, finding the frequent sets of initials an irritation – and ‘KFC’ particularly baffling. Chickens on the starboard bow?
Rose found it humorous in parts and huge on detail, and she too liked the main character. The notion of The Mind reminded her of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Much of the plot, she felt, went over her head.
We had a short discussion about the title, because Paula had done some research and found that the author claimed it didn’t mean anything in particular. She asked a student who is studying The Waste Land for his opinion and he felt that in fact, the drowning Phoenician was quite a positive, cleansing image which did fit with the central character Horza’s eventual fate.
My fears about the novel were realised when, unusually, we ran out of things to discuss much earlier than usual. It did give us time to discuss what else we’d been reading and Margaret highly recommends David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which sounds wonderful, and Mike enjoyed Ian McEwan’s Solar.
Next month is the group’s summer party and we’re re-reading books that meant something to us when we were younger or even as children. It should prove fascinating. Tuesday 5th July, 6.30pm. Venue TBC.


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

June 2011
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