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Dinosaurs, dystopia and things from outer space.*

I absolutely love reading for pleasure. I am rarely without one or more books on the go - I usually read crime or spy fiction and my non-fiction shelf is history, Cold War, apocalyptic themed (I wrote this blog before the current situation when this wasn’t so terrifying) - but I will read most things with two exceptions. Firstly, fantasy and especially Harry Potter. A solid no from me. I have read all of the Artemis Fowl books and HIs Dark Materials, and enjoyed them, but that’s as close as I’ve got and the Potter hype was just too much. Secondly, sci fi. Despite loving TV/movie sci fi I have never enjoyed reading it and when I have it it has annoyed me.

When the pandemic hit, I was overjoyed at the thought of more time for reading (yes I was that naive) and getting through all those books I keep buying. But also two things happened:

In an attempt to ease my sister’s life, I agreed (begrudgingly) that every time my nephew ate something new (remember buying food wasn’t so easy in Spring 2020 and he was 6) I would read a Harry Potter novel. An eye for an eye. I am currently 5 books in and committed to all of them AND the first 2 movies. Yeah OK, I enjoyed them and now my nephew eats a full Sunday dinner, veg and all. At the same time, while all AstrobiologyOU social activities (ok and work) moved online, Michael Macey had the genius idea of starting a book club. “AMAZING” I thought, “sign me up”; it never occurred to me, though, that we’d be reading sci fi.

So, here we are, World Book Day 2022 and almost exactly two years and 12 books into AstrobiologyOU book club. And because I NOW LOVE SCI FI, I wanted to tell the world about it.

A bit about the club. We meet on Teams every 6 weeks-ish for about an hour. There’s no ‘format’ - we just talk about the book - we don’t debate the science in any great detail, we generally tear apart the characters and the plot, and our final judgement is nothing more than “thumbs up, thumbs down” (so far only 2 books have been unanimously thumbs up - both Octavia E Butler - Kindred and Parable of the Sower, and one unanimously thumbs down - Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut). We also often talk about the other books we’re reading or have read, movie/TV adaptations or anything else. We don’t take it too seriously and everyone is welcome - die-hards, those that drop in and out, those with a particular interest in one of the books, or new members.

We have a book short-list, which is stable at about 10 books at any one time, and we select the next book using an online picker wheel, so it’s totally random and free from bias towards anyone’s preference. We try to choose books that are available in kindle or paperback, and some of us also use audiobook versions. I try to get my books from the independent bookstore aggregator bookstore.com or secondhand from abebooks.com.

Here I’ve picked out my ‘stand out’ books - for good or bad - minus plot spoilers.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler - A time travel tale, but it isn’t really about time travel. The protagonist (living today) develops the ability to time travel back to America in the 1800s, where she meets a young boy whose life she saves. In his time, he is the son of plantation and slave-owners and, as she continues to slip backwards and forwards in time, we see the boy grow up and their relationship develop. It is a reflection on slavery, racism and injustice and how easy it can be to normalise hatred. In my view, this book should be on the National Curriculum. Everyone should read Kindred. Please read it. Two thumbs up.

 

 

 

 

 

Do androids dream of electric sheep by Philip K Dick. I really do not like Bladerunner, but I was intrigued to read this in the hope that it would be better. It wasn’t. It’s the second Philip K Dick book I’ve read (the other - The Man in the High Castle - I read under the ‘dystopian future’ genre) and I hope it’s the last. I’ve included it here as a book that illicited abject disappointment. I would have rather watched the movie again. One thumb down.
 

 

 

 

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky - Set in the aftermath of an alien visitation, this is a part sci-fi - part dystopian - part horror fiction novel. The aliens left behind what is, to them, nothing more than used coffee cups and foil wrappers from their ‘roadside picnic’ but to humans this is all new tech. But they also left behind more sinister detritus - toxic pollution has ravaged some areas and changed people’s lives. Good theme for those with a planetary protection interest <link>. The plot centres around one guy who is highly skilled at retrieving top notch alien ‘tech’ that the clever scientists in their safe laboratories can investigate and attempt to make something of. He’s hired to seek out the holy grail of alien garbage, and …. plot spoilers. It’s grim but gripping with a very dark edge to it. Two thumbs up.

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Mysogenistic, sexist and self-indulgent. What a terrible book. Two thumbs down.


Tyrannosaur Canyon by Douglas Preston. This is the Deep Impact of sci fi books. So bad its brilliant. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed reading a book (any book) as much as this one. Less sci fi and more, well, every other genre you can possibly think of. Basic premise: somewhere, there is a whole preserved T-rex and everyone wants to find it. Clue to its location: there’s a canyon called, spookily, Tyrannosaur canyon. And that’s NOT the most face-palming part of the book.
If you want to read a full low-down, this is one of the few reviews I’ve ever put on Goodreads, it's here, but I strongly urge you to find this book, pour yourself a pinch of salt and get reading. Three thumbs up (yes, it’s THAT crazy).

 

 


Our current book is Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, which won the 2021 Goodreads Choice  sci fi award.  Judgement day is late March! I’ll get reading it just as soon as I’m through Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

*I’ve rather plagiarised this title from the first popular science book I read, which made the link between terrestrial geology and space: Dinosaurs, diamonds and things from outer space by David Breze Carlisle. It’s still on my shelf in the Robert Hooke building - testament to the fact that reading really does change your life.

 

Dr Vic Pearson

Author:

Dr Vic Pearson
is a Senior Lecturer at the Open University and is Associate Director of AstrobiologyOU