Book Reviews: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Flowers for Algernon and Toby’s Room

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Stu Brief HistoryTo begin, a couple of notes on the title. This book cannot accurately be described in any way, shape or form as being “brief”; it clocks in at nearly seven hundred pages of tiny print, and even for it a super-speedy reader like me it takes some getting through. Secondly, although the title refers to seven killings, there are an awful lot more than that contained herein. If I said the body count was closer to triple figures it would sound like an exaggeration, but it’s probably actually not far off the mark. This is a brutal, nasty affair in places, packed with the kind of cinematic violence you’d expect from a Tarantino movie, with gallons of claret flowing throughout.
What you’re really dealing with here is a history of Jamaica in the second half of the twentieth century – centering on the savage political violence that split the country in half after its independence from Great Britain in 1962 – told through the distinct voices of innumerable characters, from gangsters and slum-dwellers to CIA operatives and American journalists. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, with each chapter and episode being narrated by a different protagonist with a distinct narrative voice, from Jamaican patois to American hipster slang. It’s epic in scope, taking in the slums of Kingston, the keys of Miami and the desolate urban sprawl of 70s New York, and it works on so many different levels that it almost defies belief. It’s a literary page-turner, a pulp-fiction thriller, an investigation of the shooting of Bob Marley (referred to as “The Singer” throughout) two days before the Smile Jamaica peace concert in 1976. It contains flavours of Southern gothic and film noir, and the whole thing is shot through with a rich vein of super-dark humour which can’t help but raise a smile, despite the bleak nature of the subject matter. The characters are beautifully drawn and their individual voices are superbly rendered – this really is writing of the highest order. According to the blurb on the cover it made it onto 23 ‘book of the year’ lists when it was published. All the plaudits are richly deserved. I absolutely caned my way through this, desperate to see how it would finish, and yet was disappointed when it finally ended as I felt like I wanted to read more. A genuinely challenging, stimulating and thoroughly entertaining read, and how many Booker Prize winners can you say that about? Absolutely brilliant.

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Stu FlowersI’ve long been familiar with the plot and general themes of this vintage sci-fi novel, but it’s only recently that I’ve finally got around to reading it. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who works a menial job sweeping the floor in a baker owned by a friend of his uncle, who secured him the job to prevent him being sent to a mental institution. Charlie is selected by scientists to take part in a trial for a new surgical procedure which can increase intelligence, a technique which has previously been tested on laboratory mice, one of which is the Algernon referred to in the title. The surgery is a success, and Charlie’s IQ triples, but the effects are not quite as anticipated.

He realises that his ‘friends’ at the bakery aren’t his friends at all; they like having him to be around to make fun of and make them feel better about themselves, and they’ve coined a phrase – “pulling a Charlie Gordon” – to describe someone doing something to unintentionally make a fool of themselves. They feel threatened by his new intelligence, turn against him and he ultimately ends up losing his job. Despite being blessed with a genius level IQ, Charlie still has the emotional intelligence of a child, and struggles in social situations; he speaks to scientists and professors, but finds their conversation limited and dull; he seeks the love of a woman, but his intellect is such that he can’t engage with the opposite sex on any kind of basic level, and he’s lonelier than he ever was before the operation.

I don’t want to give the ending away so won’t say any more about the plot, but this is a great take on the Frankenstein fable about scientists playing God and the terrible consequences that it can bring. For those who don’t consider themselves fans of Sci-fi, don’t let the label put you off. The premise may be sci-fi, but this is set in a very recognisable universe, features very real, believable characters and shows some uncanny psychological insight throughout. Be warned though – it’s not a happy read and the ending is a real tear-jerker. It’s a startlingly original bit of writing which has become a stone cold classic since its first publication in novel form in 1966, and deservedly so. Well worth checking out if you fancy a left-field, thought-provoking read.

Toby’s room by Pat Barker

Stu Toby's RoomThis novel sees Pat Barker return to the subject of the First World War, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The story starts in 1912. Elinor and Toby Brooke have a relationship far closer than any brother and sister ever should, and one that they never dare acknowledge. Fast forward to 1917 – Toby is gone, missing presumed killed in the carnage of Flanders. Elinor is trying to find her feet as a professional artist, and is struggling to come to terms with what happened to her brother. Only one man – Kit Neville – an old friend from art school who was one of his stretcher bearers knows what happened to Toby, but he is suffering too, struck down by a hideously disfiguring facial wound. Only their mutual friend, commissioned war artist Paul Tarrant, can find out the truth, but will it be too much for Elinor to bear?
One of the great strengths of this novel is Barker’s incredibly perceptive understanding of her characters and their motivations, and her depiction of the complex relationships between them is first class. Her descriptions of the chaos of war and the effects it has on the men fighting it are startlingly real, and the climactic scene in which Neville describes the real events that lead up to Toby’s death while a winter storm rages outside is staggeringly emotional.
Technically it’s superb – practically flawless, actually. The descriptive prose is brilliant, the dialogue pitch-perfect, the scenes of war cataclysmic and the bits about the facial injuries suffered by many – as painted by Henry Tonks, who appears as a character in this novel – stomach-churningly graphic. Barker sets the plot in motion immediately, and right from the first couple of pages I was absolutely hooked on this. It’s a great story, beautifully written and told by an artist with an absolute mastery of her craft. Superb stuff.

Reviews from Stu, a Community Librarian based in the east of Leeds

Librarian’s Choice: Enjoy a bit of Fantasy Horror

This blog comes from Lisa, a development librarian based at Central library.

I thought summer would be a good time to go for something different and write about a few of my favourite horror/fantasy books, so here goes:-

NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

Lisa NOS4R2I didn’t know until fairly recently that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King. He’s clearly inherited the writing gene and I’ve since enjoyed several of his books. NOS4R2 is a not-very-festive Christmas story featuring a terrifying child abductor called Charlie Manx and a resourceful girl called Vic McQueen who initially escapes his clutches but then encounters him again later on in life. Things are typically not as they seem in this world and the author deftly mixes real world events with horror and fantasy elements. I like his writing style, and found myself really immersed in this story.

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Lisa Night WatchI got hooked by this one and had to go on to read the whole series. It’s set in Moscow and is about the precarious balance between the “Others”, who swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. Agents of the Dark oversee nocturnal activity and those of the Light do the same during daytime. Legend tells of a supreme Other who will emerge and threaten this balance and in this first book, that’s just what happens. This series seemed quite different from others I had read and I really enjoyed the language and the Russian cultural references scattered amongst all the action.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M R Carey

Lisa Girl withA friend recommended this book to me and I was fascinated by it pretty early on. It’s probably best not to go into too much detail but if you like dystopian thrillers you’ll love this! It begins with Melanie, an unusual young girl who is picked up from her cell every morning for her lessons at gun point and strapped into a wheelchair. She loves to learn and clearly has much to give, so what’s going on and why are people so afraid of her?

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Lisa Let the rightSet in Sweden, this is an intriguing, haunting novel that’s not like the rest. Oskar is a 12 year old boy who struggles to fit in at school and is constantly bullied; however things change when he meets his new neighbour, a strange yet interesting girl named Eli who only seems to go out at night. Then a body is found that’s been drained of blood… If you enjoy reading this, you’ll find the Swedish version of the film is definitely worth a watch.

The Strain by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro

Lisa The StrainI was hoping I’d like this one as I’m a big fan of del Toro’s work. One of the early scenes in this book really got to me – when an aeroplane lands at JFK airport, then stops dead and all communications are cut. There is no way in and no way out for the passengers. It’s up to Dr. Ephraim Goodweather from the CDC to find out what happened and to try and stop what’s coming. This is pretty spooky and gripping from the start. It’s also written in quite a cinematic style so you can really picture the scenes, hardly surprising that it was made into a TV series.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Lisa American GodsOne of my favourite authors, Neil is so prolific that it was hard to choose but I love American Gods. Shadow is released from prison early when his wife dies alongside his best friend in a car accident and life gets stranger for him from that point on. He accepts a job offer from the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who seems to know all about him, and is led into a world of ancient and modern mythology exploring the origins and influence of gods and spirits. I was absorbed in this from the beginning – I find the power of belief, how it spreads and what it can lead to really interesting; plus it’s a fantastic tale! The recent TV adaptation is definitely worth checking out as well.

Librarian’s Choice – Rediscovering Science Fiction

This blog post comes from Ben, who manages our Business and Information library at Central library.

Ben Time shipsMy rediscovery of a love of Science Fiction came about last August on holiday in Majorca. The jury’s out as to whether I had heat stroke or a virus but either way I spent 48 hours dividing my time between visits to the bathroom and lying in bed. There wasn’t much else to do except read, so I finished the 2 books I’d taken with me (Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall and Alan McGee’s story of Creation Records) pretty quickly. I managed to make it to the hotel foyer where there was a shelf full of random sun-bleached paperbacks that holiday makers had abandoned. In-amongst the chick-lit and James Patterson novels there was a book that intrigued me, it was “The Time Ships” by Stephen Baxter, which the cover told me was the authorized sequel to The Time Machine by H G Wells. I hadn’t read any Science Fiction since I was a teenager, I wasn’t really expecting much but took it back to my sick bed and soon got hooked. The story takes up where The Time Machine left off. This won’t mean much if you haven’t read the original but the Time Traveller, wracked by guilt, decides to return to the year 802,701 to save Weena (a devolved human from the future that he failed to save in the first book). However when he travels into the future he discovers that this timeline is no longer accessible because he has changed history through his previous journeys through time. He then embarks on adventures in time into distant pasts and futures (and even a strange alternate World War 2 at one point), but each journey alters reality. It tied my head in knots but in a really good way.

Ben children of timeTime Ships had whetted my appetite, and the next novel I read was “Children of Time” by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The last survivors of the human race leave the dying Earth, desperate to find a new home. Thousands are in suspended animation aboard a colossal ship, in hibernation until they find a habitable planet, heading for a world that was terraformed by humans long ago. The story alternates between the humans on the space ship, who are travelling for hundreds of thousands of years, and the evolution of intelligent life on the terraformed planet. While life advances on the terraformed planet it regresses on the space ship. You sense events are building to an inevitable collision between the two civilizations and the tension is unbearable by the end of the novel. This book makes you ponder really big themes – time, evolution, religion, God – but ultimately it’s also an excellent story.

Ben HyperionA couple of weeks ago I read “Hyperion” by Dan Simmons, a book that always features in top 10 Sci-fi lists. This book is really intense, in parts it’s as much horror as Science fiction. I read it in one week, and I absolutely couldn’t put it down even though it literally gave me nightmares! The galaxy is on the brink of a massive war, and the mysterious planet of Hyperion holds secrets that both sides want to exploit. Seven pilgrims set out on an epic journey to confront the Shrike – a monstrous creature “part god part killing machine” that inhabits Hyperion. The book consists of each of the pilgrims telling their tale to the others, to explain their reason for confronting the Shrike. It’s a strange, incredibly imaginative – and at times very dark – story, but the worlds and universe that Simmons has created are rich, detailed and colourful.

All three of these massively inventive books combine gripping story-telling with an ability to instill a sense of wonder in the reader and actually make you think more about the nature of the universe.

Top 10 Science Fiction

Science Fiction is a genre that people either say they love or hate. It is a shame that many write it off as ‘not for them’ while often enjoying the films at the cinema that have been adapted from a book.

So if you fancy giving giving a new genre a chance these are the top 10 science fiction novels that were borrowed from us last month.

scifi-woolWool by Hugh Howey

In a ruined and hostile landscape, a community exists in a giant underground silo. Inside, men and women live an enclosed life full of rules and regulations, of secrets and lies. The people who don’t follow the rules are the dangerous ones; they dare to hope and dream, and infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple and deadly. They are allowed outside. Jules is one of these people. She may well be the last.

scifi-the-long-cosmosThe Long Cosmos by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

2070-71. Nearly six decades after Step Day and in the Long Earth, the new Next post-human society continues to evolve. For Joshua Valiente, now in his late sixties, it is time to take one last solo journey into the High Meggers: an adventure that turns into a disaster. Alone and facing death, his only hope of salvation lies with a group of trolls. But as Joshua confronts his mortality, the Long Earth receives a signal from the stars. A signal that is picked up by radio astronomers but also in more abstract ways – by the trolls and by the Great Traversers. Its message is simple but ts implications are enormous: JOIN US. The super-smart Next realise that the Message contains instructions on how to develop an immense artificial intelligence but to build it they have to seek help from throughout the industrious worlds of mankind.

scifi-the-thing-itselfThe Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

Two men while away the days in an Antarctic research station. Tensions between them build as they argue over a love letter one of them has received. One is practical and open. The other surly, superior and obsessed with reading one book – by the philosopher Kant. As a storm brews and they lose contact with the outside world they debate Kant, reality and the emptiness of the universe. The come to hate each other – and they learn that they are not alone.

scifi-the-long-utopiaThe Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

2045-2059. After the cataclysmic upheavals of Step Day and the Yellowstone eruption humanity is spreading further into the Long Earth, and society, on a battered Datum Earth and beyond, continues to evolve. Now an elderly and cantankerous AI, Lobsang lives in disguise with Agnes in an exotic, far-distant world. He’s convinced they’re leading a normal life in New Springfield – they even adopt a child – but it seems they have been guided there for a reason. As rumours of strange sightings and hauntings proliferate, it becomes clear that something is very awry with this particular world. Millions of steps away, Joshua is on a personal journey of discovery: learning about the father he never knew and a secret family history. But then he receives a summons from New Springfield. Lobsang understands the enormity of what’s taking place beneath the surface of his earth – a threat to all the worlds of the Long Earth.

scifi-auroraAurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Our voyage from Earth began generations ago. Now, we approach our destination. A new home. Aurora.

scifi-fellowship-of-the-ringThe Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

The ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ is the first part of Tolkien’s epic adventure ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as his elderly cousin Bilbo entrusts the Ring to his care.

scifi-the-martianThe Martian by Andy Weir

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Earth. I’m in a habitat designed to last 31 days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. I’m screwed.

scifi-xeelee-enduranceXeelee Endurance by Stephen Baxter

Return to the eon-spanning and universe-crossing conflict between humanity and the unknowable alien Xeelee in this selection of uncollected and unpublished stories. From tales charting the earliest days of man’s adventure to the stars to stories of Old Earth, four billion years in the future, the range and startling imagination of Baxter is always on display. As humanity rises and falls, ebbs and flows, one thing is always needed – the ability to endure.

scifi-the-oceanThe Ocean at the end of the lane by Neil Gaiman

It began for our narrator 40 years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive.

scifi-the-explorerThe Explorer by James Smythe

When journalist Cormac Easton is selected to document the first manned mission into deep space, he dreams of securing his place in history as one of humanity’s great explorers. But in space, nothing goes according to plan. The crew wake from hypersleep to discover their captain dead in his allegedly fail-proof safety pod.

 

 

 

Margaret Atwood – Live Screening at Central Library

We are very excited to be able to join up with the British library when Margaret Atwood receives the 2016 PEN Pinter Prize.

On Thursday 13th October we are screening a live broadcast from the British library to see Margaret receive her prize and deliver an address. There will also be a reading of Margaret’s classic book, The Handmaid’s Tale by actress Elizabeth McGovern.

This is a real treat, and not to be missed if, like us, you are a huge Atwood fan. The screening will take place in Room 700 in Central Library from 6.30 – 8.00pm. Tickets are free, but booking is essential. There are a few places left, but you are going to have to be quick! To book a place go to www.ticketsource.co.uk/leedslibraryevents

To celebrate here are a few of our favourite Atwood classics:-

atwood-hag-seedHag-seed: the Tempest retold

Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds. Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge. After 12 years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall?

atwood-heart-goes-lastThe heart goes last

Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

atwood-stone-mattressStone mattress: nine tales

A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband. An elderly lady with Charles Bonnet’s syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly-formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. A woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. And a crime committed long-ago is revenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion year old stromatalite. In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle.

atwood-handmaids-taleThe handmaid’s tale

The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function – to breed. If she deviates, she will be killed. But even an oppressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.

atwood-the-doorThe door

With a wickedly sharp sense of the funny, underpinned by a wordly sagacity, this is a collection of poetry about love, about growing older, about family, and about writing.

atwood-madd-adamMaddAddam

Toby, a survivor of the man-made plague that has swept the Earth, is telling stories. Stories left over from the old world, and stories that will determine a new one. Listening hard is young Blackbeard, one of the innocent Crakers, the species designed to replace humanity. Their reluctant prophet, Jimmy-the-Snowman, is in a coma, so they’ve chosen a new hero – Zeb, the street-smart man Toby loves. As clever Pigoons attack their fragile garden and malevolent Painballers scheme, the small band of survivors will need more than stories.

atwood-oryx-and-crakeOryx and Crake

Pigs might not fly, but they are strangely altered. So, for that matter, are wolves and raccoons. A man, once named Jimmy, now calls himself Snowman and lives in a tree, wrapped in an old bed sheet. The voice of Oryx, the woman he loved, teasingly haunts him. The green-eyed children of Crake are his responsibility.

Top 10 – Science Fiction

These are the top 10 Science fiction titles borrowed from Leeds Libraries during November. Science fiction isn’t everyone’s bag – but why not try one of these for something different?

Heart goes lastThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

The Long WarThe Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

A generation after the events of ‘The Long Earth’, mankind has spread across the new worlds opened up by Stepping. Where Joshua and Lobsang once pioneered, now fleets of airships link the stepwise Americas with trade and culture. Mankind is shaping the Long Earth – but in turn the Long Earth is shaping mankind.

The Long MarsThe Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

2040-2045: In the years after the cataclysmic Yellowstone eruption there is massive economic dislocation as populations flee Datum Earth to myriad Long Earth worlds. Sally, Joshua, and Lobsang are all involved in this perilous work when, out of the blue, Sally is contacted by her long-vanished father and inventor of the original Stepper device, Willis Linsay. He tells her he is planning a fantastic voyage across the Long Mars and wants her to accompany him. But Sally soon learns that Willis has ulterior motives.

A Storm of swordsA Storm of Swords by George R R Martin

The Seven Kingdoms are divided by revolt and blood feud. Winter is approaching and the wildings are poised to invade the Kingdom of the North. Robb Stark must protect himself from them and the threat of his enemies in the south.

Lock InLock In by John Scalzi

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves ‘locked in’ – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. 1% doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the US that’s 1.7 million people ‘locked in’ – including the President’s wife and daughter. Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge…

Fools assassinFool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife, Molly, for many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown. But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic and assassin: a man who has risked much for his king and lost more. On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends. But one is long dead, and one long-missing. Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives, seeking Fitz, only to mysteriously disappear leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?

Raising steamRaising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Change is afoot in Ankh-Morpork – Discworld’s first steam engine has arrived, and once again Moist von Lipwig finds himself with a new and challenging job.

Wards of faerieWards of Faerie by Terry Brooks

There was an age when the world was young, before the coming of humans, a time when magic was the dominant power. It was during this age that the Elfstones protecting the Elven disappeared. Now a clue to their location may have surfaced in the diary of a princess, and it will be the beginning of an adventure that no-one expected.

DragonbaneDragonbane by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Out of all the mysterious boarders who call Sanctuary home, no one is more antisocial or withdrawn than Maxis Drago. But then, it’s hard to blend in with the modern world when you have a fifty foot wingspan. Centuries ago, he was cursed by an enemy who swore to see him fall. An enemy who took everything from him and left him forever secluded. But Fate is a bitch, with a wicked sense of humour. And when she throws old enemies together and threatens the wife he thought had died centuries ago, he comes back with a vengeance. Modern day New Orleans has become a battleground for the oldest of evils. And two dragons will hold the line, or go down in flames.

BattlemageBattlemage by Stephen Aryan

Balfruss is a battlemage, one of a vanishing breed, sworn to fight and die for a country that fears and despises him. Vargus is a soldier, and while mages shoot lightning from the walls of his city, he’s down in the frontlines getting blood on his blade. Talandra is a princess and her father’s spymaster, but the war may force her to take up a greater responsibility, and make the greatest sacrifice of all. Known for their unpredictable, dangerous power, society has left battlemages untrained and shunned. But when a force unlike anything ever imagined attacks their home, the few remaining magic users must go to war – to save those who fear them most, and herald in a new age of peace, built upon the corpses of their enemies.

‘Dune’ celebrates its 50th birthday

DuneThe science fiction classic Dune is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year.

On release it was the winner of both the prestigious Hugo Award and the inaugural Nebular Award.  It has gone on to sell over 12 million copies since then and frequently appears on sci-fi must read lists. Dune has been favourably compared to Lord of the Rings trilogy for its grand scope and sighted as an influence on numerous creative projects from Star Wars to Game of Thrones, it even inspired an Iron Maiden The great Dune trilogysong “To Tame the Land”.

Set in a heavily feudal society of the future where “spice “mined from treacherous sand dunes is the most valuable commodity in the galaxy Dune is the first book in an epic saga charting the life of Duke Paul of the House Atraides. When his family is betrayed by another Noble House, Paul is forced to flee with his mother Jessica into the unforgiving terrain of the desert planet Arrakis. Far from perishing in this punishing environment as their enemies anticipate, the pair survive and Paul discovers that the dunes and their inhabitants are key to fulfilling a destiny far greater than any he could ever have imagined.

Author Frank Herbert masterfully pulls together multiple layers of political intrigue, adds complex themes of religion and culture, mixes in a healthy dose of adventure and frames the story within a meticulously constructed fictional universe. The resulting novel is considered ahead of its time in exploring issues of ecology and environmentalism but has faced criticism for what some see as its poor development of female characters.

Herbert went on to wright five sequels before his death in 1986. His Dune legacy lives on thanks to his son Brian HerbertDune who along with established science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson has written a number of prequel novels beginning with the Prelude to Dune Trilogy published from 1999 as well as two sequels Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune based on Frank’s own 30 page outline for the continuation of the series.

If you have already read Dune or would like to try some other great science fiction titles which also explore themes of politics, culture and religion try these compelling reads:

The sparrowSand by Hugh Howey. Staying with the desert theme Sand is the new novel from the acclaimed author of the bestselling Wool trilogy. An old civilization is literally buried under massive sand dunes. It’s up to four siblings born into this barren new to world dig deep and uncover the secrets of the lost one.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Jesuit priest Father Emilio Santoz leads an expedition to meet a sentient alien race after he is moved by their use of music but the consequences are devastating.  Russell makes excellent use of her own experience as a paleoanthropologist to injects a sense of real life into her alien world and its strange new species. Exploring human concepts of morality and faith this and sequel Children of God are as intelligent, compelling and challenging as science fiction gets.

 Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon 1) by China  Mievelle . Welcome to the sprawling city of New Crobuzon where humans live side by side with all manner of strange creatures from khephris (insect headed women) to winged garuda. When one such garuda who has been stripped of flight approaches an amateur scientist to help him regain it they unwittingly set in motion events which will leave the whole of the city gripped with terror. This is a massively ambitious story which mixes politics, ethics, science and fantasy to astonishing effect.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.  Introducing The Justice, the AI mind of a destroyed warship trapped in the Sandreanimated body of a single dead human or “corpse soldier”. Used to controlling thousands of “corpse soldiers” simultaneously The Justice must adjust to this reduced state if she is to complete one last mission and exact revenge on those who destroyed her. Author Leckie became the first person to collect the Hugo, Nebular and Arthur C Clark awards for Best Novel in the same year with this her 2014 debut novel. Its sequel Ancillary Sword is also available now.

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks. Between 1987 and his death in 2013 Banks wrote a series of highly acclaimed novels and short stories set in and around the supposedly utopian interstellar society of The Culture.  Essentially space operas the novels are less concerned with scientific fact than exploring complex themes such as identity and politics. The Player of Games is an accessible entry point into this Universe. It tells the story of Gurgeh a man famous throughout The Culture for his mastery of board games.  Coerced into participating in a game called Azad in an Empire far from home Gurgeh soon realizes that he will not only be player but also pawn and that the stakes are literally to die for.

Post by Gemma Alexander, Information and Research Library