Mental Radio by Upton Sinclair

I discovered this little 1930s book by accident whilst browsing the Sacret Texts website (given the book’s age, it’s legally available there in its entirely to read online). The title intrigued me, because I’ve recently been doing my own personal experiments into psychokinesis (a.k.a. telekinesis, the moving of objects with the mind), and getting results, I might add! The topic of this book is telepathy (mind-reading), something which I’m eager to try.

First, who is Upton Sinclair? A writer of some standing in Socialist circles, it appears. That means little to me, but of more import was something I discovered when hunting for a cover image of the book to go with this review. You can’t see it on my scaled-down image, but it says “Foreword by Albert Einstein.” Sadly, the version of the book available on the website lacks this foreword, which I would have loved to read. Nevertheless, the presence of Einstein should at least lead readers not to dismiss a book of this nature out of hand.

The first two thirds of the book consists, for the most part, of a menagerie of drawings and notes made by Upton Sinclair and his wife Craig. The most frequent experiment involved Upton making a series of drawings in private, enclosing each one inside a sheet of paper, then giving the set to his wife. She would then enter a trance-like state and attempt to “see” what was drawn. After leaving the trance, she would then make her own reproduction on paper. The results were often far from perfect, but continually showed astounding similarities that could not have been random.

A book like this does, of course, stand or fall on the reader’s willingness to believe that the author is writing an account in good faith. People who are desperate to hold onto the view that physics is the cornerstone on which reality hangs will no doubt dismiss Sinclair as a crank. As for me, I got the distinct impession of a sincere and level-headed man. Since my personal discovery of psychokinesis, I have felt that this kind of knowledge is vitally important in helping us understand what consciousness actually is, in determining whether there is more to being human than just a physical brain and body. And after reading this book, I feel the importance of that study reaffirmed.

The last third of the book got me really excited. Here Sinclair makes some rational deductions about the mind, in light of his experiments, and I was ecstatic to hear him coming so close to the view that I hold – that the universe is essentially an expression of consciousness, that we are all aspects of a single gigantic mind expressing itself. He doesn’t quite make the leap, but he’s right at the gate.

Here are a few extracts. Sinclair’s attitude reminded me a lot of David Icke:

If what I publish here is mysticism, then I do not know there can be such a thing as science about the human mind … Those who throw out these results will not be scientists, but merely another set of dogmatists – of whom new crops are continually springing up, wearing new disguises and new labels. The plain truth is that in science, as in politics and religion, it is a lot easier to believe what you have been taught, than to set out for yourself and ascertain what happens.

The deduction that all our minds are connected at a deeper level:

I think a study of them [these experiments] shows that a true vision comes into the subconsiousness, not directly from the drawing, but from another mind which has some means of knowing, and sending to consciousness via the subconsciousness whatever I ask it for. Of course, I cannot attempt to prove it here. It was one of the questions to which I was seeking an answer, and the result seems to point to the existence of a deeper mind …

The suggestion that the universe is made of mind, not matter:

But I insist that until Craig and Dr. Watson, Professor Eddington and Mrs. Eddy have found out positively whether the universe is all mind or all matter, I must go on speaking in the old-fashioned way, as if there were two worlds, the physical and the mental, two sets of phenomena which interact one upon the other continuously, even though the manner of this happening is beyond comprehension.

Again, our deeper, connected minds:

What telepathy means to my wife is this: it seems to indicate a common substratum of mind, underlying our individual minds, and which
we can learn to tap.

The book concludes with these words:

We present here a mass of real evidence, and we shall not be troubled by any amount of ridicule from the ignorant. I tell you – and because it is so important, I put it in capital letters: TELEPATHY HAPPENS!

I think this book is an absolute gem. One of the most important things I’ve read thus far in the quest to understand the nature of what we are.

Dune by Frank Herbert

I’m really struggling to summarise Dune because the mythology created by Frank Herbert is so rich. In fact, I understand he spent about five years researching before writing this tome. Anyway, first a little background. The known universe is governed by a series of feudal houses, with an emperor reigning supreme over them. Central to the novel are House Atreides and its enemy House Harkonnen. As the story commences, the emporer gives control of the desert planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune) to House Atreides. The move from the water-rich world of Caladan to the dry wastes of Arrakis dramatically changes the life of young fifteen-year-old Paul Atreides. The native people of Arrakis, known as the Fremen, wonder if he is their long-awaited messiah, according to prophecy. The planet’s main commodity, a powerful substance called “spice melange,” which has many uses across the universe, begins to have a strange effect on Paul. He starts to see visions, and wonders if he could indeed be the messiah of the Fremen. Meanhile, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is plotting the downfall of House Atreides and the takeover of Dune, but he hasn’t counted on who Paul really is.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and it’s a joy to read. I found myself taking my time with it because I didn’t want it to end. I loved being in this strange mythology. What’s clear is that the author isn’t making this up as he’s going. He has thought long and hard about the ecology, religion, culture, politics and technology of this world of his. It’s as breaktaking as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. If there is one weak spot in the whole package, it’s in the very clear-cut roles of good guys and bad guys. House Harkonnen, and all its members, is thoroughly immoral, led by the Baron, who is an obese man with a liking for young boys. He is saved from being a two-dimensional villain by the depth of his cunning. The war between the Atreides and Harkonnens is a too-simple battle of good versus evil. This polarised viewpoint, in my humble opinion, isn’t a true reflection of wars in the real world and was the only disappointment in a work of brilliance.

If your introduction to Dune has been the 1980s David Lynch movie, I can tell you that the book is so much better. I decided to watch the director’s cut of the movie after reading the novel, and it felt like watching a summary. A visual feast, but a poor attempt at storytelling. The novel is a far bigger and more personal story. The more recent mini-series does a better job than the movie, and is a fairly faithful adaptation, but I don’t recommend watching it before reading the book, as the book is a superior experience.

So many novels are forgettable, but Dune stays with you like a memory. It’s not often that I have such good recall of events and character names. Frank Herbert wrote six Dune novels before he died. I’m looking forward to Dune Messiah.

I Am Me, I Am Free by David Icke

I first heard of David Icke on the Terry Wogan show in 1991. I was about nineteen at the time. Icke had once been a famous footballer, until his career was cut short by arthritis. He then went on become a BBC television sports presenter. The reason why he was being interviewed by Terry Wogan was because he had recently published a book called The Truth Vibrations, where he claimed to have undergone profound spiritual changes and was in contact with beings from a higher dimension. The audience was very amused. Even more amused when Terry asked him if he was the Son of God. Not given time to explain the difference between a son of God and the Son of God, hilarity ensued. For me, the outrageous nature of this made the Wogan interview one of the unforgettable moments of television, and the name David Icke was firmly locked in my mind, forever shelved under messianic crackpot. Well, not quite forever, it seems.

Earlier this summer, whilst browsing the website of Christian conspiracy theorist Mark Dice, I came across an audio interview of Mark interviewing David. I thought it was a strange combination of interviewer and interviewee, given their opposing backgrounds, and so I got curious. I can’t remember what specifics in the interview caught my attention, but I was enthused enough by David’s presentation to seek out some of his books.

I chose I Am Me, I Am Free first, primarily because I was more interested in Icke’s spiritual views than his conspiracy theories or his radical theories about shape-shifting reptilians. Why was I not put off immediately by the knowledge that he believes reptilians are walking among us in human bodies? I don’t know. Maybe the Mark Dice interivew sounded too sane, and maybe the fact that I couldn’t marry this sanity with the outlandish claims created a sense of intrigue in me. In any case, I chose not to jump straight in with his reptilian book, The Biggest Secret, but rather to break myself in gently.

I Am Me, I Am Free disturbed me from the first chapter. And it disturbed me because it was chipping away at a closed-minded attitude that I possessed and didn’t know I possessed. It disturbed me because it seemed to be right. Some way into the book, I felt that I was finally starting to understand the greatest spiritual battle of my life: the battle between athiesm and Christianity. Icke woke me up to the “mind prison” that is conventional science – the idea that the world should only be understood in terms of “this is all there is,” that the burden of proof is the only measure of rational thought. But wait, he doesn’t stop there. He also makes an attack on religion, too. This was the most problematic aspect of the book, because I was a Christian as I was reading it, and had been consistently a Christian for about seven years.

But for the first time in my life I started understanding that there was an alternative to dogmatic religion and equally dogmatic science. And that alternative was the pursuit of truth without any attachment to an “ism,” without the necessity of taking on a strict set of beliefs, without fear of damnation. Just the breaking free from closed-minded assumptions you’re not even aware of and the openness to all possibility. I dared to deconstuct my Christian beliefs and start again from the ground up. Guess what? I can’t accept the Christian view of reality any more. One personal example of this (not from the book) is the way we can encounter things in the Bible like God commanding the Israelites to slaughter the men, women and children of Amalek (1 Samuel 15). We can’t understand this, so we put it on a shelf in our mind, thinking that we’ll get an explanation some day. But you know, it never comes down the from shelf. It just gathers dust. But you start to wake up to some of the craziness you’ve allowed yourself to believe, when you dare to deconstruct your beliefs and attempt to put them together again. Suddenly the bricks don’t fit as neatly as you thought they did.

The book covers much more ground than I’m mentioning here. There’s some excellent material on self-esteem and a particularly difficult chapter on mind control, which makes some terrifying claims that need further verification. But it’s the sort of book that contains much in the way of self-evident truth, and it’s the sort of book that you don’t have to accept hook, line and sinker. You can gain something from it and leave what you find unacceptable.

For me, this was a totally life-changing book. I didn’t expect this to happen to me when I started out. I know the world is full of people making all sorts of claims to enlightenment, and I don’t consider myself an easy man to fool. Richard Dawkins didn’t get very far with me. I’ve been waking up to a lot of things over the past few years, and this book has served only to step that awakening up a gear.

David Icke is an extremely important thinker in today’s world, and I am a better person for having discovered his books.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. He is the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that hasn’t so much wiped out humanity as changed it. By day, the city belongs to him. He is, for all practical purposes, completely alone – free to roam the concrete jungle, foraging for food supplies, equipment for his house, and entertainment to quell the loneliness. But come nightfall, they come out.

Who they are depends on whether you are most familiar with the original 1954 novel written by Richard Matheson, or one of its three film adaptations. Yes, three! I Am Legend was first filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, starring Vincent Price. This film remains the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which is no surprise since the screenplay was written by Matheson himself, albeit under a psuedonym. Matheson didn’t want his name associated with the movie because of some changes to the script demanded by the producers. The creatures in this movie are like George Romero’s zombies with just enough brains to speak. Romero himself cites this film as influential in making Night of the Living Dead. The creatures are called vampires, and vampires they are, except for the lack of fangs – possibly a budgetary restriction. But they can’t stand sunlight, crosses, and can be killed with a stake through the heart, just as tradition states. Matheson’s novel features all that plus the fangs and a lot more agility.

In 1971 I Am Legend was remade as The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. This time, the only vampiric trait the creatures possess is an aversion to sunlight. They are much more humanlike in terms of their rationality – they’re not interested in drinking your blood – although they’ve been transformed into black-clothed religious zealots with a hatred of technology. To them, Robert Neville epitomises everything that led to the destruction of the world. Matheson, as you can guess, was not involved in this adaptation. Although The Omega Man departs greatly from the original story, it’s still a worthwhile film. It served as my introduction to the novel. I first saw it as a child, and it was a very memorable experience.

In 2008 I Am Legend was made yet again, this time keeping its original name, with Will Smith in the title role. A massive budget went into this adaptation, and it shows. The city is fabulously deserted, decaying and overgrown, thanks to the wonders of CGI. This time the creatures are exclusively computer generated. In stark contrast to the staggering zombies of the first movie, these are fearsome, frenzied killing machines, scarier than a lion bearing down on you. Again, it’s far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it remains my favourite of the three movies for its portrayal of Robert Neville, his loneliness, his desperation, his struggles, his griefs. The director really had his head screwed on. Will Smith’s natural talent for looking cool is subdued and we are treated to a movie experience where substance wins over style.

Sadly, none of the movies bar the first has embraced the courage of the novel’s startling climax. The novel’s ending (as well as much of the content) is so different that I would gladly encourage viewers to watch both The Omega Man and I Am Legend before reading the novel. It might even enhance your reading experience, because you will be saying, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down.” However, save The Last Man on Earth till later, because that movie is a 95% copy of the book.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I want to share a couple of examples of what makes Matheson’s writing so good. In the story, Robert Neville has fortified his house against the enemy. He lives every day in isolaton and every night listening to the mocking cries of the undead outside his door. And then one morning, an unusual visitor shows up …

For an hour he [Robert Neville] wandered around the neighborhood on trembling legs, searching vainly, calling out every few moments, “Come on, boy, come on.”

At last he stumbled home, his face a mask of hopeless dejection. To come across a living being, after all this time to find a companion, and then to lose it. Even if it was only a dog. Only a dog? To Robert Neville that dog was the peak of a planet’s evolution.

And then, when Neville manages to lure the dog into his presence with food, he is fearful of scaring it away again …

But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching empathically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautifully ugly dog.

As you can see, Matheson has a talent for both empathy and artistry. I think I’m getting a feel for the way he works. He will take a ridiculous notion that has no place in reality (be it vampires here, or a shrinking man, from another of his novels), then he will throw into the scenario characters that are totally realistic. Matheson gives you the impression that he has thought long and hard about what it would be like to be in a situation like Robert Neville’s. I Am Legend is the tale of a real man in the midst of the fantastic. Zero melodrama. It’s a short novel, barely more than a hundred and twenty pages, but it’s a more rich reading experience than many a five-hundred-page tome.

Not many novels have been made into movies three times. The fact that this one has is testament to how good it is. One of the first post-apocalyptic novels, and still one of the best.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White

Take heed, aspiring writers. This little book is essential reading for all of you; it is, in effect, your field manual. Don’t let its tiny 100-page size fool you; it is crammed with important information about the English language, and there is zero waffle.

The book is divided into five chapters: (1) Elementary Rules of Usage; (2) Elementary Principals of Composition; (3) A Few Matters of Form; (4) Words and Expressions Commonly Misused; (5) An Approach to Style. Each chapter is broken down into a series of points, rather than reams of prose. Ideal for reference.

In defending this book’s must-have status, here’s a little challenge to the aspiring writer. How many of you can answer yes to all the following questions?

1. Would you have known that a phrase such as “as to whether” is better rendered simply “whether”?

2. Did you know that there is no such word as “alright,” but the correct form is always “all right”?

3. Do you know the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested”?

4. Which of these words is correct English: “flammable” or “inflammable”?

5. Can you tell when to use “that” and when to use “which” (e.g. “the dog that/which pooped on my lawn”)?

6. Would you have known that in cases where the word “very” is in front of a word, both words can usually be changed for a single stronger one (e.g. “very tired” and “exhausted”)?

If you can’t answer yes to all the above questions, study The Elements of Style, and supercharge your writing skills. Far too many independent writers are taking the sloppy, easy route. Don’t do it.

Stone Cold by Robert Swindells

Every once in a while – not very often – you read a book that changes the way you think. And this is one of those.

The tale is told from two distinct first-person perspectives – two diaries read concurrently, the perspective shifting with each chapter division. It works remarkably well, because the characters are far from ordinary people. The first is a homeless teenager, compelled to leave home because of an abusive step-father, now living rough on the streets of London. The second is a serial killer, prowling the streets of London on a mission to rid the city of “dossers,” as he calls them. It’s clear from the outset that the two are destined to cross paths, and the suspense is maintained throughout the novel.

This is no fairy tale. It’s a grim depiction of homelessness, and a sharp criticism of our apathy towards it. Swindells does not gloss over the subject. He makes it clear that everything is not OK with the world, and we need to wake up.

This is a short novel, only a hundred pages. It is marketed as a children’s book, and I admire Swindells for daring to open kids’ eyes like this instead of pulling the wool over them, like so many writers. And if you’re an adult, I can only urge you not to skip this one because of the packaging. This novel won’t make you feel good, but it will change you.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender Wiggen, a young boy of six, has the nickname “Third” at school. What this means is he’s the third child born into his family, in an overpopulated future world where it is only lawful for parents have a maximum of two children. Legal permission was granted to the Wiggin family by the military, because their first two kids were very nearly the ideal candidates to save the world – but not quite. What the military needs is a boy genius whom they can shape and train to become the most brilliant military commander the world has ever known.

The reason they need him so much is because earth is under threat by an alien race known as the “buggers.” This nickname was coined because of the insect-like appearance of the creatures and also because all attempts at communicating with them have failed – we simply don’t have anything else to call them. Countless thousands of humans died in the first invasion. Humanity now prepares to send troops to the bugger homeworld before the aliens can launch a second. And if Ender Wiggin’s training is successful, he will be the one to lead the battle.

By all appearances, this is a fairly standard alien invasion yarn that doesn’t seem to be saying anything startling, but what makes this book great is that it is told from the perspectve of a young boy. We get to share in and empathise with all his fears and hopes. Emotionally he is much like any other boy, but intellectually he is on another plane. A large part of the book is taken up with Ender’s training in the anti-gravity Battleroom; the strategies he comes up with for beating his opponents are simple yet brilliant, and a joy to discover.

To cap it all, the novel finishes with the most unpredicatable ending to a galactic-scale war that I could ever imagine.

Ender’s Game has, over time, become the first volume in a quadrilogy. All of the books are worth reading, but this one is without doubt the best. More recently the novel has spawned a spin-off series called the Shadow saga, which is concerned with Ender’s friends from Battle School.

It’s good to see this edition of Ender’s Game repackaged as a young adult novel. This is a wonderful adventure to be read and enjoyed by all ages.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I first read this novel when I was about fifteen, after being gripped by the brilliant BBC television adaptation of it some years before. And now, in the light of horror author Simon Clark recently writing The Night of the Triffids, I thought I’d give the original another whirl before I tackle the sequel. As a kid, this novel was as an exciting “monster story”; now, through the eyes of an adult, I see it as an ultra-realistic commentary on the collapse of mankind.

You might think “realistic” is the wrong word to use to describe a book about walking plants, but to be honest, the triffids themselves do not really play a very big role. The story concerns Bill Mason, a triffid farmer, who finds himself in hospital with bandages over his eyes as a result of a triffid sting. In his misfortune (or so he thinks) he misses the cosmic event of the century – the night sky is aglow with masses of comet debris, and the whole world is watching it in awe. The next morning, however, ninety-nine percent of the world’s population wake up sightless. This is the new world that Bill and a handful of others are faced with – a world of mass helplessness leading to starvation, to death, and ultimately to the unstoppable rise of the triffids, thriving on the demise of mankind.

If your introduction to the triffids has been that mediocre 60s B-movie, I urge you to forget about it and try this novel. It’s not a trashy sci-fi yarn; it’s a very insightful tale about mankind facing the end of the world – the mistakes we would make and the hopes we would have. Rightly regarded as a classic.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

In the near-future society in which this novel is set, houses have been fire-proofed. Guy Montag, the protagonist of the story is employed as a Firemen. You might wonder what need there is for a Fireman in a world were buildings can’t burn. Notice the capital “F.” The Firemen in this story don’t put out fires; they start them. And 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. Books are outlawed. In fact, anything that promotes deep thought in any way is forbidden.

We all feel, to one extent or another, the tendency to put up mental barriers against harsh truths of life. In Fahrenheit 451, it’s not the people who make this choice to seek happiness in ignorance; it’s the government enforcing it as a way of life. The medium of television is popular, as it is the most immediate means of filling the population to the brim with mindless soap opera and high octane news. Everyone’s busy doing nothing and thinking nothing.

Guy Montag, who has taken pleasure in burning many a secret library in his career, takes the risk of stealing a book and sneaking it home. So begins a passion for learning and a painful ascent out of the soulless existence that everyone thinks is normal life. It’s not long before he’s a fugitive on the run from the law.

I first read Fahrenheit 451 about fifteen years ago, and what strikes me most on this second read is how much closer the real world has come to the world portrayed in this story. On an asthetic level, the novel tells of people devoting entire walls of their living-room to television screens; home cinema, anyone? More worryingly, though, have you ever given serious thought to the quality of content in television today? We have soap operas rehashing the same old tired extremes. Toss in a few marriage break-ups, murders, gay relationships, maybe even a sex change operation to keep the viewers glued. We sit and watch this nonsense like it’s a reflection of real life, failing to realise that all it amounts to is a room full of script-writers trying to find new ways to tickle our emotions. Let’s not forget our chat shows. I used to enjoy the occasional debate, but more and more all I see is “I’m the father of your sister’s baby” or some other ridiculous theme. Then we have our reality TV shows, the majority of which traffik in misery. Okay, I’m ranting; you can see I have a problem with the way TV broadcasting is done. But let’s face it, how many of us come home from work in the evening, switch on the box and watch a load of drivel? What amazes me is that Fahrenheit 451 was first published fifty years ago, when TV was new and largely unaffordable, and yet Bradbury’s grasp of the medium’s potential for manipulation is striking.

This is an important novel that causes you to look inside yourself and examine what makes you tick.

On Writing by Stephen King

If I were in the business of giving aspiring writers advice (says he who is still an aspiring writer himself), and if I were only allowed to say 5 words, they would be these: “Read Stephen King’s On Writing.”

This is no ordinary writing textbook. In fact, it’s not really a textbook at all. It is simply Stephen King in friendly conversation. The first third of the book is taken up with biographical material, where King gives a brief overview of his life. This may be of little interest to some readers, who would want to get into the nitty-gritty of learning about writing straight away, but I jumped at the chance to learn more about the author I’ve admired since I was fourteen. More importantly, I think the biography is a fitting inclusion, because what you are as a person flows onto the printed page. At least, that’s how it works with all good fiction.

In the central, largest section of the book, King gets down to business, sharing with us what he’s learned about the craft of writing in his lifelong experience. Pretty much everything is covered – grammar, plot, characterisation, theme, revision, etc., etc. At no point does any of it get boring. King’s is as good as a lecturer as he a storyteller. One idea of his that is found fascinating is the idea that a story is a “found thing,” like a fossil dug out of the ground. At the start it is covered in earth and must be excavated very carefully, using the right tools so as not to break it. This section of the book is, in fact, entitled “Toolbox.”

I’ve been writing on and off for over fifteen years. I’ve learned a lot of about the craft of writing just through practise alone, and there were a lot of things I suspected I was getting right. It was an exciting experience having Stephen King confirm many of my suspicions, rather than blow them to bits. However, there were some things I was getting wrong too, and I was glad to have these corrected.

I’m very grateful to have been able to learn from the one man earth who is surely the most qualified to give advice on the subject. This book refuelled my enthusiasm for the craft, at a point in my life where I had lost most of it. Without On Writing, I am certain my own novel Ulterior would never have come to be.

The Tripods by John Christopher

This volume contains four short novels which are also available separately. It used to be regarded as a trilogy (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire), but the inclusion of a fourth book, entitled When the Tripods Came has changed things a little – for the worse, in my opinion, chiefly because it is referred to as book 1 of 4.

If you are new to this series, I insist that you ignore the prelude book and jump straight in at The White Mountains. The author originally wrote this as book 1, and that’s how it should stay. I’d better tell you why I feel so strongly about it. When you begin The White Mountains, you are presented with a strange world. It appears to be mankind’s past, a couple of centuries ago. People use a horse and cart to get around, work in mills, etc. Everything is as it should be, except for the presence of immense metal machines taller than houses, which stomp about the countryside commanding the worship of mankind. Strange artifacts from man’s past make an appearance, familiar to us but not to the people in the book, giving use a clue that this is perhaps not the past at all, but a very strange future, where most of our technological advancements have curiously disappeared. The mystery of the past is one of the things that makes The White Mountains such a great read. Deal with When the Tripods Came after you’ve read all the others, just to fill in the blanks.

I was first introduced to The Tripods through the BBC television series that was made in the mid-eighties. I absolutely loved it. Sadly the BBC only ever filmed, The White Mountains and The City of Gold and Lead, but I was glad to be able to read the final volume in print, to find out what became of the heroes and their world. I don’t want to say too much about The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire, in case I spoil anything. But I will say that this is the perfect adventure story, and despite the fantastical elements, it has a very mature and thought-provoking ending. Currently the most read book on my shelf.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

What a strange name for a novel, particularly a novel of global disaster. Not so strange when John Christopher explains how grass is a part of our eco-system and how its absence would have a disastrous effect, ultimately on mankind’s food supply. Mass starvation leading to panic; panic leading to brutality; brutality leading to survival – for some.

The story centres around a family travelling across England by car. Their destination is a walled-in community owned by the protagonist’s brother – one man who was smart enough to prepare for the disaster before it struck. The adventure is grim, filled with violence and murder. The main question posed is this: how far are you willing to go in order to protect your own family? How mean are you willing to be when it comes to the choice between the death of a stranger or the death of a loved one?

This is bold, gripping stuff. Highly recommended.

The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card

I bought this novel many year ago, not knowing who Orson Scott Scott was, nor having read his excellent Ender’s Game. I found The Folk of the Fringe in a bargain bucket at my newsagents, and purchased it because I was in the mood for an end-of-the-world story. The cover illustration showed a band of scruffy travellers walking along a path towards a ruined city – right up my street. Expecting a decent read, little did I know that this would turn out to be an absolute gem of a book. And, having re-read the book recently, I enjoyed it even more the second time round.

This is a collection of five tales – technicially two novellas and three stories. They take place in a slightly future America in the aftermath of a limited nuclear strike. Limited is the important word, because there are still survivors. They fall into two categories: those who wish to rebuild civilization and those who wish to fill their own pockets. I won’t give you synopses of the stories, but I will say that they are all about the theme of belonging – about the bonds we form with other people and about what we suffer without those bonds. Jamie Teague, the protagonist from the first story, is a loner who makes a living by travelling all across the country and scavenging for items to trade. Everything changes for him when he encounters a group of naive travelling Mormons; he decides to help them before some mobbers arrive and help themselves. Deaver, the protagonist of the second story, is a non-Mormon coping with live in a society of Mormons. Carpenter is a man who feels like an outsider, not because of personal choice or location, but because he has cerebral palsy. These are stories about people who live on the “fringe,” whether literally or figuratively.

These stories are only loosely termed science fiction. They are strongly character-driven tales. In fact, they contain some of the richest depictions of characters I have ever read. The author himself is a Mormon and he mentions his religion a lot. This might be off-putting to the potential reader, but you should persevere. It’s clear the author is not out looking for converts, and the characters in the stories are made all the richer because Card is drawing from his own understanding of life. As a Christian, I related to the mind-set of many of the characters.

I can see how people might dislike this book – an athiest who likes ideas-driven fiction, for instance. For me, The Folk of the Fringe is the strangest, most beautiful, collection of post-apocalyptic stories I’m ever likely to find. They are full of heart.