Exploring life, death and other worlds

This summer, we’re diving into the BBC’s list of 100 novels that shaped our world.

One of the categories is life, death and other worlds, and the BBC panel selected these 10* books:

  • A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
  • Astonishing the Gods – Ben Okri
  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  • Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
  • The Chronicles of Narnia – C. S. Lewis
  • The Discworld Series – Terry Pratchett
  • The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  • The Sandman Series – Neil Gaiman

*Slightly cheekily, their list of “10 books” include several series, so it’s actually far more than 10 books!

These visions of imaginary worlds and alternative futures have inspired many readers and artists.  This beautiful engraving from 1831, shows a startled Victor Frankenstein watching his creation come to life. The bookshelves in the background also suggest that this is what happens if you spend too long in the library without a break!

Part of the allure of books about imaginary worlds is that all readers visualise them differently. Also, different readers can be captivated by different aspects of the same world. As Dan Croft from Scholarly Comunications told us, there are multiple ways to enjoy and to interpret Frank Herbert’s Dune:

You can enjoy Dune for the science fiction of space travel and giant sandworms on alien planets, the fantasy elements of prescience and sword fighting, the endemic political scheming between rival factions, or just admire Frank Herbert’s creation of a (mostly) believable multi-planet humanity with a thoroughly constructed economic and ecological logic.

The scope of the storytelling is humanity-wide (characters are sketched rather than studied) to the extent that almost all actions seem morally ambiguous. This is particularly true of the protagonist Paul Atreides, a young noble who could be swept along a path of bloody vengeance, political necessity, and religious idolisation, or attempt to wrest a different course by unleashing even greater chaos and suffering.

Any meaning or message in Dune is hard to decipher, though all the sources of immediate power – religious, political, technological, commercial, and even superhuman abilities – seem eventually to trap and condemn their wielders.

Dan Croft holding a copy of DuneComplex, alternative worlds like these often start off with a single idea that then balloon into a whole novel or series. Talking these ideas through with a friend or two can help them grow and develop.

Here in Oxford, that’s exactly what the Inklings did. The Inklings were an informal group of writers, including CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who met in a range of Oxford locations including the Eagle and Child pub. If you’d like to learn more about the Inklings and how they supported and encouraged each other, Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer is a charming, illustrated ebook available to all Oxford Brookes students and staff.

Like The Chronicles of Narnia, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead draws strongly on Christianity and its teachings. If you’re interested in learning more about Robinson and her book, you can hear her on BBC World Service’s World Book Club on Box of Broadcasts.

Paul Harwood holding a copy of The RoadIf you need more action and battles in your fiction than Gilead offers, then A Game of Thrones can provide. Although the violence and fantasy elements of both the  books and the TV series are what get most attention, the books and series also raise interesting philosophical questions. These are explored in the ebook, Game of Thrones and Philosophy : Logic Cuts Deeper Than Swordswhich is available to all Oxford Brookes students and staff.

One of the philosophical questions explored in this ebook is how far one should to protect ones family. And this is also at the heart of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, as Paul Harwood, one of the library’s Associate Directors, told us:

It’s been a number of years since I read this book, and spent some time reacquainting myself with it ahead of writing this short piece.  Stupidly, I dived into the closing pages first, and within a few minutes the tears were forming and starting to roll down my cheeks. Have I become more sentimental and generally softer with age? No, the same happened over 10 years ago when I first read it.

This novel plays to my dual fascination with the ideas of  ‘good versus bad’ and ‘the ties that bind’; in this case the uncompromising power of love and protective instincts displayed by a father for his son. Of course, you can speculate on the nature of the catastrophe that triggers their journey to find the sea, and whether that was man-made or the result of natural forces (or both), but it’s not the point for me. It’s all about how people respond to situations, physically and emotionally,  and, at its most extreme, whether they incline naturally to good or bad behaviour and the extent to which this can change (either way) over time.

For me, the love of the father for his son (and vice versa) always trumps the terrible things people do to each other in this novel and that is why, despite their setbacks and ultimate separation, I find it an optimistic story.

What do you think of this list? Get in touch with us on Twitter or Instagram if you feel something’s missing.

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