Mike Higgins reports.
"A masterpiece that moves faster than the speed of thought," the New York Times said of Neuromancer. The Observer described its author, William Gibson, as "the Raymond Chandler of SF". But "Cyber-wank," reckons Sarah Rogers, of the Earls Court Waterstone's Book Discussion Group.
Few other members of the group are as forthright as the 51-year-old textile conservator, but the American writer's novel is nevertheless getting an old-fashioned panning. Even Martin, a sci-fi fan, is left cold after a dip in Gibson's hyper-noir.
The group is nothing if not thorough. Back in November, science fiction had been agreed upon as the genre for January's meeting, and the book club organiser, Jack Noe, assistant manager at Waterstone's, drew up a short list of half-a-dozen novels. December's meeting came, and the group voted that Neuromancer would be read in preparation for tonight's discussion.
With such diligence behind them, and two hours in Waterstone's ahead, the group seems to feel it would be churlish, not to mention wasting a journey, to dismiss a seminal piece of contemporary literature out of hand.
So David, a sixtysomething economist, reflects graciously on the glossary of techno terms Gibson has coined, and Alasdair, a 31-year-old advertising account manager, admits that Neuromancer's descriptive passages have their visionary moments. Ironically, it's Jack Noe who has got the least time for Gibson.
The home of the reading, or book discussion group is America. It is estimated that well over a million groups thrive in bookshops, libraries and homes across the States, offering the avid reader not just general literature but specialist material in groups that may concentrate solely, for example, on politics or mystery fiction.
Reading groups, formally at least, have yet to take a big hold in the UK. Concerted efforts to promote them seem to centre on the north, where Bradford Libraries lead the way. As well as offering a varied programme of reading groups, they also publish a guide to finding "a good read", Opening the Book. Yet in London, when we asked various libraries, publishers and arts institutions about readers' groups they expressed regret that they had little information, concluding that "something ought to be done".
The 12 members of the Earls Court Waterstone's group all looked as though they couldn't wait to get to the meeting and let rip. "The frustration of reading a really good book is being unable to talk to others about it because they haven't read it," says Alasdair.
If anything unites the group, it's this thirst for "a good read" - a desire Jack underestimated when he first established the group in the summer of 1996. "Attendance was really erratic the first year," he remembers. "The mailing list was really local, and we ended up having 15 people one month and three the next. So we readvertised in Time Out and got a big response. It's better now, because we've got people from all over London."
Waterstone's, by way of response, charges no membership fee, laying on nibbles and a few bottles of wine as well.
Surely, though, a discussion in a large working bookshop is a poor second to a private readers' group in the comfort of someone's home? Not according to Alasdair, who tried and failed to set up a private readers' group himself, or indeed Geraldine Kelley: "I have friends in private book clubs who said that they'd prefer to come to this," she laughs. "Home meetings tend to be a group of friends gossiping and worrying about what food they're going to prepare - they get off the real point of the meeting."
Not that there aren't digressions tonight. Gibson's jargon-littered narrative has induced group future-shock, and everyone soon tires of attempting to unravel the labyrinthine plot. Instead, the discussion ambles into related areas: definitions of cyberspace; where Gibson stands in relation to Huxley and Orwell; sci-fi's doubtful universal appeal. The exchanges are amiable, free of any self-consciousness and, from a group apparently dumbfounded by their chosen text, sustained without much recourse to Jack Noe for direction.
For Alasdair, though, consensus is not the point of the evening. "When everybody either hates or loves a book, then the discussion is a bit limited - Chekhov everybody loved, and tonight's book everybody hated. It's good if there's an antagonist in the group."
The healthy appetite for differences in opinion is reflected in what Jack Noe sees as the typical motivations of those attending readers' groups: to read more, and also more widely. "'Usually you read what you're interested in, and you don't go outside that particular area," says Nick, a 29-year- old pianist. "But each month we have a different subject. For instance, it's Indian writing next month, something I've never read in my life. It also focuses you - you have to read the book in four weeks."
The group buys each month's selection from Jack at a 10 per cent discount - next up is Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - and he insists that the club is not really about shifting books: "It's about customer relations, because they get to know and hopefully trust my recommendations. It gives the shop a personal element."
Meanwhile, Fiona Woods, a 26-year-old IT assistant, typifies the enthusiasm of the group: "When you read a really good book, you almost want to broadcast the fact. Sometimes talking about it is even more enjoyable than reading it."
Waterstone's, 266 Earls Court Road, London SW5 (0171-370 1616). Robert Walters at Bradford Libraries (01274 753 666)