Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lost Among the Dunes

Despite my love for science fiction, I am not really all that well-read in the genre, especially where the classical authors are concerned. This is not due to deliberate omission as much as culture diffusion and osmotic pressure. The ideas put fourth by Asimov, Wells and Heinlein, concepts like time travel and interstellar empires, have already seeped into the cultural conscious and attained a familiarity which I cannot help but take for granted, so I feel little compulsion to read the original source material. I realize this historical indifference is the mark of a foolish young man, but I'm wise enough to be in no hurry to grow older. Fortunately, I have friends and family who are wise and insistent enough to get me to read classic sci-fi.

Such was the case with Frank Herbert's Dune, a novel I now refer to as The Lord of the Rings of science fiction. Like many off-the-cuff descriptions, my comparison serves as a point of reference more than anything else: Both works share the same staggering scale; epics which establish fictional universes whose detailed histories exert genuine gravity on readers. Yet the actual structure of Dune's mythology bears a greater resemblance to Middle-Earth than to that of Asimov's Foundation, though now that I write it, Dune might be better summed up as the middle ground between those two novels.

The most impressive thing about Dune, the thing which elevates it above Tolkien in my opinion, is that it is as dense as it is broad and deep. Yes, Herbert gives you rich detailed lore, and poems, but rather than forcing it into long chapters about walking, riding or hiking, he presents them as footnotes before each chapter so they don't become insuferable tangents which swallow the story's momentum. The first novel Dune novel feels like a complete trilogy in and of itself, as it follows young Paul Atreides journey from prince of Caladan, to rebel leader, to religious figure and emperor of the intergalactic Empirium. Over the course of that journey, Herbert delves into heady topics of ecology, religion, sociology to develop the distinctive culture of intriguing factions like the semi-nomadic, religiously fantic, worm-riding Fremen warriors and the scheming Bene Gesserit, who resemble ruler-cracking mother superiors schooled in Jedi mind tricks and yoga, mixed with a dash of dominatrix for good measure. Among these colorful factions we find unforgetable characters such as Stilgar, the wise warrior-priest cheiftan, the treacherous yet sympathetic Wellington Yueh, and my personal favorite, Gurney Halleck the silver-tongued bardic assassin. All these disparate elements blend against the amazing backdrop of the desert planet Arrakis whose unique ecology is the sole producer of the life-prolonging precience enhancing spice, Melange. Also, gaint god-worms of death.

The sci-fi concepts which guide Dune's story are as intriguing and densely presented as the story itself. Classic sci-fi tropes like laser weapons, force fields, and faster than light travel are all present and accounted for, and they are accompanied by other fantastic technology such as Ornithropters (aircrafts that fly by flapping their wings like birds) and water-recycling suits. These are mere set pieces however. The details of such technology pales in comparison to Herbert's exploration of concepts like hypnotic suggestion, evolution and presience; things which literally change the dynamic of what it means to be human. He takes a mystical approach to these concepts, much like how somebody from the eighteenth century might address cellphones, rather than a highschool science teacher trying to establish hard rules.

Herbert's books aren't any poorer for the omissions. On the contrary, they remain readable. Trying to sort through that sort of intellectual detritus in addition to navigating all the disparate philosophies and politics at work would merely exhaust readers: an important lesson I repeatedly fail to remember when working on my own fiction. Whenever the plot particulars points in a story get difficult (a character is being difficult, I forget where I'm going with something, etc.) I preoccupy myself with the grand questions of the fictional universe said story takes place in. Last week this led to wikipedia binge on quantum physics that led me to look at the universe as a perpetually splintering thread of possibility. Interestingly, I was reading Children of Dune at the time (the inspiration for this post), and I found both my thread concept, and the mind numbing confusion surrounding it reflected in Leto II's struggle with pressience and past lives. I'm still not sure if my life was imitating art or merely being fucked up by it.

Anyway, I think this is a suitable stopping point for today. I'll continue with Dune Messiah and Children of Dune next time. Expect more in the way of actual lit criticism.

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