Monday, November 26, 2007

We Won't Give Up On You, Dune!

Timothy Sandefur has given up on Dune. As in, the Frank Herbert Sci-fi book that is like in everybody's top ten list of Sci-fi novels.

I had to comment.

Actually, I had to answer a question that I believe he posed rhetorically: "What could have possessed the world to grant superstar status to this dreary eternity of a novel?"

The answer is that he's spot-on in his own analysis. The book is a product of it's own time that, were it published today, wouldn't have made it past the editors at TOR. (This despite the fact that I have it on pretty good authority that the editor at TOR thinks all great sci-fi novels should be the tale of a boy rising up to take his father's place, which essentially means he wants revistiations of Dune.)

Dune genuinely has lost some of it's value as entertainment as the years have gone on, but to recognize the greatness of Dune is to recognize that it sprang forth out of nothing.

It's somewhat akin to looking at old I Love Lucy reruns. It's easy to be jaded towards the show and feel cynical about how it features nothing but the same old tired gags we've seen a million times. The appreciation comes when you realize you're looking at the origin of all the imitators, the place where every sitcom staple became embedded into the consciousness of every hack who ever put words into a sitcom actor's mouth since.

As a certain sci-fi writer of the time put it (I won't mention his name, because it's L. Ron Hubbard, and people automatically look at you out of the corner of their eye if you mention you're willing to read anything he wrote now), at the time this book was written, every sci-fi book and story was, for the most part, taking place in pretty much the same universe. He said that it was sort of like the sci-fi writers were all going to the same places and sending each other postcards from all the places they'd all already been.

What Herbert introduced in Sci-fi was something akin to what Tolkien introduced to Fantasy: A sprawling epic, in a world that was unlike any of the worlds we'd been getting postcards from before.

He created an entirely new place, with entirely new issues. An analog writer at the time probably could have done a whole story around any one of the ideas that Herbert brought together en mass to form this complex and truly alien world. It wasn't just a bunch of people who talked like present-day Americans and with the attitudes of present-day Americans in space with zap-guns.

However, because he was sort of inventing the genre of the sci-fi epic, he suffers from some of the same difficulties as those who invented the historical novel. In Hugo's Les Miserables, Hugo spends chapters detailing accounts of wars, just so you'll understand what's happened when a guy starts going through the pockets of the dead when the battle is over. He'll spend a whole chapter outlining the history of the Parisian sewer system just so you'll understand how gross the muck is the hero is escaping through.

Herbert has some issues with that here. The world he's created was so unlike what anyone had done before, he had to spend a lot of verbiage making sure it was clear. Now, it's entered into the consciousness so much as it's influenced other sci-fi authors, that the same dialogue that seemed innovative and ground-breaking when it was written seems unnecessarily cumbered by repetitive prose.

More modern writers have learned to more seamlessly integrate the details of their vast worlds into their prose, but I daresay the line that got us from "Doc" Smith to John Varley went straight through Frank Herbert.


GoodyScrivener said...

Dune has always been an especial favorite of mine. I was first introduced to Muad'dib and the Fremen by way of the TV version of the original movie. I still have those VCR cassettes, as a matter of fact, more than 20 years later. The movie was amazing (well, the inconsistency of the Fremen eyes was a distraction LOL), but oh man, reading the book was like an explosion of color and texture in my head. So much so that finally seeing the original theatrical version many years later was a HUGE disappointment because so much had been added back into the television version to fill out 2 nights of primetime programming.

Later books started losing their sheen and beauty... to the point where it took me forever to finally fight my way through Heretics. It took the release of the follow-up books by Brian to fianlly make things click enough for me to enjoy Heretics and Chapterhouse. Yes, I enjoy Brian/Kevin's contributions to the Dune Universe. I guess I think of them more along the lines of fanfic with a tap into the genius that was Frank. I know I'm unusual in liking those stories. :)

Erik said...

After having met Kevin Anderson and his wife at a con a few years back, I don't think anyone should feel guilty about liking anything he does.

I think the common criticism that's leveled at him is that he's a hack who just cranks out words for the money. Having talked to the guy and listening to him, I've come to believe he's as sincere about his craft as they come, and so even though the sheer volume of his output means he's put out a few clunkers and some less-than-fully-realized characters, you will never, ever convince me he doesn't mean every word of what he's writing.

And the new Dune books have stayed on the bestseller lists, so you're not alone in liking them, even if some do enjoy making themselves feel better by poo-pooing stuff other people are having a good time with. ;)