Saturday, February 23, 2008

Frank Herbert

Dune series
by Frank Herbert
Recommended Age: 15+

Somewhere, among my other reviews, I once stated that I found the Dune series to be tremendously boring. Actually, that isn’t really what I said (or meant). I just found each of the six books in this series to be 50% less entertaining than the previous one. But the first book was so awesome that, even given the steady decline of the series after it, I did manage to finish all six books. (The sixth one, however, took me a whole year to read.)

Other authors, including Brian Herbert (Frank’s son, I believe), have carried on with additional books, but if the series continued to progress in the same way, reading them would probably be a form of euthanasia. Be that as it may, I recommend that you read the series, starting with the first book and stopping wherever you get so bored that you can’t take it any more. You may still miss some interesting things (including some fairly steamy scenes in the last couple of books) but alas, that’s a small price for saving yourself the expense of a book you will never, ever finish.

Gee, that isn’t a very strong recommendation, is it? Well, I’m sorry. I REALLY thought Dune was a fascinating book. Then again, I also thought the David Lynch-directed movie by the same name was a terrific film, so draw your own conclusions about my taste.

In Dune, Frank Herbert made an amazing achievement. He created an absolutely original fantasy world, right down to the ecological processes that drive it. In fact, I think he started with the ecology and built it from there. Dune, also known as Arrakis, is a desert planet where there is so little water on the surface that people have to go around in space suits, more or less, even though the air is breathable. The only indigenous life-form is a monstrous, many-fanged worm that burrows in the sand, hates water, and can only be controlled by a tribe (cult? sect?) of desert-loving natives called the Fremin. These folks have a unique, rich culture, but they are also very warlike and are always in a state of rebellion against the off-planet rulers who keep trying to give the planet a Military-Industrial Complex. They have a prophecy that a deliverer will come who will kick galactic butt and make the Fremin the lords of Arrakis, if not masters of the universe.

In addition to the cultural and ecological details of the universe Herbert created, there is also a rich, many-hued tapestry of economic and political forces at play in this far-future galactic empire. Rival noble houses, valuable natural resources, the mysterious agenda of a religious group that is trying to breed a Superman, vendettas, betrayals, escapes, and unexpected alliances fill this story with many layers of complexity.

At the center of it all is a remarkable youth named Paul Atreides (among other names), who is a hero and a monster, a prophet and a warrior, the hunted and the hunter, a powerful leader and a vulnerable child, all at the same time.

So far, I’m just talking about the first book in the series. Show up for the action-packed battles, and get hooked by the convincing, all-encompassing fantasy world that Herbert so ingeniously invented.

Just a slight step down from this is Dune Messiah, which carries the tale of Paul Atreides to its conclusion. What happens after the Kwisatz-Haderach (super-being) is revealed? Not all of it is necessarily good...

Nearly as good as this is Children of Dune, in which the late Paul’s son and daughter are the main heroes. The ending of this book sets up God Emperor of Dune, taking place many years later when Paul’s son Leto still rules over the galaxy, though in a form that one would hardly recognize as human. And if you wonder how the story can possibly go any further than this, pick up Heretics of Dune, in which the descendants of long-ago exiled enemies of Paul Atreides return with a vengeance – or rather, with a genocidal war of religious fundamentalism. This carries over into its sequel, the last book Herbert lived to write – Chapterhouse: Dune, which drags the series to its intellectually challenging but dramatically-challenged conclusion.

Sad to say, the last three books (each hugely long compared to the first three) are chiefly remarkable for the way their narrative pace steadily, steadily slows down. Between that and the increasingly dry literary quotes that introduce each chapter, and you’ll probably find (like me) that even the “dirty parts” aren’t enough to fan the flame of interest. But still, you’ll get all kinds of cool ideas from these books... maybe ones that will get you started writing your own original fantasy!

The Santaroga Barrier
by Frank Herbert
Recommended Age: 14+

In one of my earlier reviews I mentioned that I found Frank Herbert's Dune series monumentally boring. Actually that's oversimplifying a bit. I thought the first book or so was quite fascinating. As the series progressed, however, the original concept was increasingly buried in dry, philosophical drivel. It grew so tedious that I kept taking breaks to read other books before coming back to it.

On the other hand, there is this very straightforward, stand-alone novel of horror and suspense, set in an obscure California valley that has tried, until now with an amazing degree of success, to stay self-sufficient and aloof from the outside world. Along comes Gilbert Dasein, a graduate student who carries a torch for one of the valley's well-educated young women. And I'm not sure who is more disturbed by this contact from the outside world - Dasein, or the Valley.

What you gradually realize as you read this book is that everyone who lives in Santaroga is connected to a kind of hive mind. And that connection has something to do with a mysterious substance called Jaspers, which gets into their wine and beer and cheese and aged meat and canned vegetables and, basically, anything edible that is grown in town and stored in its cool underlying caves.

Exactly what Jaspers is, and what it does, may keep your head scratching. Is it an intelligence on its own account? Or is it simply a catalyst for this mental link that has turned the whole valley into one organism with a very nasty sense of self-preservation? Is it trying to draw Dasein in, or force him out? And if you happen to stop at a café in a lonely valley where folks are distinctly unwelcoming, and all the food has a strange but subtle undertaste, are you going to wonder about Jaspers too?

Don't be silly, you say. Well, all right. But even now, several years after I last read The Santaroga Barrier, I can't look at a piece of cheese or a mug of beer without the word Jaspers whispering itself in the back of my mind... What I'm saying is, this is one of those little-known masterpieces that may stick with you long after you've turned the last page.

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