We're now rolling into Week 4 of Summer of Sci-Fi, and the Challenge has gathered steam and is practically running on its own power now. It's fortunate, because science fiction (particularly classic sci-fi) is a new frontier for me, and at times this summer it's been all I can do just to strap on roller skates, hold onto the bumper, and let myself be carried along. As always seems the case with reading challenges on this site, I may have set the schedule, but somehow I never end up being the one to drive the bus.
Our driver this week is Frank Herbert, author of Dune, which is considered one of the all-time classics of the genre and the first example of a science fiction novel with literary ambitions. Prior to Dune, apparently, sci-fi offerings didn't need to be well-written to succeed—all that was required was an interesting scientific premise. (Call me a snob, but that made me very glad we left genre pioneers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke off the list. I just don't think I could make it through a book whose author wasn't concerned with the quality of his writing. No premise is interesting enough to make lousy prose forgivable.)
Thankfully Herbert chose not to sacrifice style. This was one of several aspects of Dune that pleasantly surprised me in the way they subverted sci-fi stereotypes. Here's a list of elements I particularly enjoyed:
Thorough world creation with an emphasis on ecology. Herbert creates the desert planet Arrakis with a keen eye for detail and special concern for its unique ecosystem. At the beginning of the book, when main character Paul and his mother Jessica arrive on Arrakis for the first time, their fear of the unfamiliar and dangerous landscape is palpable. How could humans hope to survive on a planet like this, where exposing the body even slightly leads to deadly dehydration, and simply walking on the surface of the sands attracts giant (and hungry) subterranean worms? (Was anyone else reminded of the cinematic classic Tremors?) Paul and Jessica are both accustomed to their lush, verdant home planet Caladan, and it doesn't seem possible for them to adapt to Arrakis' harsh desolation. But Paul does what the prideful Emperor and gluttonous Baron Harkonnen won't—he listens to the Fremen, natives of this desert land, and learns the ways they have made the planet their own. Paul's humility and flexibility make him an appealing character, and the solutions the Fremen develop for their planet's specific challenges are elegant in their simplicity.
Strong, capable female characters who play a decisive role in the action. I love the character of Jessica, even though her mystical Bene Gesserit training makes her somewhat opaque. Despite her position as a concubine, she refuses to retire meekly into irrelevance. She's not a perfect parent and makes some questionable choices (for example, Paul isn't thrilled that she allows him to be tested by the Reverend Mother without any warning or guidance beforehand), but she loves her children fiercely and tries her best to understand the quirky ways in which they're gifted. I also like how she doesn't depend on Paul to take care of her on Arrakis; they actually spend much of their time apart, and she adjusts to her new life largely on her own. When Paul's sister Alia is born later in the book, she proves to be just as strong as Jessica but without her self-consciousness. Alia is certainly strange, and I can see why the Fremen are wary of her, but the humor and wisdom that come out of her child's mouth are refreshing and delightful.
Religion and mysticism exist alongside scientific speculation. Many science fiction writers consider religion irrelevant to their work and ignore it completely. Not Herbert. He develops mystical religious beliefs that mesh well with his imagined planet and its inhabitants. I find the Bene Gesserit training Jessica passes on to her children highly interesting, especially the way they can almost instantly calm a fear response and read truth in people's body language. I am less drawn in by Paul's transformation into Muad'Dib, the messianic savior of the the Fremen people, but that is probably just my distrust of cult-like authority talking. The hallucinogenic and addictive spice is fascinating in its double-edged nature: Paul uses it because it enhances his ability to see the future, but each time the potency diminishes, so that he is forced to use more and more, until he will not be able to survive without it.
It was something of an undertaking, and definitely not a fast read, but overall I enjoyed Dune. I appreciated that it brings up (and leaves open-ended) important questions about human impact on nature, religion and its role in establishing authority, and what is considered just cause for war. That said, I'm really looking forward to what I suspect will be a major departure from what we've encountered so far in the Challenge: Next week's book is A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. (For the complete list of Summer of Sci-Fi books and more information on the Challenge, click here.)