Friday, July 1, 2011

Adventure classics -- Keeping a world safe for danger


by Frank Herbert


I have some problems with Dune, but before addressing them let me take a few moments to adore its opening sentence. Not the actual first sentence, a quotation from one of the pseudo historical documents that begin each chapter and give this masterwork an air of pomposity – but now I’m putting the flaws before the book. No, the true opening sentence: “In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”

I should probably have this tattooed on my hand, or at least taped to my computer screen, to consult the next time I or someone in a workshop is in hysterics over opening sentences. It lays out everything so simply, doesn’t it? We get the setting, the name of the protagonist, his emotional state and most important family member, and his first antagonist. All in a single sentence. It’s a lot to ask of an opening, and Herbert did it so masterfully I didn’t even stop to wonder when I first read Dune in college. When I’d had a class in ecology, but none in creative writing. In the opening, nothing gets in the way of the story.

And it’s a grand story. Dune was the first book I’d ever read to treat ecology as the subject of a novel – in fact, the “first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale,” according to its entry in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Beyond even ecology, in Dune Herbert creates a universe as complete in its imagining as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. A great deal of this is due to Herbert’s genius in emphasizing the human aspects of the story by postulating a future in which computers are forbidden. In the absence of
artificial intelligence, humans with special powers are trained to take their place. Among these are the members of a quasi-religious organization, the Bene Gesserit. The Bene Gesserit, however, don’t merely recruit members. They breed them. Among the bloodlines they have nurtured for centuries is that of the hero, Paul Atreides. And Paul, as we are told almost from the start, through those chapter-opening documents I mentioned earlier, will become Muad’Dib, the prophet-king of Dune’s universe.

And the flaws? Well, after Herbert dealt with ecology on this scale, not to mention galaxy-wide jihad, a prophet who is not only a temporal ruler but as close to a god as science fiction can get, and had a lot of fun with word and name associations, he can probably be excused for taking himself a little seriously. For filling in everybody’s thoughts in case the import of any character’s action escaped his readers, and foreshadowing virtually every important event through prophetic dreams. I glanced over a few of the sequels, but found the pomposity overwhelming the grandeur. But I’ve never regretted taking a ride on the great-grandfather of all sandworms. The one that started it all.

(Next Friday: We go from the calculating powers of human mentats to positronic brains with Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.)

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