Category: Sci-Fi

A Desert Planet and a Messiah

(The image is the poster for the miniseries– all the cover images for the book are 1970s kitsch.)

Today’s book is Dune by Frank Hebert.

Dune is one of those books that I have meant to read for a long time. Since I was a child I could remember my mother’s tattered original copy sitting in the bookshelves and every once in a while I would pick it up and try to read it and I would get overwhelmed. Two summers ago a friend who was road-tripping with me was reading it and enjoying it, and I picked up a copy and tried to read it again– this time I got distracted by other things in life and didn’t finish. So finally, I picked it up again (for the third time now) and read it, and this time, I finished.

Dune is an astonishing book. I think Frank Hebert is probably up there with Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin as one of the great sci-fi/fantasy writers. (All three writers are markedly different and hard to compare– and if you have never read Le Guin you are doing yourself a disservice. Go out and read the Earthsea series– 5 books in all–immediately. She is a genius. Tolkien well you know who Tolkien is unless you have been hiding under a rock the last fifty or so years.)

Herbert creates an astonishing world in Dune. A world where people inhabit various planets, which are run by feudal houses– who scheme and kill in a way that would make the Sopranos blush. He also creates an entire religious system, society and ecology. The bulk of the action centers on the planet Arrakis– a desert ecology that produces melange- a spice needed for interplanetary travel. And it is the only place in the universe where it is produced. The whole universe is ruled by a scheming Emperor, who wishes to destroy one feudal house- Atreides– which is led by Duke Leto and his heir Paul. Paul’s mother (Leto’s concubine) Jessica is a Bene Gesserit (often referred to as a witch by those who fear her, but trained in certain powers.) The Emperor sets the Harkonnens (another feudal house) up into a feud with the Atreides house so that he can get rid of the Duke and his heir. He almost succeeds as the Duke is killed and young Paul escapes into the desert with his mother, to only be taken in by the Freman (tribal peoples who live in the desert and ride giant sandworms. Think Tremors, only cooler.) The Freman, a religious people, eventually believe that Paul is the Muad’Dib, a chosen leader– the Messiah so to speak. And Paul accepts this upon realizing that he might also be the Kwisatz Hederch– a superhuman male Bene Gesserit, whose existence the group had been breeding for for thousands of years. Paul rallies the Freman to overthrow the Harkonnens and to get back at the Emperor, but in the process, realizes that he has unleashed a holy war on the universe (jihad– many of the words in this book are clearly borrowed from Arabic.)

Okay, confused already? Well, Dune is a dense book filled with treachery and scheming. The characters, while not unsympathetic, are not wholly good or evil. Most of them inhabit different shades of grey and Paul is not a wholly likeable hero. He is not necessarily noble and good- he understands that he is unleashing war and seems to accept it as his fate. The book as a whole is deeply complicated and my guess is that it will take multiple readings to pick away at the layers. The religion that Herbert constructs, the customs and society- all of it — is really very intricate.

A few comments about the book– first of all I liked the way Herbert portrayed the female characters. They are fighters, warrior women, wise-women and lovers. No wallflowers here– they do not sit back and watch the action, but rather they are integral to the action. This I found refreshing and progressive especially given that this book was written in 1965. Secondly, I think the book can be read in many ways, but one possible way, is as an allegory to the Middle East and the problem of oil (the “spice” in the novel) and how the nobles (dictators, or kings) oppress the freman (tribal peoples, ordinary people) who follow a strict religion (Islam.) I don’t think this is at all a big stretch- but I also think that Hebert leaves it open as to what he is saying with this book. Power corrupts– power goes to men’s head, and power is deadly– Hebert shows that clearly in this work. And I cannot even begin to start with the issues of ecology that Hebert deals with in the book. Let’s just say that this book is as relevant now as it was when first published.

This book is not for the young. Frankly, where I would let teenagers read Tolkien and Le Guin, I think that Herbert’s work is better read as an adult. For one it is more personally bloody (the knifefights!) secondly, I think it might just be too overwhelming– especially grasping the religious meanings, which are intricate and difficult.

Herbert’s book is a masterpiece, and what I can say here doesn’t scratch the surface. It’s a heady book, brilliantly conceived and an amazing treatise on the condition of mankind. It’s not about good vs evil, or truth vs. untruth– it is murkier and darker than that, and in that way, it is  more true to the human condition.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The Ambiguity of Knowledge

One of the things I’ve decided to do with this blog is to revisit books or authors that I read in high school and, for whatever reason, that either I didn’t appreciate at the time or I’ve just plain forgotten.  Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz falls into the latter category.  I’m fairly certain I enjoyed it when I read it freshman year in high school for a Western Civ class, but my memory of the story was pretty hazy, so I decided to pick it up again.  (A side motivation for reading a book like this is that I’m always on the lookout for fiction that I might incorporate into class, which, given my subject matter and setting, often leads me to Catholic fiction.)

Miller’s book is a fascinating sci-fi take on the relationship between Church and State, faith and reason, technology and human sinfulness, and the need for grace.  The novel is set in the distant future after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of civilization and focuses on a monastery in the American Southwest dedicated to the Order of Leibowitz.  The story is divided into three parts.  The first describes life in the dark period that followed the nuclear holocaust and continued for centuries upon centuries.  In the second part, the secular world is beginning to rediscover much that had been lost in the war, and it is on the cusp of a new Renaissance.  The third and final part is set in the distant future, after human beings have recovered the learning of the pre-nuclear war civilization and moved beyond it.  Colonies have been established in space, cars now transport people to their destination with no need for a human driver, and machines can take dictation in one language and translate it to another.  In the midst of this technological renewal, however, the threat of another nuclear threat hovers over civilization, poised to sink the world into yet another Dark Age.

Miller paints a grim picture of the world after the first nuclear war.  Radiation has left countless unfortunates maimed and mutated, thought by some to be sub-human, but referred to as “the Pope’s children” by the Church; food is in scarce supply, even for the monks of the abbey; travel is long, tedious, and dangerous.  These harsh conditions serve as a backdrop for one of the main themes of the book, the ambiguity of the Church’s role in preserving knowledge.  The ambiguity lies not in the typical new atheist rant about how the Church suppressed science and learning – in Miller’s story, as in any fair-minded assessment of medieval times, it is the monks who preserve learning, fiercely protecting the fragments that survived the nuclear holocaust.  No, the ambiguity lies in the use to which that knowledge is put.  As Norman Spinrad notes in the introduction to the edition I read, one of the running questions in the novel is whether humankind, once given the technological capability, will inevitably choose nuclear destruction rather than the ways of peace.  In Miller’s story, the answer seems to be yes.  At first glance, this seems like a rather bleak picture of humanity.  And yet, as we look back on the last century, indeed, on the history of the world, can we really think it’s an unrealistic one?  Given the atrocities we humans have perpetrated on one another, one could argue that it’s nothing short of a miracle that we haven’t yet blown ourselves to oblivion.

Regardless of whether one accepts Miller’s seemingly dismal view of the world, the book touches on a number of deep and important themes, and is well worth a read.

Eighteen down, (at least) thirty-four to go.