Friday, December 31, 2010

Science Fiction & Fantasy Month - Dune

OK, so originally I intended to spread these out throughout the month, but you all know as well as I how busy it gets this time of year - maybe in 2011 Science Fiction & Fantasy History Month should be in August.

Anyway, without further ado:


As I tried to subtly indicate, the first book I decided to read for the month was Dune, by Frank Herbert. Although it's a pretty famous piece of literature, I started out knowing very little about it - basically, that it took place on a Desert Planet inhabited by giant worms.

LEGO Sandworm by RebelRock.

As I read the book, it was easy to see how it has influenced later fiction, from Star Wars and Tremors to Order of the Stick. In itself I found it a pretty enjoyable read, although "Far-future Pseudo-Medieval Space Opera" isn't exactly my most favorite genre. Actually, I found that what I would have called the "Science-Fiction" elements of the novel were overshadowed by the "Fantasy" aspects. The young noble, betrayed by a decadent aristocracy, escapes to a vast wilderness and wins the trust and leadership of the barbarian inhabitants by taming the local mega-fauna. If Paul Atreides hadn't arrived on Arrakis via spaceship it would basically be a weird hybrid of Tolkien, Howard, and Burroughs*.

Part of this, I think, is that over the years genre divisions have become much more rigid and plentiful. My "Far-future Pseudo-Medieval Space Opera" label was mostly in jest, but like most good satire (if you'll excuse my presumptuousness), there's an element of truth to it - just look at what TvTropes calls the PunkPunk phenomenon.

On the other hand, back when some of the earliest writers in the genre were working, both fantasy and science fiction fell under the more general term, "Speculative Fiction"**. Writers of what we now call "Horror" fit in there, too - some of H. P. Lovecraft's stories are all three, simultaneously. For that matter, though today they're considered the fathers of Science Fiction, H.G.Wells and Jules Verne's works can also bee seen as more like the techno-thriller writers of today, people like Clive Cussler and Michael Crichton.

Amusingly enough, my copy of Dune has a blurb on the back cover, wherein Arthur C. Clarke - yes, he of the famous law about magic and highly advanced technology - says of the novel that "I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings". High praise indeed, and surprisingly, I kind of agree with him. I think the key similarity is that both Tolkien and Herbert developed highly intricate and well-thought-out backgrounds for their novels, which they then drew on to create a detailed, very realistic world in which to place their stories.

In the end, it was easy for me to see why Dune has the cultural place that it has. I certainly enjoyed reading it, though not enough to make me actively seek out the sequels (which I understand are kind of on the weird side). Someday I'll give it a second read-through, too, and see what kind of a difference that makes.

Probably not this year though.

*Actually, that's not a bad description of the book as it is.

**There are also some interesting variances in terminology to be found from back then - one of my favorites was scientifiction, which I suspect fell out of favor because of its unpronounceablity the first time through.

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