Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: Dune

Frank Herbert
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Dune is a complex book (and a complex world) and it is impossible to say everything I want to say about it in just a few paragraphs.

In it, Herbert creates a rich universe of worlds bound together by layer upon layer of intricate political intrigue and manipulation. It is easy to believe that their technology, religion, and governmental systems are results of thousands of years of evolution since our own time; they are all mixtures of the ancient and the futuristic. The interstellar space travel and the laser weaponry seem to come from far in our future, but the backward gender roles and hybrid combo-religions seem to come from deep in our past.

The story takes place almost entirely on Dune, one of the planets in Herbert’s universe. Dune is inhospitable, being almost completely covered by desert and populated by enormous man-eating worms. But it is also the only source of “the spice,” the universe’s most important natural resource, which is not only physically addictive but is also the source of energy for all inter-world space transportation. Noble off-world families are constantly jostling and scheming to control Dune and thereby control the supply of spice. The nobles also are cruelly repressive to the Fremen, the native desert people of Dune, who do the scut work in the spice mining operations, wear long robes, are deeply religious, and are somewhat repressive, in turn, to their women.

(Stop me if you see an allegory for anything in our own world here.)

To try to make a very long story short, the book begins with the good guys (Duke Leto Atreides, his wife Jessica, and his son Paul) taking over the management of Dune from the bad guys (their cousins, the evil Duke Harkonnen and his two nephews) following a lukewarm edict from the emperor. The Harkonnens don’t want to leave so they sabotage the Atreides’s takeover, planting booby traps all over their house. Duke Leto is killed and his wife and son flee into the desert.

All appears to be lost… except that Paul & his mother are taken in by the Fremen. It turns out that the Fremen have been living underground, concealing their numbers, training themselves in battle, and patiently preparing for hundreds of years to receive a prophesied messiah who will lead them in a great jihad against the imperium and help them to reclaim the planet. It takes a while for them to warm up to Paul and, especially, his mother, who is a powerful practitioner of the Bene Gesserit religion which they think of as witchcraft, but eventually the Fremen start to accept that Paul might just be the savior they have been waiting for.

I saw David Lynch’s film adaptation of Dune before I read the book for the first time. I don’t normally like to do that because it means I’m thinking about the movie’s actors and sets the whole time I’m reading, but in this case, it worked. Partly because the book is rich enough not to be boxed in by a single move. And partly because the movie is great. Sure, it is a bit goofy, and doesn’t stick exactly to the book, but the worms are awesome and it has excellent actors in it (Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Linda Hunt, Max Von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, and Brad Dourif, to name just my favorites) who I enjoyed mentally plugging into their roles as I was reading.

The book also explores certain plot points more deeply than a two-plus-hour movie has any hope of doing. For one thing, the book talks more about the CHOAM spice corporation and its influence over the royalty of the universe of Dune. It makes even more obvious a statement about the danger of becoming dependent on a single limited resource and how this is a situation ripe for corruption.

The book also goes deeper into the role of Jessica’s Bene Gesserit religion. If you just saw the movie, you’d think the BGs were only religious priestesses and that everything that Paul and Jessica did to prove themselves to the Fremen really was entirely supernatural. But what you learn from the book is that generations of BGs have been following a specific plan. They’ve been going around to different planets, using their roles as Reverend Mothers to deliberately plant legends and prophesies, and then attempting through selective breeding and strict training to create people to make those prophesies come true.

This is not to say that there isn’t still a very strong element of magic in Paul’s powers. He does have abilities that the Bene Gesserits didn’t plan for, which eventually makes events on Dune spiral out of their control.

This is an impressive, impressive book. There were just a couple things about Herbert’s writing that were downers for me and that separated this book from being an epic on the level of Lord of the Rings.

The main one is that all the good guys have a mystical instinct for always knowing the right thing to do in a given situation. None of the chosen people have to puzzle it out or make mistakes. Paul and his mother always get out of tight spots just by mysteriously – bing! – knowing what they have to do or exactly the right words to say. The line “Then Paul knew what he had to do” came up about two hundred times and by the one hundredth, I was pretty sick of it. Whether it was because he really was the prophesied savior or because of the BG implantation and pre-seeding of legend, it didn’t matter to me.

And then every time Paul does or says something preordained by prophesy, the Fremen around him gasp and breathlessly nod to themselves saying, “Yes, he is the one.” It gets kind of annoying with all the wonder and awe of him – especially because he can be, on occasion, a bit of a jerk.

Actually, everybody is always in awe of or enchanted by something. Paul himself is even enchanted by the simplicity of Fremen dew collectors. Really?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Distribution of Star Ratings

To give the reader some context for individual reviews.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise

Arthur C. Clarke
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This novel is not one of Clarke’s best, but I basically enjoyed it.

The book follows several intertwining, somewhat-related plot lines which seem a little bit artificially mashed together. As usual with Clarke, though, the science in it is realistic and impeccable. And the last half of the book, which focuses almost completely on only one of the plots, is pretty exciting.

The main story takes place in 2069. Humans have established colonies on the moon and several other planets in our solar system. Vannevar Morgan, an engineer who has become world-famous for building a bridge across the Straights of Gibraltar, now wants to build a space elevator. This would essentially be an incredibly tall tower extending from a point on Earth’s equator all the way up through the ionosphere to a space station in geosynchronous orbit. Goods could be brought up and down the elevator using relatively cheap electricity, and ships could shuttle those goods between the space station and other planets without having to waste energy getting in and out of Earth’s atmosphere.

Morgan needs to build the earth-bound terminal station of the elevator (a) in the area of greatest gravitational stability and (b) at an elevation high enough to avoid hurricanes. The best place is one particular mountain on the fictional island of Taprobane (which Clarke has modeled after Sri Lanka) in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, the location is already occupied by a 2,000-year-old Buddhist monastery and the monks are reluctant to leave, to say the least.

Interwoven with this modern story is the story of the corrupt and ruthless king Kalidasa who ruled Taprobane 2,000 years ago. He built an enormous pleasure palace, including elaborate fountains kept filled by water-carrying slaves, next to the same Buddhist monastery, and his disruptive presence and decadent lifestyle led to similar quarrels with the monks.

Another parallel story is that of Starglider, an interstellar probe built by aliens on a planet 52 light years away, which passes through our solar system in the early 21st century. Starglider is definitive proof that we are not alone and forever changes our understanding of our place in the universe.

Debates about God and religion come up throughout the book. There is constant tension between those who feel that you should not challenge the gods (usually represented by the monks) and those who appear to challenge them (represented primarily by Morgan, Kalidasa, and Starglider).

The God debate holds promise and the separate plots are interesting in themselves. The space elevator is particularly tantalizing because it could, in fact, be built today, if we put our minds to it (see Kim Stanley Robinson’s exploration of the idea in his Mars trilogy). Unfortunately, together, the different story lines make for a little bit of a disconcerting jumble. And the messages Clarke seems to want to send us about challenging God (if, in fact, that is what we are doing) are muddled; there are sympathetic and unsympathetic characters on both sides.

I did, of course, appreciate Clarke’s reference to R. Gabor’s Pharmacological Basis of Religion, published in 2069 by Miskatonic University Press.

One technical note: If you’re getting this book used or from the library, avoid the 1979 hardcover edition as it has a few erroneously transposed paragraphs in key places towards the end.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Review: Camouflage

Joe Haldeman
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


Camouflage is not a deep or complex book, but it is a real treat to read. It’s a fast-paced, excellently-written story with an interesting central character, and it’s funny.

The plot is this: millions of years ago, two aliens landed on earth. They don’t know about each other, having come from different planets and having landed at different times and different places. One came in a spaceship that crashed on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. We’re not sure where or how the other one arrived.

Both aliens are shape-shifters and can take the shape of any one or any thing they want. The body chemistry that allows them to do this also makes them invulnerable to any germ or weapon or predator so they could, theoretically, live forever.

The alien that arrived in the spaceship, “the changeling,” is primarily interested in gaining knowledge of the world around it. The other alien, “the chameleon,” is primarily interested in eliminating competition and staying at the top of the food chain.

The two aliens take the form of various animate or inanimate objects as necessary to best pursue their respective goals. Over the centuries, the memory of who they are and where they came from becomes hazier and hazier, but they both know they are not like the rest of life on earth and both are constantly searching for others like themselves (for different reasons, in keeping with their different aims).

Being drawn to intra-species violence, the chameleon makes the transition to human form quite early, several millennia B.C. The changeling, on the other hand, finds itself drawn to the Pacific Ocean so it spends a lot of time as sharks and whales and only takes human form for the first time in 1931.

Eventually, in 2020, the changeling’s crashed spaceship is discovered and hauled up on land to be analyzed. This gets a lot of press which immediately attracts the attention of both aliens, who wangle their respective ways into the closely-guarded project where they inevitably meet other.

Over the course of the book, the changeling gradually learns what it is to be human. At first it, like the chameleon, is only concerned with survival; it has no concept of human emotions and makes several terrible mistakes which hurt people around it. But little by little it gains understanding and sympathy. The chameleon gains no such understanding.

Both the changeling and the chameleon experience war but have opposite reactions to it. The chameleon feeds off of the violence and joins in as often as possible. The changeling, who in one incarnation does a stint as an American prisoner of war in the Bataan Death March, is confused by atrocities and our inconsistent behavior and eventually becomes repulsed by the killing.

The only real gripes I had with the book were that (a) the chameleon’s pre-Earth background was so undefined, (b) the suspense about the inevitable confrontation between the two aliens builds through the entire book and then at the end everything is wrapped up in a nice bow in just a couple pages, and (c) I didn't really like the human characters all that much.

But that’s okay. It is all made up for by Haldeman’s terrific writing, which, to me, is the best thing about the whole book. He is succinct, matter-of-fact, and funny. He writes the way I’d hope I could write if I wrote a novel.

I know that individual paragraphs will not do him justice, because, out of context, they lose much of the book’s overall flavor. Nevertheless, here are a couple examples from Camouflage.

Describing the changeling’s experiences as a Marine at boot camp in 1941:
“For the first week they did little other than run, march, and suffer through calisthenics, from five in the morning until chow call at night – and sometimes a few more miles’ run after dinner, just to settle their stomachs. The changeling found it all fairly restful, but observed other people’s responses to the stress and did an exactly average amount of sweating and groaning. At the rifle range, it aimed to miss the bull’s eye most of the time, without being conspicuously bad.”
On how the changeling spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s:
“It was an exotic dancer and part-time prostitute in Baltimore for a while, then a short-order cook back in Iowa City. As an old lady, it read palms on the county-fair circuit in the Midwest, and returned to California in its old Jimmy body to be a surf bum for a couple of seasons.

Sacrificing half its mass, it became a juggling dwarf with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, making contacts in the freak world. It met some interesting people, but they all seemed to be from Earth, no matter what they claimed.

It married the Bearded Lady, an even-tempered and sardonic hermaphrodite, and they lived together until 1996. The changeling left behind a hundred ounces of gold and no explanation, and became a student again.”
When the scientists studying the alien spaceship realize that there is likely at least one alien on earth, and that the alien will likely have taken human form and could be anyone, and that the way to identify the alien is that it will not have human DNA:
“In fact, by the time Jack said this, every employee at the CIA had donated a few cheek cells to the agency, as had employees of NSA and Homeland Security. A ‘suggestion’ had come down from the White House that all of the country’s leaders be tested. …

The tests proved that every member of the American intelligence community was human, at least in a nominal sense, and so were all prominent politicians, including the president, which surprised a few people.”

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Red Sox Add Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford

We arrived in Boston in 1995 and immediately became Sox fans. A scant nine years and a dues-paying 2003 ALCS later, we had delivered a World Championship to the Old Towne Team after an 86-year drought. Then, three years later, in 2007, another. In other words, a lifetime's worth of World Series victories in just 12 years.

Since then, I have been sort of hoping for a few years of Red Sox mediocrity to, you know, shake out the "pink hats" and the luxury-box types and let us real fans get in to see a game once in a while.

In the service of this yearning, we canceled our cable TV, and with it, 162-game Sox coverage, just before the lackluster and injury-plagued 2010 season began. This was a development which I was allowed to chalk up to my own shrewd forecasting skills.

But if they're going to go for it, they might as well go all the way:

Pedroia 2B
Crawford LF
Youkilis 3B
Gonzalez 1B
Ortiz DH
Drew RF
Scutaro/Lowrie SS
Saltalamacchia/Varitek C
Ellsbury CF

This will be a fearsome lineup indeed. So say we all, bring on the pink hats and another World Championship!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Science Fiction Themes: A Case Study (Revised and Expanded 12/3/10)

Nebula- and Hugo-winning novels that I have reviewed so far and the themes they explore, arranged into a lovely chart.

Click to enlarge. You may need to click twice to expand it to its full size.

Related Posts with Thumbnails