Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Dune" and Science Fiction

THIS blog's recent poll was taken by frank herbert's novel "dune," which was trailed closely by gibson's cyberpunk classic "neuromancer" and le guin's political novel-of-ideas "the dispossessed." it was, despite an obscure seeming topic, the most heavily voted of my polls so far. (interestingly, these top three all by west coast authors.)

that "dune" is the winner is not much of a surprise: it's considered the bestselling sf novel in history (more than 10 million last i heard), and it is, perhaps along with heinlein's "stranger in a strange land," which drew almost no votes, probably the best-known sf novel to those outside the church.

it would not have been my vote -- that would have been asimov's foundation series of something by le guin, i think -- but the book's achievements are simply bewildering. here is a book published in 1965, the year of "the sound of music" and "help!", before "the 60s" really blew up, that envisions the world we live in today and seem to be moving rapidly toward.

that is, herbert, a the time a journalist working in the pacific northwest who had been sent to the coastal dunes of oregon for a travel assignment, imagined a world of a) something very close to jihadist muslim fundamentalism, b) resource depletion/conservation that speaks to our current situation with water and oil, and c) widespread drug addiction. these are probably the novel's central subjects, and they are arguably our central subjects in the world today.

the fact that the plot rips doesnt hurt. in fact, the rapid nature of the plot may be why the adaptations so far havent worked. this may reveal me as a philistine, but even as a david lynch fan i thought his film a disaster. the miniseries with william hurt was better, a more earnest attempt to capture the book's complexities, but i had the misfortune to watch is at roughly the same time i was catching up with "battlestar galactica," and it simply cannot compete on any level -- acting, writing, visual design, etc -- with that.

by the way, here is a review of the book from what is becoming my favorite literary blog, run by ted gioia.

from a technical point of view, "dune" is still, forty-some years later, still probably the greatest example of world creation in sf. there have been many since, but this one is both scientifically feasible/ thoroughly worked-out, like an old-school hard science book, AND successful on a poetic/metaphoric level, the way bradbury's mars was.
the writing? this was at the very beginning of sf's growing ambition to be literary. it is not straight pulp writing exactly, but could be overemphatic and portentous. (count the exclamation points on the average page if you doubt me.) the characters are decently sketched, no better. but i'll say this for it: when i read "dune" in 8th grade -- the first sf novel i ever read -- it seemed incredibly weighty and complex. as an adult, it doesnt feel overly difficult, but rather deeply imagined, and it's got very little fat on it.

here's hoping the expected peter berg adapt finally does this great novel -- and if all goes well, its sequels -- justice.


Cicely said...

ooh, a new adapt of "Dune"? verrry interesting. Agree that the William Hurt version by Sci-Fi Channel was pretty good, as well as the successor Children of Dune.

I found Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" insightful and moving. Also, I like the title.

Scott Timberg said...

"left hand" is a beautiful book, no question... a well imagined world in different way. i go back and forth btw that and "dispossessed" as my fave of hers.