Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert

August 18, 2013 at 10:38 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , )

DuneMessiah

7/10

7/10

A clear victim of Second Album Syndrome, Dune Messiah is a difficult but ultimately interesting book that suffers from its over-indulgence, and manages only to be ‘good’ where its prequel was good and enjoyable.

There is something truly damaging about stories that endeavour to look beneath the myth and beneath the magic and begin to question how things work. There is bound to be a disappointment in any story that seeks to explain what happens next. This is particularly the case with adventure stories. A narrative about the middle age of Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay would have been tiresome; the story of Frodo’s journey to the Undying Lands would have been unreadable; Jim Hawkins’ search for the elusive Long John Silver might have been of interest, but everything of worth that it brought to the table would have removed something else from the majesty of the original story. Even the apocryphal books of the Maccabees are considerably less exciting and thrilling than the canonical Bible.

Dune left the reader with a towering fait accompli and a magical sense of high destiny and immaculate purpose. There was hardly an implied “happily ever after”, but there certainly was a sense of “magically ever after”. Frank Herbert actually did an excellent job of transcribing an ending that was positively thrumming with impending and implied mysticism and adventure into an excellent sequel, but it was emphatically a summing up and a postscript conclusion, not a new adventure. The surprise is not found in the discovery that Dune Messiah is not as good as Dune; it is found in the fact that it is better than it might have been. Although that is good news, it is not the best verdict that might be offered of any book.

“He reeked of memories that had glimpsed eternity. To see eternity was to be exposed to eternity’s whims, oppressed by endless dimensions. The oracle’s false immortality demanded retribution. Past and future became simultaneous.”

-Dune Messiah

Messiah stands the strongest when it attempts to rebuild the sense of grand universal myth that vibrated so wonderfully in its prequel. While it does great damage to the picture of the Muad’Dib presented in Dune by dismantling every skeleton and attempting to painstakingly rebuild each with flesh and skin, there is a tantalising glimpse into a wider universe that allows the book to stand at least with its head held high. Its success, in other words, is not in its exposition and revelations, but in the creation of new skeletons: new unanswered questions and veiled mysteries.

Its cast of main characters is not quite bungled, but also demonstrates none of the expertise that Herbert showed in his earlier book. In spite of having far fewer important figures, the only ones who really shine are those imported from the prequel, and readers will feel that a great opportunity was missed to introduce a new vein of richness into the series. A notable exception is the introduction of the Tleilaxu, who provide a nebulous and intriguing set of antagonists almost fit to equal the Harkonnen.

This book is certainly worth reading, but is perhaps best read with reservations and with lower expectations. It is certainly science fiction at its best, but it is emphatically not Frank Herbert at his best.

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Dune, by Frank Herbert

July 13, 2013 at 15:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , , )

10/10

10/10

DuneThe 200,000-word bulk of Dune is an intimidating mountain to tackle, but the reward is palpable in only the first few pages. An excellent example of the fairytale set  in space, and remarkable in its pacing and its rich attention to detail. Frank Herbert does not allow himself to luxuriate in his own cleverness, the way some writers do when they become enamoured of their creations (even justifiably). He moves lightly and patiently through the immense landscape of Arrakis, and is willing to plant seeds and allow them to grow to maturity in his readers before bringing them to fruition tens of chapters later.

“They were staring out across the sand, the realization in their expressions: there was no returning to Caladan for them…”

-Dune

There are clear moments where it becomes noticeable that he is deliberately hanging Chekhov’s proverbial gun over a mantelpiece; slowly and painstakingly sketching out a scenario and storing it for a hundred pages hence. There are times when Frank Herbert errs on the heavier side of exposition (although generally carried in dialogue which is a delight to read). These moments remind his reader that they are on the cusp of delving into something at once massive and intricate. They are distractions, but are neither heavy enough nor frequent enough to become a constant annoyance. Rather, there are times when the reader will see them as a friendly helping hand halfway up an otherwise forbidding cliff.

“Muad’Dib! Muad’Dib!”

-Dune

Unsurprisingly for a fairytale, Herbert’s characters are familiar things, from the noble father to the rogueish sidekicks; from the prodigious youth to the demoniacal and grotesque villain. Thankfully Herbert is an able enough storyteller to mould real flesh onto these well-used skeletons, and even add some unexpected depth to some. There is some real pleasure in revisiting an old trope in literature, and finding it expertly polished and cleverly deployed. Herbert shines, therefore, not in coming up with something so startlingly original, but in retelling an old story of long ago and far away in a manner so skilled that the reader forgets he knows exactly what is coming; forgets he knows to expect neither treason from the heroes nor contrition from the villains; forgets he is reading hundreds of thousands of words, and a monstrous amount of geographical and historical backstory. Forgets everything, in fact, but Dune.

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A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

September 9, 2012 at 11:53 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Thriller) (, , , )

8/10

It might be difficult to assign this book to a genre, had not Philip K. Dick done the world the service of establishing himself so thoroughly as one of the world’s most skilful writers of science fiction. And so there it is, and after briefly pausing to note that this book is indeed set in a dystopian future with technology foreign to true life, it can be determined. Another pulp sci-fi paperback, by another pulp sci-fi author. Easy, quick, and almost entirely wrong.

“Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs out of his hair.”

-A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick strayed occasionally from “his” genre, it is true. But what he excelled at was writing engrossing and detailed stories with occasional science fiction dressings draped over them. The Man in the High Castle is more of a spiritual and religious quest than it is either historical or science-fictional; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep might have been written in 1950s America or in the distant future; and A Scanner Darkly, as its title suggests, is a hard and gritty crime-noir with plaintive and deep questions about the human experience, long before it could ever be called a science-fiction story.

This, then, is a science fiction novel for those who are not immediately attracted by science fiction. It is intelligent and exciting, if a little anticlimactic. The story is clever, but this is mostly a semi-autobiographical reimagining of Philip K. Dick’s own experiences with drugs, and lacks closure and occasionally some coherence. Among the best that Philip K. Dick has to offer, and maybe the most representative of his style and revealing of his view on life.

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Tales of the Bounty Hunters, by Kevin J. Anderson (ed.)

June 9, 2012 at 21:49 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , )

8/10

It is to be expected when reading anthologies that there will be worthless dross amongst the entries. This expectation is almost shattered in Tales of the Bounty Hunters, which marks a surprising halfway point in the Star Wars universe. Earlier authors had more freedom in what they wrote, which led to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy and Stackpole’s X-Wing series, but also to bizarre sidetracks like The Crystal Star and the Corellian trilogy. Later authors were kept on a tighter leash by Lucasfilm, and it shows.

“Her head was shaven completely bald and glistened with perspiration under harsh white recording lights that gave her lantern-jawed face a cadaverous look. Her teeth were spaced with broad gaps, and she spoke by opening her mouth wide and clicking down on the words, gnashing her teeth on every consonant.”

-Tales of the Bounty Hunters

In Tales of the Bounty Hunters, there is clear evidence that the authors had a larger storyline in mind, and were not just writing for the sake of good stories.  This is not necessarily a bad thing: Dengar’s story, for instance, held the germ of the occasionally exciting Bounty Hunters trilogy. As standalone stories, none of these are especially poor. Dave Wolverton’s entry with Dengar suffers from clunky and ugly writing. Anderson’s own story about IG-88 is well told and exhibits some of his best writing, but is unoriginal and shallow. Daniel Keys Moran submits one of the most mature and thoughtful Star Wars stories in the franchise, daring to question the credentials of Han Solo as a hero, exploring varying and conflicting motivations in his story’s heroes and villains alike, and bringing up issues including war crimes, trafficking and the death penalty, of all things.

This anthology is a relic, and fits rather badly with the books it fits between. It contains some bland and some poor writing, but also some of the most speculative Star Wars literature in the franchise. If any book in the Star Wars series is worth reading, this one is.

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Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

December 14, 2011 at 15:16 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , )

8/10

From the outset it is rather clear that for Ishiguro, the most important aspect of this work is its atmosphere; even before the decidedly dystopian plot, and even ahead of his devotion to sculpting intricate and interesting characters. In what is certainly a character-driven work, the most important character is Hailsham, the 1950s-styled boarding school, transplanted effortlessly forty years into the future and overlaid with dark secrets that are only darker for being so carelessly discussed and so frivolously and blithely made peripheral. Hailsham, with its grey and peeling facade and its feeling of being overcast even when sunny; like a half-remembered memory even when described in the present. It is this atmosphere, with its overtones of a long-past childhood memory of innocence, suddenly sullied, that pervades the book and remains throughout.

Speaking of innocence sullied, it is also worth noting that as this book dips into romance and, more properly, becomes a coming-of-age story, and although it deals with all sorts of sexual encounters between various characters, Ishiguro is gracious enough to do so at a distance, and without the sticky and graphic depictions that have become so fashionable of late. His focus, of course, is one of development, not of gratuitous sensuality.

“In any case he soon stopped and stood there, glaring after them, his face scarlet. Then he began to scream and shout, a nonsensical jumble of swear words and insults.”

-Never Let Me Go

It is admittedly difficult to find a niche in which to place this book, or a genre to define it. It is obviously deeply offensive to lovers of all literature when critics stand aghast and wonder why a “real” writer would dare to write in an unworthy genre (Sarah Kerr of the New York Times pedantically suggests Ishiguro is attempting to “upend [science fiction’s] banal conventions”). As if there were topics that “real” writers were unable to explore–or worse, that they were above exploring. But in what is quite clearly a science fiction masterpiece, Ishiguro remains rather distant from any of the tropes common to his chosen genre. He remains, in fact, stubbornly quiet on any real detail of his clone-filled dystopia, staying so far inside the heads of his characters as to offer only the vaguest hints: and then to offer only what they might have discovered.

It is once again that air of a guilty family secret that nobody–not even the author–dares talk about, and that nobody–not even the reader–wants to know the details of. That is the true measure of the success in this novel, and one of the key ways in which Ishiguro so successfully builds his atmosphere. It is real and frightening not only because of its verisimilitude, it is engaging not only because of Ishiguro’s melodious and poetic writing; but because the reader and writer partake of the same conspiracy as the characters and the world created in the book. An excellent novel, and well worth reading.

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Heirs of the Force, by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta

October 22, 2011 at 13:13 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , , )

1/10

It was a bad idea to spin off the Star Wars adventures onto the shoulders of Han and Leia’s offspring. It was also evidently a bad idea to give this task to Kevin J. Anderson and his wife: together they slavishly follow the formula of the original movies (a dynamic and witty brother and sister with a lumbering Wookie friend and a slightly shady and occasionally violent companion) without any of the charm or excitement that even the worst forays into the Star Wars universe have managed.

“Determind to start a real conversation with the new trainee, Jacen cast about in his mind for a good question. So, Lowie, how much stuff do you need to move in? Naw, that was a stupid question.”-Heirs of the Force

The plot of this book is pathetically weak, revolving around the discovery of an Imperial pilot castaway around the corner from the Jedi School (with suspicious similarities and outcomes to the children’s classic The Machine Gunners, by Robert Westall). But apart from this unlikely array of coincidences, Heirs of the Force devolves incredibly quickly into a snail-paced journal of how Jacen, Jaina, their pet Wookie and horrifyingly awful droid, manage their lives and friendships. It is no secret that the Young Jedi Knights series is a cheap and tawdry school story; and this goes no further than the first meeting in the dormitory, where friendships are made and we learn a little more about these characters.

This might be tedious but acceptable if there were actually anything to learn about the characters. Instead, on almost every one of those two hundred pages we are barraged with reminders that Jaina’s “thing” is her mechanical abilities, or that Tenal Ka’s “thing” is that she’s angry and sort-of gothy. Nobody progresses any further, although this book does handily incapsulate everything that is wrong with Star Wars books, besides helpfully warning any prospective readers well away from the equally appalling Young Jedi Knights series.

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The Invisible Man, by H. G. Wells

June 27, 2011 at 01:53 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Thriller) (, , , , )

8/10

Like others of Wells’ early novels, The Invisible Man is a story constructed carefully around a scientific construct, explored in its feasibility, moral ramifications and other high-flown theoretical angles. Fortunately, in this hypothetical, Wells pays at least as much attention to the psychological and human aspects of the story, giving centre stage to Griffin’s descent into madness, his isolation and his steady departure from human society. So extensive is this focus that any other author would be accused of an anti-scientific bias, and alarmism.

This is certainly a book in two parts, with an Agatha Christie small-town mystery at the outset, and a furious and bloody manhunt forming the second part. Peculiarly, although the first part is told almost exclusively from the eponymous invisiblee’s perspective, the reader only begins to understand who he is in the second part. The supporting characters  in the first part of the book are likewise considerably vaguer than the figures who become more solid and vivid as the invisible man is slowly run to ground.

It is hard to feel a great deal of empathy for any of the characters. Wells’ narrators are typically rather dry and pedantic, and Kemp (the hero, if any is to be found) follows this mould precisely. This creates a very bleak and tragic atmosphere, though not altogether unpleasant, and not overbearing enough to make the book depressing. More violent and graphic than most fiction of this kind, but vividly imagined and impeccably described.

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The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells

June 5, 2011 at 21:31 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , , , )

10/10

The emphasis of this story is set up rather blatantly as H. G. Wells’ analysis of the human condition: our permanence, our value and importance; where we came from and where we are going. The anonymity of the entire cast of characters reflects this choice, but in and of itself is a delightful choice, and one which strangely enhanced the characters instead of obscuring them: they appeared as a group of strangers only just introduced, and turned the entire narrative into a sort of chance encounter with transient acquaintances. Very Victorian and atmospheric.

The story itself was pleasant enough not to be too onesided. Wells’ secular humanism was balanced out by his due caution and pessimism, and by his latent socialism, which took the saccharine sweet edge from his utopia, and raised some interesting questions. The willingness to flit over vast swathes of adventure, and focus only on a handful of rich and interesting encounters, as opposed to hunkering down for a dry and detailed account of every facet of the future world, was refreshing to say the least, and ensured that every paragraph was thrilling and deeply interesting. Finally, his style was clear and easy, and not over-given to musty and cumbersome prose; but possessing a dignity and earnestness all of its own. Well considered a classic, and a page-turner from beginning to end.

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Children of Men, by P. D. James

May 24, 2011 at 13:31 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Science Fiction) (, , , )

6/10

James writes a very imaginative premise, and carries it out very competently. Her ideas and her science are, unfortunately, significantly better than her writing, and the most immediate of her irritating habits emerges almost at once, and must be mentioned in any serious review of this book: her pathalogical need to draw detailed, grotesquely clinical and entirely unnecessary portraits of each and every character. Heaven preserve us when her sulky protagonist enters a room full of people.

It means without exception that each one of them will in turn be given the James treatment. Wide mouths, freckled olive skin, pixie ears, classical necks, or even just like that fellow from that movie in the ’30s. Remember him? No? Well, this character looks just like him. James needs to learn that readers don’t want this. Even readers who think they do, do not. Even without the entirely deviant adaptation of the book (with all its colouring and shaping of the characters it portrayed), these bizarre diversions into fotofit description are entirely unnecessary, and will drive the most patient reader to distraction.

Beneath this distracting obsession, there is a distinct absence of cheap science fiction props in the story. James seems to have made the decision to focus on the moods and attitudes of people in a post-apocalyptic world rather than the types of scooters they use, and even the strange tribal divisions of society play a clear second fiddle to the questions of the semi-voluntary euthanasia, the depression and anxiety, the boredom and the nihilism that is starkly opposed to the Christianity of Luke and Julian (not that their faith really means a great deal in the larger context of the story).

While this choice does go some way to boost and enhance the story, James’ vain attempt to make this a story of two men is as unfortunate as it is clumsy. Theo and his estranged cousin Xan (who is not, all evidence to the contrary, a klingon–apparently it’s an old English name) are written from the start as eternal rivals. Theo is a rich protagonist, although we have more backstory and time spent in his head than we really need to understand him. Xan, on the other hand, is nothing more nor less than another faceless dictator, and every link between the two is strained and unlikely. Despite the brave effort to show Xan’s motivations and his ruthless adherance to his unknown and unmentioned “principles”, he is simply too much of a nonentity for either his plight or his wickedness to really strike home. The lacklustre duel at the climax of the book is the final nail in the coffin of that second, cheaper story of two brothers in conflict, leaving readers mourning the stagnation of an otherwise cleverly written and much more cleverly imagined novel.

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick

May 12, 2011 at 13:32 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Thriller) (, , , , )

7/10

Philip K. Dick has written books that are stunning science fiction masterpieces, casting indelible shadows across the genre and redefining the work of those who both followed and preceded him. He has also written books where his own philosophical musings, his metaphysical conjecturing and his own self-importance obscure interesting ideas and maddeningly unexplored settings. This is something of a blend of both, taking up Kafka’s pen and peerlessly sketching the man who descends from an unassailable perch through no fault of his own, and without understanding to measure his plunge. The book is confidently and expertly written, and the narrative shift from Taverner to the eponymous Buckman is employed with excellence.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a great deal of Dick’s own personal musings scattered intrusively through the narrative, and moments where the characters gaze wistfully into the middle distance and chase rambling thoughts for pages at a time. The story does not really allow for that, and these moments stand out starkly, and give the reader the distinct feeling that he is being lectured–or at the very least, philosophised at, by a very eager and not entirely lucid evangelist. This problem by no means destroys what is, after all, a thrilling and well-crafted science fiction story, but it does damage it somewhat. In addition, while the bizarrely optimistic epilogue surely serves some purpose, and must connect with some spiritual or idealistic (or even subversively cynical) theme somewhere in the book, it feels clumsy and out of character with the rest of the story, and was almost certainly a mistake. The uncertainty and hanging echo of imminent peril hovering at the end of the final chapter left a vastly preferable conclusion. A great book, but manifestly not one of his best.

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