Dune by Frank Herbert

I’m really struggling to summarise Dune because the mythology created by Frank Herbert is so rich. In fact, I understand he spent about five years researching before writing this tome. Anyway, first a little background. The known universe is governed by a series of feudal houses, with an emperor reigning supreme over them. Central to the novel are House Atreides and its enemy House Harkonnen. As the story commences, the emporer gives control of the desert planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune) to House Atreides. The move from the water-rich world of Caladan to the dry wastes of Arrakis dramatically changes the life of young fifteen-year-old Paul Atreides. The native people of Arrakis, known as the Fremen, wonder if he is their long-awaited messiah, according to prophecy. The planet’s main commodity, a powerful substance called “spice melange,” which has many uses across the universe, begins to have a strange effect on Paul. He starts to see visions, and wonders if he could indeed be the messiah of the Fremen. Meanhile, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is plotting the downfall of House Atreides and the takeover of Dune, but he hasn’t counted on who Paul really is.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and it’s a joy to read. I found myself taking my time with it because I didn’t want it to end. I loved being in this strange mythology. What’s clear is that the author isn’t making this up as he’s going. He has thought long and hard about the ecology, religion, culture, politics and technology of this world of his. It’s as breaktaking as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. If there is one weak spot in the whole package, it’s in the very clear-cut roles of good guys and bad guys. House Harkonnen, and all its members, is thoroughly immoral, led by the Baron, who is an obese man with a liking for young boys. He is saved from being a two-dimensional villain by the depth of his cunning. The war between the Atreides and Harkonnens is a too-simple battle of good versus evil. This polarised viewpoint, in my humble opinion, isn’t a true reflection of wars in the real world and was the only disappointment in a work of brilliance.

If your introduction to Dune has been the 1980s David Lynch movie, I can tell you that the book is so much better. I decided to watch the director’s cut of the movie after reading the novel, and it felt like watching a summary. A visual feast, but a poor attempt at storytelling. The novel is a far bigger and more personal story. The more recent mini-series does a better job than the movie, and is a fairly faithful adaptation, but I don’t recommend watching it before reading the book, as the book is a superior experience.

So many novels are forgettable, but Dune stays with you like a memory. It’s not often that I have such good recall of events and character names. Frank Herbert wrote six Dune novels before he died. I’m looking forward to Dune Messiah.

Advertisements

The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

A mysterious misty spray drifts across the sea, colliding with our protagonist, Scott, while he’s out on his boat. He thinks nothing of it until he begins noticing his diminishing height: one seventh of an inch every day without fail. The premise is very much a in keeping a noticeable trend in 1950s science fiction. It was the era of oversized or undersized monsters and mutants, from the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and the gigantic ants of Them!, to the microscopic adventurers of Fantastic Voyage.

The idea of shrinking a person to a few centimetres in height is one you can have a lot of fun with as a storyteller. The scope of unique situations you can put your protagonist in is vast, as evidenced by an entire TV series, Land of the Giants being devoted to the idea. But I suspect no one has done it better than Matheson.

I’ve heard that Matheson originally structured the events of the novel in a completely linear fashion, from 6 feet to zero, then later restructured them so that he was able to tell two stories side by side, hopping back and forth in time. The first story is all about how Scott copes with people’s attitudes to him while his height diminishes. The second begins with Scott trapped in the basement, only a few centimetres tall and presumed dead, and tells the tale of his struggle to survive in that environment against such adversaries as food out of reach and a black widow spider. The two sides of the novel are quite different in tone, and readers will probably have a favourite depending on their taste. For me, my preference was the former.

We see Scott struggling to maintain a sexual relationship with his wife when he is conscious of becoming more like a boy than a man. We see him going for a walk at night and offered a lift by a drunken paedophile. We see him defenceless against the bullying of a gang of teenagers. We see his own daughter defying his fatherly authority because of his size. We see his wife unconsciously talking down to him like boy. We see him degenerating to the level of peeping tom to a teenage girl. In all of his suffering there are a few moments of relief, one of which is a brief but touching relationship with a dwarf. I only have vague memories of the movie adaptation of this novel, but I’m pretty sure much of this stuff never made it in (it has always been the case that you can get away with more in books than you can in films). That material was so much more interesting to me than reading about Scott finding inventive ways to climb gigantic tables, etc. Although that side of the story was certainly fascinating, too.

Having read Matheson’s I Am Legend recently, I’m noticing how he works. He takes an essentially ridiculous notion and drops a totally believable three-dimensional character into the middle of it. The novel then becomes the story “What would you really do, if this were happening to you?” And Matheson has a real knack for it. I can’t help picturing him lying on the floor of his basement, looking along the ground with his eye, imagining himself as Scott. When reading the novel, I lost count of the times that I read something and thought in amazement, “I never would have imagining seeing the world like that.” Matheson’s observations were so perceptive.

However, I have to question the value in the author devoting such creative energy to a concept that is, at its heart, daft. A better way to phrase the question is this: “Is there something more to The Incredible Shrinking Man than mere b-movie fodder?” When I thought about this, the answer was yes. The novel is, intentionally or not, an apt metaphor for disability. It’s a tale that motivates us to empathise with those whose bodies have betrayed them, those who struggle to be seen as normal or equal to the rest of us.

Despite all the good things I’m saying about the novel, oddly I found it difficult to keep on reading. I’m not sure why. Possibly because the tiny print on my old paperback annoyed me; maybe because I remembered not liking the ending from the movie. Either way, I’m glad I made it to the end. It’s a story with great depth that I’m not likely to forget.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. He is the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that hasn’t so much wiped out humanity as changed it. By day, the city belongs to him. He is, for all practical purposes, completely alone – free to roam the concrete jungle, foraging for food supplies, equipment for his house, and entertainment to quell the loneliness. But come nightfall, they come out.

Who they are depends on whether you are most familiar with the original 1954 novel written by Richard Matheson, or one of its three film adaptations. Yes, three! I Am Legend was first filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, starring Vincent Price. This film remains the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which is no surprise since the screenplay was written by Matheson himself, albeit under a psuedonym. Matheson didn’t want his name associated with the movie because of some changes to the script demanded by the producers. The creatures in this movie are like George Romero’s zombies with just enough brains to speak. Romero himself cites this film as influential in making Night of the Living Dead. The creatures are called vampires, and vampires they are, except for the lack of fangs – possibly a budgetary restriction. But they can’t stand sunlight, crosses, and can be killed with a stake through the heart, just as tradition states. Matheson’s novel features all that plus the fangs and a lot more agility.

In 1971 I Am Legend was remade as The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. This time, the only vampiric trait the creatures possess is an aversion to sunlight. They are much more humanlike in terms of their rationality – they’re not interested in drinking your blood – although they’ve been transformed into black-clothed religious zealots with a hatred of technology. To them, Robert Neville epitomises everything that led to the destruction of the world. Matheson, as you can guess, was not involved in this adaptation. Although The Omega Man departs greatly from the original story, it’s still a worthwhile film. It served as my introduction to the novel. I first saw it as a child, and it was a very memorable experience.

In 2008 I Am Legend was made yet again, this time keeping its original name, with Will Smith in the title role. A massive budget went into this adaptation, and it shows. The city is fabulously deserted, decaying and overgrown, thanks to the wonders of CGI. This time the creatures are exclusively computer generated. In stark contrast to the staggering zombies of the first movie, these are fearsome, frenzied killing machines, scarier than a lion bearing down on you. Again, it’s far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it remains my favourite of the three movies for its portrayal of Robert Neville, his loneliness, his desperation, his struggles, his griefs. The director really had his head screwed on. Will Smith’s natural talent for looking cool is subdued and we are treated to a movie experience where substance wins over style.

Sadly, none of the movies bar the first has embraced the courage of the novel’s startling climax. The novel’s ending (as well as much of the content) is so different that I would gladly encourage viewers to watch both The Omega Man and I Am Legend before reading the novel. It might even enhance your reading experience, because you will be saying, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down.” However, save The Last Man on Earth till later, because that movie is a 95% copy of the book.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I want to share a couple of examples of what makes Matheson’s writing so good. In the story, Robert Neville has fortified his house against the enemy. He lives every day in isolaton and every night listening to the mocking cries of the undead outside his door. And then one morning, an unusual visitor shows up …

For an hour he [Robert Neville] wandered around the neighborhood on trembling legs, searching vainly, calling out every few moments, “Come on, boy, come on.”

At last he stumbled home, his face a mask of hopeless dejection. To come across a living being, after all this time to find a companion, and then to lose it. Even if it was only a dog. Only a dog? To Robert Neville that dog was the peak of a planet’s evolution.

And then, when Neville manages to lure the dog into his presence with food, he is fearful of scaring it away again …

But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching empathically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautifully ugly dog.

As you can see, Matheson has a talent for both empathy and artistry. I think I’m getting a feel for the way he works. He will take a ridiculous notion that has no place in reality (be it vampires here, or a shrinking man, from another of his novels), then he will throw into the scenario characters that are totally realistic. Matheson gives you the impression that he has thought long and hard about what it would be like to be in a situation like Robert Neville’s. I Am Legend is the tale of a real man in the midst of the fantastic. Zero melodrama. It’s a short novel, barely more than a hundred and twenty pages, but it’s a more rich reading experience than many a five-hundred-page tome.

Not many novels have been made into movies three times. The fact that this one has is testament to how good it is. One of the first post-apocalyptic novels, and still one of the best.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I’ve been putting this review off, because I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. I knew I liked this novel, liked it a lot, but I couldn’t figure out why I liked it. The book has certain traits that, at face value, are going to look like negatives. For one, the drama is so mundane. It’s the tale of several consecutive days in the life of a 1950s boarding school student, right after he gets the news that he has been expelled. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, goes from place to place across New York, meeting various people in an effort to kill time, because he’s determined not to head home and face his parents before they’ve had a chance to hear the bad news and simmer down for a couple of days. Nothing earth-shattering happens during those few days. The highest dramatic point is when Holden foolishly hires a prostitute, then gets bullied by her pimp over payment. Holden isn’t even a particularly likable character at times. By his own admission, he is a habitual liar, and frequently enjoys spinning a yarn to those he converses with.

So, what’s to like? Well, despite Holden’s conversational lying, the narrative itself is brutally honest. It’s written in the first person – Holden writing a journal at the request of a psychiatrist after the events of the novel. The most interesting aspect of the story is in following his state of mind. Holden is both capable of youthful exuberance and depression to the point of wishing for death. I felt he was an honest portrait of the turbulence of teenage life. Although his was a lot more turbulent than mine, I could still relate to some of what I was reading, and I think perhaps that’s where my fascination with this novel lies. There were also some heartwarming moments, particularly the scenes with Holden and his kid sister Phoebe.

I was surprised to learn that The Catcher in the Rye has had a rocky road from its publication in the 1950s to the present day. The book has been banned here and there over the years. I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about. Not only did the book not strike me as harmful, I would go as far as saying that it might be the sort of thing that would help a depressed reader away from a suicidal tendency.

One of my favourite reads of 2007.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

I hate criticising classics! When a book has been around for over a hundred years and shows no sign of ever disappearing, you tend to feel a little hesitant to speak negatively about it. Somebody once accused me of writing “another abortion of a review” because I dared to tell it like I experience it. But a book hits you like it hits you, and there’s no getting around that fact without resorting to lies. So here we go once again.

I’m not sure what possessed me to read this book. I guess I thought old Verne was worth another shot since I had only read one other novel by him. Also, I was rather fond of the old Disney movie. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the story of a great monster prowling the oceans. Professor Aronnax and his young associate Conseil join the hunt for the beast. After many months of searching, battle finally ensues. But when the professor’s ship is demolished, several of the crew find themselves stranded in the ocean with the creature. Only it turns out not to be a creature at all, but a massive submarine vessel.

Here we are introduced to the well-known character of Captain Nemo, commander of his submarine, the Nautilus. Nemo is a fascinating, complex villain. His compassionate invite to take the stranded seamen on board is tempered by his intent to keep them prisoners forever. On the one hand is is capable of attacking certain sea vessels without provocation. On the other, he will risk life and limb to save a poor native from the jaws of a hungry shark. The character of Nemo is the main strength of the story and is, I would guess, an uncommon find in old fiction. In modern fiction, we have learned to appreciate realistic heroes and villains who are more grey than black or white. It’s nice to discover that this trend isn’t entirely new.

The story catalogues the a journey of 20,000 leagues across several oceans. I now understand that the title literally means “twenty thousand leagues travelled whilst under the sea,” not “twenty thousand leagues deep” (which would be somewhere through the core of the earth, out the other side, and off into outer space!). The story is episodic in nature – lots of mini adventures featuring various foes and locales that I won’t spoil. What does spoil several of these adventures is Verne’s insistence on cataloguing a horrendous amount of sea life for the reader. Fair enough, Prof. Arronax is a marine biologist, but do we really need lists upon lists of names of ocean creatures shoved in our face, not just once, but many times throughout the book? I’d like to think that Verne wasn’t descending to the level of show-off, but I’m not sure. What is certain is that he appears to have no perception that he is slowing his adventure to a crawl whilst engaging in these pointless encyclopedic epsiodes.

One interesting side of the story is the description of the submarine’s operation. The book was written before the invention of the modern submarine, although Verne cannot be credited with its design, as he was using known research of the period. I tickled me when I read about the submarine being steered by the primitive means of a pilot in a glass bubble, sonar having not been invented.

Overall, an average read. I had two versions at my disposal when reading this. A complete version and a shorter abridgement by Puffin books, which seeks to remove the problem of the lists. I chose the longer version, out of respect for the author, and I wish I hadn’t. It’s not often you’d hear me recommend a version of a book that had been tampered with, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Do yourself a favour, and read the shorter one. In days of old, readers may have had more patience, and writers less awareness of the importance of pacing. I leave you to decide whether there’s something tragic in our modern attitudes. All I know is, when I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t want to be bored.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This short novel chronicles an adventure in the life of a sea-faring drifter called Marlow around 1900. Most of the action takes place aboard a steamboat travelling up the Congo river. Marlow’s destination is deep into the jungle, to the farthest point any white man has travelled. His aim, to find and retrieve an Englishman called Kurtz. Along the way, Marlow learns a great deal about Kurtz, through people at the various stations along the river. It seems Kurtz has set himself up as a feared leader among the natives.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’m not making this book sound very interesting. If anything, the plot itself is fairly uncomplicated and run-of-the-mill. But the strength of the story lies in the way that Conrad describes what his characters go through. You might expect Marlow to marvel at the beauty of the jungle, but what happens is quite the opposite. The jungle is described as a terrifying place, almost prehistoric in nature. What Marlow experiences most of all is the fear of leaving civilisation so far behind. And when we finally meet Kurtz, we don’t find an Englishman who has brought civilisation to the uncivilised, but a man who has abandoned civilisation, seduced by the anarchy around him. The author himself was a mariner, and I get the feeling that some of what he’s writing is autobiographical.

I found this to be a difficult novel to understand fully. Other reviews have described it as dealing with moral struggles. I felt the story was much too vague in that respect. The novel is also difficult to read because of the way paragraphing has been handled. At one point, a single paragraph ran across three full book pages. Why? Well, the story is written from the point of view of Marlow, aboard a boat on the Thames, narrating his adventure to his shipmates. The entire story is written as one large quotation. I’ve seen this done very well, such as Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. But Conrad seems to feel this this format won’t allow him to space his paragraphs out in normal fashion. For instance, when two people are speaking together, Conrad rarely if ever takes a new paragraph each time the conversation switches between persons. Instead, quotes are sandwiched together, one after another, along the same paragraph.

I got some enjoyment out of this novel, but as I was reading it, I found myself being glad that it was so tiny (under 100 pages). With prose that was this awkward to read, I couldn’t have faced a longer book.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

What’s a thirty-four-year-old man doing reading Alice in Wonderland? you might ask. Well, I have a fascination with classic literature, and this is one of the most popular novels. It’s not hard to find references to Alice in modern film and literature: since I’m a sci-fi fan, the character Morpheus in The Matrix is the first one that jumps to my mind. For whatever reason, Alice has stuck in the public’s imagination.

I didn’t find much enjoyment in reading during my pre-adolescent years. Hence, this is the first time I’ve ever read Alice. Can it be enjoyed by an adult? That’s too general a question. Was it enjoyed by this adult? Not overly. It’s a story about a girl who’s sitting by the riverbank with her sister. She spots an odd-looking rabbit; it’s wearing a waistcoat. The rabbit enters a rabbit-hole. Alice goes in after him. She falls and falls, eventually landing on a pile of leaves in a tunnel. What follows is a series of bizarre encounters with characters that range from eccentric to psychopathic (usually talking animals of one kind or another). Alice herself does a lot of growing and shrinking in order to squeeze through small spaces and get from place to place. At one point she creates a lake out of her own tears. Each scene in the story has very little to do with any other, and there is no motivating factor in the story’s progression other than mere curiosity. I am loathe even to call this an adventure, on that basis; it reads more like a child’s acid trip. In the end, the story resorts to the most shameful plot device of all, in order to get Alice home: “It was all a dream.” This just would not fly, if written today.

In fairness, Alice was not written for someone my age, so I should try and ask myself whether I think I would have enjoyed this as a young boy. When I think about what I did like as a boy (Star Wars, Knight Rider, The A-Team), again I have to say no. I suspect Alice is for little girls only (and that’s a place I just can’t take my mind back to!). However, I can’t ignore the fact that there is children’s literature that I do enjoy today. And it’s not all boys’ sci-fi adventures. Take C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The haphazard structure of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland pales by comparison to the carefully woven tapesty of Lewis’s novel. So, I’m sticking to my guns. Alice gets a thumbs down.