Friday, January 29, 2010

Children Of Dune, Frank Herbert

Children Of Dune
Frank Herbert

Children of Dune was the first "end" of the Dune series. At this point there are a lot more books in that series, but this is where the original work stopped.

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. It's better written than Dune Messiah, and has more content. In it, Paul Atreides' son Leto takes up his destiny. Preborn - having access to all the memories of his ancestors from conception - he finds himself following in his father's footsteps. And going well beyond them.

Some of what Herbert proposes about human nature in Children of Dune is quite interesting. Leto's "solution" is quite unique as well.

While it's still not quite the grabber that Dune itself is, this is a good book, and recommended.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah
Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah is volume two in Frank Herbert's Dune series, and I am of mixed mind about it on this reread.

On the good side, there's more here than I remembered from previous readings. Yes, it's still a short novel - just 256 pages - but it has more plot than I gave it credit for in my memory. Herbert's voice is still here, and the world is still rich and interesting.

I like the way Paul continues to struggle with escaping his vision of the future, and it feels believable, though there is less descriptive language about his actual visions this time. I also like Hayt's role and what he becomes. Those who've read farther into the series know he's going to be around for a very long time.

There are a few things on the not so good side, though.

Most importantly it seems possible that Herbert became enamored of some things that weren't mentioned or present in Dune itself. The planet Tleilax, for example, gets a brief mention in Dune as the source of twisted mentats and another when Barron Harkonnen says he needs to order a new mentat. That's it. In Dune Messiah, however, things are very different. We encounter the name "Bene Tleilaxu" with no explanation, and they have a long history. Several of their creations - Gholas and Face Dancers among them - play major roles in the story. Why did we have no hint of this in Dune itself? Is it possible that Herbert was asked (told?) to "write more Dune!" and turned out Dune Messiah too quickly as a result? I honestly don't know, but I find the way the Bene Tleilaxu are played up a bit bothersome. They are powerful enough they should have had a bigger role before.

As additional evidence for the possible "hurry up and publish it" idea, I give you the book itself. My copy of Dune is nicely typeset, Dune Messiah, on the other hand, was clearly rushed to press. As with Dune, each chapter starts with a quote, but no one bothered to start each quote on a new page. As a result some of these introductory quotes cross pages, which looks very odd and supports my theory that the entire enterprise of writing and publishing it was rushed.

There are some plot issues as well. When Paul took the water of life, whether or not he was presented with all of his ancestors (male, female, or both) is never made clear. We know that Jessica and Alia have an inner dialog with their ancestors, and I know we learn in the next book that the same is true for Ghanima and Leto, but we never find out if that's true for Paul. Why not? Again, I doubt Herbert was given the time he needed to get the book written.

And the link between Paul and Leto at the end is never explained. That may be a bit picky on my part, but I don't know what allows it to happen. An explanation would have helped me.

In all, Dune Messiah was better than I remembered, but still not nearly as good as Dune itself.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dune, Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert

There are very few books that grab me the way Dune does. It's an amazing work of science fiction, and among the best books I've ever read, possibly the best.

I read Dune the first time at roughly 15 years of age, the age of Paul Atreides as the book begins. Whatever was going on in my life then, it let this book sink into me in a way few others have, and despite 30 years and innumerable re-readings, it continues to satisfy.

At one level, Dune is a science fiction story. It has a hero and a complex set of characters set against a backdrop that is foreign but understandable. At another level, Herbert went way beyond what anyone had done before. Written in 1965, Dune is an ecological novel, telling the story of an entire planet and the people that live upon it. I understand that Herbert did something like ten years of research before writing Dune, and it shows. This is a work well ahead of its time.

A quick synopsis: Paul Atreides is the son of Duke Leto Atreides. Duke Leto has been instructed by the Emperor to take possession of Arrakis, a desert planet and the only place where the spice, melange, is found. Melange has several properties, but most importantly it extends life, and it is a drug allowing altered mental states in some. For Space Guild navigators, it allows them to see far enough into the future to permit faster than light travel. For the Bene Gesserit, it permits and inward transformation so their members can access past memories.

Duke Leto, however, is opposed by Baron Harkonnen and others. Leto is killed leaving Paul and his mother to find shelter with the native inhabitants of Arrakis, the Fremen. There Paul comes into adulthood in a hostile environment and sets about taking back that which his father lost, and then some.

With Dune, Herbert hit a peak that I am not at all sure he ever reached again. Subsequent books in the series - Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, and others were OK, but don't measure up in my estimation. Dune is a singular achievement, and stands alone.

A brief story about the first time I read Dune: It turns out that my mother was reading it while I was in school. I came home and read in the afternoons and evenings when time allowed (often) and one night found me nearing the end of the book. Dune is large - my paperback is 537 pages - but I literally let out a cry of anguish when I learned the book ended some 50 pages shy of the cover. There were appendixes of various sorts after that point, but no more story. In the kitchen, though, I heard my mother's knowing chuckle. She'd finished the book a day or two before and knew what happened.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Rereading an old favorite

This is what happens when you still have the first copy of a book you love after almost 30 years and many re-readings:

The cover comes off and gets taped back on, the spine is mangled, and there are pages that may fall out at any time. A book gets like this for being loved, and Dune is one of my all time favorites. Very few things have ever come close. Written a year after I was born, it's held up really well over the years, and it's time to read it again.

I need to be careful, though. I have a tendency to gulp it down in one or two sittings, failing to savor the concepts and prose in favor of diving headlong into the plot.

I'm giving myself this treat - rereading Dune after several years - because the other things I am reading at the same time are going to be tough sledding. I'll have to ration it out carefully, and work at limiting my time with it. If I don't it will be done in a few hours and nothing else will have advanced at all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, Francis Wheen

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World
Francis Wheen

I am of decidedly mixed mind about this book. Part of me absolutely loved it and wanted to stand up and cheer many times while reading it. Another part of me, though, found it meandering and somewhat unfocused. Looking at Amazon's reviews, I see they are mixed two, with an average of about 3.5 / 5 stars. I'm not all that surprised.

The subtitle of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World is "A Short History of Modern Delusions". I'm not exactly sure how I encountered this one, but it was an interesting if frustrating read. I'll divide my review into the good and the bad, as my mixed feelings above make plane.

On the positive side, Wheen tackles a bunch of sacred cows, and he doesn't particularly lean towards the left or the right. In reality, both sides are full of idiocy, and it was amusing to watch them skewered in this way. Starting with Thatcherism and Reagan, he heads into politics with no compunctions. He has direct (and I think mostly correct) things to say about both Bush presidencies (and presidents), Clinton, and various candidates from both sides, along with leaders and politicians from many other countries as well.

He similarly goes after business. He's particularly hard on everyone who thinks (or thought) that the Internet and the so called "new economy" are actually any different from the old economy and environment. He has some enlightening quotes from Keynes and others showing how people thought very similarly about the world a long, long time before computers were even invented. Some of his examples - of company founders, lauded as new visionaries who then fell flat on their faces and of companies (like Enron and Global Crossing) that were corrupt, stupid, or both - are great reading.

Some time is also spent at the end on the left's apologetics around religion and 9/11 in particular. That was interesting reading for me, and the chapter titles ("Voodoo", early on about Thatcherism and Reaganomics, and "Voodoo Revisited" about the left's irrational reactions to 9/11) were well chosen.

From my perspective, though, his best attacks are against religion. He spares no barbs here either, and I think the hypocrisy exposed is a good thing. Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, and Wheen does so. Here, for example, is a quote from Thomas Jefferson:
Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity... Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.
You can find Jefferson's full text here, if you're curious:

And some people think the US was founded as a Christian nation. Clearly not.

All of that said, there are some problems with Mumbo-Jumbo that irritate.

First, Wheen seems to have a strong belief that Keynes got it all right and every economist since has gotten it wrong. I appreciate the sentiment in some ways, and I long ago lost my faith in the completely unregulated market. All humans are actually irrational consumers at some level, and we often won't make the "economically optimal" choice even if someone threatens us with a gun should we screw up. But it doesn't follow that since Friedman was in error Keynes is the end of the story, and I'm not sure that Wheen is open to that.

More of a problem - at least for me - was the meandering narrative. There are many great quotes in here, and a lot of interesting facts and stories, but somehow they don't add up to something more. It might be compared to a museum exhibition of paintings selected from all cultures and periods of history, but where they are all jumbled together, so that no indication of the path through history is obvious. Even if all the works were definitively the greatest ever made, the viewer could walk away without learning much about art over time. In a similar way Wheen's point gets lost in the shuffle.

On a smaller scale, some of Wheen's chapters wander off topic as well. So a chapter titled "The Catastrophists" starts out discussing wacko predictions of the end of the world but also discusses things like government support for complementary and alternative medicine. Huh? An editor would have tightened up the focus of each chapter - possibly adding more chapters in the process, where the focus can legitimately change radically - and the result could have been both more directed and cohesive.

The biggest issue, though, is that there are no prescriptions here, and no real hope either. The last chapter attempts to call for a return to Enlightenment principles, but is so wound up in arguing against the far left's view of 9/11 that the message is lost. Even more sadly, Wheen's readers won't include those who need to hear his message. The first chapter - on Thatcher and Reagan - will even drive off quite a few moderates based on its tone alone.

So what can I say in summary? I learned quite a few things from How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, but I am not convinced it's the right vehicle for the author's message. It's both fun and annoying at the same time.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Word For World Is Forest, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Word For World Is Forest
Ursula K. Le Guin

It's hard for me to believe this short volume won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1973. It seems to be well received, with good reviews on various book review sites. As usual, though, I went the other way. I found it predictable, lacking any credible hero or heroine, and the villain is so simplistic he might as well be a cardboard cutout.

The story is part of Le Guin's Hainish cycle, which includes The Dispossessed. Here we see the introduction of the ansible (a faster than light communications device) during a tale of human exploitation of another world and another culture.

It's all stuff you've read before, no doubt. Peace loving natives are enslaved by the rapacious humans coming to take the world's raw materials. There is a vile military man (the source of many of the problems and the above mentioned cardboard cutout), a human who fights for the natives, and a native who befriends that one friendly human. Everyone else is essentially unimportant.

You can probably envision the central conflict of the story at this point.

Usually I like Le Guin but this is both too simplistic and simple minded.

Those who follow Le Guin will feel the need to read The Word For World Is Forest, but I don't think there's much here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Just Call Me Mike, Mike Farrell

Just Call Me Mike
Mike Farrell

Just Call Me Mike is the autobiography of Mike Farrell, actor, star of M*A*S*H, and citizen activist. Farrell gives us enough back story to set the stage, and then proceeds to tell us what he's done between his birth in 1939 and 2007 when the book was published. In truth, it's an interesting story for its scrupulous honesty. Farrell often feels he's not in control of his own life, and we see get a sense of that (and recognize the same thing in ourselves) as we read.

M*A*S*H is covered very quickly, just a single chapter and a mention or two in other places. Clearly he loved working on the show and admired all involved, but his family and activism mean a lot more to him than M*A*S*H. I found that refreshing.

Farrell has been a champion of many causes, including exposing (and opposing) our government's role in various countries in South America, opposing the death penalty, supporting labor unions, and others. He's a man of principles, and he doesn't come across as a member of the left or the right. Others might try to pin him to a particular political agenda, but I don't think that's what drives him. Instead what matters to him is doing the right thing, setting an example.

I cannot quite claim to agree with every stance he takes - though in fact I agree with most of them - but I admire his honesty and willingness to say what he thinks is right. In my opinion, America would be a lot better place if more of us were like him. You get the sense that for him confrontation isn't the goal, reasoned conversation is. In this age of talking (screaming!) heads and sound bites, Farrell's openness is a breath of fresh air.

There isn't anything huge and earth shattering in these pages, but they're definitely worth reading. For someone with only a high school education, Farrell's made a difference, and we can all learn from his example. Recommended.

The Prestige, Christopher Priest

The Prestige
Christopher Priest

Netflix is an interesting thing. You view a movie or two and its recommendation engine gets going. The next thing you know you've got fifteen movies in a row all starring Raquel Welch, or some such.

In my case, it all started with Batman Begins, which lead to a string of movies staring Christian Bale. Among the things I wound up watching eventually was The Prestige, a movie about a pair of feuding magicians in the late 1800s. The movie is pretty dark, and there are some very interesting twists in it as well. David Bowie as Nikola Tesla was a great surprise.

At some point I learned that the movie was based on the book of the same name by Christopher Priest. I wanted to read the book because the movie is pretty convoluted. I thought I might learn a thing or two I'd missed in the movie. Also - as those who've read my reviews know - I am always curious about the adaptation process. Going from book to movie isn't always straightforward.

And so it turns out in this case. The Prestige isn't quite as distant from its book ancestor as Blade Runner is from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it's pretty far from the original. And, in all honesty, I'm still trying to decide which one I like more.

The book has additional characters - set in the present - who are looking into their ancestors. Beyond that, though, the book is mostly in the form of long extracts from the diaries of the two main characters: Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden. Nikola Tesla does appear in the book, and performs essentially the same task, but other characters, though present, are different in various ways.

The book is even darker than the movie, and more of a fantasy as well. At times it borders on horror. The cause of the bad blood between the magicians is entirely different, and various details about the apparatus created by Tesla are different as well. The diary extracts are very different in the two versions of the story, and to my mind the movie did a slightly better job there.

If I have a gripe with the book, it's that the diary extracts get a bit long at times, leaving the reader a bit unsure of where things are in time. That, however, is a minor issue. The story definitely still works, and the book won both the World Fantasy Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for best fiction in 1996.

This is one of those cases where the book and the movie are so different that they don't impinge on each other, at least for me. Which one you like more is entirely up to you, of course. I find them both interesting and thought provoking, thus, both are recommended.