#2 – Dune Review – Frank Herbert

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Few books on this list have had a bigger cultural impact than Frank Herbert’s 1965 masterpiece. Often cited as the best selling science fiction novel of all time (over 10 million copies sold), it is also usually in the discussion as possibly the best novel that science fiction has ever produced, period. Spawning countless sequels (only 5 of which were written by Herbert himself), prequels, movies, TV adaptations and even a video game, the Dune saga looms large in any discussion of the top science fiction franchises of all time.

Dune Summary

Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides and House Atreides as they take over control of the desert planet Arrakis from their hated rivals House Harkonnen. Despite its harsh climate, unfriendly native population and hostile wildlife (i.e. Killer Worms), Arrankis is also the only known source in the universe of the “spice” Melange – an addictive substance which has the ability to extend life and give greater awareness to the user – including the ability to fold space-time for interstellar travel. Suffice it to say, the Spice is the engine that powers the entire Empire, making Arrakis the most strategically important planet in the universe.

While Paul is a member of House Atreides, it is also revealed that he is the product of a centuries old breeding program organized by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a shadowy group whose goal is to produce a super human with prescience abilities – also known as the Kwisatz Haderach. As the novel progresses, Paul becomes more attuned to his growing powers and how to harness them for his own purposes. After an ambush by House Harkonnen deposes House Atreides and sends them scattering, Paul and his mother Lady Jessica are forced to take refuge with the planet’s native elements – the Fremen. During his time with the Fremen, Paul completes his transformation from fresh faced royal heir to the vengeful messiah Muad’Dib – bent on retaking Arrakis back from the Harkonnens and spreading Jihad throughout the universe.

Dune Review

While there are many reasons to appreciate Herbert’s brilliantly realized world (its philosophical meditations on war and power, its subtle environmental and ecological themes, its epic battles and strategic maneuvering), the thing that impressed me most was the sense that, although the novel often take place on an intimate, individual level (as with Paul’s almost constant inner dialogue and self reflective soul searching), there is still a sense that the events set in motion have consequences on a much larger scale. Whether it’s the generations worth of selective breeding and silent influence of the Bene Gesserit or Paul’s own visions of the Jihad he created sweeping out into the Universe unchecked for centuries, the larger than life nature of Dune’s mythology serves to elevate the stakes of what may seem at first to be petty squabbles between feuding families. Even Paul’s own personal metamorphoses is a clear narrative archetype – a dramatic retelling of the Hero’s Journey (or Monomyth) – and one that can be found in numerous stories throughout history.

While the original Dune is still untouchable, the sequels do an admirable job of continuing the story and adding new layers and characters to the mythology. So if you end up finding yourself becoming addicted to the spice-tinged intricacies of the Dune universe, you’ll be happy to know that there is no shortage of further adventures and interplanetary intrigue to help you get your fix.

Dune Quotes

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

Dune Series: Dune | Dune Messiah | Children of Dune | God Emperor of Dune | Heretics of Dune | Chapterhouse: Dune

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September 29, 2010

#26 – The Left Hand of Darkness Review – Ursula K Le Guin

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The Left Hand of Darkness is the first novel on this list from a female author. And while it’s no secret that women are severely underrepresented in the world of Science Fiction, the ones that are (such as Ursula K. LeGuin) are so good that we often forget that they make up such a small portion of the celebrated authors in the field. Some critics have called ‘Darkness‘ a “Feminist” science fiction novel, but I think that label does a disservice to LeGuin and women writers in general. Just because the book tackles complex issues of gender identity, sexuality and politics, doesn’t mean that it should get saddled with such a politically charged label – and people’s attempts to co-opt the book to support their own agendas or worldview are missing the point entirely. The deftness of LeGuin’s writing is not in its ability to make grand pronouncements on the inherent evils of a male dominated culture, but in its capacity to pose fascinating questions on the nature of gender and its role in society so that we can examine them ourselves and reach our own conclusions.

The Left Hand of Darkness Summary: Set in LeGuin’s Hainish universe, the novel takes place on the planet ‘Winter’, a cold, frozen world that is in the middle of an ice age. The citizens of Winter share a unique physiological trait – they are genderless and androgynous for all but two days out of each month, during which they become either male or female depending upon the partner that they are coupling with. In essence, residents of the planet contain the makeup of both sexes, leading to a society in which problems resulting from gender differences are virtually unheard of. But while male sexual dominance and female dependence may be unknown in their culture, there is still room for many other conflicting human characteristics such as love, jealousy, power and politics. And while war is also something that is rarely (if ever) seen on Winter, two of the planet’s largest countries seem to be on the brink of some sort of conflict at the beginning of the book.

Although the book is told from a few different points of view, the story mainly unfolds through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth who is sent to try and bring the planet of Winter into the organization of planets known as the Ekumen. Genly faces many obstacles upon arriving in the kingdom of Karhide and is ultimately saved by the Prime Minister Estraven. The political intrigue surrounding a piece of disputed territory causes Estraven to be sent into exile. After resistance from the King of Karhide, Genrly goes to the neighboring territory of Orgoreyn to plead with its leaders for help. Meeting up with Estraven again who is living in exile, the pair make a harrowing journey across ice and snow to return to Karhide. During the journey, Genly becomes close with Estraven and learns many things about his companion, including a period of “Kemmer” in which Estraven briefly becomes a woman, which helps him understand the true nature of the androgynous people of the planet.

The Left Hand of Darkness Review: While the narrative gets bogged down a little in the middle (and during their interminable trek across the barren ice), the unique nature of the characters and conflicts keep the book moving along at a brisk pace. The fact of whether or not the planet becomes a part of the Ekumen is secondary to the fate of the characters and how they reflect the society that they are a part of. For me, it wasn’t until after I had finished the novel that I started pondering some of the larger questions and themes that the book presented – and that is a good thing in my opinion. LeGuin’s ability to paint a believable portrait of a society in which all members are both male AND female draws the reader in so deeply that they don’t even realize the staggering implications of what it means for a culture to not have a clearly defined barrier between genders. It is this ability that makes her not merely a great “Feminist” science fiction writer, but one of the best overall Science Fiction authors writing today.

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September 5, 2010

#15 – Hyperion Review – Dan Simmons

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Hyperion is one of the truly revelatory books that I came across while working my way through this list. While discovering some of the other books on this list felt like finding a $100 bill in my pocket, this one felt like a winning lottery ticket. From its beautifully striking (and unnerving) cover to its deep literary allusions and grand themes, Simmons’ classic has everything that a science fiction fan could want: complex characters who are flawed yet sympathetic, worlds and landscapes of unprecedented beauty and menace, powerful cosmic forces on the brink of war and an enigmatic villain/savior whose mere mention can strike fear into the hearts of even the most powerful men.

The fact that the writing is also fast-paced, engaging, evocative and purposeful makes it easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read (in any genre). Although I was humming along through this list when I read it, I couldn’t help but take a break to read each of Hyperion’s sequels (collectively known as the Hyperion Cantos) in quick succession. If you’re a fan of fiction in any form, I can’t recommend it more.

Hyperion Summary

The structure of Hyperion mirrors that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in its use of a pilgrimage as a framing device during which each of its main characters get a chance to tell their own unique story. The voyage is made up of seven pilgrims: the Priest, the Soldier, the Poet, the Scholar (and his daughter), the Detective and the Consul – each of whom have their own compelling back story that help give us an idea of why they chose to make the trip.

The trip itself involves a pilgrimage to the distant planet of Hyperion in order to confront the legendary creature known as The Shrike (so named for its habit of impaling its victims on a tree of metal thorns). With the WorldWeb on the brink of war with a barbarian group of genetically altered humans called the Ousters, the pilgrims have been asked to make one last journey to the Time Tombs (ancients structures that move backwards through time) in order to learn the secret of the Shrike and hopefully help prevent the destruction of human civilization.

The stories that the pilgrims tell are by turns spiritual, passionate, humorous, frightening and tragic. From the tale of Sol Weintraub (the Scholar), whose daughter Rachel contracts a disease which causes her to age backwards, to the mad poet Martin Silenus whose obsession with finishing his epic poem requires him to make some terrible sacrifices, the one thing that all of the pilgrims share is a connection with the creature known as The Shrike and the Time Tombs that are supposed to hold it prisoner.

Described as being a nine foot tall mass of razors, blades and wires, The Shrike is the ultimate killing machine – seeming to have the ability to appear and disappear at will, as well as travel through time and be in multiple places at once. The Shrike’s motives and creators are unknown, but the conventional thinking among the cults that have sprung up to worship it are that it was sent as a form of divine retribution for humanity’s hubris and decadence, although others think that it may have been sent back in time by an Ultimate Artificial Intelligence. Either way, it seems to play a central role in the coming human conflict, which is the reasons the pilgrims have been chosen to confront it.

Hyperion Review

My brief description of the story can’t even begin to describe the complexity and originality of the universe that Dan Simmons has created. In addition to the novel as a whole, each of the pilgrim’s tales work as a standalone narrative that could hold their own as a short story in their own right (or maybe short novella). Although the book does contain a few pretty disturbing moments (such as a description of The Shrike’s “Tree of Thorns” on which thousands of victims writhe in pain and torment for eternity), it manages to balance them out with moments of true tenderness and pathos. And while the series does lose steam towards the final books (as most series do), the first book is still a masterpiece that deserves to be compared with some of the classics of science fiction. A must read in my opinion!

The Hyperion Cantos: Hyperion | The Fall of Hyperion | Endymion | The Rise of Endymion

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September 16, 2010