#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

#21 – The Forever War Review – Joe Haldeman

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Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is a worthy counterpoint to the military Science Fiction of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. But while both deal with the logistical challenges and emotional effects of fighting a war in outer space against an alien species, the underlying themes and sentiments of the novels couldn’t be further apart.

Where Heinlein’s future soldiers are all volunteers who see the value in self-sacrifice and service in the name of protecting humanity, Haldeman’s hero is a reluctant conscript who muses on the absurdity and inhumanity of fighting an interstellar war over the course of a thousand years, and who only rises in rank as a result of being the oldest serving soldier.

For me, The Forever War paints a more moving portrait of war and its effects on the individuals involved in fighting it. Maybe it’s just my lefty politics or my own personal beliefs regarding the absurdity of war in general, but I think there’s more to it than that. Besides its commentary on the nature of war, the book also poses a very interesting practical question about the nature of a war fought across light-years: Because of the time-dilation involved in faster than light travel, how do you coordinate your strategy when years pass between each battle (and how do soldiers readjust to a world that has changed immeasurably since they first left)?

The Forever War Summary

The protagonist is William Mandella, a student who is drafted into an elite military task force without his consent and shipped off to war against the Taurans. After a grueling training period, Mandella is involved in a resounding victory against an enemy base. However, due to time dilation, decades have passed when they finally return home to Earth (even though they’ve only been out less than a year in their time).

Besides the culture shock of returning to a completely different world, the Military is also dealing with the fact that the Taurans have had that much more time to develop more sophisticated weaponry and technology, leaving them at a distinct advantage. After surviving four more years of battle, Mandella officially becomes the oldest soldier in the war (with hundreds of years of objective service). By the time he and his companion Marygay return to Earth a final time, society has become nearly unrecognizable. With nothing left to tie him to Earth, he and Marygay decide instead to re-enlist.

The Forever War Review

Besides the realistic depictions of combat on other planets and the mind-bending questions that are posed about relativity and assimilation, the overarching theme of the novel, in my opinion, is the absurdity of war. From the futile nature of military strategy in a war in which lifetimes pass between each battle and the notion of soldiers fighting for the safety of a world that they don’t even recognize anymore to the final devastating revelation about the reason for war in the first place, Haldeman seems to be making a profound point about the ultimate futility of war and the ways in which war is perpetuated long after the reasons for fighting have been eliminated.

While it could be considered by some to be an Anti-War novel, it is certainly not blatant or preachy in its method or message. Haldeman was influenced by his own experiences as a veteran of the Vietnam War, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the parallels between that conflict and the one depicted in The Forever War. Just as soldiers returning from Vietnam experienced profound alienation after returning home from war, the soldiers of The Forever War return to an Earth in which they literally don’t even speak the language.

While some have tried to portray the book as a direct response to Starship Troopers, Haldeman has denied it profusely and said that Heinlein’s work helped inform his own. Regardless of its overt intentions, I did feel that it provided a more soulful, personal and moving picture of the nature of war that is universal, regardless of whether the war is being fought with tanks and machine guns or spaceships and lasers. Highly recommended.

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September 10, 2010

#10 – Starship Troopers Summary – Robert Heinlein

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This is the first book on the list that could legitimately be classified as “Military Science Fiction,” in that it examines the nature of war, conflict and military service in the future (usually either in space or on another planet). And while I’m generally not very interested in anything having to do with the military, I still found this novel to be unexpectedly absorbing. Along with The Forever War (#21 on this list), Starship Troopers paints a gruesome, yet believable, picture of the emotional and physical challenges of taking part in an interstellar war with an alien species. And while the book’s overarching themes may lean more towards glorification of the military and personal sacrifice than I may have liked, I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the book’s fascinating political and moral arguments and the sympathy I had for a soldier who was stuck in the middle.

While some readers may be more familiar with the 1997 film of the same name, the book has a much different tone. Where the movie is an almost satirically over-the-top look at how war can create a culture of senseless violence and aggression (and the propaganda that supports it), the book can actually be taken (and was by some critics) as a philosophical treatise on how military service and unquestioning allegiance to the state is actually a virtue and the responsibility of any good “Citizen.” While action and combat take center stage in the movie, the book spends a lot of its time in the classroom where the students and potential recruits are given lectures on history and moral philosophy – including the realization that “violence has settled more issues in history than any other factor.” Although Heinlein does offer a brief counterpoint to these ideas, they really aren’t very fleshed out and don’t seem to hold much weight with any of the main characters.

Starship Troopers Summary:The story is told from the point of view of Juan “Johnny” Rico, a member of the mobile infantry, as he rises through the ranks of the Federation military while fighting an ongoing war with an alien race of arachnids, also known as “Bugs” (I’m not sure what it is with science fiction’s fascination with killer bugs). Told in flashbacks, the novel follows Rico through his initial training and combat missions all the way up through his eventual promotion to officer. Besides flashing back to various combat operations and points during his military career, the book also shows some of Rico’s high school experiences (including the classroom discussions discussed above). Through this we learn that Earth is currently ruled by the Terran Federation, a result of the collapse of the unlimited democracies of the 20th century. While certain human rights remain intact, the ability to vote or hold office is reserved for “Citizens” – that is, people who volunteer for a minimum level of military service. While this is one of the original motivations for Rico joining the military in the first place, he eventually decides to become a career soldier.

Starship Troopers Review: I’m not going to dance around the fact that a lot of the novel’s ideas about personal responsibility and sacrifice for the great good rub me the wrong way. And while I admit that violence may have solved the majority of the world’s disputes in the past, I don’t think it makes the use of military might or aggression “Noble” in any way shape or form. I do, however, understand that Heinlein wrote this book at a much different time in history and had a much different relationship to the military (he served in the Navy for five years, although never saw active combat). His views reflect a time in which self-sacrifice for the greater good against a common enemy was much more clear cut than it is today. But regardless of how I feel about Heinlein or his politics, I can’t deny that this book paints a startlingly vivid picture of a world at war with a menacing alien threat and the ways in which men are motivated to join the cause against it.

Starship Troopers Quotes: “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.” – Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois

“I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important — it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate. I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.” – Juan Rico

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September 22, 2010

#60 – Ender’s Shadow Review – Orson Scott Card

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No other book series (other than maybe Foundation) has a larger presence on this list than Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. With the #1 (Ender’s Game), #27 (Speaker for the Dead) and now #60 entries in the top 100, it’s fair to say that it is one of the most popular series’ in all of science fiction. While some might argue that the Shadow books make up their own unique series, it’s hard to really separate the two in my mind. While the two parallel stories eventually diverge completely, the two linchpin novels tell basically the same story, just from the perspective of different characters. While Ender’s Game tells the story of Battle School and the Bugger War with Ender Wiggin at its center, Ender’s Shadow illuminates the back story of Ender’s right hand man Bean and follows him as he moves up through the ranks of Battle School to become an integral part of the team that eventually helps defeat the Bugger menace. What is so amazing about Card’s companion novel is that it manages to tell a story that we already know so well in a way that makes it seem fresh and exiting. Even though we already know the eventual outcome, the new insights that we get into the life and motivations of what was a minor character in the original novel help increase the richness of the story as a whole.

Ender’s Shadow Summary: Ender’s Shadow picks up the story of Bean, a diminutive homeless street urchin trying to survive in the crime ridden streets of Rotterdam in 2170. Having escaped from a genetic engineering laboratory as an infant (where they apparently did experiments to increase intelligence), Bean’s primary focus is on survival (meaning food and protection from the ruthless child gangs that roam the streets). Although he eventually manages to fall in with a gang that is able to get food from a local soup kitchen, his access to that food is controlled by a sociopathic bully named Achilles who torments Bean and eventually murders one of his closest friends. Luckily, Bean’s brilliance and creativity are recognized by one of the nuns at the soup kitchen who is secretly recruiting gifted children to help fight the Bugger War. Bean is then taken to Battle School where he meets Ender and begins his training in Military strategy and tactics along with other gifted children. This first section of the novel serves to illustrate Bean’s amazing ability to survive in the harshest conditions imaginable due to his advanced intellect, something that will eventually set him apart from all of the other students at Battle School.

By the time Bean gets to Battle School, the legend of the brilliant Ender Wiggin has already begun to form, and Bean takes a concerted interest in learning as much as he can about the boy who will eventually go on to lead the human fleet against the Buggers. Along the way, we are made aware of some interesting facts that weren’t disclosed in the original novel, such as the fact that it was Bean (not the commanding adults) who created the Dragon Army of misfits and new recruits for Ender to lead and mold into fighting form. We also learn that the adults chose Bean as Ender’s replacement should anything happen to Ender. While some may accuse Card of re-writing history here, I personally don’t think that anything he introduces in Ender’s Shadow in any way takes away from the power of Game.  All he really does is to show that Bean was actually a much more integral part of the story than we previously thought.

Ender’s Shadow Review: I think that one of the reasons that I liked Ender’s Shadow so much is the fact that Bean is a much more sympathetic character than Ender. While Ender grew up in a middle class family (with his main challenge in being a Third child), Bean is forced from a very early age (he’s 2 years old when we first meet him) to survive in a brutal world where most of the cards are stacked against him. The only advantage he has is his heightened intelligence and will to survive, both of which he uses in a coldly efficient manner. And while Ender is the hero that eventually goes on to defeat the Buggers, it is Bean who is able to see the reality of their situation – that the battle exercises are actually real battles with real Formics, something that Ender fails to realize until it’s too late.

Although Speaker for the Dead may be the true sequel to Ender’s Game, I think that Bean’s story may actually be a more fitting addendum to the original novel – even if they recount many of the same events. So if you found Speaker to be too removed and distant from the themes and motifs of the first novel, I’d recommend giving the Shadow series a try. Besides succeeding as its own stand alone tale, it brings added depth and insight into a story that many of us have known and loved for years.

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July 26, 2011