Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Title: Dune (the complete series)
Author:  Frank Herbert
List:  #39 on BBC Top 100, #14 on Modern Library Reader’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading?  Yes.

Technically, the lists refer only to Dune, the novel that started the Dune saga.  Frank Herbert added five other novels to the tale, and his son continued in his footsteps with prequels, sequels, and interquels.  This post will only discuss Frank Herbert’s six Dune novels.

Dune, the first novel, is a classic work of science fiction.  It manages to effortlessly convey a future where humans have created an interstellar empire with planetary fiefdoms controlled by noble houses.  Interplanetary travel is provided by the Spacing Guild, whose Navigators rely on “the spice,” or “mélange,” to pilot ships instantaneously from planet to planet.  Mélange is found only on the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune, and is also crucial for the survival of the powerful matriarchal order of the Bene Gesserit, whose members get advanced physical and mental abilities from the spice as well as through special training and conditioning.  After going through a ritual called the “spice agony,” Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers have the ability to access the ego and memories of all their female ancestors.  The Bene Gesserit also have a secret, elaborate, and meticulously recorded breeding program that for millennia has had one goal: to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, a male equivalent of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother.  The Kwisatz Haderach would be able to access male and female “other memory” as well as be able to bridge space and time.

At the beginning of the novel, Duke Leto Atreides has been granted the fief of Arrakis and he and his family are preparing to relocate to the spice planet.  The Duke’s concubine, the Lady Jessica, is a Bene Gesserit who, in accordance with the aims of the breeding program, is ordered to produce a daughter.  This daughter would then be bred to someone else to produce the Kwisatz Haderach.  Instead, Lady Jessica gives in to Duke Leto’s desire for a male heir, and they have a son, Paul.  The Atreides do not survive long on Arrakis before their rivals attack, which forces Jessica and Paul to flee into the desert to join forces with Dune’s local population, the Fremen.  Here, it becomes evident that Paul is the Bene Gesserit’s Kwisatz Haderach, born one generation early, and his choices and the choices of his children shape the future, as detailed in the next five books.

I started reading the Dune saga almost two and a half years ago, and only just finished the final book, which takes place around five thousand years after Dune.  Usually when I read a series the author has already completed, I find myself picking up the next book instantly because I cannot wait to see what happens next.  With the Dune series, I often felt so exhausted after finishing one book that I waited months before picking up the next one.  It is not that the books aren’t exciting or that I wasn’t interested in learning what happened next, but somehow getting through each Dune book took an immense amount of effort, and each book seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to finish.  Perhaps this was because the books are packed with dialogue and philosophical discussions, but, for the most part, not many actions scenes.  This may seem like I don’t recommend reading the books, but I do.  I really do.  Especially the first one.

Not only does Dune reveal a universe in the far distant future, it offers a different take on that universe than most other science fiction novels.  Instead of the classic model where computers and artificial intelligence control daily existence, Frank Herbert created a world in an era after humans decided to destroy all computers and artificial intelligences.  Humans had to adapt and rely on themselves to perform the functions that we are already accustomed to leaving to computers.  For example, the Spacing Guild specialized in mathematics, and special training gives some humans the ability to calculate and logically reason better than any computer could.

Dune also champions environmentalism.  It explores the idea of a planet as a complex living ecosystem functioning as a whole.  The Fremen on Dune recognize that if they want to change their planet from a desert planet to a verdant one, they must alter the entire ecology of the planet.  They also realize that they must balance their desire for water and greenery with the needs of the great sandworms, which are critical to spice production and which cannot survive in or near water.  Frank Herbert also extensively details the adaptation of life to Dune’s arid conditions.  In addition to the sandworms that require arid conditions, Dune boasts kangaroo mice that have learned to live with limited water.  The Fremen too have developed methods of sealing their residences and their bodies to conserve water, and they even reclaim water from the dead.

Frank Herbert has created a fascinating world full of intrigue, philosophy, and mysticism.  He explores politics, empire building, and the advent of new religions.  Try the first one, and if it appeals to you, go on to the second.  The other four are not quite as good, but still worth the read if the world of Dune intrigues you.  For my part, I think I’ll eventually read the two sequels co-written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson.  I’m not sure if I’ll go so far as to explore the prequels and interquels though…

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons

Title: The Magnificent Ambersons
Author: Booth Tarkington
List: #100 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

Magnificent indeed are the Ambersons, living as the ruling elite in a small, but burgeoning, Midwest town at the turn of the 20th century.  Social life revolves around the Ambersons, as does the gossip, and the Ambersons set the bar with their sense of fashion and their lavish parties.  The wealth and power of the Ambersons culminates in the patriarch’s only grandchild, George Amberson Minafer.  George grows up spoiled, arrogant, convinced that he owns not only the town, but also the world, and completely indifferent to the concerns and feelings of those around him.  He has no idea that others frown upon his behavior, but even if he did, he would not care because he believes everyone should respect him and conform to his worldview.

George is also unconscious of a world changing around him.  He believes his family will always be powerful and rich and sees no reason why his, or anyone else’s, behavior should change with the times.  Although he attends college, he does not intend to enter a profession because he prefers “being” something rather than “doing” something.  Secure in his reliance on his grandfather’s wealth to support him, he fully intends on living life as a “gentleman.”

While home from college for the holidays, George meets and falls in love with Lucy Morgan, the beautiful and sensible daughter of an automobile inventor and manufacturer.  Unbeknownst to George, Lucy’s father and George’s mother have a long history extending to before the marriage of George’s parents.  George has no confidence in Mr. Morgan’s business, believes automobiles are just a fad, and treats Mr. Morgan quite shamefully.  Most tellingly, he ignores Mr. Morgan’s prediction that the development of automobiles, trolleys, and faster transportation will turn the small town into a larger and larger city that will change everything George takes for granted.

The novel elegantly describes the transformation industry brought to towns across America and the supplanting of old family money by new wealth derived from innovation and industry.  The novel’s descriptions of George’s arrogance are written in a tongue-in-cheek manner so that you can almost hear the author’s suppressed laughter in descriptions of George’s actions and attitude.  Towards the end of the novel, however, the mood becomes more serious as George’s world turns upside down.  Even though, like many of the people George interacts with, readers may despise his lack of feeling and arrogance, it is almost impossible not to like him, and, at the end, not to sympathize with his anguish.

I would recommend reading The Magnificent Ambersons.  It is a short, light, amusing read, but also a quite poignant read in its conclusion.  Besides the amusing writing and the author’s skill in telling the tale, I can think of another reason it may have been placed on the Modern Library Board’s list:  It perfectly describes the effects of technological and industrial changes on American culture and morals at the start of the 20th century and reminds us that these types of changes continue to affect our lives and relationships today.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Pillars of the Earth

Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
List: #33 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

Last week, I finally finished The Pillars of the Earth and I can definitely see why it made the BBC Top 100 list. It is a moving, enthralling, and satisfying read.

The story takes place in 12th century England, mostly during the period of anarchy following the death of King Henry in 1135. The author gradually introduces readers to a variety of key characters and their hopes, dreams, and weaknesses. The different story lines unite when a central figure, Prior Philip, starts building a cathedral. Prior Philip is a brilliant young monk who believes he can make a difference in the world and improve the situation and standing of the priory of Kingsbridge. Prior Philip is extraordinarily fair minded and capable of amazing feats of forgiveness, but very strict in all religious matters. Importantly, he is not afraid to take a strong stand for causes he believes in.

Prior Philip meets the other important characters at different stages throughout the first part of the novel and draws the heroes to Kingsbridge, while inciting the hatred of two powerful individuals. One of the heroes is Tom Builder, a mason and master builder whose dream in life is to design and build a cathedral. Unfortunately, when we first meet Tom, he loses his job through no fault of his own and is forced to wander from town to town in search of work with his pregnant wife, teenage son, and young daughter in tow. The family almost dies of starvation in the winter, and Tom’s wife dies shortly after giving birth to a son.

Shortly after Tom’s wife’s death, Tom’s family joins forces with Ellen, a fiercely independent and self-sufficient woman, and her son Jack. Ellen and Jack have lived in the woods as outlaws since before Jack’s birth 11 or 12 years before, but when Ellen falls in love with Tom and decides Jack needs some socialization, the outlaws join Tom’s family on their quest for work. They finally end up in Kingsbridge, and after the old cathedral burns down, Tom convinces Prior Philip and the other monks that he is the one to design and build the new cathedral.

Another hero is Aliena, the daughter of an earl. When she refuses to marry William Hamleigh, the son of a lord, she incites his wrath and, in a bid for revenge and to support Stephen who seeks to claim the throne after King Henry’s death, William’s family overthrows Aliena’s father. King Stephen grants the Earldom to the Hamleighs, leaving Aliena and her brother Richard almost destitute. Fortunately, Aliena’s father has secreted some money, and, with Prior Philip’s help, Aliena becomes a savvy business woman who uses her proceeds in an effort to help her brother reclaim the Earldom. She bases her business in Kingsbridge, under Prior Philip’s protection.

William Hamleigh never forgives Aliena for refusing him and takes out his wrath on her and people across the country. Once he takes over the Earldom after the death of his father, he also seeks to destroy Prior Philip because, once Kingsbridge begins to prosper with the building of the new cathedral, the town attracts money and people away from William’s nearby earldom. William joins forces with Bishop Waleran, who dislikes Prior Philip and Kingsbridge for his own reasons—mainly because, in an effort to gain money and supplies to build the cathedral, Prior Philip foils Bishop Waleran’s plans to gain the same money for his own purposes.

And so the stage is set for the decades long battle between Bishop Waleran and William Hamleigh on one side, and Prior Philip and Aliena on the other. This sketch of the opening plot encompasses only a fraction of the novel. William Hamleigh’s despicable behavior and Bishop Waleran’s evil schemes create a constant struggle for success in Kingsbridge, affecting the lives of Aliena, Richard, Prior Philip, and Tom Builder and his family. The epic continues as the characters age and the children become adults. The ensuing tale of love, betrayal, and revenge that connects all the characters results in a wonderfully written, sweeping epic that is impossible to put down for long.

Unfortunately, at times I did have to put down the book because I could not continue reading it until I had time to recover from the previous scene. Some of the vivid writing and the author’s ability to draw the reader completely into the story were too much for me. In particular, the author’s descriptions of the atrocities committed by William Hamleigh were horribly vivid, and I wish the author did not go into quite as much detail. However, the author’s skill in writing, and perhaps even his level of detail, very effectively causes readers to despise William and hope for his defeat. Despite my shudders at certain events in the novel, I picked up the book again every time because I simply had to find out if the heroes prevailed over William Hamleigh in the end.

The Pillars of the Earth is moving, fascinating, and brilliant. The characters have a lot of depth and personality, and seem like they could walk, live, off the page. Either that, or draw you into their world so that, if only briefly, you find yourself among the 12th century English craftsmen building a cathedral for the ages.