Friday, March 16, 2018

Dune by Frank Herbert

A few months ago I was meditating upon the fact that while many of my favourite novels are fantasy, most of my favourite films are science fiction, when I realised that part of the reason for this might be that I haven't actually read a lot of science fiction. 
So I decided that was 2018 would be The Year I Dug Into Sci-Fi. Or specifically, my favourite subgenre of science fiction: space opera. You know space opera, of course, from Star Wars - TV Tropes summarises it like this:
Space Opera refers to works set in a spacefaring civilization, usually, though not always, set in the future, specifically the far future. Technology is ubiquitous and secondary to the story. Space opera has an epic character to it: the universe is big, there are usually many sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigue. The action will range part of a solar system, at least, and possibly a whole galaxy or more than one. It frequently takes place in a Standard Sci Fi Setting. It has a romantic element which distinguishes it from most Hard Science Fiction: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring scenery, and insanely gorgeous men and women. 
Historically, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations. Planetary Romance was more or less Heroic Fantasy In Space. [...] 
Expect to see a dashing hero cavorting around in a Cool Starship, Green Skinned Space Babes, Crystal Spires and Togas civilizations full of Space Elves, Wave Motion Guns capable of dealing an Earth-Shattering Kaboom on a daily basis, and an evil Galactic Empire with a Standard Sci-Fi Fleet, including an entire universe full of beat-up mechanical objects capable of being resurrected with Percussive Maintenance.
Space opera is often rather light on the science part of science fiction, though it doesn't have to be - John C Wright's Golden Age trilogy is a good bit harder than Star Wars. What space opera always should be, is awesome. Peirce Brown's Red Rising trilogy, especially the two later books, are another excellent example of the genre. I had loved these books, so I decided to hunt up a few more, and finally decided to read Frank Herbert's 1966 space opera/plantetary romance classic, Dune.

The deadly desert planet Arrakis is the galaxy's only source of melange, an addictive spice which grants the user undefined mental enhancement. When the Padishah Emperor grants the planet as a fief to Duke Leto Atriedes, however, it doesn't take the duke long to figure out that this is actually part of a complicated plot by the planet's previous lord, Baron Harkonnen, to destroy House Atreides once and for all. With the whole galaxy stacked against his family, young Paul Atreides realises that his only hope of survival lies in the desert, with the secretive, nomadic Fremen people...

I don't know why I left this book so long, although in hindsight reading it now was a good choice. The main star of Dune is not plot, characters, nor theme: it's the setting (or worldbuilding, as the term is in speculative fiction). Most of the book takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis, which is almost a character in its own right, and Herbert constructs his fictional cultures from a fascinating web of elements taken from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Islamic and even Jewish culture, with just a pinch of ancient Rome for good measure. Obviously, all this means much more to me now, after three years researching the medieval history of the Near East. 

Additionally, this level of worldbuilding - the politics, the ecology, the backstory - is something that usually takes a good deal of exposition to bring readers up to date. And there is a lot of exposition in this book. One of the things that astonished me was how brilliantly Herbert handled it, using one simple trick: suspense. Early on in the story, we learn the baddies' plot in full. Meanwhile, the Atreides are going about their business with no cloud on the horizon, while the reader is on tenterhooks for the backstabbing to start. But perhaps the most stunning example of this technique comes in one chapter which is basically an extended lecture on ecology. Herbert takes something that would otherwise be rather dry and uninteresting, and he puts us on the edge of our seats for it. How? Well, the person giving the lecture is a hallucination, and the person listening to the lecture is lost in the desert, aware that he is lying directly on top of something that could blow up any minute. It wasn't just a dramatic moment within the story - it was a brilliant and even audacious move on the part of the author himself.

Another of the unique aspects of this book was its female characters, especially Paul's mother Jessica. As I was reading the book, I was thinking, "When was the last time I read a story about a boy and his mother having adventures?" And then, "When was the last time I read a story about a pregnant woman fighting a nomad chief and winning?" Lady Jessica was unusually prominent in this story, especially for a book published in 1966. Even for today, she was an awesome character - level-headed, practical, and three-dimensional. It wasn't just that she got to have adventures: it was that Herbert treated her with every bit as much respect and attention to detail as he treated his male characters. While CS Lewis's Orual from Till We Have Faces will probably always be my favourite example of men writing women well, Herbert's Lady Jessica was excellent too. 

It's surprising, then, to see how, well, badly the women in this story are treated. Both Jessica and another prominent female character are smart, competent women who remain the concubines of powerful men who decide not to marry them because it's possible that in the future, there may be an opportunity for a more advantageous political marriage. It made the book rather depressing to see these excellent female characters voluntarily accepting less than they deserved.

In fact, this whole book has something of a downer ending. It's not one of those series where the individual books work well as standalones; this is clearly just the first instalments of a much bigger story, which is by no means over yet. So the ending is not very conclusive to begin with. I think the depressing aspect of the book has more to do with its theme.

Paul Atreides, our protagonist, turns out to be the fulfillment of not one but two prophecies. The Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood with awesome Jedi powers (it didn't take long to figure out that Star Wars borrows heavily from Dune, which is so much fun) have been overseeing an extensive breeding program for centuries in order to produce the Kwisatz Haderach - a man with all the Bene Gesserit abilities, but without their blind spot. Meanwhile, the Fremen desert dwellers are waiting for the Lisan-al-Gaib who will transform their wild desert planet to a garden paradise. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Paul Atreides may be both. With advanced mental powers including the ability to see present, past, and future, Paul is the galaxy's smartest individual and well on the way to becoming the most powerful. 

But his messianic status is far from being a good thing. First, he can't change the future no matter what he tries to do. Despite every attempt, he still realises that in the future his followers will kill and destroy their way across the galaxy in his name. Second, despite the partial insight given by his powers, he still doesn't know everything and when he can't see what's about to happen, he's paralysed by the unaccustomed uncertainty. Third, he quickly discovers that being a messiah is murder on personal relationships and the people around him. As messiah, Paul has worshippers, but not friends. "Will I lose Gurney, too? Paul wondered. The way I lost Stilgar - losing a friend to gain a creature?" It's the same dilemma Jessica faces - she can use the Voice, a sort of Jedi mind trick, to force the people she loves to obey her - but then they will no longer be the people she loves and who love her. They will be her slaves. 

The theme of Dune therefore has to do with the dangers of deification. And while the message is presented in a pessimistic way, I think it's actually a very important one. Humans aren't God, and any assumption of divinity will only bring destruction. And here's where I could dig into theology and talk about how it makes all the difference to have God become man as opposed to man becoming God - but instead I'll just point you to RJ Rushdoony's excellent book The Foundations of Social Order.

Frank Herbert's Dune is a terrific science fiction adventure with much to think about, which takes a uniquely tragic look at the old "Chosen One" trope. Recommended for teens and up.

I haven't seen any film adaptations of Dune, but I'm pretty excited to hear that Denis Villeneuve is going to direct a movie shortly. Villeneuve has done some terrific work recently and if anyone can bring Arrakis to life, it's him.

Find Dune at Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

In 2017, after having mostly avoided them all my life, I surprised myself by falling head-over-heels for Shakespeare's history plays. I made it through both the Major and the Minor Tetralogies last year, but didn't get around to reading the two 'standalones' - Henry VIII or King John - before the year's end.

And so I pick up again with Henry VIII, which seemed a logical place to start after having finished with Richard III last year. A rather impressionistic, telescoped version of the history, Henry VIII begins with Henry's nobles in the midst of a power struggle with Henry's Lord Chancellor and chief advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey neither has noble patrons, nor was born noble, nor has earned nobility through service to the crown: but (gasp!)
he gives us note
The force of his own merit makes his way.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Our Villain for Tonight, Cardinal Wolsey. Shakespeare (and possibly his co-writer John Fletcher) faced a rather nasty conundrum in this play, in which he attempts to tell the story of Henry VIII's divorce of Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn in the most diplomatic way possible, without throwing shade on either Anne (mother of the beloved Elizabeth I) or Katherine (herself a deeply beloved queen). His solution seems to have been that he was going to blame Wolsey for everything.

This is actually a fairly time-honoured tactic. The divine right of kings was a hangover from ancient paganism that had never been fully challenged by medieval Christendom, but the assumed primacy of the Church in all of life ensured that for most of the medieval period, the divine right wasn't exercised with full freedom. Not only did the Reformation shatter that assumption of the primacy of the Church, but it revived the divine right of kings doctrine in the attempt to do so. For many reformers, the primacy of the state was a major argument against the primacy of the Church and Henry VIII, a power-loving tyrant if ever there was one, was not slow to take advantage of this. In effect, he used the English Reformation as a way to neuter the church, which had once been a powerful counterbalance to the crown's power in England, and transform it into a mere arm of the state. In doing so, he ushered in an age of absolutism in England which would not end until 1688 and the (not-so, but we can discuss that another time) Glorious Revolution. Anyway, the point is that during this period, during which Shakespeare was writing, the divine right of kings meant that the king could do no wrong. The closest you could come to crying foul play was blaming the king's bad advisors - a nice legal fiction that tended to get various earls and dukes beheaded without ever actually touching the king.

Cardinal Wolsey, then, was the ideal scapegoat for the desperate playwright, and this play is an excellent example of how the divine right of kings worked in practice. In Richard II, Shakespeare had made some very subtle criticisms of the doctrine with the result of waking the Queen's ire - and that was a king from two hundred years previous, not the rather more recent Henry VIII, who would therefore have to be handled with kid gloves.

The Henry in this play, then, is exactly how his own propaganda depicted him - a rather jolly and heroic figure sincerely conscience-stricken by his marriage to his brother's widow (although Shakespeare can't resist having someone crack that it's not his conscience that bothers him - it's his desire for Anne). Meanwhile, Wolsey is the villain; right up to his fall from the king's grace, that is. I loved what happens next: Wolsey discovers humility. Shakespeare depicts him in a mildly Flannery O'Connor way as a man whose soul is finally saved by his own downfall, and his final scene is one of the most memorable and moving things in the play.

Another of the notable things in this play is the character of Katherine of Aragon herself. As mentioned above, during her lifetime she was intensely popular, and as far as I can tell she thoroughly deserved it. Whether sticking to her guns throughout her divorce, or rallying them very literally that one time when Henry was away and Scotland invaded and she rode north to oversee the defence - well, Protestant I may be, but I admire Katherine. I didn't expect Shakespeare to treat her as well as he does, however, given that her claim to be Henry's lawful wife threatened Elizabeth I's claim to the throne. But he does. Katherine of Aragon almost dominates this play, arguing her case with lines taken directly from the historical record. And it's awesome. Anne Bullen/Boleyn, by contrast, barely appears in the play, and her treatment is far more ambivalent: her biggest scene is one in which she claims to feel sorry for Katherine, while a shrewd old lady in waiting accuses her of shedding crocodile tears while waiting for her own chance to become queen. There's enough plausible deniability in the scene to prevent the playwrights getting in any trouble, but there's more than enough to make the audience nod knowingly.

The play drops any attempt at subtlety whatsoever in the final scene, which turns into a panegyric to the praise of the newborn Elizabeth I and closes on that happy note, before anyone can pop up to accuse Anne Boleyn of anything. Wikipedia tells me that there's been some historical debate over when Henry VIII was actually written, but my assumption on reading the play was that it dated after Elizabeth's death, owing to a few lines that refer to James I. Despite this, Henry VIII remains a testament to the utmost care renaissance authors had to use when writing about their kings.

This is not to look down my nose at the play. I do think that if Shakespeare had been in a position to take more risks, Henry VIII might have been more than what it is. This is not a Richard II or a Henry V (indeed maybe it says something that one of his greatest history plays, Richard III, deals with its title character as a usurper and criminal) and probably its greatest drawback is the somewhat fuzzy depiction of the central character. But Henry VIII is still Shakespeare, and as a result, it's still well worth reading and thinking about.

Find Henry VIII on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or as an audio recording on YouTube.


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