Monday, October 18, 2010

More Thoughts on Children of Dune and the Dune Trilogy

I haven't read much science fiction. Twenty years ago I read Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of five books, the original trilogy and the next two. From time to time I would pick up a sci fi book and get through it, but never with enough interest to cause me to seek more by the author. Of course, a number of sci fi movies have caught my fancy.

As a writer, a sci fi series has been occupying a few gray cells. But as a non-reader of sci fi, I can't really hope to write effective sci fi. That's okay, because I've plenty of other novels and non-fiction books and ideas consuming other gray cells. Still, if this near future series keeps coming to the surface, maybe I should pay more attention to sci fi and develop more of an eye and ear for it.

So what did I find right with Children of Dune and with the Dune Trilogy I've now finished? One thing was the obvious borrowing from the Arabic language and the desert culture of the Middle East and Africa. Frank Herbert uses a few words straight from the Arabic in their actual meaning, such as hajj and jihad. Otherwise much of the language is similar to Arabic.

The development of a desert ecosystem on the planet Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune, was impressive. The importance of water and how the Fremen, the desert dwellers of Dune, use and preserve it was well done. For a Fremen to spit in welcome of a guest is a sign of respect. When 14-year old Paul Atreides killed his first man in hand-to-hand combat, he cried. The Fremen were impressed that he "gave water for the dead." When a person dies, the body is rendered for the water because "His water belongs to the tribe." All Fremen wear a stil suit, which prevents their water from escaping into the desert atmosphere. And they always take a fremkit into the desert with them.

But the most interesting part of the desert ecosystem is the sand worm, worshiped by Fremen as Shai H'lud. Water poisons the worms, but somehow they thrive in the arid lands and grow to enormous size, some the length of a football field with a mouth 10 yards wide. They are deadly, and are attracted to any rhythmic noise. The Fremen know this, and from childhood learn to walk in the desert in a non-rhythmic way and thus do not attract the worms.

Unless they want to. The worms live mostly underground and bore through the sand, but move at good speed. The Fremen have learned that, when the worm breeches the ground, you can crawl up on the worm and insert hooks under the worm's segmental rings. The worm cannot "submerge" in the sand when their rings are separated. So they move on the surface, and a skilled Fremen can ride the worm for hours, directing it in any direction.

The worms make a spice called melange. I don't know if this is a type of worm excrement, or if they make it in the way bees make honey. Indigo in color, it is some kind of narcotic. The Fremen mine it and consume so much of it their eyes turn light blue on dark blue. Somehow it is essential for space navigation, but the three books never explain exactly how. Is it also a fuel? Or is the money from the spice trade what finances space travel? I would have liked to have that explained. The spice is the reason Arrakis is a desired planet, and becomes the place of legends and smuggling.

In Children of Dune, much effort has been put into transforming the desert planet into a well-watered land, filled with flora and fauna. The effort has the effect of limiting the worms' territory. Their population is shrinking, and they will be extinct within two centuries. No worms, no spice. No spice, no space travel. No spice, no value to Arrakis. Only Leto, the seven year old son of Paul Atreides seems to understand this. His quest to reverse this is an underlying theme of the book.

All of this takes significant development and creativity by the author. As I spend time on writers sites, it seems everyone is writing sci fi and its close cousin, fantasy. I think the idea is that no research is required, whereas it is in most other genres of fiction. But this seems wrong. The author of sci fi probably has more development time than does the writer of other genres. All the back story, all the unwritten centuries or millenia, must be in the author's mind. Knowing how much to share in a book or a series is a difficult decision for the author.

And Herbert is certainly a master of all of this. I've been critical of him for not giving quite enough back story for my liking. And I've criticized his writing style, especially in the last of the trilogy. But I cannot fault his development of the fantasy world of times in the future. Very well done.

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