Reading Slowdown

I have three books under the heading “Reading Now” on my current “Reading List” page:

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, James Runcie
Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein

sidney chambers.jpgThe James Runcie book has been there for several months. It’s a book of short stories and so far I’ve only read the first and wasn’t engaged enough to want to rush on to the next one. I leave it on my list because I’ll get a round to the next story eventually.

I got the book because I heard an interview with the author who is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. The stories feature a C of E minister as the main character, who finds himself investigating suspicious deaths. The books were adapted into a TV series Grantchester,  which apparently takes a lot of liberties with the main character. The author mentioned in the interview, something along the lines that a real priest would have been thrown out of the church if he’d acted the way of the televised version.

Green MarsGreen Mars is the sequel to Red Mars, and continues the story of colonists on Mars.

In the series so far there have been some allusions to early America, leading up to the war of Independence; with the colonists growing to feel exploited by their home land (home planet) and developing a growing passion for an independent, self sufficient  new home, free of the exploitation of a distant colonial power.

I started this one several days ago, but have been distracted too much by other (non-reading) things to get far into the book yet. Maybe I shouldn’t have picked this one up straight after reading the first three volumes of the Dune series. Something a little less bulky may have been a better reading option than a 550+ page book midway through another sizable trilogy

noisnotenoughI started on Naomi Klein’s  No Is Not Enough because of some of those (political) distractions. I can only shake my head in disbelief at what has been going on in Australian politics, and I spent far too much time trying to keep up with the last few sitting days of parliament.  The cost of that has been my usual lunch-hour reading time.

Klein’s book shines a light on a lot of what is behind that current political situation from a North American viewpoint. Problems that aren’t restricted one particular nation, but are evident throughout the “western” world.

This book draws together the issues she’s written about in earlier books in greater detail. No Is Not Enough shows how all of those issues have become focused into a single point in the person and Presidency of Donald Trump.

However rather than merely add a negative voice of despair and opposition, Klein wants to look at positive answers to turn around the political and cultural systems that led to Trump’s political rise.

None of these books have maintained my interest enough to make me want to keep reading, so my progress through them has been slow, and my attention has been drifting towards other books. I suspect I’ll be finishing another book or two before I get to the end of any of these three. I’m already approaching the end of one about the manned Apollo missions of the late 60s – early 70s and have tentatively started another about the retrieval of the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia after it broke up on re-entry in February 2003 (so long ago, how time flies!)

sts 107

 

Advertisements

Children of Dune

CODI’d initially called my Dune Messiah post “They Lived Happily Ever After. Until…”

I’ll mention my alternative title for this post later.

Dune Messiah depicts the times and events after the “fairytale ending” of Dune where the protagonist had finally overcome the obstacles he faced.
After that apparent victory, reality starts to intrude and the promise of ongoing stability is shown to be a vain expectation.

Where Dune traced the downfall and restoration of the House of Atriedes, Dune Messiah showed the consequences of taking more power than what was originally lost.

With more power comes more responsibility and increasing dangers. New Emperor Paul Muad’Dibh has to face threats to his unborn heirs as other powers conspire to control the succession to the Imperial throne. Paul finds the only available solution requires great personal sacrifice.

Children of Dune picks up the story several years later after Paul’s sacrifice. His sister Alia has been made Regent until the twin heirs, Leto and Ghanima reach adulthood, but whose interests is she really representing?

Other surviving major characters from the previous two books return in Children of Dune, but all seem to get caught up in parts of different conspiracies; with plans within plans all of which lead to uncertain goals. I don’t think I’m revealing any “spoilers” if I say that no one seems to achieve the outcome they desired.

Above I said I’d reveal my alternative title for this post:

“I Created a World So I’m Going to Use It.”

After building a convincing, complex setting for Dune, including its landscape, ecology, technology, politics, religion, commerce and mythology, I feel that Herbert didn’t want  to cast all of that work aside – but wanted to make as much use as possible of his created universe; even if he didn’t quite have the same strength of story to combine with it.

The Dune series started with a book I loved so much in my teens that I immediately reread it. Going back to the book 40 years later I can understand why. I can also see why I never took to the sequels. Both have enjoyable moments and occasional hints of intrigue,  but as a whole they don’t work for me.

Dune had a definite, structured, compelling narrative that led to a purposeful conclusion. The sequels, perhaps moreso Children of Dune, seem more like part of an ongoing, unending saga with characters I decreasingly care about.

There are three more Frank Herbert penned books in the series. I’ll take a break and read other things before I think of starting on them.

And I think I’ll avoid the many prequels and sequels written by Herbert’s son, Brian.

 

Governments, if they endure, always tend increasingly toward aristocratic forms. No government in history has been able to evade this pattern. And as the aristocracy develops, government tends more and more to act exclusively in the interests of the ruling class – whether that class be hereditary royalty, oligarchs of financial empires, or entrenched bureaucracy.

– Politics as Repeat Phenomenon: Bene Gesserit Training Manual.

 

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

I can see why, despite my love of the book Dune, my teenage-self wasn’t able to warm to its sequel Dune Messiah.

dune messiah.jpg

The overall achievements of Paul Atriedes (Muad’Dib) in Dune now seem to have questionable merit, being driven into a position where the things most important to him are overwhelmed by consequences of leadership that he can’t control; such as the feared Jihad in his name.

In one section of the book, Paul talks about leaders in the distant past who were responsible for the deaths of millions.  He compares this to the numbers killed under (despite?) his leadership.

“There’s another emperor I want you to note in passing – a Hitler. He killed more than six million. Pretty good for those days.”

“Killed…by his legions?” Stilgar asked.

“Yes.”

“Not very impressive statistics, m’Lord.”

“Very good, Stil … Statistics:  at a conservative estimate, I’ve killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others. I’ve wiped out the followers of forty religions…”

It’s a part of the book that made me feel very uneasy. While I assume it intends to lay out the scale of the atrocities committed in Paul’s name,  it also potentially minimises Hitler’s culpibility, as well as the scale of the atrocities for which he was responsible.

Paul’s problems aren’t resticted to the lack of control he has over his legions of followers and their jihad.

A secretive group of influential people meet to conspire against Paul, but the actual aim of the conspiracy (apart from Paul’s downfall) isn’t clear. Each of the group seems to have their own agenda, all of which appear to be at odds with the aims of the  others. The plan that unfolds potentially benefits only one of those conspirators.

Paul has a vision pointing to his own demise; and being forewarned gives the potential of being forearmed. Can he avert that fate?

One of the more direct personal costs he faces is the threat his position causes towards those he loves. Can he guarantee a secure future for his family and ensure there’s an Atreides heir to his Imperial throne?

Dune TrilogyCompared to the other parts of Herbert’s Dune series, Dune Messiah is a very short book, and seems more like a bridge to link the first and third parts than a novel in its own right. This time I’ve been reading the books in one volume collection, and in that context I think Dune Messiah makes more sense, and is more satisfying than when I first attempted it as a stand alone novel 40 years ago.

If there is a redeeming theme within this book itself, as a separate part of the overall story, it’s the depiction of the dangers arising when religion gains, and becomes, a primarily political power.

The horrific results of that can be seen throughout human history.

Dune by Frank Herbert

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.

– from the “Manual of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan.

How do I begin with my thoughts on Dune?

dune

A Science Fiction novel mixing a kind of medieval feudalism with advanced technologies, written in the 1960s, and yet seemingly cogniscent of current 21st century issues.

Politics. Religion. Ecological sciences. Religious wars. Conservation. Environmentalism. Exploitative economics…

“The historical systems of mutual pillage and extortion stops here… You cannot go on forever stealing what you need without regard to those who come after.”

Some of the main protagonists/antagonists within the novel are:

The House of Atreides is headed by Duke Leto who has been commissioned by the Emperor to govern the planet Arrakis, source of the empire’s most valuable commodity, the spice melange.
Leto knows the appointment is a trap, meant to cause his downfall, but it is a commission he can’t refuse. His son and heir, Paul becomes the central figure in the course events of to come.

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen has ambitions for the increased prominence of his own family that will require the destruction of the House Atreides He has particular ambitions for his nephew and heir Feyd-Rautha, a nasty piece of work who loves the thrill of gladiatorial combat – as long as the odds are nefariously manipulated to his favour.

The Bene Gesseret sisterhood are a  nun-like order who for centuries have surreptitiously controlled family lines by selective breeding, and have introduced religious teachings and myths into the lore of chosen ethnic groups, with the aim of producing and making way for the Kwisatz Haderach, a male messianic figure through whom they plan to increase their order’s power.

The Fremen are an underestimated, mysterious, fierce and resilient desert race on the planet Arrakis who know the secret of the spice and its production, and have adapted their ways to survive with minimal water.

I first read Dune in 1977. It is perfectly paced and structured, well plotted with strong relatable characters.
I picked it up whenever I could, always eager to get back to the story, not wasting a moment of my spare time on anything else.
When I reached the end, I immediately started it again. The only time I’ve ever done that.

42 years later I read it for a third time, and can see why I enjoyed the book to that degree in my teens.

Unlike so much science fiction, this story hasn’t dated. At times in the intervening years, events in the news stirred my memories of the book.
For example, it was in Dune that I first came across the term jihad, a word that has gained wide familiarity during the 21st century. Herbert’s use of it leans more on historical accounts of  real desert peoples, who were a clear inspiration for some elements of the desert people who play a pivotal role in this book, but when the word was used in the context of recent politics (the “war on terror”), I recalled its relevance in Dune.

Paul Atreides, later Paul Muad’Dib, has prescient dreams of armies conducting jihad in his name. As other dreams prove to be accurate premonitions, can he prevent the violence he foresees being done by his future followers?

I recall my teenage self longing to play Paul Artreides in a film version of the story: despite the fact I was no actor and had no chance of getting close to any film makers able to bring the book to the screen. And despite having no physical similarity to Paul .
The character seemed so real to me. I could identify with him to an extent that perhaps only a boy in his late teens, desiring adventure and meaning, could.
That is clearly an aspect of the book that doesn’t have the same effect when I read as a 60-ish year old, but my enjoyment of the book hasn’t diminished because of that.

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds is probably HG Wells’ best known book, having been the inspiration of two major Hollywood films, an infamous 1938 radio play by Orson Wells, as well as Jeff Wayne’s 1970’s recording extravaganza (revisited from 2006 onwards live on stage).

TWOTW.jpgThe radio play and two films relocated the story to 1930’s, 1950’s and later 2000’s America while the musical version retained the setting of Victorian England.

While looking for something to illustrate an earlier blog post about Red Mars, I came across the following video, and was motivated to dig out my copy of Wells’ book.

A few decades must have passed since I read it. I suspect it might have been as far back as my teen years, scarily almost half a century ago now.

One thing made obvious by War of the Worlds is how things have changed since Wells wrote the book. The “science” and the societal attitudes expressed in the book could best be described as naïve or ill-informed.

Too much criticism of the science is unfair, considering it’s only in recent decades that our scientific knowledge has reached the capability of identifying Mars as an uninhabitable, desolate planet, with many long held assumptions about it being overturned by information gained through NASA’s space program.

Criticism of “societal” attitudes is a different matter. There is a clear colonial superiority displayed early in the book, where Well’s narrator tries to understand the justification of Martians attacking earth and wiping out humanity.

“…before we judge them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” [my bold emphasis]

That idea of “inferior races” may also have some relevance in the fact that the Martian invasion of earth seems entirely focused on London (presumably the centre of the civilised world in Victorian thinking), with the invaders cylindrical spacecraft all being launched at targets in the countryside surrounding London.

I considered that maybe London only seemed to be the target because the story is being told by a narrator from that area, and the actual invasion is more widespread. But if that was the case, how is it possible for some to flee London, by ship, to safety in Europe as many do?

She had never been out of England before, she would rather die than trust herself friendless in a foreign country… She seemed, poor woman, to imagine that the French and the Martians might prove very similar.

Apart from the politics and science, the style of writing is also clearly of another era. Written in a dry, matter of fact way (with just an occasional hint of restrained melodrama: ” ‘Death!’ I shouted. ‘Death is coming! Death!’ “).

As a reader, through most of the book, I felt like a dispassionate observer with little reason to feel the horror, sorrow or fear that would in reality have pervaded the characters’ experience throughout the story. There’s a strong “stiff upper lip” feel to the narration.

The narrator’s voice also creates distance through its use of formal, perhaps outdated, language. I can only wonder how that would have worked with Wells’ contemporary readership. Would they have been more emotionally drawn into the story?

The outdated language also provides an occasional unfortunate turn of phrase:

He heard footsteps running to and fro in the rooms, and up and down stairs behind him. His landlady came to the door, loosely wrapped in dressing-gown and shawl; her husband followed ejaculating.
[A term used a few times by Wells to describe a character’s vocal outburst – onesimus]

The Victorian setting provides one of the more interesting aspects of the book: being written when communication wasn’t instant.  In a time when news travelled slowly, even to the next town or village. Those only a few miles away remain ignorant of a major, world-changing event, a Martian invasion, because news sources and communication methods are limited, relying on telegrams, newspapers, and word of mouth from travellers.

…he saw a news vendor approaching him, and got a paper forthwith. The man was running away with the rest and selling his papers for a shilling each as he ran – a grotesque mingling of profit and panic.

And from this paper my brother read that catastrophic despatch of the Commander -in Chief:

“The Martians are… slowly advancing towards London destroying everything on the way. It is impossible to stop them.”

That would be handled so differently today, where the majority of the population would be informed instantly by text, email or social media of what was going on. In considering that, I have to wonder how much of the news of a present day alien invasion would be dismissed as just another internet conspiracy.

When Wells wrote this book, obviously so much technology we take for granted didn’t exist – and neither did alien invasion literature. This is the book that started it all. When we look at the countless novels and films about invaders from mars, or “it” coming from outer-space,  or invasions of body snatchers – and countless similar scenarios, it was HG wells who started it, with this book.

Forty Signs of Rain

forty_signs_of_rain(cover)If not for my commitment to finish every book I start, I think I would have given up on this one.

So what was the problem I had with it?

Firstly, there was an extensive early section of scientific jargon, something seemingly about genetics and proteins and immunology, that might make sense to someone with insider knowledge, but I couldn’t follow what it was all about. A more concise usage could have given the required flavour, without completely dulling the overall  effect.

I have nothing against the use of scientific discussion within a book when used to enlighten, or to add a sense of authenticity to the story. I recently read and enjoyed the author’s  much larger book Red Mars, and wasn’t put off by the technical/scientific content that often went way over my head. That book engaged me through character and landscape and its overall sense of wonder. I could accept it’s technical elements as  texture to the story and not a distracting, unfathomable  intrusion.

In contrast to the “hard science”, there was a section about a stay-at-home dad working part time work for a senator, and struggling to balance the work and child-raising. While giving a more human, domestic aspect to the story, the early sections of this narrative thread didn’t engage or maintain my interest, and again I had to push myself to keep reading.

Other parts of the story were about the political and commercial wrangling required by scientists to carry out their work – influences and hindrances that may even prevent worthwhile science from progressing. Commercial interests pick up and discard according to perceived profitable outcomes with years of research and slow progress being cast aside to pursue more immediate possibilities of financial gain.

What has been reluctantly tolerated as  frustrating bureaucratic reality, in the day to day politics of practicing science,  inevitably becomes crippling when science is faced with a crisis that  has no regard for political or commercial ideologies. *

I’d read through a lot of the book before I found that it was part of a trilogy and that all three parts have been compiled into a single volume (updated and abridged) under the title Green Earth.

Before I bought this single volume of the first book, I already had Green Earth on my “wishlist” with an online book seller and didn’t realise that Forty Signs was part of it, otherwise I would have bought the compilation and not this first book.

I bought Forty Signs of Rain because it was supposed to be about climate change.  Disappointingly, climate change seemed at best a peripheral issue through most of it, only becoming more important towards the end.  But now, knowing it is the first part of a trilogy, I can see the book as an introduction or a prelude instead of a novel in its own right. It also helps me make sense of a relatively short book’s apparently slow narrative progress.  That same pace in a larger book could be more acceptable.

Above I mention the heavy loading of scientific jargon in a section referring to “genetics and proteins and immunology”. Within this book that section seemed to have no narrative purpose and to me it seemed like padding – or as if the author was feeling his way along a path that he decided to abandon.

Could that episode have later relevance in the later parts of the trilogy? That’s a question I could ask about several other loose threads in the book that don’t seem to have purpose or lead anywhere.

Now the questions I need to ask are – should I treat this as a one-off, mostly disappointing novel and forget the rest? Or should I take the chance and carry on with the rest of the trilogy with the expectation of it all working better as a longer story ?

If the latter, do I turn to the newer abridged compilation (which may have removed some of the more tedious aspects) or do I try to find the original editions of the remaining two separate books?

________________

*        Note, this book addressing climate change was published in 2004 – and today, 15 years later, ideology is still trampling over scientific reality when it comes to climate science.