Monday, 22 April 2013

Herbert's DUNE, Heinlein's GULF, Schmidt's DEMON BREED

Frank Herbert's novel Dune is a masterpiece, I'm told. At least, it is a Hugo Award winner, a Nebula Award winner, and one of the required texts in a university course I once took on Science Fiction. However, it is horribly overwritten. If it had been properly edited (say I), the book would be about one third of its current length and much better for it. To see what I mean, look at this passage from near the start of the book.
Paul sensed his own tensions, decided to practice one of the mind-body lessons his mother had taught him. Three quick breaths triggered the responses: he fell into the floating awareness . . . focusing the consciousness . . . aortal dilation . . . avoiding the unfocused mechanism of consciousness . . . to be conscious by choice . . . blood enriched and swift-flooding the overload regions . . . one does not obtain food-safety-freedom by instinct alone . . . animal consciousness does not extend beyond the given moment nor into the idea that its victims may become extinct . . . the animal destroys and does not produce . . . animal pleasures remain close to sensation levels and avoid the perceptual . . . the human requires a background grid through which to see his universe . . . focused consciousness by choice, this forms your grid . . . bodily integrity follows nerve-blood flow according to the deepest awareness of cell needs . . . all things/cells/beings are impermanent . . . strive for flow-permanence within . . .

Over and over and over within Paul's floating awareness the lesson rolled.
The key to this passage is the phrase is "over and over and over...," but clarity is not enhanced by repetition. How can one "fall into the floating awareness," which is referred to later as "Paul's floating awareness," while simultaneously "focusing the consciousness"? Evidently by "avoiding the unfocused mechanism of consciousness." Clarity is further evaded by insensitive diction. Herbert writes, "the human requires a background grid through which to see his universe," which puts the grid into its place as "background," but it somehow gets in front of us so that we can see through it. Aargh!

Even people who like the book notice its compulsive repetition:  the phrase "over and over and over" is echoed by "plans within plans within plans," "a feint within a feint within a feint," "tricks within tricks within tricks," "treachery within treachery within treachery," "wheels within wheels within wheels," "blue within blue within blue," and even "the spirit of spirits..." Aargh!

Dune is, simply, verbally obese. Other writers show superhuman capacities in their characters without Herbert's maundering.

Let's take Robert Heinlein's novella Gulf, published in the November and December issues of Astounding Science Fiction.

Two people are imprisoned. They need to communicate privately, but they are being watched and listened to. One of them, however, has a deck of cards so, on the spot, he invents a game that is also a method of communication.
" is a game I learned as a kid." He paused and stared into Gilead's eyes. "It's instructive as well as entertaining, yet it's simple, once you catch on to it." He started dealing out the cards. "It makes a better game with two decks, because the black cards don't mean anything- Just the twenty-six red cards in each deck count-with the heart suit coming first. Each card scores according to its position in that sequence, the ace of hearts is one and the king of hearts counts thirteen; the ace of diamonds is next at fourteen and so on. Savvy?"
"And the blacks don't count. They're blanks . . . spaces. Ready to play?"
"What are the rules?"
"We'll deal out one hand for free; you'll learn faster as you see it. Then, when you've caught on, I'll play you for a half interest in the atomics trust-or ten bits in cash." He resumed dealing, laying the cards out rapidly in columns, five to a row. He paused, finished. "It's my deal, so it's your count. See what you get."
It was evident that Baldwin's stacking had brought the red cards into groups, yet there was no evident advantage to it, nor was the count especially high- nor low. Gilead stared at it, trying to figure out the man's game. The cheating, as cheating seemed too bold to be probable.
Suddenly the cards jumped at him, arranged them- selves in a meaningful array. He read:
I understand the level of intelligence referenced by this passage. I realize it is far, far, above mine and am suitably impressed.

Or, if it is not sheer intelligence, but intelligence combined with extraordinary ability to control one's autonomic nervous system that is the key to Paul Atreides' superhuman status, then look at how this is indicated in the beginning of James Schmitz's novel The Demon Breed. 
As the pain haze began to thin out, Ticos Cay was somewhat surprised to find he was still on his feet. This had been a brutally heavy treatment—at moments it had seemed almost impossible to control. However, he had controlled it. The white-hot sensations, which hadn’t
quite broken through with full impact into consciousness, faded to something like a sullenly lingering glow. Then that faded too. His vision began to clear.
Cautiously he allowed himself to accept complete awareness of his body again. It was still an unpleasant experience. There were sharp twinges everywhere, a feeling of having been recently pierced and sliced by tiny hot knives; the residue of pain. The lasting damage caused by one of these pain treatments to the human nervous system and sensory apparatus was slight but measurable. The accumulative effect of a series of treatments was no longer slight; and there had been over twenty of them during the past weeks. Each time now, taking stock of the physical loss he had suffered during the process, Ticos wondered whether he would be forced to acknowledge that the damage had spread to the point where it could no longer be repaired.
However, it hadn’t happened on this occasion. His mind was fogged over; but it always was for a short while after a treatment. Reassured, he shifted attention from his internal condition to his surroundings.
The book itself is about a young woman, Dr. Niles Etland, who must impersonate a superhuman in order to prevent an alien invasion. She impersonates it so well that the reader is left wondering if she is, contrary to her own estimation, superhuman.

To return to my point, Dune is widely regarded as well-written, but I've always found its prose puffy, imprecise, and even conducive to headaches. As the theme song to Monk says, "I could be wrong now, but I don't think so."

I suppose I'll just have to wait for the world to sway towards my opinions. It's bound to happen, someday. :-)

A Little About James Schmitz and Literary Cross-dressing

For those who don't know James Schmitz, the author of The Demon Breed, he was a writer who has given me much pleasure over the years. He was ahead of the pack in making ecology a central concept in his stories, even back in the sixties. His human characters often had mutually respectful alliances with sentient non-humans, such as the otters in The Demon Breed and telepathic big cats in The Universe Against Her. He also, consistently, wrote stories with strong female protagonists.

He makes an interesting contrast with "Andre Norton" (Alice Mary Norton) who had a similar concern with ecology, who often had human and animal alliances, and who preferred to write stories with strong male protagonists.

These two belong to the category of science fiction writers who prefer to write stories about somebody of the opposite sex. That category would make an interesting blog posting if I could think of any other writers who belong to it.

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