Sunday, September 9, 2012

1966: Dune and This Immortal

              Wow, the first tie in Hugo Award history and one of the books is Frank Herbert’s Dune. For those of you that don’t know, Dune is one of the bestselling and most important works in the history of science fiction. How could it tie with a relatively unheard of book like This Immortal?  After having heard them both it isn’t as hard to see as you would imagine.
             Let’s begin with Dune. Dune is a very unconventional science fiction novel in a number of ways. Though it does take place in the future (20,000 years in the future), it does not feature computers, rockets, intelligent aliens, or any of the standard sci-fi troupes. Instead computers are forbidden and humanity has colonized much of the universe without finding any intelligent alien life. Travel between worlds is not accomplished by rockets but instead by ships that bend space to move from one end of the universe to the other. The government of the Known Universe is set up on medieval lines with an Emperor and Houses Major and Minor who control planets as fiefs. While much of science fiction shows government as democratic and efficient, the Imperium is decidedly byzantine and despotic with various factions with their own agendas fighting each other, both overtly and covertly. It’s a truly fascinating universe and easy to get lost in. Strangely, given the depth of the universe and the scale that is set up, a vast majority of the novel takes place on one planet, Arrakis also known as Dune. Arrakis is a desert world with little to recommend it except for one thing: the spice Melange. The spice is everything in Dune. It allows the navigators of the Spacing Guild to fold space making it vital for the economy and very existence of the Imperium. It expands the minds of people and lengths their lives. It is also very addictive. Spice can only be mined on Arrakis so the planet is the most vitally important in the Known Universe.
The story itself is about the son of Duke Leto Atreides, Paul. The Atreides are given the planet of Arrakis from their sworn enemies, the Harkonnens, led by the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The new fief is a trap set by the Baron and the Emperor to destroy the Atreides. The Baron wants to destroy his sworn enemy and the Emperor fears the Atreides rising power. Paul and his mother, Jessica, flee into the desert of Arrakis and create an army out of the native inhabitants, the Fremen, to destroy the Harkonnens and retake the planet. The description I just gave of Dune hardly captures what makes it a great novel. It’s like describing the Sun without mentioning that it is hot. Dune is well realized characters operating in a society unlike our own with interesting philosophical underpinnings. Paul’s mother is a member of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a group trying to create the perfect human. Herbert does an excellent job with the effects of environment effect on people and society and the role and misuse of religion. That is the reason that Dune is one of the great sci-fi novels and not just a great tale.
 I read Dune for the first time when I was in 7th grade and absolutely adored it. Not to date myself, but that was 17 years ago and I thought I should reread it for this review. It is still an excellent book and ranks as of one of my all-time favorites but there are some elements that could use some work. Herbert has a real problem switching perspectives which can be jarring. A section could be focusing on Jessica and then switch to Paul and switch again within a few pages. It is hardly a deal breaker but some tighter editing could fix that. This may seem like a strange complaint but characters are a bit too calculating. Everyone one is thinking 8 steps ahead and nothing happens without a great deal of intrigue. And I mean everyone; from the lowest Fremen to the noble houses, nearly every character is constantly on edge. This can be a bit wearing after a while and my reading of history shows that Herbert doesn’t use enough stupidity. These issues are small compared to how great this book. If you are a science fiction fan and you haven’t read Dune change that now. I mean right now. Stop reading and go get the book. You will not be disappointed.
I have one main problem with This Immortal: it is not as good as Dune. But it is very good. This can be a problem with a yearly award; some years are great and others are not. In my mind This Immortal should not have tied with Dune but it is far superior to The Wanderer. I guess 1966 was just a good year. Even though This Immortal is not Dune level good I am glad it tied with Dune; otherwise I probably never would have read it.
Roger Zelzany came up with an interesting premise for This Immortal. It takes place on devastated Earth with population of only 4 million. Most of the planet is radioactive and people can only live in tropical and temperate areas by ocean so the world capital is Port-du-Prince, Haiti and Greece is the home of our titular hero, Conrad. Conrad is enjoying his honeymoon on a Greek island when he is called to Port-du-Prince to take a Vegan around the planet to some of the ruined sights. Conrad has little choice because the Vegans own Earth and treat it as a tourist destination. Conrad takes this Vegan around with a company of former lovers, enemies, and friends. The Vegan, who claims he is on a mission to record the monuments of Earth, is important but Conrad doesn’t know why. Because of this he defends the Vegan from numerous attempts on his life including, but no limited to, mutated animals, members of his own company, and savage natives.
What sells this novel is Zelzany’s excellent writing and the likability of his main character. Conrad, who narrates the story in first person, is a joy to read. He maybe an immortal but he is a hardly typical. He has a pronounced limb because one leg is shorter than the other, a scared face and an irreverent sense of human. I wanted to spend more time with this character and learn more about his past that is hinted at throughout the novel. It was a short but fun 200 odd pages and made me interested in reading more of Roger Zelzany’s work.
What can else can I say but that 1966 was a good year for science fiction. Two excellent books and I discovered a new author I liked. I should always be this lucky. Read both of these books. This Immortal might be hard to find.  I only found it at the University of Delaware library. Dune can be found anywhere. Go now and read them both. You will be disappointed.

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