Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: Dune, The Santaroga Barrier and The Green Brain By Frank Herbert

Here are three brand new reviews of classic science fiction novels for Dark Roasted Blend:


Without a doubt, Dune is a legend – as is Frank Herbert, its author. The book, and Herbert, has awards; and there’s the Dune movie, the Dune miniseries, the Dune games, The Dune sequel … and the sequel, sequel, sequel (five in all). It’s considered by many to be the most successful/popular science fiction to date.

Here’s the thing, though: is Dune really (or, "simply") science fiction?

Now don’t get me wrong, Dune is a fantastic, incredible novel: wildly imaginative, brilliantly plotted, amazingly told, and totally original. It also certainly has many speculative details: a far-far future settling, an alien world, genetic memory, and so forth.

But if you strip away a good percentage of those speculative ideas what remains behind could very easily be an excellent novel. The story of Dune really has less to do with the SF details and more with Herbert’s skill as a storyteller. Dune is a carefully crafted tale of politics and intrigue: the characters – from the Savior of Dune and the Fremen, Paul Atreides (aka Muad'Dib), to the Head of House Harkonnen, The Baron – are maneuvering and manipulating everything around them on a complex social chessboard. A great example of this is the famous banquet sequence where nothing is as it appears and every gesture and manner is a carefully planned strategic exercise.

Dune is also often called an early ‘ecological’ novel, meaning that Herbert addresses what’s now a pretty common theme: that nature is an essential – and very fragile – necessity. The Fremen are a perfect example of this: they live not on their desert world but with it, respecting it’s tremendous power as well as it’s precarious health. Again, if you take out the sandworms and the spice they create Dune could still stand as a powerful statement about the need for man to also live with this plant and not just use it up and toss it away.

There are many other elements in Dune that also could be taken away from the book’s far-future settling: the book’s exploration of Islamic culture (especially in relation to ecology), an examination of collapsing civilizations and decadence, and even a chance for Herbert to further look at the world through a zen lens.

In the end, it’s because Dune can stand without it’s science fiction elements that makes it such a great, and long-lasting, masterpiece. Herbert understood humans, even though he was setting their stage twenty thousand years from today, and understood nature, even though Dune is on another world. With Dune he created a perfect allegory, one that that speaks to the truth of humanity, and nature, today just as it did when it was written – and probably will for a very long time.

The Santaroga Barrier

Something’s odd about Santaroga: sure, on the surface it might appear to be like any other community full of normal-looking people, but look a little closer – like psychologist Gilbert Dasein is hired to do – and Santaroga begins to look anything but average.

For one thing the town is far from accepting of anyone who isn’t a local. They aren’t hostile, at least not openly, but if you weren’t born in their valley they won’t buy from you, trade with you, or accept you in any way: it’s the Santaroga barrier – and what’s beyond it makes for a totally original novel and a fantastic read.

Everyone knows Herbert for his Dune books but what a lot of people, unfortunately, don’t know about this Grand Master of science fiction is that he’s written, in my mind at least, even better novels – and the Santaroga Barrier is one of them. It’s also unfortunate that many people think science fiction has to have aliens, time travel, robots, and all those kinds of flashy, shiny, and far too-often grandiose concepts. What Herbert does in The Santaroga Barrier is show that science fiction can be based on a very simple idea, an idea that – when handled by a superb writer – can be more powerful and fascinating than anything flashy or shiny or grandiose.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, Dr. Gilbert Dasein slams headfirst into the Santaroga Barrier, propelled by duty to his employers, his professional curiosity and by his own interests: a girl named Jenny who left him in Berkley, where she as a student and he a professor, to return to Santaroga.

One of the best elements of the story is a hauntingly slippery word that Dasein keeps hearing among the locals in relation to their lives and, especially, to their food: Jaspers. It takes him some time but eventually Dasein gets to see through the barrier, at the societal wall the Santarogans have put up around their town. What he sees is what makes the book to entrancing: Jaspers is a ‘consciousness fuel’ additive the locals have been culturing and using for generations. What it does, though, is create a unity among the citizens: a form of collective will.

But that’s not all: there’s something else beyond the barrier – a something else that’s killed everyone else who has tried investigating the town. Oh, sure, they might look like accidents but Dasein comes to realize that there’s nothing accidental about them, and if he doesn’t figure the puzzle out he might be next.

Okay, that’s a teaser of the plot, but there’s something else about The Santaroga Barrier that keeps this book on my ‘favorites’ shelf: Herbert’s superb skill as a writer. There’s something almost hallucinatory about the style of the book; it reads like a dream or a hallucination without resorting to overly flamboyant, pretentious language – a skill few had done well and only writers like Herbert mastered.

In the end, The Santaroga Barrier is a totally imaginative novel told with sparkling language and genius skill: the work of a master storyteller at the height of his game.

The Green Brain

Unfortunately, as with many other books by Frank Herbert, the fame and success of Dune has overshadowed The Green Brain: making it another book only hardcore Herbert fans even know about. This is really unfortunate because while The Green Brain is not Dune it shares a common theme -- as well as revealing more of Herbert’s masterful skill as a storyteller.

Herbert has often been called one of the first ‘ecological’ science fiction writers. True or not, his work definitely shows his concern about the health of the earth as well as man’s place in it. Dune explores that relationship, as does Hellstrom’s Hive, and – especially – does The Green Brain.

Set in a comfortable familiar future, The Green Brain is about a society in open war with nature – the jungle to be exact. Needing room to expand, the world has cut, carved, burned, poisoned and smashed its way into the heart of the wilderness. The characters in The Green Brain, for the most part, are soldier/exterminators fighting guerilla infestations of weeds, roots, seeds, animals and – especially – insects, all the while pushing their native habits towards extinction.

While Dune and Hellstrom’s Hive are more subtle about the ethical and moral issues surrounding man and his relationship to the environment, The Green Brain is deceptively simple: as man fights against nature, nature begins to evolve to terrifyingly fight back. ‘Deceptive’ because as with all of Herbert’s books even if the conflict is clear there are always other factors keep the story from becoming cartoonish.

One of the best things about The Green Brain is the excellently-presented idea of nature, and it’s evolving intelligence, as being alien yet familiar, like it’s a different side to the earth’s own mind – a different side that’s more than a little irked that humanity continues to be insanely stupid about not maintaining a respectful balance with it. Part of that anger, coupled with nature’s superb adaptability, comes out in the jungle’s new weapon: a collaborative hive of insects that excellently mimic what’s threatening them: us … human beings.

Yes, The Green Brain is not Dune but it’s still an excellent read and well worth picking up – as it everything else by Herbert. And, who knows, maybe you’ll start looking warily at insects … or people with very, very green eyes ….

No comments: