I’ve always thought that the trickiest part of blazing a trail in the real world is trying to decide how to best make your way through the landscape. If the idea is to make the trail worth following for others, you need to lay it out in a way that appeals, and draws future travelers forward. That goal hangs in the balance every time you confront an obstacle. You can seek a path of least resistance, of course. That might get you where you want to go, and the trail you leave behind will surely lend itself to being followed by others. But if it misses the more eye-catching parts of the landscape and offers nothing of interest, no challenges, why would anyone bother? Should you cut through this thick underbrush or go around it? Do the latter and you might miss something wonderful hidden in the trees and shrubs. And then there’s that steep slope. Go around, or carve a switchback and hope the view will be worth the effort for later travelers? There’s a right answer each time, but the only way to find it is to make a choice, a commitment, and move forward. Each decision has consequences that affect the trail you leave behind, sometimes diverting it from the course you meant to follow. Turns out just making the start, the trailhead, isn’t the toughest part after all.
Writing a novel or short story works the same way. With the first pages or chapters of a rough draft set down, and the story begun, it’s tempting to say the hardest part is behind you. After all, you’ve made that start, and now you’re moving forward. But as you move away from that attractive opening, all the possibilities inherent in any nascent work of fiction begin to manifest in your brain. And that’s when the trouble begins. Bushwhacking through this metaphorical underbrush quickly proves more of a challenge than most people expect. To be sure, the way is sometimes very clear, and the view is immediately fantastic, exciting. Just as it is in cutting a trail in the real world, the ground is sometimes bare and all you need to do is stride forward, perhaps piling cairns of stones or laying a few branches along the side to guide the way. But it’s inevitable that obstacles will present themselves. Numerous choices arise, like a thicket of trees with dense, tangled underbrush. Go around it? But what might you miss inside? If you plunge in you must decide what to cut and what to leave growing beside the path you want to create. Each stroke of the machete, each decision, moves you forward by eliminating a specific shrub or plot option. Cut this branch – say you decide a character says “Yes” to a relationship instead of “No” – and the trail bends this way instead of that way. Is that the right way to go? The only way to know is to cut through the rest of the brush and see what lies beyond.
You do so. Now, is this where you want to be? Never mind where you might have intended to be at this point. The path you’re trying to cut will often take you in unintended directions and this can be a good thing or bad. If the result is acceptable you carry on, striding forward, nipping off a stray thought here, an idea there, leaving them on the trail behind you for later clean-up. If not, it’s back into the thicket of possibilities for another try. Fortunately, this is a fast-growing metaphor, capable of almost instantaneous regeneration. This, also, is both a good and bad thing at times. You remain unable to see exactly where it is you need to pass through the thicket, but now that you’ve glimpsed the other side, you’re not totally clueless. So on you go, cutting a new path and hoping this will be the correct route.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s just good enough for now, and you move on anyway, and that actually is the best idea more often than not. You can come back to the awkward kinks in the trail and fix things for good and all later. It’s generally a good idea to keep moving whenever possible because some other feature of the story landscape, revealed later, might help resolve the situation. Looking back from higher ground can often be revealing.
The arm will grow weary of swinging the ax and machete. So will the mind while writing your way down a new trail to story’s end. Either way, it’s sometimes tough work cutting a trail through an untouched wilderness, even if that wilderness is “merely” an image in the mind’s eye or a sequence of ideas. But if you are true to this process, you will keep going until you reach the journey’s end. How long must you endure? Depends on the story in you, and the choices you make as you blaze the trail. In other words, it’ll take as long as it takes.
The War of the Second Iteration series is nearly complete, with four of the five volumes available and Book Five – Setha’im Prosh – entering the editorial/revision phase. It should be available in very early 2016.
What has gone before…
Book One, The Luck of Han’anga
For Robert MacGregor and the crew of the probeship William Bartram, it’s a dream come true. Theirs will be the mission that makes the long awaited First Contact with an intelligent nonhuman species, a race of humanoid beings called the Leyra’an. But the dream soon becomes something very different when the Leyra’an prove to be more than just humanoid. They are like us to a degree that cannot be explained by chance alone. As if that isn’t complicated enough, the Leyra’an are at war, locked in a conflict that soon threatens the safety of the William Bartram and its crew. First Contact was sure to be a challenge, but no one could have expected this!
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Book Two, Founders’ Effect
While Robert and Alicia MacGregor, survivors of the ill-fated probeship William Bartram, work to rebuild their lives, the Commonwealth seeks a way to end the long, bitter conflict between the Republic and the Leyra’an. But the leaders of the Republic, suspicious of the motives that drive their long-sundered kin and faced with unrest among their own people, resist the changes that must come for peace to exist. And all the while, forces unseen by either side are at work, determined to force Humanity and the Leyra’an down the road to war.
Book Three, The Plight of the Eli’ahtna
On a mission to bring aid to a beleaguered star system, John Knowles and Eb’shra Wirolen have been hurled by a freak accident across countless light years, and are marooned in uncharted space. As they work to repair their damaged ship, the Eli’ahtna, and the friends they’ve left behind launch a desperate rescue mission to bring them home, the castaways discover that although they are truly lost, they are not alone.
Book Four, The Courage to Accept
Four years of research, using the combined resources of five species of sentient beings, have brought Alicia MacGregor no closer to understanding how Humanity’s sibling species came into existence. Who was responsible for redirecting the natural course of evolution on four living worlds? Why did they do it? And can she find the answer before the Faceless render all such questions moot? For the Faceless are back with a vengeance, and as implacable as ever. The Commonwealth has known nothing but peace for almost four hundred years. Now, war is upon them. How do you prepare for something no one alive has ever seen?
Coming in 2016…
Book Five, Setha’im Prosh
The Republic is failing in its defense, and Confederation is now under a determined assault. Former enemies close ranks against a merciless enemy, one bent on the utter extinction of Humanity and any who stand with them. Humanity does not stand alone, but will even the aid of the Sibling Species and the alien T’lack be enough to stop the Faceless, an enemy no one can predict or understand?
Also in this universe, the short story “Long Time Passing,” still available as a free download.
The Commonwealth’s grand star liner Edwin Teale has entered Leyra’an space on a mission of cultural exchange. Among the ship’s passengers is Martin Russman, a man scarred by terrible memories from an ancient war, memories he has worked hard to erase. But can he escape the shadows of his own past if history repeats itself?
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1967
I have strong memories of books I read in younger days. I was not a particularly sociable youngster, being on the small side and relatively thin-skinned, and often uncomfortable around my rowdier small-town peers. I became something of a loner, which was not encouraged in that place and time, and very quickly came to place a high value on having time to myself. Reading is a natural fit for such a frame of mind. Finding such solitude was remarkably difficult between long days at school and living in a small house with parents and four siblings. There was often only one place to go to get away from everyone and get any peace, especially in winter, when being outside was rarely an option – inside my own head. This may have been what rendered me imaginative. It’s certainly what turned a desire to read into a compulsion.
Fortunately, there were other readers in the family, and seeing in me a kindred spirit, they did what they could to provide me some space (reminding siblings that it was rude to distract someone while they were reading) while keeping me supplied with books. If a birthday or holiday season passed without at least a couple of books being unwrapped, the occasion felt incomplete. This almost never happened. Since one of these relatives, an aunt, was a die-hard science fiction fan, I was introduced to the genre very early, and among the first novels I read were those by Robert A. Heinlein that would these days be considered YA. These books had an enormous impact on how my imagination developed. I practically memorized stories such as Red Planet, Between Planets, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel – the last being my favorite in those days. Since I responded so eagerly to these Heinlein novels, it comes as no surprise that this same aunt, when I was a few years older, produced copies of Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as gifts. Both novels fascinated me, and were read multiple times. One of these books, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, was the last novel by Heinlein to ever win the Hugo Award.
When I read these works by Heinlein as a teenager I was, well, a teenager. Typical of someone that age, my frame of reference wasn’t exactly expansive, so when I read fiction it was in a rather superficial way. This didn’t start to change until I was well into high school and became more aware of (tempted to say sensitive to) subtexts in the fiction I read. This explains the effect Dune and The Fellowship of the Ring had on me, at the time I read them, and timing really is everything. I first read Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress well before reading Dune, and this gradual increase in awareness had barely begun to develop. I enjoyed both, but was mostly blind to anything beyond the central plots. As a result, when re-reading Starship Troopers a couple of years ago, I was rather startled by my reaction to the book. The political subtext was anything but subtle, and the preachy quality was blatant enough that it almost spoiled the book, and cast a shadow on some old memories. So it’s not surprising that I approached The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (and before that, Stranger in a Strange Land) with a bit of wariness.
Stranger in a Strange Land survived the test of time, and so did The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.As was the case with Strange in a Strange Land Heinlein’s personal philosophy and political beliefs inform The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but in this he is really no different from any other author. If it serves the story, it can work for me, even if I don’t entirely agree with that particular philosophy. Of the Heinlein I’ve re-read, only Starship Troopers blatantly subverted the story to drive home a message. In Stranger in a Strange Land the story carried his points without becoming pointed, and so it was with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This is not to say that I came away from this reading with the same impression I had when I was fifteen years old. The author’s Libertarian-style point of view is easy to see all through the book, but in this case he uses these ideals to build a civilization that, while it exemplifies that school of thought, isn’t a deliberate application of it. Heinlein imagines, in the development of the lunar culture in the book, a society that is essentially libertarian in nature, but not by design. Survival in that deadly lunar environment dictated certain traits and behaviors, and the society depicted in the novel is a consequence of that.
When I read the book early in high school, I was fascinated by the way the lunar revolutionaries orchestrated their complicated conspiracy. Knowing human nature a bit better these days, I find it all a little less plausible, almost naïve in the way it unfolds so well. Never mind deliberate betrayal, inevitable human error and simple bad luck play roles that would more than likely unravel the scheme if it went on too long. I get the feeling Heinlein realized this, because his lunar revolution, when it comes, does erupt abruptly and before the narrator believes they are fully prepared. Less easy to overlook was his characterization of the two sides involved in the conflict, and it’s here that I could see his politics most clearly. The colonists are, for the most part, competent, self-reliant people. Stereotypical rugged individualists, the myth of colonial America set on the Moon. The administrators of the lunar penal colony, along with their handlers on Earth, were equally, if negatively, stereotyped as over-reaching and often inept government bureaucrats, clearly lesser beings, and blind to anything but the need to remain in rigid control of the lunar population. Heinlein manages once again to avoid preaching. Use of first-person narrative helps here, which is ironic since he used the same style of voice in Starship Troopers. But he stopped that story dead in its tracks to deliver a sermon. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it just comes across as the way one Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis happens to perceive the world and the people who share it with him, and the story keeps rolling along.
There was one element that I just couldn’t buy, as an adult reader of fiction. As is so often true with Heinlein, and other authors of that time period, the interactions between males and females sometimes have a juvenile quality to them that, in this more sensitive era, comes across as sexist. I try to make allowances for sensibilities changing over time, when I read older books, but now and then I run into something that leaves me shaking my head. Heinlein attempts to describe how the curious sexual dynamics of the lunar colony developed, and why, and it approaches being plausible. But in the end a minority population of women dressing like it was a day at the beach and encouraging – even expecting – wolf whistling, eye-rolling, and foot stomping recognition of their beauty strained my ability to suspend disbelief.
Even with that wrinkle, though, I managed to enjoy revisiting this old novel. And with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I leave the work of Robert A. Heinlein behind, as far as the Hugo Awards are concerned. Heinlein did very well with the Hugos, winning four and being nominated for ten. He remained popular and productive almost to the end of his days. And yet, at some point in the 1980’s his work began to lose its appeal for me. The last Heinlein novel I read that I truly enjoyed was Time Enough for Love. After that there was something of a sense of having been here before one time too many, and later on, too often a sense that the author was being more than a bit self-indulgent. People would grow excited about a new Heinlein novel, and sometimes passed copies on to me when it was clear I lacked the motivation to buy one for myself. I usually gave those books a try but – and here The Number of the Beast comes to mind – I generally ended up setting them aside unfinished. They didn’t hold my attention. The times changed and I changed with them, altering my tastes in food, in music, and in fiction. Nothing against Heinlein, to be honest. It just sometimes works that way.
This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
Thoughts inspired by the co-winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1966
In 1966 voters for the Hugo Award apparently had a terrible time deciding which of two novels should receive top honors. I know nothing of what might have been going on behind the scenes in that year (I was 10 years old and reading Tom Swift Jr. adventures at the time, unaware that there was such a thing as science fiction fandom) and haven’t looked into the history of the vote. I probably won’t, either, since that’s not the point of these essays. What I have done is read both books involved, books that ended up tied for the award that year, and so were awarded it jointly. A comparison of these books is illustrative of how diverse the tastes of the science fiction and fantasy community can be, and of the fact that this is nothing new.
This Immortal was originally serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction under the title “…And Call Me Conrad.” The book version, when it was published, was apparently somewhat different, but I’ve only read the book version, so I can’t comment on the changes that were made. The book I read was short, quirky, and tightly written, a first-person narrative from the point of view of a most unusual character. Conrad Nomikos is the product of the radioactive legacy of Earth’s last war, bearing deformities but possessed of enormous physical strength, and quite possibly immortal. A one-time terrorist in an effort to keep the still-ruined Earth from being owned by a race of beings from the Vega star system, Conrad now heads a bureau with the alleged mission of preserving Earth’s remaining cultural treasures. In that capacity he finds himself forced to play tour guide to a visiting Vegan who is not what he seems. As they tour Earth’s ancient ruins, those predating the nuclear war I mean, Conrad discovers a conspiracy to murder the Vegan, for reasons that are not quite clear. Though he finds this Vegan contemptible, Conrad finds himself thrust into the role of protector. The tale that unfolds is an odd one, a tour of the post-holocaust Mediterranean region populated by ordinary people trying to rebuild a world that now includes dangerous mutants, cannibal tribes, and creatures of myth reborn into the waking world. It’s a surreal, imaginative journey, a quest that seems to have no purpose until the mystery is resolved in the end. The tale is told by a character who shows a curious mix of cynicism and compassion, guided by a moral compass that is his alone.
I’d never read This Immortal until now, though I’m certainly familiar with the work of Roger Zelazny. Much of what I first read of Zelazny came in the form of short fiction (“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and “This Moment of the Storm” immediately come to mind), and this short novel felt very much like those works. Had I read it early on, it would have made a strong and positive impression, of the sort that had you seeking other works by that author. As it was, his short fiction led me to other novels, and so I picked this one up already a fan of Zelazny’s work.
A tie for best novel in the Hugo awards is very rare. The tie between This Immortal and Dune was the first, and there have been just two since then. In this case, the two novels involved couldn’t be more different. Dune is long, complicated, vividly described, with multiple points of view that combine to tell a tale of intrigue as vast as a galaxy. This Immortal is short, a there- and-back again tale of adventure and mystery in a setting described with just enough detail to move you through the landscape, all of it seen through the eyes of the character telling the tale. Dune explores lofty themes of religion and philosophy, very much a reflection of culture of the 1960s. This Immortal is rooted, as so many novels of science fiction were in that decade, in the nuclear terrors of the Cold War, mixing a post-apocalyptic tale with an alien contact story. The only thing that really ties these books together is genre.
This says something important about the genre we define, at times rather loosely, as science fiction. Science fiction as a form of literature is difficult to define precisely because it is so wide-ranging in its themes and concepts, so open to experimentation and new ideas. No other genre I know of can touch it in terms of sheer diversity, for diversity seems to be its fundamental nature. Someone once told me that science fiction represents a continuum full of blurred boundaries and fuzzy edges, but that characterization has never satisfied me. It’s more like the literary equivalent of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram used by astronomers to classify the stars in their multitude of forms. Instead of a box for this kind of star, and another for those, all the while wondering which box to use for the big, hot, blue one, astronomy has one “box” that holds all stars, while providing a sense of order for their diversity. I sometimes think of the diversity within science fiction represented in this way. Just as stars, while having common characteristics, are not all one kind of thing, so it is with science fiction: a scatter-shot of diversity that, all the same, can be arranged in a sensible fashion and recognized as related forms. Science fiction, as clearly illustrated by this pairing of Hugo winners, has never been a homogeneous thing, and this diversity has only increased in the decades since This Immortal and Dune fell into their first-place tie.
That increase in diversity has created a comparable diversification in the people who read and write such tales. This makes sense. Science fiction, by exploring possibilities over the years, has naturally attracted people who might not, in a bygone age, have been interested in reading space opera adventures. Buck Rogers isn’t for everyone. A happy consequence of diversification is enrichment, as ideas that might once have been beyond the genre are folded into the mix and become grist for the mill. For a genre of fiction proud of its ideas, this can only be a good thing, since new ideas to explore are what it’s all about. Any attempt to limit the steady evolution of the genre, and the diversification these changes bring, is a fool’s errand, and one doomed to fail.
For all my good intentions, I still don’t go out stargazing as often as I did in the years before I launched into self-publishing. It’s hard to justify spending time on a hobby when there are so many stories trying to claw their way out of my head. But the night sky can be insistent, and the urge can become overwhelming. A few days ago it became irresistible.
It was a clear evening, typical of the desert in springtime. The constellations of winter, Orion most prominent among them, were low in the west and slipping away. Sirius blazed and glittered in the southwest. Gemini was high in the west, and Leo was straight overhead with Jupiter just within reach of his paws. The arrangement of planet and constellation brought to mind a kitten chasing a toy, a strange fate for the King of Planets. Rising in the east were the constellations of spring and early summer. Boötes was almost horizontal, as if not quite ready to rise and shine from a long seasonal sleep. The Big Dipper was high in the northeast, and the North Star was, well, where you always find it. Plenty to choose from, in terms of targets, even with the narrow bit of sky I can see from the backyard these days.
In 2003, when I bought the new telescope and began to re-educate myself in the art and science of visual astronomy, setting up on the back porch was a workable option. I lost some of the north and northwest sky to the mesquites growing in the back yard, but there were only a handful of constellations I couldn’t reach. In the years since, the trees have responded to our care by doing what trees do best – growing. Twelve years later, setting up on the back porch leaves me with somewhat limited observing options, which has regrettably discouraged me from observing from home base. That night I was reminded that even a narrow slice of an infinite universe is a busy place.
Using a four-inch refractor under moderately light-polluted skies requires careful target selection. No galaxy hopping this time ‘round; I needed bright lights in the night sky. I went for familiar double stars and spent a lot of time looking at Venus and Jupiter. It was a cool, quiet evening that started out a bit windy, but settled to mere whispers of a breeze. The atmosphere was fairly steady, what astronomers call “good seeing.” The twinkling of stars that you sometimes see, famed in song and nursery rhyme, is actually a bad thing for stargazers. If I’d been able to look up that night and honestly recite “twinkle twinkle, little star,” I’d have gone back in to work on the next book. That didn’t happen, so I gazed the evening away, and was satisfied the time was well spent. If you’re at all moved by the sight of stars, just being out on a clear night will do it for you. I spent as much time seated and looking up, eyes alone, as I did at the eyepiece, relaxed and unworried for a while by recent events.
The Muse, however, is never silent, and for all that I focused my attention on Castor and Pollux, Mizar and Alcor, and the moons of Jupiter, the current work in progress was ever present. Bits of dialogue crept into my thoughts. An idea for resolving a plot wrinkle came to mind. Notes for the book appeared among the observing notes regarding the ruddy gold double star in Leo designated Gamma Leonis. The Muse nudged, but it was gently done, for a change, something always there, but otherwise leaving me at peace under that slice of the night sky. A fact of life, if you’re a writer. It never really stops. I felt no conflict between writing and stargazing as this went on, and that’s likely because amateur astronomy is such a blend of knowledge and imagination. Objects in the night sky are utterly beyond my grasp, and so I can only look at them with my eyes or a telescope, touching them with my thoughts alone. I consider what I’ve read about these things, about how long a star in a double system takes to orbit its companion, about the stars being born in that patch of light beneath Orion’s belt, and they assume a reality of sorts for all that they are far beyond my physical reach.
Telling a tale is much the same thing. The worlds I’ve invented are as unreachable, in their way, as the stars. They are built of knowledge and imagination, but they are real in my imagination, as real as the Orion nebula, because I have what I need, through a lifetime of reading and living, to make them seem tangible. And so it seems perfectly natural that, as I look up at the stars, I take their measure even as I imagine people living out there and having adventures. Stars and stories go together and always have, and I am hardly the first to be moved to tell tales while seated beneath them.
Find part one of this series here: The Stuff of Which Daydreams Are Made
If you give a daydream a long enough leash it will become a story. If you let go of the leash, it’ll run away from you and find someplace suitable to thrive and grow. If you’re a writer, you have no choice but to follow it to that place.
There’s rarely a clear-cut trail that leads you to where the stray daydream finally comes to rest. You have to blaze the trail for yourself, even if the daydream left you with only a vague idea of which way to go. The process of bushwhacking your way to the destination the daydream-story has created is called writing the first draft.
Most writers I know face their greatest challenges while revising and editing a book. Some go so far as to proclaim anything from distaste for, to outright hatred of, this aspect of writing. For me, it’s just the opposite. The first draft puts the grey in my beard. Once I’ve got the first draft done the real fun begins. The trail to what that daydream became is open. The route to the destination that is the story’s ending can now be followed and reshaped to reach its greatest potential. That’s the destination I have in mind when I begin the journey that becomes a book. Once I’ve cut the trail to this place, I can set up camp and go back along the trail to clean it up. After all, I do want others to follow me. This is more easily said than done, so I can understand to a degree why some people feel the way they do, but for me this particular challenge is what it’s all about. As my Kentucky great-grandmother liked to say, “It isn’t work if you enjoy it!”
But I have to get there first, and establishing the trailhead itself is the biggest challenge involved with blazing that trail. It isn’t unusual for me to start a project, get a chapter or two into it, and realize I’m headed in the wrong direction. When that feeling of having gone astray begins to develop, and I recognize it all too well, there’s nothing for it. I back up and start over. I may incorporate some of what I’ve written somewhere along the line, mostly by keeping the ideas in play, but I might start completely from scratch. Even after I’ve worked out of a false start and gained momentum, I very often find that the real trailhead was some ways off from where I thought I needed to begin. It’s not unusual for me to cut out the very first chapter of a book when preparing it for beta readers. Sometimes the biggest mess of all is the trailhead itself, and a better one needs to be found. So let’s say we start the journey by strolling down the hillside, instead of jumping awkwardly off that rocky outcrop.
You don’t make a journey like this alone, of course. Right from the start there’s going to be a character or two at the trailhead with you. The characters that inhabit the daydream are, at this point, mere sketches. I know I need a man here, or a woman there, along with a situation that allows me to set their identities and begin the process of character building. I start out with a fair idea of who these companions are, and what they’re about, but as I cut my way through the wilderness and get to know them better, I often find out I’m wrong. They change with the journey, and that’s as it should be. Experience should show, and the best characters in fiction are always those who are at least a little different in the end from who and what they were in the beginning. Sometimes you learn more about them than you wanted to know, but in the end, the story is the stronger for it.
You don’t come at this task barehanded, of course. You need the proper tools to cut through the undergrowth and then clear the trail. The daydream spun itself out of who and what you are in the first place, and you are the sum total of all your experiences. Everything I’ve ever done, seen, heard, and felt; everything I touch or taste; every pain and exaltation, and all the people I’ve met and either cared about or despised; every book I’ve read – especially the books – all come ready to hand as the trail grows ever longer. Even the research I do is based on what I already know, which provides the frame of reference for the questions the story raises as I work my way to the trail’s end. And yes, I sometimes find myself shaping the right tool for the job and giving it the sharpest possible edge even while I work.
Now and then, from some high place along the way, I can see something of what’s ahead. That’s useful when it happens, so I always take notes! It often looks strangely familiar, even though I’ve never really passed this way before. But then, it was my own daydream, after all.
Thoughts on Dune by Frank Herbert – Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1966
Books have always played an enormous role in my life, something that was true at a very early age. There’s no practical way now to even estimate how much I read as a boy, but my appetite for books gave me a certain reputation as a youngster, and not always a comfortable one, so it was surely a significant number to have drawn such notice. If I didn’t “have my nose stuck in a book,” as my mother was fond of saying, I was carrying a book with me on the off chance that I’d have a few minutes to read somewhere along the way. It was one of several habits and interests that made it difficult for me to fit in with kids my age, and at the same time made my misfit status easier to bear.
A lot of books, then, and too many to count after the fact. And yet, for all that the number is likely to be large, there are books from those distant years that I remember. They loom large in memory because they came to me at just the right time to have just the right impact on an impressionable and imaginative youth. I can recall clearly being rocked at various times by such books as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Nightfall and Other Stories, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, to name a few. Of them all, two works stand out clearest, and have best withstood the passing of years, the test of time: Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, and Frank Herbert’s Dune.
I first read Dune in high school, and came to own a copy almost by accident. I was enrolled in some sort of school-oriented book club in which you earned bonus points with the purchase of books. In the spring of 1970 I had enough points for a couple of free books, and of the books available only two sounded even remotely interesting. Rather than have the points expire at the end of the school year I took a chance, and soon owned copies of The Fellowship of the Ring and Dune. Both books rocked my world. My early relationship with science fiction had been rooted in Tom Swift Jr. adventures, comic books, and B-movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s that I watched while housebound by messy winters in north central Illinois. As I edged into high school the early impressions of the genre were leavened by Heinlein “juveniles” (we’d say YA these days), classics works by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and an early introduction to Asimov’s robot stories. It was science fiction in which the hard science idea was the point of the story, often a single idea presented in a “what if” frame of reference. Plot and characters existed only to serve this central “what if,” often with the result that plots were simple and characterization rather shallow or even two-dimensional. The sci-fi I’d experienced to that point didn’t explore multiple themes or sociological ideas (“soft” science), and was rarely character-driven to the point that I could find myself identifying with the characters as real people. Or their world as a place complete unto itself.
So Dune was a shock to the system. I’d never before read a book that held that many layers of complexity. Dune presented me with fallible characters that carried very human contradiction between the roles they knew they should play and what they ended up doing. There was Dr. Yueh, who so deeply loved those he betrayed; Paul Atreides, who avenged his father’s death by becoming something very different from that father; and his mother Jessica, member of an ancient Order seeking to control the fate of humanity through selective breeding, who chose to follow her heart in the end and defy that Order. Dune is a tale of interstellar intrigue and adventure that is wrapped around political conspiracies and a deliberately contrived mysticism that on Arrakis takes on an unexpected life of its own. There were characters with super-normal abilities that were the result of training and discipline, not magic, who yet seem otherworldly at times. And there was the world Arrakis, the desert world with its giant worms, and a warrior race living for a deliberately planted prophecy that was meant to control them, but did something altogether different. There was a drug from the sands, the product of a complicated alien ecology, one that allowed very special individuals to see into the future. Listed this way, it seems a hodge-podge of plot elements, but when you read this novel what you find is a complicated and skillfully twisted braid of plots and subplots that include all these things and more.
Dune is also a product of its times. When written, the social turmoil of the Sixties was heating up. Eastern traditions were becoming popular in the Western world. An awareness of our impact on the world’s ecological systems was growing rapidly, with revelations that alarmed many. You see elements of these issues, among others, reflected in the novel, revealing the author’s awareness of the change unfolding around him. This reflection of what were then current events is one of the things that made the book stand out for me, though I may not have been fully aware of it at the time. I read Dune almost five years after it won the Hugo Award and much of what would have been fresh and raw in American society and politics when the book was written had played out by then. The so-called “drug culture” had lost some of its shock value, and the novelty of those Eastern traditions had faded somewhat. (Americans are so often quick to become complacent even about things they dislike. Especially when it’s happening in the News to someone else.) I was aware, even in my small home town, of these social undercurrents, even though I didn’t truly understand them, and so the book resonated in ways I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and would not recognize until later readings.
I didn’t look at science fiction in the same way after reading Dune. I didn’t know it at the time, but the so-called New Wave in science fiction had just swept over me. Where I had in the past enjoyed the escapism, now I found myself thinking about a story I’d read. Ideas from the tale lingered long after the closing lines. I didn’t just go on to the next book in the stack and plow through it. Somehow, I just couldn’t do that. I’d been too involved with this fictional world to let it go so easily. To be affected by a work of fiction in such a way was a new thing for me. That fiction could do such a thing was a mind-altering revelation.
Eventually, that summer, I caught my breath and picked up the next book in the summer reading pile. Of course, the next book in the stack was The Fellowship of the Ring. That was quite a summer.