Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review Number 400 Poll

It took a bit longer than expected but Random Comments is approaching its 400th reviewed work. Right now the count is 392, at this pace number 400 should be ready more or less around the blog's 5th anniversary. As usual you get to decide what number 400 will be. Since Lana has been contributing reviews recently, we've decided to make this one a joint review, so you get two opinions for the price of one. We've selected a number of books on which we are likely to disagree to make things interesting.

Your choices are:

Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Unfortunately, there will be a generation left behind. For members of that missed generation, small advances will be made. Through various programs, they will be taught to get along in the world despite their differences. They will be made active and contributing members of society. But they will never be normal.

Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson

A stark and inhospitable place, its landscape poses a challenge to survival; yet its strange, silent beauty has long fascinated scientists and adventurers. Now Antarctica faces an uncertain future. The international treaty that protects the continent is about to dissolve, clearing the way for Antarctica's resources and eerie beauty to be plundered. As politicians and corporations move to determine its fate from half a world away, radical environmentalists carry out a covert campaign of sabotage to reclaim the land. The winner of this critical battle will determine the future for this last great wilderness....

Carrie by Stephen King

Stephen King's legendary debut novel about a teenage outcast and the revenge she enacts on her classmates.

Carrie White may have been unfashionable and unpopular, but she had a gift. Carrie could make things move by concentrating on them. A candle would fall. A door would lock. This was her power and her sin. Then, an act of kindness, as spontaneous as the vicious taunts of her classmates, offered Carrie a chance to be normal and go to her senior prom. But another act--of ferocious cruelty--turned her gift into a weapon of horror and destruction that her classmates would never forget

Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold

Artemis Awakening is the start of a new series by New York Times bestseller Jane Lindskold. The distant world Artemis is a pleasure planet created out of bare rock by a technologically advanced human empire that provided its richest citizens with a veritable Eden to play in. All tech was concealed and the animals (and the humans brought to live there) were bioengineered to help the guests enjoy their stay…but there was always the possibility of danger so that visitors could brag that they had “bested” the environment.

The Empire was shattered in a horrific war; centuries later humanity has lost much of the advanced technology and Artemis is a fable told to children. Until young archeologist Griffin Dane finds intriguing hints that send him on a quest to find the lost world. Stranded on Artemis after crashing his ship, he encounters the Huntress Adara and her psych-linked companion, the puma Sand Shadow. Their journey with her will lead Dane to discover the planet’s secrets…and perhaps provide a key to give unimagined power back to mankind.

The Golden Compass - Philip Pullman

Lyra Belacqua is content to run wild among the scholars of Jodan college, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle-a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle. Philip Pullman's award-winning The Golden Compass is a masterwork of storytelling and suspense, critically acclaimed and hailed as a modern fantasy classic.

The poll is located in the bar on the right side of the screen. Since it will take a bit of time for both of us to read the novel, I'll let it run for 10 days. Take your pick!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass - Alaya Dawn Johnson

I haven't done enough reading recently to finish the collection I wanted to review last weekend. It will have to wait until next Sunday I'm afraid. The blog needs content however, so I decided to read some more short fiction that made the Nebula ballot this year. They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass by Alaya Dawn Johnson was nominated in the novelette category. The Nebula went to Aliette de Bodard's The Waiting Stars. They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass was first published in the January 2013 edition of Asimov's. Johnson has published five novels to date, with a sixth, Love is the Drug, expected later this year. I haven't read any of her work though. Judging from this story, maybe I should.

They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass takes us to a post-apocalyptic US. It is unclear what happened but a race of technologically superior aliens set about changing the face of the Earth. The remaining population lives in poverty, often lacking food and medical supplies. When Libby's sister Triss finds herself with child, she is desperate. The community is on the brink of starvation and there is no doctor or midwife who can help with the birth. Triss feels her only option is to find someone who can safely do an abortion, something the aliens refuse to allow. A dangerous trip for Libby and Triss is about to start.

This story is one of those pieces that doesn't really fit into a novelette. You constantly wish the author would explore the setting further. The way the apocalypse comes about remains unclear, the motivation of the aliens is completely unknown, the description of the way these people survive on the remains of a former civilization just scratches the surface of their ordeal. In short, there is more than enough material here for a longer work and that may frustrate some readers.

Johnson chooses to focus on the story of the two sisters. She aims for an emotionally powerful piece and in that respect the story definitely succeeds. Desperation is tangible and fear of the aliens influences every decision. On top of the extraordinary situation they are in, Triss and Libby also have to deal with the regular disapproval and rejection women opting for an abortion have to face. Johnson doesn't stress this point too much but it is clearly present throughout the story.

Triss has chosen not to attach herself to one particular man and with her decision not to keep the baby, she is forced to tiptoe around her own community to avoid offending anyone. A community that would support her if she has a baby they can't feed, would drop her like a hot potato if she decides not to have it. Johnson puts it in a science fiction setting but it is a problem many women face in places where abortion is illegal or controversial. She does add a twist to this story to make the sisters' position less clear cut. The aliens essentially use the carrot and the stick tactics. They are not above using retaliatory strikes if someone ignores their rules. If Triss is caught, her community will suffer. On the other hand they do offer help to the expecting mother. Johnson does raise a bit of doubt about whether or not Triss' options are limited to an abortion or see her child die young. Just a little bit mind you. With their motivations so carefully hidden but the destruction they cause plainly visible, it is not a very tempting alternative.

How much the reader will enjoy this story depends on whether or not you can deal with the number of questions the author leaves you with. They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass  is, in a way, very open-ended and the setting is only minimally developed. Personally, I can't shake the feeling that there is a much longer piece hiding in this story, that would potentially be more rewarding. That being said, it is a beautifully crafted story. Johnson seems to have chosen very consciously what to reveal to the reader to keep us focused on the main characters' story. It's an approach she has executed very well. On the whole, I think I would have preferred a bit more detail though.

Book Details
Title: They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Pages: 17
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2013

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Lana Reviews: Remnant Population - Elizabeth Moon

Having read the Paksenarrion trilogy and the four first books in Paladin's Legacy, I was already somewhat acquainted with Elizabeth Moon's writing, and as far as her works of Fantasy go, I really enjoy her books. So when I picked up Remnant Population for my reading challenge, I was quite excited to finally try something of hers in a different genre. Released in 1996, this book was nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel the year after, which eventually went to Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Ofelia Falfurrias was one of the original colonists of Colony 3245.12, arriving with her family to settle on the planet that would be their home for the next 40 years. During those years, her husband and all but one child died as did many of the other colonists, their death rate forever matching or exceeding their birth rate. When we enter the story, the authorities have revoked the Sims Bancorp's franchise to run the colony as it is considered a failure, and they have no choice but to disband it. As for the colonists themselves, they are to be forcibly shipped off in cryo-sleep to wherever the company feels like sending them. When Ofelia finds out that her family will be deducted for the cost of moving her from one place to another as she is considered too old to be of any further use for the Company, she decides to stay behind. There is a good chance her age will cause her to die while in cryo-sleep anyway, so why not spend what is left of her life where she buried her children and her husband?

On the day of departure, she hides away in the forest until she considers it to be safe to return to the village knowing that with their deadlines, the Company will not waste much time looking for one elderly colonist. At this point, she starts a fairly different existence to the one she has been forced into for so many years. Finally, she is free to play and to do what she herself wants to without fear of censure from the rest of the community, a freedom she hasn't had since she was a little girl. In spite of the work she has to do to stay alive, she is quite happy with her situation, when one day, a second group of colonists arrives, intending to settle somewhere to the north. As she listens to them, she unexpectedly becomes a witness to them being slaughtered by what cannot be anything other than sentient beings. For the first time since she herself arrived on this planet 40 years earlier, she realizes that the colonists were never alone.

It never ceases to amaze me how, no matter what kind of technology we as humans acquire or what kind of amazing things we can do, in most science fiction novels I have read describing all these wonderful things, the genders keep behaving as if they were still stuck in the Victorian era of our world, or worse. One would think that after having figured out how to move people across the universe, and how to colonize on worlds with ecologies not suited to support human beings and so on, there would be some improvement in the social spheres of life too, but no such luck. Among the colonists of Colony 3245.12, while men and women are taught to do the same jobs, it is considered the right way of things that the men should control the women, and the adults should control the children. Using violence to achieve either of these two, seems to be commonly accepted. When they are offered another way to look at things, they also respond with violence. Of course, it should be noted that the Company chose for their colonists to be uneducated people, set in certain ways and traditions, yet easy to form into what they needed and without too many ideas of their own. That, along with the placement of the colony itself, was most likely a factor that helped doom it to fail from the start.

I do like, however, how Moon hits right on the head how we as a society tend to treat our old people, in this novel illustrated in part by how an old woman is thought of no further value once she is past her child-bearing years. Where we should perhaps have cherished and honored them for their knowledge and their years of experience, we tend to write old people off as useless, someone who only takes up time and space; a bother. As the story unfolds, Moon shows us how things could have been had we considered their value differently, and appreciated them for what they were, and made use of their experience. And then she reminds us again, quite firmly, that this is just not the way of most human beings.

What I liked best about Remnant Population is how most of the story is told from the point of view of an old woman. She is often thinking about her aches, she is often grumpy, and she is completely aware of the fact that she does not know everything - although sometimes her general life experience makes her more knowledgeable than she gives herself credit for. She is an unlikely heroine, I think; I know I was surprised when I found out that the story would revolve around her, and not someone younger, or of a different gender - or both! Considering that that is what I have been served in most of the science fiction I've read till now, this was actually a nice surprise.

As a linguist, I guess I should also mention that once first contact is made between Ofelia and the unknown beings inhabiting the planet, it is fascinating to see how they go about trying to communicate with each other. Especially with their starting points being so completely different from each other and, at first glance, with no apparent common ground from which to get started.

All in all I really enjoyed this book, despite my general annoyance with sexism in science fiction. I guess it is not a overly exciting story as such, as a lot of the descriptions are of the daily toils of the main character; mundane tasks such as weeding the kitchen garden, fixing the houses, knitting, painting and cooking, and so on. Still, I kept wanting to go on to see what would happen next, especially once the unknown beings were introduced to the storyline, and I was never bored. It does not seem to matter that much to me whether Moon writes fantasy or science fiction, I seem to enjoy the results regardless.

Book Details
Title: Remnant Population
Author: Elizabeth Moon
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 325
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-46219-0
First published: 1996

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Hydrhaga - Kim ten Tusscher

Like in the English language world, Fantasy is a bit of a niche market in the Netherlands. The Dutch language market, with some 23 million first language speakers, is nowhere near large enough to support full time Fantasy writers. As a result, very few works of Fantasy originally written in Dutch are published in what would be considered a professional fashion in the English language world. The obvious answer for authors with ambitions of making a living as a writer is to get their works translated, with the English language as the big prize. Unfortunately that market isn't very open to translations. With so many native speakers clamouring for attention, shouldering the additional cost of a translation simply isn't worth the effort for a book that is not certain to sell. So what do you do to get a foot in the door? Have the translation done yourself. Thomas Olde Heuvelt has recently tried this approach and it has gotten him two spots on the Hugo Award shortlist. For some, it may be worth trying.

Getting a Fantasy novel in Dutch published is not impossible however. In the area between self publishing and traditional publishing quite a lot is happening in the Netherlands. One of the publishers operating in this area is Uitgeverij Zilverspoor. They have an editorial process, art direction and a nice website but with print runs more likely to be in the hundreds than thousands and a persistent lack of their books showing up in the brick and mortar book stores, it is unlikely any of the people involved are actually making a living this way. That doesn't seem to dampen their ambition though. Recently they launched a new imprint, Alter Ego Press, which publishes English language books. So far the number of titles is limited but I think it is an initiative worth watching.

One of the authors who had her books translated is Kim ten Tusscher. Her Dutch bibliography currently contains five novels, two of which have been translated into English. The author kindly provided me with review copies of the English language editions. The first one is Hydrhaga, a standalone Fantasy first published in Dutch in 2008. The translation was done by Judit Coppens, a name I haven't come across before. To get a feel for the translation I also read the fourteen page sample of the Dutch edition of Hydrhaga provided on the author's website. It looks like this new English edition also included a bit of rewriting. It is not a one on one translation of the text on Ten Tusscher's website. From what I can tell the translation has been done by someone with a knowledge of the English language that far exceeds mine. The prose is not stunning but it does do justice to Ten Tusscher's writing.

The story's main character is a young woman by the name of Lumea (moon symbolism is a motif in this novel) on a journey towards the mysterious city of Hydrhaga. Drawn by the promise of a carefree life, freed of the traditional role her society is trying to force her into, Lumea arrives in the city of Omnesia (which indeed seems to have forgotten part of its history). Nobody is willing to help her get to her final destination however, until she meets the mysterious Elion. Together they manage to find her destination, but things turn out to be quite different from what Lumea imagined. The city hides a secret that will quickly turn Lumea's hopes and dreams sour.

In this novel, Ten Tusscher is looking for the strong female lead that seems to defy so many authors in epic fantasy. In a way she finds her too. Lumea grows throughout the novel. She is barely mature and somewhat naive early on in the novel, but gains confidence and maturity as the story progresses. She is, all things considered, an interesting character. What I did have issues with, is the fact that her motivations mostly revealed to the reader long after her actions. The reason why Lumea left home for instance, doesn't come up until the halfway point of the novel and even then it is only partly explained. How she managed to convince her parents to let their barely adult daughter go on a journey to a far away city that doesn't appear on any map on her own, is almost entirely glossed over.

What bothered me most about Lumea is the apparent contradiction between her adherence to the traditional religious beliefs of her people, her sadness at the disappearance of traditional cultural values,  and resistance to being placed in the traditional role of women in her culture. What her culture deems to be her place in society may not stem from its religion but usually these things are interlinked. On the one hand she is one of the few of her generation who sticks to the bond with the land and the connection to nature, on the other, she is something of a revolutionary. Not that these two things are mutually exclusive but Ten Tusscher doesn't manage to unify them in Lumea. Too often she swings from conservative to liberal views or from a pacifist attitude to determined to swing a sword. At times it made me feel that Lumea's character development was driven by the needs of the plot, rather than an attempt by the author to create a complex character.

The worldbuilding is in Hydrhaga is curious as well. It presents the reader with a strange mix of technological development. On the one hand there are airships and submarines, but riding on horseback is still the way to get around on land. Force fields and robotics have been developed but gunpowder or any other form of explosives are absent and fighting is done with swords. It is as if the novel can't quite decide whether it wants to be pseudo-medieval fantasy, steampunk or something else entirely. A clear sense of what is technically possible or an explanation for some strange omissions is lacking. In terms of worldbuilding, the novel is messy.

After finishing the novel I didn't feel like I had read a book that is going to storm the bestsellers lists. Hydrhaga feels like a very organically written piece. The need to find out what comes next and to get to the end of the story overshadow the structure of the tale and the consistency of the world and its characters. Especially later on in the book there is a sense of urgency in the writing that will make the reader want to keep going until the final page is turned. Readers looking for this kind of tale could do worse than pick up this novel. For the more reflective reader, Hydrhaga is less successful. The more reflective reader will see the cracks in this novel however. There is no doubt about the enthusiasm Ten Tusscher shows for writing and the Fantasy genre in particular, but there is some room for improvement in terms of structure, plotting and characterization. I'll be looking at her second novel, Bound in Darkness, in a few weeks time. It'll be interesting to see how she develops.

Book Details
Title: Hydrhaga
Author: Kim ten Tusscher
Publisher: Alter Ego Press
Pages: 206
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-94-907-6737-2
First published: 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wolves - Simon Ings

I received a copy of this novel through Worlds Without Ends some time ago. It must have taken quite an interesting route because it took no less than two and a half months to get here. I had already given up on it when it arrived in the mailbox. When it did, it had to wait another month for me to get around to reading it so we're quite a bit past the publication date (January 2014) by now. Wolves is the first novel by Ings I've read. I must admit that, until being offered this copy, I'd never heard of the man. He is not exactly unknown in British science fiction though. Wolves is his eighth novel and there are quite a few pieces of short fiction out there as well.

Wolves is a near future science fiction in which Augmented Reality plays an important part. Think glasses or contacts that make you see more than your eyes would. The real world overlaid by whatever the programmer chooses to show you. The main character, Conrad, is working for a company trying to develop the technique. His friend Michel looks at the world differently. Convinced that the economy is going to collapse in his lifetime he prepares for the end. He even makes a lucrative career out of it by writing post-apocalyptic novels. When a financial backer appears that wants to combine the two into a new form of entertainment, their professional lives as well as their personal ones become intertwined. Things get even more interesting when his job leads Conrad to a clue about his mother's death many years ago.

During the first half of the novel I was frequently tempted to put the book down. Augmented reality plays an important part in this book and Ings has created a main character completely immersed in this life. It is as if he's always one step removed from reality. We get to see the entire story through his eyes so it comes across as if looking at things from a distance. It becomes impersonal, filtered. Even the girlfriend he has at the opening of the book can't really touch him since her hands were lost in an accident and replaced by artificial ones. His life is dreary in the extreme. In later stages of the novel it gets so bad Conrad longs for unaugmented reality. To be able to look into someones eyes and not see a contact hiding the depths of their souls.

It doesn't help that Conrad is not really a nice fellow. He has the annoying tendency to think of people as selfish, vain and desperate, always managing to ascribe the most negative motivations to people around him. It often makes him behave like an asshole. Quite frankly, I don't understand why he didn't jump off a bridge long before we reach the final part of the novel. Especially in the early chapters of the novel, he is utterly pathetic. The picture painted of Conrad is that of a boy from a dysfunctional family, growing up to be a man who can't seem to find happiness in life. The one thing that probably saves him is the fact that he accepts the dreadful things that happen to him with a scary kind of fatalism. He is not a character the reader will easily connect with.

The final part of the novel is quite a different creature from the opening pages however. For some reason Ings doesn't introduce the mysterious death of Conrad's mother until quite late in the novel, making the first part appear a bit aimless. His mother suffers from manic depression and it is no surprise to him that she dies when Conrad is still a teenager. It's one of the parts of the book the reader feels the resignation that plagues Conrad most clearly. He is upset over a lot of things that happen back then, but not the actual death of his mother. While augmented reality plays a part in this novel as well, his father experiments with it to provide sight for blinded servicemen, these memories are the most clear look we get into his mind. I still felt removed from Conrad though, like even in his memories, he is the spectator in someone else's script. He employs this effect in the sections about Conrad's work and achievements in later life but this bit left me wondering how much of it is actually Conrad's outlook on life rather than technology messing with his perceptions.

I felt the early part of the novel was a bit aimless, but it has to be said that Ings pulls the strands of the story together nicely in the final few chapters. With the floodwaters rushing in (given what happened in the UK this winter Ings' timing is impeccable) and the economy collapsing, we return to the physical reality of the world and the characters deepest motivations. Strip away all the technology and you'll still find basic human emotions underneath. It's an odd sort of collapse. Suddenly it is upon the reader without much in the way of reflections on what went wrong. The characters saw it coming a long while before it actually happened so there is no sense of surprise or desperation. In a sense, Conrad is once again living out a script someone else wrote. That of his friend Michel.

Wolves is a bit of an odd novel. It contains elements of a techno-thriller, murder mystery and apocalyptic tale without actually being any of those three. Even several days after finishing it I'm not quite sure what to make of it. The last part of the novel, where I started to get a sense of where things were going, was quite a good reading but if I hadn't promised someone I'd review it, I'm not sure I'd have made it that far. I guess it is a novel that requires a bit of patience and some reflection because after mulling over it for a couple of days, I do think it is a decent read. Maybe not giving into the urge to put a novel down is not such a bad thing once in a while.

Book Details
Title: Wolves
Author: Simon Ings
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 295
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-11973-4
First published: 2014

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Weight of the Sunrise - Vylar Kaftan

Vylar Kaftan's The Weight of the Sunrise recently won the Nebula Award in the novella category. Of all the nominated works in the three short fiction categories I've only read Aliette de Bodard's The Waiting Stars (winner in the novelette category). Most years I manage to do a bit better. As usual many of the stories have been made available online so last week I decided to give Kaftan's story a go  (it can be read here). It was first published in the February issue of Asimov's. As far as I know there are no other publications yet. It's the first story by this author I've read. Her website tells me there has been a steady stream of short fiction since her first publication in 2004 but no collections or novels yet. Quite a lot of it is available to read online. I may have to have a look at some of it later this year.

The Weight of the Sunrise is an alternative history, set in a world where Pizzaro's men got butchered by an overwhelmingly large Inca army. The Inca state never collapsed, and although it suffered greatly from epidemics of old world diseases, it has managed to stay independent. The story is related by Lanchi Ronpa, an old man, telling his grandson about the events in the year 1806, when a diplomat from the British North American colonies comes to offer a vaccine for the smallpox. For a considerable price.

I'm very impressed with the way Kaftan created her alternative history. The author obviously put in a lot of thought on how an empire could survive the onslaught of new diseases, a serious drop in population and the pressure of the colonial powers that, despite Pizzaro's defeat, must have been present. Although the main character doesn't seem to know much of what goes on outside the borders of the empire, what we do catch, suggests that the changes are not limited to South America. As with any good alternative history, I wish the scope of the story had been larger so we'd get to see more of this timeline. Maybe Kaftan will return to it in other works. There certainly seems more than enough material for further exploration.

The social structure of this nineteenth century Inca state is explored in a bit more detail. Especially the way religion and politics are interwoven is explored in detail. Lanchi is afraid to be caught up in this political game he doesn't know how to play. His responses to practices like human sacrifice and slavery are interesting in particular. He is a product of his culture and tells his story according to his values.

The young main character may not know much about the world, but the much older narrator does. It's a clever bit of story telling, allowing the author to work in a bit of pride and false modesty, as well as courage and love for his family and a strong sense of justice. Throughout the story you get the impression he presents himself as a bit more naive than he really is. He is, in other words, a classic example of the unreliable narrator.

What will make or break this story for the reader is how much you are willing to forgive Lanchi for glossing over the flaws of his own society. The Inca seem a bit too benevolent to be believed. It is of course impossible to tell how their society would have developed in the two-and-a-half centuries that separate the fall of the historical empire and the events in this tale. Or, for that matter, how true the accounts of the Spanish sources describing the Inca were. Some readers will find Kaftan's version implausible or too western. I think she can get away with this, as long as you are prepared not to trust Lanchi too much. It is a piece that will most likely be good for some debate though. Which in itself is not a bad thing for a story.

I haven't read any of the other nominees so I can't really say if it was a deserved win. I do understand why this story was nominated though. The alternative time line is fascinating in my opinion. It is the aspect that carries this story really. I was done with Lanchi's tale when I had reached the end of his tale but the world itself left me hungry for more. If alternative history has your interest this is definitely a story you should read.

Book Details
Title: The Weight of the Sunrise
Author: Vylar Kaftan
Pages: 31
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2013

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lana Reviews: Dune - Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank Herbert was the sixth book I read for my reading challenge, and will be the third book that I review. I chose to read it because, although I did not know anything about Dune or its universe beforehand, I did know that it has been an important book for both science fiction and the fantasy genre. (Plus I hoped it would help me understand the Dune-related spice jokes that sometimes pop up on my Facebook feed.) When first picking it up, however, I got a bit worried as the first thing it tells me on its front cover is that the only thing Arthur C. Clarke knows that is comparable to it, is The Lord of the Rings. Don't get me wrong, - I quite enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, at least on my reread, but I always felt it was a relatively difficult read so thanks to this Clarke fellow I kind of expected Dune to be the same. It wasn't.

Young Paul Atreides is a member of a noble family who has just been offered the stewardship of the planet Arrakis - also known as Dune. As part of an interstellar feudal society where all noble houses owe their allegiance to the Padishah Emperor, his father, the Duke, has little choice but to accept the offer, fully aware that it is little more than a trap he and his family is walking into. Arriving at Arrakis, they find a desert planet where every drop of water is worth a fortune. But what makes the planet so valuable to the rest of the Galactic Empire, is that it is the only source of melange, the 'spice of spices.'

When the story begins, Paul is 15 years old and described as small for his age. Those who meet him first think of him as a child, only to discover as they interact with him, that he thinks, speaks and acts like a grown man. From his mother, Lady Jessica, he has received Bene Gesserit training giving him, among other things, heightened senses and knowledge of martial arts. He has also received training in how to use weapons from some of his father's trusted men, and in being a mentat - a human computer. When his family is betrayed on Dune, he and Jessica escape into the desert where they find shelter with the Freemen, the extremely hardy inhabitants of the planet. Being thought dead, the House of Atreides believed to be nothing more than a memory, gives Paul the opportunity to gather his forces and resources, and take back what is rightfully his.

For anyone familiar with the monomyth, (or the hero's journey,) it is quite obvious from the very first few pages of the book that the young boy Paul Atreides has a great destiny ahead of him. Even those unfamiliar with the above pattern are unlikely to miss Paul's own feelings of having a terrible purpose, feelings he has even before he receives the visions revealing what exactly that purpose will be. Like with most heroes written in this way, he doesn't have much of a choice in the matter, but rather has unfortunate circumstances forced upon him, changing his life from the normal to the unknown. Some heroes will survive the unknown thanks to powers they suddenly acquire at this point; Paul survives because of the years of training he has received when things could still be considered normal. For those that are familiar with the pattern of the hero's journey, Paul's story will most likely be extremely predictable, - I guess that would be true even for those who have simply read similar stories based on the same pattern, without knowing that there is such a pattern. It is okay though, it was how the author meant for it to be.

The future interstellar feudal society of Dune does not seem to have come very far when it comes to gender roles. The galaxy is, based on what we are told in this book, dominated by the male gender, and even the exclusively female Bene Gesserit, a religious group, want nothing more than to bring about a male Bene Gesserit among them; it has been their goal for thousands of years. The women that do not have any special powers, are hardly ever seen or mentioned, and seem to stick to the traditional female duties and roles in society. Those that have special powers, like the Bene Gesserit, are feared and hated, and often referred to as witches. In addition, it seems their powers are only meant to be used to serve the men around them. This is not really criticism though, more of an observation.

As I was reading Dune, I sometimes wondered what kind of reception it would have gotten had it been written and published now, and not back in 1965. How would the world today have reacted to a book where the hero adapts into a society of fighters that have Arab-sounding names, Arabic and Islamic terms in their language, and won't hesitate to spend their own lives if it means taking out their enemies along the way? And what about the immoral and corrupt enemy who will do anything to get their hands on the one valuable thing on the desert-planet that these fighters inhabit; the substance that makes space-travel/transportation possible? In a way, I wish I had read Dune when I was in my early or middle teens, so that my reading experience would not have been colored by what has happened in the real world in the last 15 years. I do not think it made me enjoy the story any less, but it did add thoughts and feelings to it that I do not think Herbert had ever intended.

I really liked Dune. For a science fiction story, it resembles my favorite genre (fantasy) a lot more than I thought it would. Keeping most of the focus on the story and the characters made it more enjoyable and available for me than science fiction that focuses more on science or technology. I also felt that it is an easier read than many other books because of the language itself. Sure, Herbert uses a lot of words that is not actually English, but there is a glossary in the back for that, and the rest of the story flows nicely enough. I would definitely recommend this, both for science fiction and fantasy fans.

Book Details
Title: Dune
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 609
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-575-08150-5
First published: 1965