Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book 81: This is like 10000 words of blather about how great I am, and then a touching little thing at the end you should probably just skip ahead to.

I kept mulling over two things as I made my way (via audiobook) through Dune. 

First, I thought: man, I was pretty smart in 8th grade.

And second, I thought Boy, Frank Herbert really did a one-of-a-kind thing.

As to the first thought: I read the Dune books (the ones that existed, then, at least) in 8th grade and maybe a bit into 9th grade, when I was about 13 years old. I remembered Dune pretty well overall: I remembered the Bene Gesserit and Duncan Idaho and Stilgar and the Fremen, and a lot came back to me as I re-read it, too, things that had been lodged in my mind. But, listening to it now as a 47-year-old guy with advanced graduate degrees, I was surprised at how sophisticated the book really is, and how well I'd understood it in 8th grade.

For example, there's a part of the book where Herbert delves into the sandworm-spice-little maker cycle, and he doesn't really spell it out very well, but instead just talks about it as though the reader had been raised on Arrakis, and one would have to understand or intuit a bit about how this worked, and I recalled, as it went through that part on the re-read, how I'd understood it back 34 years ago, as an 8th grader.  Just as I understood a lot of what Herbert talked about or implied; Herbert's writing is really, I think, well above middle-school level, and even if the science he makes up is made up, it's still draped in techno-whatifs and the like.

I mean all this to discuss something I frequently point out to my kids, others, clients, etc: That intelligence and education are two totally different things. As an 8th grader, I was an intelligent kid with hardly any education. Intelligence is the means of understanding things that are presented to you; education is presenting things to that intelligence.  I instinctively knew the difference between being smart and being educated, but re-reading a pretty-sophisticated book for the first time in 3 decades really drove it home. Dune is a smart book; it demands some intelligence of its readers, and I grasped all its nuances as an 8th grader as readily as I did as a middle-aged man.

That, in turn, led me to think about whether YA books and middle-grade writing do a disservice to kids, or not, a line of thought I'm uncomfortable with because I don't like judging reading material; to me, reading is reading is reading, and if you enjoy it and it makes you think, it's good. I don't think there is inherently any more merit to, say, Anna Karenina than there is to Piers Anthony's Xanth books; I know society values the former more than the latter in many ways, but I don't see why. To me, the Harry Potter books are on the same literary level as Shakespeare's plays, but Harry Potter is more enjoyable to me now.

So thinking that YA books might not be the best thing for tweens to read is discomfiting to me, but here's how I mean it: talking down to people is not necessarily good. There are two kinds of YA books, I think: those that are intended for younger readers in their subject matter, and those that are pitched to poorer readers in their vocabulary and presentation. The former I have no problem with; the latter I kind of do, in that books which do not stir a person intellectually, and, yes, challenge them a bit, are books that ultimately stand an equal (if not greater) chance of turning a person off reading.

I see all kinds of books marketed towards middle-schoolers and tweens and teens that are, to be blunt, simple, but not simple in a good way: they are books that are simple like a blunt instrument is simple, books that present cardboard characters and limited vocabulary and simple plotlines, and as such, they are books that are more designed to be gotten through than experienced or enjoyed. Giving books like that to a kid, and then expecting the kid to enjoy reading, is like forcing kids to engage in manual labor and expecting them to learn to exercise from that.

When I say reading is reading and all books have merit what I mean is that if you are reading something that engages you, that makes your mind work and helps you think (even if you are only thinking, say, about the superheroes in the comic book you've got) and excites you about the subject matter and makes you want more of that thing, if that's the kind of thing you're reading, then it's good even if it's not Tolstoy.

On the other hand, if what you're reading is plodding, didactic, pedantic, simple, or dumb, if that is what you're thinking as you read, then that stuff is not worth reading. Instruction manuals for putting together a coffee table are simply written and boring to read; I don't put them on the same plane as any reading material that I count as reading material.

Which goes back to Dune vs YA books: Dune is a complicated book with all kinds of political maneuvering, pseudo (and real?) science, religious and literary themes, and dozens of complex characters; and it's a book that back when I was 13 was stocked in our middle-school library. It's books like Dune that made me so fascinated by reading: books which created whole universes, literally, and challenged me to understand them and continue to explore them.  That's what books -- of whatever level -- should do.

Someone a while back wrote and article in which he or she said they enjoyed reading YA books because they were "simpler" than adult books. Depending on what's meant by that, that reader may be hurting him (or her; I can't remember) self, and books like that may turn as many people off of reading as they turn on (if not more.)

It's all ultimately subjective, but I think authors and readers do themselves a disservice when they take the less-challenging route.

Which brings up point two: Frank Herbert's Dune universe is, as far as I can tell, unique among scifi and fantasy types of books. Nearly every major work of genre fiction, book or movie, has spawned numerous spinoffs or created archtypes, from Lord Of The Rings' crushing impact on fantasy to Star Wars' birth of grunge space wars, but I'm not aware of anything that really took after Dune in any real sense.  Dune's combination of medieval society and spacefaring technology has I guess hit a few places (like, if I remember correctly, Krull?) but there's not really a "medieval-space-genre" that's grown up in the wake of the Dune books, and I'm not sure why that might be.  But I have some theories:

Theory 1 is that the books are simply too specific to become archetypal; they're dense books full of religious themes and commentary on society and hinted-at history that's every bit as detailed as Tolkien's, but the specific niche they occupy/create is uniquely Herbert's.  In that sense, other books that attempted to move into the genre might have seemed too copycattish, the way Battlestar Galactica's first TV incarnation was extremely reminiscent of Star Wars.

Theory 2 is that maybe the books aren't as popular as I might think, something I run into in my life all the time: stuff I love turns out to be very, very unpopular with society as a whole, which is why the nicheification of culture is good for me: absent Netflix and Hulu and Amazon, I'd probably have far less pop culture available for my consumption.

Theory 3 is that I'm wrong and there's all kinds of Dune -ific stuff out there and I just haven't come across it.

Theory 2 seems incorrect; in a list of readers' top 100 scifi books back in 2011, the Dune series came up at #4,  Theory 3 I can't prove or disprove; I looked through that list and couldn't tell if some of the series were or were not similar to Dune. But I think Theory 1 is likely the closest: the Dune books are so unique that anyone else telling a similar story would either feel like they were plagiarizing, or be accused of it, or both; it's one thing to have dirty spaceships flying around big battlestations/stars; it's another to have knives and shields and religious orders and Dukes and space lighters and cloning tanks all exist in one universe.

Which makes what Herbert achieved even more remarkable: he created something so different than everything else that it's really its own genre; Dune is its own substrata of science fiction, a branching that exists only in the Dune universe and nowhere else.

That's all a lot of theorizing, anyway, but the concrete stuff is this: Dune remained every bit as enjoyable this time around as it did almost 4 decades ago, so much so that I've decided to work my way through the original series again. I'm not sure if I'll continue onto the newer works that have been done by people other than Frank Herbert, but I at least want to read (again) the five I made it through so many years ago.  It's nice to think that me, driving along in my car with Mr F through the industrial park, or coming back from a hearing in another county, is sharing something across time and space with that nerdy fat kid sitting by himself on the bus, reading a brown-covered paperback full of weird words and fantastic ideas.  I miss that guy sometimes, until something like Dune reminds me that he never actually went away.


Andrew Leon said...

I think I have a lot I want to say to this post, but I don't have time at the moment (it is almost midnight) to figure all of those things out. BUT!
There are definite flavors of Dune in Star Wars. In fact, Lucas was sued (or, at least, a lawsuit was threatened) by Herbert or his people because they said Lucas stole Dune. Of course, Lucas said he was much more influenced by growing up watching Star Trek, so nothing stuck.

I've only read Dune (and I didn't read that until about a decade ago), but I've kind of been intending to re-read it at some point and then, finally, go on to the rest of the series.

Briane Pagel said...

I recall, mostly, "God Emperor Of Dune," which was really fantastic. I think the series is worth it. I didn't know that about Lucas being sued. Off to read!

(Also Dune just got optioned for a movie or TV series, so there I go: changing the culture through this blog that I think literally ONLY you read.)

Andrew Leon said...

The sci-fi channel (I think) did a really great adaptation a while back. You should check it out if you haven't seen it.