ALL SYSTEMS RED, by Martha Wells, A No-Spoiler Review of the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries Series

A novella. Hey, what’s that? Well…it’s shorter than a novel. And…as with all printed matter, it’s a pleasure to read when it’s entertaining and well written.

ALL SYSTEMS RED is a 127 pages story, entertaining and well-written, that one can read in about 4 hours. Rated PG-13 for adult themes. I read this novella on a flight from Minneapolis to Seattle. I flew on Delta and none of the airline’s tv/film options seemed very thrilling to me. I often try to see HBO or Showtime options when on a flight because I don’t subscribe to either of those services in real life. Thank goodness I had taken this book with me, hardback, but thin, lightweight and easy to pack because it’s only 127 pages.

And now, for my Short, No-Spoiler Review.

I highly recommend ALL SYSTEMS RED for these 5 reasons.

  1. Original voice…the narrator has the appeal of an innocent, he/she is like a child, yet holds the capacity to narrate a futuristic society inhabited by humans and AI living and working together
  2. Genre bending…science fiction merged with mystery…in other words, a page-turner
  3. Thought-provoking ideas about AI and how future humans might understand morality/humanity in regards to AI
  4. Interesting world-building and a great set-up for subsequent stories
  5. ALL SYSTEMS RED would make a great audiobook. See the longer review for more

Longer Review:

Martha Wells has created a fascinating universe of humanity working and living off Earth, in space, in places that can only be reached via light-speed travel. She doesn’t fixate on the physics of the issue (regarding traveling across vast distances) but focuses on the gritty work life of humans and their bots. In the author’s futuristic world, full AI exist as sex workers and security units (SecUnits) and other helps in life. Also, some humans adopt robotic parts (augmented humans). So, there is a mix of how humans have integrated with tech and within the story world, there is little “judgment” about these realities.

While this is all true, the AI mind that narrates this story has a judgment about itself and humans. The view is not completely skewed toward disgust for humans, though there is some leaning in this regard. Granted, I’ve only read the first 1.5 novellas. But what works in the narrative is that Wells has put forward a more dispassionate, yet charming view of the world the way it is. I highly recommend these novellas as entertainment and am slowly discovering how they speak into deeper moral questions around humanity’s race toward the future, a future in which robots and artificial intelligence will be embedded.

Regarding the narrator. The voice is absolutely charming. I did not listen to the book, but can imagine the voice. This book would be a pleasure to listen to.

Four of the series in hardback can be bought together. Click on Murderbot Diaries

For the least expensive version to try out novella #1, click on Kindle version: All Systems Red

For the audio version of novella #1, click on Audio of All Systems Red

Space Sweepers, A No Spoiler Review

A wonderful story, compelling characters and a science fiction setting that floods me with joy. Plus, it’s free on Netflix. I rate this film PG-13 for some violence, but it’s a bit like “Star Wars” type violence. Not a lot of blood, but definitely carnage.

Not that this story only bleeds happiness…it doesn’t. There is a tragic “trade” that takes place. However, the overall adventure ranked above my expectations. To be honest, when I’m watching something online like this, I’m not expecting brilliance, but when it’s Korean made, I am coming to expect top-notch production. The Korean film industry is doing something right. They’re focusing on great storytelling and upping the game at every turn when it comes to production value. SPACE SWEEPERS is no exception.

 

 

Five Reasons to Watch Space Sweepers

  1. characters, they’re funny, quirky and smart…They reminded me of many beloved STAR WARS characters
  2. Special effects on par with my favorite films
  3. Nothing offensive, for parents trying to figure out what to show their kids
  4. Excellent space battles
  5. An ultimate choice for the main character(s) that will impact the on-screen universe

Longer Review: This film assumes a space opera vibe and so reminded me of Star Wars. Yet, it was original, not a carbon copy. The pacing of this screenplay gave exactly the right amount of info while embedding a few nuggets that made me go back a rewatch portions. That was rewarding and I loved the heartbeat of the story’s core…the transformation of a rogue into a nurturing father.

To note: The villain in SPACE SWEEPERS reminded me (visually) of Jack Dorsey, former Twitter CEO, former CEO as of today, November 30, 2021. I wonder if the film maker has/had a bone to pick with Twitter.

Regarding Korean stories: I will continue to watch and review Korean-produced scifi/horror/speculative fiction because in the last 2 years or more, the flow of great content is undeniable. For more Korean-productions that I’ve reviewed, see:

KINGDOM, A Review of a Korean-Made Masterpiece

SQUID GAME, A Review without Spoilers

TRAIN TO BUSAN, A No Spoiler Review

 

DUNE Part 1, The film. A No-Spoiler Review

DUNE, the 2021 film is a true hit and a must-see large screen theater event. It drew millions across the globe to the theater. I was among those who saw it and loved it. I saw it a second time within a week and the film was still breathtaking, and I’ll see it again though probably via my television.

In a similar way that Peter Jackson pleased both the non-reading audience and the hyper fan of the books, LOTR, it’s looking like Villeneuve will do the same for the average viewer and fans of the novel. First installment of George Herbert’s universe, check. To read my review of the novel DUNE, click here. For my review of the film, please continue.

DUNE is the first of two films, and there could be more if Villeneuve decides to continue with the DUNE’s sequels. We’ll see how that goes. The later books are brilliant but probably more challenging for the average audience member to consume. Herbert’s world is a complex and mostly unhappy place on almost all counts.

First, The Short Review

5 Reasons You MUST See this Film if you are a Scifi Fan…

  1. Mostly pitch perfect and accurate (close to the novel) storytelling
  2. Herbert’s DUNE is a foundational work in the scifi genre and has a huge international following. AKA, without Dune, Star Wars might never have happened.
  3. A vision within the story that transcends culture and era
  4. Great casting
  5. An epic visual feast

Paul’s Mother Jessica, the Bene Gesserit concubine of Duke Leto

Now, for the Longer Review…

If you want to go deep, super deep on DUNE, there are papers written, blog posts and articles that speak to why the story DUNE is one that has reverberated in many cultures, especially subjugated cultures, since it was released in 1965. This article is a  good one, in case you want more breadth about the history. Click on the link for the Guardian’s penetrating reflection. DUNE article, Guardian.

As a viewer of the film, what I wanted was something of the depth of the novel, a compelling vision of the world of Arrakis, Caladan and the politics surrounding the story. I also wanted characters who made sense within that world. They had to feel real. DUNE delivered on all counts.

True, the viewer is only getting a third of the character depth in the film version and for that reason, I encourage all to read (or re-read) the novel. It ages well. But, even if you don’t read the novel, Paul, Leto, Jessica, Duncan, Kynes and the Fremen come across very close to the novelist’s vision. I had two observations of change that caught my attention: Villeneuve did not portray the Atreides, mostly male in-house staff accurately in terms of their suspicion of Jessica as the betrayer. Their suspicion of the one woman in the mix comes through in the novel, not in the film. Also, the gay Baron Harkonnen is a known child predator in the novel. I can guess there are many reasons Villeneuve decided to forgo this portrayal of the only gay character in the story world. Let him be obese and disgusting in the visuals, but diminish his child predator persona. That seems like a wise decision on many fronts.

The portrayals I loved:

Arakkis, the worms, the Fremen, the sitch, the general feeling of the Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, the Sardaukar, the ornithopters, Arrakeen, the costumes (including the stillsuit)…these are all perfect, as are the actors’ portrayals of their characters.

Overall, DUNE was worth the money. I highly recommend this film. Rated PG-13 for violence.

 

ONE SECOND AFTER, A No-Spoiler Review of the Novel, by William R. Forstchen

My son handed me this paperback during the pandemic. Here, Mom. I think you’d like this book. I read at night before bed. This book gave me nightmares.

And…I did like this novel, mostly. Here are 5 Reason I recommend ONE SECOND AFTER

  1. Decent story-telling and an interesting unique setting
  2. A thoughtful and action-oriented main character, mostly well-written, though the story is so male-centric, I cringed here and there
  3. A frightening premise that a few “experts” have warned is a real-world possibility
  4. Page-turning tension
  5. This book caused me to reflect on how our quality of life/health depends on meds

To buy this novel, click on One Second After

And now for my longer review…

ONE SECOND AFTER, rated PG for some violence, is the story of a mountain community outside of Asheville, North Carolina post EMP attack. In this story, multiple electromagnetic pulse weapons are discharged in the atmosphere above the US, frying all electronics/microchips, etc. Thousands of planes crash, including Air Force 1, killing the president and his entourage…cars stop working (except for the older ones that have no electronic parts) and all modern forms of communication break down, including radio. Add to that no computers, no cell coverage, no refrigeration, no transportation, no heat or cooling, and you put most of the population on a quick path to discomfort, starvation, disease and lawlessness. This story is The Walking Dead, but without the zombies (unless you put desperate people willing to eat human flesh to survive in the same category as zombies).

I did watch most of the The Walking Dead and it became clear after a few seasons that the zombies were not the ones keeping humanity from becoming civilized again, it was regular “alive” people with education and supposed morality who were often the worst perpetrators of horrors. This novel follows the same vein.

The characters I found most interesting were those who tried to lead the group with some semblance of morality and decency. Sometimes, those characters felt a little contrived, but most of the time, I believed they could exist in the real world and appreciated how they were tempted regularly to abandon the Constitution, rights, and a sense of justice. Running a mini-dictatorship made more sense than all the work involved in self-governing, yet they persisted.

One poignant reality in the novel world is that because all trade has come to a standstill, there are no new meds to “take care of” human problems. Everything from a small cut, to heart disease, rotting teeth and diabetes have the potential to be a death sentence. Eventually, mental health is also a part of the discussion when the town elders realize that they might have to imprison or restrain those who might endure psychotic breaks from reality. So many people die in this story, but most die from either starvation or from lack of medicine and that was an interesting reality to ponder.

SQUID GAME, A Review without Spoilers

Netflix has done it again. It has found another international gem, this one created by South Korean writer/director, Hwang Dong-hyuk.

I had barely heard of SQUID GAME until about a week ago, but now the buzz is everywhere. If you’re like me, you’re wondering…Why all the hype about this Korean dystopian series?

So, last night, I watched the 1st of the 9 episodes and love what is being set up. This episode features a giant robotic girl that rules over a game of Red Light Green Light, also the episode’s title.

Here’s what I can say about the opening.

  1. An introduction to a variety of well-drawn characters
  2. Especially, the main character, Seong Gi-hun played by Lee Jung-Jae, is a sympathetic hero, a financially desperate divorcee with a gambling problem living with his mother
  3. The story draws together hundreds of below average types or “losers” to compete with one another for an extraordinary financial prize. (Losers is the word used by the creator and he makes great pains to show the audience his characters’ failings).
  4. A creepy robot child with roving eyes that shoot bullets. Tis the stuff of nightmares.

Seong as a child

SQUID GAMES would probably receive a PG-13 or maybe even an R rating for violence. I am watching the dubbed version. The dubbing hasn’t bothered me.

There is a dystopian flavor to the story and the world, but its reality is not so hard to believe. What I mean by that is that the game world is not fantastical, nor is it futuristic. This game could be happening today on an island somewhere. The audience does get a shot of the island in episode 1, as well as the back of the billionaire maniacal overlord, who watches via screen as the contestants compete and try to stay alive.

Seong, living with Mom

Creator, Hwang, worked for ten years to get SQUID GAME made. The traditional studios wouldn’t touch it, but alternative streaming is proving again, that fresh stories are out there, often outside the Hollywood bubble. Cheers to Netflix in particular for curating and promoting dramas and comedies we would never otherwise see.

Click on the links below for more of my reviews of “outside the Hollywood bubble” stories that deliver. The first two are also Korean-made

 

 

KINGDOM, A Review of a Korean-Made Masterpiece

TRAIN TO BUSAN, A No Spoiler Review

Review of THE RAIN, Season 1

Don’t Miss the German-made Television Series, DARK. My No Spoiler Review

 

 

 

 

FOUNDATION, A No Spoiler Reveiw of the first 2 Episodes

Science fiction fans were delivered a treat over the weekend. Asimov’s Foundation Series is finally consumable via screen, television streaming to be precise. Writers/Creators, David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, 2005) and Josh Friedman (Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019) have teamed up to attempt what many had believed unthinkable.

Why unthinkable? The Foundation Series, which began as a few short stories, but over the course of Asimov’s life, evolved into something much more vast, portraying the slow downward spiral of an empire in a sprawling universe over many centuries.

Apple, having bought the rights to the Foundation Series in 2019, invested a large sum to make this happen. The story is definitely being tweaked by Goyer and Friedman, but I am appreciating the adjustments because the Foundation Series novels did not appeal to me. Too many supposedly smart dudes sitting in rooms and talking at one another. Too many ideas delivered in a way that felt preachy to me, therefore dull. Characters that felt interchangeable and almost zero females.

But how about the series? So far I am loving what is evolving on screen. If you’re a scifi fan, here’s why I think it’s worth watching.

  1. The core of Asimov’s ideas are all there, the story well told so far
  2. The production design, the sets and costumes are fabulous
  3. The acting has been surprisingly good
  4. The screenwriters have changed some of the male characters to female, including Gaal Dornick, the lead character in these first 2 episodes. Dornick, pictured below, is played by Spanish actor, Lou Llobell.

If you’re one of those people who subscribed to Apple Plus because of Ted Lasso, FOUNDATION might just convince you to stay a little longer. I rate this production PG-13 for some violence and sexual content.

The third episode drops this Friday, October 1st.

 

 

WIDOWLAND A No Spoiler Review of the Novel

Five Reasons I recommend  WIDOWLAND, by C.J. Carey

  1. Excellent pacing and page-turning tension
  2. A female hero who comes into her agency in a believable way
  3. Legit world-building of a bleak UK governed by Nazis
  4. The writing around the sexual relationships feels vital and true (more on this in the longer review)
  5. Given the consistent point of view and straightforward timeline, I’m guessing this would make a great audiobook

To purchase WIDOWLAND, click here

The Longer Review…

To control the past, they edited history. To control the future, they edited literature. 

WIDOWLAND is an alternative history novel, set in London, 1953. This story would probably carry a PG-13 rating because of the sexual relationships although none of the sex scenes were explicit. For this reason, I wavered on the rating. Overall, the main sex scene was tastefully, even beautifully handled in terms of the emotional weight it carries within the story.

In this alternative history, Germany has invaded the UK and Hitler rules over it as a protectorate. The coronation of Edward the VIII (Queen Elizabeth’s uncle) and the American divorcee, Queen Wallis, is taking place soon. Significant because The Leader, Hitler himself will descend on London for the celebration. The soon-to-be King and Queen of England are collaborators with the Nazis, based on an actual historical and private meeting that took place between the Edward and Hitler at the Berghof in 1937.  (No record of the meeting has survived).

The story, told in close third person by the main character, Rose Ransom, opens with a description of London preparing for the coronation. Through Rose’s eyes, the world unfolds. The reader quickly understands, that although Rose holds little power in the system, she sits at the top of the subjugated population as a Geli. She is young and her view of reality is sometimes naive and not always reliable, but the discoveries she makes along the way are a part of how Carey maintains tension in the story. The reader senses the danger she does not.

This is a story about a woman and about women living under Nazi occupation. Carey could have gone overboard painting the world, but deftly focuses the reader’s attention on the kind of oppression that exists in England for the vulnerable. The elderly, women and widows in particular, suffer under the yoke of the Nazis. She highlights the caste system which categorizes the “utility” of women. In this early excerpt, the reader begins to understand Carey’s 1953 London.

Members of the first and elite caste were popularly called Gelis after the woman most loved by the Leader, his niece Geli. Klaras–after the Leader’s mother–were fertile women who had produced, ideally, four or more children. Lenis were professional women, such as office workers and actresses, after Leni Riefenstahl, the regime’s chief film director. Paulas, names after the Leader’s sister, were in the caring professions, teachers and nurses, whereas Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees and Gretls did the grunt work as kitchen and domestic staff. There was a range of other designations–for nuns, disabled mothers and midwives–but right at the bottom of the hierarchy came the category called Friedas. It was a diminutive of the nickname Friedhöfefrauen–cemetary women. These were the widows and spinsters of over fifty who had no children, no reproductive purpose, and who did not serve a man. 

There was nothing lower than that. 

Rose first runs into trouble when the Cultural Commissioner of the UK Protectorate asks that she help him solve a mystery. She is to venture into Widowland and spy on a group of Friedas. An uprising is bubbling to the surface in London right as Hitler is set to arrive. These disempowered women are the suspected Nazi resisters. The clock is ticking and Rose’s big boss makes known to her that more than just her job is on the line if she fails.

What unfolds is a story of discovery for Rose and choices that will impact many.

One comment about the sexual relationships in this novel. The sex is not explicit. There is an implied disorder to the relationship between Rose and her lover, who is twenty-five years her senior. The power dynamics and how German men use power to procure beautiful young women is a part of the world these characters inhabit and is taken for granted in the novel world. However, the author adds a scene that is emblematic of sex within a loving relationship. The revelation that comes to Rose and the writing around this encounter are so poignant and beautiful, I will remember this passage of writing for a long time.

A QUIET PLACE II

Worthy of a trip to the movie theater. I say yes!

Here is a really lame photo (yet authentic because it was taken in a dark theater) of our party of 4, my husband and I and two friends, watching our first film in an actual theater since Covid lockdown.

A QUIET PLACE II was what we watched and it is worth a trip to the theater. The suspense and scare moments are best viewed when in a humongous, dark location, alongside a bunch of others who will scream in unison with you. We ventured into a theater in Madison, Wisconsin last night, our mask mandate having been lifted the day before. (Dane County has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country).

Here are 5 reasons this film is worth your attention:

  1. This is true scifi (in the spirit of Ridley Scott’s Alien, AKA monster versus human)
  2. The storytelling is intimate in the best possible way, focusing on one family scrambling to survive in a nearly impossible world
  3. Jump out of your seat moments, but without the extreme gore found within the horror genre
  4. A longer story arc that builds tension and keeps the audience longing for more
  5. A dynamic deaf actress who plays a deaf character. An amazing role and an amazing performance by Millicent Simmonds

I must say, the group of us were giddy and joyful to be walking into the theater again after so many months of Netflix and Amazon Prime and Disney Plus, etc, etc, viewing by ourselves in our little hovels. The theater felt glorious and expansive.

Some economists ponder whether or not the movie theater will die as a result of our streaming habits (already in process before Covid). If last night is any indication, I would say no. Some films need to be viewed in community and in a massive, dark space.

A QUIET PLACE II did not disappoint.

All of us in our party had see the first installment. All of us had been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the story in that first film. Always suspecting the sequel will be lame, we didn’t venture into the theaters until we heard from critics and viewers that this second film was both consistent with the vibe of the first (did not lose its heart) yet deepened the overall tension. A third installment is being shot as I write.

I highly recommend you view the first film before going to the second. Here is my review of A QUIET PLACE

You can rent this first film on Amazon Prime for $3.99.

After which I highly recommend you view the second film and be prepared for a few jump-out-of-your-seat moments and a wonderful theater experience overall.

THE HOBBIT, Chapter 1…A Study on Craft

The following is a post about the craft of storytelling. Posts like this are somewhat unusual for me on my author website. Most of time I am reviewing science fiction for the average consumer, not just for the writer. In this post, I am poking my nose into craft. I don’t want to just taste the stew…I want to know how it is made. This post is for the writer and beware…contains spoilers.

This is my second installment on first chapters. A few days ago, I analyzed chapter 1 of DUNE. To read that post, click here. Today, I analyze chapter 1 of THE HOBBIT.

This first chapter

–introduces the reader to the world and the main characters

–evokes reader empathy for Bilbo by showing Bilbo’s inner conflict

–presents the choice that will change Bilbo’s life forever

–introduces the reader to the fantastical possibilities that lie ahead, but also the dangers

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Thus begins THE HOBBIT, by J.R.R. Tolkien, but really this sentence begins the longer saga that so many have come to know and love, THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Notice what it accomplishes.

  1. Sentence #1 introduces a new creature, the hobbit. This creature will inhabit the long saga. He will be the unlikely hero (later his nephew, Frodo will be our hero). The audience will come to admire, adore and identify with Bilbo and Frodo.
  2. This sentence begins to describe the culture of hobbits. They are earthy, living in holes, but absolutely committed to cleanliness and comfort. These creatures are civilized…they just happen to like holes as their place of abode.
  3. In this first sentence, Tolkien begins to evoke our empathy for Bilbo, who will soon trade in his life of comfort for a wild and magical adventure.

Paragraph #2 of THE HOBBIT describes Bilbo’s home in detail, which will be the place where all the action takes place in the remainder of the chapter, including the entertaining of a wizard and a large group of dwarves, but even more than that, this home represents the comfortable life of a gentleman. Later in the story, Bilbo often thinks of home (as does Frodo in the LOtR saga) as a place of rest, comfort and peace. It is a place to return to.

Paragraph #3 and #4 describe Bilbo’s ancestry, posing the curious conflict he bears within himself. There is a debate between the Baggins and the Took within Bilbo. The Took side of his family (Bilbo’s mother’s side) is prone to adventure and risk-taking. The Baggins side of the family (Bilbo’s father’s side) is conservative and would reject adventure and any controversy at all. The reader doesn’t have to wonder for very long which side will win out. Without that Tookish spirit, Bilbo might never have walked away from his comfortable hobbit hole.

Both impulses inhabit Bilbo and most readers can relate. It might be said that opposing impulses, such as what Bilbo experiences, are a part of every person. Thus, Tolkien evokes our empathy for Bilbo in chapter 1. Much as Bilbo leaves the comfort of his hobbit hole to journey with the dwarves, the reader leaves his/her comfort to embark with them in the story world.

Now for the rest of chapter 1: Bilbo, because of his value of hospitality, entertains Gandalf (a wizard who believes Bilbo will be a key member of the adventure) and a group of dwarves who demand food, drink, then compel him to travel with them to a place where a dragon guards a great treasure. The adventure, as it is presented, is magnificent, romantic and promises great wealth. Bilbo is taken in, though it is touch and go for a while. Despite his willingness to leave his home, it could be said the hobbit is in a way bewitched by the romantic notion of a grand adventure.

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.

Yet, Thorin, the lead dwarf, does not mince words about the dangers they might face.

We shall soon before the break of day start on our long journey, a journey from which some of us, or perhaps all of us (except our friend and counsellor, the ingenious wizard Gandalf) may never return. It is a solemn moment.

What is Bilbo’s reaction to this sobering news?

Poor Bilbo couldn’t bear it any longer. At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel. All the dwarves sprang up, knocking over the table. 

The stage has been set. The semi-cowardly and ill-prepared Bilbo Baggins will reluctantly leave his comfortable hobbit hole and venture with these new friends, the dwarves and Gandalf. When he finally returns, he will be completely changed and so will Middle Earth.

For over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away ere break of day

To find our long-forgotten gold.

Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day when he woke up.

This stanza, when one reflects on THE HOBBIT and THE LORD of the RINGS speaks of long-forgotten gold. The dwarves believe this to be part of their hoard, that which is guarded by the dragon, Smaug. The reader understands a deeper meaning. Long-forgotten gold is the one ring to rule them all, found by Bilbo…later passed on to Frodo, becoming the impetus for the Lord of the Rings Saga.

The reader doesn’t understand at this point the profundity of the dwarves’ song, but it is there, imbedded in that first chapter of the very first book.

 

DUNE, Chapter 1…A Study on Craft

Spoilers below. If you want to read a review of the novel without spoilers, click here.

I happen to be in a writing critique group that started up this past week. A couple of the folks in this group are writing novels and sent in first chapters for a swipe at getting critique. So, I read a few Chapter 1’s yesterday and in the course of that reading, I began to wonder…Do these seem like first chapters to me? How do I feel as a reader as I am taking in the narrative for the first time? Do I begin to have a strong sense about the story, the characters and about the writing style? Absolutely. I did and do have feelings and ideas. Some of those made me want to keep reading. Others did not.

That led me to the question: How does a novelist write a brilliant chapter one?

I wonder about my own first chapter, the beginning of my novel that is undergoing an extensive edit. How do I feel about my first chapter? What is it accomplishing and what is it not accomplishing? Have I done the necessary work to hook my reader, keep them interested and engaged, settle them into the world I am creating?

All writers of any genre ponder this question when they sit down before the blank page because the possibilities are endless, as endless as stories themselves. However, I do think there are ways to understand first chapters, to critique and edit them for the purpose of making them better.

Therefore, I begin a series of posts devoted to the question of beginnings. My focus will be on science fiction and fantasy novels and the hope is not to be prescriptive. Telling the writer what to do or not do detracts from originality and art. However, paying attention to how great authors craft a narrative is worthwhile. We learn from the greats. Study enough of them and we begin to see common threads.

So, my goal in this series of posts is to plunder first chapters and see what I can glean about my own writing and will record my findings for the sake of other writers.

 

Today, A Look at DUNE, chapter 1

 

Frank Herbert is a great writer and though the novel DUNE isn’t perfect, it’s very close to perfect. How does that first chapter set us up for a marvelous journey?

I see it accomplishing four things.

Chapter 1…

-Gives us a sense of the setting of the story

-Introduces the primary characters, even putting the main character through a first test

-Hints at the coming conflict

-Tantalizes the reader with compelling mysteries

 

First, chapter 1 of DUNE give us a sense of the setting.

Here is the first sentence of the novel.

In the week before the departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

Most of us have experienced moving houses, cities, states. We know what it feels like to change locations. In this first sentence of DUNE, the reader is alerted immediately to the fact that a change in location is taking place for this particular family, for this particular person, Paul. Moving is disruption. Paul’s family is about to be disrupted. He will soon be leaving Caladan for a planet called Arrakis, sometimes called Dune.

Soon after, in the early paragraphs, Herbert repeats this series of words three times as paragraphs. They jump out on the page like a refrain. They are written in italics, which in Herbert’s style, represents thought. Paul, the main character continues to mull over this reality.

Arrakis—Dune—Desert Planet

So, not only will Paul be leaving his current location, but the new location is harsh. There is a sense of foreboding about this desert planet. Paul will move from Caladan, a land where water is plentiful to Arrakis, where water is scarce. Caladan is known, comfortable, secure, a virtual paradise. Arrakis is mysterious, uncomfortable in so many ways, in part because of its climate. Climate will be a large issue in the rest of the novel. Herbert wants the reader to begin thinking about ecology and its importance to a planet and a people.

Here is the second sentence of DUNE.

It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.

When Paul’s family leaves Caladan, they are not only leaving their current comfortable home/castle, but they are leaving their home of twenty-six generations. This move is an epic move. The reader is left asking…why? Why leave this lovely planet and this home of so many years? We get a few clues as to why this move it taking place. Power and political maneuvering are introduced, a profound subject of the story.

Thufir Hawat, his father’s Master of Assassins, had explained it: their mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, had been on Arrakis eighty years, holding the planet in quasi-fief under a CHOAM Company contract to mine the geriatric spice, mélange. Now the Harkonnens were leaving to be replaced by the House of Atreides in fief-complete—an apparent victory for the Duke Leto. Yet, Hawat had said, their appearance contained the deadliest peril, for the Duke Leto was popular among the Great Houses of the Landsraad.

Arrakis is the place where the empire derives its most important resource: Melange, or spice, as it is sometimes called. Melange is the secret to space travel in this particular universe.

We can already see now how the chess pieces are stacking up.

This brings us to the second accomplishment of Herbert’s chapter one, the introduction of most of the main characters.

Paul is mentioned in the first sentence. So is his mother. Paul’s mother and Paul are on the stage for the very final scene of the novel as well. In fact, his mother gives voice to the final paragraph/speech.

Not only that, but the crone mentioned in that first sentence, the one who will test Paul later in the chapter, will also be on that stage at the finale. This is great writing.

Add to the list the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen, House Harkonnen…all are mentioned, Thufir Hawat, (who will be present in the final scene) and Dr. Yueh, important as the one who betrays House Atreides…all are introduced in chapter 1.

Note this paragraph early in the chapter.

Paul awoke to feel himself in the warmth of his bed—thinking…thinking. This world of Castle Caladan, without play or companions his own age, perhaps did not deserve sadness in farewell. Dr. Yueh, his teacher, had hinted that the faufreluches class system was not rigidly guarded on Arrakis. The planet sheltered people who lived at the desert edge without caid or bashar to command them: will-o’-the-sand people called Fremen, marked down on no census of the Imperial Regate.

The Fremen will become important to the story, of primary importance, but the reader is simply introduced here. There is mystery surrounding these people. I am curious. I want to learn more and Herbert will plunge me into Fremen culture before too long.

It’s interesting to note who is left out of chapter 1.

The Duke Leto, Paul’s father, does not get a speaking part until chapter 4. Even the emperor, the most powerful political person in the Landsraad, receives little attention. These are important omissions. It says something about how the story will be focused, that despite the powerful political figures on the scene, Paul and his mother, the two of them in particular, will take center stage.

Chapter 1 hints at future conflict.

As Paul is undergoing the test, the gom jabbar, here is what the Reverend Mother, the crone says to him.

The old woman said: “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.”

As I was re-reading the chapter last night, this nugget stopped me in my tracks. I had not realized, not seen how this Reverend mother quote foretells the remainder of the story.

Paul does feign death on Arrakis, so that he might kill the trapper and remove the threat to his family. That is, in essence, a summary of the novel. These two sentences are so brilliantly placed, subtle in all the best ways. We don’t understand consciously upon first reading, but Herbert has just told us what we can expect.

Lastly, chapter 1 teases the reader with mysteries.

This is an odd world, a mysterious one in which a mother of an only son, will give him up to a religious figure, knowing he might die.

Jessica stepped into the room, closed the door and stood with her back to it. My son lives, she thought. My son lives and is…human. I knew he was…but…he lives. Now, I can go on living.

This we absorb and I, at least, want to read to find out more about this bizarre world where such a thing would happen. In order to know more, I must keep reading.

Then, there is the planet Arrakis and the Fremen. In chapter one, we learn very little about them, but we wonder about them as Paul does. The planet is a desert and the Fremen seem to live off the grid. They are wild and uncounted by the empire. Who are they? We are meant to wonder, and to find out, I have to keep reading.

And lastly, in Chapter 1, Herbert introduces the reader to the idea of the Kwisatz Haderach, a messianic figure. Is Paul the Messiah? The reader suspects he is, though Paul himself struggles with this identity throughout the novel, mysterious even to him. We will have to keep reading if we want to figure out the true identity of the Kwisatz Haderach.

So…all of this in Chapter 1. I am wowed and I am hooked. I am also set up well in the world to take in more of the details as they unfold. Moreover, I have enough sense of the main characters to be able to navigate this complex world where many more characters will soon be introduced. It makes me wonder how many times Herbert went back to edit and perfect his beginning…because I don’t think he could have written a better version than the one we read today.