Murakami. Ah Murakami.
I took up this science fiction novel because having read so much mainstream scifi in the last few years, I found myself pining for beautiful prose. Haruki Murakami did not disappoint and HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD is not only an imaginative story that passes the muster of science fiction, but had me laughing out loud at various points.
This story is rated R for sexual content.
First, the short review.
6 Reasons I recommend HARD-BOILED
- Masterful storytelling, including a full-blown mystery embedded in the structure of the novel
- Beautifully drawn characters who not only feel true, but are likeable in their quirkiness
- An imaginative world where scifi touches magic realism
- Gorgeous prose and great writing in general
2 Reasons to Avoid HARD-BOILED
- If you only read sciency science fiction and could care less about prose…this book might not be for you
- If you need a straight-forward ending, this story does not have that
The Longer Review
Step into the world of Murakami, his imagination and his Japanese way of looking at life. In this novel, he alternates point of view chapter by chapter. He does not explain how the two POV’s are connected until close to the end. Both storylines are told in first person. Both protagonists are male in midlife. His easy prose and everyman protagonist give the fictional world not just shape and beauty, but allow for emotional access. This hero is not someone extraordinary and with super powers. He is any one of us caught in a dilemma. The story meanders through a Tokyo imagined, not exactly futuristic on the surface. People drive cars, listen to Bob Dylan cassette tapes, and drink Miller High Life, but the city is run by two rival factions, the Factory and the System. A third group, the INKlings, folktale creatures that rule an underground society, live beneath the city. One character summarizes this way:
“Is Japan a total monopoly state or what? The System monopolizes everything under the info sun, the Factory monopolizes everything in the shadows. They don’t know the meaning of competition.”
“Inklings? A sharp guy like you don’t know about Inkling? A.k.a. infra-Nocturnal kappa. You thought kappa were folktales? They live underground. They hole up in the subways and sewers, eat the city’s garbage, and drink graywater. They don’t bother with human beings. Except for a few subway workmen who disappear, that is, he he.”
As for Murakami’s prose, an excerpt:
Something has summoned me here. Something intractable. And for this, I have forfeited my shadow and my memory. The River murmurs at my feet. There is the sandbar midstream, and on it the willows sway as they trail their long branches in the current. The water is beautifully clear. I can see fish playing among the rocks. Gazing at the River soothes me. Steps lead down from the bridge to the sandbar. A bend waits under the willows, a few beasts lay nearby. Often have I descended to the sandbar and offered crusts of bread to the beasts. At first they hesitated, but now the old and the very young eat from my hand. As the autumn deepens, the fathomless lakes of their eyes assume an ever more sorrowful hue. The leaves turn color, the grasses wither; the beasts sense the advance of a long hungry season and bowing to their vision, I too know a sadness.
Ah, Murakami and the magic of his prose.
The Short Review
5 reasons RED MARS is a must-read for the scifi fanatic and anyone remotely interested in planetary geology:
- RED MARS is a KSRobinson classic, published in 1992 and winner of the Nebula and the first of his acclaimed Mars Trilogy
- The story imagines life on Mars in a way that feels scientifically viable and compelling, therefore relevant to the current and growing conversation around Mars exploration
- Scientists are the narrators of this story. They are also the heroes, sometimes the villains, the problem solvers and the work horses. I was especially drawn to the “builder” character, Nadia
- The planetary geology content, naturally integrated into the story, is breathtakingly fun
- Despite being over 170K words long, KSR does not get bogged down in the “how would that ever be possible” science scenarios, but drives the story forward through characters and the politics that pressure a budding Martian community
The Longer Review
RED MARS tells the story of the first 100 scientists sent to Mars by a multi-national Earth entity called UNOMA, United Nations of Martian Affairs. The story PG-13 (for some sexual content) follows about 10 of those scientists closely, though many others are referred to and are part of the action in direct and indirect ways. The novel is broken up into eight parts and each of the parts has a different primary narrator. I do think Robinson’s choice on point of view works in a novel this long, adding a level of complexity and depth to the very audacious idea that Mars might be “tamed” by human beings. Robinson plays with themes around the idea that really smart people might be able to build a better civilization from scratch, and form some kind of utopia, but does not make the task easy on the idealogues within his story.
Various characters, all of whom are scientists in one discipline or another, give voice to ideas of alternative governing and living environments. The sharing of abundant resources is the initial reality for the first 100, but eventually, when new groups arrive on Mars, the corporations who have funded the exploration and building, come calling for the planet’s vast natural resources.
The conflict that arises is somewhat predictable and draws out the best and worst of the people in charge who are trying to manage a fragile, but quickly expanding human presence on Mars.
Meanwhile, Earth is falling into total chaos. Robinson does not spend any time showing the reader Earth itself, but shows it via news stories viewed by the inhabitants of Mars. Earth’s chaos is also a reason why many thousands of migrants are streaming to the new world. Robinson does lean left in his politics (proudly so) and sees corporate giants as the villain, though the villain is also amorphous in the story. Robinson’s ideas don’t come across as preachy to me. He’s a deep thinker and a thoughtful writer, so he understands the grittiness of governing and the probable impossibility of building that utopia even if one does start with 100 brilliant scientists.
Many science fiction readers will not mind the length of RED MARS, but at times, I confess to being a bit bored and wondered…Where is this story going? However, I did stick it out and the payoff was decent. It stands alone as a novel, without the kind of cliffhangers that drive you to the second book. Will I read the next two books in the trilogy? Probably yes, but not this summer.
The third and final science fiction novel written by CS Lewis, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, is touted by some as a fantasy novel. I hesitate to go deeper to explain why that might be, for fear of spoiling, but let’s just say that the story takes place on Earth, not in space, and one of the key characters who acts in a miraculous and decisive way to defeat the enemy, is a wonderfully fantastical character.
As I have talked with friends who have read all three, I get different answers about which is the “favorite” in the trilogy. There are individuals who love Out of the Silent Planet. I personally like it for its length…it is as short as a novella and a tight little narrative. Others love Perelandra. I appreciate Perelandra, but there are portions where reading was a chore. For me, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is the true novel. It is my favorite of the three.
The Short Review: 5 Reasons I Recommend THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH
- Compelling main character(s) both grappling with interior life, particularly with identity and faith
- A rich setting, a modern academic world and progressive (Lewis’ words) university leadership that feels creepy, yet familiar
- An amorphous and terrifying villain, well written and historically relevant
- In the midst of the horror, a comedic twist that feels like a Shakespeare switch-a-roo
- A companion novel to 1984. Many minds in this era of the 20th century understood the tyranny of government control. Lewis and Orwell were cut from that same cloth. Warnings that are relevant today and always.
For me, the young married couple, Mark and Jane, makes this story compelling in a way that is unique among the three novels in the trilogy. Jane is a crucial player and well developed. In the previous novels Lewis did not present the reader with a compelling female lead who was relatable. The Perelandra Queen is wonderful, but otherworldly. Jane, in this book, is utterly relatable. Her discomfiture with domestic life, her struggle with a husband who is caught up in his own professional world, felt deeply real. Mark is also real. Lewis highlights his hubris and insecurity, showing the reader how one might choose to align oneself with a horrific community. Mark’s longing for belonging, his hope for recognition are powerful human motivators and have the capacity to diminish the moral spine, especially if that spine is wobbly (as Mark’s is). Despite Mark’s poor choices, I got the feeling that Lewis, like the deity he knows and loves, has not given up on this lost soul. When Mark sinks low enough and faces the worst of himself, there is a promise of redemption.
THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is a story with complex layers. The deeper conversation about nations and their “haunting” is a topic I will not cover in this review, but in case you’re wanting to understand more, an article in The Imaginative Conservative called America’s “Logres”: The Mythology of a Nation helped me muse on what might be the American Haunting. That conversation is a crossover of the spiritual and the literary and takes the reader deeper into the mind of CS Lewis and those who were writing in like spirit, JRR Tolkien being one of those writers.
PERELANDRA is the second installment in CS Lewis’ space trilogy. Below is my no-spoiler short review, but the longer review that follows the image of PERELANDRA’s cover, will contain spoilers…beware. This is not a children’s book, but I recommend this novel to all ages who like the story. For all readers, taking the time to discuss after or along the way will deepen philosophical and theological understanding.
Link to OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET for a review of the first book in the trilogy.
5 Reasons to Read PERELANDRA, A Classic Science Fiction Story
- One of the more unique portrayals in literature of paradise and/or a pre-fallen world
- Beautiful CS Lewis prose
- The ideas are put forward clearly and by someone well acquainted with 20th century ideas
- Finally…a strong female character (there were none in the first novel)
- Read all three to make sense of what Lewis was trying to accomplish in the longer narrative arc
3 Reasons PERELANDRA is My Least Favorite of the Trilogy
- There are so few characters and the villain does not arrive until about 1/3 of the way into the book
- Not a lot of drama…there is a slow build and eventually, high drama, but it takes the novel a while to arrive (see #1)
- A lot of speech-making in the final pages. Interesting ideas, but coming at me in my least favorite non-dramatic package
The Longer Review (With Spoilers)
While PERELANDRA is my least favorite of the three books Lewis wrote in the scifi genre, it does have its merits.
For one, anyone who has read his Narnia books, knows how well CS Lewis puts his imagination on the page. He has the ability to create a world both strange and fabulous and took on a bold task to put before the reader a paradise, a pre-civilization and pre-fallen planet with only two human-like people. Basically, he created an Eden. And how would one write this in a convincing way?
This excerpt, one of many examples…just gorgeous.
Now he had come to a part of the wood where great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees–clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of a balloon-man and about the same size. He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident, one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation, he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different than any other taste that it seemed a mere pedantry to call it taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasure, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.
Elwin Ransom, a professor of philology, is the narrator here. He was also the protagonist in Out of the Silent Planet. In this excerpt, he is telling his tale to a fictionalized version of CS Lewis after returning from his mission to the planet Perelandra. Ransom was sent to Perelandra by the angelic ruler of Mars (Malacandra). The reader is acquainted with this ruler from the previous book. In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is kidnapped and brought to Malacandra. That is where he meets Oyarsa, the ruler of Mars. Oyarsa does make an appearance in this novel, as does Weston, one of the academics who kidnapped Ransom in the first story. Weston, the primary rival to Ransom, acts as the tempter in this narrative. He does this not by his own cleverness and strength, but by something more frightening. Weston has given himself over to the bent angelic ruler of Earth, Satan. After Weston arrives on Perelandra in his space vessel, Ransom comes to understand his mission, that he has been sent to thwart the bent Oyarsa by thwarting Weston.
In the story, Weston is an academic with the worst intellectual vices; hubris combined with a flamboyant humanism that borders on narcissism. Tragically, he falls under a true evil in his search of spiritual answers to the mysteries he experienced on Malacandra. Weston’s journey into evil reads like something out of a horror novel (or the Bible).
“Idiot,” said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. “Idiot,” he repeated. “Can you understand nothing?…This is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call the Force into me completely…”
Then horrible things began happening. A spasm like that preceding a deadly vomit twisted Weston’s face out of recognition. As it passed, for one second something like the old Weston reappeared–the Old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, “Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them—” and instantly his whole body spun round as if he had been hit by a revolver-bullet and he fell to the earth, and was there rolling at Ransom’s feet, slavering and chattering and tearing up the moss by the handfuls…
I was in my thirties the last time I read PERELANDRA and I did not remember how clearly this Weston character gives himself over to evil. Nor did I remember that Ransom comes to the realization that he will have to destroy Weston in hand to hand combat if he is to defeat him.
That Ransom believes he must assassinate his rival provoked my horror. Moreover, the scenes of his battle with Weston are brutal. Lewis does not hold back on that reality, but the idea of this existential battle brought to mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Lewis might never have known Bonhoeffer personally, but the ideas Bonhoeffer was writing about and preaching about (in Hitler’s Germany) were likely familiar to him…as they were to every thinking Christian of the time.
Bonhoeffer, while struggling to be a faithful clergy member under Nazi rule in Germany, came to terms with the idea that it was in fact a righteous or just act to kill a man who had fully given himself over to evil. That is why Bonhoeffer was executed in the end, as he played a role in an assassination attempt against Hitler. Below is an excerpt of a sermon on Colossians 3:1-4, a sermon he gave most likely after he had made the decision to collaborate with a part of the resistance determined to assassinate the Fürher.
“Instead, and precisely because our minds are set on things above, we are that much more stubborn and purposeful in protesting here on earth… Does it have to be so that Christianity, which began as immensely revolutionary, now has to remain conservative for all time? That every new movement has to blaze its path without the church, and that the church always takes twenty years to see what has actually happened? If it really must be so, then we must not be surprised when, for our church as well, times come when the blood of martyrs will be demanded. But this blood, if we truly have the courage and honour and loyalty to shed it, will not be so innocent and shining as that of the first witnesses. Our blood will be overlaid with our own great guilt.” (DBW 11, 446) (Schlingensiepen, Kindle Location 2427)
Bonhoeffer’s words evoke the idea that a conservative church is potentially an anemic one. His mention of our great guilt in the sermon I took two ways. One, the church is guilty when it does not act (or waits too long) to stand up to evil. Two, if it does join the revolutionaries, it potentially falls under the guilt of questionable acts. When evil can only be defeated by an act that lays outside of the norm of Christian ethics, there is plenty of guilt to go around. However, Bonhoeffer did not shrink back from taking on that guilt for what he (and history) thought to be the greater good. Moreover, his writings on this remain strong pillars in just-war theory and the Christian struggle with realism versus pacifism.
Lewis travels a similar line of reasoning in this novel and it should not surprise the reader that when the character Ransom leaves the planet Perelandra, he leaves having accomplished his task, but with a wound on his foot that refuses to heal this side of heaven.
OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, by CS Lewis came about as a result of a coin toss between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in the 1930s. The understanding between the two men; one side of the coin would mean writing a science fiction novel, the other side would mean writing a time travel novel. The coin was tossed, Lewis was assigned the scifi novel. Tolkien was assigned the time travel novel. Tolkien never wrote his. Lewis did, published in 1938, twelve years before Narnia. In fact, he wound up writing three books of science fiction. OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, which I will review here, was the first. This story is sophisticated, but there is no reason a YA reader or a very learned middle grade reader cannot take on this story. For educators thinking about assigning this book to a young person, a solid discussion on the story would make the experience a profound one.
The Short Review: 4 Reasons to Read OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET
- Superb writing and because this is CS Lewis, when you’re finished reading, your brain will have expanded
- Scintillating ideas that awaken the conscience…Plunge yourself into the mindset of a WWI veteran and a brilliant observer of history and soak in Lewis’ crucial critique of pre-WWII Europe
- Absorb Lewis’ Christian concept of God/Creator…the beauty and the moral implications
- Gain a vision for the power of fiction (imaginative science fiction in particular) as a way to change hearts and minds.
A Few More Details:
When Lewis and his friend and colleague, JRR Tolkien, both veterans of WWI, decided to toss that coin, they had been musing together about the sad state of fiction. They believed that the godless universe theory unleashed to some degree by Darwinists and proponents of the Hegelian superstate/superman, was giving rise to real beliefs (like eugenics which both understood as dangerous and evil) inside academia and government. More troublesome, these theories were making their way into fiction and infecting the broader population through story.
Americans fought in WWII and helped to defeat Hitler, so my nation (I am a US citizen) often forgets how the eugenics movement in the US was accepted and backed by some of our highest state actors, like President Woodrow Wilson. We in the US forget, maybe conveniently so, that we too were traveling on a similar road as the Nazis. This is how pervasive these ideas were and back in that day, they were considered progressive. It turns out, anything can be labeled progressive. A cautionary and hopefully humbling reminder to us in the 21st century.
Marxist ideology was also suspect in Lewis’ eyes. Both Marxism and Fascism preached an exercising of power where the end justifies the means. That idea was an abomination to Lewis and Tolkien, the rejection of which made its ways into the Lord of Rings trilogy, as it did into all of Lewis’ writings. As Christians (Lewis, an Anglican, Tolkien, a Catholic), they challenged the idea that the state has permission to sacrifice an individual for some greater good, not without that individual willingly giving up her/his life, soldiers willing to fight to defeat the existential enemy of a free state being one example of this proper sacrifice, something both of these men witnessed first hand.
In regard to reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, knowing a little 20th century history and philosophy definitely helps the reader enter into the world of Elwin Ransom, the hero of the story, but even without that knowledge, this is a fascinating and well written tale. Ransom, a philologist, is on a walking tour of rural England. He is kidnapped and taken to Malacandra (the planet Mars). What unfolds is a story about relationship and curiosity (Ransom’s journey) versus dominance exercised by violence (the journey of his kidnappers). The narrative provides a resolution that exemplifies the idea that there is a standard of justice that is literally universal.
This is my third time reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET (notice my beat-up copy in the image above…not sure it will survive another read-through) and after finishing the book this round, I found myself dreaming about grace and kindness and goodness while I slept…something that doesn’t often happen for me after reading science fiction before bed.
ALL SYSTEMS RED is a 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.
- 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
- Genre bending…science fiction merged with mystery…in other words, a page-turner
- Thought-provoking ideas about AI and how future humans might understand morality/humanity in regards to AI
- Interesting world-building and a great set-up for subsequent stories
- ALL SYSTEMS RED would make a great audiobook. See the longer review for more
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 direction. 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. These books might appeal to the YA reader because the narrator is endearing and “young” feeling. The value in their education would be the discussion around tech and humanity’s future.
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.
To buy the first book, click on All Systems Red
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
Five Reasons I recommend WIDOWLAND, by C.J. Carey
- Excellent pacing and page-turning tension
- A young female hero who comes into her agency in a believable way
- Legit world-building of a bleak UK governed by Nazis
- The writing around the sexual relationships feels vital and true (more on this in the longer review)
- 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. Mature teens could handle this book. In fact, it might appeal to many female YA readers because the protagonist is a woman in her twenties.
For educators, WIDOWLAND provides a unique picture of what a society imagined by the Nazis might look like and feel like. Great fodder for discussion. Moveover, it portrays (accurately so) literature as a disrupter of those who broker power.
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.
Spoilers below. If you want to read a review of the novel without spoilers, click here.
For educators: This post is appropriate for teens who have read Dune and might want to to improve their storytelling/writing skills.
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 feedback. So, I read a few first chapters yesterday and in the course of my 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 that makes you want to keep reading?
I wonder about my own first chapter, the beginning of my novel that is undergoing an extensive edit. 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 greats 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.
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.
-Gives us a sense of the setting in which the story will take place
-Introduces the primary characters, even putting the main character through a first test
-Hints at the coming conflict
-Tantalizes the reader with compelling mysteries that make you want to keep reading
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.
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, a sense of the conflict.
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 also 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.
This is my second time reading DUNE, with probably about twenty years in between readings. My first took place as a fan, consuming for pleasure. This time, I re-read DUNE as a writer of science fiction. It was still a thrilling ride.
DUNE, the novel holds up well to post-modern scrutiny and the writing is mostly perfect.
This is a PG-13 story, for sexual and violent themes, although those scenes are not explicit in this novel.
The Short Review
5 Reasons the Science Fiction Fan Needs to Read this Book Now
- DUNE, the film will be released in 2021…at least the first film of two will be released…unless pandemic interferes. In this case as in most, I recommend reading before viewing
- Compelling villain and compelling hero, with complex motives for each
- Dynamic characters around the main character, including a number of strong females
- Among the best world-building you will find in science fiction
- Without simplifying the complexity of good versus evil, this story gives the reader a vision of truth, goodness and honor
The Longer Review (mini spoilers below):
When George Herbert created the character Paul Atriedes, he stumbled upon a savior-type, a hero, a character who could embody a kind of leadership that most of humanity longs for. Hero stories are nothing new, certainly not new to the science fiction audience, but great ones are to be treasured.
In the case of DUNE, Paul is not the only treasure. The people of the planet Arrakis, the Fremen, also embody an ideal. They are oppressed, but intelligent, pushed to the margins of society, but resourceful and willing to sacrifice for the cause. Their discipline is akin to the greatest armies of literature and history. They are as creative as tenacious as a Roman legion, as fierce as Khan’s Mongols and as disciplined as the Spartans.
(Spoiler here) So what is supposed to get under our skin about DUNE? How can one argue with a story where the overly confident and utterly powerful Emperor is outsmarted, out-gunned and defeated by an honorable and humble tribal people? That feels so right and good.
But there are complexities that go along with this storyline. Paul is not as pure a hero as he might seem. His role as Messiah is an idea that plagues him throughout the novel because he knows he is not simply fighting for the Fremen. He is also motivated by vengeance and honor. He uses the Fremen to avenge his father, so his victory is an uneasy one. Even as he negotiates a marriage to the Emperor’s daughter for status and honor, but keeps his Fremen lover as concubine, the audience sees the inherent politics that will inhabit Paul’s governing. How Paul will rule the Empire is a story for later books, but the seeds of the struggle are sown well and deep in the original novel. So, even as the audience breathes relief at the victory over injustice, there is more to ponder.
To purchase the novel, click DUNE
There is also an amazing graphic novel version which is being released book by book. Dune is made up of three sections, called books. The first installment in graphic novel form is available here. To purchase, click DUNE, Graphic Novel The second installment will be released in the Spring of 2022. No date yet on the third and final.
Lastly, the 2021 theatrical trailer is out and worth a view, perhaps best seen after reading the novel…but then, maybe not.
Click here to see DUNE, film trailer
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, by Michael Crichton, was the first novel published by Crichton under his actual name. He had published previously under a variety of pen names. His reason for publishing under other names…he was a medical student at Harvard and was actually thinking he might practice medicine someday and didn’t want his patients to know that he was writing on the side. This must have been a “thing” in that era because it strikes me that wouldn’t phase anyone now.
However, Crichton soon after became a best-selling author and gave up the idea of practicing medicine.
I read this novel because of a recommendation by a friend during Covid19…
Do I recommend this novel? No, I don’t and here are 5 reasons why:
- The novel puts forward an interesting premise, but not fully baked (I am pretty sure this novel would never get published today)
- Bland main characters. It’s hard to keep them straight, they all seem like the same guy (except they attended different Ivy League schools and have slightly different occupations)
- So-so tension, but nothing like one of his better books, Jurassic Park, for example
- Characters are all white dudes in lab coats and even the non lab-coat characters are all white dudes. *note…when THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was turned into a film in 1971, the screenwriter changed one of the dudes to a female…even in the 70s the character line-up was thought to be way too monochromatic.
- Too much data and exposition and not enough heart. I felt nothing for all the people (except for the infant…who seems to be completely neglected)
So…this novel became a best-seller and gave rise to a film that bears the same title. Both were hits/made a lot of money. In fact, this book catapulted Crichton’s career. I can only surmise that there was a great hunger for techno-thrillers at the time and that Crichton scratched an itch that had be itching for a long time.
The funny thing is, immediately following this read, I’m consuming Philip K. Dick’s, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP and I am so wowed by the writing and how different it is from Crichton’s. Dick knew how to flesh out a character. Crichton did not, at least he didn’t yet. He got much better at it in subsequent novels, many of which I have enjoyed.
So, let me just nit-pick a little…
If I was ever to teach a writing class on the development of a writer…I might choose Crichton and force my class to read this book and then give them the pleasure of Jurassic Park as examples of how one gets better at the craft. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN almost feels like a “freshman novel”, that novel written by an aspiring author who has one great idea, but can’t quite figure out how to tell the story.
In that class, I would also ask the students to read DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, by Philip K. Dick, written in the same era.
There is a reason that BLADE RUNNER, a brilliant film and subsequent franchise, emerged out of Dick’s novel, published in 1968, one year before THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.
The character of Rick Deckard is brilliantly written, fleshed out. The reader feels his pain, his angst, his story as he/she reads. Not only that, the secondary characters are complex, mysterious and full of emotion even when Dick writes about androids. His androids seem more human than Crichton’s actual human characters.
I do believe that Crichton saw his errors and improved immensely, but it will be a mystery to me for a long time that this book, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, was published and was sold and was read by so many, including me!
If for some reason you want to buy this book, click here.
To watch the film via Amazon Prime, click here.