Sunday, 20 March 2011

He who controls the spice...

At the time of writing, I'm on about my sixth re-read of Dune, Frank Herbert's SF classic. This in itself is unusual; I've been on a binge of broadening my horizons of late, and I've not been going back to old favourites like I used to. But it's a mark of the book's quality that I've read and re-read it so often.

Dune is rightly part of the SF canon. First published in 1965, it tells the story of Paul Atreides, ducal heir his Great House. The Atreides House is sent to Arrakis (Dune... Desert planet...) by the Emperor to oversee the production of the galaxy's most valuable commodity, the spice melange. In doing so, the Atreides take the planet from their mortal enemies, the Harkonnens.

I'm not doing a great job of summarising the plot here. If it sounds deathly dull, I apologise, because it isn't. Dune is one of the most engrossing novels I've ever read. It has its failings, but then so do most books, and most don't have the layered complexity of Dune.

That's where the strength of Dune lies. It can be read as an escapist adventure - like it was by the 16-year-old who first picked it up - or as a piece of classic science fiction literature. On one hand there's the thrilling tale of what's good and right and honourable against corruption and evil. On the other, there's the themes of ecology, zoology, psychology and politics. Dune is a novel staggeringly relevant to the times we live in, especially with regards to what happens in the Middle East.

Perhaps it's ironic that a novel in part about prescience is one of the most prescient ever written in the context of our own world. Or maybe it isn't. Either way, it's an example of SF at its very finest - leading the way for the rest of the world to follow. If you don't possess a copy, go out and get one now. Read it. Then reflect on the influences beyond the pages of a £7.99 paperback.

(Just be certain that if you do enjoy it, to not then read on beyond Children of Dune. Because if you do, you'll be severely disappointed. Read the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov instead.)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Very Hungry Helicopter

Bladed rotors in the sky at night,
Steady, keeping craft in flight.
Hovering for moments, light on ground,
Always making the constant sound:


Like a hungry Pac-Man chased by ghosts,
Or a field of cows constrained by posts,
Flighted sentinel of the darkest night,
Keeping watch from a great height.

(Possibly the most hopeless attempt at poetry in years. Especially the Pac-Man reference. But it's all come from a curious conversation walking home from Newcastle on Thursday night/Friday morning at 1am.)

Saturday, 5 March 2011

A Feast For Crows

It's been a while since I did one of these. This isn't because I've suddenly become lazy. It's more to do with the immense workload I've had giving me no time to read, let alone maintain something resembling a regular blog. Fortunately, I now have 30 minutes in which to write one. The bad news is that this 30 minutes should be spent editing a short story.

I finished A Feast For Crows on Wednesday night. It took me far too long. Granted, it's 900 pages, but as a rule that shouldn't be taking me much longer than a week, big workload or no. The reason it took so long is partly because it just failed to interest me for about 600 pages.

But despite that I can't criticise it as perhaps I should. Bear in mind that the book is the fourth in the Song of Ice and Fire series and that prior to this one there had been three outstanding fantasy novels to digest. All three were frenetic affairs, it's true, but they were compelling and complex and more exciting than virtually all other fantasy novels. After years of reading generic Tolkien derivatives, it was great to read something that wanted to break free of the fantasy stereotypes.

And by and large AFFC is a continuation of that. The magic content is still low, the body count still fairly high, the story still intense and the content suitably adult. But there's just too much missing to make it measure up to what's gone before.

Martin writes in his afterword that to write the book he wanted it would have been a 1600+ page volume. Simply too big for one book. So he split the content; this volume focusses on Westeros and the events relating to King's Landing, while events Beyond the Wall and in the Slaver Cities go untold until the next book. So there's a disappointing lack of Daenerys and the dragons. Jon Snow barely appears. Bran doesn't make an appearance. Tyrion is mentioned... but (you guessed it) doesn't appear in person.

Instead we get Cersei Lannister and her grip on the Iron Throne (complete with cliffhanger ending). There's the tale of Brienne of Tarth (complete with cliffhanger ending). Sansa and Arya appear. Jaime Lannister has a large chunk. I have nothing against these characters, but they're not as interesting as the ones left out. Daenerys in particular is a fascinating character, and her not being there seriously hampers the story.

The story itself makes this feel like a bridge book, aiming towards the final volumes of the series. The pace is slowed considerably despite the intensity, but it's more plotting than execution of the plans. There's blood and sex... but not as much as previously. And it's frustrating.

And it doesn't help that the writing isn't as smooth as usual. Martin isn't exactly Shakespeare at the best of times, but he is a functional writer (technically speaking) with a certain level of advancement, but in this one he regresses for whatever reason. It's clunky, to say the least.

But I'll get the next one. I've enjoyed the series to now, and I'm looking forward to the TV series and A Dance With Dragons.