2022

I have been remiss in not doing these annual reviews more regularly. I have no excuse. Other words get in the way sometimes. 

But this, one year into my “official” retirement, I have no excuse not to do. So.

I read, cover-to-cover, 89 books in 2022. Compared to 48 in 2021. I try to make it through 70 to 80 a year, but some years…well. A handful in ’21 were doorstops, but really, I have no excuse for not getting through the nearly 100 books I read only partly. 

Of the 89 this past year, 40 were some species of science fiction. That’s up in percentage from the past few years. A handful were rereads, like Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Neveryon, Heinlein’s Space Cadet, Laumer and Dickson’s Planet Run, Greg Bear’s Heads. As I’ve noted before, I rarely reread. I read slowly, compared to some, and I have too many books on my TBR pile to choose to go over something I’ve already been through. This past year, I’m finding that to be a mistake.  (I started this a few years back with Charles Dickens. I’d read most of his work in high school, came away hating it, and deciding that I needed to revisit that impression. It has been…instructive.) 

Planet Run by Keith Laumer and Gordon R. Dickson is an anomaly for me. It’s what a friend of mine calls a “shitkicker”—and adventure with not much else going for it but the adrenaline. A crusty old spacer is hauled out of retirement to participate in the planetary equivalent of the Oklahoma Land Rush. He’s seasoned, wizened, world-weary, but gets saddled with the wet-behind-the-ears son of the politician who has blackmailed him into doing this. Bad guys abound, betrayal happens, it would have made an excellent Bruce Willis film anytime in the past 20 years. I read it first at 13 and there is something about it that just does it for me. I’ve read it four or five times since and it is always fun. Nothing deep, nothing timeless (or maybe there is), nothing one couldn’t find in a good Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour (it is basically a western). But it still makes me smile. It is one of the few books I loved as a kid that does not make me cringe to read now.

The Bear…well, Greg Bear passed away November 19th, 2022, from complications from heart surgery. I still have a few unread Bear novels on my shelf, but I read his Queen of Angels for the first time and realized that there are 5 books in that universe, including Heads, which proved to be as wickedly clever this time as the first time. The jabs at Scientology are impossible to miss, but it’s not satire. Queen of Angels was fascinating and a book one wonders if it would be  fêted today. It hues close to a few stereotypes that, while I felt he subverted, might nevertheless be read as problematic today. At its heart are questions of nurture vs nature psychology and the costs of potential intervention—therapy of a more intrusive type.

Of the SF read for the first time, then, right off the top was Gregory Benford’s Shadows of Eternity, which produced a curiously nostalgic reaction for me. Benford “borrowed” an alien species from Poul Anderson and wrote a very different sort of first contact novel that took me aesthetically right back to the Eighties, even as the approach to character and extrapolations of technology are very much of the moment.

I heartily recommend Stina Leicht’s Persephone Station, first in a series (?) that gives as an all-female crew (and supporting cast) in another “shitkicker” that has no lack of adrenaline and ample speculation involving corporations and indigenous rights and a neat Magnificent Seven riff. 

Andy Weir’s Artemis could have come from an outline left behind by Heinlein. Enormous fun, set entirely on the moon, action, problem-solving, and—again—corporate shenanigans. 

I read Ken McLeod’s trilogy beginning with Cosmonaut Keep, continuing with Dark Light and Engine City, which is a large-scale space opera somewhat in the mode of Iain M. Banks an involving interspecies intrigue, vast machinations, and ending on an ambivalent note where what problems have been plaguing the characters seem to be solved but not exactly resolved. He handles the whole time dilation question rather well and manages to tell family sagas and personal relationships against the background of centuries.  (It’s tricky to do these kinds of sagas which center on families without it becoming A Family Saga, with all the kind of homey baking bread sentimentality one usually encounters.)

I want to make special note of Nicola Griffith’s Spear, which is a compact and compelling retelling of the Arthurian—or, rather, the Percival legend—done from an unexpected point of view. Firstly, the writing is, as we expect from Griffith, first-rate. Secondly, she delivers a feminist twist which is only that in retrospect. As always, the story comes first. But story and character are bound up in the double helix of narrative. Griffith is doing some of the best history-based fiction around. The sequel to Hild is coming out soon and we should be prepared for a treat. 

Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace is the sequel to her marvelously complex debut, A Memory Called Empire. It picks up where the first left off and enriches the universe she has built, quite well. This is the kind of immersive world-building long-valued in SF/F, particularly effective because of the juxtaposition of cultures which throws the aspects of each into relief. Martine’s main character is herself something of an outsider, groping for Place in a milieu of which she has too little experience. 

Another epic work in SF I think very important is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry For The Future. This is in many ways not a science fiction novel—in fact, it could be argued that a good chunk of it is textbook—but it is speculative, in that none of the specific events detailed have happened but the world is very much ours. It presents a scenario in which the world finally tackles climate change. In that so many things work and come together to positive effect I suppose render the novel SF, but…

Becky Chambers’ new series, Monk and Robot, continues with A Prayer for the Crown Shy, part of the tor.com series of novellas. All I can say is that Chambers is one of my favorites authors. She writes about community is ways I find remarkable and refreshing in science fiction. 

Two novels about radically altered futures I found compelling. Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star, which is reminiscent (in structure) of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s  The Unraveling. Both novels offer views of future social arrangements quite removed from our own and both present backgrounds of unexpected breadth. The writing in both is amazing and the ideas will linger.

To my great pleasure, John Crowley published a new one, Flint and Mirror, which indulges his penchant for presenting magic as a potential more than a reality and offering a view on the borderlands. This one is a historical, about the Irish Problem at the time of Elizabeth I. Unexpected. 

I continued with Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisy Dobbs series. I haven’t decided yet whether she’s doing history with embedded mystery or the reverse, but the novels have been tracking Miss Dobbs chronologically as the world heads for WWII. The last two so far, war is upon Britain and Maisy finds herself doing more security work than private investigation. We have grown up with these people now, so to speak, and the world Winspear is investigating is marvelously evoked.

Not intending to, really, but I did  a partial reread of the Ian Fleming James Bond novels. I indulged in a marathon review of the movies and wrote commentary and decided some comparison to the original novels and stories was in order. I was surprised both by how well-written many of them were and at the same time how shallow. I recall as a teenager plowing through them with relish. This time it was an academic review that yielded a few surprises, but on the whole I came away feeling I never have to look at them again.

I read Emily St. John Mandel’s new one, Sea of Tranquility. Whatever she might say, this is straight up science fiction, with time travel and an apparent time paradox. Given another fifty pages, she might have made it a very good SF novel. As it stands, it was enjoyable but derivative and relied too much on the good will of the reader. It was reminiscent of several older works by SF writers, most especially Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories. My best guess is, her point is to suggest that we all live in closed loops. (She might try to remember next time that gravity is different in other places and that someone who grew up on the moon might have a very difficult time standing up on Earth. Such details, which may seem fussy to literary writers, can make or break a narrative in science fiction.)

I finally read a Paul J. McAuley trilogy I had been meaning to for years, starting with Child of the River. In many ways it reminded of Gene Wolfe’s magisterial Book of the New Sun. Out in the hinterlands of galactic space, an artificial world with a long history that has evolved into a mythic background and a kind of avatar of a past race come to fulfill, etc etc. The adventures and worldbuilding are exceptional, but it ended with the feeling that another book would have been in order to satisfactorily wrap things up.

One last SF recommendation is Annalee Newitz’s new one, Terraformers, which draws on her strengths in anthropology and ecology and tells the story of the denizens of a world that has been remade by a corporation intending to lease it out to rich vacationers. The beings who did the actual work, however, presumably designed to die off when their utility is at an end, are still there and a struggle begins to claim rights. High finance, environmentalism, indigenous issues, and all the related politics combine in a rich, fascinating novel of generational evolution.

I’ve been dipping back into the past and catching up, filling in gaps. A couple of Clifford Simak novels, a reread of Ian Wallace’s Croyd (which is remarkably weird), early Le Guin (Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile), and….

David Copperfield. Yes, the Dickens. I read this one aloud to my partner and came away with a modified view of Dickens. At least in this novel, what to a modern sensibilty comes across as verbosity, is actually very careful scene-setting and social explication. The 19th Century did not offer  movies and the stage was not universally available. I found very little that might be excised from the narrative. It all mattered.

I read Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley, which is a heavy history of the 1930s, from the onset of the Depression to the start of World War II. Brendon takes a global view and examines each major political aspect—America, Europe, Britain, Asia—and gives a narrative of the runaway cart that took the globe to war. The parallels to the present are clear, but also deceptive. Yes, there are movements and conditions, but the failure of solutions then should not be taken as inevitabilities now.

I read Walter Isaacson’s Code Breaker, the biography/history of Jennifer Doudna, the geneticist who has given us CRISPR and whose work was part of the technological foundation thst produce the COVID vaccine is apparently record time. Isaacson, as usual, does an excellent job of making the science accessible. The people, though, shine in this lucid view of modern science.

As is my usual habit, I read some odd bits of history. For my writing, I rarely do project-specific research. Instead, I cast a wide net and gather a variety of details until suddenly they become useful. To that end, I read the following: The Future of the Past by Alexander Stille; There Are Places In The World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli; Utopia Drive by Erik Reece; Freethinkers and Strange Gods by Susan Jacoby; A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; Worldly Goods by Lisa Jardine; Beyond Measure by James Vincent.

And the rather impressive History of Philosophy by A.C. Grayling. 

I can recommend all of the above whole-heartedly. 

I also read Sherlockian novels that surprised me. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, him, the former basketball player) is a serious Sherlockian and did two novels centered on Mycroft. I recommend them. Sherlock is in them, of course, but not yet out of university. They are surprisingly good. Or perhaps not so surprising, Maybe the word is uniquely good. There have been pastiches and homages to Holmes and most of them are forgettable if enjoyable. These two I feel contribute meaningfully to the mythos.

Along those lines, the Victorian Age has become almost a genre in itself, and I read my first Langdon St. Ives book by James Blaylock. I’m still unsure what to make of it, but I was impressed. We shall see if I continue the series.

There are a number I have left out. Not that they were bad, but I’m not sure what to say about them here. I discovered some new-to-me authors that I recommend—Sarah Gailey, Daniel Marcus, Nadia Afifi. 

I finally read a classic I had long avoided. High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. In many ways it is an ugly story. Children captured by pirates, who turn out to be quite not what anyone would expect. It seems to me to be a study of what happens when childhood fantasy collides with the fantasized reality. In that way, it is well done and evocative.  What it says about human nature and the condition of childhood is complex and layered.

I may have further thoughts later. For now, this review has gone on long enough.

I’m looking forward yo 2023.

Good reading to you all.

The Long and the Short and All Between

Of all the things that make up the borders and textures of our lives, how many do we ever consider doing without and what that might mean? Because anything we do in the least technological, there was a time when we didn’t. Often such times were so long ago we have no cultural (much less personal) memory. We live as if we have always lived a certan way, even when we know better.

Take measurement, for instance. There was surely a first time, when someone, somewhere, thought to mark down something to keep track of how many, how much, how long or short, and thus invented measurement. Since then, measuring has become part of the cultural air. We notice it when we use it, but rarely realize consciously just how ubiquitous it is. Basically, almost everything we do is measured.

“If we could not measure, then we could not observe the world around us; could not experiment and learn…it is a tool for social cohesion and control…[m]easurement has not only made the world we live in, it has made us too.”

Thus James Vincent establishes in the introduction to his history, Beyond Measure, the vital importance of what he then goes on to explore in his excellent overview.

There is a scene in one of the original Star Trek episodes where Nurse Chapel confronts her former paramour, who was presumed lost on an unexplored world and has somehow survived. But he has survived by becoming an android, a machine. He is challenged that he is no longer human and seeks to prove that he is and then runs down a list of possible tests, every single one of which involves measurement of some kind. Somehow being unable to offer a proof that does not involve mathematics of some kind suggests he has lost his essential humanness.

After coming to grips with the proofs offered in Mr. Vincent’s new book, one would be forced to ask “Well how else would he prove it other than by engaging in one of the most fundamentally human creations at hand?”

There is a resistance to accepting definitions of ourselves that involve technologies, as if artifice somehow detracts from our essence. But it is by virtue of those very things that we can recognize such distinctions and make judgments about what may or may not be human—or (especially) whether we should make such judgments.

Vincent explores the history of measurement as a social phenomenon, taking us into some unexpected byways, but with an emphasis on the struggle for standards. The bases on which reliable measures are determined are essential for trade, for the exchange of dependable information, for the very ability to communicate across borders, for, in short, harmony. He presents facts that suggest—strongly—that incommensurate measurements exacerbated if not caused revolutions, wars, the collapse of economies. Getting things “right” is a millennia-old struggle.

But that goal itself can often seem arbitrary. How does one “know” that an inch is an inch, a kilogram a kilogram, a mile a mile, or a light year what it is? Till the last couple of centuries, such questions were central, even if often ignored, but advances in finding presumably irreducible yardsticks, so to speak, have dominated official attempts to establish standards and have entered the quantum age. For the moment, at least, we have ultimate measures against which all other scales might be balanced—the speed of light at one end and Plank’s constant at the other.

We take measurement for granted, most of us, most of the time, but we could not function without it and its application at almost every level, in every niche, of social intercourse.

Beyond Measure is a fascinating read, and takes us into some places we might never know exist. It also prompts questions of limits that are sometimes uncomfortable. How much precision is enough? In the digital age, more so than ever before, this is becoming very personal. We have never really been able to escape from our fellow beings other than by comparison, but these days the metrics that delimit identity are becoming ever more detailed, and much of it would seem irrelevant. But we measure, compulsively, and out of the compulsion emerge possibilities for the kinds of conformity that can feel intrusive, undesirable. Turning our back on it is no solution. Acquainting ourselves better with the how and what and why of our cultural obsession is the reasonable approach. Knowing what to participate in, how, and perhaps recognizing our essential humanness in the numbers, that would seem the more effective—even desirable—approach. This book might be a good place to start.

Ministering To The Present…For The Future

Among the most attuned voices in the climate change discussion, outside of straight-up science, Kim Stanley Robinson has long held a commanding position as a legitimate observer. The power of fiction combined with clear-eyed assessments and a grasp of practical as well as philosophic morality is nowhere better demonstrated than in his long career addressing “real world” issues through the lens of science fiction. 

Go back to the Mars Trilogy, the core of the three novels is climate. The politics, the economics, the science, all anchor the characters to a set of questions demanding attention. Iy is possible to see that early work as a stand-in for what could be reclamation work here on Earth.

Over time, book after book, Robinson has focused on one major conceptual question—what is the optimal relationship between humans and their environment? Even his interstellar exegesis, Aurora, is about this. In a way, it’s a central question—for science fiction primarily, but really for any literature to greater or lesser values of relevant—mainly, what is it possible to do without a viable environment in which to do it?

In The Ministry For The Future, Robinson brings it all to the fore and gives a novel that is as much handbook as dramatic narrative. In many ways, this is a species of “thirty-minutes in the future” with all the immediacy of the current climate conference in Egypt. He sets it a decade or so hence. After a harrowing opening, the book settles into “how do we deal with this” mode and for all its didacticism it is engaging and often riveting—mainly because he never loses sight of the people directly involved.

And that opening is masterfully horrific. The first line sets the tone—”It was getting hotter.” We then watch a massive heat cell boil a large section of India. 

Quite literally boil. There is one survivor, Frank May, who is there as part of an international mission. We follow Frank through the rest of the book, the outraged, scarred activist, who finds himself in an unlikely relationship with Mary Murphy, the freshly-appointed head of an agency within the UN which gets dubbed in the press as the Ministry for the Future. The agency has the unique mandate of being a voice for the future and becomes pivotal in the challenges facing the world with climate change that is no longer deniable.

Between the two of them we are given entrée to both ends of the political and social dynamics of dealing with a global problem. Robinson shows us all the major components that must be dealt with, including a solidly-explicated look at the economics involved (a difficult topic to make interesting at the best of times, but vital and here, in Robinson’s hands, far more engaging than one might expect), and walks us through the multiple scenarios that might pull us back from the brink.

This is not the kind of miracle-working overnight fix one often gets in science fiction. (The problem with those is, scale aside, that while the science may be good, the sociology is usually hopelessly utopian.) This is a look at one possible road to a viable set of solutions and even here the roadblocks are enormous and the politics maddeningly frustrating. This is as much an explication of the challenges as any kind of anticipatory celebration of potential problem-solving.

And for all its didacticism, it remains a very readable novel. He never loses connection with the characters and he lets us care about them as the best fiction does. The science, the economics, the politics, all the elements requiring thorough explanations to make the drama meaningful are salted through the story in a manner that breathes life into the concerns and the people dealing with them. We find ourselves invested in what all these people are doing because we understand what they’re doing. In that sense, this is a celebration of humanity at its best. The catastrophes are of human origin and so the solutions are ours as well and Robinson is telling us—showing us—that we have this.

If we so choose.

People, Problems, Politics, and Possibilities

I remember as a child I once asked my dad where all the smoke from the smokestacks went. Into the air, obviously, but after that? I don’t remember exactly what he answered, but it was reassuring, something about how it just got diluted until it sort of wasn’t there anymore. Years later we would have debates about pollution and climate change and it was clear that he simply could not grasp how, the Earth being so big, that we mere mortals could possibly have the kind of impact environmentalists were claiming. It was frustrating and oddly appealing, because reassurance works that way.

One of his arguments rested on the production of CO2 and methane by the Earth itself, among other particulates such as my be spewed out by volcanoes, and how meager our own output was by comparison. Like other such arguments, its legitimacy rested on those factors left out, like accumulation over time. Some of the first work done on what we now call Anthropogenic Climate Change was down in the first half of the 19th Century. The problem was already apparent to some, but of course the question then was, so what? We have to stay warm, we need energy to build things, how are we supposed to do this thing called civilization if we don’t burn things? While this begs many questions (what is it you want to do? how do think “civilization” should manifest? just how much “progress” do we actually need in certain directions?) the fact is no one could construct solar panels in 1850.

And all the other localized signs that spoke to the hindbrain and the skin that told us nothing was changing. Winters were still cold (depending on where you were) summers still tolerable, water seemed plentiful, and so on. Everything is fine in my neighborhood, why the alarmist talk?

Now more of us are aware that self-deception has played a seriously negative role. Yes, politicians and industrialists have reasons to deceive us about these things, but the fact is many of us have been for decades inclined to believe everything would be fine.

With more frequent hurricanes, droughts, floods, and receding glaciers and our collective eyes on all of it almost obsessively (via media, documentaries, book after book) it has become impossible to calmly ignore the reality. And now we are here, a couple of degrees of global temperature away from the stuff of apocalyptic science fiction. Even the big corporations, while still often trying to underplay the crisis, are investing more and more in renewables and alternatives.  (I’m convinced we’re not farther along that road because the corporations took too long to figure out how to bill consumers profitably.)

Now that the ice sheets are receding and the oceans rising and the number of devastating storms is rising, before panic and collapse set in, what is there to be done?

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry For The Future, offers a set of possibilities.

Robinson has been writing ecologically-concerned science fiction all his career. The Mars Trilogy is nothing if not a study in potential human impact on an environment. It is clear from even a cursory perusal of his work that he knows from whence he speaks. What humans are doing, what we will do, what we will have in the wake of our collective doing inform the basis of almost all his work. And in a field that has often offered but seldom achieved viable glimpses of the future, his work carries an efficacy difficult to discredit.

The Ministry of the Future follows the work of a department established by the United Nations sometime in the near future (there’s overlap with the present) whose task becomes to speak for the citizens yet to be. Which eventually includes wildlife in an attempt to include all life in a concept of Citizen in order for them to be granted legal standing. The director of the ministry, Mary Murphy, is Irish, and reminds one a bit of Samantha Powers. She has talented people, many of them visionaries, some of them capable of surprising solutions not always legal.

In the wake of one of the worst ecological disasters in history—a heat wave that descends on India and ends up killing twenty million people—the mission of the Ministry acquires an urgency and a momentum that carries through the rest of the novel. Along the way we see solid analyses and examples of the consequences of climate change and glimpses of the costs of doing nothing.

But as well we see on offer solutions. Robinson pairs gloom and doom with possibilities and potentials in a series of elegant portrayals of what can be done. In this, he covers a wide range of the various aspects of the situation with skill and authority, from geo-engineering to economic revisions to migration policy and the kind of international coalition-building that will be essential. His projections of where we may be politically in thirty or forty years are compelling, suggesting the power of SF to predict the future has some legitimacy.

Though these are just possibilities. Grounded in real science and technology and in a pragmatic “read” of human political tendencies. Some of the factors he examines are less tractable and in some instances brutal. But given the Givens, as it were, he gives us a plausible picture of the next few decades and what it is possible to do. Whatever may actually happen will be different, but within the 560 pages of this novel are a suite of approaches that rise to the inspirational.

Regardless of what may happen, one thing emerges from the novel that is inarguable—any solution will necessarily be a collective endeavor.

As well, Robinson skillfully gives a personal story. Mary encounters the lone survivor of the India heatwave and over the course of the novel a relationship evolves that is one of the most heartfelt and poignant to be found. Through this, the personal challenges of the world as it will change emerges. He keeps the larger story firmly grounded in the personal throughout.

One comes away with the conviction that not only can we solve this problem, but that we will become better for having met the challenge, and afterward we might actually have world worthy of the best in us.

Intrusions

The latest eruption of reaction from certain viewers of the new Sandman series on Netflix is another example of a phenomenon that I, in my 20s, would never have thought to indulge: the intrusion of the audience directly into the aesthetic choices of an author. I grew up in a time in which you either liked or did not like something, and if you did not like it you would then go off to find something you did like. What you did not do was presume to publicly dictate to the creators what was wrong with the work as if you had any place in that process.

Professional (and amateur) critics would analyze and examine and write pieces about a given work to explain what does and does not work, but rarely, if ever, would you find a demand that a work be different. Certainly lively discussions among those interested over a given work were common and healthy, but that work would be accepted as presented, to be dissected and studied, liked or disliked, as it stood.

Today it would seem the audiences harbor elements that take it as given that there is a right to tell the creator to rewrite, reconstruct, or otherwise revise a given work, based on the apprehension that said work is “wrong” and should be fixed. Among this group there seems little interest in examining those objectionable aspect to discern the whys of the creator’s choices—and thereby maybe learn something from them—or even the consideration to simply say “this is not for me” and go find something else. This intrusion of a self-assumed participation (which becomes strident, because obviously it ought not and seldom does have any result on the work in question) has become a fixture of the current literary and media zeitgeist.

We see this presently in the splenetic condemnation of so-called Woke aspects in something and an implied—or explicit—demand that they be gotten rid of. It seems not to occur to such tyros that maybe an examination—of self as well as the work (which, in the best of worlds, become one in the same, because that is what the best work does for us)—would be edifying and perhaps personal growth might result. It seems not to occur to them (and others not so vocal about their personal discontents) that the whole purpose of engaging with a work that may challenge preconceptions is to force a bit of self-analysis.

Given that the United States now ranks far down the ratings of literacy in the world today, it would seem that we have a massive group of people who have decided that the literary world, be it in print or film, must conform to their definition of acceptable and allow them the comfort of never getting out of their heads.

This is a level of intrusion I find toxic. Even though it may well be a minority, these days numbers seem not to matter in relation to degree of attention. For the purposes of this essay, let me just speak to the lone individual who, disgusted by Dr Who being a woman or the aspect of two boys or two girls kissing, or the appearance of any minority in a role long-assumed to be the province of white people, reacts with a public display of condemnation and a demand that this not be allowed.

You are to be pitied. You have locked your soul into a box so that it is never touched by anything other than the presumptions chasing each other inside your skull. You do not know how to read (and by that I mean the vicarious immersion through connection with a character and a text that offers something New for consideration; indeed, consideration itself would seem a foreign and hateful thing to you) and you no doubt have caged your empathy in such a way that you flinch at any suggestion that the world is not what you wish it to be. You see something like this (Sandman) and you look forward to being dazzled by the special effects and the novelty of magic and other worldly mysteries, yet any hint of the personal that might challenge your prejudices is unwelcome because what you want is to be wowed, not enlarged. Literature is, at its best, a gateway to parts and places in the world you have not had and might never have direct access to—that is the point.

You do not have the right—nor fortunately, as yet, the authority—to tell a writer he or she should take something out because it disturbs you. Go read/view something else and leave this to those who do appreciate it.

It’s this attitude, this sense of privilege that suggest because you are a fan you own the property and can dictate the landscape, that troubles me. It’s ugly. It’s selfish and small and poisonous. And, as I said, pitiable.

And just an observation…if something bothers you that much, odds are it’s not irrelevant at all. Rather it may be the most relevant thing about it and it would be a good idea to maybe look into that a bit deeper. If it was genuinely gratuitous, it likely would not cause even a minor stir in your psyche.

Equations and Kindness

Over the course of my “literary” life, I’ve encountered numerous divisions, prejudices, aversions, proclivities, and preferences. Most of them come down to taste—this school parts company from that one, fans of one writer cannot abide this other one, subject matter produces occasional extreme reactions. Then there is the endless sortings according to style or period or region. Genre can be a minefield of antagonisms, categorical dismissals, harsh critical responses, or simple disinterest. Taste, aesthetics, predilection—all personal, really, even when a case is made of a more substantial kind involving theory, academic attitudes, or even ethics, but by and large it comes down to a kind of triage: what do you want to spend your time on, that satisfies or fulfills?

In my youth, the most prominent division among those of us reading the so-called Classics was best exemplified by those who loved Jane Austen…and those who did not. I fell into the latter category. For years, Austen, for me, was a mannered, formalized, high-end kind of soap opera. I would hear people declare her genius and scratch my head. Many years later, having indulged my personal interest by way of thousands of novels and short stories in science fiction, I came back to Austen and discovered a vein of brilliance I had theretofore missed. While the “soap” aspect was certainly there, the fact is she was writing insightfully about systems. Social systems, mainly, but there were ancillary systems. She examined the social milieu of her day as sets of constraining protocols, barriers, and arrangements that dictated individual choice. 

I describe that in order to explain how most divisions among the wide range of literary forms are often arbitrary, petty, and at best only serve to point us in preferential directions—here be what you like. Read widely enough, we find what we like in places we thought devoid of our preferred pleasures, and hence the distinctions are…porous.

Most of them are harmless and serve at times as sources of productive discourse. One, however, has always dismayed me, because it extends beyond the literary to permeate many other aspects of our lives. What C.P. Snow labeled the Two Cultures—the division between art and science.

As if the two are incompatible, that somehow science is anti-art, and by extension anti-human. (It is one of the underlying dismissals by some of science fiction.) At some point since Newton, this idea has become more entrenched and has led to some arguably toxic consequences. 

In the 20th Century, many people recognized the negative aspects of this division and sought to bridge the divide. Notable among them were Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, Rachel Carson, Lynn Margulis, Lisa Randall, and Michelle Thaller. The ability to write and convey science in language accessible by the lay public has become something apparently deserving of celebrity status, as in the case of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. 

While it is understandably difficult to convey the details of certain aspects of science, perhaps one of the problems has been that for too long it was just accepted that these things are too complex for the nonspecialist to grasp. It’s difficult to know because examples of excellent communication for the general public do seem to be rare. (Not as rare as it seems, but to know that one would have to be inclined to look, and if through life one is constantly told not only how hard science is but also, in some instances, how “inhuman” it is, the odds are good that one has been set up to be disinclined to pay attention.)

I think it is safe to say that never before has a public understanding of science been so important. After all, public policy, which has always required an understanding on some level of science, is now being directly impacted by such comprehension. 

So the so-called Popularizer has never been more important.

But in order for the message to reach people, it is fair to say it must be made relevant to our humanity.

Enter Carlo Rovelli.

Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist (his field is quantum gravity) who over the last several years has published a handful of exemplary books, beginning with Seven Brief Lesson On Physics which, in a very short space covers much of the important history and nature of modern physics. In each of his books, threaded through the explications of science, is a humanness that renders the work emotionally accessible.

His latest, however, is something different. There Are Places In The World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness is a collection of essays which share the theme of a scientist looking at the world at large and revealing the empathy through which the intellect sees. There are historical pieces about Newton and Einstein and revolution and geology, and political pieces touching on policy and the consequences of both understanding and ignorance, and travel pieces ranging from Africa to Scandinavia. Throughout it all, we see through the eyes of a scientist who loves and is delighted and laughs and is occasionally afraid—who is, basically, human.

The problem science presents for some people is the point at which it seems to throw up a wall and tells us no, you cannot do that, you cannot go there, you cannot have a particular way. Entropy is unsympathetic, and the apparently non-negotiable rejections of certain preferences can be off-putting. What Rovelli does is show us another door, because while science reveals a universe with certain restrictions, it shows us new possibilities all the time. It offers more options than we knew existed. 

But it is also important, if we are to increase our understanding of the world, to learn science as a human art.

That divide I spoke about, between art and science, is the most artificial of divisions. It grew out of the point at which philosophy seemed to lose relevance in the face of answers provided by science that fulfilled certain demands for useful answers. We forgot somewhere along the line that Aristotle was as much a scientist as a moral philosopher, and that he saw no meaningful distinction between the physical world and human ethics.

Rovelli talks about that and many other “points of departure” where some healing is in order, and perhaps a few new bridges. 

And he writes well. He observes very well. He conveys the essential humanness of science and somehow makes it a warmer thing to contemplate. There is hopefulness in his observations. Joy as well, and above all a kindness rarely encountered in any specialty.

Once we read this, I would recommend continuing with his other books. This is fun material as well as challenging and enlightening. Rovelli conveys an almost childish exuberance when talking about science and his own field. It is infectious and perhaps these days being caught up in the delight of exploring—which is, after all, where science begins—might just see us all through to a kinder place.

Visceral Coding

Few things generate sustained anxiety as much as genetic engineering. Both positive and negative, for the possibilities and the dread. Since Watson and Crick revealed the double helix of DNA, the science has proceeded apace, and we now live in an era wherein “programming” can refer to both computers and our genes.

Jennifer Doudna is a name to conjour with in this transformational time. In 2020 she won the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR cas9. CRISPR has become the label in media stories for a process of “editing” genes with the use of a form of RNA. (Almost no one outside the biochemistry and medical community seems to no what it stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeaters.) Basically minute segments of code in a strand of RNA that repeat and can be used to, effectively, insert modified segments of code into a gene sequence.

What began as “pure” research into the methods by which bacteria defend against viruses became a revolutionary method of dealing with all manner of genetic circumstances, including potential treatments and vaccines for the most recent scourge, COVID-19.

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Doudna (pronounced DOWD-na), Code Breaker, is also a history of the sometimes chaotic, sometimes life-affirming, often unexpected world of scientific research and its interface with the rest of the world.

Isaacson has given us not only a biography of a remarkable individual, but a look at the often surprising world of research and development. The image of the scientist, austere and removed, still to some extent dominates our imagination. It comes as a surprise (and occasionally something of a betrayal) when we are forced to recognize that scientists are human, just like the rest of us, with all the flaws and foibles to which “ordinary” people are prone. One aspect of the public conception of The Scientist I think requires adjustment is the fact that scientists continue to grow, to mature, to evolve. Too often, it seems that once the Ph.D. is earned, the scientist becomes a static icon, unchanging, and is expected to Know All or at least is frozen into an unchanging assemblage of stereotypes. On some level, this seems to offer comfort—one of the things people tend to be bothered by is an admission of not knowing. Worse still, is a change of mind, which is inevitable in the light of new evidence. But ordinary people can do both. A scientist is not supposed to.

This has led to unrealistic expectations, loss of trust, and the unfortunate “gaming” of science (never mind truth) in public policy. Primarily, this is from a profound lack of understanding on the part of the public. For another, it emerges from the misuse of science as a political talking-point.

Isaacson does an excellent job of taking the reader through the various aspects of a discovery, its initial reception, its development, its transition from pure research to useful tool, and the social and political impact along the way. And along with this, he explains just what that science is.

Jennifer Doudna is central to the unraveling of genetic codes and the inner workings of the templates of life. Basically, she became a nexus for many strands of research, each adding to the overall picture. Her work with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier ultimately earned them a shared Nobel Prize.

What they have developed is a tool by which the template for biological forms can be modified. Edited. This offers the possibility eventually of correcting genetic “errors’ that produce diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and many others. The drive to “decode” the human genome contained the hope and ambition to one day be able to deal with these things, which are different from pathogenic illnesses. But even in the case of viral and bacterial infections, the ability to address illnesses from at a genetic level offers exciting possibilities—and in fact has been vital to the handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks. The speed and facility with which the scientific and health community have been able to respond is in important ways attributable to Jennifer Doudna’s work.

There is drama, intrigue, fascinating people, and the makings of a good thriller in certain aspects of this story. But the most important thing is the profound humanization of a complex community and the people in and from it. Scientists are not fundamentally different from anyone else. Their interests may seem esoteric and the degree of concentration they bring to their passions may seem other-worldly at times, but in truth what they have is a deeply useless set of tools and the willingness to abide by the rules those tools require for sound use. What must be understood, and often is obscured by the dizzying aspects of the science itself, is their humanity and how they represent, often, the best possibilities of all of us. (Of course there are those who are not as good at what they do as they should be, those who are more concerned with fame or wealth than the work itself, those who are flawed in unfortunate ways—just like any other group of people in any other area of activity—but we should look to the best for our examples and not allow the worst to color our perceptions of the people doing amazing work.)

Finally, understanding something is the best way to stop being afraid of it. At the end of the day, that is the real gift scientists give us—they work to understand things previously hidden and unknown and thereby help the rest of us to stop being afraid.

Out of the Mists

The common assumption put forward by several decades of anthropology and associated fields concerning that vast fog known as Prehistory runs as follows: humans, after emerging from the crapshoot of evolution, roved the savannah in small bands, gathering and hunting and painfully inching their way toward a point where they began to make tools (other than spear points and such). Then came a long period of migration, scattered attempts at settlement, until, a critical population mass achieved, agriculture was developed, and very quickly came the abandonment of hunter-gatherer society, leading to regular towns, art, and gradually more impressive engineering feats to serve the expanding agro-economy. At some further point, all this became the foundation of nascent states, after which the whole thing rolled into the “historic” era (marked by the advent of record-keeping) and kings and empires and slavery, and so forth.

This is more or less the way it was presented to me back in school, and, I suspect, still pretty much the popular conception of prehistory.

The problem with this is that we are talking about roughly 200,000 years of that undifferentiated, featureless, unchanging landscape. Taken at face value, it says that human beings conducted themselves as essentially immutably “innocent” creatures, either incapable or uninterested in doing anything more with themselves or their environment until they learned to plow a field and write things down. If, as the evidence suggests, modern homo sapiens had been roaming around the planet for two hundred millennia, with all that “modern” implies, this begs the question of what “we” were doing all that time and why, all of a sudden, about 10,000 years ago, we started living entirely differently.

Put that way, there is no reasonable answer. It is on its face an absurd assumption.

One that is not supported by any of the evidence we actually have.

So why cling to the narrative?

In The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity, authors David Graeber and David Wengrow explore exactly that question and in so doing turn over multiple apple carts, debunk many myths, and shake up the common assumptions about that vast and murky period. They begin with a look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the question of equality.

When we first embarked on this book, our intention was to seek new answers to questions about the origins of social inequality. It didn’t take long before we realized this simply wasn’t a very good approach. Framing human history in this way—which necessarily means assuming humanity once existed in an idyllic state, and that a specific point can be identified at which everything started to go wrong—made it almost impossible to ask any of the questions we felt were were genuinely interesting.

They proceed then to reexamine as many assumptions as possible with the space of reasonably-sized book to show that Rousseau’s apparent point in his Discourse On The Origins Of Inequality is a bit of a cheat—unless Rousseau was being absurd to a purpose. For instance, Graeber and Wengrow remind us (assuming we ever knew) that the so-called “indigenous critique” of European civilization that informed much of Enlightenment thinking was not an invention of the philosophes but a genuine critique delivered by Native Americans after they had witnessed firsthand European civilization (often as captives/slaves, sometimes a diplomats). The sources were credited by the philosophes themselves as being from Native Americans, but later historians chose to ignore this to the point where it was forgotten and the natives were relegated to that pool of prehistoric humanity too “simple” to understand complex culture and socio-political structures.

From that point on, Graeber and Wengrow take nothing at face value and conduct a thorough reevaluation. If human beings have been phsyiologically “modern” for 200,000 years, it is ridiculous to assume they did not conduct themselves with as much sophistication and complexity as we do. Often, as it turns out, with strikingly different results.

The scope of the book is global. Between them, they cover archaeological finds from Central America to Turkey to Japan and points in between and carefully examine what is thee to be seen and what it means in relation to our understanding of how communities function. It is an eye-opening tour.

Much here is speculative. What makes prehistory difficult is the lack of, well, history. Written history. All we have are the remnants. But with a clear eye, those remnants are quite expressive. One thing that emerges consistently is that our previous assumptions are wrong.

From the end of the last ice age till now, we have enough to trace humanity’s presence and draw conclusions about its progress. But for the most part we still cling to the simplistic story of “primitive” societies living subsistence existences until the point where it become possible to form what subsequently became great states—Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Indus Cultures. The implication being that once we reached that level we never looked back and marched forward into the present building roughly the same kinds of civilizations. And that at some point we collectively began to realize that we had become in thrall to despotisms and began what we know as the battle for equality. We seldom question the progression.

But, Graeber and Wengrow ask, why don’t we question it? Because even within historic times, it just isn’t the case, at least not universally.

If anything is clear by now it’s this. Where we once assumed ‘civilization’ and ‘state’ to be conjoined entities that came down to us as a historical package (take it or leave it forever), what history now demonstrates is that these terms actually refer to complex amalgams of elements which have entirely different origins and which are currently in the process of drifting apart. Seen this way, to rethink the basic premises of social evolution is to rethink the very idea of politics itself.

What is revealed by their analysis is that the smooth trajectory of assumed historical progress is an oversimplified, biased gloss from too few perspectives. The reality—that which can be demonstrated with evidence and that which can then be surmised by constructive deduction—is far more complicated, complex, and frankly compelling. Part of the telos of those simplistic constructions is that all that has gone before inevitably led to now—to us. We are as we must be by decree of historic processes which are inevitable.

The truth is, what we are now is only one possibility of what we might have become.

And this is the meat and bone of Graeber and Wengrow’s argument—that to justify ourselves as we are it is better to paint the ancient past as a homogenous, almost featureless whole. Had people twenty, thirty, or fifty thousand years ago not been the pastoral simpletons we’ve presented them to be, then where are the great kingdoms and empires, the technologies, the earthworks, the cities that would mark them as complex thinkers? While to a certain extent that is a not unimportant question, it overlooks examples that have left traces, even up to the present period, that fail to fit the expectations engendered by such a view. The decay of time certainly has something to do with the paucity of physical evidence, but what we do have is not so insignificant that the standard narrative has any claim to remain unchallenged.

While a good portion of The Dawn Of Everything is speculative, enough evidence and solid analysis is presented to more than justify such speculations, at the very least insofar as a challenge to our assumptions and a reconsideration of modern expectations. Quite a bit of non-Western critique was suppressed or ignored to help in building a picture of the past that supported the hegemony of the West’s self-importance. (Quite a lot of what became the political revolution of United States came from indigenous sources, accepted wholesale by the philosophes and then subsequently forgotten. The thinking was sophisticated, philosophically trenchant, and necessary to challenge what had become a standard view of the West’s view of itself.)

David Graeber passed away in 2020, at the age of 59. More volumes were to follow this one, according to his collaborator David Wengrow. One assumes many of the critiques that will inevitably emerge regarding this first book would be addressed in those books that follow—for instance, this—because clearly there was insufficient room in one volume to cover all the material avbailable. We may see more, but what they produced here is one of those books designed to upset apple carts. There is no inevitability in history, tempting though such narratives are. In order to free ourselves of the chains of a presumed inevitable present, we must go back and reexamine the past and find those “missing” parts that demonstrate the possibilities and the promises of other roads. This is what we have in this book.

Why Read

In light of the last few years, the question bites. Indulge me in a venting plea.

In my experience, limited though it is, I have found that the better read a person is, the more likely they will be to cope with reality, to defend against the twisting delights of both conspiracy theory and pseudoscience, and to be less vulnerable to charlatanry.

Not always. Some deceptions come wrapped in marvelous packages that can appeal to the puzzle-solver in us all and present as aesthetically compelling. In my own life I have followed white rabbits in tweed down a number of holes, some part of me convinced that truth lay in some hidden recess along the way.

I have been relegated to many sidelines since childhood because of reading, sidelines which at the time seemed harsh and unfair, but in retrospect were actually relatively safe places. Time and space are necessary for a mind to develop. Exposure to stimulating material does not work its magic immediately, sometimes not even soon, but eventually all those books and stories and articles result in a set of pathways and memories and organizing concepts that allow for the skills to deal with what may otherwise be just confusion.

No, let me be more definite—“may” has little to do with it. People who read, in my experience, are generally more present, more conscious, more adaptable than people who only watch and subsequently go through life skimming a surface which too often becomes a mirror and allows them to ignore what is beneath. In fact, those surface presentations often depend on not knowing what underlies them, may actively resist analysis, and with few exceptions deceive by suggesting there is nothing more.

Not all. But it is also true that those not intended to deceive largely depend on an audience that reads to reveal their full meaning.

There are many studies about the physiological and cognitive benefits of reading, especially fiction. Here’s one. There is an increases in synaptic structure associated with regular reading. Memory improves. Your brain responds by providing better tools.

Then, of course, you have to apply the tools. For me, this makes fiction and, in a similar way, history indispensable. Reading other kinds of books, while important in many ways, can leave you unaware of irony, of conflict, or paradox, all of which are fundamental to the so-called Human Condition. We read novels to grapple with the contradictions of being human. We read fiction because in doing so we learn the value of Other Minds attempting to do this thing we all own as a birthright—-living.

Occasionally we see a nod to this in popular entertainment. In the tv series Castle, Detective Becket is presented as an exceptional and gifted detective. In the first episode we hear from one of her colleagues that he likes “a simple Jack killed Jill over Bill” rather than the “freaky” ones. Becket responds, “Oh, but the freaky ones require more.” And then she challenges them: “Don’t you guys read?” As the series progresses we can see that she just brings more to the game and in that first episode the difference is made explicit.

We undervalue reading, often while making a big deal about it. Writers become celebrities, usually once one or more of their books is made into a film. And their fans may well read everything they publish, but that’s not beneficial reading. Like anything else, if you do not expand your horizons, complicate your diet, move out of your comfort zone, you end up trapped in a self-referential, reaffirming loop that grows nothing.

We must read so our apprehension of the world is less frightening, amenable to recognition, and manageable. So that people are not so alien and culture not so forbidding. Certainly someone can read a great deal and still be unable to decipher the world, but I believe such people to be a minority, and most of us benefit from the increased clarity that comes from an ongoing encounter with Other Minds.

The greatest benefit comes from a catholic indulgence: read widely, daily—fiction, science, history, philosophy, memoir—because at some point you will find it all reinforcing, that insights gained in one place can be enriched and enlivened by another source. And somewhere along the way, we may find that we are no longer easily fooled.

The most valuable ability of late would seem to be this, the awareness to not be fooled.

I make no prediction that a sudden upsurge of deep reading would solve our problems. Humans can be contradictory, perverse creatures. But it seems obvious that an illiterate populace is an easily-tricked, easily swayed populace. Given that those who are invested in people watching their shallow offerings rather than go off somewhere to read are generally those who would sell us shiny bits that delight and fail, it would be a good strategy to take up books and stop being led like myopic sheep.

But I have a rather more personal reason for urging people to set aside whatever prejudices they acquired in primary and secondary schools that turned them against reading-for-pleasure. When I set a book aside, as one must, and go out into the world, I would like to have meaningful contact with other people, and ignorance is a depressing barrier to that.

Why read? To be more. To hopefully be yourself. And possibly to be free.

Seeking Meaning In Sand

I have not yet seen the new film version of Dune. I may write about it after I do, although it is not the entire story. What I am interested in here is the ongoing obsession with the novel. This will be the third cinematic iteration. Famously, there are two uncompleted versions, one by Jodowrosky and another by Ridley Scott. We know how far the former came because there is a fascinating documentary about it, but as for Scott’s version there are mainly rumors and statements that he wanted to do one. Personally, I would have been interested to see that one—I very much like Ridley Scott’s palette: even those of his films that don’t quite work for other reasons I find wonderful to look at—and in some ways he has perhaps played around the edges of it through his Alien franchise. (The first film starts on a world that might have been Arakkis, the second is evocative of Gede Prime, the others keep returning to desert worlds, in theme if not setting. And Ripley becomes a kind of ghola as she is resurrected again and again.)

What is it about the original novel that compels the ongoing obsession, not only of filmmakers, but of fans? (There would be no funding for the films if the audience were not so large and committed. That speaks to the book.)

The history of the novel is something of a publishing legend, like other groundbreaking books. Multiple rejections, ultimate publication, often in a limited way, and a growing audience over years. Dune was famously rejected something like 27 times before finally being taken up by a publisher better known for automobile manuals.

It was, however, serialized in one of the top science fiction magazines, Analog, so dedicated SF readers were the first to encounter it, and doubtless formed the primary audience. I remember reading the ACE paperback from the late Sixties. Its impact on me was almost too large to detail.

I was used to science fiction novels being under 200 pages—average then was 160. From the Golden Age forward you rarely found one more than 250 pages. Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein was an outlier at 408 in its first hardcover incarnation. So here I find this massive book more like the so called classics I’d been reading—Dickens, Dumas, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—crammed into the cover of a mass market paperback which included a glossary and indexes, explanatory material (every bit as fictional as the main narrative). It felt important. I was 14, it was dense, I struggled through it. (It led to a profound teaching moment in how to read which I’ve written about elsewhere.) I could feel my horizons expand, even though at the basic level of story it was no more or less fascinating than most other good science fiction novels I had read. But it opened possibilities for narrative depth.

A handful of other novels came out around that time that exploded the confines of the thriller-format SF had been kept to—John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up; Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand Of Darkness; and the coming rage for trilogies (many of which were single narratives published economically in three volumes). By the mid-Seventies publishing had changed to accommodate a new idea of what an SF novel could be, including expanded length to include what has become known as World Building (a technique which in some instances supplanted more important aspects of fiction). Not all by itself, but certainly as a point of history, Dune helped make this possible by creating a market for fuller expositions and more detailed construction. This alone might make it significant.

But that alone would not have made it a perennial seller, almost constantly in print ever since. If Frank Herbert had written nothing else, Dune would have made his career.

It was followed up by two more—Dune Messiah and Children of Dune—completing a cycle. That first trilogy stands as a unified work. The second two books are plot-driven indulgences, but not superfluous. The second trilogy…publishing had discovered by then that science fiction could be best-selling fiction and a frenzy of large advances and high-profile publications mark the late Seventies and early Eighties. Herbert’s publisher enabled him to indulge himself with a second trilogy that often leaves people puzzled. But it kept the spotlight on the primary work.

David Lynch’s movie enlarged the audience again. That film, by a director with a certain reputation for examining the macabre oddnesses of humanity, is a spectacular curiosity. It is a mixed bag of brilliance and weird choices.

Then came a modestly-budgeted miniseries on the SyFy Channel, which went on to include the second two novels. It did a much better job of telling Herbert’s story. The chief complaints seem to be the results of that budget (and that Sting did not reprise the role of Feyd Rautha). It gets dismissed too readily, as if the world were waiting for the “real” cinema treatment.

Which we now, by all accounts, have.

As I say, I have not seen it yet. I want to address the book and its seeming tenacity.

One of the things Herbert did was lace his tale with wise-sounding profundities in the form of aphorisms and epigrams. Each chapter starts with a quote from some serious work by the presumed chronicler of the hero’s life. They sound like quotes from works like the I Ching or SunTzu’s Art of War. This was not a new trick when Herbert did it, but he was particularly adept at it in this book. It is a far future in which, presumably, philosophy has transformed along with everything else. The quasi-feudal politics and economics are given a veneer of newness this way, as if to signal that while it looks like something one would find in the 12th Century, it is not quite the same thing, but you have to take the author’s word for it, because it is the future. The quotes set an aesthetic tone that, among other things, allows us to assume something else is going on instead of just the same old historical thing. In science fiction, veneers matter—they work like orchestrations in a symphony, selecting the right instrument for the right phrase, coloring it. (Veneers should never be mistaken for the story or the theme, which is something unobservant critics do all the time.)

Seriousness established, every significant decision becomes inhabited by purpose, meaning, resonance, and a justification that raises the level of what we read almost to that of destiny, certainly of mythmaking. With this, the writing itself need not be spectacular, just functional.

There are passages in Dune that are breathtaking in what they describe. The ecological aspects of the novel, while in some ways absurd in terms of actual science, take on the same immanence as anything the actors possess. In a way, Dune is one of the first terraforming novels, embracing the idea that human action can transform an entire world. (A couple of years later, we see much more of this, often more pointedly, as in works like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest—again, the novel opens up a field of possibilities, or at least prepares an audience for more of the same.)

But the characters are hard to relate to—this is a story about archetypes and aristocrats in conflict with emperors and churches. The ordinary people get lost amid the giant legs of the SF manifestations of Greek Heroes. We read this novel for the plot and world and the political revelations. We become engaged because this is in important ways a Lawrence of Arabia story—one toxically mixed with Faust. We read it because we are aware that gods and deserts change the world.

We read it because, as well, we are enamored of the idea of Enlightenment in a Pill.

Herbert was always working in the fields of mind-altering drugs—possibly his best and most relatable novel in this vein is The Santarroga Barrier—and with Melange, the Spice, he created the ultimate in mind-expanding temptations. Its use gives humanity (and others) the universe. Time and space can be brought to heel with it. Visions, prophecies, and clarity are on offer. But it is the ultimate Faustian bargain, for its loss will destroy everything.

It is aptly named. Melange, a mixture of often incongruous elements. A mess, if you will, but messes can evoke wonder, even seem beautiful.

At the heart of this Faustian conundrum are the Fremen, patterned after the Bedu of the Middle East. They are trapped on a world with profoundly limited resources and must be kept that way for the benefit of the rest of the universe. Not quite slaves, but certainly not masters of their own world. Freeing them courts disaster—because part of that freedom entails remaking their world, making it wet. Water, though, is poison to the giant worms that produce the Spice.

Trap after trap after trap populates the novel. Disaster looms. The plot compels.

And of course the relevance to our reality could not be plainer. The teetering sets of balances, all of them with ethical pitfalls, allow Dune to remain trenchant, relevant, challenging. Added to this is the clear connection to the Greek tragedians (especially in the second trilogy—I suggest boning up on Aeschylus and Euripedes before trying them) which gives the book its ongoing frustration of clear, ethical resolution. (And cleverly he took the possibility of building machines that might aid people in their problem-solving off the table, by outlawing thinking machines. It’s all on us and what we bring to the game.)

A final thread woven through the book that seems to make it constantly popular is that it is a coming-of-age story that contains a biting critique of privilege. Whatever Paul might want to be for himself, he is born into a web of expectations that impose their demands from all sides, making any choice he might make impossible outside of a constructed destiny. The adolescent struggling to make sense of the world and find a way to live in it, thinking if only he were god and could command everything to be rational or at least amenable. Paul’s tragedy is that he in fact can become god—and then discovering that this is no solution, either.

How well this new movie deals with all this, I look forward to seeing. For the moment I simply wanted to examine some of the reasons this novel continues to find audiences and why so many filmmakers are drawn to it. The elements it contains transcend the limitations from which it suffers. But whatever the case, this is a novel that allows readers to find meaning—whether that meaning is in the novel or not.