Caring About Nonsense, Composing, 22/09/2013

Another short post today, this time a quick update about my fiction development. I wrote a couple of weekends ago about the ideas I developed over the last few months for this piece of epic science-fiction updating Lost in Space's key concept in a serious way. However, one thing I felt I should do in order to figure out the proper approach to writing the story is get to know some epic science-fiction that takes place in strange (yet familiar enough) worlds.

So I finally started reading Dune. Yes, I know it probably ruins my credibility as a science-fiction author to admit that I'm only reading Dune now. My apologies for sticking to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke during my younger years like the fool that I was. But I just never encountered it in a way that sucked me in. And it still doesn't suck me in, because I'm reading it just as much for my research as for pleasure. Because writing fiction involves research. For my novel about Korea, I'm researching recent Korean history and I'll interview people who've visited the country for work. For my novel about an isolated shipwreck in deep space, I'll research work on how to survive in isolated foreign ecosystems, and literature that does a solid job of representing a wildly different world that still hooks readers from the beginning.

Herbert does that very efficiently during his first chapter. Yes there are references to priesthoods, caste systems, and mystically messianic figures straight from the start. But you actually care about them. It isn't through some subtle literary trick either. The protagonist has a creepy prophetic dream about the high-tension scene where a strange priestess holds a poison dart to his neck and administers a disturbing pain tolerance test involving putting his hand in a box. Then that exact scene happens. You're too engrossed in the tension and underlying violence of the scene that the funny words they use like Kwisatz Haderach have emotional weight attached to them, even as their meanings are still mysterious. And that's only the first 20 pages.

1 comment:

  1. With Herbert, I was above all impressed with his narrative voice when I first read him -- particularly the deft way that he weaves characters' thoughts (in italics, rarely signposted) with his robust and very distinctive authorial voice. Reading him I feel like I'm in a very specific zone of 70s consciousness that is also 50,000 years in the future, or something -- very specific, I guess is the point.

    One of my pet peeves in reading fiction of any sort is finding that the author is trying to win points by appealing to what they assume are their reader's shared values. This is very pervasive with the coarser forms of "literary" fiction. As a reader, what interests me is being walked down an unfamiliar path, not to be assured that even very strange places are really just like home. Herbert is not afraid to present fascist impulses or aristocratic grandeur or revolutionary violence as rousing, compelling possibilities of human experience -- but not being a monster, of course more enlightened alternatives start poking through.

    Anyway, in terms of the themes of this blog, I mention this reaction since it strikes me as the key tension between my academic and non-academic reading strategies. Academically, what I want is to figure out where an author is positioned within a broader set of assumptions in order to situate the substantive claims as quickly and accurately as possible. If I get a whiff of "world systems", for example, I know that this article is likely to assume aspects of capital flow and human rationality that I dismiss out of hand. With non-academic reading, I come at it the opposite direction, wanting above all not to know what the author thinks and try and let the work develop as an independent experiment that I can run on my own time. Scientistic language, I know, but that's where I'm at these days.

    At any rate, I think you'll find you're in for a treat with Dune. Such are my two cents, at least.