Sunday, June 09, 2013

Fortnightly Book, June 9

I had a book set for the fortnightly book, and then realized that I might be too busy the next two weeks to do that particular book justice. So I've bumped and gone with a request made by Cristian Ciopron, who asked if I would do a fortnightly book for something by Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert. There are lots of options here, since I have quite a few books by both on my shelves, and certainly a fortnightly book of The Gods Themselves or Dune might be interesting someday. However, I decided to go a slightly different direction for these two weeks and re-read what I think is Herbert's best book, The Santaroga Barrier.

Dorothy Sayers talks about literary works growing out of idea, energy, and power, the father, son and spirit of authorship, where energy is the execution of idea and power is its communicative force to others. Ideally the three are in perfect balance, but in practice all authors have "scalene trinities", and tend to emphasize one more than others. Sometimes authors get very scalene, and these Sayers calls father-ridden (if they are obsessed with ideas for which they cannot find proper execution or communication), son-ridden (if they are intricate constructors who do not have ideas worthy of the effort and whose intricacy prevents their work from becoming powerful literature), or spirit-ridden (if they are so mired in sentiment, passion, and emotion that the work is sloppy and the ideas are weak). It's a handy way of looking at things; good literary workmanship consists of avoiding all three, and every writer has a tendency to one (mine is to being father-ridden) that has to be sharply watched.

There is no question whatsoever that Herbert's temptation is toward father-ridden writing. Herbert is an idea man, and to such an extent that sometimes that's the only thing that's interesting in the story. People who read Dune, which has an idea executed on a scale adequate to it in a way that retains human interest, are often floored at how awful the sequels seem. It isn't that they have no redeeming qualities, but their problems are Herbert in a nutshell: the underlying ideas of the story are interesting, but the actual stories we're given don't do a great job of exploring them, and what is there often doesn't do much to move us. This is a failure one finds over and over in Herbert's writing. It's not that the writing as such is awful, it's just that it's not even remotely adequate to what it's trying to explore and because of that it can't entangle with our natural sympathies and interests. To take an example, Chapterhouse: Dune, which is probably the Dune sequel that comes closest (while still failing) to doing what it is trying to do, is a story of the Bene Gesserit caught in a complicated conflict of visions, a conflict that they need to resolve or else they -- and perhaps the human race -- will be torn apart. But while there are good moments, both symbolic moments and character moments, conveying this, it doesn't manage to explore this idea of conflicting visions as a whole very well. This is a recurring problem with Herbert's work.

I think The Santaroga Barrier is the work in which Herbert's trinity is least scalene. The basic idea, that of a utopia-dystopia, an ambiguous society that can be seen as an improvement on or degeneration of human society, simply by a Gestalt switch, is a good one, and some of the subordinate ideas that are typically Herbertian, like that of hive behavior, are better executed here than elsewhere. It's not a perfect story, but it is far better executed than most of Herbert's works. And because of this, I think it is a more powerful work.

It's also a good book to read with philosophy in mind, because of the constant references to existentialism. The lead character is improbably named Gilbert Dasein, and his girlfriend is Jenny Sorge; Dasein and Sorge, existence (being-there) and care, are important concepts in Heidegger's philosophy. It's probably not an accident that Gilbert Dasein is usually just referred to as Dasein rather than Gilbert, as in:

Dasein's morning began with a sensation of hunger.

The town of Santaroga is dominated by the Jaspers Cheese Cooperative, a reference to Karl Jaspers. One of the families is the Schelers, a reference to phenomenologist Max Scheler. There are also references throughout to psychology, especially developmental psychology (one of the characters is named Dr. Piaget) and abnormal psychology (these are the days when psychology departments did LSD experiments with students).


  1. Thank you very much, I’ll certainly look forward to it, it
    will surely be a treat! I enjoyed everything I have read by FH, so the treat’s

  2. And the abuse of famous names is rewarding, I think—all those
    secret agents named Gogol, Karamazov, etc.. Interestingly, in the Romanian (or
    Soviet, or generally from the former Eastern bloc) genre fiction, there weren’t
    any foreign characters called ‘Shakespeare’ or ‘Lincoln’; but these was because
    the foreigners were threatening, etc., so naming them after great individuals
    wouldn’t have been effective.

    on with Herbert!

    (As a
    footnote, my favorite Asimov has been the ‘Prelude …’.)

  3. branemrys7:30 AM

    That's one of my favorite Asimovs, as well.

  4. I haven’t
    read The Santaroga Barrier,
    and I don’t know if it has been translated in Romanian; but many other books of
    this author have been rendered in my native language. I have in my library nine novels by
    FH—‘Dune’, Dune Messiah,
    God Emperor of Dune,
    three of the WorShip novels,
    both of the ConSentient novels, and The
    White Plague.

    I generally enjoyed the ideas,
    approach, general attitude and results.

    (And I wished very much to like the
    Lynch adaptation; I didn’t dislike it, I only saw it once, and it almost left
    me no impression whatsoever.)

    With the ‘Foundation’ novels, it
    must have been, with me, a question of age, as well, the age when I encountered
    the novels. I have read the ‘Foundation’ many years after its ‘Prelude’. I was
    15 when I read the ‘Prelude …’ (this was in ’93, the major SF was being
    translated in Romanian, though Heinlein was, in fact, largely skipped)—and 31
    when I read the ‘Foundation’, the main story; the one read as a teenager blew
    my mind.

    I still remember the feverish
    delight I felt then, and the hallucinatory nature of some episodes.

    You know what I liked as a kid? I
    liked a TV series by Bradbury, TV sketches made from the master’s stories.

  5. branemrys8:22 AM

    If you have a chance, get your hands on the mini-series versions of Dune (directed by John Harrison) and Children of Dune (directed by Greg Yaitanes). They are both splendidly done.


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