Friday, October 08, 2010
Frank Herbert would've been 90 today, had he not died in 1986. His contributions to Science Fiction cannot be overstated though. Through reinterpreting the stories surrounding the Ancient Greek House of Atreus while talking about his passion, ecology, and paying attention to Gibbons and TE Lawrence, he was able to create a character-and-story-driven novel, rather than the technology driven SF that was prevalent. The publishing of Dune is one of the defining moments in soft SF history. It is Herbert who finally gets SF past the obsession with human technology and natural sciences that makes the hard SF of the 40s and 50s so hard for a modern reader to go back to. A friend and I always say we like SF stories that are about humans, and the technology and fantastic elements are merely playing around the edges of the story. Dune did this. It fell right into the epic tradition and re-took-up the mantle pioneered by HG Wells that had been dropped by hard SF.
In the 40s and 50s the science fiction placed emphasis on the Science part. America, as a whole, was placing importance on the natural sciences, and Science Fiction served as a propaganda machine for America's preference that little boys and girls become physicists rather than writers. Isaac Asimov was the fantastic writer in the hard SF genre. But sooner or later, examining the effects of possible technology on future humanity isn't exciting any more. Along came Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Though Clarke was heavily interested in technology as well, his stories placed more emphasis on Fiction than Asimov's did. Heinlein was fanatical about scientific accuracy in his stories, but his 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land was entirely soft SF and very popular.
In 1963 the first half of Dune was serialized, the second in 1965. The first edition of the book was published by Chilton's, yes, that Chilton's, in 1965. This soft SF masterpiece is the best selling SF book for good reason. He clearly and accurately replaces sf into the epic tradition, proving it a worthy heir to the throne of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Achilleus, and Hamlet. He took a human story and set it within a fantastical world, then proceeded to talk about big things and big ideas. This was incredibly influential. The ideas that led to Star Wars, Cyberpunk, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and other soft SF landmarks really took off after his work and gained mainstream respectability. For this, I think that Dune is one of the most important novels of the 20th century. It showed people who associated SF with pulp that SF could give them something other novels were not: epic stories in the sense of the epic tradition.
I am very grateful to Rebecca for introducing me to Dune. I remember when I was first reading it, pretty much everybody around me was surprised that I hadn't read it before. It proved impossible to find a used copy of the book still today, 45 years later. The continuing popularity of Dune, and the rest of Frank Herbert's contributions to the series, is a testament to its importance and quality. If you do not like SF and want to try some out, you could do much worse than starting with Dune. The world is a better place for having known Frank Herbert. Just don't talk to me about Sting's crotch.