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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 9, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Airport chocolate, ReBooks, and Dune

Airports used to be culinary wastelands. Some catering service would buy the whole food franchise for the airport and the trapped travelers would either eat what they offered or do without.

I remember the glorious day when McDonald's showed up at an airport. Yes, McDonald's and glorious do go together -- in that context. Because even if it wasn't exactly what I'd choose for fine dining, I knew what I was getting.

It wasn't long before airports started sporting all the franchises -- and all kinds of food. There are airports now where I can get Odwalla or Naked juices and smoothies -- even Jamba Juice now and again.

Some of the national restaurant chains show up -- Chili's, TGI Friday's. I'm still waiting for PF Chang.

But the better grade of national fast-food chains will certainly do. When we have layovers in Atlanta (which all Delta flyers out of Greensboro certainly do), my wife and I can get a pretty good sandwich at Au Bon Pain while our daughter heads to Sbarro for a decent slab of pizza.

It's getting so you aren't actually punished for traveling any more.

Except for water. In most airports, the Coke and Pepsi waters (Dasani and Aquafina) are usually at the top of the water chain. Fiji is rare, Panna impossible. But at least it isn't like it used to be, when the undrinkable Vasa was the only water at Hartsfield.

It's not just the name on the sign these days: Now inside the little newstand/candy-bar stores we're starting to see a decent array of edible snacks you can buy and carry onto the plane.

My last few times through Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, Scharffen Berger chocolates have been getting great display. In case you didn't know, Scharffen Berger is a superb packaged chocolate, and they have deviced the ideal airplane snack package.

It's a little rectangular clear-plastic box containing, in tiny individual packages, four squares each of three kinds of chocolate.

This is real chocolate, folks. The 41% milk chocolate is darker and richer than even the elite milk chocolates from more familiar brands; the 70% Bittersweet and the 82% Extra Dark are such a powerful dose that even I have to wait a while between bars.

You don't have to fly to (or through) Atlanta to get these jewels, though. You can get Scharffen Berger online at http://www.artisanconfection.com. I couldn't find the exact package the airport offers -- their "12-pack 5-gram squares" are the same size and shape, but instead of a variety, they're all of one kind.

I can live with that. A 12-pack of the milk chocolate alone would make me happy. And I can get my wife a 12-pack of the 62% semisweet, which is nice and dark but not quite as bitterly medicinal as the stronger darks.

I think that website and I are going to be friends. It's way cheaper than looking for excuses to fly just so I can get the chocolate I want.

*

There are books that have such a powerful impact that it's not enough to remember them -- you have to reread them.

My rereading list -- or "ReBooks" for short -- has long included Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Asimov's Foundation, the former on a five-year schedule and the latter about every ten years.

Other ReBooks made the list mostly because I wanted to share them, aloud, with my kids as they came to the right age: Lewis's Narnia series, for instance.

Gone with the Wind used to be a ReBook for me, but it has been at least twenty years now so maybe it has slipped off the list. My childhood favorites, Dawn's Early Light and Yankee Stranger, the first two books in Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg series, are still ReBooks for me and my mother, though I don't know how many others would regard them the same way.

(Oddly enough, my own books are not on my list. I don't usually read them all the way through, ever -- I write them, then I spot-read them when I'm responding to editorial comments, and then I spot-read again when they first come out, and that's it.)

Recently, I complained to my friend Scott Brick that because I often buy audiobooks solely because he read them, he had to take seriously his responsibility not to read books that stink. Some books are so bad that the more brilliantly they're read, the worse they are, because their badness becomes so much clearer and therefore more rank, malodorous, fetid, doodoolicious (all the adjectives seem so inadequate, don't they?).

His response was to send me a collection of his readings that he is willing to certify -- books he loves the most, or in which he is proudest of his performance.

And one of the books was Frank Herbert's Dune.

Dune was a revelatory science fiction novel when it came out. I read it twice within a couple of years, and by then the story was so firmly imprinted on my memory that I could call up scenes clearly and powerfully; there was simply no need to reread.

But as I listened to Scott read Dune, I learned several important things.

First, even a great reader like Scott Brick will interpret the lines and characters differently from the way I hear them inside my head. (We process what we read through the audio processors in the brain, so even when we read to ourselves, we hear the words.) His performance was perfectly valid, but more dramatic in many scenes than the light banter I had heard.

There's no right or wrong on this -- I couldn't care less how the author thought they should be read, because when it comes to audio performance of a novel, every reader does his or her own interpretation, whether they're paid to do it or not.

It's like watching the movie version of Lord of the Rings -- the film is brilliant, but, like every other reader I know, I am keenly aware of scenes where Peter Jackson and/or the actors involved simply didn't understand the "perfect" interpretation that I created in my own mind when I read the book myself.

I recommend Scott Brick's performance of Dune -- but at the same time, I still value my own as the "real" one. That's what naturally happens when you really love a book.

Another odd thing that I noticed was that for the first time in my life, I actually recognized a book's influence on my own writing.

I was certainly unaware of it at the time, but I realize now that when I sat down to start writing fiction, my handling of the mental processes of characters owes much to the way Herbert showed the different characters' contrasting interpretations of events, their motives at cross purposes.

This is especially surprising because Herbert used the usually-shallow thought penetration of the omniscient viewpoint, while I almost never use it. What I acquired from Herbert was the tool of letting the reader see how differently two characters interpret each other's words and actions, and how characters re-process what they "know" in response to new information, or process the information to fit with what they already think they know.

If that sounds complicated, it is. And because this is one of the primary things I do in my own fiction, I had wondered now and then where I learned it. Now I know at least one source of the way I handle such matters.

That makes Dune quite a personal book for me, and I think it's quite likely I would not even have noticed the technique Herbert used if Scott Brick had not been reading it to me differently from the way I read it to myself.

Of course, discovering an influence on my own writing doesn't actually matter. It's one of the least interesting things literary scholars search for, and I can't think how this tidbit of information will affect my writing in the future -- with luck, it will have no effect whatsoever.

The odd thing about Dune is that it really isn't science fiction at all. Yes, Herbert did a brilliant job of exploring the then-new concept of ecology on the desert planet of Arrakis; but the story itself absolutely depends on concepts that I think of as fantasy: prescience, shared memory, and mind-to-mind communication.

The funny thing is that at the time Herbert was writing Dune, there was much debate in the sci-fi community about whether "psionic abilities" like telepathy and telekinesis could really be considered appropriate fodder for science fiction. Books and stories like those of Zenna Henderson about "The People" were effective as fiction, but the science fiction purists were getting steadily grumpier about how pervasive these magical concepts were becoming in science fiction.

This may even be part of the reason why my first submissions to Analog magazine were rejected -- they all depended on mental abilities and Analog was the hardest of the hard-science sci-fi magazines.

The reason this is interesting with regard to Dune is because Herbert repeatedly states, explicitly, that the hero's (and others') mental abilities were not telepathy. Definitely, absolutely not.

Except, of course, that they are. Any attempt to explain the difference is mere hairsplitting. Herbert needed prescience and telepathy to tell the story he wanted to tell; these concepts were an embarrassment among his hard-science-fiction colleagues; therefore he would use them but deny they were what they were. No doubt he believed it himself at the time. But when it comes to telling a story, the good writers do what feels right to them regardless of their ideology or what their friends tell them they should do ... or mustn't do.

Now I'm about to talk about things that give away the ending of the book. This really isn't a problem, because Dune does not depend on any kind of surprise ending. We have prophecies of the ending all along, and expect them to come true. What is interesting is the experiences and learning of the characters along the way -- and those will be undiminished by any spoilers in what follows. But it was only fair to warn you.

There was considerable irony in Dune's use of Arabic culture and language as the explicit basis of the "Fremen," the desert dwellers who become the source of Paul Atreides power and, when he unleashes them, the scourge of the universe.

Herbert traces the roots of Fremen culture from world to world, and makes it clear that, while the specifics of Islamic belief are never laid out, the customs and culture of these people have been Muslim all along. (One of the great sources of their seething anger against the empire is that they have been denied the right to the Haj -- the pilgrimage that Muslims make to Mecca.)

The emotional core of the novel, then, comes from a T.E. Lawrence-like character, Paul Atreides, coming to dwell with and learning to live as an Arab Muslim, until he is able to lead them to victorious battle.

Paul, being a non-Muslim, treats the idea of jihad as an abhorrent one; he long tries to resist the blood and horror of such a thing, though by the end of the book he has given up and realizes that the jihad will happen and cannot be prevented or even controlled.

So here's the thought that occurred to me during such passages of Dune: What if Osama bin Laden somehow read Dune during his formative years? Or, if he did not read it himself, certainly there were Arab Muslim students in America who did read it, and the book might well have been part of the reason they became receptive to Osama's ideas.

Because a Muslim would not read this book the same way I did. To an Arab Muslim, the Arabic words and names would leap off the page; the Fremen characters would be the ones an Arab reader would most identify with.

Such a reader would not feel any of Paul Atreides' reluctance for jihad -- on the contrary, he would be hoping Paul would fail to stop the jihad.

And when, at the end of the book, the Arab jihad is triumphant, this reader -- Osama or another of his ideology -- would not only feel great emotional satisfaction, he would have the blueprint for his own future.

Because the Fremen in Dune triumph, not just because of the force of their arms or their courage in battle, but because they control the only source of the "Spice," a substance only created in the complex desert ecology of Arrakis, the planet they control. Without Spice the starships cannot navigate, and interstellar trade would grind to a halt.

The whole economy of the interstellar empire is dependent on and therefore under the ultimate control of the Fremen. Anything the offworlders do to them will hurt the offworlders far more than it hurts the Fremen. The parallel with oil is obvious.

I can just see such a reader thinking, This isn't fiction. This is the future. This is why jihad not only can work but must work; we lack only a leader to show us the way. The novel made it a European (in culture) who comes to the poor Fremen and leads them, but this is nonsense.

To such a reader, the true founder of the victory of the Fremen is Liet Kynes, the native-born Fremen who studied offworld science and then came home and, under the noses of their colonial rulers, prepared the Fremen for jihad and victory.

Remember that Herbert wrote Dune in the 1960s, before the first oil embargo, before any Islamist government was ever formed.

Whether Dune had any causal influence on the rise of Al Qaeda, Herbert certainly did a superb job of predicting the rise and the power of such an ideology. I would be surprised if there were not, among the followers of Osama bin Laden, at least a few readers of Dune for whom this book feels like their future, their identity, their dream.

In other words, Herbert got it horribly right.

Meanwhile, it's one of the seminal novels of science fiction, and one of the most important novels in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century. It's a shame that it is only taught and discussed in classes on science fiction instead of taking its rightful place in literary studies.

It is laughable to think of some of the trivial books from the same period that are taught -- by professors who sneer at all science fiction. They still celebrate literature about the adolescent "counterculture" of the 1960s, while the fiction that was capturing the imagination of the best and brightest of that generation, and which still bears a significant relationship to the real world, is ignored.

I guess that's what the ivory tower is all about.

*

For the past two weeks, my wife and I have been talking about whether I can possibly continue writing this column. I have some major projects that I must write, and interrupting my work once a week to write this (and, far too rarely, my WorldWatch) column seems to make less and less sense.

I even decided, a few days ago, that six years of writing between 2,000 and 3,000 words a week was enough. The world -- and the city of Greensboro, and The Rhinoceros Times -- got along just fine before I started writing this column in 2001, and they would get along just as well if I stopped.

I tried on that decision for a few days and decided I couldn't live with it. I've enjoyed writing this column, have enjoyed the way it has made me feel like a part of the life of this city. I've met interesting people through correspondence after this or that review; I've seen the whole world through different eyes, knowing that everything that happens is fodder for my commentary.

I've had fun.

The fact still remains, though, that there are times when writing this column stops me from meeting a deadline that must be met. And so it finally dawned on me: What I need to get rid of is not the column itself, but my obsession with never missing a week.

Because I haven't. Uncle Orson Reviews Everything has appeared in every issue of the Rhino from the week I began. Sometimes this only happened because the kind folks at the newspaper gave me ridiculously long extensions on the deadline -- but the fact is that if, from time to time, I miss a week, the world will not end.

Nor will it hurt anybody if my column is occasionally short -- just a single brief review of something. That would only mean there'd be more room for Yost, and that's a good thing.

So instead of this being a farewell, it's just a notice that this column might be shorter sometimes, and now and then it might not even appear at all. It only means that I'm spending a little more time doing the stuff that actually pays the bills. My New York publishers will greet this news with great relief.


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