Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (6) Did Herbert write the ending first?

In my introduction (see below), I speculated that Frank Herbert wrote the end of the book first (about the last 10%). Then he wrote the beginning. Then, after a lot of research and invention, he wrote the rest. I am basing my guesses on two indicators:

(A) Writing style. There are some quirks in the beginning and the end that you will rarely find in the middle. My favorite of these is the way characters move. They are forever “crossing” to each other, as in: Paul crossed to Jessica.

Crossing” is a common stage-play direction, but I think it appears rarely in novels because it is undescriptive. Did Paul walk fast or slow? Did he slouch? Was he eager? Actors and directors can figure that sort of thing out, but readers want to know. In the middle of the book, characters “cross” less often.

(B) Character: If you read Herbert’s other writing, you will marvel at his rich invention of Sci-Fi technology and how he uses it to create stories. But you will notice how rarely his characters come to life. We are lucky that Herbert did better when he wrote Dune. However, it is quite noticeable that the characters in the final scenes have hardly any presence at all. Paul Muad’Dib might be forgiven for becoming a force of nature instead of a person, but it is still striking that at the end, he is all bombast. Baron Harkonnen has no character in his last scene. Feyd Rautha is even more of a stereotype. Thufir Hawat and Jessica are cardboard.

I think that Herbert developed his characters over time, after he wrote the end of the novel.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (5) Here’s a surprise: the thrilling parts are static.

New Zealand has apparently passed a law that outlaws software patents. The legislators believe that blocking software patents will encourage innovation. I agree with them, even though I was part of a team that tried, in 1969 and 1970, to acquire a number of software patents. Hoorray!

So, back to Dune. In this novel, the planet Arrakis is, all by itself, a mystery. Herbert drops hints that it’s important to understand all about the Melange spice, and we have to wait and wait while he gradually fills in the roles of the Maker and the little Makers. It’s exciting, and Herbert makes the excitement work, but note: he this creates excitement by revealing the details slowly.

Herbert does much the same with the political intrigues that delight us in this novel. He lays out much of the push and pull between the major players, and then he gradually reveals more stresses and strains among them. There may be plots-within-plots, but these plots remain static.

There are some exciting action sequences, but they do little to change the balance of the intrigues. We know that Doctor Yueh will commit treason. We know that the Fremens will fight better than the Harkonnen troops.

There are intrigues that are full of action. Almost all of these deal with Baron Harkonnnen: his handling of the Sardaukar; Instructions to Feyd Rautha, Rautha’s treachery, etc.

When I first read the novel, all of these scenes were exciting. But during the re-read, I knew how trivial and unimportant to the main plot they were. The baron’s machinations generally annoyed me. He got away with his lies too easily, and a lot of what he did just didn’t matter.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (4) The Audio Book: (Oy)

The audio book of Dune utilizes what should have been a great conceit: actors speak the parts of the main characters! Except that often, they don’t. Much of the book is narrated by one man, Scott Vance. Vance has to use his own acting skills to conjure up voices for the principal characters, and I suspect he was not given access to the other actor’s voices. His own imagination differs far too much from the actors we hear. The worst casualty is Paul. He is played by a fine actor with a teen-aged voice, but Vance speaks Paul's lines pompously in a middle-aged voice. The Baron Harkonnen is another casualty, acted in a rich, African-American voice that seems poles apart from the way Vance speaks Harkonnen’s lines.

Vance is British, and he narrates Herbert’s prose with an inappropriate British accent. None of the actors use the same accent. The contrast is vile.

One of Frank Herbert’s stylistic quirks might have remained hidden if Scott Vance did not unearth it: Herbert has unintentionally written a few weak, Shakespearean sentences, similar to this (a made-up example): We must resolve to change the awful thing. Vance makes such sentences sound like they belong in Shakespeare's plays.

The audio book did correct a mistake in my own pronunciation. I thought to pronounce Muad’Dib as: MOO-ahd Dib. Apparently, the author intended: m’WAD Deeb. All the actors pronounced the word that way.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (3) Riding those Worms:

The Fremen’s ability to ride the monstrous worms of Arrakis is one of the great conceits of the novel Dune. Just imagine: the rider stands still in the desert, while a “thumper” draws the worm to roar past him. At the key moment, the rider uses hooks to grab the passing worm and jumps aboard. (Herbert even explains how the rider can steer a worm.) The image of boarding a great worm spurs the imagination, and Paul’s first ride on a worm is one of the great scenes in the book. I read the entire novel back in 1965 without realizing how impossible it would be to board a moving worm.

Frank Herbert was especially good at imagining sci-fi technology, so I believe that he understood what I am about to explain to you. The novel is quite coy about how fast the great worms moved.

Internal evidence in the book suggests that the worms traveled 50 to 100 miles per hour. A lookout flying in the air warns spice miners when worm-sign is seen, and the workers have just minutes to clear out before that worm attacks them. Therefore, worms must be able to close in on workers from six to ten miles away, in minutes.

A journey from the northern to southern hemisphere of Arrakis is a “ten worm” journey. Arrakis must be similar in size to the earth, because its gravity is similar. A worm can be worn out in a few hours by a skilled rider. Obviously, these worms have to move very fast when they traverse the hemispheres.

Stilgar warns Paul not to stand too close to the worm before boarding it, because the sand spray kicked up by the fast-moving worm is dangerous.

Now imagine yourself catching a ride on a car that drives past you at 50 mph. (Do not try this at home!) If your arms aren’t yanked off, your body will be mangled. You might hook a car and jump on top of it, if it was moving less than ten mph. The Fremen could not possibly hook a ride on those fast worms.

By the way, there’s a website devoted to photos of baby animals. It's devoted to a serious cause, and it is impossibly cute.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (2) Imagining the Future:

Science fiction writers take a great risk when they imagine any sort of future: the passage of time may make their overall view seem risible. Sci-Fi movies are especially risky. The audience that sees a movie forty years later will note at once the clunky, old-fashioned technologies that populate future-tech. For example, imagine a world with booths that can transmit people to other planets, space flight, laser pistols, and clunky, 1950s-style telephones.

Frank Herbert is particularly good at imagining his future. In his history of Dune, the “Butlerian Jihad” decreed that no machines would be made in the image of a human mind. By decreeing a future without computers, Herbert freed himself from having to imagine how computers could transform the future. And, in my opinion, he is on solid sci-fi ground when he imagines new technologies in his universe. I will provide you with two very minor “clunkers” to illustrate this point:

(A) Saguaro cactuses grow on the deserts of Arrakis. I believe that in 1965, Herbert was unlikely to know that Saguaro cannot grow without the protection of “nurse trees”, such as mesquite. Saguaro grows up under the protection of a nurse tree, eventually killing it as the cactus grows tall. Nurse trees - decidous, needing more moisture - probably could not grow on Arrakis, and Herbert does not mention anything like them. Therefore, Saguaro could not grow on Arrakis.

(B) The people in Dune wear wristwatches that appear to do nothing but tell time. More amazing, they need to be set by hand to the local time zone!


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (1) An Introduction

Frank Herbert published his wonderful Science Fiction novel, Dune, in 1965. At that time, Ecology – central to the plot of this novel – was a new field, unknown to most people. I picked up the first edition at my local ibrary. The book was big. It started with a long glossary. (Yes! The glossary came first, for good reasons.) I needed just a page or two to realize I was beginning a fine, original, inventive adventure.

I later read a lot more Frank Herbert. He was wonderfully inventive, one remarkable sci-fi idea after another. But his characters had no life. We readers were fortunate that for once, in Dune, Frank Herbert created memorable characters, a whole bunch of them.

Dune influenced my thinking a lot, more than I realized until now. In particular, I remembered the thrilling, gradual revelation of the ecology of Dune, and how understanding that ecology enabled Paul Muad’Dib to win his war. And I remembered the thrilling intrigue, plots-within-plots, that drove this novel.

Has Dune stood up to the passage of time? I recently decided to revisit this novel, and I listened to the Audio book. Frank Herbert’s writing technique is barely serviceable, but the novel did not let me down; although near the end, I kept telling the narrator to “get on with it.” But the passage of time has revealed many quibbles, which I shall share with you in the next few days. For starters, here’s a teaser: I can never be sure, but I believe Herbert wrote the end of the book first (about the last 10%). Then he wrote the beginning. Then, after a lot of research and invention, he wrote the rest, making minor edits to what he had already written, to achieve a seamless whole.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

re: Talisman Prologue HD: I hated trying to register for the forums.

I have been enjoying Talisman Prologue on my iPod 5.  I had one or two suggestions for the developer, so I tried to register at the Talisman forums. I couldn't! One of their tests, to make sure I am not a computer, is to ask me for the name of the Talisman software developer.  It's not clear whether they want the name of a person, or the name of one of several companies associated with the game. I did not know the developer's name, but I did consult several computers (that is, websites) to find out. These seemed not to know, either.

I wasted MUCH TOO MUCH time trying to answer this question. Each time I failed, I had to type in my (long) password twice, again and again, because the registration form erased those fields. I wonder how many people have been able to register at all.

So I give up. I will never register there, I guess. Talisman people, can you hear me? Make the registration process a little bit easier. And here is my primary suggestion, which would improve even the prologue game:

Implement the SAVE function. Talisman is a long, leisurely game. It is a lot of fun, but NOT when I have to start over every time I stop to check out my email, or to check out anything else, in fact.

I know that the full game will have a save function when it is ready for the iPad. Please add the save function to the Prologue version, NOW.