Friday Free-for-All #81: Book, building, old-fashioned

Major influences, both SciFi and not, including Anthony, Herbert, Asimov, and more.

Friday Free for All

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments. Here are the two questions I had leftover from last week, plus one more.Dune

What is the best book or series you’ve ever read?

I’ve read a few, and it depends upon when you ask me, but I’ll give a few, ranked. I’ve always been into science fiction and history, but with a 50/50 on success.

The first series is Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality, which starts out with a really strong premise: in its universe, set in a world very much like ours, magic is real, and various supernatural entities are actually just offices that humans hold temporarily. The whole thing kicks off with a suicidal human inadvertently taking on the role of Death when the Grim Reaper arrives to collect just as he’s about to shoot himself, but the man panics, shoots Death instead and just happens to make a lucky shot in a spot where Death’s magical cloak does not protect him.

The incarnations are Death, Time, Fate, War, Nature, Evil, Good, and Night, but I think I only made it through about half of book four, Nature (Being a Green Mother) because things had gotten kind of silly by that point.

This is a recurring problem with Anthony, actually, as I learned when I did make it through all of the original books in his Bio of a Space Tyrant, although I never got around to the 2001 6th book that came 15 years after the end of the original series. Again, it was an interesting story that set up the planets of the solar system as analogues to countries on Earth, with Jupiter standing in for the U.S., of course.

The hero, named Hope Hubris (yeah, not heavy handed at all) is a refuge from one of Jupiter’s moons, Callisto, which is clearly a stand-in for Latin America. Over the course of the books, Hubris has to deal with a very Nixon-Like villain named Tocsin (there’s that lack of subtlety again) and is eventually basically declared Dictator by the Congress of Jupiter.

It plays out as a political metaphor but, again, suffers Anthony’s usual problems of being way too obvious and cutesy with character names, and adding up to much less than the sum of its parts.

Yes, I’ve read all of Asimov’s Foundation series, the original trilogy and all the sequels included, and while I found them to be a fun story full of intriguing big picture ideas, Asimov tends to put the ideas ahead of the characters.

Ironically, the most memorable and compelling character in the entire thing is the presumable villain of the original trilogy, The Mule — but he is actually the most sympathetic character of them all. Ironically, this may have been Asimov’s entire intent, in which case it works brilliantly, except that in retrospect, the real building of the character of The Mule relies on the readers catching empathy and creating him in their head.

Moving away from SciFi, a series of books I got into in probably early middle school was John Jakes’ The Bastard Series, aka The Kent Family Chronicles, which I discovered thanks to used book stores and used book sales where, thanks to the outrageous success of all of the novels in their original run, there were always copies available. This made John Jakes the first author to ever have three titles on the New York Times bestseller list in a single year.

What I loved about it was that it told the story of one immigrant from France, pre-American revolution, and his descendants into the 20th century, and did so in great detail. Each book in the series pretty much followed one generation and took us through U.S. history at the same time. Unfortunately, Jakes stopped with the 8th volume which, IIRC, only brought us up until the late 20s or early 30s, with the latest Kent family heir becoming a stand-in for Huey Long, suffering the same fate.

Enough of the runners-up, though. The winner, for me, is Frank Herbert’s Dune series — and note that I only include the six books that Herbert himself wrote before his death in 1986. All of the other crap that came after is as useless as all of the attempted Star Wars extended universe that is no longer canon, or anything Dr. Who that did not appear on the TV show or its spin-offs.

Sorry, Big Finish, I’m looking at you. Do all the radio shows you want to do, but they will never be canon.

So, to me, what makes the Dune series succeed where the others don’t quite make it? Mainly it was because Herbert had to first build a world totally alien to ours and not obviously based in ours, and he also filled this world with religion, politics, and feuding royal houses.

It also didn’t hurt that it all started out as a teen-boy coming of age story, so I first read it at exactly the right time, meaning that I totally identified with Paul Atreides — yes, yet another “chosen one” in YA fiction, what a surprise. That’s the whole point of YA fiction in the first place.

Although I don’t think that Herbert was writing YA, especially because the concept didn’t even exist in 1965, when the first novel came out. Remember, at that time, our teens were being sold nothing but Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and other safe drivel like that.

If anything, Dune began as a piece of counter-culture literature, and a friend of mine has always described the first book as “Lawrence of Arabia on acid,” which is not at all inaccurate.

After all, the key struggle in the book is over control of an organic substance that can only be found on one planet, but which is sacred to one particular foreign religious order (the Bene Gesserit), also very important in the rituals of the natives of the planet it comes from, but also necessary to allow the guild navigators to trip balls and navigate their heighliners (the cargo ships of the series) by “traveling without moving,” something that, as Herbert made clear, freaked the hell out of the Bene Gesserit because, as he explained in narrator mode, women could not grasp the concept.

I think he resolved this misogyny by the last book, but certainly put it on high display in book number four, Heretics of Dune. He wrapped the whole series up in book number six, Chapterhouse: Dune, which the same friend of mine dubbed, not wrongly, “Jews in space.”

No, seriously, read it. That is not at all inaccurate.

But getting back to that counterculture thing… I don’t think that the drug in question was LSD. Rather, it was probably either ayahuasca or psilocybin, both of which are naturally occurring plants prized by several different indigenous cultures, and frequently used for religious purposes.

On top of that, they also have the ability to alter perceptions of space and time. Marijuana would be a distant third in this race, but it’s nowhere near as powerful, and is really only a sacrament to Rastafarians, who didn’t exist until the 20th century.

Still… it was this kind of detailed world-building with complex and interesting characters, plus an epic story that covered millennia that sucked me into Dune world and only let me go once Herbert died and stopped creating original content.

So Dune is the winner, and I absolutely cannot wait until the newest film adaptation comes out. SQUEEEE!

What’s the most interesting building you’ve ever seen or been in?

Oh, look. Back to science fiction, and the best part is that I actually wound up at this place for the first time totally by accident. The location: The Bradbury Building, in Downtown L.A. (DTLA).

I only found it because I went to Grand Central Market on one of my random pre-COVID Metro rides, wandered through looking for lunch but found nothing interesting, then came out on the other side only to realize that I was standing across the street from this landmark — and how could I not go over and visit.

In case you’re not sure why — The Bradbury was one of the major locations in the film Bladerunner. It was where the character Sebastian lived, and where Deckard and Beatty had their final showdown.

Of course, in the movie, the building looked like it was really, really tall while, in real life, it’s only five stories. But the other impressive bit is this: At the time that Bladerunner was shot in the late 70s/early 80s, that whole part of DTLA was neglected, so that the producers didn’t have to do a whole lot to the Bradbury to make it look like an abandoned mess.

Ironically, the film itself saved the building by turning it into an icon.

And so, on that day when I walked out of Grand Central Market and realized where I was, I had to make the holy pilgrimage across the street and into the shrine, and it was incredible. Everything had been restored to high luster, with the wrought iron elevator cages rising from the first floor to the fifth, and the staircases also intact.

Although it’s now a working office building, so that visitors are only allowed to go up to the first landing of the grand staircase at the end of the lobby, that was enough. I got to stand there and think of Bladerunner, and how instrumental this holy place was in its making, and that was enough.

Although I guess that this actually takes the place a few steps beyond “interesting” for me.

What’s something you like to do the old-fashioned way?

While I tend to adopt the new ways for everything — and my brain breaks when I see people my own age who are technologically ignorant — the one thing I will always do the “old” way is voting, although the only real definition of “old way” that is still valid in California is “in person.”

I’ve voted ever since I first could when I was eighteen, and I’ve only ever missed one election, which was an off-year, single item and city-only election in either April or May, and the only reason I missed it was because I don’t think I ever got the ballot, etc. on it.

But, otherwise, every other election day in my life, I’ve dressed nice, gotten my ass to the polling place with advance enough time to still make it to work, and done my ballot in person.

Well, until the last two elections, sort of, with the big exceptions being that these are the only two times I’ve actually voted before election day because they’re the only two elections I could have. And that’s totally fine with me.

And I totally love California’s new in-person voting system, which is pretty much like a self-checkout lane (hate those!) in a supermarket.

Scan your sample ballot or QR code, insert big blank thing, make your choices on-screen, print out marked ballot on formerly blank big thing, see it in person to make sure it’s right, then shove it back into the slot to go into the lockbox and get counted.

Oh yeah — at the same time, you can track the progress of your sample ballot and eventual vote via an app that will inform you all along the way.

Is any of that old-fashioned? Honestly, fuck no, and if I were to be honest, there’s nothing I do in the old-fashioned way because that just makes me wonder, “Who the hell would choose to live in this past when our future is far more interesting?”

Sadly… way too many people my age, apparently. Well, fuck them. I’m only willing to be as “old-fashioned” as whatever was possibly six months ago before the latest updates.

Otherwise, all y’all need to either catch up or just get out of the damn way.

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