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

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

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.

Sunday Nibble #74: Dune, again

Almost a year ago, I did a Sunday nibble post expressing my excitement over the upcoming film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which they are wisely doing in two parts so they can properly cover the scope of the book. It was originally going to come out at the end of 2020, but due to the ongoing COVID situation, it was pushed back, now scheduled for October 22, 2021.

They have released another trailer, though, and the more I see, the more it looks like the filmmakers nailed it. Have a look for yourself. You’ll want to see this in full-screen and HD.

If you’re a fan of the Dune books, or even just either of the two prior adaptations in film and TV, then I hope you’re as excited as I am. If you’re not familiar, then grab a copy of Dune now — you can probably find tons of copies at any used bookstore — and start reading. It won’t ruin your experience of the film, but it will introduce you to the Herbert’s world.

Sunday Nibble #72: Keep it varied!

One of the big fails of modern science fiction films comes down to world-building — literally. It’s pretty much this: For whatever reason, most planets wind up with a one-world biome.

It’s a desert planet, or a snow planet, or a forest planet, or a volcano planet, and that’s it.

Now, I can see how our own solar system might have propagated this idea because, well, honestly, other than the Earth and Mars, look at Mercury, Venus, Neptune, and Uranus, and they really do seem to be mostly the same globally.

Mercury is a rock — but if you compare the temperature on the side that always faces the Sun and the side that does not, you’ll find a ridiculous extreme because it has both the hottest and coldest places in our solar system if you don’t count the atmosphere of the Sun itself.

So scratch Mercury off the list, because it has climate extremes as well. And if it had any kind of atmosphere (which it can’t), it would have incredibly violent storms along its terminator, which in this case would be a line circling its poles, with total sunshine on one side and total dark on the other.

Meanwhile… Venus is a hellhole with no variation, so it totally fits the science fiction planet stereotype. Way to go Venus!

Earth… I’ll get back to us in a minute.

Mars… it may look like it’s just a little off-orange dust-ball with easily revealed gray streaks, but that’s not really true. While it doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere to speak of, it does actually have seasons, and the climate, such as it is, in the polar zones and at the equator do vary.

Let’s jump over Jupiter and Saturn and take a look at Neptune and Uranus.

These last two are, in fact, the epitome of mono-biome worlds, as far as we can tell. They are just spinning globes of liquid methane and ammonia at really low temperatures, they lack surface features, and are pretty reminiscent of a planet like Giedi Prime from Dune, which was basically made of fossil fuels.

The only fail in those books was the idea that the planet could actually be habitable by any kind of hominid life-form. Nope. It would have been, at best, the equivalent of a distant oil field, exploited by pipeline or robot rigging crew, with the actual product shipped to a real home world to be exploited.

The real action on varied biomes this far out in our solar system probably comes among the many moons, of which Uranus and Neptune have a lot, and Saturn and Jupiter have many more — but let us get back to the king of planets, and the father of the king, by whom he was eaten.

Look it up, people.

While both places may look like they are just whirling balls of gas as well, one glance at them tells us that no, they are not. And while you have to go really far down in hopes of finding any kind of solid surface, a look at the top of their atmospheres says, “Wow. They have climates.”

And boy, do they.

Jupiter is famous for its storms, the most well-known of which is the Great Red Spot, which is pretty much a hurricane just south of the equator that has spun in roughly the same place for centuries. There are indications that it’s finally breaking up, but others are forming in a storm train that’s familiar to any Earthling who watches news of our own Atlantic hurricanes.

Jupiter’s storms are just bigger, nastier, and they last (figuratively) forever. Meanwhile, the dynamics of the rest of the atmosphere are incredible, with visible bands of clouds and gases violently interacting in a dance of fluid dynamics driven by the incredibly rapid revolution of the planet.

Jupiter’s circumference is roughly eleven times the Earth’s, but one revolution on Jupiter, aka one day, takes only 9 hours and 56 minutes. Meanwhile, one revolution on Earth takes 24 hours and 15 minutes.

The net result is that the velocity of any point on the Earth’s equator around its axis at around sea level is 1,307 mph (1,669 kph). At the top of Jupiter’s atmosphere, it’s 27,478 mph (44,222 kph), which is 26.5 times faster.

So storms are much more intense, winds are faster, and atmospheric friction makes it pretty hot along the Jovian equator.

It’s probably not that much different on Saturn, with the composition of gases in the atmosphere changing by latitude — and that’s exactly what happens on Earth, for different reasons.

Back to the biome. Earth in particular is defined by its climate zones, which were mapped and named by humans centuries ago.

The defining two lines are the equator, at 0° latitude, and the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5°N and the Tropic of Capricorn 23.44°S. What they basically define are the zones in which the Sun does its maximal and minimal height at noon thing as the seasons pass.

They’re named for the astrological signs that marked the passing of the solstice — traditionally, the Sun enters Cancer on June 21, which is more or less the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Sun enters Capricorn around about December 22, which is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Swap results and seasons if you swap hemispheres.

Anything north or south of these Tropics (which basically means “cut-off”) up until the corresponding polar circle is considered a temperate zone. Well, was, until climate changed started to fuck it up.

As for the polar zones, these are the areas that either receive sunlight nearly 24/7 during summer or darkness nearly 24/7 during winter.

So this is why we have ice caps (sort of still) near the poles, pleasant weather for a zone between that and hot (until recently) and then a pretty warm climate spanning the equator in a pretty equal band.

Traditionally, that would give us snow, permafrost, deciduous forest, Mediterranean climate, rainforest, desert, then repeat in the other direction. Different climates depend upon where you are on the planet. So does the atmospheric composition, with some zones having more moisture and some less.

And yes, that’s all changing, but let’s get back to the point.

Where a lot of Science Fiction world-building has fallen down is in actually forgetting the lessons of our solar system, which are these. Which planets are naturally uninhabited and which ones aren’t?

Welp, Earth comes to mind as inhabited, with Mars a good candidate as former life host, along with various moons of Jupiter and Saturn as current hosts. The common thread, though, is that we’ve only found life on the planets with varied biomes — mainly, Earth.

And yet, science fiction planet designers insist on thinking that they can create planets that are all one thing — an ice world, a rain-forest planet, a volcanic world, a total desert, a salt flat with iron oxide deposits under it, a swamp world… whatever.

Here’s the problem: None of those mono-biome worlds are ever going to naturally support life. They might manage it with a lot of heavy infrastructure dropped onto them, but otherwise not. But for the ones that do happen to have varied biomes, seasons, maybe even a big moon to create tides, the sky is the limit.

And, to science fiction writers, if you want to create an inhabited planet, make damn sure that climate and terrain do change based on latitude, axial tilt, orbital period, and other realistic things. Otherwise, nobody is going to able to live on the “one terrain, one climate” space ball you’ve created.

To take just three examples, if you have a snowball world like Hoth, an ocean planet like Kamino, or a desert world like Tatooine, you’re going to have a damn hard time providing food and water for your inhabitants.

I’ll assume that, since most of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe we see are humanoid, that we’d need to support an Earth-like atmosphere and agriculture, and other typically human needs.

The obvious workaround, of course, is that these single biome worlds are stand-ins for similar places on Earth.

For example, Hoth is not really inhabited by any kind of advanced civilization, just the local beasties — mainly tauntuans and whatever it was that lost an arm to Luke. It’s only an outpost, and is most like an analogue of the few bases that humans have in Antarctica.

Kamino, the ocean planet, likewise doesn’t really have any civilization, just the resident Kaminoans who are cloners, and who are involved in a very secret project most likely commissioned by a Sith Lord. Think of them like oil platforms in any distant place, like the North Sea, or very remote oceanic research stations.

And then we come to Tatooine, which seems to have a thriving culture despite being a desert planet of the sandy variety. But, again, this one has an analogue on Earth and in the Star Wars universe and Tatooine itself was actually filmed not all that far from its terrestrial counterpart.

See, Tatooine is the Middle East, which provided a gateway and marketplace between Asian traders from the East and European traders from the West.

All this is well and good if you’re being symbolic, but if you want to write real science fiction, then make your civilized planets as complicated and varied as Earth.

Oh yeah — the one other thing that seems to happen a lot in science fiction films: Every inhabitant of a particular planet apparently has the same language, belief system, culture, and general appearance. There are exceptions (that are not accounted for by aliens) but they are far and few between.

You could try to write that off to the idea that a planet’s cultures cannot migrate into space until they become one, but I’d argue that we seem to be doing just fine right now while sending up astronauts and missions from multiple nations, and we even seem to have just reached the Christopher Columbus phase 52 years to the day after the first humans walked on the Moon.

That would be the “letting rich assholes go up there” phase, by the way.

Also, if it seems like I’m picking on Star Wars in particular in this piece, I’m not. It’s just that I’m slightly more into that fandom (slightly) than the other two I’ll call out now: Star Trek and Dune.

They all tell fantastic stories. And when it comes to terms of defining them as hardest to softest in terms of the science in the fiction, then the order is this: Star Trek — they at least try to come up with physical rules for shit; Dune — they at least come up with biological, genetic, and psychological rules for shit, but really, really cheat it with what mélange can do; and Star Wars —100% fantasy, but that’s okay.

Or, in other words, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Star Wars makes the mono biome mistake constantly. It should be really annoying that Star Trek and, to a certain extent, Dune both do.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to the upcoming Dune movie, which will just be the first half of the book. I am. It looks very, very good, whether it takes place on a totally desert planet or not.

Sunday Nibble #34: Dune

As a kid, I read all of Frank Herbert’s Dune books but, caveat, only the ones he actually wrote, and not all of the add-on attempted canon that came later. I was also a huge, huge fan of the much reviled David Lynch film adaptation — his version, not the bastardized Alan Smithee cut — which is nowhere near as awful as a lot of idiots have made it out to be.

Although, looking at the trailer now, is just a reminder of how, well… cheesy a lot of movie-making and movie marketing was back at that time — not to mention how awful a lot of the special effects look now. But do you remember those days when trailers had narrators that had to explain absolutely everything? Pepperidge Farms remembers.

Still, I have to admit a major fondness for the Syfy Channel’s 2000 and 2003 adaptations of the first three books which, in a lot of ways, went way beyond the Lynch version in scope and depth, although at the same time went with a much more low-budget, mostly unknown cast — which gets really ironic in 2003’s Children of Dune, because this was pretty much America’s intro to James McAvoy who, well, needs no introduction.

And now, there’s a new film adaptation coming out, and it looks like maybe they’re doing it right by only biting off half of the first book now, the second to come later — and the casting is beyond amazing.

Bonus points to them for using a Pink Floyd song in this trailer, which is a huge nod to the aborted attempt to adapt the book way back in the late 60s by Alejandro Jodorowsky, with such mind-blowing ideas as the Emperor being played by Salvador Dali, Feyd-Rautha portrayed by Mick Jagger, and the director’s own son as Paul Atreides.

Soundtrack: Pink Floyd. It’s hard to imagine what would have come out of that collaboration, but it never happened.

As for the source material itself, a good friend of mine always describes Dune as “Lawrence of Arabia on Acid,” which seems pretty accurate to me. Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet this go-round) is the son and heir-apparent to a noble House that is given the task of subjugating the planet Arrakis, source of the spice melange. This substance has both religious and secular uses.

It allows Guild Navigators, star pilots mutated by OD-ing on spice, to actually see and plot routes between star systems and making the hyper-jumps entirely with their minds in a process described as “traveling without moving.”

This is what gives spice its true value, because it literally powers all space travel and commerce in the known universe. And it only comes from one planet. Arrakis.

Spice is sacred to both the natives of Arrakis and the religious order of Bene Gesserit, who have been mucking about behind the scenes trying to selectively breed the person who will become the Messiah to the people of Arrakis, thereby giving them indirect control of the planet and the spice.

The big bads of the original book are the House Harkonnen, sent to do the emperor’s dirty work, and House Corrino, to which belongs the Padishah Emperor himself, Shaddam IV.

And if all of this competing houses business absolutely reeks of Game of Thrones, just remember that Frank Herbert came up with his version sometime before 1965.

Interestingly enough, it looks like we don’t get to the Emperor in the first movie this time around, which is probably a good thing.

My only disappointment with the impending project is that there really is enough Dune material to have done it as a very extended streaming series. On the other hand, it’s the kind of the thing that really needs the same kind of big screen that was necessary to tell the story of Lawrence of Arabia.

Of course, there’s always the ideal universe, where director Denis Villeneuve pulls this off and nails the sequel, and then the Dune saga becomes the next (and very grown-up) version of the Potterverse Franchise, which has pretty much lost all of its shine for me.

But there’s plenty of material. The original Dune series comprises six books, one short of Potter: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse Dune. And god (emperor) knows, Herbert’s son went all Christopher Tolkien on his dad’s IP and spun it out into a ton of further books to rival the ridiculousness in scope of today’s Star Wars extended universe.

Perhaps I’m fanboying too much, but this trailer really does have my hopes up that there will be at least one bright spot coming at the end of 2021. I’m hoping for two, and anyone who’s been paying attention can probably guess what the other one is.