Category Archives: Books

He Who Controls The Spice

I just finished re-reading Dune. It’s been at least 30 years since I last read it, and I really didn’t remember much about it. I actually remembered more of the movie, even though I don’t think I ever saw the whole thing. So, during this read, I always pictured Paul as “that guy from Blue Velvet”; and I (incorrectly) remembered Sting as Baron Harkonnen’s evil advisor, Piter De Vries. In all of the scenes where Piter is plotting with the Baron, I was imagining Sting standing around in his crazy space speedo when I should have been picturing Brad Dourif (aka Grima Wormtounge).

Oh well.

The book is both better and worse than I remember. The concept, the universe, the cultures, the religious mysticism, the vastness of the details – all better than I remembered. Big points for all that.


The story moves along quickly, at first – pre-teen (?) boy figures out that he’s the chosen one; there’s an assassination, chaos, a big escape. And then it bogs down for a load of political intrigue between a huge cast of characters who don’t really amount to much in the end. Paul learns in the very first chapter that he is going to be the messiah. And once his father is dead and he’s head of the family (no regents in this kingdom), everybody else figures it out too. Without much effort, he becomes the leader, makes all the decisions, plots all the strategy – he can the future after all – and all other people are reduced to being his lieutenants or his ineffectual enemies.

It gets psychological, philosophical, and then psychedelic when he goes into the desert, takes his drugs, trips balls and sees the universe. He takes a ride on a giant worm. He’s a haughty dick to everyone. There’s a brief fight where a ruthless and corrupt imperial empire seeks to commit genocide against Paul and his space-Arab followers and is instead defeated by a sandstorm. There’s a knife fight where the ending is never in doubt. And then the book ends, unsatisfyingly (despite having 10% of the pages left unturned – huge appendices, giant glossary). Literally the last paragraph of the story is Paul’s mother telling Paul’s girlfriend that even though she’ll never be his wife, at least she’ll be his concubine! Huzzah!

Women do not fare well in the world of Dune.

But what really bugged me was the clunky and flabby writing:

He held himself poised in the awareness, seeing time stretch out in its weird dimension, delicately balanced yet whirling, narrow yet spread like a net gathering countless worlds and forces, a tightwire that he must walk, yet a teeter-totter on which he balanced.

Ummm. OK?

And even though it logically makes no sense (it’s not supposed to, I know – mystical), the flow of the words is reasonable, until that rickety “teeter-totter” shows up with its thorny cluster of T’s and whimsical playground connotations. Was ‘fulcrum’ too fancy? Was “knife-edge” too appropriate in a story where everyone carries a knife on his hip? In the weird whirling narrow world of wires to be walked, is he aware of … the teeter-totter?

And there’s the dialogue. So much exposition. So many declarative sentences. Half of the people speak in the traditional stilted Ye Olde English of fantasy books, with Arabic and pseudo-Arabic words to spice things up.

Paul glanced to one of his Fedaykin lieutenants, said: “Korba, how came they to have weapons?”

“how came they to have…” sounds like a translation of a translation.

And the thoughts. Oh my, the thoughts. Half the main characters are experts at various mystical mental disciplines which give them deep insights into – and influence over – other people. So Herbert needed a way to integrate their internal dialogue into the text. And he did it by making their inner dialogue explicit, with italics:

Otheym pressed palms together, said: “I have brought Chani.” He bowed, retreated through the hangings.

And Jessica thought: How do I tell Chani?

“How is my grandson?” Jessica asked.

So it’s to be the ritual greeting, Chani thought, and her fears returned. Where is Muad’Dib? Why isn’t he here to greet me?

“He is healthy and happy, my mother,” Chani said. “I left him with Alia in the care of Harah.”

My mother, Jessica thought. Yes, she has the right to call me that in the formal greeting. She has given me a grandson.

“I hear a gift of cloth has been sent from Coanua sietch,” Jessica said.

“It is lovely cloth,” Chani said.

“Does Alia send a message?”

Their thoughts become asides for the characters to mock-whisper to the audience. So much talking. So much talk-thinking. So much pointless pretending the author hasn’t already told us what’s going to happen.

But, still, it’s one of the most engrossing books I’ve read in a long time. Despite the clunky dialogue and the wooden characters and the unsatisfying ending, the world is so cool. The detail that Herbert put into it kept me hooked – I wanted to see more of them interacting with the desert, with the worms, with the ‘spice’.

I’m sure I read the first sequel, but I don’t remember any of it now. Maybe I should give it a try.


Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban (1980)

p.a. and Rob were quite right to mention Riddley Walker in the comments to my thing about The Wake. Riddley Walker is, almost certainly, an inspiration for The Wake. They’re both set in very small parts of post-apocalyptic England (post-nuclear war for the former, post Norman Invasion for the latter), and most importantly, they’re both written in an imagined version of English. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much. But in each book, the language used by the characters is a character itself. In each, but in Walker especially, the language tells us almost as much about the world the characters live in as the characters themselves do. It’s a much degraded version of modern English, where phrases and words that are familiar to us have been chopped and twisted and re-interpreted to connect with the mythology and politics of their time. To us, because we know their ‘original’ meanings and can piece together what they mean to the characters in the story, it looks like they’re speaking in puns, or something like Cockney rhyming slang, with double or triple meanings twisted up across centuries; to them it’s just their language.

Their religion is centered on the story of a man named “Eusa” who, according to myth, is the person who learned who to split the atom and make nuclear bombs with his “clevverness”, but who was tricked by the Devil (known there as “Mr Clevver”) into blowing up the world. Because of this, clevverness, knowledge-seeking, even interpreting events for anything beyond superficial meaning is seen as something to be wary of, something that should be done only be a select few. And so, it’s a dark age. People don’t question much, and are a bit afraid of those who do. Science doesn’t exist. There’s a bit of alchemy and a lot of animism and general superstition. The story takes place around the partially-preserved ruins of Canterbury cathedral, and so their mythology is full of misinterpretations of Christian symbolism – the atom who is split is “Addom” obvs Adam, aka the “little shyning man” (from a picture of Jesus). Eusa’s background story comes from a painting of St Eustace in the cathedral and from a scrap from a book that was found there; not knowing anything about Christianity, they make up their own stories about St Eustace and eventually turn him into a nuclear scientist and computer programmer and any other role they need him to fill. Everybody knows the Eusa stories, which are Gospel, and citing them by verse number is adequate.

Here are the first five verses of the Eusa story, in which Mr Clevver tells Eusa that he needs to figure out how to build the “1 Big 1” (nuclear weapons) to have a war to end all wars. So, Eusa learns particle physics, builds particle accelerators, learns about radioactivity in rocks, etc..

The Eusa Story
1. Wen Mr Clevver wuz Big Man uv Inland thay had evere thing clevver. Thay had boats in the ayr & picters on the win & evere thing lyk that. Eusa wuz a noing man vere qwik he cud tern his han tu enne thing. He wuz werkin for Mr Clevver wen thayr cum enemes aul roun & maykin Warr. Eusa sed tu Mr Clevver, Now wewl nead masheans uv Warr. Wewl nead boats that go on the water & boats that go in the ayr as wel & wewl nead Berstin Fyr.

2. Mr Clevver sed tu Eusa, Thayr ar tu menne agenst us this tym we mus du betteren that. We keap fytin aul thees Warrs wy doan we jus du 1 Big 1. Eusa sed, Wayr du I fyn that No.? Wayr du I fyn that 1 Big 1? Mr Clevver sed, Yu mus fyn the Littl Shynin Man the Addom he runs in the wud.

3. Eusa sed, Thayr int aul that much wud roun hear its mosly iyrn its mosly stoan. Mr Clevver sed, Yu mus fyn the wud in the hart uv the stoan & yu wil fyn it by the dansing in the stoan & thay partickler traks.

4. Eusa wuz a noing man he noet how tu bigger the smaul & he noet how tu smauler the big. He noet the doar uv the stoan & thay partickler traks. He smaulert his self down tu it he gon in tu particklers uv it. He tuk 2 grayt dogs with him thear nayms wer Folleree & Folleroo. Eusa ternt them luce he put them tu the stoan & castin for partickler traks & tu the dansing.

5. Foun the syn uv dansing on partickler traks thay dogs & follert harkin 1 tu the uther hot & clikkin & countin thay gygers & thay menne cools uv stoan. Smauler & smauler thay groan with Eusa in tu the hart uv the stoan hart uv the dans. Evere thing blippin & bleapin & movin in the shiftin uv thay Nos. Sum tyms bytin sum tyms bit.

Numbers are never spelled out and seem to have mystical power. Even referring to them is important – see “No.” verses 2 & 5.

“Sum tyms bytin sum tyms bit.” The people don’t actually know what bits and bytes are, but the words have been passed down in that bit of scripture and reinterpreted as special forms of “bite”. Likewise, the jargon of nuclear physics has remained in the language and become part of the Eusa myths, but it’s all been reinterpreted into meanings that make sense to people who don’t even know what an atom is. “countin thay gygers.” What’s a gyger? They never say, but clearly they must be important if you need to count them (with, say, a “Geiger counter”).

The story follows the main character, a rather clevver curious boy of 12, as he becomes, officially, a man and goes on a road trip through the region, walking of course, trying to figure out the world and its riddles, and trying to learn what he’s going to do with his life. He meets people, has adventures, learns about things, etc.. The story is fine. But to me, the language, the myths and the settings – the world-building – are the most interesting parts of the book. I just love a good fleshed-out world.

Highly recommended. Though, it’s not an easy read.

I got mine on Kindle. But you can read it for free, here.


The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth.
Set in the years during and immediately following the Norman invasion of England, this tells the story of a man called Buccmaster, a middle class (for the time) English landowner who, like almost everybody, loses his family and home and way of life to the French invaders. So he goes about seeking revenge. He leaves his burned home and goes into the forest, teams up with other refugees and wannabe-revolutionaries, with the intention of becoming ‘grene men’ – forest marauders, something like a Robin Hood gang. He wants to drive out the French, which is a popular goal. But he also wants to drive out Christianity and bring back the old English gods along with a mythical English-ness he thinks was being lost even before the French arrived. So, he has his work cut out for him. But, he’s an angry man, and paranoid, frankly not too smart, and far more ambitious than effective; and all this leaves him constantly foiled and frustrated, generally by his own hand. And while he’s doing all that, he’s slowly being overwhelmed by what he thinks is the angry spirit of the blacksmith who made the sword he inherited from his grandfather.

This is historical fiction, so all of Buccmaster’s travels and troubles are set among the actual events of the time. Which means I learned more about the Norman invasion from this book than I ever did in school. And, to really set the sense of place, the book is written in what the author calls a “shadow language”. It’s a blend of Old English words, or pseudo-OE words, sortof- O.E. spellings, no capital letters and the barest of punctuation (only occasional periods). But it’s fit into something like a modern English syntax to make it readable. So, it looks like this:

when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness.

There are no French-based words, and very few Latin-based words, since English didn’t get those until after the Norman invasion.

It felt daunting for a page or two. But the style quickly becomes familiar. The meanings of most of the words can be gleaned from context – and there’s also a small glossary in the back. The only word there that might really trip you up is ‘gleoman’ (a traveling teller of stories and bringer of news). But all the rest can be puzzled-out. Reading it phonetically in an exaggerated Scottish accent helps.

And this language makes Buccmaster’s world feel very alien – as it is. This is set in the 11th century, after all, a time when life in England bore very little resemblance to any place in the world today. It was a tough life, but much more connected to the land and the wild than anyone reading this will ever be, and the language reflects that – it’s simple, direct, coarse, not a lot of abstractions. But Buccmaster feels the connection to the land slipping away as the English language changes, as languages do:

i seen that the names of the focs of angland was part of anglisc ground lic the treow and rocc the fenn and hyll and i seen that when… their place was tacan by names what has not growan from that ground is not of it… then sum thing deop and eald had been made wrong. and though folcs wolde forget cwic the eald gods and the eald places the eald trees and the eald hills these things wolde not forget what had been broc.

There’s a sense throughout that the author might be longing for a more English England, too: as if the story was an allegory for today’s England. But that idea gets pretty dark pretty quick (driving out the foreigners, returning to homogeneity, to the old ways and religions), so I tried not to linger there.

The language used in the book, though invented, is fascinating. The history is interesting. The settings and culture are fascinating. The story felt a bit unsatisfying, though. But I suppose that couldn’t be helped unless the author was willing to completely abandon history; we know Buccmaster can’t win his ultimate quest because we all know that the eald Anglo-Saxon gods didn’t return and that the French controlled England for centuries after the invasion. Still, I loved the journey.


  1. The Martian – Andy Weir. An astronaut gets stranded on Mars, left for dead. He’s not dead, but he’s alone and there’s no way off. So, he improvises a life from the stuff that was left behind, and tries to find a way back to Earth. There’s a ton of MacGuyver-esque bailing-wire and bubble-gum inventions, a whole lot of luck, and a bit of Earth-side politics. Fun. Four raquos: » » » ».
  2. The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt. One day, a boy sees a girl, loses his mother and steals a priceless painting. Then he spends the rest of the next 20 years trying to deal with those issues – mostly by making terrible decisions. It’s interesting, and very well written. The plot slows at times, and I found myself thinking the main character was an total asshole more than once – the combination thereof made me want to put it down a couple of times. But I persevered. Three laquos: « « «.
  3. California Bones – Greg van Eekhout . Instead of movie magic, this California’s economy is driven by the magic that comes from eating the bones of magical creatures. And our magical hero and his gang of magical friends work to defeat the evil ruler lest they become the next meal. It’s a big bold premise, and the story is a lot of fun. Four raquos: » » » ».
  4. Understories – Tim Horvath. A collection of short stories which alternate between absurdism and boring old reality. I really liked the first third, then it started to drag and I had to put it down. I’ve picked it back up, now that CA Bones is done, though. Three laquos: « « «.


Melancholy and the Infinite Jest

I’m about 250 pages into Infinite Jest and am fairly shocked at how the long, infinitely detailed sections on drug abuse, pharmacology, mental illness and suicide have all become so much more poignant, and seem so obviously to be the result of experience, after Wallace’s suicide. The book is much sadder now, though maybe unintentionally, than it was when I first read it, many years ago.

Oddly, a similar thing has not happened with Elliott Smith’s music.