Saturday, March 03, 2007

My Two Trilogies

I read the Lord of the Rings and Dune trilogies pretty early on, around 5th or 6th grade. I blame all my problems on this early warping of my impressionable mind.

As I remember it I was introduced to both series by my Uncle Fred, who gave me his copy of The Hobbit first and the other books a year or two later, which is probably the best way to be introduced to that stuff. The cover, which was by a very prolific (and, in retrospect, annoyingly unimaginative) fantasy book cover artist named Darrell K. Sweet, was typical of Sweet’s work in that everyone has tight-fitting clothes, immaculate hair and looks like they’ve just dressed up for Ye Olde Renaissance Faire (see above).

No, now that I think about it, I remember two copies of The Hobbit floating around our house (one with a blue cover and one yellow-orange but both with that horrible cover painting of Renaissance Midget Bilbo cowering before a huge glowing eagle) so maybe it wasn’t entirely due to avuncular donation and my dad had always had one, but from what I can recall it was definitely Uncle Fred who was into Dune. I read the first four books in the series in middle school. At the time I was struck by the major differences between the form of the two series.

The Lord of the Rings books told one long, exciting story with a clear beginning and ending. The Dune books were a bit different in that the first book was a great story, then the other books were incredibly boring adventures of random descendants of the characters from the first book. I now know that this was due to the fact that LOTR was actually written as one long novel, and that the later Dune books are the way they are because the author was deliberately choosing to concentrate on analyzing future history over storytelling, but at the time I expected an LOTR-level literary unity from every trilogy or series I read, and the Dune series seemed like a mess.

My main problem with Dune in middle school could be summed up in two words: Duncan Idaho. I remember having very little interest in reading volumes and volumes on the exploits of several successive clones of the most excruciatingly boring minor character from the original book. Each of the later Dune books takes place long, long after the events of the first one, and for most of the time the only character around from the first book is a clone of this guy Duncan Idaho. Not only does he have the most boring, generically American name in history in the middle of a book where everyone has an incredibly cool name like Baron Vladimir Harkonnen or Duke Leto Atreides – I always imagined Duncan Idaho as a potato farmer – but the character is actually boring beyond belief. Since he’s usually a clone, it usually takes him the whole book to figure out what everyone else in that time period already knows. So he’s like Unfrozen Caveman Potato Farmer.

Now, of course, while I am still bored silly by Duncan Idaho and a lot of his pals, I appreciate the later Dune books a lot more. Setting the later books in the far-distant future of the original Dune’s already far-distant future allowed Frank Herbert to make a lot of interesting comments on civilization and history and, above all, the human desires for immortality and stability. By the last Dune book there are like a dozen different ways beliefs and characters from the past use to continue existing forever: religion, cloning, technology, telepathy, becoming a giant worm (as seen on another bad paperback cover from my youth, above), martial arts, and several I forget. The storytelling takes a back seat to these philosophical speculations on immortality – for example, I think the plot of the last Dune book pretty much was hundreds of pages of philosophical discussion where no one does anything, leading up to like one page of action where one of the characters uses a supersecret ancient martial arts technique to kick the evil leader in the head really, really hard.

A third book series that had an almost equal impact on me was Hitchhiker’s Guide, although like Dune it ceased to be a trilogy long ago. However, this has gone on long enough so I’ll have to give Douglas Adams his due later.

These random thoughts on two book series led to some more random thoughts on city names, which on my wife’s advice I’m spinning off into another post.

And to be honest, another trilogy which had an even bigger impact on me, from an even earlier age, was the Star Wars films. But if George Lucas can retroactively go in and ruin his movies decades later, then, hell, I can go back into my memories and retroactively wipe out all knowledge of ever having liked Star Wars. It seems only fair.

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