A cult classic stands the test of time.Aug 3, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 44 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
In 1956, Doubleday published The Dragon in the Sea, the first novel by a California newspaperman named Frank Herbert. Even now, the book seems a little hard to pin down. It was, for the most part, a Cold War thriller about the race to harvest offshore oil—except crammed inside the thriller was a near-future science-fiction tale of fantastic technology. And crammed inside the science fiction was a psychological study of naval officers crammed inside submarines.
The Dragon in the Sea received some nice reviews. Anthony Boucher praised it in Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the New York Times compared it to sea-going works by C.S. Forester and Herman Wouk. But readers found the novel confusing, and it didn’t sell particularly well, leaving the 36-year-old Herbert uncertain where to turn next. So he accepted a commission to write something called “They Stopped the Moving Sands.”
However much that sounds like a 1950s sci-fi title, the commission was actually for a non-fiction magazine article about Oregon’s sand dunes and the Department of Agriculture’s attempt to halt their drift by planting them with poverty grasses. The dunes were amazing, Herbert explained in a 1957 letter to his agent: In their undulations, they could “swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways.” He was piling up notes for the article at a furious pace. So many notes, in fact, that he never finished “They Stopped the Moving Sands.”
Instead, he emerged five years later with a 500-page story called Dune, serialized in 1963 by Analog magazine and published in 1965 as a book by Chilton—best known for its car-repair manuals—after more than 20 other publishers had refused it.
What’s left to say now about Dune, exactly 50 years later? It was a monstrous doorstopper of a book, in the days when sci-fi novels were often short enough that Ace could publish two of them, upside-down to each other, in a single thin volume. With Dune, Frank Herbert (1920-1986) made the breakthrough in science fiction that J. R. R. Tolkien had achieved in fantasy—both of them showing all subsequent writers in their fields how to build what we might call Massively Coherent Universes: with clashes of culture, technology, history, language, politics, and religion all worked out in the story’s background.
At the same time, Dune is an occasionally sloppy book and oddly paced. It sprawls when it might be compact and shrinks when it might be discursive. How could an author extend his plot maneuvering through hundreds of pages—and then be satisfied with an ending so rushed that even the death of the hero’s infant child in the final apocalyptic battle is only a side note?
Meanwhile, the prose is sometimes weak, striving for the memorable epigrams it can’t always form. The psychology of the minor characters is ignored at some points and deeply observed at others, which makes those characters flicker in a peculiar way between the two-dimensional walk-ons of myth and the three-dimensional figures of novelistic realism. And the third-person narrator keeps his distance from them by printing what they’re thinking in italics, just so we understand that this is, like, you know, mental speech.
In fact, the book contains so much italics—with the many poems, song lyrics, and extended quotations from fictional sources printed the same way—that the reader wants to bang it against the nightstand once or twice a chapter. Add up all the problems, and you can see why those publishers rejected Herbert’s manuscript. It had a thousand chances to fail and only one chance of succeeding—which it grasped by being so relentlessly, impossibly, irresistibly interesting.
Dune won both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award for the year’s best science fiction, produced multiple attempts at film versions, spawned five sequels from Herbert (plus another dozen by his son), and became perhaps the most-purchased science fiction book of all time, selling at least 12 million copies.
As far as plot goes, the story is, at its root, a straightforward, old-fashioned tale of a hero. A young man suffers the loss of his rightful inheritance and is forced to hide among a backward people—who, he discovers, are actually brilliant warriors. So he convinces them that he had been chosen by destiny to lead them, a messiah come to claim them. He forms his new people into an army, and together, they reclaim his lost inheritance.
Joseph Bottum, morning truantJul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Morning comes like a great bird, sailing over the dark curve of the earth to illuminate the hills and trees. Dawn arrives like an angel’s burning sword, expelling night from the garden of this world. Sunrise melts to fresh dew the last wisps of frost across the lawn, a diamond sparkle in the golden angle of the sun’s first rays, and in the background always plays “Morning Mood,” the opening movement of Grieg’s first Peer Gynt Suite.
What explains the years of rage on campuses? Jun 15, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 38 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Maybe American higher education was never all that serious about, you know, the education portion of its name. After more than a decade of teaching in the Ivy League, the philosopher George Santayana dubbed Harvard and Yale the nation’s toy Athens and toy Sparta. He actually meant it as a compliment—as much a compliment, anyway, as he could muster. Santayana resigned his Harvard professorship in 1912 and moved to Europe.
Setting that certain feeling to music.May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I found an error in Ted Gioia’s new history of love songs. It’s late in this 336-page book, when he mentions that Simon and Garfunkel gave their 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson” to the movie soundtrack for The Graduate. As it happens, the adulterous Mrs. Robinson was first a character in the 1967 movie, and the little koo-koo-ka-choo filler they composed for her they developed into a full song only after the movie’s success.
Joseph Bottum, book burnerMay 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It took me six hours to destroy it all, that cold, wet winter day. Freezing rain coating the leafless trees and the slush of snow left from the previous days’ storms. A weak fire in one of the stingy, grudging little fireplaces they used to build in Manhattan apartments. And me, alone with thousands of pages of unpublished writing by Richard John Neuhaus, burning the record he’d kept of his life.
Joseph Bottum refuses to convert.Mar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It used to happen regularly. Some poor science writer for a magazine or newspaper would try to humanize an astronomy fact: The distance light travels in a year is enormous!
Joseph Bottum counts the days Jan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
until after Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t really begin until Christmas—Christmas Day itself, that is. And I don’t mean just in the way the Christian churches lay out the season: the whole 12-days-of-Christmas thing, if you remember. And I know you do, because everyone remembers the song about the partridge in a pear tree, which is what our loves would give us on the first day of Christmas, if they were true.
Green in exchange for green.Dec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Speaking truth to power is easy—or easier, anyway, than speaking truth to money. We might resist a sovereign who commands us to preach his favored doctrines. But a sovereign who slips us a little cash on the side, just for a sermon or two on something we maybe don’t really disagree with all that much? Harder. Much, much harder. It was true back in 1717, for example, when Benjamin Hoadly preached a famous Anglican sermon in front of a receptive King George I—a sermon that called for church government to be taken away from the bishops and given directly to the king.
How it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end timesDec 1, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 12 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
1. The Return of Original Sin
Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Hazel Motes, the hyperanxious protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s great novella Wise Blood, finds himself so bedeviled by the demands of religious belief that he rebels by founding a religion of his own: The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. The mainline Protestant churches of the twentieth century, says our contributing editor Joseph Bottum, did something similar when the challenges of the secular world proved too much: They abandoned the inconveniences and discomforts of faith and became, instead, secular liberals.
A church father gets an ideological makeover. Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Vincent of Lérins was a Gaulish monk who lived and wrote in the fifth century. Little is known about him, really. It’s said that he was originally a soldier but gave up his military career to enter a monastery near Cannes, on the small Mediterranean island of Lérins (later renamed the Île Saint-Honorat, after the founder of Vincent’s monastery). He may have been a brother of the better-known St.
The evolution of forbidden language. Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The early British and American reviews of this book are hilarious—hilarious, that is, in the sense of proving two of Melissa Mohr’s minor theses. In her account, the sex-based swear words so reviled by the Victorians have become almost commonplace: No real stigma attaches to their use these days, although certain classes may still feel a little antiquated frisson when they write or say them.
Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook is delighted to commend to readers a new ebook from our contributing editor Joseph Bottum.
The writer’s vocation in J. F. Powers’s correspondence. Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
One of the things you learn when you read the letters of great writers is how rarely great writers talk about literature in their letters. Mostly they talk about money. The letters of Henry Ford show more interest in big ideas and artistic principles than do those of James Joyce. When Joyce wrote a letter, it was usually a complaint about how expensive everything seemed—and would the recipient mind enclosing a small check in his next reply?