Sunday, May 27, 2012

Herbert's Dune and Patience: Do Adolescents Have More?

I have faint remembrances of aphorisms about differences between adolescence and adulthood. A theme sticks out to me: adolescents are less patient than adults. This theme probably has some truth to it, but I’m starting to think it’s not all true. Maybe the adolescent impatience of action comes from patient yet stubborn academic curiosity. Maybe it comes part and parcel with human nature and instinct.

A fellow writer and I had a passing conversation on the topic. They mentioned how they read Frank Herbert’s epic Dune at the young age of 12 or something like that. I had read the original Dune series something like seven or eight years ago (at around age 26 or 27).

We had very different reactions to it. They loved the book and couldn’t stop praising it, like many people I’ve met throughout life. Me, I found it compelling thematically but frustrating and a slow read. It also had a bunch of loose ends that Herbert or his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J Anderson really never addressed in later books (unless they did in prequels).

My friend and I also had this difference: they only read Dune while I read the whole Dune series. Except for God Emperor of Dune and the last two written by Herbert’s son and Anderson, I thought the writing only got better. It became more concise, clearer and did more showing than telling.

I put God Emperor of Dune in a complete category of its own. It had its own bits of drama, but it’s more of a psychedelic treatise dialogue about social philosophy. Reading it makes the rest of the series resonate. Yet it’s dense and a chore to get through, much like one of Plato’s dialogues. . .or maybe an answer to some of the dialogues.

Dune inspired my writer friend to love science fiction and to one day want to write science fiction works of their own. I understand it. Isaac Asimov gave me the same inspiration. In my teenage years, I only read a couple of Asimov’s works and didn’t really grasp the social philosophy thrown in there. I hadn’t even read his more philosophical work until I was older.

Asimov may not have written the vast epic world building political tracts that Herbert did, and I’m really happy about that. Nonetheless, Asimov imparted a sense of expansive human nature and the possibilities of the natural world. He challenged his humans with the totalitarian genius of robots and even struck fear into his humans by giving his robots creativity and the ability to dream (probably one of the tragic and shortest stories of Asimov’s, “Robot Dreams”).

Near the end of his writing career, Asimov seemed to breach into the same world building vastness of Herbert, just not as hard and dense. I wish Asimov had written more in this vast direction. Even though softer science fiction, Asimov started presenting some interesting ideas.

Frank Herbert wrote hard science fiction and he did it dense. He explained practically everything. The drama and topics didn’t necessarily all grow out of provable science. The whole Dune series had a lot of psychedelia to it and had some interesting theories of human potential. If possible, we have a long way to go to get there.

The aspects of ecology, extensiveness of history and play with politics between royal families and mercantilism feel based in social reality. Putting the interpretation that spice in Dune is comparable to oil in today’s world doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch. Sure, people can’t eat oil, it doesn’t turn their eyes blue and it doesn’t provide the ability of prescience, but petroleum holds a lot of sway over the world and its nations.

In fact, I found all the dense detail Herbert put into Dune the difficult part. The plot wouldn’t go anywhere for pages. The book would go on and on explaining the thoughts of a character, the basis for a royal family’s actions, the existence of a ritual in a culture or go on and on about how a person with prescience experiences the galaxy.

My problem, I think, originates from the fact that I’m a fairly well read person, have read a lot of history and social philosophy, read a fair amount of psychedelia, kept up with politics and anthropology and have an OK grasp of science fiction. Back in the early to mid ‘90s, I even patronized a Bulletin Board System that was very Dune themed. The system operator went by Maud Dib and called something Kwisatz Haderach (but I forget what).

A lot of academia I studied in college had influenced Dune. On the flipside, Dune influenced much of the pseudo-intellectual works I researched in high school. Dune has become a point on the intellectual heritage I have followed. By the time I had read it, I had become familiar with a lot of the ideas around it. By the time I reached Dune, I had something of a skeptical “seen that, done that” attitude.

Only the cynicism of the characters struck me as new, and they just depressed and confused me. I’m an idealistic guy who has a hard time understanding why people can’t realize that if we just get along and do lots of research, we can make the world an awesome place. Why haven’t we done it already?

Otherwise, I got impatient and bored with the exposition. Just get to the plot, show me what’s happening and I can probably figure out the motivations and rules behind things as they develop.

I can also imagine Herbert having a checklist of things that he wanted to have happen in the book, but he would come up with a new idea that he’d throw in, but he had to integrate that new idea and come up with a reason why that idea had been there in the first place.

After reading his Wikipedia entry and learning that Dune started as two serials in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, this feeling makes a little more sense. Even though rewritten for the novel form, Dune still has a few vestiges of “Just in case you forgot this important fact. . ..”

I can see possibly having had a different experience reading Dune as an adolescent. Maybe I would have some familiarity with it, having been exposed to works influenced by the novel. A lot of the stuff pre-dating Dune, however, I would know nothing about.

In my adolescence, I had tons of time and had a hunger for knowledge and novelty. Dune’s vast world of knowledge could have fed me. At worst, it would have inspired me like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Cape Cod. In full disclosure, I didn’t finish reading either of those works in my adolescence.

Those two books played a big inspiration for me wanting to be a writer. I could sense the ambition behind them and felt they had a lot of understanding behind them that I just didn’t get. If I just plowed through them, maybe I could reach that understanding, too. I haven’t gotten there with the likes of Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson, though. Somehow they’ve actually become even more opaque as I’ve gotten older.

I don’t know what has changed since I was an adolescent. I’m not saying losing that kind of patience is bad, even though I miss having it. Does that stubborn patience to explore things that make no sense to us come as a human characteristic that dies as we grow older? Or, like my writer friend said in our conversation, do we just not have the time as adults to follow through on this curiosity? Are we so busy working and trying to accomplish things that we don’t have the patience we had once?

I feel like I get a grip on that curiosity and patience again here and there but really only once in awhile. Per the advice of a past college professor, I’ve taken up writing a half hour in the morning on my project. That’s when I think I stumble into that state of mind.

In the past, I could get very frustrated and angry about questions that would arise while writing. Nowadays, though, I’m amazed at how much I’ve written and how much more research I have to do for more understanding. Instead of focusing on not having it done, though, I feel joy that I’ve found a path in the woods that will eventually lead me somewhere.

Who knows? Maybe I’m finding that patience again.

LINKS OF NOTE: Frank Herbert, Dune, Dune series, Brian Herbert, Kevin J Anderson, God Emperor of Dune, Plato, Isaac Asimov, “Robot Dreams”, spice, prescience, Bulletin Board System, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden, Cape Cod, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Speculation or Reasonably Logical Connection?

Considering my bad time management and difficulty prioritizing over the last year or so, I think I've made some good progress on my bachelor's project. I've done more research than needed for the level of academic rigor required. With some good advice from a past teacher, I’ve started an early morning writing habit. Work is getting done.

Before this point, I had focused on developing my thoughts and molding the source material into usable form. Trouble now arises when I try to fill conceptual empty spaces between facts and coherent, cohesive conclusions. Each time I make this kind of attempt, I ask whether the new premise comes from utter speculation or whether I've made a reasonably, logical connection.

I don't know of any hard and fast rule for making this determination. In the past, I would research my ass off to find answers. I would follow three directions for my research:

  1. Primary and secondary sources directly addressing the historical events and people
  2. Materials regarding the phenomena at hand (ie utopianism)
  3. From Wikipedia to anywhere on the Internet to the physical library, whatever topic came to mind:
    • Social psychology
    • Cognitive science
    • Social/moral/political philosophy
    • Sociology
    • Anthropology
    • Economics
    • Cultural studies
    • Religion
    • Spirituality
    • Literary criticism
    • Literary theory
    • and the list goes on and on ad infinitum
I got some mileage through this approach. However, it got exhausting and results entered diminishing returns, probably about a year ago.

At the point of diminishing returns, I get less out of research the more work I put into it. It takes time to develop ideas and grind out demonstrable work, even if just brainstorming or drafting. Just sitting down at my creative desk with pen and paper at this point would more than likely just frustrate and throw me into a dead end.

At my day job, I have a good opportunity to let my brain free reign to ruminate and develop ideas to say sane. Otherwise I'd just focus on angsty, personal unproductive thoughts.

Brainstorming ideas is fun. My brain, at least, has an excellent talent for it. A lot of great results come from my brainstorming, and much of it has potential, too. These prospects get even better when they have a sound basis.

The problem arrives at this point:
  • Are the ideas I'm coming up with pure speculation or a reasonably logical connection?
  • Am I pulling an idea out of my ass that just sounds good or would be fun to write about?
  • Does my idea have grounding in history and theory, or am I just enamored with a theory that I want to force onto history?
  • Am I just using the first idea that comes to mind, or do I have an idea that will stand some test of academic rigor?
  • How do you test the academic rigor of these kinds of ideas?
For now, I'm testing these types of ideas by asking
  1. Is the idea simple and elegant, does it beg the minimum number of questions compared to other ideas and
  2. Does the idea lend coherence and cohesiveness to the larger argument and project?
This approach serves my purposes for now. Is it something that can serve your purpose or do have your own approach?