To Literary and Beyond
When I was 13, my dad showed me his collection of science fiction magazines. I was sitting in front of the fireplace and he set the crumpled box next to me. It had been stored in the attic for years, and maybe the basement before that as it gave off a rather musty smell. Pages of the pulp fiction from his childhood were crisp and curling, yellow with age, with smeared, unreadable words. Even in their condition I was a little horrified at his intention to use Astounding Science Fiction magazines as kindling; I still wanted to try and flip through them. The faded covers with robots and aliens called to me since I had grown up wanting friends like E.T. and R2D2. My dad appeased me with another box from the attic, in much better condition, containing a buffet of classics from Salinger to Solzhenitsyn. That winter, my voracious appetite for reading was satiated, but the covers picturing spaceships and strange worlds intrigued me the most. It was that love of the literary and the interplanetary that led me to my favorite books.
Now, tales of aliens and space travel are prolific; I am surrounded by the genre. Summer blockbusters, prime-time television shows and even entire cable channels as well as new literary sub-genres are devoted to science fiction. Unlike my teenage self, I am not devouring every show, book and movie featuring robots; instead I have immersed myself in two series’, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Written two decades apart, the first novel in each series was originally published in pieces in a science fiction magazine before becoming an award-winning work. The impeccable weaving together of story and science continue to spark my interest, and I’m not alone; many authors have written books set in the same universe created by the two visionaries. Since the 1940’s, science fiction has catapulted from the pages of obscure pulp magazines into the forefront of pop culture. Two authors, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, were central to that journey; their respective series’ Foundation and Dune sent familiar aspects of literature on a rocket through space.
The protagonist is a familiar concept, the central character, the hero, but I need to be interested and invested in a character in order to follow his story. Foundation and Dune are both written from an omniscient point-of-view, giving insight into the motivations of the central characters. In Dune it is easy to pinpoint the hero; the book immediately plunges into the story of Paul Atredies, an introspective 15 year old living in a castle and thinking about new planets and strange visitors. Herbert gives little background, so the first time I read the novel I was constantly referring to the dictionary included in the back of the book. The strange words don’t matter too much; as more is learned about Paul the more captivating his tale becomes. I root for him throughout the book even though I find that his warlike actions are sometimes morally questionable. I root for multiple characters throughout Foundation; the short story format provides a few main characters, though their motivations are often similar. The most memorable character to me is Salvor Hardin, who appears in two of the five stories. He is a mayor who often finds himself in difficult political situations, with planetary neighbors ready to use bombs to solve problems. Hardin always manages to find a peaceful, intellectual solution while quipping, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” Both authors made these characters believable, relatable, whether or not I agreed with the path taken by the protagonist.
Foreshadowing is commonly used in all genres of books and film, but I think it can make a story overly predictable. This all changes when the future can be scientifically predicted. In Foundation, the first story tells of a man, Hari Seldon, who created a science called psychohistory. A mathematician, Hari discovered that on a large enough scale, the actions of the human race could be predicted due to probabilities. Using psychohistory, he discovers that the known galactic empire would fall, followed by 30,000 years of suffering for the inhabitants of the galaxy. To shorten the suffering to a mere 1,000 years, he implements a plan where calculated crisis would be encountered and avoided. This predicts that the following stories will be central around “Seldon Crisis”, but Seldon’s timeline might not be accurate since psychohistory cannot predict the actions of a single man. In Dune, it is a single man possessing prescience that knows how the future can change. Paul Atredies was part of an elaborate breeding program, and when his genetics were combined with a powerful drug, known as spice, he was able to see waves of his future. Paul alludes to his “terrible purpose” throughout the book, but even though he is aware of set paths in life, he does not have to follow them. In both cases, it wasn’t until I read the series a second time that I realized just how many of the later events were subtly foreshadowed.
A story can often get weighed down by its themes, especially concerning gargantuan subjects like religion, class, economics, or politics; which I sometimes find hard to follow. Asimov and Herbert tackle these themes head-on which are often reflections of real-world events, inspired by the historical and the current, but on an intergalactic scale. Asimov was a known fan of Edward Gibbons “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, and Foundation is set against the fall of a galactic empire. In Dune, the drug spice, used to make space travel possible, continues to be a relevant metaphor for oil. Spice is tied up in the politics and economics of the galaxy, and the desert planet of Dune is a frequent backdrop for confrontation and corruption. Herbert also describes the ecology of Dune in detail, since water is such a rare commodity on a planet covered by desert sands. Asimov featured women as main characters and equals; the feminist aspect stood out from other science fiction of the 1940’s. Foundation’s focus is on the political and economic, touching on religion and class, but at twice the size, Dune covers these topics at great length. I think it can be difficult to remain captivated in a story that is too wrapped up in its themes; Asimov and Herbert managed not to weigh down their novels with heavy subject matter, but elevated the stories to a new level for science fiction.
Not every reader thought exploring such a variety of topics was a good thing for science fiction; the focus was on the characters and the story, not the science. After Dune and Foundation went from magazine stories to award-winning and best-selling novels, science fiction books grew, in recognition and in size. Asimov and Herbert told such epic stories that authors and filmmakers were inspired by their detail and length. Now it seems rare to find a science fiction book that isn’t several hundred pages or part of a lengthy series. The pulp fiction authors were paid by the word, but due to magazine size, trimmed the fat from their adventures, keeping readers and editors interested. Science fiction now has stories that stretch out and pad the action with unneeded complexities so there can be more sequels or seasons. Theaters and bookshelves seem overrun with trilogies. However, imitation is flattery, and any good story is going to have bad imitators. I think featuring epic themes and characters within the context of sci-fi inspired future authors and directors to create greater stories.
When the focus is on telling the story and not on technological advances alone, a science fiction book can entertain anyone, not just fans of the genre. The rich universes that Asimov and Herbert created continue to engross me; the level of detail amazes me. I can picture their planets and space-freighters; I understand their characters’ political motivation better than any non-fictional politicians. I notice new subtle elements to the stories with every read; even with the foreshadowing in Dune and Foundation, the story is never predictable. Both authors set the story far into the future, where earth is just an origin myth, yet the novels written decades ago about the future have a surprising amount in common with the real world. Their series inspired new generations of readers to tell and enjoy stories set in galaxies far, far away. I was educated and entertained by Asimov and Herbert. They combined science and story, keeping me interested by weaving classic aspects of literature with relatable examples of humanity and technology.