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Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) 510 p.

Dune is ostensibly a classic work of science fiction, but it actually contains about as much science fiction as Star Wars. It’s set in a galaxy ruled by a sprawling feudal empire, with Dukes and Houses and serfs and fiefdoms. A historical war against artificial intelligences has resulted in a law against advanced computers and technology. Personal force-field shields mean people fight with swords and knives rather than guns. I spent much of the book wondering why Herbert didn’t just make it a flat-out fantasy novel.

I suppose it is a good fantasy novel, as fantasy novels go, but I wasn’t much in the mood for one at the moment. Or ever, really – I think I’ve outgrown them. They’re too simplistic. I have no interest in reading about pure good versus pure evil, a dichotomy which Dune was often leaning towards in spite of the protagonist’s fears that he might inadvertantly launch a bloody jihad. Take the antagonists, for example: the cruel and evil House Harkonnen, which keeps slaves, encourages oppression, and is ruled over by a fat and corpulent Duke who also happens to be a pedophile. That’s just lazy. Nor do endless political machinations particularly intrigue me.

I know it’s unfair to compare this to the Wheel of Time series, since that was written twenty-five years later and was clearly ripping off Dune rather than the other way round, but that was the vibe I was getting. Which is bad, because Wheel of Time is bad. As well as the aforementioned political schemes and court intrigue, the’re another similar (identical, really) element that will be obvious to anyone who’s read both books: the Fremen and the Aiel. Both of them are hardcore, badass desert tribes with byzantine cultures who personify freedom and the joy of life; a modern take on the noble savage. And in both books the author repeatedly beats you about the head with how HARDCORE and BADASS they are. It’s a little weird. (It’s also further evidence that Robert Jordan never had an original idea in his head, as if we didn’t know that already).

For such a classic and renowned work of science fiction, I found Dune to be a disappointment. Oh well. At least the video game was awesome.

The Beach by Alex Garland (1997) 436 p.

I read this novel in the first week of my round-the-world backpacking trip (in fact, I’m writing this review in a decrepit hotel in Phuket) when I was and still am disillusioned with Thailand. We arrived on the islands of the Andaman Sea only to find over and over again, on Ko Lipe and Ko Lanta and Ko Phi Phi, that what had once been a beautiful tropical paradise had been ruined by tourism, degradation, and pollution. The beaches are strewn with rubbish. The coral is all dead. The wildlife is gone. The islands are drowning beneath resorts, hotels, bars, hawkers, and endless swarms of Westerners who want nothing more than to get shitfaced somewhere warmer than London or Toronto. It’s an awful place, all the more so because it’s a corpse of something that used to be beautiful.

The Beach, therefore, fit my mood perfectly well. It’s a novel about a young British backpacker named Richard, who sees Thailand the same way I do, who wanted paradise and instead found purgatory. On his first night in the country, Richard meets a crazed Scotsman in the room next to his in a cheap Bangkok hostel, who rants about a wonderful beach and then leaves a map taped to his room door. When he goes to ask the Scot about the map, Richard finds that he has committed suicide.

With a newly-met French couple, Richard decides to hunt down the beach, on an island somewhere in a marine park west of Ko Samui. After paying a fisherman to illegally drop them off in the marine park, swimming across a channel, crossing a marijuana field guarded by Thais with AK-47s, and jumping down a waterfall, the trio discover the idyllic beach, where a group of about thirty Westerners have developed a commune of sorts. They grow and hunt their own food, swim in an unspoilt lagoon, laze around smoking marijuana and generally enjoy paradise on earth.

All does not remain well, of course. The Beach has a very strong Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now vibe, delving into the dark heart of the human soul, the things man is capable of, the horror and the violence. There’s also explicit influence from the Vietnam War in general. Towards the later passages it’s quite gripping; as Richard tries to escape the community, there was a taste of the climax of Fight Club.

It doesn’t always quite stick together. I didn’t always buy that a self-reliant, self-sufficient community could turn on itself so easy, and the escalation of violence seemed to be missing a few steps somewhere along the way; there were a few unbelievable leaps. But I bought most of it, and on the whole it was a great read.

It was also, of course, a movie, starring Leonardo di Caprio and directed by Danny Boyle. I haven’t seen the movie in years and have only vague memories of it, but it has 19% on Rotten Tomatoes so you’re probably better off reading the book. It was filmed on the southern island of Ko Phi Phi, as the travel agencies there were always ready to tell me, and because the film studio didn’t think it looked enough like paradise they brought in a bulldozer to shape the beach a little, removing some trees and adding some more sand. This angered the Thais, who said the producers had damaged the island’s natural landscape, and the lawsuits went for years.

If you ever go to Ko Phi Phi, take a look around at the huge piles of rubbish, at the endless rows of resorts, at the longtail motors dumping waste into the ocean, at the layer of scum that clings to the surface of the water all along the coastline, and you decide for yourself who did more damage to the island.

A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest (1977) 216 p.

More original than The Space Machine, which it was bundled together with in an omnibus, A Dream Of Wessex is a serious science fiction/romance novel about virtual reality and the subconscious.

It’s quite confusing for the first third or so, but it eventually becomes clear what is taking place: a group of scientists in the 1980s (the near future at the time of publication) have developed a machine that can project a shared virtual reality. They choose to “project” the future of England in the early 22nd century, a utopia, with the hope of discovering how that utopia was accomplished. Why a virtual reality projection of the future would be accurate – at all – I was never really clear on.

In any case, the projection is of south-west England, which has become an island after a series of earthquakes. It’s a peaceful, beautiful place, compared to the dystopic 1980s, in which terrorism is becoming more rampant in England and there are all manner of social and economic problems. It’s also here, however, that the book shows its age: England has become a socialist state absorbed into the Soviet bloc. (Also, North America has been taken over by Muslims. Maybe Christopher Priest is racist after all?)

The story largely revolves around the scientists in the projection who have become more devoted to it than they have to their real lives, and of how they must prevent the new project manager (who also happens to be the narrator’s possessive ex-boyfriend) from shutting it down or corrupting it. On the whole it was a fairly decent sci-fi story, but nothing amazingly gripping original; a completely different league from Priest’s science fiction masterpiece Inverted World.

The Space Machine by Christopher Priest (1976) 363 p.

This was a weird little book. It’s an effort by Priest to fuse together H.G. Wells’ two most famous novels, The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, into a single shared universe. The story begins with the narrator, Edward Turnbull, meeting Amelia Fitzgibbon, the assistant to an inventor named William Reynolds. While the two of them are tinkering around with his time machine (which also transports people through space), they find themselves stranded on Mars, prior to the Martian invasion of Earth.

This Mars is depicted as Wells imagined it, with red plant life and a weak atmosphere, but with Priest’s own invention of a population of human slaves. The most interesting part of the novel is probably this middle section, where Edward and Amelia struggle to survive in the bleak cities of Mars over a period of many months.

Later, they manage to return to Earth by stowing away on the first Martian invasion projectile, fired from a long cannon supported by the slopes of Olympus Mons. Here the novel fuses more directly with the original work, as Edward and Amelia survive in southern England in the midst of the Martian invasion. They even meet the narrator of The War of the Worlds, identified as Mr. Wells.

Then it got a little stupid. Priest decided to tie the The Time Machine back into the story, and the trio return to Reynold’s laboratory to construct a new machine out of a bedstead. Then they fly around the countryside encased in the machine’s “attenuation field,” making them invisible and invincible, dropping grenades on the Martians’ tripods. This is a bizarre and wacky turn of events in a novel that was, despite everything, remaining relatively consistent and suspending my disbelief. It’s all pointless anyway, since the Martians are defeated the same way they are in the original novel, which I won’t spoil in case you’re one of the seven or eight people who haven’t heard about it.

I haven’t read The Time Machine (though I have seen the shitty movie) and I’ve only read an abridged version of The War of the Worlds, plus an excellent webcomic version that no longer seems to be online, so I can’t really compare The Space Machine to its forebears. Suffice to say that while it was somewhat entertaining, as science fiction goes, I’m not sure what the point was. The stories are similar in only the most basic of ways, and to merge them together seemed like a brief thought experiment that Priest forced into a novel that never should have been.

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May 2010