Chris Zempel

My Favorite Book of All Time

published almost 2 years ago

Dune is my favorite book of all time because it is a masterpiece. I briefly touched what it actually was the first time I read it, but I thoroughly didn't understand it. Years later, I picked it up again, and no other book is so consistently able to make me stop reading, and able to produce the good kind of chills.

I absolutely cannot stand it when people tell me something is "good" (or "so good"). This is because of laziness on part of the speaker. Why is it so good? What about it spoke to you? Why might I like it? You're the one with all the context here. I'm irritable when people do this because so many times I've later arrived at the recommended work, it was GREAT, and I was angry at not having found it earlier because of a crappy testimonial.

So here is why I like Dune so much.

1. Can the desert turn green?

Dune, if you don't know, largely takes place on the iconic desert world of Arrakis. The people there, the native culture of the land, dreams of the day when they can turn the world from a desert into a lush paradise. Frank Herbert was taken by the massive sand dunes in Oregon. He was writing a nonfiction story about efforts to stabilize them with plants. Of them, he wrote,

The author was struck by the way dunes could move, over time, like living things — swallowing rivers, clogging lakes, burying forests. "These waves can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave . . . they've even caused deaths," he wrote his agent, beginning an article, "They Stopped the Moving Sands," that was never published. - Annalee Newitz

He was wondering about environmental change on a planetary scale back in the 50's, before it really even had a name. This, to me, is irresistibly interesting because its so rare. Meaning is created when somebody commits so much of their thought and emotion to a thing regardless of everything else. Meaning is rare in this world. And meaning, for Frank Herbert, that began in a mundane moment when he encountered these giant dunes in Oregon, it oozes out of the book.

The ideas of changing the desert, as it exists in the book, is so big. It's the same sort of sense of scale I know people encounter in Lord of the Rings.

I don't know how to adequately capture this in words, but I will try: when you touch it, it's like the breath of god gently blowing into your mind, and for a split second, you gain a dim awareness of enormity - of something - and you somehow know what it is. You can't help but acknowledge it, and although the idea itself is magnanimous, you can't help but be filled with awe, excitement, and wonder. Along with the central lesson of the book (I will not be explaining this), this theme of "Climate Change" is quite prescient.

2. Mentats - humans with computational intelligence

One of the most alluring qualities fiction can have is when it's both fantastic, but also just believable enough that some part of you says, "this could actually happen." Plausibility, authenticity, veracity, I don't think there's an adequate label for this phenomenon. It's a quiet, dripping excitement of thought, like a faucet is turned on in some back corner of your thirsty mind, and for some reason its hard to pay attention.

Star Wars has the force. Dune, on the other hand, has a complete lack of machines or silicon-based intelligence due to a society-wide ban on them after an AI uprising earlier in the universe's history.

A Mentat was a profession or discipline that was developed as a replacement to the computers and thinking machines.

In this post so far, I've gone pretty out there, so I'm gonna just keep it rolling. When I think about different kinds of technical intelligence (meaning - knowledge required for a pursuit), each sort has an innate, emotional characterization in my mind that is a reaction to all the observation I've gathered of it. So what I'm about to describe are abstractions that live in my mind.

My impression is that all intelligence is impersonal to some degree, since it unconditionally involves piercing to the truth of a situation, so this lacks a more blatant kind of bias usually introduced by some combination of emotion and incentives. Music, for instance, is strictly logical, orb-like, yet also fundamentally warm. Music is, ultimately, coordinated vibration. Energy, life, emotion. In order to produce beautiful music, you must understand and navigate the relationships between everything that produces vibration. You can't be a truly great composer if you ignore the fundamentals of music theory.

Computational intelligence has a particular kind of coldness. It goes beyond the generalized impersonal nature I think is inherent to every one of these characterizations. My impression of computational intelligence isn't just that it is cold or impersonal, but recognizes that it's past whatever mark that is, it's completely inhuman. This sort of intelligence a thing to be wielded, to be understood in part, but it's just there. You might reasonably think that I feel this way because I'm a programmer, and a portion of my job is speaking with computational intelligence, but I've always had this impression. Since gaining experience programming, this impression has only been strengthened.

A Mentat is a human who wields this computational intelligence as a result of years of specialized training, habituation, and practice. And Frank Herbert brings you through the moment that this cold, inhuman, unrepentantly rational implementation of the human mind switches on. This brings huge amounts of pain to the character. And then you realize, for the character, that there is no hiding from the world. There is no relief. There is only radical acceptance of the world as it is. And that, on some level, this is necessary.

And I can't help myself from wondering, what would it be like?

Are Heroes Good? (The Illusion of Divinity)

One of the core questions Dune grapples with is a counterintuitive one: are heroes actually a good part of humanity?

The one element that Dune pulls off better than any other book I've ever read is creating the illusion of divinity. You know it's a book, you know it's fake. Even in the book itself, in the plot of the world, the "divinity" is explained as a fake and intentionally manufactured thing. But it still happens...I begin to believe in the creation of a hero.

EVEN despite my knowing better, I can't help but buy into this creation myth. It's insane. My mind adds thoughts like, "Even though all these other events were set up to allow this to happen...there's still so much sheer random chance in it all! This has to be more significant than that!"

Then what happens when you take this hero, and throw them in around what is geopolitically the most scarce and important resource in their galaxy? I don't want to spoil the moment, so I won't go in any further, but the reason that Dune consistently astounds me as a masterpiece is its ability to persuade me to believe against my more rational nature that there is more than a simple facade to this story. Not only to tell an immensely engaging story in a fascinating world, but reveal truth in reality through this totally foreign, yet somehow familiar backdrop.

Hidden in this reaction is the deeper truth and point of the entire series. And of this, Dune is the first of a larger series about the creation of a mythical hero.

“Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.” - Frank Herbert

p.s. - The Litany Against Fear

So this isn't actually a part of my narrative, but as a post who's point is to persuade you to read the book, this has gotta be in here. Here's a passage from the book you might have seen around. I'm adding this here to say - this is from Dune!

The Litany Against Fear
"I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."

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