Saturday, September 05, 2009

Did Frank Herbert's Dune Ruin Science Fiction Novels?

Via io9, an interesting observation from LibraryThing user bookmonkey00k:

Now Dune gives us a lot as well; space travel, economics, guilds, family drama, mysticism, desert people, sand worms, and martial arts. The problem, to do all of this Frank Herbert needed a lot of space, 517 pages of space, and to be fair, with the incredible amount of stuff Herbert put into the book, he needed all of it.

Now Dune went on to win all sorts of awards, and is credited by many SF fans as a personal favourite or even the book that turned them onto SF. My problem is the effect Dune had on SF as a genre. Basically, people looked at it and instead of saying, “Wow – you can have this kind of massive family drama/economic intrigue/war story/mystical journey all in the context of SF”, they said, “Dune must be awesome because it’s really long.”

So after 1965 all SF started to get really, REALLY, BIG. I mean, when I've lined up my copy of Dune with three SF books that had been written in the previous decade (Double Star and Starship Troopers by Heinlein, and Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement), all of them award winners, all of them critically acclaimed, and all of them barely adding up to the page count that is DUNE.

The trend of writing bigger SF books never stopped. Have you looked at the page count of recent SF? These things are monsters, often coming in at just under a thousand pages and the worst thing is a lot of it feels like filler, and I am not the only one to notice this.

I've never thought of substantial world-building is a liability -- and boy, did Frank Herbert bust his hump in the world-building process -- but bookmonkey00k makes a good point. It could be easy for a writer to substitute quantity for quality (a trend possibly reflected in the rise within the genre of sequels over stand-alone novels). And excessive length could raise the entry cost to a novel or a series, deterring many readers from starting.


bob said...

The part that bothers me about the sequels is not always being able to find the in order. Sometimes it is not even clear which book was written first in a series or that it is part of a series.

Jeff the Baptist said...

To be fair a lot of fiction has been running this way. Is the Big Fat Fantasy genre Frank Herbert's fault too? That one is usually laid at Tolkein's feet even though his works look practically svelt in comparison to modern tales like the Wheel of Time.

truevyne said...

My fifteen year old is totally digging one of the Dune series currently.

Kenny said...

This is just one of several things that had a really negative effect on SF in that period. Two more:

1) The so-called 'sexual revolution.' A lot of classic SF makes insightful social criticism by being intentionally shocking/offensive. By the end of the '60s, it has become so difficult to shock or offend your audience that a lot of SF expends so much effort shocking and offending that it never gets around to making a point.

2) Star Trek. Now, Star Trek is one of the best SF TV series (indeed, one of the best TV series) ever. However, in the mind of the general public, Star Trek is the very definition of SF, and this just isn't so. Space opera is just one small sub-genre of SF, and Star Trek is just one kind of space opera. In addition to that problem, it gets people into the idea that SF is about TV and movies (and Dune gets people into the idea that SF is about interminable series of interminably long novels). In reality, SF is originally about short stories, and has been adapted to various other forms with varying degrees of success. A lot of the classic SF novels were adapted from short stories. Both of these misconceptions would be fixed if people took The Twilight Zone, rather than Star Trek, as the paradigm SF TV show.