July 2021. A walk in green and blue. 4 books and a mini-series: The Things They Carried, Dune, Dune (2000), The Day of the Triffids, and Starship Troopers. Nomadland Vs Minari.
A walk in green and blue
Things are looking up in England at the moment, thanks to the lockdown being gradually eased, ‘hybrid working’ (for now, at least), and the added bonus of the summer having arrived. It’s been a good time for walks by the river.
I’ve been calling it the river ever since I’ve known it, but I’ve recently discovered (through a quick internet search) that it’s actually a stream, which runs into the river Wey.
The walk takes me across a bridge by the skateboard park. The kids don’t usually get there until later in the morning. Today, there are just two, and they’re chatting loudly about last night’s party and smoking weed.
There’s a bridge at each end of the walk. A more impressive bridge at the start, and a diminutive one at the finish (as small as it is, it’s still strangely oversized considering the narrow width of the stream).
The water starts off clear and gradually turns into a weak coffee. Someone mentioned that the stream has fish in it, but I’ve never seen any. The water runs fast, but it’s always silent. Part of the attraction of walking along a river path, going by the sea shore, or watching a waterfall, is the pleasure of listening to the white noise.
The light comes in dappled through the tree canopy. In the woods, there are multiple interlinking pathways. Here, people are in ‘country’ mode. They say hello when you pass them. In the street, not far away, they’re in town mode. They avoid eye contact and they don’t offer up a greeting. But here, along this council maintained path, by the stream, a ‘morning’ or ‘hello’ is the norm.
Is this because we’re perceived to be within ‘nature’ or at least some suburban semblance of a ‘wilderness’? Do the friendly smiles and greetings recognise that we’re alone in a place without anyone else around? Does it evoke an ancient courtesy, or does it merely recognise a physical presence between strangers?
The local kids have moved logs into a circle. They go to this informal camp to smoke, and drink alcohol. It’s an in-between world, safely away from parental eyes. It’s the temporary zone before they hit the clubs and bars, before university and adult responsibilities. In the glowing summer light it epitomises all those coming-of-age tales from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and on. It is a micro-society of the young-and-misunderstood, the awkward-and-thrill-seeking.
The detritus of their teenage world is scattered on the ground: cider bottles, empty Haribo packets, salt and vinegar crisp packets. And there’s a discarded trainer, which probably has a story of its own.
I enjoy these walks, usually I’m with my daughter. When she was younger she asked me if a Gruffalo lived in the woods. I think that she was disappointed with my answer.
The backlit leaves are luminescent. The dazzling green is complemented by wispy clouds in a postcard blue sky. Although the stream is silent, there’s always the rustle of leaves and the incessant birdsong.
At the end of the walk, there’s the second bridge. Beyond the bridge, there’s the road that leads back into town. The people here assiduously avoid eye contact with each other. They are resolute in their mutual aloofness.
Four books (and a TV series): The Things They Carried, Dune, Dune (2000), The Day of the Triffids, and Starship Troopers.
The Things They Carried
Tim O’Brien’s memoir about his experiences during the Vietnam War, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, was published in 1973. The Things They Carried (1990) is a metafiction novel that retells his wartime experience. The novel is a kind of rewriting of his memoir as fiction. It’s a composite novel, formed from separate chapters that jump about in time, from wartime trauma to recollections twenty years later, and back to painful childhood experiences.
Life, fact and fiction mesh and blur in The Things They Carried. Tim O’Brien wrote it because his memoir didn’t feel ‘real’ enough. The ‘truth’ of his memoir turned out to be another kind of lie. He explains this in the novel, and then he goes on to suggest that publishing his memoir might have produced tragic consequences.
In the novel, Tim O’Brien asserts that truth is only really knowable through an understanding gained via fiction, because our experience of ‘reality’ is blurred and warped by interpretation. It’s subjective, never absolute. We recall experiences through memory, which is a form of relived fiction in itself, tainted and incomplete. For him, fiction presents a more ‘honest’ and emotionally ‘true’ account of his wartime experience than his non-fiction. Non-fiction is a self-conscious ‘reconstruction’ of reality posing as the objective truth. Like all stories in the Vietnam War, he explains, truth and fiction merged.
The Things They Carried is one of the most harrowing and disturbing books I’ve read. There’s a horrific scene when a buffalo calf is tortured to death, and another when the soldiers rest for a night in a field that’s being used by the local village as a latrine. One of soldiers dies, but the others can’t come to terms with the manner in which he died. The awfulness and horror of the violence is shocking, as is the grim truth it presents — these disturbing, life-changing personal moments possess a fleeting triviality that’s hard to come to terms with. This is what makes them even more troubling. Tim O’Brien contextualises this with a traumatic childhood memory that he never really came to terms with.
I don’t know of any other Vietnam War novel that deals so effectively with personal trauma. Dispatches feels relatively sanitised compared to this. The power of The Things They Carried comes from its sensitive, perhaps over-sensitive, protagonist, who is a remarkable observer of life and people. He explores his own weakness as a human being and does so with resolute honesty. It’s brilliant, but it makes for an excruciating novel to read. Regardless of this, I had to get to the end.
Okay. So, it’s time for a confession. I’ve never read Dune until now. I’ve always perceived it to be more of a fantasy novel than science fiction. Honestly, I thought it would be a ‘DNF’.
Dune is written in that bestseller kind of style. It is confident, and states everything clearly. The novel seems incredibly fresh considering that it was published in 1965. This is achieved in part because it uses a slightly archaic, historical tone.
The story explores power politics within an imperial system. Its eclecticism is influenced by real-world empires like the British Empire, Ancient Rome, Medieval monarchies, Machiavelli, and Middle Eastern culture.
Frank Herbert holds back on describing things too closely, or using contemporary terms for things, which might date the text. Foundation feels like a product of its time, but Dune doesn’t.
Dune is often celebrated as the greatest example of soft science fiction, and as a counterpoint to Foundation. Dune is science fiction without an IT department. There are no robots or whimsical androids, and there’s little in the way of computers (even though this is an advanced, highly technological world).
The language and the tone feels like a historical novel dressed up as science fiction. Where Foundation is a conversion about the implications of technology, Dune is a sci-fi future-history about political power.
Dune is science fiction genre’s best-selling novel. It’s had a major influence on science fiction and fantasy. It’s difficult not to see Star Wars through the Dune lens. Personally, I find it difficult not to see Dune without thinking about Flash Gordon (the 1930s cinema serial). Another precursor to Dune is the underrated A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959).
Dune is part coming-of-age tale, part military science fiction, and part mystical retro-futurist messiah story. It doesn’t take place in a fantasy world, it’s set in 10,191, which is about 20,000 years in our future. Like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dune features a religious group. In Dune it’s called the Bene Gesserit’s, which, said slowly, sounds a little like Bene(dictines) Jesuits.
There are many things about the David Lynch film that I found bemusing. The Harkonnens, for example, are bizarre and outlandish in the 1984 film, like some kind of demented circus clown group. Thankfully, I didn’t get any of that in the novel. I put the characterisation of the Harkonnens in the 1984 film down to bonkers 1980s WTF.
The novel isn’t perfect. It lags toward the (penultimate) climactic battle, which is itself disappointing. The resolution is given a decent amount of space, enough time to savour the outcome. It even has time for a duel between two of the main characters. This fight scene is the story’s real climactic battle. Having the two battle sequences so close to one another reduces their impact.
There were times when I wanted more visual descriptions about the word, especially the characters. The conversations between the characters can feel like faceless talking heads engaged in a Machiavellian game. The dialogue is doing a lot of the world building and character differentiation. Even with these criticisms, the quality of the writing is remarkably consistent throughout the novel (parts of which were originally published in serialised form for a magazine, and later expanded on).
It might be a bit sudden to say this (having only just read Dune), but if you’ve read 1984 and Dune, and watched Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, you’ve probably got your three most important Twentieth Century speculative fiction and sci-fi themes covered — political repression, power politics, and the implications of artificial intelligence. You may prefer The Handmaid’s Tale instead of 1984, and the intergalactic space opera of Star Wars over Dune, or The Terminator over Blade Runner? You might want to add virtual reality as another theme, possibly in the form of Neuromancer or The Matrix, or the post-apocalyptic story as expressed in A Canticle for Leibowitz or Mad Max?
Either way, Dune’s history-inspired vision of the future, its medieval-like tale of family power and ruthless competition is right up there with the best of Twentieth Century science fiction.
Dune (TV series, 2000)
Well, this is weirdly terrible. There’s the overblown colour, cheap digital effects, heavy handed dramatic emotion, overly-dramatic dream sequences, gratuitous boob action, and a protagonist’s messianic transformation through the power of hair gel. Like the David Lynch film, the Harkonnens are totally ridiculous, looking like they’re doing a show at a tacky Berlin bondage club in 1987. For some unknown reason, they live in a place where there’s only red lighting. It’s all very strange, and not in a good way. Why are they portrayed in such an over-the-top, absurdly grotesque manner, camp, and ginger hair? I didn’t get any of this from the novel myself.
The writers have attempted to popularise the story for a mainstream US TV audience. For example, the novel is about the brutality of aristocratic competition, Princess Irulan Corrino’s fate is a case in point, but the TV series completely usurps this message. In another example, as soon as the Muad’Dib spots Chani, she removes her top (clearly signifying to anyone who’s still awake that it’s the mid-point in the story and attentions my be flagging, so its time for some pointless nudity).
The annoying blue eyes in the David Lynch film are even more exaggerated in this version of the story. Their spiced-eyes glow worse than a cheap effect for a 1980s made-for-video horror. And, to make things even worse, the characters have zero chemistry with one another.
Sadly, there’s little in the way of positives to offset these shortcomings. This three part mini-series effectively sets out to recreate the David Lynch film, and it ends up being even less compelling.
The Day of the Triffids
I read this a long time ago. Reading it was like meeting up with an old friend. I was hoping that it wouldn’t disappoint.
The good news is that it’s still good. Sure, the language is a little bit dated, but it’s still a fun book to read. The action scenes work just as they did before. This is impressive considering that it was published in 1951!
The Day of the Triffids is an eco-apocalypse story long before environmentalism went anywhere near the mainstream. It combines natural disaster with a warning about factory farming.
Re-reading it now, the framing of the novel (at the start and finish) is slightly heavy-handed. Regardless of this, it’s such an engaging adventure and it presents the protagonist (and reader) with interesting challenges and dilemmas.
Published in 1959, Starship Troopers is a classic science fiction novel that’s been an important influence on military science fiction. It’s an easy read, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
The novel was originally intended to be sold as young adult fiction, but its militaristic theme was considered inappropriate for that audience. Starship Troopers is basically the Cold War reimagined with the alien bugs standing in for the communists. There’s a fair amount of philosophy-lite going on (the chapters are prefaced by incongruously grand quotes). It was written at a time when the US was perceived to be losing the Cold War and the space race.
The story features positive representations of its Latino protagonists, along with German and Japanese characters (at a time when those nationalities were often negatively represented as stereotypes in Western fiction, coming so soon after the end of the Second Word War). It also includes a positive non-sexist role for its female main character. At the military recruitment centre she’s immediately picked out as pilot material, while the male protagonist is destined to serve as an ordinary foot soldier.
For a novel published in 1959, the ideas about advanced technology and human augmentation are interesting. There’s a noteworthy mention of genetically enhanced dogs and how they operate with their human handlers. The influence on novels like Paolo Bacigalupi’s Tool of War (2017), and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (2005), Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974) is obvious.
Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 adaptation subverts the novel’s main point about the human cost of defending ‘freedom’. Instead, it makes its own point about 90s US politics. Verhoeven is on record as having said that the novel was too boring to finish.
The film suffers from the same issues as the book. It lives in that awkward space where mainstream entertainment consciously attempts to be didactic.
My difficulty with the novel was that I never felt emotionally connected to the characters. I was consciously reading a story rather than being immersed in it.
Nomadland Vs Minari
I preferred Burning to Parasite. And now I prefer Minari to Nomadland.
Minari is a tragicomic oddity. It’s also nice to see Steven Yeun on the screen. (He played Glenn Rhee, one of the best characters in The Walking Dead TV series.)
Nomadland is a nicely put together film. It’s just that it feels like a predictable by-the-numbers indie movie. It didn’t surprise me or make me feel like I’d learned anything new about the world.
I’m not saying that Minari is going to change your life, but it’s a smart and nuanced story that only cost $2 million to produce. It didn’t involve $100 million in CGI special effects or superhuman characters with god-like powers.