By the time I was in middle school, I was voraciously absorbing every single book that interested me and that I could get my hands on. I lived, and lived now, in a Mississippi River town in Iowa with the unique First Nations-based name of Muscatine. By the time I had entered high school, I had raided my grade school, middle school, high school, and public libraries for whatever hidden treasures I could find.
One of the things I realized that there were so many delights – maybe delights adults would have preferred I not see – in those libraries. (I’ll likely go into more detail in another post – but it’s fair to say that I was one of those who scanned the banned book lists in search of reading material.)
Over the course of a childhood, I would find many of those and many others. It was… what, my escape? What did I really have to escape from? I didn’t face any poverty; I had no siblings to compete with for attention; I was coddled and loved with no reservations; my parents were loving and remain together even today. Whatever was left was an awkwardness with people and an isolation from my peers that was both self-inflicted and suggested by more popular peers. To this day, one of the things that I am happy with about my children is that they are better social beings than I ever was or am.
Regardless of whether my problems were either morally dire or simply First World Problems, I retreated more than a little bit into the world of books. Maybe my parents sensed that when they got me an entire encyclopedia set when I was around 10 and I could spend an entire day pulling out the two “S” volumes and seeing what I could learn about that particular day. (Of course, that would have been unnecessary if Wikipedia had existed when I was young. If it had, I have a feeling I would have been addicted to the “random article” link on that page.)
As I mentioned before, some of the links of my personal biography have many holes, or areas where the fog of time covers my personal timeline. Despite that fog, I have the distinct impression that it was somewhere between the eighth and ninth grade that I ran across Dune by Frank Herbert.
I first became aware of the book right around the time that David Lynch’s adaptation came out in theaters. It was considered anywhere from a flawed classic to an absolute bomb by the critics when it came out in theaters. I never had the chance to see its theatrical release, but the reports about the story (including an old Nickelodeon series staring Leonard Nimoy) were too intriguing for me to ignore. With that, I decided to find and read the book.
Well, the minute I started reading this massive tome, I got transported into an entirely different world, fam, as some of our British relations might say. (You’ll eventually learn that I happily steal phrases and slang from any culture as long as it sounds cool to me.) As I was reading, I was far away from the hot and humid river town in Iowa and transported onto a desert planet were water and how it was preserved was the key not only to survival, but to the culture itself.
What I learned from Herbert was this; the less familiar your surroundings are, the more you have to show the reader how it works. In the books that I’ve written up to this point, they have been based in the modern American world, with not too much need for explanation. But here was Herbert weaving a massive universe to amaze me – a universe so detailed he needed an 18 page or so glossary just to explain all of the terms and terminology. Some found it ponderous, but I was awed by the level of attention he gave to it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Muad’Dib was one of the most fascinating characters I ever saw in fiction, and it was incredible how Herbert showed the creation of a legend from ordinary person to a literal messiah for his world.
I haven’t yet tried to build a fictional world as far removed from my own and as detailed as Herbert gave us in 1965. But ever since I read Dune, I knew it could be not only done but done with the highest level of craftsmanship.