Re-Reading Some SF Classics

I just finished re-reading Dune for perhaps the fourth time, and am about two-thirds of the way through Footfall for I think only the second time. Both are good, of course, but they seem to have held up in different ways over the years.

I think the last time I read Dune was around 2003, and for whatever reason it seemed like a different telling of the same story this time around. I hadn’t noticed before that most of what seems to make Paul seem like a “super being” is the result of native intelligence and agility maximized through Bene Gesserit training. There is a Nietzschean element to it, of course, in the sense that twenty millennia of selective breeding seem to have re-centered the bell curve of native abilities a bit to the right among the elites (thus the recurring discussions over who is “human” or not). But what impresses is not some inborn advantage over the ordinary mass of humanity (talent or natural gift) but the various avenues through which they train themselves to apply the small statistical advantages they have (skill). Even when Paul obtains prescience, it seems to be more of a curse than a useful tool, and doesn’t really impress one with its exotic or godlike nature. It simply makes Paul fairly good at extrapolating where his actions in the present will lead in the future.

All of which actually makes the book just as interesting as the “superbeing brings corrupt galactic empire to its knees” story I had remembered reading – it’s more nuanced and sophisticated in this take, because unlike a cliche superbeing Paul can actually fail, and the story hinges on his application of understanding and skill rather than unlikely magic superpowers.

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I don’t think I’d re-read Footfall since I first read it in 1986 – the summer after Challenger, whose loss dated the book before I even got to read it. The story was published in 1985, and the bulk of the action appears to take place around 1994-1995, which means the world situation and technology are remarkably out of synch with what happened in reality over that span of time.

Rather than make it hopelessly dated, these things make the book an interesting window on how the world looked back in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s of the novel, the Soviet Union (and with it the Warsaw Pact, the Iron Curtain, etc.) was still seen as a permanent feature, having not disintegrated over the period 1989-1991 – yet concern over the loss of the satellite countries and buffer republics in the chaos of the invasion haunts the Soviet characters, and anticipates the disintegration that actually happened (albeit peacefully and under far different circumstances) in that period.

Computers were still at the IBM PC level, and the internet is not an (overt) element in the book at all – which is amusing, since even if they couldn’t be expected to foresee its privatization in 1993, the internet existed in 1985 among the very defense institutions featured prominently in the book, and was designed to survive the sort of communications disruptions inflicted on Earth by the Snouts.

What are particularly interesting, though, are the relationships between and actions of the various characters. One forgets when surrounded by the fruits (and nuts) of modern feminism and Progressive identity politics and such what fiction was like before those ideologies became ascendant in the late 1990s and early 2000s…and more to the point, before those ideologies corrupted so much of mainstream science fiction and turned it into a hackneyed propaganda mill grinding out politically-correct stock heroes and stock villains and box-checked tokens in place of realistic characters with realistic mixtures of virtue and fault who respond to the situations of the stories based on who they are (individual natures) rather than what they are (identity group membership).