Gormenghast, Time Enough for Love, and Dune
I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation.
I recently got to review any three fantasy or science fiction audio books I wanted for holiday picks for Audible, and the results are running on Sonic Theater SiriusXM Channel 80. A huge thank you to Jo Reed (I heart Jo) for giving me the opportunity. What follows refers to the audiobook version of these three classics, although certainly can be applied to the old fashioned paper variety.
The three I’ve chosen would be ideal for that long plane ride or trip across the country, over the river and through the woods. These are stories that you’ll want to immerse yourself in, devote yourself to, all classics, and all taking place in their own fully realized worlds.
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake is one of those novels that you’ve either never heard of or you’ve been carrying around and reading once a year since college. It’s often compared to Tolkien, although in this case there are actually characters. (Or Dickens, except it’s interesting.) The story follows the destinies of two young men Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan, whose birth opens the novel, and the psychotic, criminal kitchen boy Steerpike, who has his eye on a much finer life for himself. This is not a fast paced, action packed story. At all. Mervyn Peake uses 30 words where maybe 5 would do, but it’s all to serve the creation of the gothic pile of stone, Gormenghast, the enormous nearly deserted castle and its world. The 76th earl of Groan, the morose book-loving count Sepulchrave, is well on his way to madness he thinks he’s turning into an owl and the countess Gertrude, by turns terrifying and maternal, is locked away with her birds and cats. My favorite character is 15-year old Princess Fuschia, bright, bratty, romantic and passionate. Steerpike makes her a special target. The role of ritual is central, the royal family and their servants are prisoners to the often bizarre rites that have been going on since forever. There are dozens of characters with names like Doctor Prunesquallor, and Nanny Slagg and enough back stabbing intrigue to make a soap opera fan content. Titus is still only an infant at the end of this, the first in the planned series following him from birth to death. I think the best way to experience this tale is to pretend you are one of the countless retainers living there and follow the count and his family through the endless decaying castle corridors of Gormenghast.
Next, Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein, which will be a very different listening experience. I wanted to include a Heinlein tale, and I started looking for something that would avoid his sometimes eye-rolling misogyny, his thinly disguised contempt for those who don’t share his political and philosophical worldview, his weird propensity for do and don’t lists, and then I thought, what the heck, this is why we love him. Time Enough for Love is the story of the long, long life of Lazarus Long, the longest lived human ever born: lover of women, ace pilot, slave holder briefly, pioneer, list maker.
Time Enough for Love is set in the far future, where we meet Lazarus. Born in 1916, he’s finally decided he has had enough and prepares to end his life. But first he enters an agreement with a group of scientists ancestors of his, some of them, to share his memoirs before he dies. It takes so long that he finally decides to keep going after all. The story is broken into a series of novellas my favorite was the Tale of the Adopted Daughter, which is set on a frontier planet and was the most, I think, human. Even the talking mule was a charming character. It’s also packed with lists, notes, and sometimes questionable advice for instance: “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.” I proudly admit to not making messes in the house.
So all the men are virile, adventurous and full of pioneer spirit, and all the women are sex kitten rocket scientists. Classic Heinlein.
My third pick is Dune by Frank Herbert. I think this is often referred to as the best selling science fiction novel ever. Also the first science fiction novel to not only create a new world, but also to completely write its history, its commerce, its politics, and most importantly its environment. Yes, it’s an early green novel. Because only in the deserts of Arrakis Dune, the desert planet can you mine the most valuable substance in the universe: the spice melange which extends life, permits faster-than-light space travel, and allows some people to see the future. It’s the doomed love story of the new ruler of Dune, Duke Leto Atreides, and his concubine, Lady Jessica, and how she defies her masters in the mysterious female cult of the Bene Gesserit and bears Leto a son Paul. Paul Atreides grows up to be the messianic Mua’dib, a leader of men who avenges his family, among many other things. What I loved most about Dune aside from riding the giant sandworms is opening that window into the entire story of a civilization: we hear excerpts from encyclopedias, holy books and eyewitness accounts, and the mixture of espionage and political intrigue and flat-out action is mesmerizing. If you’ve only seen one of the movies, do yourself a favor and go back to the source.
So, three classics, and three worlds: the crumbling, ritual-bound castle of Gormenghast, the adventures through time of Lazarus Long, and the intrigue, politics and adventure on the desert planet Dune. Happy exploring. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.