The Best: Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune by Frank Herbert is the best book of all time. I know this to be true, because reading the saga of the desert planet left me dehydrated and sleep deprived. For a couple days one summer, as my mouth grew dry and my skin shrank against my bones, I felt sure I was on Arrakis without a Stillsuit. But what are basic needs next to uncovering the political machinations of an intergalactic struggle?
Let me be clear: I do not often step into a science fiction book and leave my suspension of disbelief behind. Dune was different – disbelief was never an option. I could feel the desert, and the story has a symbiotic relationship with the environment. No other book has quite so thoroughly created a rich ecology and political hellscape. It’s great. Every conversation is full of lies. There are assassins on both sides of the battle. There are badass females who do mind control with their voices. Nothing is safe in the book – even walking normally can summon monsters of the deep sands.
In brief, the House Atreides is appointed to rule the Spice-rich planet Arrakis. But when the House settles into the desiccated, sandworm-ridden dustbowl, chaos ensues. Clashing cultures, politics, betrayal, religion, and assassination attempts bring violence and awesome. Paul, the heir, rises to become the least annoying messianic figure in sci-fi/fantasy literature. Think Avatar, but less Pocahontas and more desert perfection. And way more awesome. How awesome? You’ll pass out from dehydration before it occurs to you to put the book down and get a glass of water.
And then there’s Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
Chuck P. is one of those writers. You love him or hate him. I loved Fight Club. I loved the thriller aspects, the antisocial and dissociative identity disorder bit (though psychologically dubious), and the casual mayhem. The book was easy to connect with. Counterculture, slick, and disillusioned. The 99 Percent who want to punch someone in the face. So I was thrilled when Anchor Books gifted me a copy of Choke. The back blurb looked promising. A sex addict med school dropout turns historical interpreter and moonlights as a con artist. All to pay for his mom’s elder care.
Little did I know that the book would be horrendously boring. My prior exposure to Chuck P. was limited to Fight Club and ‘Guts,’ the flinchworthy story from Haunted, which Jessica Jonas called out for its disgust and shock value in her best/worst post. For me, it was a brilliantly executed piece of transgressive fiction.
Choke attempts to follow in this tradition, using shock value to make up for a whiny and unpleasant narrator, a lack of suspense, and predictably unrealistic plot twists. Around the point that the narrator’s three-days-stuck anal beads and backed up organic matter are exploding all over the interrogation room, I yawned. Chuck tries to shock new readers while amusing jaded ones, but he has been too successful in the past to get by with this approach. Choke is all cough and no asphyxiation.
It all comes down to suspension of disbelief. Dune is a marvellous example of sci-fi transcending the genre norms and spawning a fully realized and habitable world. Whereas Choke takes the real world and makes it utterly unconvincing, ugly, and boring. Dune creates a realistic ecology, politics, and intergalactic drama so filled with tension you can’t put it down. And the impact each has on pop culture is telling: Choke was turned into a barely noticed movie. Dune has had a pervasive pop cultural influence with a movie, miniseries, massive number of sequels, and enthusiasm that continues long after it was published. Everyone, including Christopher Walken, knows that one must walk without rhythm and it won’t attract the worm. Instant win.
That’s my best and worst—now what about you? What book suspended your disbelief and refused to let go?