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Things I’ve noticed: Dune really wrecked Science Fiction

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1bookmonkey00k
Sep 2, 2009, 5:20pm Top

Okay, first off, yes I like the book Dune, the story is engrossing, the characters are neat and the concepts are pretty freaking cool. My problem with Dune is not its endless sequels or any of the movie adaptations, it’s simply this:

I believe that since it was published in 1965, Science Fiction as a genre has suffered.

A little background, I’ve been spending the last few years reading a lot SF, I’m still very into horror and love a good fantasy, but my inner twelve-year-old loves to dig into a good SF novel and be blown away by all the cool ideas and characters (and ray guns). One of my favourite things about SF is that the sheer amount of stuff that those authors pack into these books is unbelievable.

Case in point: Double Star, by Robert A. Heinlein – in less than 200 pages Heinlein gives us space travel, political intrigue, thrills and chills, and the obvious inspiration for the Kevin Kline movie “Dave.”

Now Dune gives us a lot as well; space travel, economics, guilds, family drama, mysticism, desert people, sand worms, and martial arts. The problem, to do all of this Frank Herbert needed a lot of space, 517 pages of space, and to be fair, with the incredible amount of stuff Herbert put into the book, he needed all of it.

Now Dune went on to win all sorts of awards, and is credited by many SF fans as a personal favourite or even the book that turned them onto SF. My problem is the effect Dune had on SF as a genre. Basically, people looked at it and instead of saying, “Wow – you can have this kind of massive family drama/economic intrigue/war story/mystical journey all in the context of SF”, they said, “Dune must be awesome because it’s really long.”

So after 1965 all SF started to get really, REALLY, BIG. I mean, when I've lined up my copy of Dune with three SF books that had been written in the previous decade (Double Star and Starship Troopers by Heinlein, and Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement), all of them award winners, all of them critically acclaimed, and all of them barely adding up to the page count that is DUNE.

The trend of writing bigger SF books never stopped. Have you looked at the page count of recent SF? These things are monsters, often coming in at just under a thousand pages and the worst thing is a lot of it feels like filler, and I am not the only one to notice this.

In the end, people focused on the wrong thing – the comic industry made the same mistake after The Dark Knight Returns when they chose to focus on violence and grit rather than looking at the superhero mythos from another angle (which is done brilliantly by the way in both the film “The Incredibles” and the comic series Astro City)

Faulkner stated “kill your darlings” as advice for writers when revising their work. Seriously guys, I like reading a new book every couple of days and these SF novels are turning into one and two week long endeavors which any author in the fifties could have gotten down in less than 200 pages.

Give me back my pocket sized paperbacks!

P.S. Check out my blog at http://wisdomofbookmonkey.blogspot.com/ for more of my musings on genre fiction.

2stellarphoenix
Sep 2, 2009, 5:41pm Top

Interesting perspective that I hadn't thought about before. I loved Dune as a kid and agree that many SF books since then are quite long. Neal Stephenson, who writes an odd sort of sci-fi, is quite the master at this.

3bookmonkey00k
Sep 2, 2009, 5:47pm Top

I was just at a site today where an online reviewer was complaining about a Neal Stephenson book called Quicksilver and how he found it pretty padded - it's a shame too as I (and the reviewer) both like Neal Stephenson normally.

4bookmonkey00k
Sep 2, 2009, 5:47pm Top

Whoops, forgot to add the link - sorry.

Check it out at:

http://www.spoonyexperiment.com/2009/01/03/giving-up-on-quicksilver-again/

5barney67
Edited: Sep 2, 2009, 8:14pm Top

There does seem to be an absence of editing in the publishing world, not only in science fiction but in every genre. There are so many books that top out at 500 pages or more. Surely not every word in those massive books is necessary. It seems that no one is doing the work of cutting them. I don't know of another reason. I'm not sure it was Dune's fault.

Take a look at books like Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. They are probably under 200 pages in paperback. Cryptonomicon is the longest book I've read. The Baroque Cycle looked intriguing, but I can't make that kind of commitment. There's just not enough time.

6ajsomerset
Sep 2, 2009, 7:55pm Top

The fact of the matter is that many people like thick books -- it makes them feel they get more for their money.

It's not a lack of editing, it's market demand.

7Jim53
Sep 2, 2009, 8:57pm Top

I think the fantasy market has affected SF as well. After LOTR, multi-volume and l-o-n-g fantasies became all the rage as well, and I think that bled into the SF market. I don't think we should give Dune all the credit.

BTW, Double Star was just a riff on The Prisoner of Zenda.

8reading_fox
Sep 3, 2009, 5:40am Top

I'd like to see some data on book lengths over time. Wordcount is probably a better statistic than pages though. I agree many books in most genres are longer than they were. But this is bound to be due to a large number of factors. Publishing costs are down - book length is often a decision of the publisher, what they can afford to print, and what they think will sell, author's get contracts for 100k novels or an 80k novel etc. It's also reader tastes. I prefer a novel where there is opportunity to get to know the characters in a bit more detail. However I agree some tombs are too long, but I don't think that can be said of 'most' of them. YMMV.

9BarkingMatt
Sep 3, 2009, 5:52am Top

Wordcount is probably a better statistic than pages though.

You're right of course, but I'm not going to do a word count on anything I don't have in digital form. ;-)

10andyl
Sep 3, 2009, 6:37am Top

80K is a very short novel for SF & fantasy these days - they usually come in at 100K words minimum. The older novels mentioned by the original poster were probably in the region of 55-65,000 words.

Another possible reason that lengths have grown some is because in the past nearly every SF novel was serialised in a magazines first. A long novel would eat up too much space for a magazine to be entirely happy. If the magazine could publish 3 or 4 short novels a year it is probably better business than 1 or 2 long novels.

Also from looking at the mainstream word it appears that tastes vary over time for size of novel. Look at all the Victorian novelists churning out volumes just as big as we have today. Somewhere else someone complained about the length of Drood by Dan Simmons. I pointed out that Drood is not much longer (although without word counts it is hard to say for sure) than most of Wilkie Collins's well-known works.

11readafew
Sep 3, 2009, 10:33am Top

What about the fact that many readers are more sophisticated and knowledgeable? Readers expect the author to know (or at least sound like they do) at least as much as the average person when writing about a topic. In murder mysteries/police procedurals with all the shows like CSI, NCIS, Numbers etc. everyone knows about DNA, finger prints and what not, so an author should have a clue as well. I know I certainly have these expectations. In Science Fiction we expect to see at least things we know are possible now. If a new Sci-fi novel came out and the space ship captain was using a slide rule to calculate the course of the ship we'd say "what the hell?"

This is not saying many books couldn't use some more editing to tighten them up, but we all know that editing staff is short just by all the errors we see in what actually gets printed.

12crazybatcow
Sep 3, 2009, 10:54am Top

I don't know that I agree - some sci-fi subgenres might run long (any that tip into fantasy, for sure...) but...

Ian Douglas, Mike Resnick, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Peter Watts, Robert Sawyer, Richard Morgan are all pretty concise...

I think it depends a lot on the type of sci-fi - it used to be that sci-fi was mostly the same "type", written by mainly (white) male writers exploring technical/space-y topics and these were short 'n sweet.

Dune (coincidentally?) happened to come out at the same time as society as a whole was being revolutionized, as a more diverse population of writers entered the sci-fi field, and as the general mores of the Western world loosened to allow an exploration of completely "new" topic areas.

Anyway, that's just my 3 cents worth ;-)

13andyl
Sep 3, 2009, 11:38am Top

#12

Oops I just lost a post where I went and looked up the lengths of all of those authors and compared them with the oldies mentioned in the first post.

The result was that all those authors write much longer books than the three mentioned in the first post. Morgan's Black Man is only a tad shorter than Dune his other work tends to be around the 400 page mark. Even Ian Douglas (who I haven't read and looking him up on Amazon that doesn't surprise me) writes books that are around the 400 page mark. Rusch's Retrieval Artist books and Sawyer and Watts all seem to come in at that length as well.

As a comparison Double Star is 144 pages.

It is also nothing to do with male writers writing about technical/space-y topics either - I've just re-read We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ. 125 pages long.

14bookmonkey00k
Sep 3, 2009, 11:40am Top

Cool - I've never heard of it - I'll have to check it out,

Thanks!

15bookmonkey00k
Sep 3, 2009, 11:42am Top

... and by "it" - I mean Prisoner of Zenda, don't worry, I'm getting better at using these forms every day.

16crazybatcow
Edited: Sep 4, 2009, 10:42am Top

I guess my point was that I don't think that it was Dune that caused the lengthening of sci-fi books, but rather it was a result of a change in society, economy, and the background of the writers that started entering the field in the late 60s and 70s.

Ursula Le Guin was a Heinlein contemporary and was short n' sweet too. But as we move into more liberal times, the stories get longer, not necessarily because Dune encouraged epic tales but because now there were more types of stories to be told.

For example, Morgan's books (didn't read Black Man however) have graphic and detailed sex scenes that add many many pages to a novel - these would not have appeared in books from earlier times...

And, as readafew mentioned, we expect that authors know more now... not because Dune made us expect more, but because society in general knows more. Of course, the cheaper cost of printing and distributing also shapes book lengths... but I don't know that it would be fair to blame Dune for the wreckage...

Dune was a casualty of the process, not the instigator.

{I have to edit because I just discovered that Black Man was published as Thirteen in North America so I did read it. }

17andyl
Sep 3, 2009, 12:11pm Top

#16

Sorry but Le Guin isn't really a contemporary of Heinlein. She started in the late 60s, Heinlein in the late 30s. Heinlein's not bloated books (the ones before Stranger) were nearly all in the 40s and 50s.

Also talking about length Stranger In A Strange Land was some years before Dune and was also pretty long - about 160,000 words in its cut form. I think that is roughly comparable to Dune - both were 400 page books in the 60s. As a comparison the current edition of Dune is around 600 pages.

18crazybatcow
Sep 3, 2009, 12:14pm Top

cool... then I guess I'm wrong. Women, people of color, sexual liberation, a spread into exploring the paranormal, a move from the majority of writers being from wealth, the ability to question God and the nature of reality has less to do with the change in the nature of Sci-fi than Dune did.

19ajsomerset
Sep 3, 2009, 12:43pm Top

#18 -- Sarcasm's a pretty cheap rhetorical weapon, especially when the limb you're out on is so thin and pliable.

First off, your premise is false from the get-go. Sci-fi didn't become more mature once the white male became extinct. Heinlein was not writing "technical/space-y" stuff in Starship Troopers, cited in the original post. He was drawing a view of society, no matter how obnoxious, and he didn't need 150,000 words to do it.

There's simply no reason to believe that feminism, racial politics, or the socioeconomic status of the author necessitates a bloated text. There is no parallel bloat in literary fiction. This is a genre issue, not one of content or theme.

Dune is certainly not solely responsible, but let's not pretend that sci-fi and fantasy novels have become much more complex, vice bloated, now that we're got rid of those stupid privileged white males -- because if we start saying things like that, people will think we're crazy as bat cows.

20crazybatcow
Sep 3, 2009, 12:59pm Top

White male sci fi writers are extinct? when did this happen?

How come it goes from my statement of women and people of color entering the "writing-force" to white men being extinct? Seems like a very big jump in logic, especially since it's not a zero-sum game. Every time a women writes a sci-fi book does not subtract a book from a male writer. In fact, I believe the sci-fi genre is still abundant with male writers.

And, btw, I never said a word about Sci-fi being more "mature" post-70s (unless you mean mature in the "adult language" sense?) Oh, and I also never commented on sci-fi being more "complex"... though I did say they often contain more sex.

Longer, yes, more graphic, yes, more variety in the backgrounds of the writers, yes... I did say that.

21ajsomerset
Edited: Sep 3, 2009, 1:08pm Top

My remark that the white males were extinct was made tongue-in-cheek.

You have implied, very clearly, that sci-fi has become more complex and mature, without using those two words, by suggesting a move from the "technical, space-y" to exploring new, socially relevant topics. This is what I mean by "complex" and "mature."

22omaca
Sep 4, 2009, 4:58am Top

I disagree.

Gibson writes excellent, "short" science fiction novels. And whilst Dan Simmons has really pushed the boundary with the massive Drood, his earlier Hyperion novels were not too large.

The same can be said of such innovative titles as Blindsight, any of Iain Banks's Culture novels and many other SF novelists of current times.

23andyl
Sep 4, 2009, 8:52am Top

#22

Did you check before you posted that?

Hyperion is 480 pages and Fall Of Hyperion is 544 pages. Both are above average length for a SF novel. Ilium is 656 pages, Endymion is 624 pages, The Rise of Endymion is 816 pages, Olympos is 832 pages. Where are these short SF novels that Dan Simmons is supposed to have written? If anything I would say he is the exemplar of long (maybe over-long) novels.

Iain Banks doesn't write all that short books either - Matter 656 pages, Consider Phlebas 467 pages, Excession 451 pages, Use Of Weapons 434 pages etc, etc.

Blindsight is 384 pages so still not short but not long either.

Admittedly most of Gibson's stuff is relatively short - less than 300 pages. So I'll give you him.

24omaca
Edited: Sep 4, 2009, 9:48am Top

Well, it depends upon what you mean by short. Or more specifically, "too long", as I said.

If you prefer novellas (a term I dislike), then fine. At least state that. But claiming that novels that are 500+ are too long is not really logical.

Why are they too long?

If they capture your attention for the length of the novel then what does it matter? Who says that 400 is worse than 300? To be perfectly honest, I think that's a rather shallow position to take.

Finally, with regards to the novels you listed, I suspect the ultimate page length may change depending upon the edition. I'm not certain, but I suspect the "trade paperback" has a larger word count per page than the regular cheap paperback. As such, wouldn't the page number change too?

25bookmonkey00k
Sep 4, 2009, 1:20pm Top

Wow!

I'm shocked at how many people are still following my post - Librarything is very cool.

Although the original post focused largely on my annoyance at the current trend in SF of bigger and bigger books - I still read lots of them, and many of them are well over the 500 page mark.

I guess the real annoyance I had is that once you get out of '50s SF the number of books you can read in any given time drops, so I can't brag about my speedy reading as much.

Also looking back at the earlier posts, I see there was a lotta talk about Female vs. Male SF writers. Personally one of my favourite current SF writers is Lois McMaster Bujold, whose Vorkosigan series consistently blows me away. and I loved Octavia E. Butler's Wild Seed.

26crazybatcow
Sep 4, 2009, 1:29pm Top

After this - err - discussion, I browsed through my sci-fi collection listed here. Out of the 60 or so items I tagged as sci-fi, only 9 female writers (though I have several of Bujold's titles).

And, as far as I can tell, only two African American writers and one First Nation's writer (though I think it's a different term in the U.S. where she's from but I can't recall it, sorry).

I don't like Butler's stuff... too... I dunno, social. (Gotta remember, just now I'm reading Galactic Corps which is pretty, well, blow-it-up-as-fast-as you-can type writing.)

27andyl
Sep 4, 2009, 3:15pm Top

#24

The original context were the novels of the 50s and early 60s - where wordcounts rarely exceeded 75K. This sort of stayed the norm up until the early 80s - most novels were less than 300 pages. There were plenty of short novels of 50K - 60K words (too long for a novella) but a length which isn't usually a commercial length these days.

As to format making a significant difference to the number of pages - then sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Banks's Matter - in the UK it was 544 pages in hardcover and large format paperback (the UK doesn't really have trade paperbacks), and 656 in paperback. In the US it was 604 pages in hardcover. Paul McAuley's Cowboy Angels only went up from 400 pages (in hardcover and large format paperback) to 418 pages in paperback.

28omaca
Sep 4, 2009, 7:48pm Top

But Banks went on record prior to its publication saying that it was massive. He knew it. His publishers knew it. And he told his fans before hand, so they knew it.

I can't see the problem?

Check out your local book shop. There are plenty of short SF novels there.

29RoboSchro
Sep 6, 2009, 7:59am Top

I've always thought that one reason for the lengthening of the novel is that it's a heck of a lot easier to write a long text when you're using a word processor. Of course, there have always been some long books, but I'm sure it took a lot more patience when you had to retype every draft.

30andyl
Sep 6, 2009, 8:52am Top

#29

Well Neal Stephenson has famously switched to using pen and paper and doing everything longhand. All of the Baroque Cycle and Anathem was written in that fashion. Apparently he uses different pens (thinner nibs) for doing the edits. Once it is all finished he then types it up into a word processor. I think Neal Gaiman, Garth Nix and JK Rowling are also long-hand writers. In horror Peter Straub writes long-hand. Stephen King's Dreamcatcher was longhand.

31RoboSchro
Sep 6, 2009, 2:43pm Top

I knew that about Stephenson. He seems to be the sort that would be writing really long books even if he had to knit the paper from his own beard.

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