A Little Review of Star Readers from out of the East

After reading fifty or so pages of Star Readers from out of the East by Daniel Nygaard, the reader discerns that it conveys a very similar mood to Dune.  The Parthian Empire, where the majority of the novel takes place, is rife with political intrigue, and the prophecy of a new king stands as the chief motivation for the main characters’ actions.  However, the heroes of Star Readers are really heroes–not power-hungry nobles having an aggrieved status.  I know that I am comparing someone’s first novel to a genre classic, but Nygaard’s book, though suffering from a lack of suspense prior to the climax and a somewhat ponderous writing style, strikes me as the better work.  One expects that Nygaard’s style of writing will improve, and it is admittedly difficult to add suspense when the reader knows the ending.  For the rest of the article, I’d like compare Star Readers to Dune, as I expect that people who liked the latter will also enjoy the former.

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Star Readers includes a desert world only slightly more forgiving than Arrakis as its setting.  Not many novels have been set in the Parthian Empire in the First Year of Our Lord, and kudos to Nygaard for the extensive research he accomplished in order to describe this world with such vivid accuracy.  The reader will find that the power struggles within and without the Parthian Empire just as interesting as those of the Fremen and the Padishah Empire.  I could only detect a few historical inaccuracies myself, such as when Nygaard remarks that certain Cataphracts armored their horses in bronze chainmail–this never existed as bronze is not ductile enough to make good ring mail–and when three Roman auxiliaries suddenly come before a city gate.  Now, a standard auxiliary (quinquaganeria) consisted of 500 soldiers–meaning that, if the units were at full strength, a force of 1,500 soldiers were standing before this gate.  Overkill!  But, I would like to emphasize that inaccuracies like this are few and far between: one needs to read Bernard Cornwell in order to find historical novels which are more accurate.

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As a final point of comparison, both novels feature a major religious leader.  However, while Paul Atreides becomes a kind of Muhammad setting up a religious and political kingdom by force, the heroes of Star Readers, the Magi, seek someone who wishes to establish a kingdom of the Spirit rather than one of arms.  The focus on the goods of the soul over those of absolute power give Nygaard’s novel no slight edge in my mind–as much of an edge as the soul has over the body.

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So, do I recommend Star Readers?  Absolutely, though be prepared to read through a very dense book.  But, one is rewarded in taking up this struggle by becoming immersed in a rich and interesting world.  Certain characters stand out as very well rounded, and some of the action is quite fun.  I’m looking forward to more novels from this author in order to see how his style evolves.

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How a Quote by C. S. Lewis Illustrates a Problem with Dune’s Characters

The characters in Frank Herbert’s Dune have bothered me for quite some time.  You see, there’s an early comment in the work that few people become truly human.  So, the theme of what Herbert thinks that it means to be truly human intrigued me.  By page 350, the answer to the question “What is a true human being?” seems to be that a true human being is one who masters his passions and emotions through reason and will.  That’s not bad, especially considering that modern society has a tendency to place passion and emotion above reason, which leads to moderns making foolish decisions.  (As may be reasonably expected.)  Passions and emotions will more often than not tell one to do the wrong thing unless one has so educated them that they bolster the rational course of action.  Sometimes, one only accomplishes the rational thing because one’s will has the push of passions and emotion behind them (e.g. defending an innocent person from calumny even though it costs us esteem); but, this does not change the fact that passion and emotion are usually unreliable in differentiating between right and wrong.

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However, Herbert’s characters almost seem hyper-rational.  I am reminded of Descartes’s image of man as a mind in a machine.  However, Dune‘s characters are focused on the body and the tangible for the most part.  Our heroes are preeminently concerned with survival–whether surviving the deserts of Arrakis, escaping Harkonnen attacks, or seeking to gain enough power to end the Harkonnen threat forever.  But, why do they want to survive?  What makes their lives so worth living?  Revenge?  Power?  In that case, what separates them from the villains in terms of motivations?  Doubtless, the Atreides have justice on their side because they have been assaulted by Harkonnens while they wished to live in peace.  But, what is the point of their justice?  To promote peace, I suppose; but that leads to the question of why peace is preferable to war among people motivated by the quest for power?

My gripe with Paul and Jessica might be summed up in these words of C. S. Lewis: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”  Neither Paul, Jessica, nor any of the good guys have friends!  All their associates are useful to them in some way except in the case of Jessica, her husband, and Paul.  And even among the three of them, we discern parts of their relationships which feel utilitarian!  They may be honorable, good, and reasonable people, but they appear the less human for all that–and the less good.  After all, bad people can only have relationships of utility!  What does it say about our heroes when they don’t have proper friendships with other people–friendships based on enjoying another’s personality and virtue?

Here is a picture of C. S. Lewis with some Inklings.

Here is a picture of C. S. Lewis with some Inklings.

Frank Herbert gets many things right about living as a true human being–but he misses too much in forsaking the heart for the sake of the head.  How much value does living have without love?