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I Love Pulpy Sci-fi Books in Used Bookstores

If you love sci-fi, especially the classic stuff, you may know one of the unique special pleasures of our love - finding a really pulpy, really yellowed, Ace, Trade, or Avon paperback release of a sci-fi book from the sixties.

Now, the book doesn’t have to have been printed in the sixties, although it helps. The key things we’re looking for are:

Finding a yellowed I, Robot or Foundation is a jolt of pleasure like no other.

  • Funky smell - the smell of the bookstore or spilled bongwater?

  • Yellowed around the edge

  • Funky artwork, preferably pastels

  • Funkier typeface, preferably raised from the paperstock cover

Today at the book trader on Castro in Mountain View I picked up a copy of the fourth book of the Dune series: God Emperor of Dune. It’s definitely a winner on the above points.

It’s one of those great sixties editions with the title in pseudo-psychedelic gold leaf with a hand-drawn picture of the mostly transformed Leto II (also called the God Emperor) on the cover.

OK, a picture is worth a thousand words.

I can easily imagine some shaggy hippy-type guy ambling slouchedly through the Haight with this latest release on his way to yet again cook his third eye with another dose of lysergia. I wonder what the poor bastard made of this.

“Hey man, do you think The Spice is like, acid?”

[ My own response to this question can be found here. ]

Anyway, back to the exchange of tender for goods, when you buy these old pulpy versions you feel the cultural disdain that the ‘straights’ had on the sci-fi crowd. Woody Allen once said that sex is only dirty and wrong when it’s done right. The satisfaction of reading sci-fi is truly extra satisfying when it’s shamefully geeky and pulpy.

So as I was basking in this acquisition I thought about the title, God Emperor of Dune.

I know (as do readers) that Leto II was of woman born and therefore would not be whan I think of as God: immutable, omnicient, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

But…. let’s think about it from another angle…

What is the one essential idea we have about God?

Doubtless some of the pious might say “forgiveness”, or “creator”, or some similar such Sunday school convenient platitude of gross nonsense.

I mean you may have been created by a diety, maybe not. A diety may care if you didn’t called the “Red Hot Date Line for Hot Steamy Chat” a diety may not care.

Think like a child, or a savage, what is the essential fear you have: death.

What is the essential nature of God? Immune to death.

I remember my mother telling me that Heaven was a city made of Gold when I was very young. What’s the essential lesson? When I die, there is something already waiting that doesn’t die. Godhood is longevity.

History bears me out. I recall seeing the exhibit of Ramses The Great (Ramses II) back in Dallas many years ago. Many of his officers thought he was a God because he lived to the ripe old age of……eighty.

Eighty. Eighty in an age where the average mortality age was less than half of that!

Eighty is a pretty good age to die these a-days. You live to 80 you have kids, grandkids, gamble some in Vegas. Things are pretty good. Living five centuries would seem like Godhood to us.

In this story, Leto II lived several thousand years so, phenomenologically, if godhood is a function of longevity he is truly right to be called (or to call himself?) God Emperor.

Or for the calculus minded: When we learn about calculus series we learn that the function for a series is represented by the function (Hm, can’t format this properly with the sigma and superscripts :-/ - let me “say it out”).

“As n appreaches infinity, the sum of the series 1/xn, as an aggregate, approximates 1.”

In fact, at certain levels the proximity grows so close that we, in calculus, say “1”.

Thus for Leto II, as n represents the years of life, he moves closer and closer to 1 – immortality and, in essence, Godhood.

Anyway back to the book, beyond its title.

It’s certainly the most mystical of the Dune books. The opening sets the events of the book as having already happened during a time called “The Scattering” and shows some recently uncovered diaries of the God Emperor (even God Emperors like to ‘blog, as it were).

Leto’s voice is mystical, disjointed, fatalistic, and occaasionally confused by his long, long life. Humanity’s future which he saw with his psychic power, which he experienced with his life, and which he now sees receding behind him like a wake leaves him bursting forth observations like a mystic.

I find many of his writings have a Rumi-like, explosive quality.

In any case, I read God Emperor years ago. While I’ve read the original at least 10 times, this one only once. I think, perhaps, I was too young to understand some of the more adult depth of his characters.

The other trouble is that Leto II is not a traditional hero (or anti-hero) much like God I think he is beyond good and evil. His father, the hero of Dune, is much more standard. He’s an heir, he’s cast out, he regroups, he kills the ursurpers, his rule is law Along the way he has some very interesting mental wig-outs, but there you have it.

In book two, he becomes worshipped, in book 3 he has the twins. OK, great.

But Leto….he loves humanity, but he has lost his own it seems. He doesn’t even seem particularly inclined to fight for his life. He accepts death in a way that his father railed against and that we, as the audience, expect.

I suppose this is one of the most frustrating things for Dune series readers - the format fundamentally changes. The characters don’t become more noble after time. They don’t seem readily inclined to do the right thing. The universe feels more and more removed from the traditional human drama rules passed to us by the Greek dramatists.

It’s hard to believe his books can still engender so much thought and debate.

Herbert was a genius and I doubt we shall ever see his like again.