Monday, October 6, 2008

Frank Herbert "The Santaroga Barrier"

Why do people born in the peaceful California wine valley of Santaroga seldom leave, and always return? Why do passers through rarely stop, and visitors never stay? Why do outside business interests find it impossible to establish a beach head? What makes Santaroga's wine and cheese from the Jaspers Co Op so special, yet immune to analysis? Why have the last two market researchers sent there died under mysterious circumstances? And why is the latest, Gilbert Dasein, the victim of three near fatal accidents within his first 24 hours in the valley?

The Sanataroga Barrier is science fiction, witty social commentary and detective novel all rolled up in one. For those who only know Herbert from his Dune books, this, and his recently reprinted White Plague, show that the master was no one-trick pony. This book involves ideas that touch upon corporatism and cult dynamics, but it is not a novel written merely as an excuse for exploring such ideas. Rather, it is simply an incredibly good story, with all the intricate and multilevel subtleties and wordplay that you would expect from the author of Dune, yet set in a little California wine-town.For example, the hero's name, Dasein, is German for "existence" or "presence" (literally "there-being") used famously by Martin Heidegger in his Being and Time. According to Wikipedia:

For Karl Jaspers, the term "Dasein" meant existence in its most minimal sense, the realm of objectivity and science, in opposition to what Jaspers called "Existenz", the realm of authentic being.

So long as Dasein is an "objective" outsider, his being will lack authenticity in the Santarogan sense. Remarkably the townfolk discuss philosophy and psychology over breakfast in the way that one would expect the residents of a farming town to ruminate about crop prices and the recdent drought. The local paper reads like an in house think tank newsltetter.

This town and this book are not what they seem at first. Herbert integrates, extrapolate and speculate in ways to which no other science fiction writer can compare, and his non-Dune books have been far too long neglected. This is one of the best. Sit down with a nice glass of beer and a plate of cheese and dig in. And don't ruin the suspense by reading any spoilers!

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