Robert V.S. Redick, author of The Chathrand Voyage Quartet contacted me recently with an idea for a guest post/essay on the art and challenge of making the fantastic believable. I found the idea more than interesting and today I share it with you.
Are the Worms Really Big?
Creating a Texture of Belief in the Fantastic
by Robert V.S. Redick
Why yes; they are big, rather. But then, even people who haven’t read Dune know that much. Here’s a better question: how on earth did Frank Herbert ever make us believe in his giant sandworms, these most improbable of monsters, to begin with?
A confession, first: on beginning this essay, I found to my shock that the worm/size question never directly appears in Dune. The line I half-recalled is, “Are the guild ships really big?” (Yes, they are). It’s a question young Paul Atriedes asks in the opening chapters of the book. There are others: “Why don’t they have weather control?”, “Have you ever seen the Fremen?”, “How did you trick my mother into leaving me alone with you?”, “Did my father send you up to test me?”, “What’s in the box?”, “What’s a gom jabbar?”, “Why are we walking into this?”
And on and on. The ratio of questions to total sentences in the first ten percent of Dune is roughly on par with Green Eggs and Ham. And not without reason: Paul is only crudely informed about the fascinating hell into which his family is about to plunge. As such, he’s a great vehicle for the reader’s own foray into Arrakis. He wants to know. His very survival depends on knowing. And he has a gift that brings him glimpses of the world he will inherit: glimpses precisely engineered to spur our own interest along.
But about the most famous single feature of the novel, his question is strangely offhand:
"And the worms?" Paul asked.
"I'd like to study more about the sandworms."
"Ah-h-h-h, to be sure. I've a filmbook on a small specimen, only one hundred and ten meters long and twenty-two meters in diameter. It was taken in the northern latitudes. Worms of more than four hundred meters in length have been recorded by reliable witnesses, and there's reason to believe even larger ones exist."
It’s a curious scene--because for once, Paul doesn’t show much curiosity. Indeed he pays little attention to his interlocutor, Dr Yueh (Herbert has more than one reason for that), and Yueh, for his part, is the most pedantic of the six elders who whirl about our hero in the course of some forty pages.
What’s going on? Is Paul a clod? Why isn’t he leaping up and down, all but out of his mind at the thought of going to a world where carnivores four hundred meters long rule over a sea of sand?
A major reason is because it wouldn’t help us believe. In fact, any “Wow, Geeze, OMFG” behavior would likely do the opposite, and fix our attention on the improbability of such an animal. And that would be narrative poison. We need, rather, any help the author can give us to suspend our disbelief. And Herbert delivers, by quietly transmitting the cold fact (four hundred meters) and moving us immediately on.
The same tactic occurs again and again: brief, glancing mention of the monsters, a determined withholding:
They say you can’t drill in the desert--storms and sandtides destroy equipment faster than it can be installed, if the worms don’t get you first.
So many new things to learn about. The spice. And the sandworms.
“Ah-h, the worms,” the Duke said. “I must see one sometime.”
As it happens, the Duke sees one in a matter of hours after expressing that wish--and so, for the first time does Paul:
The wormsign had broken off…and now there appeared to be turbulence in the sand around the factory…. Flecks of dust shadowed the sand around the crawler. The big machine began to tip down and to the right. A gigantic sand whirlpool began forming there to the right of the crawler. Sand and dust now filled the air for hundreds of meters around.
Then he saw it!
A wide hole emerged from the sand. Sunlight flashed from glistening white spokes within it. The hole’s diameter was at least twice the length of the crawler, Paul estimated. He watched as the machine slid into the opening in a billow of dust and sand. The hole pulled back.
I’m not here to comment on Herbert’s prose style, or his fondness for exclamation points. But notice than even now, the veil on the beast is but partly lifted. The worm’s just swallowed a machine the size of a castle: we see what it can do, but we barely see it.
And how much better this way. Herbert not only sneaks up on us with his great, grotesque monster, but leaves much of the canvas blank, for our mind’s eye to fill. The terrors with which we fill those gaps nearly always enhance the experience. As readers, we are participants dreamers, guided rather than controlled by the author’s spell.
But back to selling the impossible. Here’s good old Gandalf, at ease in the Shire on a quiet morning, setting the stage for the looming apocalypse that will shape the Trilogy:
But last night I told you of Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord.
Did you, now? And where were we? Why in God’s name wasn’t that included in the text, alongside Bilbo’s birthday antics?
Because once again, we’re in the realm of the ultra-fantastic, the extreme supernatural. And with this dexterous maneuver, Tolkien helps us believe by suggesting that we already know. Gandalf continues:
The rumors you have heard are true: he has indeed arisen again and left his hold in Mirkwood...
What rumors? Oh yes, um, those rumors. The ones “we’ve heard,” which are nowhere in the text. Of course.
…and returned to his ancient fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor. That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the border of old stories.
You see? (Tolkien tells us). You know about Mordor already: it’s the nightmare place you’ve always been afraid of. The very question of its reality is sidestepped: we are already afraid that The Worst Place Imaginable is about reach out and lay its withering hand on Hobbiton.
Remember Orwell? “You know what’s in Room 101, Winston. Everyone knows what’s in Room 101.”
Herbert aids us with the utmost generosity. By the time a sandworm looms in plain sight over Paul and Jessica (blind, thrashing, drowning them in the reek of spice), we have long since subscribed to their reality.
In The Chathrand Voyage Quartet, the epic fantasy series that concludes February 5 with The Night of the Swarm, I try to practice what I’ve just been preaching. My world of Alifros fairly overflows with the strange—miniature warriors in the holds of ships, demi-spirits in the clouds, giant evangelical rats beneath a nation’s capital. But I rarely just hurl these grotesques into a scene. Rumor precedes them, and sounds, and other traces of their reality. Above all the effect of their reality on everyday people precedes them.
The horrid rats, for example, are mutation of woken animals: relatively unassuming creatures afflicted by acquired intelligence. By the time the rat plague erupts, we’ve had a gradual, 500-page induction into the reality of woken animals. We know them. We’re ready to believe in their hideous cousins. Even then, we hear them long before they take the stage. When the fatal moment comes, they attack in total darkness, and the old man trapped with them underground must glean their nature from other clues:
The wriggling stopped, and he heard a creature scrabbling from the pit. His hand groped for the axe-shaped stone. But where had he left it? By the kiln, Rin spare him, he’d dropped his weapon by the kiln!
“Penny for a colonel’s widow?”
The creature loped into the room. From the sound of its breath Isiq pictured an animal roughly the size of a sheepdog. Every few yards it would stop talking and take a sharp, deliberate sniff. Isiq raised the metal tray and held his breath.
From the pit came a sudden crescendo of digging, and a muted sound, as of many voices shouting behind an earthen wall. Isiq heard the creature paw at the locked door of the chamber.
“Penny for a colonel’s—”
The creature broke off, snuffling again. Then it gave an ear-splitting caterwaul and lunged straight at him.
When we write of the overly familiar (taxes, teachers, office politics, a surly spouse), our job is often to make them less familiar: to find the colors and the meaning that’s been lost to overexposure. When we write of the fantastic, our job is to help it become irresistibly real. Naturalistic, photo-realistic description is one path to doing so, but it is not a safe or sufficient path. Indeed it often backfires, precisely because the reader has not been aided in her desire to believe in the spectacle.
Readers need so much more than sharp images. We need to be seduced into accepting them, we need help to sink, unsuspecting, into their world. Call it a texture of belief, if you like. It’s what the committed fantasist struggles to create on every page.
Robert V.S. Redick’s naval-epic fantasy series The Chathrand Voyage begins with The Red Wolf Conspiracy and concludes February 5 with The Night of the Swarm. A former international development worker, he lives in Western Massachusetts.
Robert V.S. Redick page