Frank Herbert, The Green Brain

OK, you science fiction lovers, you know as well as I do that an overwhelming number of sci-fi books, even classics and experimental triumphs, contain clangers of one kind or another. Retrograde politics, howlingly irredeemable gender relations, racism cloaked as alien/human conflict, characters not complex enough for Harlequin, a plot interrupted right at the point where the author would have to do the first interestingly complicated thing with the implications of whatever innovation or twist has been driving the novel: you name it, and we'll be able to find dozens of examples.

So yeah, Frank Herbert's 1966 The Green Brain, his first novel after Dune, has some of that stuff. I'll generally defend science fiction as real fiction, whatever that term might mean, but you've got to admit that even the good examples aren't always good examples, if you see what I mean.

The gist of The Green Brain is that roughly a hundred years from now, and following China's example, South America is attempting to eradicate all insect life except for genetically mutated bees that'll continue to perform whatever tasks might be deemed necessary for continued human existence. The goal is to eradicate disease altogether, and to remove insect as a competitor with humans for food. Since the Chinese have maintained the specifics as a state secret, no one knows all the details, but things haven't gone nearly as well in China as has been advertised. And in South America, somehow, the insects have figured out what the humans are doing, what the consequences for the planet might be, and how to respond, including how to fight back.

The collective response of the insects is really the story of the novel, and it's an audaciously speculative concept. There are some human characters, three of them in particular, just the right number for a movie IMHO, and their nationalities are interestingly and usefully varied, but they're representative figures. (I'm fine with that, incidentally. How much more sensitive introspection do we need, honestly? Give me something to think about, rather than someone else's thinking or - shudder - feeling.) This novel is about the big question of how far humans should intervene with the non-human, or how much effect humans should have on the non-human.

It's a bit muddled, though, by the sense that the over-reaching seems to be the exclusive province of socialist governments rather than capitalist ones (or corporations, such as Monsanto, the "evil corporation in your refrigerator," as some would have it). Given everything we know about capitalism's role in food speculation now, there's no justification anymore for unilaterally demonizing both the Green Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Sure, demonize both movements if you like, but you can't let capitalism off the hook when it's similarly demonic.

Anyway, I always get tangled up with the terminology. Natural, cultural, human: use what works for you. Herbert's proposing a richly non-binaristic view of nature and humanity, anchored in the minutiae of ecology (to which he refers only sparingly in the novel, mind you), to imagine some valuably self-imposed limits to human actions or achievements. It's a little weird, though, how he sets this philosophic problem beside a spectacularly complicated biological problem that he chooses not to explain (the mechanics of the collective insect response), so in my reading I find at best an uneasy fit between the engine driving the drama and the engine driving the ideas.

And gender relations are just plain odd, too, notably everything to do with entomologist and noted Irish beauty Dr. Rhin Kelly, about whom I'll say only that it's convenient when a spy's habitual sexual drives are so powerful that they can't help but make her effective. (Oy.) If you read the novel, please do watch out for repetitive strain injuries from your regular eye-rolling.

But after all this carping, I have to end by saying that I rilly rilly enjoyed The Green Brain! Fascinating ideas, even if the plot and characters and structure might have been different: valuable and worthwhile speculative fiction, though not for everyone.


Fiona said…
Have you read George r r martin's work? I haven't yet, but the new Yorkers had a piece on him recently and I am intrigued... A different sort of scifi.
richard said…
Thanks for the Martin tip, Fiona -- I haven't read him, and he hasn't been on my list of planned reading, either. I've heard the name, certainly, but that's about it!

Popular Posts