I will fully admit that I decided to read this book because Zendaya is in the upcoming movie, and as usual, I insist on reading the book before watching the movie.
I know it’s a sci-fi classic, but even after combing through Goodreads reviews, I can’t say that I fully understand why—except maybe that the impact has something to do with the era in which it was published.
Since I’m pretty ambivalent about the entire book, I thought a list of the things I enjoyed and the things I didn’t would be more useful than an essay-like review. So, here we go:
Things I enjoyed:
The depth of Herbert’s worldbuilding.
The intricacies of Fremen religion, and religion in general, throughout the book. They feel simultaneously derivative and very well-thought out.
The amalgamation of cultures. Among those I picked up on, particularly in the names and non-English words: Arabic, Judeo-Christian, Asian.
Bene Gesserit superpowers and their partiality to women.
The idea that the man who is prophesied as a savior will or must be adept at things generally considered feminine. I would like more shattering of gender barriers, please and thanks.
The slight transcendence of the “reluctant hero” trope (which I love) into a “hero who wants to actively resist the fervor that would come about as the result of his heroism” trope, which is largely new to me in fiction. Considering the way real-life history has occurred, this seems the most logical type of hero trope that could possibly exist in science-fiction, and now that I’ve read Dune, I’m shocked that the trope isn’t overwhelmingly popular already. This is the first time in real or fictional religion that I’ve seen the central figure of that religion deeply consider in advance the violence that his worshippers could wreak around the world.
The idea of investing in a sustainable future whole-heartedly, even though you know that your generation isn’t the one that will live to see it. We love environmental/climate justice.
Things I did not enjoy:
The stiffness of the dialogue between the characters.
The way the plot progresses but hardly seems to twist. It felt like I was always told what was going to happen, so that when it happened, I felt nothing because it was impossible to be surprised. A lot of this, I think, is Princess Irulan’s fault. And, perhaps, the gifts of prescience that some of the characters possess. In any case, I wonder how the book would have read, if Irulan’s excerpts came at the ends of chapters, and not the beginnings.
The lack of readable romance between people who clearly have great love for each other. For instance, I could infer that Jessica and Duke Leto were in love, but I couldn’t feel it. Same thing with Paul and Chani.
It felt like homosexuality and obesity were weaponized through their uses as characteristic of the book’s central antagonist.
The fact that the author chose to continuously document the inner thoughts of the characters in italics, instead of leaving me to infer. It felt like spoon-feeding me as a reader, as if I wasn’t smart enough to figure certain things out on my own. Besides, just like Irulan’s excerpts did, it severely detracted from the consequently nonexistent mystery of the plot.
The way the book was written made it difficult to understand what should have been basic transitions between places, times, and events.
The entire book was just much, much longer than it probably needed to be.
So, Dune may be a classic, but I can’t say it would be anywhere close to high on my recommendation list. But that’s just how I feel.
When I was a preteen obsessed with mythology and magical children’s fiction, I learnt the word “hamartia” from the Percy Jackson novels. A hamartia, otherwise known as a fatal flaw, is that characteristic within a hero that might eventually turn into their downfall. The goddess Athena claimed that the kind of hamartia with good motives behind it is usually the most dangerous kind. Unfortunately for me, nobody I ever read had a hamartia bad enough for me to take them seriously. Take Percy Jackson’s, for instance. His hamartia is “excessive loyalty” which is apparently dangerous because he would supposedly give up the world to save somebody he really cares about. Imagine giving a character a total virtue and making that their most dangerous problem. I love Percy, but he and the likes of Ned Stark can get out of my face as far as flawed characters are concerned.
It seems to me that the older I grew, the more tired I got of sanitized, wholly likeable characters. Perhaps this had something to do with relatability—as I have never considered myself likeable or sanitized. Not even well-mannered, if I’m being honest. But I think my tiredness had far more to do with credibility than personal relatability. Thankfully, in Claudette Josephine Walker, the writers of See You Yesterday gave me a flawed character I could believe in.
See You Yesterday is a science-fiction movie that was released earlier this year, 2019. In some ways, it was classically allegiant to the genre, what with being a movie about time travel and all—but in other ways, it was not. The theme of the movie was Blackness, with a focus on the unjustified murders of Black folk by American police. That’s right, the enemy isn’t aliens this time, ha! One of the main characters was Caribbean (Guyanese to be precise), the setting was the Bronx, and there was a random Jamaican guy used as comic relief. It was very much a Netflix movie in that there seemed to be a focus on aesthetic appeal (the graphics in See You Yesterday were very pretty, and the actors beautiful), as well as an intricate, convoluted plot, and an evident lack of Hollywood, Disney/Marvel-grade resources.
Despite that last point, I found See You Yesterday enjoyable, so emotionally engaging that I had to pause a few times to gather myself, and compelling enough that I have watched it twice and would gladly re-watch it again.
Although there’s probably quite a bit to be said about the political relevance of the movie, that is not what I want to talk about, because that’s not what made the greatest impression on me. And I’m not here to rate or review the movie either. I’m here to rant about how much I love the main character, CJ Walker, and explain why she is now my favorite movie character.
While CJ’s flaws are central to why I like her, the truth is that if she were not a holistic, sufficiently complex character, the flaws that I love so much would only be reasons to hate her. Character complexity is already difficult to incorporate into a coherent story, but to do so sufficiently in the space of a single movie? Remarkable. What an exciting bundle of contradictions CJ was, and this made her different from, and more appealing to me than all the most credible teenage characters I have ever watched in teen-centered motion pictures, including Sex Education and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
The most obvious thing about CJ is that she is smart. I mean, if you’re sixteen years old and you can build a portable time machine, your intelligence should go without saying. Nevertheless, it was said—by her science teacher, near the beginning of the film. Aside that, she is such a quick and natural problem solver, able to allow her intelligence to persevere through emotions of frustration, anger, grief and sadness, and is never hampered by a situation that might seem to another either immensely grave or totally hopeless.
Other obvious things about CJ are her optimism, ambition and pride in herself and the people she loves. (“Yeah, that’s my brother, what now, punk?!” is one of my favorite CJ lines!) If I had started off with a description of CJ’s flaws, I imagine one would be hard pressed to believe a girl like that could be naturally good-natured. But throughout the movie, she has this unshakeable faith in the good that is to come—whether it’s her and her best friend Sebastian getting scholarships to any schools of their choice, her brother turning his life around, or her own ability to save anyone from the forces of chance and racist America if she really puts her mind to it. Her excitement in reaction to a successful experiment is unmatched! (“June 28th!”)
But just as soon as you recognize CJ’s virtues (or even sooner), you see her flaws. Particularly her hotheadedness, stupidity, and astonishing unawareness of self—in that order of prominence. CJ is an impulsive character who acts often without thinking too much first. Say one wrong sentence to her, and she’s ready to beat you up. She’ll have armed policemen in her face, and she’ll still clapback with unbridled sass. In all the chaos her temper causes, how does she defend herself? Thus: “I’m a little tired of people telling me how I should act.” Funnily enough, CJ’s older brother, Calvin, is almost as bad. While his anger is justified, his composure in front of policemen is nearly nonexistent. The fact that Calvin and CJ are almost as stubborn as each other has its terrible consequences—but it makes me love them all the more, because it’s all so real and so very me. As pop culture Twitter might put it, “I feel seen.”
Speaking of consequences, one would think CJ had the presence of mind to recognize that some things happen because she has acted rashly, rather than viewing them all as mutually exclusive occurrences. Throw a slushy at your ex and bad things happen. How does CJ react? By throwing another slushy at her ex. Something worse happens, and not once does it seem to occur to CJ that it’s her fault. Once in the movie, CJ seriously says, without a hint of self-recognized irony, “Why are you so serious, Sebastian? Lighten up for once?” This coming from the girl who apparently wants to uppercut everyone in sight. How on earth is such a smart person so stupid and self-unaware? Simply because she is. As intelligent as she is, she’s still a sixteen-year-old hothead, and it shows. My God, it shows. At sixteen, I was vaguely smart—not quite a time machine-building genius—but quite as bad with balancing my intelligence with emotional control! CJ represents the perfect dichotomy of (my own) adolescence.
And yet another thing that makes CJ a fantastically appealing character is how her flaws intertwine with her virtues. CJ is a lover. She’s a relentless lover, and she wouldn’t be so without her pigheadedness. Besides that, she’s a selfish lover. She would go to the moon and back for someone she loves, and if there are consequences for people she doesn’t love, well, that’s none of her business, is it? (“Who cares about stupid ass Jared?” –CJ) In a similar way as with her brother Calvin, CJ’s reckless form of loving makes her as much of a hero as not. It’s only a kind of recklessness—outside the character of Jesus Christ, maybe—that would make you sacrifice yourself without thinking too much, to save people you believe to be worth saving. For me, CJ and Calvin Walker represent the height of this recklessness. (A bonus is how much of a switch-up either character can make, snapping right from ready-to-punch-someone-in-the-face, to looking like the model kid. Seeing how adorably CJ behaves to Sebastian’s grandmother kills me every time.)
A character is not an isolated being, and I think how the people in their lives see them is almost as important as the way the audience perceives them. Regarding CJ’s community, what I appreciate the most about CJ is that her flaws are obvious. They’re not secret blemishes that she only lets out in the privacy of her bedroom. CJ’s mother can say to her, quite plainly, “I never met anyone as stubborn as your daddy till I met you.” Calvin can say to CJ’s face that Sebastian is a much better friend than CJ. The fact that the people in her life can see her striking hamartia and continue to love her—well, that’s one of the most credible types of relationship I could hope to see in any work of fiction.
It’s funny that the reason I watched this movie at all was that my best friend recommended it to me a day or two after it came out, mainly because the main character reminded him of me. So I watched the movie, and at first I didn’t see it at all—possibly because I was so engrossed in the movie—and then after a bit of reflection and tears when the movie was done, I did!
There are many things to love (and criticize, I admit) about See You Yesterday, but my absolute favorite thing about it is Claudette Josephine Walker. I love her for how un-sanitized and classically unlovable she is as a main character. If CJ is overthrown as my favorite movie character anytime soon, I will be genuinely surprised!
I recently decided that Nnedi Okorafor is currently my favorite fiction author. Last year, right after I read Who Fears Death, I think I declared it my new favorite novel, and for sure, Onyesonwu (the main character of Who Fears Death) is my favorite fictional character at the moment, so it’s like Nnedi is just winning in my whole life right now. I’m trying to read all the books of hers I can get hold of, and since I’d heard so much about Lagoon already, I requested it from the closest public library. It was lit. So here, let me talk about several things I really liked about the book.
First of all, I loved that the main character was a middle-aged, married Nigerian woman with kids. This was unusual for me, not only for a novel, but for a science fiction one. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. Adaora (that’s her name) felt real and credible to me because of this. She was also a university professor (although her field, marine biology, isn’t one I’d consider quite ordinary for a Nigerian professor) which I know Nnedi Okorafor also is, and this made me happy, for goodness knows what reason. Also, she had a marine lab in her basement with computers and an aquarium and I don’t even know how you can get more badass than that.
The gradual revelation of the characters’ complexity was fascinating! I love background stories and things about people that are not always what they seem. On the surface, all the characters are rather unremarkable. It took the idea of random civilians to a whole new level because of how the characters’ careers were so diverse that it almost didn’t make sense what on earth they were doing together. Adaora, the protagonist, was a marine biology professor. Her companions, “Anthony Dey Craze” and Agu were a rapper and a soldier respectively. There’s an interesting way in which the extraordinary is composed of the unlikely placement of perfectly ordinary things. A story about a marine biologist, a Ghanaian rapper or a soldier would be a fairly normal one. But when all three are suddenly and randomly placed in the same context with a common interest, they begin to bring out the peculiarities in each other’s stories, while adding complexity to their collective story… and only when they were together did they begin to confess their supernatural fits.
They all had strange superpowers, and I loved it! All of their powers were quite logically related to their professions and that kind of blew my mind. I feel like that’s the best kind of superhero; the kind whose powers are not necessarily separate from their everyday lives, but which are rather part of their mundane realities.
Of course, I liked the onomastics. I love names. I think onomastics are my favorite literary device, if this thing can even be considered a literary device. I liked the emphasis on names in this story, the way Nnedi brought them to the forefront such that they were impossible to ignore:
“They all went. Adaora, Anthony, Ayodele and Agu… Adaora knew the soldier’s name now. His name meant “leopard” in Igbo. Her name meant “daughter of the people” in Igbo and she told them so.”
It was telling, how Adaora deliberated quite a while before settling on what to call her new alien guest: Ayodele. Have you ever heard of an alien with a Yoruba name? Nah, didn’t think so! LOL
The narration caught my attention. It was mostly omniscient, though it had a POV focus depending on which character was most relevant in which section. But it was the prologues to book sections and “interludes” that really intrigued me. At the very beginning, before Chapter 1, we had insights into the thoughts of a swordfish. Somewhere in the middle, the thoughts of a tarantula. And my favorite, near and at the end, there were first person sections from a character called Udide, who is the “master weaver,” the spinner of everyone’s stories, who lives underground beneath Lagos. Oh, and she’s the cousin of Ananse, hehee. Shout-out to spider families!
I felt like throughout the book, I could see Nnedi’s love for the animal kingdom shining through, and this made me smile. Something magical happens to stories when they radiate the author’s own loves. (By the way, the reason I know so much about Nnedi’s love for animals, particularly bugs – and her distaste for spiders, SMH – is because I follow her on Twitter. She has fantastic thoughts and things to share, so I recommend you do that too, even if you never read any of her books.)
I also really liked how easily I could imagine this book as an action/superhero movie! I don’t like comparison very much, but in my head, Lagoon’s movie is like a Lagos-based Avengers. (LOL, wait, the Avengers have been to Lagos! What if… Nevermind.)
Then. of course, there was the novelty. The aliens in Lagoon were the most unique kinds of aliens I’d ever read. Usually, I’m thinking of those cliché visions of small, bug-eyed creatures who can fly and whatever. But marine aliens? Creatures from space deciding to come through the water? That was different. They were shapeshifters too, capable of looking exactly like humans if they wanted, and that kind of reminded me of those aliens from the only episode of Star Trek I have ever watched, “The Man Trap.” If you know what I’m talking about, you know.
Lagoon gave me points to ponder about the reception of extraterrestrials here on Earth, and specifically in an African city/country. I noticed something fascinating among the characters: many of them chose to interpret the aliens’ arrival in a way that aligned with a worldview they already had. A lot of it translated into the religious. Two prime examples. The first is this pastor, Father Oke, who nearly immediately started to use the aliens to grow his brand, marketing their arrival as some agenda of God to bring even aliens to the Gospel. Another was of a fairly ambitious prostitute who already had internalized guilt about her method of income generation. And, in the course of the story, “she would become one of the loudest prophets of doom in Lagos.” There was a lot of relevant comedic religiosity in the book, only fitting for a story based in Lagos.
And lastly, I just want to say that in my personal opinion, “Anthony Dey Craze,” the rapper, the only Ghanaian character, the one with a superpower that manifested itself through his voice, which he called the “rhythm,” was the coolest character in the book, and one of the coolest characters I have ever read in my whole life. And I’m not just saying that because I’m Ghanaian, I promise.