Archive for April 6th, 2015

Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom – The Jesus Incident

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Frank Herbert is most famous for his Dune novels but of course he wrote more. The Jesus Incident (1979), the first book in the Pandora Sequence got written by pure chance. It is a peculiar anecdote that I like to share. The first idea for the novel was a short story contributed to a collaborative project with other science fiction authors taking place on the same planet. Herbert did not have the time to it all and asked his neighbour Bill Ransom to do it for him so he only needed to revise it for him. Their collaboration pushed them to do something serious. So they took that story and used it as a concept to write a sequel to Destination : Void, an earlier work that Herbert had just revised. What came to be was a world that was in a way the opposite of Dune: a waterplanet instead of a sandplanet. While Dune was the results of millennia of human society in space the planet Pandora was newly settled. However, Frank Herbert remains Frank Herbert. His works cannot be without some greater and provocative themes. Like Dune, Pandora is a planet of dangers and although one half comes from the planet environment the other half comes from the humans.

I have not read any original works by Bill Ransom so I cannot say what he may have contributed to the story but I have read a fair number of novels, outside of Dune, by Frank Herbert, so I can indicate what seems out of odds with the Herbert composition. What strongly resonate in the novel are the religious, ethical and ecological themes that are very typical Herbert. They provide a depth and complexity that give the story many layers. Another typical Herbert feature is the usage of focused scenes. We jump from scene to scene, from character to character view point where they matter and anything in between is simply left out.

As noted in the introduction of the novel much of the actual writing was done by Ransom. Herbert is clearly the leader who sets the content and the direction, revising where necessary. I have to say that is not entirely balanced out. The earlier chapters are slower in which the characters are more inward looking, while the later chapters are faster and more rushed, with less time for introspection where more insight might be more interesting for character exploration. Many scenes are also lacking character interaction. That does not need to be a bad thing but the characters that Herbert and Ransom present are all such different types that they would create great interaction. They however choose to avoid much of them. I am not saying there is a lack of character development because Herbert and Ransom keep their focus on a limited number of characters who each have their own ordeals, showing them to be of a rather grey flavor, neither good or bad, depending on the perspective.

One trait of Herbert, as mentioned before, is to avoid connecting scenes. There are thus sudden jumps in time. This does not have to be an issue if the reader can follow the chronology of the story; one just has to add a minor reference. Unfortunately the chronology seems to go a bit haywire in the latter half of the novel. Some things seemed to go rather slow while other events rapidly progress. For example one of the big developments appears out of nowhere as it is only referred to in the past while the story is already trying to deal with the effects of the development. As the novel isn’t that long it wouldn’t have been bad to add a few chapters to build it up better. Finally, one of the main events at the end of novel is rather unexplained and only stated as a fact while I kept wondering why and how it was supposed to occur.

The thing about the novel that in my point of view is probably a great contribution by Ransom is the haunting atmosphere of the novel and the brutal depiction of certain scenes. Herbert usually takes a more clinical approach. He can write about some nasty things happening while you don’t get attached; you simply are captivated. In this novel such scenes were taken to greater extremes and at times I could feel a shiver as I responded to what I was reading. Pandora is supposed to be a bad place and Ransom brings that vibe to the reader. It is not a thing I related to Herbert, that’s for sure.

The Jesus Incident is a peculiar novel. It is a very condensed novel although it starts relatively slowly and it has many introspective scenes. There are many themes interwoven into the story and they create a layered plot in which the reader will certainly have his own thoughts and reflections. On the other hand I think some things were rather rushed. Despite the layers the plot is eventually fairly straightforward and I think it could have been developed better. I see room for improvement to make it into something more powerful. In the end the messages Herbert and Ransom try to convey get somewhat simplified and that is something Herbert has not needed to revert to. Nevertheless I did enjoy this novel for all its haunts and terrible themes.