Thursday, 5 January 2012

Dune: Good Science-fiction Doesn’t Age

(Reposted From the Now Gone Nik Nak and Grub’s Who Peculiar)

You know, I think I have DEFINITELY got a confession to make, I really do.

You see, occasionally, Grub and I will happily have … conversations.

Believe it or not.

And, believe it or not, we occasionally have been know to have a conversation about the same thing, at the same time.

Not often, granted, but it’s been know to happen.

Very occasionally, we’ve even been known to agree on stuff.

For one thing, that science-fiction comes in a whole slew of forms: written, big-screen, small-screen, audio, games, art.

Science fiction is everywhere.

Another thing we tend to agree on … ?

Is that sometimes, we have to go back to basics.

Sometimes … ?

We have to consider a story in it’s original form — a novel, in the case I’m thinking of — as well as looking to what’s been made of it, before we voice an opinion.

And yes, I have a story in mind …


But, let me guess, here.

You’re thinking Nik Nak and Grub: they’re English, aren’t they … ? And Nik Nak’s banging on about multimedia science-fiction: and what’s more, I know for a fact he’s a bit like the late Douglas Adams, and a HUGE Mac fan, isn’t he … ?

He’s got to be talking about TheHitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, hasn’t he … ?

Actually … ?

I’m not.

You see, I’m talking about possibly the best selling science-fiction novel there’s ever been: and one that, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, has cropped up in various media over the years.

I’m talking about the 1965, Frank Herbert novel, Dune.


Now, I’ve got to admit, I first came across Herbert’s original novel, way back in 1984, some nineteen years after it had originally been published.

And just at about the time that David Lynch’s film version of the story had been released.

Frankly … ?

I knew perfectly well that — sometimes — what was on screen didn’t necessarily match what the author put down on paper*.

I wanted to make sure I got and read a copy — either from the library or from one of the local bookshops — before I went to see the film.

I think I missed my chance, there: the opportunity to see the film version flashed past unbelievably rapidly, as Brentwood cinema only had it on for a week.

I don’t think I got to see it for some time.

But the book?

Have you ever heard the phrase In Media Res applied to a story? Film, novel, episode of your favourite soap, what have you?

If I’ve understood thing’s correctly, it means In the middle, or In the middle of things.

And it usually refers to something like the original entry in the Star Wars franchiseº: it opened in the middle of a huge great ship-to-ship fight, between a very small rebel ship, and a monster of an Imperial battlecruiser: commanded by Darth Vaderª.

Now …

The problem is, is I don’t know if that applies strictly to Dune.

I do know that that opening chapter, is headed with a short fictional quote from a book written about the main character, by one of the minor ones.

And starts properly with:
“In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”
Which told me a few things, certainly …

For starters, the main character was called Paul.

That he and his family were on their way to somewhere called Arrakis: and in something of a rush.

And that he and his mother’s visitor was someone unusual …

Unusually blunt, certainly …

The visitor turns out to be Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: a very important member of the Bene Gesserit, a quasi-religious order, that Paul’s mother, Jessica, was a junior member of.

And a visitor who has come to give Jessica something of a ticking off.

About giving birth to a child that isn’t a girl …


But that’s maybe digressing.

The point I’m TRYING to make … ? Is that that first page certainly caught my attention. Especially when the old woman visiting Paul and his mother immediately turns around and says “Is he not small for his age, Jessica?”

Struck a bell or two, for me, that line.

I should try and explain that, shouldn’t I … ?

You see, what seriously grabbed me was the fact I shared my first name with Paul Muad-Dib, the central character: on top of that, I could easily image someone my height and who, at the time I first read the book, I was the same age as.

Someone my height, sharing my name, who I felt I had a lot in common with^.

And who turns out to have superhuman potential breed into him, has had one of the best educations — akin to that of, say, a royal prince’s, with additional military training — AND who eventually goes on to rule the entire known human universe … ?

That I could cope with!


There’s more to Dune than just that first page, though.

The story that Herbert tells us is a huge one, it really is.

Paul’s family are a noble one in a universe dominated by an feudal, all-human empire ultimately ruled by the far-off Padishah Emperor.

An emperor who has ordered Duke Leto Atreides — Paul’s father — off the family’s home world of Caladan, in order to put Leto in charge of possibly the most important planet in the known Human universe: Arrakis.

Also known to both its inhabitants — and many others — as Dune, because of it’s famously arid surface.

And arid surface that contains little in the way of native life.

But that famously has one huge native form of life: the giant Sandworms.

Dune is also home to the mysterious, little known but touchy, desert tribe known as the Freman.

And ALSO home to a mysterious substance known as Mélange: or Spice.

The Spice is key, and the reason to Leto being ordered to Arrakis: the Emperor wants Leto to take over control of the Spice mining on the planet, as the Spice is a very important substance.

It’s a mild euphoric.

It’s capable of delaying human ageing.

Side products from its being turned into a drug can be used to make various forms of plastic, and power a common type of light fitting.

That fact the Spice is also described as hideously addictive is practically a minor issue.

Especially compared to its one last use: it allows the members of the secretive Guild of Navigators use their powers. It lets them dimly perceive the future, thus safely steer starships from one part of the Empire to another.

It is, effectively, the one thing that keeps the entire human universe ticking, by keeping its transport system going‡.

On top of THAT, Duke Leto had been ordered to take Arrakis by the Emperor for another reason. Emperor Shaddam 4th is scared: as the Atreides family are becoming more politically popular, the Emperor has ordered them to take over Arrakis so that he can corner them, and send troops in to wipe them out.

Not only that. Shaddam can avoid all blame by working with House Harkonnen: the Atreides family’s oldest enemies, and a noble family who are themselves very ambitious, AND aiming for the throne™.

And who have been locked into a feud with their Atreides rivals, for centuries.


I know, I know, that’s POSSIBLY not the best summary.

Dune ultimately boils down to being a good old fashioned revenge drama.

But with a twist or two.

Herbert managed to tell a revenge story with an ecological point: that if we’re not careful, we can ruin the planet that we live on.

Something that also impressed me?

Was the fact the Frank Herbert also managed to work up what — to me, at any rate — felt like a fairly convincing s-f universe. One with an implied history, a set of reasons for why people fought with swords and slow moving bullets˜, and even reasons for why certain types of job†, and guilds appeared.


But he ALSO managed to sneak in what he thought would be a very valid political point, under the sci-fi dressings.

I’m thinking, here, that Frank Herbert must have guessed, long before many people, that our reliance on oil was a bad thing.

Not necessarily just for ecological reasons, not totally.


You see, I think he’d pretty much guessed that relying on just ONE thing — oil — left us vulnerable.

Both to oil running out.

But, in Dune, Herbert tells us — in one of the appendices at the end of the book — that the Bene Gesserit taught that when religion` and politics ruled together, “… nothing could stand in their path”.

Frank Hebert did not intend Dune to be sci-fi as prediction, but as a warning.

To be bloody careful about people using religion or spirituality to gain and keep power.

After all, as he says in the introduction to Eye, his short story collection … ?
“That’s how 900 people wound up in Guyana, drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. That’s how the US said ‘Yes, Sir, Mr Charismatic John Kennady!’ and found itself embroiled in Vietnam. That’s how Germany said ‘Sieg Heil’ and ended up killing six million of our fellow human beings.”
I think Muad-Dib’s a warning.

I ALSO think you should tell people about Dune.

After all, Frank Herbert’s warning about a group of religious fanatics?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to enough AA meetings to see religion — and not just Christianity — have a positive and transformative effect on people who directly benefit from it.

But that spiritual instinct can and does have a flipside.

That flipside is what I believe Dune warns us about.

That warning is still very relevant today.

That’s what makes good science fiction, in part, good.

It may be about the future.

But we can apply it to today.

* I personally believe that Bladerunner — based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep — is a good example of what I mean. While Ridley Scott made sure he got Dick’s approval and blessing for the film, before the latter’s death, Bladerunner and Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep are noticeably different.

º It’s a LONG complicated picture, here, but I usually think of Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, as just plain Star Wars. When I was eleven, that name burnt itself into my head — and the heads of a LOT of people of my generation — and has stayed there, in its original form, ever since: as far as I’m concerned, it’s STILL called Stars Wars, no matter what some damn idiot of a director says!

ª If you can pick that up in your country of origin, please be warned: the Snatch Wars satire is DEFINITELY one for adult eyes, given the language. It’s ALSO bloody hysterical, and leaves me tempted to call passing storm-troopers, ‘Errol’, every time I see one.

^ My biological father died some six months before I was born: and my mum and step dad divorced when I was 17. Paul Mu’ad-Dib, on the other hand … ? Lost his father as part of the Dune narrative. I don’t know about you, but that made an impression.

‡ So not like petrol, then. Nothing like petrol. The Spice is most definitely NOT a metaphor for petrol in any way, shape or form what-so-ever. It’s more like oil: I mean, it’s the basis for the ENTIRE transport system and you can turn fractional distillates of oil into plastic. And some rather funky smelling fumes … MAN … !

™ Shaddam 4th has only daughters: and, like many emperors, is facing lose of control of his throne, as soon as his eldest child, Irulan, marries. Paul eventually ends up in a very political — and largely sham — marriage with her.

˜ Most of the characters — and the buildings they live in, and the vehicles they travel in — have shields: protective force fields, in other words, that can protect the users from rapidly moving bullets and objects, but that can be penetrated by slow-moving swords. What’s more, if hit by a laser beam, the resulting atomic scale explosion will kill only the person wearing the shield … and the person who fired the laser gun.

† Two of the characters — Thufir Hawat and Piter De Vried — are whats called Mentats, in the Dune universe, and are what I always imagined as a sort of super Sherlock Holmes: a person capable of incredible feats of observation, deduction and deep analysis. (The Dune back universe has no artificially intelligent computers as they were banned in the background universe’s history: Herbert came up with the idea of Mentats, Guild Navigators and the Bene Gesserit as the replacements.)

No comments: