Frank Herbert’s Dune – A Review.

Dune – a seminal work of American 1960’s Science Fiction. Published in 1965, Frank Herbert probably created a universe to fit his series of books which maybe has only been equalled by Tolkien. Perhaps Dune did for Science Fiction what The Lord of the Rings did for Fantasy Fiction. Both works are heralded as being classics in the alternative novel genre, the Grand-Daddies of their fields. Frank Herbert created this universe after studying about sand dunes in Oregon and wondered what it would be like to create a desert world. Dune is set eight thousand years into the future on the planet Arrakis, a desert planet which holds great political and social importance in Herbert’s Universe. Arrakis, or Dune, produces a narcotic substance called ‘Spice’, a drug which alters ones consciousness allowing some to gain incredible prescience. It is used widely throughout the Galaxy; ordinary citizens; Guild Navigators (who without it would never be able to safely guide Spaceships and see into the future); The Bene Gesserit whom are a Religious Sisterhood and use it for mystical purposes and last but by no means least – the Fremen who are indigenous to Arrakis and have a heavy Spice diet. The melange Spice is an incredibly addictive substance and the people who use it are characterised by their deep blue on blue eyes, denoting a user. When you understand how fundamental this narcotic is to the Galaxy and its adherents, then you slowly begin to understand what importance this desolate, desert planet is to Politics and the Dune Universe.

I think it is clear that this book drew upon the 1960s drug experimenting counter-culture, as basically it is about transcending consciousness using narcotics, and I guess the Spice could be seen as the equivalent of LSD, if you want an analogy. The novel is not just about drugs however. Dune is an epic work of Science Fiction, the first novel containing such a wide spectrum of issues; religion, politics, messiahs, family feuds, conflict, ecology and space-travel are all wrapped up in Frank Herbert’s world. Also, there is this kind of paradox throughout the Galaxy (and the story); yes, the setting is eight-thousand years into the future, but Religion still plays a very fundamental role here along with this medieval kind of Feudalism, as political association is based around Family Houses. We have House Atredies, House Corrino and House Harkonnen – the three main Families portrayed in the first novel. There is not so much advanced technology, and that aspect of Science Fiction is not really what the book deals with. The book, in its appendices explains that there was a Jihad (called the Butlerian Jihad), a holy conflict several thousand years previously that had eradicated computers and I guess most of, what would be seen as, our modern technology. Computers or thinking machines have been replaced by what are known as Mentats – highly intelligent ‘human’ computers. Also, people are fighting with knifes and swords; lasers, whilst they exist along with personal protective shields, are rarely used here. You could describe this as some sort of futuristic Universe that heralds back to a Feudal age with a pseudo-sci-fi slant.

Dune basically is a hero story. A son of one of the Great Houses, Paul Atredies, essentially becomes a messiah figure amongst the indigenous Freman of Arrakis. Paul, it is clear as the book begins, is no ordinary boy; trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, a Religious Sisterhood, by his Mother, he from an early age suffers from visionary dreams and acts older than his age should dictate. The Bene Gesserit, for generations, have been trying to breed what is known as a ‘Kwisatz Haderach’, a male version of one of them, and a super-being who has the ability to ‘be in many places at once’. When the Atredies family arrive on Arrakis, both Paul and his Mother become revered amongst the Fremen who, in their religion and prophecy, see him as their saviour, partly due to the Atredies family benignity towards their new subjects, but also fitting into the part of their mysticism and beliefs about their saviour. So, the hero becomes their long awaited prophet and messiah, saves the planet, unleashes a holy crusade with the Fremen, deposes the Emperor and replaces him. Classic hero story ingredients. This book is seen as a classic in the sci-fi world and in some ways it’s a cross between fantasy and science fiction, because of the feudal element. The science aspect mainly deals with ecology. One of the Fremens ideas for their eventual utopia is a terraformed Dune, one where there are plants and an abundance of water, and this they believe their prophet shall lead them into, away from their harsh, strict existence they currently lead. Paul is seen to herald the beginning of this new golden age.

Having read the book in my teens, I occasionally re-read it and with each reading I gleam something new. There was a film version directed by David Lynch in 1984 and also a TV-mini series. Both I think are good, and despite its many criticisms the film is not bad, with I think, great representations of Sandworms. Great series.

Ray Bradburys ‘The Martian Chronicles’. A Review.

This is a post from a previous blog. Thought I would add it here for posterity sakes…

I am re-reading The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I first came across this book in my teens, after watching the TV mini-series of it, and fell in love with it all those years ago (mid-’80s). Now, re-reading it after nearly 20 years I am still amazed by its prescience and intellect. And it’s much more potent now than it was back then. It’s quite interesting after reading a book on Christopher Columbus which gave an alternative insight into his legacy (see my previous blog), to see how another planet would be colonised based around the same principles. The Age of Discovery inaugurated by Columbus in 1492 died after the colonisation of America, and this colonisation was basically centered around the pursuit of wealth and eventual exploitation of man and nature. The pursuit of riches was the fundamental purpose and result of the discovery of the Americas. In The Martian Chronicles the same thing happens. Humans, facing an atomic war on earth around the year 2000, look towards Mars for their salvation. Martians exist, and have a highly rich and philosophical society. The first three expeditions to Mars are unsuccessful, with the Martians apparently fearing any outsiders and they kill the new explorers off, probably more as a way of defending themselves and their way of life. Come the fourth expedition and the Martians have all but died of chicken-pox, a disease which obviously has been contracted via the first three expeditions. Any similarities here and the Taino natives of the Caribbean and Americas? Yup, quite a bit. Spender, an archaeologist of the fourth expedition becomes dismayed of what has happened to the Martians and sees all too clearly the possible result of the colonisation of Mars by humans. He sees that Mars would be used as a base for nuclear weapons, be fought over and eventually contaminated by human culture and total disrespect and disregard of what had been before they arrived. The same thing happened to the conquest of the Americas. He sees in the Martian culture a deep, ancient way of life which was never allowed to get to the stage of what humans had turned themselves into. He knocks both Religion and Evolution, both attacking each other rather than peacefully co-existing together and both enriching each other. What the Martian civilisations had done was to combine them both and have a total respect for nature, to live with it and understand it and appreciate it as it is.

“..They quit trying to hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more of an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful. Its all simply a matter of degree…”

And so Spender discusses this with the Captain of the expedition after he has gone native and tried to kill off some of the crew to try and stop the colonisation of Mars. The Captain sees this way of life and Spenders interpretation of their culture as pagan, but Spender says its about respect for what is; instead of trying to analyse the purpose of life, just live it as it is, accept it, don’t over-question it.

The book has religious overtones, but they are quite deep philosophical ones. However, if we did have the technology to colonise another planet, any planet, today, in all fairness it would be like 1492 all over again, with the rich having the first shares in it and it would be looked at as another source of enrichment. Kim Stanly Robinsons’ ‘Mars’ Trilogy of books (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) are also a good read about the future colonisations of Mars but based around a much more scientific explanation, and it does pose similar questions about the role of Transnational Corporations in any future space exploration. Interesting.