Okay. So, it’s time for a confession. I’ve never read Dune until now. I’ve always perceived it to be more of a fantasy novel than science fiction. Honestly, I thought it would be a ‘DNF’. Dune is written in that bestseller kind of style. It is confident, and states everything clearly. The novel seems incredibly fresh considering that it was published in 1965. This is achieved in part because it uses a slightly archaic, historical tone.
The story explores power politics within an imperial system. Its eclecticism is influenced by real-world empires like the British Empire, Ancient Rome, Medieval monarchies, Machiavelli, and Middle Eastern culture. Frank Herbert holds back on describing things too closely, or using contemporary terms for things, which might date the text. Foundation feels like a product of its time, but Dune doesn’t.
Dune is often celebrated as the greatest example of soft science fiction, and as a counterpoint to Foundation. Dune is science fiction without an IT department. There are no robots or whimsical androids, and there’s little in the way of computers (even though this is an advanced, highly technological world).
The language and the tone feels like a historical novel dressed up as science fiction. Where Foundation is a conversion about the implications of technology, Dune is a sci-fi future-history about political power.
Dune is science fiction genre’s best-selling novel. It’s had a major influence on science fiction and fantasy. It’s difficult not to see Star Wars through the Dune lens. Personally, I find it difficult not to see Dune without thinking about Flash Gordon (the 1930s cinema serial). Another precursor to Dune is the underrated A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). Dune is part coming-of-age tale, part military science fiction, and part mystical retro-futurist messiah story. It doesn’t take place in a fantasy world, it’s set in 10,191, which is about 20,000 years in our future.
Like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dune features a religious group. In Dune it’s called the Bene Gesserit’s, which, said slowly, sounds a little like Bene(dictines) Jesuits. There are many things about the David Lynch film that I found bemusing. The Harkonnens, for example, are bizarre and outlandish in the 1984 film, like some kind of demented circus clown group. Thankfully, I didn’t get any of that in the novel. I put the characterisation of the Harkonnens in the 1984 film down to bonkers 1980s WTF.
The novel isn’t perfect. It lags toward the (penultimate) climactic battle, which is itself disappointing. The resolution is given a decent amount of space, enough time to savour the outcome. It even has time for a duel between two of the main characters. This fight scene is the story’s real climactic battle. Having the two battle sequences so close to one another reduces their impact.
There were times when I wanted more visual descriptions about the word, especially the characters. The conversations between the characters can feel like faceless talking heads engaged in a Machiavellian game. The dialogue is doing a lot of the world building and character differentiation. Even with these criticisms, the quality of the writing is remarkably consistent throughout the novel (parts of which were originally published in serialised form for a magazine, and later expanded on).
It might be a bit sudden to say this (having only just read Dune), but if you’ve read 1984 and Dune, and watched Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, you’ve probably got your three most important Twentieth Century speculative fiction and sci-fi themes covered — political repression, power politics, and the implications of artificial intelligence. You may prefer The Handmaid’s Tale instead of 1984, and the intergalactic space opera of Star Wars over Dune, or The Terminator over Blade Runner? You might want to add virtual reality as another theme, possibly in the form of Neuromancer or The Matrix, or the post-apocalyptic story as expressed in A Canticle for Leibowitz or Mad Max?
Either way, Dune’s history-inspired vision of the future, its medieval-like tale of family power and ruthless competition is right up there with the best of Twentieth Century science fiction.
- Summer walks – things are looking up in England at the moment, thanks to the lockdown being gradually eased, ‘hybrid working’ (for now, at least), and the added bonus of the summer having arrived. It’s been a good time for walks by the river. I’ve been calling it the river ever since I’ve known it, but I’ve recently discovered (through a quick internet search) that it’s actually a stream, which runs into the river Wey. The water starts off clear and gradually turns into a weak coffee. Someone mentioned that the stream has fish in it, but I’ve never seen any. The water runs fast, but it’s always silent.
- I’ve been watching the odd ball Atomic Shrimp YouTube channel. It’s a strange assortment of ‘weird food in a tin’ reviews, low budget eating food challenges, and quirky experiments that occasionally verge on the absurd (plus some tech stuff that I don’t watch). Another YouTube channel I’ve been watching (after my Korean street food video phase) has been Whatifalthist, which is a mix of history and future geo-political speculation. Always to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course, but fun nonetheless.
- Meanwhile… it’s been a bit of strange commuting into London lately. The commuter traffic is about 45 to 50% of the pre-pandemic level. It feels like it’s gradually building up though. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to commuting on crowded trains again. That’s something I didn’t miss during the lockdown.
- Well, the Dune (TV series, 2000) is weirdly terrible. There’s the overblown colour, cheap digital effects, heavy handed dramatic emotion, overly-dramatic dream sequences, gratuitous boob action, and a protagonist’s messianic transformation through the power of hair gel. Like the David Lynch film, the Harkonnens are totally ridiculous, looking like they’re doing a show at a tacky Berlin bondage club in 1987. For some unknown reason, they live in a place where there’s only red lighting. It’s all very strange, and not in a good way. Why are they portrayed in such an over-the-top, absurdly grotesque manner, camp, and ginger hair? I didn’t get any of this from the novel myself. The writers have attempted to popularise the story for a mainstream US TV audience. For example, the novel is about the brutality of aristocratic competition, Princess Irulan Corrino’s fate is a case in point, but the TV series completely usurps this message. In another example, as soon as the Muad’Dib spots Chani, she removes her top (clearly signifying to anyone who’s still awake that it’s the mid-point in the story and attentions may be flagging, so its time for some pointless nudity). The annoying blue eyes in the David Lynch film are even more exaggerated in this version of the story. Their spiced-eyes glow worse than a cheap effect for a 1980s made-for-video horror. And, to make things even worse, the characters have zero chemistry with one another. Sadly, there’s little in the way of positives to offset these shortcomings. This three part mini-series effectively sets out to recreate the David Lynch film, and it ends up being even less compelling.
- Starship Troopers was published in 1959. It’s a classic science fiction novel that’s been an important influence on military science fiction. It’s an easy read, and there’s a lot to be said for that. The novel was originally intended to be sold as young adult fiction, but its militaristic theme was considered inappropriate for that audience. Starship Troopers is basically the Cold War reimagined with the alien bugs standing in for the communists. There’s a fair amount of philosophy-lite going on (the chapters are prefaced by incongruously grand quotes). It was written at a time when the US was perceived to be losing the Cold War and the space race. The story features positive representations of its Latino protagonists, along with German and Japanese characters (at a time when those nationalities were often negatively represented as stereotypes in Western fiction, coming so soon after the end of the Second Word War). It also includes a positive non-sexist role for its female main character. At the military recruitment centre she’s immediately picked out as pilot material, while the male protagonist is destined to serve as an ordinary foot soldier. For a novel published in 1959, the ideas about advanced technology and human augmentation are interesting. There’s a noteworthy mention of genetically enhanced dogs and how they operate with their human handlers. The influence on novels like Paolo Bacigalupi’s Tool of War (2017), and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (2005), Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974) is obvious.
Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 adaptation subverts the novel’s main point about the human cost of defending ‘freedom’. Instead, it makes its own point about 90s US politics. Verhoeven is on record as having said that the novel was too boring to finish. The film suffers from the same issues as the book. It lives in that awkward space where mainstream entertainment consciously attempts to be didactic. My difficulty with the novel was that I never felt emotionally connected to the characters. I was consciously reading a story rather than being immersed in it.
- I read The Day of the Triffids a long time ago. Reading it was like meeting up with an old friend. I was hoping that it wouldn’t disappoint. The good news is that it’s still good. Sure, the language is a little bit dated, but it’s still a fun book to read. The action scenes work just as they did before. This is impressive considering that it was published in 1951! The Day of the Triffids is an eco-apocalypse story long before environmentalism went anywhere near the mainstream. It combines natural disaster with a warning about factory farming. Re-reading it now, the framing of the novel (at the start and finish) is slightly heavy-handed. Regardless of this, it’s such an engaging adventure and it presents the protagonist (and reader) with interesting challenges and dilemmas.
- I preferred Burning to Parasite. And now I prefer Minari to Nomadland.
- Minari is a tragicomic oddity. It’s also nice to see Steven Yeun on the screen. (He played Glenn Rhee, one of the best characters in The Walking Dead TV series.)
- Apple TV has released a new trailer for the forthcoming Foundation series. The series is adapted from Isaac Asimov’s 1951 novel. The aesthetics have been given the future-history gloss, ancient Egypt among other things, with suitably elaborate costumes and interior designs. The production has clearly benefited from a healthy budget. I’m not a huge fan of Asimov’s novel, but this TV series looks promising. It has Jared Harris in it, which is a bonus — he was brilliant in Mad Men and The Expanse.