Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dune and science fiction cliches

I’m re-reading the Dune series in an attempt to be even nerdier.

I like science fiction and fantasy but hate their cliches.

Why must every elvish woman be a malnourished maiden? Where are all the fat elves? There’s got to be a fat elf somewhere. How about one that can’t sing or shoot a bow?

How come every alien is either genocidal or a pacifist? Is there no middle ground? Really?

Has there ever been a supercomputer that didn’t try to take over the Earth?

Some days, it feels like no one’s had an original fantasy idea since Douglas Adams. (Satire is usually the first sign of a stagnant genre.)

I like Frank Herbert’s Dune for the same reasons I like George Orwell’s writing. It takes a commonplace occurrence — for example, government monitoring in 1984 — and stretches it to an ominous extreme. It’s an exaggeration, for sure, but it’s just real enough to be threatening.

Similarly, Dune examines the science of politics and religion.

Dune, at its simplest, is the story of one boy’s rise to power. “A common Messiah story,” as one character wryly notes.

Dune doesn’t interest me because of the writing, or the characters, or the other things I often babble about in these blogs.

It’s the ideas. Science-fiction and fantasy are the rare genres where the ideas can be almost as important as the story.

The various organizations in Dune try to manipulate the young messiah. The Bene Gesserit are the ultimate political power, breeding the perfect politicians for their purposes. They obfuscate their ambition with quasi-religion. The Landsraad Council is an interstellar Wall Street, where the mean is justified as long as the end is profit. Bene Tleilax (stupid science fiction names!) want to plumb the depths of science without considering the ethical ramifications of, say, re-animating a corpse.

The characters in Dune are less interesting. (Notice I’m not talking about them.) But the story hints at Orwellian questions.

What would happen if organizations started breeding the ultimate politicians? What if people were indoctrinated with certain prophecies that could be exploited knowingly by pseudo-religious figures?

And, of course, the most important question that science-fiction can make us ask: What if it’s already happening?

That’s why I like this type of stuff. Not for the elvish chicks or human-hating calculators.

-Jason Lea,

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget The Handmaid's Tale...classic example of what you're talking about here.

June 4, 2009 at 1:20 PM 

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