Technology in the Dune Universe

Hello again techies and social studies experts! I’m sorry, I assume those are the only two kinds of people who would enjoy these posts 😉 Regardless, I love doing them, mainly because it gives me a chance to exercise a little critical thinking when it comes to some of the most popular franchises of science fiction.

And today, I thought I’d tackle the bid baddy of classic sci-fi, Mr. Frank Herbert himself. Whereas most writers in this expansive genre tend to take a highly positive or negative view, Herbert distinguished himself by being highly subtle, ambiguous and multilayered in his approach.

Far from saying technology would save humanity, or condemn it, he seemed to be arguing that it really wouldn’t alter our basic makeup and behavior. That, presumably, would only come with thousands of years of natural evolution, selective breeding and funky narcotics!

But I digress, here are some examples of the technologies that characterized the Dune universe:

Atomics:
stoneburnerEvery house in the Dune universe keeps a nuclear arsenal in reserve. However, since the Great Convention forbids their use in war, and anyone found in dereliction would guarantee their own obliteration, they are not employed. Everybody’s got em, nobody uses em! At least not anymore…

Their last known use occurred on Selusa Secundus many years before the events of the first novel. It was here that a rogue house employed several in an attempt to destroy House Corrin. The attempt failed and the house was eradicated, their name erased from history. Unfortunately, Selusa Secundus was left a radioactive ruin, hence why it was converted to serve as the Emperor’s prison planet.

However, one type of nuclear device is still legal under the Great Convention. Known as a Stone Burner, these devices emit powerful J-radiation that destroys eye-tissue, rendering everyone in the blast vicinity blind. However, their primary function is to burn through a planet’s crust. If they are powerful enough, they are able to burn clean through to a planet’s core and destroy them planet from within.

Axlotl Tank:
2007-8-18_DuneAxlotlTankThough widely used in the Dune universe, axlotl technology is also one of its most mysterious. A trade secret of the Tleilaxu, an axlotl tank is a “device for reproducing a living human being from the cells of a cadaver,” resulting in what is known as a ghola. In addition, the Tleilaxu Masters use these tanks in order to produce clones of themselves and keep their line going.

As the series progresses, axlotl tanks began being used to produce the spice melange, which had previously only been available on Arrakis. In time, it was also revealed that axlotl tanks were in fact Tleilaxu females, women whose bodies had been converted to grow gholas, clones and spice inside their wombs.

Guild Heighliner:
Dune_heighlinerThe principal means of interstellar transport in the Dune universe, a heighliner is a Guild ship that is capable of transporting massive amounts of people and cargo. Powered by the Holtzman Drive (see below) the ship is capable of “folding space” – jumping from one point in space-time to the next – instantaneously.

Each Guild Heighliner comes with its own navigator, a Guild mutant who uses their semi-prescient abilities to see through space and time to chart a safe rout for the ship to fly. The navigators do all this from inside their giant tanks where they remain immersed in spice gas.

Holtzman Drive:
foldspaceThis is the technology that allows Guild Heighliners to fold space, thus traveling instantaneously form one point in the universe to another. Using what is known as the “Holtzman Effect”, the same phenomena that powers personal shields as well as the catastrophic effect when one comes into contact with the beam of a lasgun.

Though it is never explained in detail, some hints are given throughout the series as to what principles of physics may be involved. For example, in Chapterhouse: Dune, an allusion was made to tachyon particles, the theoretical particle that can presumably travel faster than light.

Lasgun:
lasgunThe appendix of the first Dune novel, titled Terminology of the Imperium, defines Lasgun as follows:

continuous-wave laser projector. Its use as a weapon is limited in a field-generator-shield culture because of the explosive pyrotechnics (technically, subatomic fusion) created when its beam intersects a shield.

At one time, these directed energy weapons were the mainstay of Imperial armed forces. However, the development of shields meant that their use had to become more selective. Mounted on ships, ornithopters, and carried by infantry, lasguns remain a highly effective weapon, capable of cutting through any material.

No-Chamber/No-Ship:
ixian_noshipThis technology was first mentioned in God Emperor of Dune and took the form of a No-Chamber. This Ixian invention was basically a chamber that was cloaked in a stealth field which blocked it from prescient vision as well as more conventional means of detection.

After the death of Leto II, this technology was expanded to include No-Ships and even No-Globes. The former were basically heighliners which were equipped with no-fields and the Ixian machine which did the job of a Guild Navigator. In essence, these ships were not only sheilded from prescient vision, but were invisible to sensors and even the naked eye.

No-Globes were an even larger version of the technology, capable of covering an entire planet in a no-field and rendering it both invisible to prescience, invisible to the naked eye and undetectable. However, in Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune, it is suggested that those of Atreides ancestry are capable of seeing through no-fields. This proved to be the case when Miles Teg was awakened to his abilities after being examined with an Ixian T-probe. His ghola also had this ability once he was awakened to his past memories.

Ornithopter:
dune_thopter1In the Dune universe, ornithopters (or ‘thopters) are the principle means of planetary transportation. Combining jet thrusters with articulated wings, the thopter is capable of vertical takeoff and landing, making it one of the most versatile flying machines ever invented.

Though most are used for commercial and personnel transport, thopters are also capable of being militarized, and often are. Armed missiles, bombs, lasguns, and even shields, they are most effective when used in an assault and/or supporting role.

Personal Shields:
Holtzmanshields-Dune1984The Terminology of the Imperium defines them as follows: the protective field produced by a Holtzman generator. This field derives from Phase One of the suspensor-nullification effect. A shield will permit entry only to objects moving at slow speeds (depending on setting, this speed ranges from six to nine centimeters per second) and can be shorted out only by a shire-sized electric field.

While these shields can be mounted on aircraft, vehicles and even large structures, the most common use is in the form of personal shielding units. These are worn by infantry for battle or for the sake of combat training in order to prevent serious injury. The introduction of this technology to the battlefield had a regressionary effect on warfare in that it forced troops to largely abandon energy and ballistic weapons in favor of hand to hand combat. Hence why swords and knives are commonly used in the Dune universe.

Stillsuit:
stillsuitThe trade secret of the Fremen! Stillsuits, as the name suggests, are a water reclamation and purification system that are worn by the desert-dwelling nomads whenever they are out on the sand dunes. Powered by the motion of it’s user, which includes foot-pumps mounted in the suit’s heels, the system turns all water loss – perspiration, urination, even feces – into usable water which they can draw from a tube near their mouth.

Given water’s scarcity on Arrakis, the purpose of these suits is clear. By preventing moisture loss and recycling it into useable water, they ensure that a person out in the open can sustain themselves indefinitely in the extremely dry and hot desert environment. As Doctor Kynes himself remarked: “With a Fremen suit in good working order, you won’t lose more than a thimbleful of moisture a day..”

Conclusions:
When it comes to science fiction franchises, one can tell a lot by the technology, big and small, that are all part of the background. And when looks over these examples of technology in the Dune universe, a few things become abundantly clear right away:

  1. The connection between environment and invention: Because the bulk of the story takes place on Arrakis, much of the technology we see was specifically adapted for desert use. Shields were useless in the desert environment, turbofans often broke down from dust and sand, and even massive crawlers were at risk of being consumed by Sandworms. In short, all the advanced technology of the Imperium was either useless or subject to hazards from the desert and its creatures. In the end, the most basic inventions, stillsuits and thumpers, were best suited to ensure survival. In short, those technologies who worked with the environment instead of against it were the most likely to work. More indications followed, such as how Paul’s father said to him that “On Caladan we ruled by sea and air power, but here on Arrakis, you need desert power.” On the one hand, this would seem to indicate that every planetary environment required its own balance of technology, Caladan being a sea planet meant ships and aircraft were the weapons of choice. On the other, he seemed to be alluding to the fact that rule on Arrakis required the allegiance of those who knew the desert best (i.e. the Fremen)
  2. Technology as regressive as well as progressive:This is something that I found particularly intriguing about the Dune universe, which was how it combined medievalism and futurism. On the one hand, humans have perfected interstellar travel and have colonized millions of planets throughout the galaxy. On the other, they fight with swords, knives, and live under a feudal system of government. As the story progresses, two reasons are given for why this is:
    1. After the Bulterian Jihad, the Great Convention established that no thinking machines or anything resembling them would ever be created again. As Leto II remarked in GEOD: “The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines… Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments.” In short, the purpose of the Great Convention was not just to ban AI’s but the very mentality that had created them. Thenceforth, the very concept of industrial dependence was to be banned. And as Duncan Idaho later observed, such an economy was the basis for unlimited consumption and growing social equality. This ideal, borne of the Industrial Revolution, was also the cause of social chaos and the eventual rise of AI’s. By banning these and the system that ensured their creation, humanity was effectively going back to a time where feudal control by a small group of barons was basically necessary.
    2. The Great Convention also forbade the use of atomics. This meant that war had to be conventional from now on. The advent of shields also meant that energy weapons were no longer advisable, which meant that soldiers were further forced to adapt to conventional means of fighting – i.e. hand to hand combat. Swords, knives, and slow-pellet stunners were now mainstays of modern warfare, not by choice, but by necessity.

All of this leads to conclude that Frank Herbert was a freaking genius, or at least possessed a very complicated intellect. Whereas most science fiction and speculative writers tend to take a positive or negative view of technology, he preferred to take a very historic and ambiguous view of it. Setting his story in the distant future, one would immediately get the impression that humanity would be so highly evolved that it no longer resembled humanity of today.

However, Frank showed us a universe where humans were not only very much like they are today but also retained elements from our past. Much like the world of today, people are dependent on a single resource, are subject to petty rivalries, and a morally dubious system. But like the world of yesteryear, they are ruled by dukes, barons, emperors, and a system of entitlement and gross privilege and view democracy as a threatening sham.

One can only assume that Frank was making the point that human nature will not change as a result of technological innovation or space travel. Sure, AI’s and cybernetics might emerge down the road, giving humanity the ability to enhance their bodies and thought processes. But Frank’s take on this was that humans would naturally revolt against these once they came to the conclusion that they were needlessly complicated people’s lives.

So in the end, the only way out of being human was to create “mature humanity” as the Bene Gesserit said. This consisted of selective breeding and organic enhancement, relentlessly training people to strengthen their minds, bodies, and unlock the mysteries of the brain, eventually culminating in a person who could not only access their genetic memory, but merge space and time in their own mind. Interesting… and freaky!

Well, my mind is blown and I got nothing more to say. Stay tuned for something else, assuming I can overcome the effects of venturing into Frank’s head space. Man, it’s weird and awesome in there, kind of like a spice trance!

Cool Ships (volume VIII)

Battleship Yamato:
A couple times now I’ve given praise to ship designs that went beyond the usual airplane/ seafaring paradigm. But what can you say about a spaceship which is a carbon copy of a old sea battleship? I don’t know, gutsy maybe? That its paying homage to the original? That’s all I can really say on this one, since it is identical to its namesake from the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Taken from the anime series of the same name, the Yamato was a prototype ship which was built in secret by Earth forces in the ruins of the original. Using alien technology, it was the first Earth ship to boast FTL and a “wave-motion-gun”. These devices were meant to give it an edge in the ongoing war with a race known as the “Gamilons”.

Early in this war, the Gamilons had bombarded Earth with radioactive meteorites. The result was that all human settlements had to be moved underground. However, the radiation was slowly working its way down to the inhabitants, and the only hope for survival came in the form of a message from a distant star. After completion, the Yamato was meant to fly to this world and retrieve the device which apparently could cleanse Earth of its poisonous radiation.

Thus, the Yamato was created to perform a mission that meant the very survival of the human race. It’s drive system was to make sure it could make the trip, while its weapons were meant to ensure it could defend itself.

Cylon Heavy Raider:
Another installment from the BSG universe, here we have the heavy hitter of the Cylon fleet, the dual purpose attack and transport craft, otherwise known as “the turkey”. Capable of atmospheric entry, space flight and FTL travel, the Heavy Raider is capable of attacking, transporting troops and conducting boarding operations.

Unlike the standard Raider, the heavy can either fly itself on autopilot or be piloted by actual an Centurion. However, its automated functions do not appear to be the result of a sentient nervous system. In terms of armaments and capacity, the heavy has six cannons mounted under its cockpit and its bay is capable of holding up to ten Centurions.

The Heavy Raider made its first appearance in season one (“Scattered”) when one crashed into the starboard flight pod. On Caprica, Sharon Valerii (Boomer) commandeers one to provide fire support to the resistance and save Starbuck as she escaped from a Cylon medical facility (“The Farm”). The Heavy Raider would go on to make several more appearances in the series, particularly whenever assault missions or heavy raids were concerned.

Quasar Fire-class Cruiser:
Once more onto the Star Wars universe, my friends! But this time, its into the expanded universe with a ship that is somewhat obscure by most standards. Known as the Quasar Fire-class cruiser, or Alliance Escort Carrier, this ship made its first appearance in the Thrawn Trilogy during the Battle of Bilbringi then again in the novel The Truce At Bakura.

Designed by the Sullustans as a cargo transport, many of these vessels were given to the Alliance and converted for combat. This consisted of stripping down the cargo bays and turning into hangars, and mounting defensive turrets at the front and rear.

Thought lightly armored, armed, and shielded, the Quasar’s small size and versatility make it a ship of choice for small fleets and minor attack forces. It’s six squadrons of fighters also give it an effective defensive screen, making it all the more suitable as a small fleet command ship.

The Leviathan:
Did I say once more, I meant twice… maybe more! And this one goes way back, to roughly 4000 years before events in the original movies. Officially known as an Interdictor-class cruiser, this vessel was the mainstay of the Republican navy during the time of the Mandalarion Wars and was featured heavily in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

During the outbreak of the Sith War which immediately followed, the Leviathan served as Darth Revan’s flagship. After he was captured by the Jedi Order, ownership of this vessel changed to Darth Malak. The ship was responsible for obliterating the surface of Taris and was later the site where Darth Revan, now working for the Jedi Order, confronted Darth Malak for the first time since his defection.

Measuring 600 meters in length, the ship carries an arsenal of 20 quad laser cannons, 4 turbolasers, 2 ion cannons, and four squadrons of fighters. Although somewhat mild by modern Star Wars standards, she was designed to be a forerunner to the modern Star Destroyer design.

Negh’var-class Cruiser:
Despite their brawling, yelling and terrible table manners, you gotta admit; the Klingons make a fine looking ship! And this is especially true of the Negh’var-class warship, the heaviest of the heavies in the Klingon armada, serving as the command ship on many different occasions (and in multiple universes).

Ships of this kind made their first appearance in the series finale of Star Trek: TNG when two attacked the USS Pasteur. Another appeared in DS9 when a changling posing as General Martok led the Klingon fleet against the Cardassian Union, and again against Deep Space 9 when the Federation chose to oppose the invasion. They also went on to play an important role in the Dominion War alongside Federation and Romulan warships.

In addition to the standard cloaking device, the Negh’var carries an impressive array of armaments, including two massive disruptor pods mounted underneath the ship’s wings. It also carries multiple photon torpedo launchers, and several smaller emitters mounted across the ship. She is also capable of standing toe to toe with most other ships in the Alpha Quadrant in terms of velocity, making it up to speeds of Warp 9.

Ornithopter:
Not long ago, I was lamented the fact that I kept forgetting to mention anything from the Dune universe. Now I can’t seem to do a single post without including a Dune ship! This time, its the ornithopter, the curious cool ship that’s perplexed readers and conceptual artists for some time.

The most common vessel in the Imperium, the ornithopter (or ‘thopter for short) was an extremely versatile vessel that served primarily as a cargo vessel and transport. In addition, they often served in a military capacity, being fitted with lasguns, bombs and missiles. This was particulalry the case during Paul Muad’ib’s uprising, when House Atreides ‘thopters were fitted for the assault on Arrakeen and the Imperial Palace.

According to numerous descriptions taken from the expanded Dune universe, the thopter was primarily powered by jet propulsion, but relied on a set of beating wings to maintain altitude and maneuver. The concept has gone through several renditions over the years, due to the many attempts to adapt Dune to the screen. In David Lynch’s 1984 movie adaptation, ‘thopters appeared as small, box-like crat with swept wings that retracted and deployed from the fuselage.

In the 2000 miniseries, they were pictured as vertical take off and landing craft with fans mounted in pivoting wings. The featured picture (shown above left) is taken from The Road to Dune and is an artists concept of what a ‘thopter would look like. Here, we see beating wings which deploy for takeoff and retract upon landing.

USNC In Amber Clad:
Feels like its been awhile since I included anything from the Halo universe. And so here’s the Reunion, a Vladivostok-class guided missile frigate. Though somewhat old and outclassed by modern Covenant standards, several frigates played a crucial role in the Great War against Covenant forces. One such vessel was the In Amber Clad.

Armed with 12 Point Defense Guns, 40 missile pods, 5 twin rail gun turrets, a magnetic accelerator cannon, a compliment of Shiva nuclear missiles and a full compliment of Marines, dropships and escort fighters, the In Amber Clad was considered the mainstay of the old Earth fleet. Capable of atmospheric entry and landing, this ship did not need to rely on drop pods or shuttles, and could land an entire Marine force by itself.

During the Covenant War, these frigates were replaced by the larger and more heavily armed Halcyon-class cruisers. However, the In Amber Clad managed to score a significant victory over the Covenant during the Battle of Installation 05. During the course of the battle, it served as the flagship and won the day when it crashed into the Covenant ship High Charity.

VF-1 Veritech:
As requested, I’ve finally found an example from the Robotech universe! And to be honest, I wondered how long it would take. Though I’m not too familiar with this franchise, the RPG is something I remember fondly from my childhood, and some of the designs still percolate in my consciousness.

One of which is this, the VF-1 Vertiech, also known as the “Valkyrie”. This battleoid, which was adapted from alien technology (known as Protoculture),was originally designed for hand-to-hand combat with aliens which were up to 15 meters in height, the Veritech and subsequent breeds of mechas became the new face of warfare.

Mechas can function in both the fighter and mech role. Capable of flying through space, atmospheres and fighting on land, the Veritech was one of the most versatile and maneuverable mechas in the known universe. With a flight speed of Mach 3 (in atmosphere), and a top speed of 100 km/h running, she is as fast as any land vehicle or aerospace vessel. In addition, the standard Veritech carries two high-powered lasers, head mounted laser cannons, guided missiles, a rotary cannon, and is even capable of engaging in hand to hand combat.

YT-2400 Corellian Freighter:
To finish, I’m in the mood for something Corellian! And so it’s back to the Star Wars universe for this one. Much like its predecessor, the YT-1300 (a.k.a. the Millennium Falcon), the 2400 was a class of light freighter that was fast, tough and endlessly modifiable. So like the Falcon, it was a favorite amongst smugglers, merchants and privateers.

Smaller and lighter than the 1300 series, the 2400 boasted only one servo-turret for defense in addition to its shield array and armor plating. However, this could easily be remedied with the addition of extra guns and missile launchers. And its ample hull space and engine power, the 2400’s could easily accommodate additional mounts and the added weight.

One such ship which acheived notoriety during the Galactic Civil War was the Outrider, the ship of famed smuggler Dash Rendar. This ship, like most other 2400’s, was heavily modified to accommodate additional systems and weapons. Clearly, when the Corellian shipyard designated this vessel as freight transport, it was a nod and a wink!

Thank you all and good hunting! See you in next time in volume 9!