After reading four of the five of the books in the ongoing Song of Ice and Fire series, I’ve come to realize something. I really like the world George RR Martin has created! In fact, you might say I haven’t found myself becoming so engrossed with a fictional universe since Dune or Lord of the Rings. In those fictional universes, as with this one, one gets an incredible sense of depth, detail and characterization.
And in honor of this realization, or perhaps because I couldn’t keep track of the names, places and events alluded to in the texts, I began doing some serious research. For one, I found several lovely maps (like the one above) that speculate as to the complete geography of Martin’s world – the continents of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos.
And when I say complete geography, I mean just that, not the snippets that are given in the book that leave out the all important sections of Qarth, Slaver’s Bay, and the Free Cities. While these places are described in relation to the rest of the world, keeping track of them can be tricky, especially if you’re a visual learner like myself! And seeing as how much of the story involves a great deal of travel, it helps to know where characters were going, how far, and which direction they were headed.
Even before I began reading the books, I could tell that Westeros was very much inspired by the British Isles, with its tough and grizzled Northerners resembling the Scots, Picts, and Celts of old while the Southerners were more akin to the aristocratic Normans. “The Wall” was also a clear allegory for Hadrian’s Wall, with the people on the other side being portrayed much as the Roman’s would have viewed the “Northern Tribes” that threatened their domain.
King’s Landing also seemed very much inspired by London, with its pomp, opulence, and extensive moral decay. Yes, just like London of the Middle Ages, it was a fine patchwork of royal finery, castles, fortifications, religious ceremony, brothels and public executions! And it even lies upon a large river, the Blackwater, which seems every bit like the Thames.
Essos also seemed very much inspired by Asia of ancient lore. Here we had the Dothraki Sea where the Dothraki horsemen roamed free and pillaged in all directions, exacting tribute and taking slaves. Can you say Mongols and/or Huns? In addition, their capital – Vaes Dothrak – seemed in every respect to be an adaptation of Karakorum, Ghengis Khan’s one time capitol that was little more than a collection of temporary houses and tents. And Master Ilyrio, as if his name wasn’t enough, seemed to be every bit a Mediterranean at heart, living in a lavish sea-side estate and growing fat of off trade in cheese, olives and wine.
Upon cracking the books, I found that the metaphors only went deeper. In fact, they were so thick, you could cut them with a knife! In terms of Westerosi geography and character, the different regions of the continent called to mind all kind’s of archetypes and real-world examples. The Reach sounds very much like Cornwall, fertile, populous, and in the south-east relative to the capitol. Casterly Rock and the domain of the Lannister’s, though it resides in the west away from the capitol, seems every bit like Kent, the wealthiest region of old where the most lucrative trade and shipping comes in. And their colors, gold and red, are nothing if not symbolic of the House of Lancaster – of which Henry V and the VIII were descended.
And last, but certainly not least, there were the all-important cities of Qarth, Mereen, Astapor, and Yunkai. All eastern cities that inspire images of ancient Babylon, Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Antioch. With their stepped pyramids, ancient history, flamboyant sense of fashion, and lucrative slave trade, they all sounded like perfect examples of the ancient and “decadent” eastern civilizations that were described by Plato, Aristotle, and medieval scholars. The conquest of Westeros by the First Men, the Children of the Forest, the Andal and Valyrian Conquest; these too call to mind real history and how waves of conquerors and settlers from the east came to populate the Old World and the New, with genocide and assimilation following in their wake and giving rise to the world that we know today.
Fans of Tolkien will no doubt be reminded of the map of Middle Earth, and for good reason. Martin’s knack for writing about space and place and how it plays a central role in the character of its inhabitants was comparable to that of Tolkien’s. And what’s more, the places have a very strong allegorical relationship to real places in real history.
In Tokien’s world, the Shire of the Hobbits seemed very much the metaphor for pre-industrial rural England. The inhabitants are these small, quirky people who are proud of their ways, lavish in their customs, and don’t care much for the affairs of the outside world. However, when challenged, they are capable of great things and can move heaven and earth.
In that respect, Gondor to the south could be seen as London in the early 20th century – the seat of a once proud empire that is now in decline. Given it’s aesthetics and location relative to the dark, hostile forces coming from the East and South, it’s also comparable to Athens and Rome of Antiquity.
And it was no mistake that the battle to decide the fate of Middle Earth happened here. In many ways it resembles the Barbarian Invasions of the late Roman Empire, the Persian Wars of Classical Greece, the Mongol Invasions or the Byzatine Empire’s war with the Turks in the High Middle Ages. In all cases, classical powers and the home of Western civilization are being threatened from Eastern Empires that are strange and exotic to them.
And let’s not forget Arrakis (aka. Dune) by Frank Herbert. Here too, we have a case where space and place are determining factors on their residents. And whereas several planets are described and even mapped out in the series, none were as detailed or as central as Arrakis itself. From its Deep Desert to its Shield Walls, from Arrakeen and Seitch Tabr; the planet was a highly detailed place, and the divide between Imperials and Fremen were played out in the ways both sides lived.
Whereas the Fremen were hardy folk who lived in the deep desert, took nothing for granted, and were a harsh folk sustained by prophecies and long-term goals, the Imperials were lavish people, pompous and arrogant, and used to doing things in accordance with the Great Convention. But far from being preachy or one-sided, Herbert showed the balance in this equation when it became clear that whereas the Imperials were governed by convention and thereby complacent, the Fremen were extremely dangerous and capable of terrible brutality when unleashed.
But as I said, other planets are also detailed and the influence their environments have on their people are made clear. Caladan was the ancestral home of the Atreides, covered in oceans, fertile continents, and a mild climate that many consider to be a paradise. As a result, according to Paul, the Atreides grew soft, and it was for this reason that they fell prey to the Emperor’s betrayal and the machinations of their Harkonnen enemies.
And speaking of the Harkonnens, the world of Geidi Prime is described on a few occasions in the series as being an industrial wasteland, a world plundered for its resources and its people reduced to a status of punitive serfdom. What better metaphor is there for a people guided by sick pleasures, exploitation, and exceptional greed? Whereas the Atreides grew soft from their pleasures, the Harkonnens grew fat, and were therefore easily slaughtered by Paul and his Fremen once their rebellion was underway.
And of course, there is Selusa Secundus, a radioactive wasteland where the Emperor’s elite Sardukar armies are trained. On this prison planet, life is hard, bleak, and those who survive do so by being ruthless, cunning and without remorse. As a result, they are perfect recruits for the Emperor’s dreaded army, which keeps the peace through shear force of terror.
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There’s something to be said for imaginative people creating dense, richly detailed worlds isn’t there? Not only can it be engrossing and entertaining; but sooner or later, you find yourself looking back at all that you’ve surveyed, you do a little added research to get a greater sense of all that’s there, and you realize just how freaking expansive the world really is. And of course, you begin to see the inspiration at the heart of it all.
Yes, this is the definitely the third time I’ve experienced this feeling in relation to a series. I count myself as lucky, and really hope to do the same someday. I thought I had with the whole Legacies concept, but I’m still tinkering with that one and I consider my research into what makes for a great sci-fi universe to be incomplete. Soon enough though, I shall make my greatest and final attempt, and there will be no prisoners on that day! A universe shall be borne of my pen, or not… Either way, I plan to blab endlessly about it 😉
Hello all and welcome back. Starting today, I thought I’d get into a cheerier aspect of science fiction. Not that I don’t looooove dystopian stuff, but after days and days of romping through endless examples of totalitarian, cyberpunk and just generally dark futures, I thought it might be time for a break. And it just so happened that I had an idea the other day which seemed like the perfect diversion. For those who read my site regularly, you might have noticed I did a long list of conceptual sci-fi posts. Well, today I thought I’d get back into that some.
To break it down, I wanted to do a piece that was dedicated entirely to “Cool Worlds”, an exploration of the various planets, cultures and civilizations science fiction has given us over the years. However, after coming up with just a few candidates, I quickly realized my mistake. There was no way I could possibly list all the best examples in just one post. And if I settled on just a few, then people might start writing in and saying “what about this one? what about that one?”
So rather than do all that, I decided instead to tackle specific franchises, particularly ones that made it into my Galactic Empires post, and address some of the cool worlds that existed within.And what better place to start than with my favorite galactic franchise, one of the most detailed franchises ever to be dreamed up: the venerable Dune!
Anyone who is familiar with Frank Herbert’s six volume series knows that he was pretty damn good at weaving an intricate and finely layered tale. One aspect where this was particularly evident was in his descriptions of the Imperium’s planets. Not only would Frank dedicate a great deal of time and effort to describing what a place was and what significance it held, he would also get into the lesser explored areas of ecology and what impact that had on a planet’s culture. Here are some of the best examples that I could think of, all from his original books:
Arrakis: The focal point of the Dune universe, and the most important planet in the entire franchise. It was here that the spice was manufactured, where Paul Mua’dib came face to face with his destiny, and “The Tyrant” Leto II was born and ruled for three and a half millenia. It was also eradicated when the Honored Matres attacked the Old Imperium, triggering a full-scale war which would lead humanity along the final steps of the “Golden Path”. In short, it was the backdrop for most of the story, and from a storytelling point of view, a very richly detailed place!
Much of what is known about Arrakis’ culture and ecology comes from the appendixes of the first novel where Herbert wrote about the fictitious exploits of Dr. Pardot Kynes, planetary ecologist to the Imperium. However, a great deal more came through in the course of the story once Paul and Jessica find refuge amongst the Fremen and had to learn their ways and secrets in order to survive. Much of this has to do with the spice, the Sandworms of Arrakis, and how the production of the former depended on the life cycle of the latter. They also came to learn about the Fremen’s plans to alter the planet’s ecology using moisture traps and water caches, as well as the careful introduction of plants and grasses to anchor the dunes.
Basically, Arrakis was a desert planet where moisture was the most precious commodity in existence. A fitting paradox, seeing as how the planet’s desert environment was essential to the production of spice – the most precious resource in the known universe. Two things permeated this environment, both of which kept outsiders away and ensured the security of the Fremen who lived in the deep desert. The first were the Sandworms themselves, the predominant life form on the planet. The second, though no less dangerous, were Arrakis’ famous sandstorms.
According to Dr. Yueh, worms measuring up to 450 meters had been captured and studied, but that ones which were larger still had been seen in the deep desert where no citizen of the Imperium had ever ventured. Living beneath the sand, the sandworms would be attracted to rhythmic vibrations coming from the surface. Knowing this, the Fremen were forced to develop a way of walking arrhythmical when forced to do “dune-crossings”. At other times, when they sought to ride the worms, they would plant “thumpers” to draw their attention, and then mount the worms once they came to the surface.
The worms were also the producers of the spice, which they used to fabricate nest for their young (“sand trout”), which would then leave before the nest underwent a chemical reaction, triggering a “spice blow”. Because of their central role in the life cycle of Arrakis, and the fearsome and awesome nature of the creature itself, the Fremen regarded them as godlike creatures. Shai-Hulud, “the old man of the desert”, was the name given to mature worms while “the Maker” referred to the worms role in the production of spice and the life cycle of the planet. Though Zensunni’s by descent, believing in a God that was transcendent, the Fremen still seemed to attribute some degree of divinity to the worms themselves.
Similarly, sandstorms were common to the Deep Desert, and also the reason why the capital city of Arrakeen was built within a protective outcropping of rock known as the “Shield Wall”. According to the expanded universe, sandstorms on Arrakis were electrically charged and could reach up to 500 km/h, powerful enough to destroy vehicles, equipment and strip anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside in one down to their bones! Due to the havoc they played with navigation and harvesting, all activity beyond the Shield Wall had to be timed to ensure that it happened between storms, otherwise harvesters could wind up buried beneath tons of sand.
As expected, the harsh and unforgiving conditions of this planet did much to shape its inhabitants. The “Fremen” as they are called (play on the word Free Men) were what could be expected from a nomadic desert people who were used to oppression. Recluse, mysterious, pragmatic and extremely tough, they were both feared and loathed by an Imperium that knew little about them and could not control them. However, once Paul and Jessica managed to penetrate the Fremen society by proving their worth to them, they began to see that the Fremen were also capable of extreme hospitality, fierce loyalty, great patience and uncompromisingly dedication.
Over the course of the six original novels, Arrakis was transformed from a desert planet into a lush green world, only to then be transformed back again. This had much to do with the plans of the Fremen, but also to Leto II’s “Golden Path”. In the end, it was realized that the spice-producing worms, and even the Fremen themselves, would not survive the ecological transformation, but once Leto died and the worms were reintroduced to the planet, spice production and desertification once again resumed. Knowing that worms were responsible for removing all traces of poisonous water form the planet, the Sisterhood began using some to conduct their own ecological transformations on Chapterhouse after Arrakis was destroyed.
The Fremen themselves had a saying which pretty much encapsulated their world and themselves: “God created Arrakis to train the faithful”.
Caladan: Although comparatively little time was spent detailing this planet, Caladan was nevertheless an important planet in the Dune universe. It was the ancestral home of House Atreides, Paul’s birthplace, and would eventually become the sole property of Jessica after Paul became Emperor and moved his seat to Arrakis.
Based on various descriptions from the original novels and expanded universe, Caladan was an ocean planet with few landmasses to speak of. Because of its relatively mild and agreeable climate, House Atreides was spared the expense of weather control measures. It’s primary exports consisted of biomass, plus the important agricultural produce known as pundi rice. In addition, it also traded in whale fur, gemstones, wine, corals and livestock.
According to Paul’s father, Duke Leto, House Atreides ruled this planet through air and sea power, for obvious reasons. When describing his world to Chani and the Fremen, they were incredulous to know that on some worlds, water was so commonplace that it formed oceans as big as the desert, or that plants could grow so thick that they were impassable.
Clearly, Caladan was meant to serve as a sort of Edenic setting compared to the hostile and rugged landscape of Arrakis. In addition, Paul’s exile into this harsh wilderness after the death of his father could be interpreted as a fall from grace, which he then reconciled when he became the prophet and religious leader of the Fremen and returned in the end to claim the throne. If there’s one thing Dune was known for, its religious allegories!
Chapterhouse: The home of the vaunted Bene Gesserit training facility in the later books of the series. In the original Dune, this facility was located on Wallach IX and had been for some time. However, five thousands years later in Heretics of Dune, the location had been changed to Chapterhouse. In the following and final novel, Chapterhouse: Dune when the Honored Matres began there assault, it was noted that Wallach had fallen to their advance.
According to the descriptions from Heretics and Chapterhouse, this planet was a green and fertile world. However, with the destruction of Rakis (Arrakis in the later novels) and the death of nearly every sandworm in the known universe, the Bene Gesserit began the process of terraforming it into another desert planet where the worms would be able to thrive, thus giving them control over the only source of spice in the universe.
Throughout the latter books in the series, the Bene Gesserit kept the location of this world a secret to protect it from the Honored Matres. They even went so far as to station a fleet of no-ships around the planet to ensure that no one would be able to locate them with prescient ability.
Geidi Prime: The homeworld of House Harkonnen. And if the religious metaphor which I alluded to earlier is to be believed – where Caladan is Eden and Arrakis is the real world- then this place would definitely be hell. In fact, judging by the many descriptions made of this planet and its rulers in the original series, the hellish metaphor is so thick you could cut it with a knife!
In the original Dune, we are given descriptions that emphasize the planet’s industrial nature. Hints are also given that the planet was highly volcanic and covered in wastelands. In addition to its many factories, large arenas were also built in most cities, where gladiator duels were held to entertain the populace. The Baron’s nephew, Feyd-Rathau, would often compete as a way of gaining popularity amongst the people and demonstrating his skill.
Also, in the original and subsequent novels, much is made of the Harkonnen’s sense of brutality and perversion. Whereas the Baron delighted in little boys, whom he would often kill in the course of molesting them, the planet’s artwork and decor often emphasized sex and violence.The Baron’s appearance, which is described as being so “grossly and immensely fat” that he requires an anti-gravity device just to get around. In addition, he described himself as “always hungry”.
In Heretics of Dune, when Miles Teg and the ghola of Duncan Idaho are hiding in an abandoned Harkonnen chamber, they notice an old clock where the hands are figured of a man and woman with over-sized genitalia (when the two hands line up, it looks as though a gruesome sex act is occurring!). When describing the Harkonnen’s, Leto II claimed they were “lovers of sensation”, people who were obsessed with pleasures of the body.
Hmmm, factories, volcanoes, gladiator rings and bodily pleasures? Sounds like something right out of Dante’s Inferno! In the course of adapting the novel to the big screen, David Lynch went to town on this, showing the planet to be dark, polluted and filled with terrifyingly decrepit people, many of whom had undergone hideous types of surgery (i.e. heartplugs). In the miniseries version, similar attempts were made to capture the hellish nature of the place. Here, every set was done in the colors red and black and camera angles were always askew, capturing the dark and twisted nature of the Baron and his family.
Ix: The ninth planet in the star system of Alkalurops, Ix is the home of the technocracy that is responsible for producing the vast majority of the Imperium’s machinery. The name of the planet stems from the misinterpretation of the planet’s designation in Roman numerals.
In the original six novels, we never did get a description of what Ix looks like or what really went on there. For reasons which may have a lot to do with the fact that they are technologists in a universe where technology is morally proscribed, the Ixians appear to be somewhat recluse. However, it was clear that they were responsible for creating the various technologies that were central to the plot.
In God Emperor of Dune, Leto II is found to be recording his thoughts using an illegal device that was manufactured by on Ix. It was also the Ixians who were responsible for breeding Malky, a man who’s purpose was to influence Leto into doubting his own path and purpose. Hwi Noree, who was a sort of polar opposite to Malky, was also created to lure him with her charms. Both individuals were bred inside a “no-chamber”, a special cell that hide what is within from prescient detection. This same technology would later go into created “no-ships” and even larger “no-fields” which could shield entire planets.
Another revelation which came in God Emperor of Dune was the fact that Leto, through his Golden Path, had apparently prevented the Ixians from developing a breed of hunter-seekers which would have completely destroyed humanity. Ultimately, part of his plan was to encourage the development of certain technologies while preventing others. Whereas the hunter-seekers fell into the latter category, machines that could block prescience or replace it (i.e. the machine that could do the job of a navigator) fell into the former.
Kaitain: In the original Dune novel, Kaitain was the seat of power for the Padishah Emperor and the location of the Imperial Court. It was also the homeworld of House Corrino after events on Selusa Secundus forced them to move. All of the guilds, major houses and interests in the known universe maintained a presence here, including the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit, the Ixians, the Tleilaxu, the Landsraad, CHOAM, etc.
After events on Arrakis forced him to intervene, Emperor Shaddam IV relocated the royal palace to Arrakis so that he could oversee the deployment of his armies and ensure the Baron’s cooperation.
Aside from that, not much is mentioned of Kaitain, except for a description of the Golden Lion throne in the original novel’s appendices. Here, it is described as an opulent throne that had been “carved from a single piece of Hagal quartz — blue-green translucency shot through with streaks of yellow fire.”
Selusa Secundus: Once the seat of House Corrino and the Royal Court, this planet became a prison world after it was devastated in a nuclear attack. As a result, the planet’s climate is incredibly harsh and inhospitable, making it the perfect world for the condemned of society. Radiation from the attack still permeates the planet’s climate, and mortality rates amongst prisoners are apparently as high as 60 percent.
However, as is quickly made clear in the first novel and throughout the series, Selusa Secundus also serves as the training grounds for the Emperor’s dreaded Sardaukar army. This is done in secret, though most Houses within the Imperium apparently suspect it. In fact, in the first novel, the Emperor apparently became suspicious when Baron Harkonnen remarked to Count Fenrig that he would use Arrakis to conduct a similar experiment with his own armies. This was meant only in jest, but it did speak to suspicions the Emperor had.
One other person who understood this was Paul. After becoming an exile on Arrakis, he began to learn that his father had similar plans with the Fremen. By making an alliance with the Fremen, people who had been toughened by conditions worse than that on Selusa Secundus, his father would eventually be able to raise an army army that could rival the Sardaukar. Convinced that Paul was their messiah, he put this plan into action and was able to defeat the Emperor’s armies outside of Arrakeen.
After seizing control of the Golden Lion Throne, Paul exiled House Corrino to Selusa Secundus where they remained until events in Children of Dune. It was here that Shaddam’s third daughter, Princess Wensicia, began plotting the assassinate Paul’s twin children and place her own son Farad’n on the throne. When Jessica is forced to flee Arrakis with Duncan, they found shelter here and made their deal with Winsicia. In exchange for marriage between Ghanima and Farad’n, she agreed to teach him in the Bene Gesserit ways.
Beyond that, no mention is made of Selusa Secundus. Much like House Corrino, it seemed this planet was destined to fade into obscurity.
Tleilax: Yet another obscure world to come out of the Dune universe. And much like Ix, very little was said about this planet until late in the series. Nevertheless, it too played a very important role in the Dune universe and a number of key developments and inventions were apparently born here.
The sole planet in the Thalim star system, this world is also the home of the mysterious Bene Tleilax. In addition to being the training ground for “twisted Mentats”, Tleilax is also the home of the elusive axlotl tanks, which are used in the production of gholas. Though most within the Imperium frowned upon these devices, as they did all Tleilaxu inventions, the tanks and gholas in particular were used by just about all factions for the sake of their plotting and machinations.
In Dune Messiah, much is told about the Tleilaxu due to their involvement in a plot to unseat Paul Mua’dib from the Imperial Throne. This included the creation of a Duncan Idaho ghola, which had been programmed to kill Paul once he uttered the key phrase “she’s gone” in reference to his beloved Chani. However, this was soon revealed to be a plot within a plot, where the real intent was to show how the original memories of a ghola could be recovered by forcing them into a situation where their original self would reassert itself in order to fight against operate conditioning.
In God Emperor of Dune, Leto II is shown to be reliant on the Tleilaxu’s axlotl technology because he keeps demanding gholas of Duncan Idaho. For reasons unknown, he insists on having the original Duncan in his court, with his full memory restored. It is later suggested that this was an important part of his breeding program, that Duncan contained a special gene which he needed to bread into his descendents. But whatever his reasons, the Bene Gesserit continued his program and maintained an alliance with the Tleilaxu whereby they would receive gholas of Duncan Idaho so they could try to ascertain his true purpose.
In Heretics of Dune, the sixth incarnation of the Sisterhood’s Duncan Idaho is revealed to be special. Unlike the other incarnations, he has access to the memories of all other Idaho gholas, dating back to the very first who served Pual Mua’dib and all those who served and died at the hands of Leto II. In addition, the Tleilaxu clearly equipped him with the sex techniques of the Honored Matres so that he would be able to turn the tables on them when the time came, resisting their attempts to “imprint him” and imprint himself onto one of them. All of this leads Duncan to the conclusion that he now possesses Kwisatz Haderach-like abilities, which is confirmed in Chapterhouse: Dune when he begins to experience visions of the old man and lady (see below).
Also, in was in Heretics of Dune that readers got their first glimpse of the Tleilaxu homeworld and their society. Prior to this, it was understood that Tleilaxu was master geneticists who had engineered their own version of the Kwisatz Hadderach, but which had apparently committed suicide. It was also shown that they were ruled by a series of “masters”; Master Scytale being the one who participated in the plot in Dune Messiah.
However, what was not revealed was that the Tleilaxu were actually secret Zensunni’s and Sufi’s who maintained strict religious secrecy so as to keep their plans hidden from “powindah” (aka. outsiders). In addition, all masters were clones (not gholas) of their original selves and achieved a sort of immortality this way. This was apparently part of their long-term plan to assert their dominance over the known universe, a plan which was finally hatched in Heretics of Dune and involved the specially-programmed Duncan Idaho ghola.
Also central to the plot of several novels in the original series was the Face Dancer, another invention unique to the Tleilaxu. These were people specially bred to be able to take on the likeness and even the memories of people they were charged with killing and impersonating. Bred to be eunuchs and completely loyal, they were human only in the strictest sense of the word and possessed no identity of their own. However, this changed as the series progressed and it became clear that after millenia of adopting the personas of others, Face Dancers were beginning to develop personalities of their own.
This was apparently the threat the Honored Matres were themselves fleeing and which had forced them back into the universe of the Old Imperium. Throughout Chapterhouse: Dune, Duncan Idaho is haunted by visions of an old man and a woman whom he identifies as free Face Dancers. It is these people who he concludes are responsible for the greater threat they face, and who appear to want to capture him because of his special abilities as well.
Another interesting invention to come out Tleilax was the “slig”, a genetically engineered hybrid which crossed the DNA of a pig with a slug to produce a large, fleshy and slothful creature that is easily harvested for its meat. As was remarked in one of the later books in the series, this animal was considered ugly, even disgusting, due to its multiple mouths and skin that excreted a slimy and noxious residue. However, due to its sweet and terder meat, there were few in the Imperium who did not enjoy having “slig medallions” on their tables.
Before I get into talk of patterns and conclusions, a little disclaimer first. First, there are plenty more worlds in Dune universe that are probably worth mentioning. However, there was no way to include them all without making either breaking this post in two or making it run on forever. Second, I deliberately left out information that did not come from the original six novels. True, there’s plenty more mentioned in the expanded franchise of these and other worlds in the Dune universe, but I wanted to stick to material that Frank himself was known to have written. Anything that comes from the expanded universe is likely to suffer from original though. Funny way of putting I know, but it can be known to dilute or undercut anything the original author themselves established.
Okay! Now that I’ve covered my ass, let me get to what I think about these cool worlds! Well, a few things jumped out at me after I was finished researching this list and gave it a final glance:
1. Frank loved secret societies!: Whether it was the Fremen, the Bene Gesserit, the Bene Tleilax, the Ixians, or the Emperor, the concept of recluse worlds and secrets ran through Frank’s original works like a vein. Clearly, he was a big (and I mean big, big, BIG!) fan of intrigue, secrecy, and societies that were founded on them. This is one of the things that I think made the Dune universe so readable and realistic in tone.
Regardless of their house or faction, it seemed that everybody was looking to get a leg up on someone else and found that the best way to do that was to conduct themselves in secret. Was this a commentary on humanity, the result of living under imperial rule, or the result of the complacency Paul and Leto hoped to rescue humanity from? Who knows, point is, he loved em! I think I smell another post in the wind…
2. Ecology effects people:As already mentioned, Frank paid a great of attention to the link between environments and culture. Whereas the Fremen and their values were clearly the result of their hostile and sparse world, the Atreides had apparently been rendered soft by generations of living on Caladan. House Harkonnen, with all their ugly desires and habits, boasted a world to match. And of course Selusa Secundus and Arrakis both served as the ideal training grounds for elite soldiers because life on both was just so freaking hard!
Well that’s all for now. Stay tuned, I plan to tackle the Star Wars universe next! And more chapters for Data Miners are still on the way…
Hello again, fellow sci-fi fans! Today, I thought I’d write about something conceptual, something that is intrinsic to so much science fiction and keeps popping up in various forms. It’s something that has appeared in countless serials, novels, tv shows, movies, and RPG’s. I am referring, of course, to the concept of the Galactic Empire, a science fiction trope that has seen many incarnations, but revolves around a singular theme of a political entity that spans the known universe.
Whether it’s a loose federation of humans and aliens spanning many different star systems, or a despotism made up of millions of worlds, all populated by human beings, or something somewhere in the middle, this trope has proven to be one of the most enduring ideas of classic science fiction.
But where exactly did this idea come from? Who was the first to come up with a futuristic, galaxy-spanning polity where millions of star systems and quadrillions of sentient beings all found themselves living underneath one roof?
Asimov’s Foundation Series:
Isaac Asimov is arguably the first science fiction author to use the concept of a galaxy-spanning empire in his literature. Known simply as the Galactic Empire, this organization was the centerpiece of his Foundation series. As fans of the books know, the entire series was built around the idea of the imminent collapse of said empire and how a small band of scientists (led by Hari Seldon) were dedicated to ensuring that the collective knowledge of the universe would be preserved in its absence. The books were based heavily on Gibbon’s History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a compendium which explored the various reasons for the collapse of Rome and the resulting Dark Ages.
The universe of the Galactic Empire centered on a planet named Trantor. Based on his descriptions, the planet was covered by a massive urban landscape, every habitable area having been built over in order to accommodate the planet’s huge population. In addition to being the capitol of the Empire, it was also its administrative head, cultural hub, and economic epicenter. Much like Rome of antiquity, it depended heavily on the surrounding territories for food and raw materials in order to sustain itself, and was terribly hit when the Empire began to decline.
However, beyond some passing descriptions of its size, centrality and the problems facing its encapsulated population, not much is said about Trantor or many other worlds of the Galactic Empire. In fact, not much is said about the Empire itself, other than the fact that it has endured for millennia and is on the verge of collapsing. Mainly, the focus in Asimov’s Foundation is on the events that precipitated its fall and the work of the Foundation once that was complete; how they went about the process of restoring civilization in the absence of a central authority. However, the subsequent Foundation novels, which included some prequels, helped to flesh out the Empire further, providing details on member worlds and the events which preceded the development of Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”.
Frank Herbert’s Dune:
One of the greatest examples of a galactic empire in my opinion. In the first installment of the Dune series, we are made immediately aware that humanity now inhabits the entire galaxy and are ruled from a world called Kaitan by a sovereign known as the Padishah Emperor. However, it is also made clear that while the emperor is the supreme leader, power is shared in a quasi-feudal arrangement between the noble houses (the Landstraad), a corporate entity that controls all economic affairs (CHOAM), and the various guilds (of which the Spacing Guild is arguably the most powerful). In this universe, much attention is given to the breakdown of power, the history of how it came to be, and the various member worlds and houses.
For starters, there is House Corrino, the ruling dynasty of the empire that is centered on Kaitan. Their house once ruled from a planet known as Selusa Secundus, but which has since been reduced to ashes from a nuclear attack and now serves as the emperor’s prison planet (where his elite armies are trained). More important, and central to the story, is House Atreides, the family which rules from an ocean planet named Caladan, but come to inherit the desert planet Arrakis (aka. Dune). Passing attention is also given to Geidi Prime, the industrial world run by House Harkonnen, the nominal villains of the story.
But by far, the most detailed and developed descriptions are that of the planet Arrakis, where most of the story takes place. Throughout the first novel, the planet’s ecology, native species, and inhabitants (the Fremen) are richly detailed. Given that it is the only world where the spice (an awareness drug the entire universe depends on) is mined, the world is understandably the focal point of the Dune universe. Clearly analogous to oil, the spice is a metaphor for human dependence on a single resource, and the consequences thereof. By taking control of the planet at story’s end and threatening to destroy the spice, Paul Atreides effectively becomes the universe’s new ruler. For as the sayings go: “He who controls the spice, controls the universe”, and “He who can destroy a thing controls that thing.”
Frank Herbert cited a number of influences for his galactic empire. Like Asimov, he relied a great deal on history, particularly that of the Middle East, the Crusades, and a number of feudal societies. At the same time, Herbert became fascinated with ecology, a result of his living in Florence, Oregon where the US Department of Agriculture was using poverty grasses to stabilize the expanding Oregon dunes. The article which he wrote about them, entitled “They Stopped the Moving Sands” was never completed and only appeared decades later in The Road to Dune. Nevertheless, it was from this combination of real history and ecology, how the living environment affects its inhabitants and shapes history, that the universe of Dune emerged.
Perhaps the best known example of a galactic empire, which in turn emerged from what Lucas called the Old Republic. When asked about his inspirations, George Lucas claimed that he wanted to create an empire that was as aesthetically and thematically similar to Nazi Germany as possible. This is made abundantly clear when one looks into the back story of how the Empire emerged, how its malevolent dictator (Palpatine, a Sith Lord) rose to power and began launching campaigns to eliminate anyone who stood in his way. In addition, the use of Storm Troopers, the uniforms of the imperial officers, and the appearance of Darth Vader also add visual representation to this.
However, a great deal of antiquity works its way into the Star Wars universe as well. Much like Herbert and Asimov, there is a parallel between the past and the future. The incorporation of royalty, swordfights between Bushido-like warriors, gun-toting smugglers, cantinas, dangerous towns in the middle of the desert, and all the allusions to the “Republic” and “Galactic Senate”, fair and noble institutions which ruled the galaxy before the dark times – all of these are themes taken from ancient Greece, Rome, feudal Japan, medieval Europe, and the Wild West.
In any case, at the center of Lucas’ galactic empire lies Coruscant, a planet that was clearly inspired by Trantor. Whereas in the original series, the planet was not shown or even mentioned, it receives a great deal of attention in the Star Wars novelizations, comics, and prequel movies. Much like Trantor, it is a planet that is completely dominated by urban sprawl, literally every corner of it is covered by massive sky-scrapers and multi-leveled buildings.
According to the Star Wars Wiki (Wookiepedia), roughly a trillion humans and aliens live on its surface, which is another detail that is noteworthy about Lucas’ universe. Unlike Foundation or Dune, in Star Wars, the galactic empire includes countless sentient races, though humans do appear to be the dominant species. This racial aspect is something else that is akin to World War II and Nazi Germany.
Whereas the Rebellion is made up of humans and aliens who are struggling for freedom and tolerance, the Empire is composed entirely of humans who believe in their own racial superiority. However, in a tribute to Lucas’ more creative days, not much is said about this divide, the audience is instead left to infer it from the outward appearances and behavior of the characters on screen. However, the idea receives much development in the novelizations, particularly Timothy Zhan’s Thrawn Trilogy.
Yet another take on the concept of a galactic polity: Gene Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets. Much like the Empire of Lucas’ own universe, the Federation is made up of hundreds of member worlds and any number of races. But unlike its peers in the Foundation, Dune or Star Wars universes, the Federation only encompasses a small portion of the galaxy – between ten and fifteen percent, depending on where you look in the storyline.
Beyond their range of influence lie several competing or cooperative empires – the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardasians, the Dominion, and the Borg. Each of these empires represent a threat to the Federation at one time or another in the story, largely because their ideologies are in direct conflict with the Federations policy of peace, multiculturalism and understanding.
This may sound a tad tongue-in-cheek, but it is the main vehicle for the story. In Star Trek, like many other sci-fi franchises, Gene Roddenberry uses alien races as mirrors for the human condition. Whereas in his vision of the future humanity has evolved to overcome the scourges of war, poverty, disease, intolerance and oppression, other races are either less advanced or openly embrace these things.
The Klingons, for example, were the enemies of the Federation because of their commitment to warrior politics. The Romulans are locked in an ongoing cold war with them because of their belief in their own racial superiority. The Dominion seeks dominance over all “solid” life forms because, as shape shifters, they fear being controlled themselves. And the Borg are an extremely advanced cybernetic race that seeks to “perfect” organic life by merging it – by force, if necessary – with the synthetic. The metaphors are so thick, you could cut them with a knife!
Yes, subtlety was never Roddenberry’s greatest attribute, but the franchise was an open and inclusive one, borrowing freely from other franchises and sci-fi concepts, and incorporating a great deal of fan writing into the actual show itself. And whereas other franchises had firm back-stories and ongoing plots, Star Trek has always been an evolving, ad hoc thing by comparison.
Roddenberry and the producers and writers that took over after his death never did seem to plan that far ahead, and the back story was never hammered out with that much precision. This has allowed for a degree of flexibility, but also comes with the painstaking task of explaining how and why humanity became a utopian society in the first place. But for the most part, the franchise leaves that one vague, arguing that space travel, technology and contact with other sentient races allowed for all of this to happen over time.
Babylon 5:One of my favorite franchises of all time! And possibly one of the most detailed examples of a galactic empire, due largely to the fact that it took shape in the course of the show, instead of just being there in the background from the beginning. Here too, we see a trade off between other franchises, the most similar being Star Trek. In this universe, there is no single galactic empire, but rather a series races that exist is a web of alliances, rivalries and a loose framework of relations.
But as time goes on, many of them come together to form an alliance that is reminiscent of the Federation, though arguably more detailed and pluralistic in its composition. When the show opens, we see that humanity is merely one of many races in the cosmic arena, most of whom are more advanced and older than we are.
The Earth Alliance, as its called, controls only a few colonies, but commands a fair degree of influence thanks to the construction of an important space station in neutral territory. This station (namesake of the show) is known as Babylon 5, aptly named because it is a place of trade, commerce, and the intermixing of peoples and cultures. And much like its namesake, it can be a dangerous and chaotic place, but is nevertheless the focal point of the known universe.
According to the back story, which is explored in depth in the prequel movie “In the Beginning”, the station began as a way of preventing wars based on cultural misunderstandings. Such a war took place between the human race and the Mimbari, a race that is central to the story, ten years prior to the show. After four abortive attempts, the station finally went online and was given the designation of five because it was the fifth incarnation of the project.
Once completed, all major races in the area sent representatives there in order to make sure their interests and concerns were being represented. Chief amongst them was Earth, the Mimbari, the Narns, the Centauri and the Vorlons, who together made up the stations executive council. Beyond them was the “League of Non-Aligned Worlds”, a group made up of fifteen sentient races who were all smaller powers, but together exercise a fair degree of influence over policy.
The Centauri, who were based on the late-period Roman Empire, are a declining power, the once proud rulers of most of the quadrant who have since regressed and are looking to reverse their fortunes. The Narns are their chief rival, a younger race that was previously occupied and brutalized by the Centauri, but who have emerged to become one of the most powerful forces in the quadrant.
Based heavily on various revisionists powers of history, they are essentially a race that is familiar with suffering and freely conquers and subjugates others now to ensure that such a thing never happens to them again. The Mimbari, an older and somewhat reclusive race, is nominally committed to peace. But as the war demonstrated, they can easily become a force to be reckoned with given the right provocation. And then there are the Vorlons, a very old and very reclusive race that no one seems to know anything about, but who nevertheless are always there in the background, just watching and waiting…
As the show progresses, we come to see that B5 will actually serve a purpose that is far greater than anyone could have foreseen. It seems that an ancient race, known only as the Shadows, are returning to the known universe. Before they can to invade, however, they must recruit from the younger races and encourage them to make war on their rivals and neighbors. This will sow the seeds of chaos and ensure that their eventual advance will be met with less resistance.
The Vorlons and the Mimbari ambassadors (Kosh and Delenn) are aware of this threat, since their people have faced it before, and begin recruiting the station’s two human commanders (Jeffrey Sinclair and John Sheridan) to help. This proves difficult, as the Shadows appear to have contacts on Earth as well and are backing the power play of Vice President Clarke, an ambitious man who wants to be a dictator. They are also ensuring that the Centauri and Narn go to war with each other as a way of keeping all the other member races preoccupied.
However, using the station as a rallying point, Sheridan, Sinclair, Delenn and Kosh eventually manage to organize the younger races into a cohesive fighting force to turn back the Shadows. Things become more complicated when they realize that the Vorlons are also the enemy, being involved in a power struggle with the Shadows that goes back eons. However, with the help of other First Ones (very old races) and a commitment to stand on their own, they manage to force both sides to leave the known universe.
In the wake of the war, a new spirit of cooperation and cohesion is formed amongst the younger races, which eventually gives rise to the Interstellar Alliance. This organization is essentially an expanded version of the League, but where members are fully aligned economically and politically and committed to defending each other. This comes in handy when the allies of the Shadows, younger races who are armed with all their old mentors’ gear, come out of hiding and begin to make trouble!
Naturally, the full story is much more complex and I’m not doing it justice, but this is the bare bones of it. Relying on historic examples and countless classic science fiction themes, J. Michael Straczynski establishes a detailed universe where multiple races and political entities eventually come together to form a government that rules the known universe and stands the test of time.
Here we have a franchise that had multiple inspirations, according to the creators. The focal point of the franchise is on massive war machines, known as battlemechs, which were apparently inspired by Macross and other anime. However, the creators also came to incorporate a back story that was very European in its outlook, which revolved around the concept of an ongoing war between feudal states.
One could make the case that the Shogunate period of Japan, a time of ongoing civil war, was also a source of inspiration for this story. However, upon familiarizing myself with the background of the series, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing had a predominantly Russian feel to it. In addition to the heroic characters being named Alexandr and Nicholas Kerensky, something about the constant feudal warfare and the morally ambiguous nature of humanity in the story seemed analogous to much of Russia’s troubled history.
To break it down succinctly, the story takes place in the 31st century, a time marked by incessant warfare between different clans and worlds, all of which are populated by humans.Terra (as Earth is now called) was once the center of a grand empire known as the Star League. After centuries of conflict, in what is known as the “Succession Wars”, Earth and many its immediate neighbors were rendered damaged or completely uninhabitable.
As a result, the focal point of the universe resides within the Inner Sphere, a region that is 500 light years away from Earth and dominated by five Great Houses. The leader of each house claims to be the rightful successor of the Star League, and hence the houses are all known as the Successor States. Outside the Inner Sphere lies the Periphery, a large ring of independent star systems that predate the League and the Successor States, but are inferior to them in terms of technology. Though nominally independent, none of these regions have the ability to stand against the houses of the Inner Sphere, and thus avoid conflict with them whenever possible.
A key feature of the Battletech universe is the absence of sentient species outside of the human race. This serves to make the ongoing warfare more realistic, as well as establishing how the current state of war is a direct extension of earlier rivalries (some dating all the way back to the 20th century). Another interesting feature about this franchise is the fact that humanity has not evolved very far beyond its current state, in spite of the lengthy passage of time.
Again, the constant state of warfare has much to do with this, which has had a slowing and even reversing effect on the technological development of many worlds. In short, the franchise is gritty, realistic, and has a pretty dim view of humanity. In addition, there is a palatable sense that humanity’s best years are behind it, and that barring the appearance of some external threat, humanity will war itself into extinction.
A couple of things stand out about each of these examples of a galactic empire. And for anyone interesting in creating their own, they are considerations which have to be taken into account. All of the previous creators, from Isaac Asimov to Weisman and Babcock, either took a singular approach on these issues, or adopted a combined one. Here they are, as I see them:
Humans and Aliens: This is arguably the most important consideration when developing a sci-fi franchise, especially one where a galactic empire is concerned. The creator must decide, is this going to be a universe where humans and aliens coexist with one another, or is it going to be strictly human? Both options open up a range of possibilities; for example, are humans and aliens living together in harmony in this story, is one subjugated to another, or something else entirely? What’s more, what role will the aliens play? Are they to be the benign, enlightened aliens who teach us “flawed humans” how to be better, or will we be the the species that’s got things figured out and they be allegorical representations of our past, flawed selves? Inevitably, aliens serve as a sort of mirror for the human condition or as examples of past human societies, in any story. There’s simply no way around it, not if we want them to be familiar and relateable.
Utopian/Dystopian: Another very important decision to make when creating a universe is the hue its going to have. In short, is it going to be a bright place or a dark place? Would humanity advance as a result of technology and space exploration, or regress because improved weapons and tools merely meant we could do more harm? Both visions serve their purpose, the one eliciting hope for the future and offering potential solutions to contemporary problems, the other making the point that the human condition is permanent and certain behaviors will never be overcome. However, in my opinion, the most respectable approach is to take the middle road on this. Sci-fi franchises, like those of Straczynski and Alastair Reynolds (creator of the Revelation Space universe) did their best to present humanity as being morally ambiguous. We were neither perfect nor unsalvageable. We simply did our best and tried to make a difference, but would always have our share of flaws.
Space Travel: Almost all galactic empires are agreed on this one front. When it comes to creating a extra-solar empire, one that encompasses hundreds or even thousands of star systems, one needs to be able to travel faster than the speed of light. It might mean contravening the laws of physics (causing Einstein to roll over in his grave!) but you can’t really do it otherwise. Whether it’s by the Alcubierre drive, hyperspace, warp, jump gates, or folding space, all of the aforementioned franchises incorporated some kind of FTL. Without it, humanity would require thousands or even millions of years in order to expand to encompass the known universe, at which point, we’d probably have evolved to the point where we were no longer even human! In addition, the problems of subjective time and perspective would wreak havoc with story lines, continuity, and the like. Better and easier to just say “Here (zoom!) Now there!”
Technology: Following on the heels of FTL is the issue of how technology in general is treated within the universe in question. Will it be the source of man’s betterment and salvation, of their downfall, or something in between? Star Trek is a perfect example of the former approach, set in a future where all hunger, disease, poverty and inequality have been eliminated through the application of technology. Despite the obvious utopianism of this view, the franchise really isn’t that far off if you think about it. If we did have matter replicators, machines that could manufacture food, materials and consumer goods out of simple trace elements, then money, precious metals and other artificial means of measuring wealth would become obsolete. In addition, there’d be no more food shortages or distribution problems to speak of, not as long as everyone had access to this technology. And if fusion power and warp technology were available, then energy would be cheap and abundant and commerce would be rapid and efficient.
However, Roddenberry would often show the downside of this equation by portraying societies in which technology had been allowed to run amok. A good example is an episode in Star Trek TNG where the Enterprise comes upon a planet that is run by an advanced machine named Custodian. The people of the planet have grown entirely dependent on the machine and have long since forgotten how to run and maintain. As a result, they have become sterile due to radiation poisoning and are slowly dying off. Another perfect example is the Borg, a race of cybernetic beings that are constantly expanding and assimilating anything in their path. In terms of aesthetics, they are dark, ugly and sterile, traveling around in ships that look like giant cubes that were slapped together out of toxin-spewing industrial junk. Is there a more perfect metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable march of technological progress, in all its darker aspects?
Asimov’s Foundation series also had a pretty benign view of technology. In his universe, the people of Terminus and other Foundation worlds distinguished themselves from their neighbors through their possession of superior technology and even used it to their advantage wherever possible. In the first novel, for instance, the Foundation’s scientists began to travel to neighboring worlds, places that had the use of nuclear power and began teaching them how to rebuild it. Over time, they became a sort of priestly caste who commanded reverential respect from the locals thanks to all the improvements their inventions brought to their daily lives. When in the first book a warlord from the neighboring planet of Anacreon tries to conquer them, they then respond by cutting off all power to the planet and their forces, and use their status as religious leaders to foment rebellion against him.
However, other franchises have a different take on technology and where it will take us. For example, Battletech tends to look at technology in a darker perspective. In this future, the focus of technological development is overwhelmingly on battlemechs and weapons of war. In addition, the ongoing war in the series has had a negative effect on the development of other forms of technology, particularly the kinds that are beneficial to society as a whole. In short, technology has not corrected for mankind’s flaws because it has failed to remove the greatest cause of war and suffering – i.e. ambition!
Frank Herbert, on the other hand, took what could be construed as a mixed view. Whereas in his universe, instantaneous space travel is possible, energy shields, laser guns and nuclear power are all in existence, the overall effect on humanity has not been progressive. In the first Dune novel, we learn that humanity fought a holy war against thinking machines and automation over ten thousands years prior to the main story (the Butlerian Jihad). The target of the jihad was apparently a machine mentality as much as the machines themselves, and the result was a sort of compact whereby future generations promised never to develop a machine that could take the place of a human being. That, in addition to the invention of energy shields, led to the development of a feudal society where nobles and merchant princes were once again responsible for controlling planetary resources, and where armies went to war using swords and daggers in addition to lasers, slug throwers and missiles.
In subsequent novels, this was developed even further to present a sort of twofold perspective on technology. On the one hand, it is shown as being potentially harmful, where a machine mentality and a society built on unrestricted production of material goods can lead to social chaos and anarchy. Not necessarily because it can be harmful in and of itself, but because it can lead to a situation where humans feel so alienated from themselves and each other that they are willing to regress to something simpler and less free. On the other hand, advanced technology is also shown to have a potentially retrogressive effect as well, forcing people to look backwards for solutions instead of forwards. One can see genuine parallels with history, like how industrial civilization, in spite of all its benefits, led to the rise of fascism and communism because of its atomizing and alienating effects on society. Or how the Japanese of the post-Shogunate period deliberately regressed by destroying their stores of muskets and cannons because they feared that the “coward weapons” were detrimental to the Bushido.
Personally, I thought Herbert’s perspective on things was by far the most brilliant and speculative, packed full of social commentary and irony. It was therefore a source of great disappointment that his successors (Brian Herbert and KJA) chose to present things in a far more myopic light. In the prequels to Dune, particularly the Legends of Dune series, the jihad is shown to be a struggle between advanced machines that have enslaved the human race and the few free human worlds that are locked in a life and death struggle to defeat them. However, in twist that is more contradiction than irony, they find the solution to their problem by using nukes to level every machine planet. The fact that the “free worlds” relied on slave labor to compensate for the loss of automation was somewhat interesting, but would have been far more effective if the enemy machines were not portrayed as purely evil and the protagonists as selfless heroes.
The concept of a galactic empire is something that has a long history and many, many incarnations. But as always, the purpose of it seems to be to expand the focus of the commentary so that as many possible aspects of the human condition can be explored. By placing human beings on hundreds or thousands of planets, authors generally seek to show how different places can give rise to different cultures. This is as true of different parts on the globe as it is for different planets in the universe. In addition, the incorporation of aliens also gives us a chance to explore some of the deeper sociological questions, things that arise out of how we interact with different cultures around the world today. For in the end, all science fiction is really about history and the period in which it is conceived, regardless of it being set in the future. Like all other genres, the real aim is to serve as a vehicle for speculation and investigation, answering questions about who we are and what makes us us.
Whew! I think I got a little tongue and cheek there myself! In any case, I enjoy delving into this conceptual stuff, so I think I’m going to do it more often here. Next time, something a bit lighter and more specific. I was thinking about something along the lines of PLANETKILLERS! Stay tuned!
Last time around, I made a big deal about prequels and why they aren’t so good. And of course, the Dune prequels were featured pretty prominently in that post. However, what I came to realize shortly after writing it was that I’ve never dedicated a post to the prequel work of Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson and explained what it was that was so disappointing about them. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than with their Legends of Dune series, the hackish trilogy that was supposed to detail the seminal background event known as the Butlerian Jihad.
Sure, they’ve come up here and there in my rants, always in the context of how they effectively raped Frank Herbert’s legacy. But today I feel like zeroing in, applying the rules I devised for why these prequels fall short, and mentioning a few other things that bothered me to no end about them. So, without further ado, here’s the The Butlerian Jihad, the first book in the Legends of Dune series and one of several unoriginal Dune-raping series they created and why it sucked!
Dune, The Bulterian Jihad:
In my previous post, I outlined four basic reasons for why prequels can and often do suck. As I said, they are by no means scientific or the result of expertise, just my own observations. However, when it comes to the Dune books of Brian Herbert and KJA, they certainly do apply. Hell, it was the act of wading through their books that I was able to come up with these rules in the first place. They were: 1. No Surprises, 2. Sense of Duty, 3. Less is More and 4. Denying the Audience the use of their Imagination.
These things ran like a vein throughout the works of Brian and KJA, but were by no means the only problem with their books. In addition, there were also the problems of cardboard cut-out characters, heavily contrived plot twists, cliches, and an undeniable feeling of exploitation. Add to that some truly bad writing and the fact that the story felt like a complete misrepresentation of Herbert’s ideas and you can begin to see why Dune fans found these books so offensive. As one of them, I’m happy to ran about this whenever and wherever possible. So here goes!
1. Bad Characters
In the Preludes to Dune series, this problem was not so pronounced, nor was it a huge problem in the Dune sequels (Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune). But in the Legends of Dune series, it was palatable! The characters were so one-dimensional, so predictable and so exaggerated that they became downright annoying to read. And of course, their dialogue was so wooden I thought I was sitting through that horrible “love scene” from Attack of the Clones. This was a clear indication that where the elder Herbert’s own characters and notes were not available, the two authors had to rely on their own instincts and took the cheap route.
Examples! Legends of Dune revolves around the characters of Serena Butler, Vorian Atreides, and Xavier Harkonnen on the side of good, Erasmus, Omnius and Agamemnon on the side of evil, and Iblis Ginjo, Tio Holtzmann and a host of others somewhere in the middle. And in each case, they are horribly over-the-top, too good, or too evil to stand. In addition, bad dialogue and writing counts for a lot. Even the characters who are not robots speak as if they are, their traits and attributes are openly announced, and nothing beyond their topical persona’s are ever revealed.
On the one hand, Serena Butler is a crusader for the abolitionist cause and a tireless leader for free humanity. After dedicating herself to ridding the free worlds of slavery, she then selflessly volunteers to lead a mission to liberate Geidi Prime (later home of House Harkonnen) when its clear her people think its a suicide mission. Afterwards, she becomes a willing figurehead in the holy war against the machines and puts aside the love of two men in order to be an effective leader. You might think this is just her public persona, but that’s all she’s got going on. Seriously, she has no other character traits beyond being the perfect heroine!
As if she wasn’t bad enough, you also get Xavier Harkonnen, a warrior who believes in endless self-sacrifice just like her, the perfect hero to her heroine. The entire series is filled with his rallying of troops, leading them into the fray, and coming to the rescue. All the while, he naturally struggles with his love for Serena, which is repeatedly frustrated due to the needs of the war. Vorian, on the other hand, is meant to be the Han Solo type, the bad boy who stands in contrast to Xavier’s good boy. But in this too, he is horribly predictable. Whereas Xavier is the honor and nobility hero, he is the daring and risky dude who also becomes a real ladies man. And of course, he loves Serena too, creating a predictable love triangle that somehow doesn’t manage to create a shred of conflict or complication.
Okay, now for the bad guys! Well… let’s start with the absurdly named Omnius, the machine hive-mind that runs things. He has little character to speak of, being a machine, but nevertheless fits the ideal of the evil, calculating AI perfectly. Naturally, he doesn’t understand humans, but hates them enough to want to kill them in droves. And of course he would like nothing better than to bring the whole universe under his “Synchronized” control (aka. he wants to conquer the universe). Clearly, KJA and Brian thought they were doing something clever here, using an unfeeling machine to explore the human condition. But really, the character and material felt like it was ripped right from reruns of Star Trek!
Erasmus, his only free-thinking AI companion, is similarly one-dimensional and stereotypical. He conducts “experiments” to better understand humanity, because of course he doesn’t understand them either. But the really weak character trait comes through with just how evil he is! In just about all cases, his experiments amount to senseless murder, flaying people, using their organs to make art, and studying their reactions with interest when he arbitrarily decides to kill someone. Oh, and did I mention he also murders Serena’ baby (and gives her a hysterectomy) once he becomes jealous of how much time she was spending with him? Seriously, Evil the Cat is not a good archetype to model your characters on!
Agamemnon and his Titans are also very evil, but in their case, a machine-like mentality can hardly be blamed. In addition to murdering billions of people in their drive for power, they hate free humanity, consider them vermin, and will stop at nothing to obliterate them. Naturally, they hate their machine masters too, but not nearly as much as their non-Cymeck brethren. Why, you might ask. Well, beyond saying that they were appalled by humanity’s decadence and reliance on machines, no reason is given. And it seems like a pretty weak reason to reprogram said machines to take over the universe and enslave everybody.
Really, if they were appalled by dependency on machinery, why not simply shut the machines down? Furthermore, if they were so bothered by how dependent people had come to be, what’s with all the machine enhancements they got going on? Each and every “Cymeck” in this story has cheated death by putting their brains inside of massive cybernetic housings. That sound like the actions of someone who doesn’t like machine dependency? Really, the only reason to do what they did (i.e. murder billions and try to take over the universe) would be because they were total sociopaths or megalomaniacs – i.e. really, REALLY evil! But don’t expect any logic from this story, mainly we are to accept that they are evil and move on.
And finally, Holtzman, who is supposed to be the brilliant inventor who created the Holtzman drive (the FTL drive that powers Guild Highliners), is a petty, greedy man who stole his inventions from his assistant, Norma Cenva. She, naturally, was a brilliant but naive girl who was always smarter than him, but continually got the short end of the stick. Iblis Ginjo is a slave leader who masterminds the rebellion on Earth, and becomes the sleazy defacto leader of the Jihad through wheeling and dealing that makes the reader feel enmity towards him.
Whoo! That was long, but I believe my point is clear. Basically, the characters were so simple and their purpose so obvious that it genuinely felt like the authors were trying to force an emotional reaction. The only thing worse was when they were trying to make us think, which were similarly so obvious that it just felt insulting! More on that later…
2. Contrived Plot:
The examples are too numerous to count, but I shall try to stick to the big ones and ignore the rest. First, in the preamble to the story, we are told that the Titans (the evil Cymeck people) took over the known universe by reprogramming all the thinking machines so they’d be able to control them. Okay, that seems a bit unlikely, but whatever. A dozen hackers managed to take over trillions of peoples lives by reprogramming the machines they were dependent on, whatever. But the real weakness was in the motivation. Why did they do this? Because they were upset with how dependent humanity had come to be on them. Meh, I’ve already said how this was stupid so I shant go into it any further.
But another weakness which comes to mind is this: if these “Titans” were so good with programming machines, how is that they let the big brainy AI (aka. Omnius) turn the tables on them? Didn’t they think it would be wise to program it with some safeguards, kind of like Azimov’s Three Laws? Not rocket science, you just make sure you tell the machines they can’t turn on their handlers. Simple! God, two crappy points and its still just the preamble! Moving on…
Next, the main character of Vorian Atreides breaks from his father and the Cymecks in the course of the book, which was a big turning point in the plot. But the reasons are just so… flaccid! After being a loyal and doting son for many decades, he decides to betray his father and his heritage in order to aid free humanity. Why? Because of one conversation with Serena Butler in which she suggests that he check out what his father’s done in his lifetime. Vorian explains that he’s read Agamemnon’s memoirs several times, but Serena recommends he check out Omnius’ own records, the ones which are not subject to distortion and personal bias. So he does, sees the undistorted truth, experiences a crisis for about five seconds, and then makes the decision to defect. Yes, this life-shattering experience, finding out his father is a mass murderer, is not followed by any denial, anger, or shooting of the messenger. He just accepts what he sees and turns his back on everything he’s believed in up until this point because of one conversation. Weak…
Also, the slave rebellion on Earth, the thing that touches off the whole Jihad, had some rather dubious inspiration. For starters, the humans knew of no organized resistance until Erasmus decided to make a bet with Omnius. He believed that humans could be inspired to revolt against their miserable lives if they were just given a glimmer of hope. So he began circulating letters claiming to be from “the resistance” to key people. When Iblis Ginjo got one, he decides to join and starts stockpiling weapons. Oh, and he manages to do this without the machines noticing. So, when the revolt begins, they have his weapons to fight with.
Where to start? For starters, are we really to believe that a coldly rational, superior AI would risk an open rebellion simply because of a BET? How stupid are they? Also, how was Ginjo able to acquire all these weapons without them ever noticing? Erasmus knew who he sent the letters to, did he not think it would be wise to monitor what they did afterwards? Sure, they claim that Ginjo explained his curious imports by saying that he had to requisition added materials to meet his construction quotas and managed to hide the weapons amongst them. Again I’d have to ask, how stupid are these machine masters of theirs?
Ah, but there’s more. Iblis gets further inspiration when he consults a Cogitor (see below) and asks it if a human resistance really exists. It replies that “anything is possible.” Of course, that’s how it answered all his questions, in keeping with the idea that Cogitors are somehow vague, ethereal beings. And yet, Ginjo gets the feeling that this answer was somehow loaded with subtext and implication. Yes, that’s how this part of the story was written. He gets a totally vague answer and assumes it means something truly meaningful, and thats all the inspiration he needs to start running guns and risking his life!
The rebellion is then fully incited when Erasmus – as mentioned earlier – kills Serena’s baby out of jealousy. This is especially hard to believe, and KJA and Brian even tacitly admitted as much in book two. Throughout the book, we are told that Earth is a slave planet where unspeakable horrors take place and the people are too miserable and beaten down to do anything about it. And yet, the death of one child causes billions of people to rise up and risk total obliteration. And they are able to do it because one slave master, motivated by a phony message – which was itself the result of a wager – was able to smuggle tons of weapons past the robot masters. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem like a likely explanation for a game-changing, cataclysmic event!
Finally, the climax of the story comes when the good guys decide that the best way to strike at Omnius is to nuke Earth. Yes, they’ve been debating for generations how to beat the machines… and apparently this is what they’ve come up with. “Really?” I wanted to say. This is how humanity triumphed over the evil machine menace, go nuclear? No startling new technology, no brilliant new strategy? If that’s all it would take, why didn’t they do it before? Well, according to the book, its because the idea seemed immoral to them. One dissenting character even asks, “Are you suggesting we become as bad as Omnius?” “No,” replies Xavier. “I’m suggesting we become WORSE than Omnius!” Wow. That… was… AWFUL!
Oh, it also at this point that they explain the origins of the name Butlerian “jihad”. On the Senate floor, once they have decided to nuke Earth, they openly say that in order to be effective, this must be more than a war. It must be a HOLY WAR. And that’s how the Butlerian Jihad got started! It was NOT the result of long term developments, changes, and forced adaptations. It was a decision made suddenly and deliberately. They just said in the thick of the moment, “Hey, lets call this a jihad! That sounds cool! Okay, jihad it is!” Not to nitpick, but as a historian I can tell you, this shit don’t happen! People don’t suddenly look around and say, “Hey, its the Enlightenment! Hey, its the Renaissance! Hey, its World War One!” These names are applied posthumously, usually by historians who are looking for labels to describe general phenomena.
I know, who the hell cares right? Point is, this more than anything is a clear demonstration of how contrived these stories are. Its as if the authors set out not to tell a story but to explain how everything happened and felt horribly compelled to do so. Remember point #2 of why prequels suck, aka. Sense of Duty? This is what inspired it, people!
What I especially loved about this book (dripping sarcasm implied) was the evil cyborg robots, named Cymecks. There’s an especially Herbertian plot device, a pulp sci-fi concept with a name that combines Cyborg and Mechanized (in case it wasn’t obvious enough already!) Even more fun was the Cogitors (play on the word Cognition), the disembodied brains of acetic thinkers who decided to achieve some measure of immortality by placing their brains in talks so they could live out their days just thinking. Hmmm, evil cyborgs and disembodied brains, where have I heard about these before? Every crappy bit of pulp sci-fi there is, that’s where!
Ah yes, and Serena Butler, the Virgin Mary meet Joan of Arc. As I said, she’s a war leader on the one hand and a holy icon on the other. This might have been a good angle, how she must maintain the illusion of purity (hence, no lovers), but it was squandered by the fact that in the story, she really IS a pure character! Selfless, dedicated and infinitely compassionate, she leads humanity and dies for them without a though for herself. Gag! As for the men who love her – Xavier and Vorian – they are perfect cliches as well. The one is the stalwart, perfect hero who never shies away from self-sacrifice, the other a Han Solo rip-off who’s bad boy charm barely conceals the fact that he too is excessively noble.
Then there’s the slavish robots! We are told well in advance that the whole Jihad was between free humans and thinking machines. And yet, aside from Erasmus, not a single robot thinks for themselves. They are all slaved to Omnius, the big, evil hive mind with a name that seems stolen out of the pages of a sci-fi comic or an episode of Buck Rogers. And if his name is not enough, the concept of a hive-mind who hates mankind and wants to conquer the universe is a similarly bland, overdone cliche that no respectable sci-fi author would touch with a hundred foot pole!
Which brings me to one group of characters I haven’t even mentioned yet – the Sorceresses of Rossak! These women, who boast the ability to conduct electricity, levitate, and have various other “magic” powers, are supposed to be the precursors of the Bene Gesserit. Wow… Okay, first of all, this is a perfect example of shit sci-fi; the kind of stuff you’d expect from Star Wars or an X-Men movie, but not DUNE! Second, last I checked, the Bene Gesserit were never able to shoot electricity from their fingertips or magically levitate! All their powers had to do with mental abilities like prescience and truthsense, which came from the spice. So really, where did these women get all these freakish abilities? In the course of reading this, I seriously expected someone to say “Feel the Force!” Of course, none of this is explained and no attempts are made to ground these characters in any sense of realism. It’s just another bad cliche in a book chock full of them!
Brian and KJA admitted that to create the Legends series, they had to rely on their own imaginations because Frank had not left detailed notes. However, it did not seem like they were relying on their own imaginations nearly as much as a conglomeration of bad ideas taken from B movies, TV shows and comics. Seriously, all these ideas have been done to death! This is not in keeping with Herbert at all, who not only created something original but highly plausible.
All throughout this book and the others in the series, one can’t help but feel that the authors are deliberately and shamelessly exploiting Herbert’s legacy. Its no secret that Frank was a hugely influential author who left behind an enduring legacy and millions of fans. Each and every one of them was eager to see how the Dune saga wrapped up, and couldn’t help but wonder what the events in the story’s deep background were all about. It’s little wonder then why these two paired up and decided to pick up the mantle.
On the surface, that might have seemed like a noble and brave thing to do. However, the calculated way in which they went about it clearly demonstrated there were ulterior motives at work. To begin, they didn’t tackle the Dune 7 project first, the one that they claimed Herbert had left “copious notes” for. Instead, they returned us to the universe and the characters we were already familiar with with some teaser prequels. They then moved on to the earlier prequels, books that did not wrap up the series but covered the deep background instead. Here again, it seemed like we were being toyed with! Only then, after all those prequels, did they finally decided to tackle the conclusion, and they even managed to draw THAT one out by putting it into two volumes instead of one. As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s those terrible interquels that have “cash-in again” written all over them. I tell ya, it never ends!
In short, it was obvious what they were doing. Getting audiences hooked with some quick and easy books that took place right before events in the main novel, then pulling them in deeper with some stories that went further back, and only then doing what they promised which was finishing the damn saga off! And when that finally came, it was a horribly transparent ending that had nothing in common with Herbert’s work but tied shamelessly back to their own so-called contributions. As much as I disliked these books, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these men, especially Brian. He above all set out to take on his father’s legacy, but somewhere along the line he took a wrong turn and ended up in cash-in junction where legions of his fathers loyal fans were waiting and demanding their money back!
5. Prequel Complex:
To finish, I’d like to refer back to rule one in why prequels suck. In short, these books really didn’t contain anything new. Just about every reference to places was meant to refer back to something in the original story, every characters was meant to tie to someone in the original text, and every development was meant to forecast how the universe we were familiar with came to be. It all felt forced, contrived, and quite unnatural. For one, things don’t get created all in one lifetime, as all the inventions and schools which exist in the original Dune universe were in this series.
Literally everything, from the Mentats, Guild, Foldspace technology, spice harvesting, the Fremen, the Ginaz swordmasters, the Tleilaxu, the Bene Gesserit, etc, were created within the pages of this series and then went on to exist (virtually unchanged) for ten thousand years! All I wanted to say in the course of reading this was, “that’s not how things happen!” Things are not created in one instant and then endure for ten thousand years, they develop gradually and change over time. Forecasting how things came to be is one thing, but completely explaining them just deepens the sense of duty and contrivance from which prequels suffer. Again, rule two man! RULE TWO!
6. Wrongness of the Whole Thing!:
Added to this was the undeniable feeling that they got it all wrong. In Herbert’s original stories, references to the Butlerian Jihad were few and far between. But when it did come up, Herbert clearly indicated that the rebellion was driven by people who’s lives were becoming dominated by machines and a machine mentality. By that, one gets the impression that the jihad was not a war in the literal sense but a moral crusade to rid the universe of something that was increasingly seen as immoral. In accordance, the “enslavement” of humanity seemed metaphorical, that it was really just a sense of dependency that the jihadis were fighting.
At no point was it even hinted at that the jihad was a war between evil machines and free humans, or that humans won it by nuking every thinking machine out of existence. But that was clearly Brian and KJA’s interpretation – that the “enslavement” of humans by machines was meant literally and the war was some super-righteous titanic struggle. Clearly, subtlety means nothing to these two, either that or they just didn’t see the cash value in telling a story that boasted a little irony and nuance. Instead, they opted for a cliched story of good vs. evil with a rah rah ending that would make even Michael Bay’s eyes roll.
Such an ending did not seem at all in keeping with Herbert’s legacy, that of realistic and hard sci-fi. It was much more in keeping with the work of KJA, a man who is famous for writing fan-fiction and pulp sci-fi, a man whose won only one award for his writing and it was for kid lit (A Golden Duck!). So really, putting the name Dune on this book was more of a legality or formality than anything else. In the end, its not a Herbert tale, its a KJA tale with the name Herbert attached. And as I’ve said many times before in reference to Dune, raping the legacy of a great and venerated man for the sake of your own fame or financial gain isn’t cool!
Okay, think I definitely said enough about that book. I mean, how many ways can you possibly say a story is crap? I found six but I can still think of material that’s just looking for a proper category to plug it into. Suffice it to say, the story was bad and I strongly recommend that fans of Herbert stay away from it at all costs. Those who haven’t need to be warned, and those who have already, let me just say that I feel your pain! And speaking of pain, I shall be back with volume two in this terrible saga, The Machine Crusade. Wish me luck…
In my previous post, I think I made it pretty clear that the Dune movie was a flop. And I mean this in every sense of the word: commercially, critically – hell, even Lynch distanced himself from it! But that was to be expected, since Dune is just not something that translates into a movie format. There’s simply too much going on, and any fan of the series knows exactly what I’m referring to here. In terms of length, pacing, content, characters, background, detail, depth and commentary, Dune is just too dense to fold into a few hours of footage. As I also stated in my last post. Lynch attempted to address this problem in a number of ways
1.) Prologue: In the original movie, Lynch tried to cover Dune’s extensive background by having Irulan give a breakdown of how the universe works. In the Director’s Cut, he took a different route and went with a narrated preamble (using animated stills) that covered all the major events leading up to the original novel. These included the Butlerian Jihad, the founding of the Guild, the Bene Gesserits, and other secret societies, and then moved on to cover the basics about the Dune universe, such as its feudal structure, the spice, etc. Nothing wrong with either of these, except that they were both kind of awkward. They were a tad expository, and in the case of the animated opening, it went long. (Yeah, yeah, just like my reviews!)
2.) Exposition: In the opening scene, Lynch uses a reworked plotline to help the character of the Emperor set up everything that’s going to happen in the first act. In the subsequent scenes, all the other main characters do the same thing. The Baron and Piter de Vries explain their plan to attack the Atreides to his nephews, and Paul is told the reasons for their move to Arrakis by his mentors. But the problem here was, it all felt too unnatural and clunky. You really got the feeling that someone had read the book and was trying to give a synopsis to the audience, no suspension of disbelief. You can’t make a decent movie if everything feels like there’s a sense of duty behind it, then it’s just boring.
3.) Internal monologues: it goes without saying that you can’t clog up a movie with endless dialogue, especially stuff where characters are just standing around and explaining things in an unnatural way. Some degree of this is understandable, but after awhile, the audience will simply begin saying, “Nobody talks like this! Get on with it!” So Lynch tried using internal speeches, and like I said before, it was annoying as hell! Even after all the expository speeches his characters made, there was still tons of things the audience needed to be told in order to know why stuff was happening or why it was important. And, as I also said before, the movie would have worked better without it. Let the camera and the actors tell the scene, not the little voice on the track!
Okay, at this point I’m thinking anyone reading this is saying “We get it! It didn’t work, move on!” So as I’m sure I’ve said a few times already in the course of this thread, a miniseries was created in 2000 that sought to adapt Dune into a miniseries, one that wouldn’t be hampered by these difficulties. By going with a three part, six-hour format, the creators clearly felt that they would time enough to provide adequate build-up, character and plot development, and make sure that nothing big would be left out or glossed over. And, with some exceptions, they did just that! Even before I read the books, I saw the miniseries and was highly entertained, and even felt that I had been given the complete rundown of everything in the novel. Then, upon reading the novel, I decided that the miniseries was not only faithful to the original material but even improved upon it in some areas. But I’m going long here and I haven’t even got to the good stuff. Nothing worse than a long preamble, right? (Sorry Mr. Lynch, I had to!)
The miniseries itself was a collaboration between several studios, which included New Amsterdam Entertainment (US), Blixa Film Produktion (Germany), Hallmark Entertainment, and the Sci Fi Channel. Much like the studios involved, the cast was also very international in scope, with actors and actresses from the US, Britain, Germany, Czech Republic, and Italy filling the top roles. These included such big names as William Hurt, Giancarlo Giannini, Ian McNeice, and P.H. Moriarty. It would take me too long to list all the movies these people have been in, but trust me, you’ve seen them! John Harrison, a veteran television writer/director with a tonne of sci-fi, fantasy and horror titles to his credit, was brought in to direct, but also had hand in writing the script. In describing the final product, he claimed that the miniseries was a “faithful interpretation”, in which changes and elements that he had introduced served to elaborate on rather than edit material from the original. Having seen the miniseries and read the novel – in both cases, more than once – I can verify this claim. While their were several differences between the miniseries and the novel, I can honestly say that they worked in its favor. But I can’t really say how without getting into specifics, as well as the differences between this adaptation and Lynch’s failed attempt. So let’s get to it!
The miniseries opens with a rather brief prologue by Princess Irulan, explaining the significance of Arrakis (Dune) and the spice. We then cut to a quick montage of images that represent a nightmare being experienced by Paul, where we see Arrakis, the carnage that is to come, Chani, and of course, Paul’s father dying. Upon waking, Paul realizes he’s left one of Doctor Yueh’s recordings on, a recording which explains the importance of their move and recaps the balance of power their society rests on. This intro, unlike Lynch’s, provides a brief yet informative snapshot of the Dune universe and what is to come. And unlike the novel or the original movie, the opening scenes are not taking place on Caladan, but on the Guild space liner that will be taking them to Arrakis. I’m not sure why Harrison went with this, but I can say it doesn’t mess up the scenes at all. The setting works, and more importantly, the actors and dialogue are spot on. Paul, and everyone around him, understand that this move is a big deal, that is there is a great deal of danger involved, and that in spite of the fact that it is almost surely a trap, that they have no real choice.
What follows is an altered, but faithful reenactment of the Mother Superior scene. Having come aboard their ship to see Paul, they discuss the subject of his dreams, giving the audience a crucial hint as to how Paul is special (i.e. he’s potentially prescient) as well as some hints of how the story will unfold. From his brief, broken glimpses, Paul can tell that Arrakis holds many things for him. He tells her that he sees desert people chanting his name, terrible wars, and his father dying. The Mother Superior is intrigued, and of course, she conducts the pain box test. Naturally, Paul passes, but storms out in anger, leaving the Mother Superior and Lady Jessica to discuss her defiance to the order. As anyone who’s read the novel knows, Bene Gesserit sisters are under strict orders to produce daughters only, as part of their breeding program, until the eugenics program is complete and one will bear a son. This son, if all goes as planned, will be the Kwisatz Haderach*, their superman who has perfect memory and perfect prescience. So by giving her Duke a son, Jessica has disobeyed the sisterhood, and potentially doomed herself and her son in the process. The Mother Superior says they will suffer for this, not at their hands, but in general. She also says that they will do what they can for the boy, but “for the father, nothing…”, thus letting us know that something’s in the works, that the Bene Gesserit know about it, but appear helpless to stop it. Another thing they do right here, even though its breaking with the novel, is that at no point are the words Kwisatz Haderach mentioned! That’s something Harrison chose to reveal slowly, and in increments instead of giving it away early on.
All of this is starkly different from the original movie and even the novel. It is expository without being preachy or dutiful. If anything, its cool and intriguing, relying on well-honed dialogue that lets us know what’s coming without giving it away. Another change I should mention is Paul’s character. Whereas in the novel and original movie he’s a cheery and positive boy; here, he’s angry, impatient, and resentful, which is what any teenager would be in his situation. In fact, his angst and defiance run through all of Act I, and this is one change I highly approved of, as its far more realistic. Whereas Paul was always portrayed in the novel as the kind of child who never had playmates or a normal childhood but was still well-rounded and upbeat, here we see the realistic outcome of that. He misses his father and Duncan, the closest person he has to a friend, and chooses to take that out on his mother, the Mother Superior, and Gurney when they’re training. It just works!
Then… boom! Cut to Arrakis. Here, we see Duke Leto and Duncan Idaho for the first time as they are talking about the Fremen and their leader, a man named Liet. This is another thing the miniseries did so much better, the fact that they actually went into detail about him instead of glossing over his significance. We are told that he is the quasi-leader of the Fremen, and that Leto wants to find him so they can enlist the help of those Fremen who live in the deep desert. This too is something the miniseries does very well, showing how Leto is concerned with cultivating a relationship with the natives of the deep desert, as he is aware that their abilities and knowledge may be what they need to rule. Like in the novel, this was something that came up again and again, and it was hinted that the Emperor himself was worried over it. Basically, the Fremen of the deep desert are the toughest, meanest badasses in the universe. And while their technology might be limited, their skills are second to none. Therefore, whoever controls Arrakis, has access to what are potentially the best soldiers in the universe. But more on that later…
Several scenes follow, all true to the novel. Paul attends his father’s council meetings where he offers up effective suggestions of how they can run Arrakis and recruit the smugglers. Lady Jessica meets with the household staff, which includes the Shadout Mapes (the head servant) and they slowly learn that she may very well be the mother of their messiah. And of course, Jessica bans the water custom where servants scrounge and sell water and offers a free ration of it to everyone in the city, three times a day. Like everything in this miniseries, things are done slowly, the time being taken to develop things carefully and not drop too much info at once. There is no internal dialogue or characters constantly saying stuff like “oh, the legend, the legend!” when they see Paul or his mother. It is only after many scenes that the issue of Paul messiah-hood is brought up, when people in the streets start saying “Mahdi” in his direction, and Thufir is brought in to explain what the significance of this is to Paul’s father.
This is further exampled during the scenes where Dr. Kynes (who is also secretly Liet) is introduced and takes them out to observe a spice harvester at work. Again, these scene were faithful to the novel without being imitative. Whereas Herbert openly wrote what Kynes and Paul were thinking in the book, the miniseries manages to develop this without the need for internal monologues (even though that would a director’s first choice of how to convey thoughts). Instead, we see through a number of shots how Kynes and Paul they are becoming fascinated with one another. Kynes notices strange things about him, like how he knows how to wear a stillsuit** and understands Fremen ways, while Paul is picking up on the fact that Kynes is clearly a Fremen and is holding back information on Arrakis and the worms. All of this is made clear through simple direction, proper camera work, and dialogue, which makes it much more effective. Then, of course, the scene where the spice harvester is attacked! This, like most special effects in this series, was done through CGI, which was only a marginal improvement on the original.
What follows is a major scene, and one that didn’t make it into the original movie: The dinner banquet. Might not sound important, except that it’s a central part of Act I in the book and because its also the first time we see Princess Irulan in the series. Whereas in the original movie she was just voiceover and a background character, in the miniseries she played a central role and it begins here. Clearly, Harrison and his writers felt that the best way to resolve the ambiguity of her character was to write her in to several key scenes, where she is playing the role of the political pawn, but is actually executing an agenda of her own. This works, because it gives her character a sort of phantom presence, a behind-the-scenes quality that is consistent with her role in the novel. Her inclusion in this scene also works because, during the course of the banquet, she has a chance to talk to Paul. We see how they are similar, how they are both intelligent people who don’t like their worlds, and how this predicts their coming together in a political union by the end. Another thing that makes these scenes work is the skilled acting of Alec Newman (Paul) and Julie Cox (Irulan). You really get the feeling that these two will meet again, that they have a connection that supersedes their loyalty to their houses, and that they are likely to be friends and not lovers. Whereas Irulan is thin, fair and proper, Chani (whom Paul marries) is voluptuous, animated, and dark. Clear case of the platonic versus the sensual here!
While this is all taking place, we cut to the Harkonnen homeworld of Geidi Prime several times so that we can see how the Atreides’ arch-enemies are doing. Ian McNeice, who plays the role of the Baron, gives all of these scenes a dramatic flair that puts them light years ahead of what was done in the original movie. Instead of being revolting and loathsome, he’s graceful, animated, and even effeminate, not to mention entertaining! This is preferable is so many ways because ultimately that’s what makes for a good villain! He might be bad, but audiences will him all the more likeable, the guy they love to hate! There’s also a scene early in Act I where we cut to the royal palace. Here, the Emperor, played by Giancarlo Giannini, speaks about the Atreides and the plot against them, and yes, its not horribly expository either! Not once does he say that he’s sending his Sardaukar to help the Baron in the attack, nor that an attack is even taking place. Instead, he and Count Fenrig simply say that he needs to find a suitable husband for his daughter (Irulan), and that it’s “too bad that Atreides boy won’t be around”. See? Subtle!
Anyhoo, the attack takes place shortly thereafter. We see for the first time (unlike in the novel and movie where it was foretold) that Yueh is in fact the traitor. Here, and here alone, he reveals that he did it because the Baron has his wife and he must see her again, even if she’s already dead. More changes, Thufir is killed in the attack rather than taken prisoner. In the novel, he became the Baron’s new Mentat after Piter is killed by the Duke’s poison-gas tooth. By being his unwilling Mentat, Thufir was at the center of all the Baron’s machinations in the novel. But with him dead, his importance gets minimized. However, this did give the Baron and Feyd an expanded role by making them responsible for all the plotting that takes place between them, thus making them seem smarter and more villainous (more on that later). It is also here that we also see the Baron do some of the best acting in the whole series. We already get to see how his Shakespearean talents and flare steal the show, and how he ends every scene with a rhyming couplet. But here, it’s wonderfully over the top and just plain fun to hear! “I, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, am the instrument… of his families demise!” “What more proof do you need of what heaven’s intention is? Atreides dead, and Harkonnen lives!” Punctuated, of course, with tons of evil laughter. And best of all, no heart plugs and boys being molested to death! Classy!
Paul and his mother, of course, then make it to safety with the help of Duncan Idaho. And much like in the movie, it feels like he’s killed off way too fast. But at least he made it this far, whereas in the original movie he’s knocked off without ever making a difference. And in the ensuing chase, we also get to see a very important scene which was (you guessed it!) left out of the original. Dr. Kynes, who helps save them by suggesting they flee into the deep desert where the Fremen will protect them, is revealed to be Liet. Paul figures it out when they are in a seitch (a Fremen hideout) and he hears someone mention the name. He explains, intrinsic to the plot arc, that he is not the Fremen’s leader, but more of a guide, who is to stay around until “Mahdi comes”. This helps to illustrate a key element in the story: how the Fremen and the planet’s Imperial ecologists have been working together since the time of Kyne’s father. Ever since the elder Kynes was welcomed into a Fremen community, he busily taught them of how Arrakis’ ecology could be changed, how moisture dens could be created and used to fertilize plants once they had been strategically planted, thus giving rise to a lusher climate. Over time, this idea merged with the legends planted by the Bene Gesserit, of how a messiah would come and lead them to freedom. Paul, and hence the audience, is now beginning to see how these prophecies (self-fulfilling though they may be) are coming true thanks to his arrival. So you can see why this is important, right? Including it only makes sense!
Then, of course, Paul and his mother flee because the enemy is coming. They take to an ornithopter, and fly even deeper into the desert. In order to escape the pursuing Harkonnen planes, they are forced to fly into one of Arrakis’ massive storm. Now this scene I got a problem with, admittedly. “You’re not going in there are you?” “They’d be crazy to follow us!” Yeah, I know David Lynch ripped off the Star Wars franchise, but that doesn’t mean you have to! Okay, then Paul recites the litany against fear, and they go for it! And Part I ends with Irulan quoting from the book, and saying that the saga of Dune is far from over…
Thus ends Act I. And given the length of this review, I shan’t go on! Tune in again tomorrow for Act II, I promise it’ll be shorter!
*This term is derived from “Kefitzat Haderech”, a Kabbalah term which means “The Way’s Jump”, apparently relating to teleportation. In this context, it means “Shortening of the Way”, referring to the bridging of past, present and future, i.e. prescience.
**A suit that allows the wearer to retain water lost through respiration and perspiration by catching it all in its skin, filtering and processing it, then depositing it in a series of bags the person can draw from.