The Kessel Run: The Fandom Obsession

hyperspaceIf you were to get into a discussion with a true Star Wars fan, it would only be a matter of time before the subject of the Kessel run came up. Long considered one of the biggest enigmas to come out of the franchise, Han’s boast in A New Hope about his ship’s capabilities – with the Kessel Run as a reference – still has some people scratching their noggins and scrambling for explanations today.

To refresh people’s memory, this is how the boast went down in the course of Han’s introduction to Luke and Obi-Wan at the Mos Eisley Cantina:

Han: “Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?”
Obi-Wan: “Should I have?”
Han: “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs!”

See what I mean? A parsec is a unit of distance, not time, so from an astronomical perspective, it made no sense. How could Han have used it to explain how quickly his ship could travel? Well, as it happens, there are some possible and even oddball explanations that have been drafted as the franchise has expanded over the years.

kessle_mapAnother important point to make here is about the Kessel Run itself. As a smuggler, Han was deeply involved in running “glimmerstim spice” during his pre-Rebel days (a clear rip off from Dune, but whatever). This took him to and from Kessel, a remote planet located in the Outer Rim that is surrounded by a black hole cluster known as the Maw. As an unnavigable mess, it provided a measure of protection for smugglers running the Imperial blockade that guarded the space lanes near the planet.

All of this comes up in the Jedi Academy Trilogy, a series of novels written by Kevin J. Anderson that are part of the expanded Star Wars universe, and is the first case of the Run being detailed. From these an other sources, we are told that the Run is an 18-parsec route that led away from Kessel, around the Maw, and into the far more navigable area of space known as The Pit. Here, smugglers had to contend with asteroids, but any smuggler worth his salt could find their way through without too much difficulty, and didn’t have to worry about Imperial patrols from this point onward.

MFalconTo cut down on the distance traveled, pilots could dangerously skirt the edges of the black holes, a maneuver dangerous because it involves getting pulled in by their gravitational forces. If a ship were fast enough, it could risk cutting it closer than most, thus shaving more distance of the route while still being able to break free after it all to complete the run.

Hence we have the first possible explanation to Han’s ambiguous statement. Han’s boast was not about the time taken for him to complete the Run, but the fact that Millennium Falcon was so fast that he was able to cut a full third of the Run off and still make it out. The Falcon would have to be a pretty sweet ship to do that! And it would also fit in with all his other boasts, about how the ship could  “make 0.5 past light speed”, and was the “fastest ship in the fleet”.

However, there are other explanations as well. For starters, this expanded universe explanation does not jive with what Lucas himself said, what was presented in the novelization of the original movie, and of course what astronomers and megafans have to say. In the first instance, Lucas claimed in the commentary of the Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope DVD that the “parsecs” are due to the Millennium Falcon’s advanced navigational computer rather than its engines, so the navicomputer would calculate much faster routes than other ships could.

HanIn the A New Hope novelization, Han says “standard time units” in the course of his conversation with Luke and Ben, rather than “parsecs.” And in the revised fourth draft of A New Hope that was released in 1976, the description for “Kessel Run” is described as a bit of hapless misinformation that Obi-Wan doesn’t believe for a second. In short, Han erred when he said it and didn’t realize it.

And then there is the far more farfetched and mind-bending explanation as made by Kyle Hill in a recent article by Wired magazine. Here, he argues that the true intent of Han’s statement was that he was, in fact, a time traveler. By combining some basic laws of physics – namely that the speed of light (c) is unbreakable and 0.99 ad infinitum is as fast as anything can go – and the details of Han’s boast, a more clear picture of how this works emerges.

First, because the shortened Kessel Run spans 12 parsecs (39.6 light-years), a ship traveling nearly light-speed would take a little more than 39.6 years to get there. Factoring in time dilation, anyone watching the Kessel Run would see Solo speeding along for almost 40 years, but Solo himself would experience only a little more than half a day. So basically, in the time it takes Han to complete just one Kessel Run, the rest of the galaxy continues on its usual path for 40 years, which pushed the date of Han’s birth 40 years into the past.

time-slipConfused yet? Well, the idea is that Han would have been born long before events in A New Hope, and even The Phantom Menace took place. After completing his run, no doubt trying to avoid Republic authorities or some such equivalent, he came upon a universe that had gone through the ringer with a Sith coup d’etat, Imperial oppression, and a looming Civil War. What could he do but stick to smuggling and hope to make a living?

REALLY doesn’t make sense in terms of the storyline, does it? Ah, but what can you do? People like to find quirky explanations for things that don’t make sense. It can be fun! But of course, there’s a final and much, much simpler explanation that I haven’t even mentioned yet, and it’s one that’s far more believable given the so-called evidence.

george_lucas02Put simply, Lucas made a mistake. The parsecs line was a misfire, an oversight, and/or brain fart on his part. Nothing more, and all these attempts at explanation are just an obvious attempt to make something that doesn’t fit fit. It makes perfect sense when you think about it: since A New Hope was the first Star Wars movie, that meant Lucas was directing it all by himself. The assistance he sorely needed in terms of directing, writing, editing, etc. didn’t come until the movie was almost complete and he was looking bankruptcy and a nervous breakdown in the eye.

And remember, this is the same movie where a Storm Trooper walked head first into a door aboard the Death Star, Luke yells “Carrie” to Carrie Fisher while they are shooting, the cast and camera can be seen in numerous widescreen shots, and just about every technical problem that could go wrong did go wrong, some of which even made it into the final cut. As far as bloopers, outtakes and errors are concerned, the first Star Wars movie was a mess!


See? So really, is it hard to imagine a simple oversight like a typo could have made it on screen and no one caught it? Hell no! And frankly, I think fandom would be a lot happier if Lucas had remembered these early days of his career and not decided to make the prequels all by himself. Sure, there were plenty of people to catch these kinds of simple errors the second time around, but his many flaws as a movie maker found other ways to shine through – i.e. Jar Jar, lazy directing, too much special effects, wooden dialogue, confused storyline, continuity errors and plot holes galore!

star-wars-complete-cast-20042Ah, but that’s another topic entirely. Point is, Star Wars had simple beginnings and plenty of mistakes were made along the way. One can’t expect something so grand and significant in terms of popular culture to be consistent or error free. And Lucas was never really good at producing a seamless product. In the end, it was a fun ride until the new ones came out, and even then he was still making money hand over fist.

And with Disney at the helm now, chances are we’re in for a real treat with some high-budgets and high-production values. And I’m sure there will be plenty of things for the meganerds and uberfans to poke fun at and make compilation videos of. And I of course will be writing about all of it 😉

Religion in Sci-Fi

Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.

And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!

Alastair Reynolds:
Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.

Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.

In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.

Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.

While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.

In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.

Arthur C. Clarke:
At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”

However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.

Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.

In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.

So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.

Frank Herbert:
Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.

And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.

When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.

However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.

As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.

After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.

As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.

For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!

Gene Roddenberry:
For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!

Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.

However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.

In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.

These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.

George Lucas:
Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.

In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.

What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.

In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.

All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.

However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.

Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!

H.G. Wells:
Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.

These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work,  aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.

When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.

In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.

Isaac Asimov:
Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.

His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.

In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.

Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.

What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.

Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Philip K. Dick:
Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.

Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.

In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.

All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.

Ray Bradbury:
Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.

For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.

As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.

In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.

Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”

In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.

Robert A. Heinlein:
As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.

These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.

In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.

What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”

But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.

Summary:
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉

Of Faster-Than-Light Travel

It’s a popular concept, the fictional technology that could help us break that tricky light barrier. And it’s not hard to see why. The universe is a really, really, REALLY big place! And if we ever want to begin exploring and colonizing our tiny corner of it – and not have to deal with all the relativistic effects of time dilation and long, long waits – we better find a way to move faster.

And this is where various franchises come up with their more creative take on physics and the natural universe. Others, they just present it as a given and avoid any difficult, farfetched, or clumsy explanations. And in the end, we the viewers go along because we know that without it, space travel is going to be one long, tedious, and mind-bendingly complex journey!

Alcubierre Drive:
Proposed by Miguel Alcubierre as a way of resolving Einstein’s field equations, the Alcubierre Drive is an untested by possible way to achieve FTL travel. As opposed to Warp, Foldspace, or most other proposed means of FTL that involve some kind of internal propulsion of jump drive, the Alcubierre Drive is based on the idea of generating a wave that a ship would then “surf” in order to travel.

The creation of this wave would cause the fabric of space ahead of the spacecraft to contract and the space behind it to expand. The ship would then ride this wave inside a region of flat space known as a warp bubble and be carried along as the region itself moves through space. As a result, conventional relativistic effects such as time dilation would not apply in the same way as if the ship itself were moving.

The Alcubierre drive is featured in a few different science fiction genres, mainly those of the “hard” variety. This includes Stephen Baxter’s Ark, M. John Harrison’s novel Light, Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s Orbiter, and Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier where it is the primary means of transport.

FTL Drive:
The primary means of interstellar travel in the Battlestar Galactica universe, where every ship larger than a in-system transport is equipped with an FTL drive. How it works is never really explained, but it is clear that the technology is complex and involves a great deal of calculation. This is not only to ensureolve n accurate relocation through space-time, but also to make sure they don’t up jumping too close to a planet, star, or worse, right in the middle of either.

Whereas Colonial ships use their own computers to calculate jumps, Cylon ships rely on the Hybrid. These “machines” are essentially semi-organic computers, and represent the first step in Cylon evolution from pure machines to organic beings. Apparently, the hybrids were more sophisticated than Colonial computers, especially the aging Galactica. Hence, they were able to calculate jumps more quickly and accurately.

Holtzman Drive:
This FTL drive system comes to us from the Dune universe, and is otherwise known as a “Foldspace Engine”. Relying on principles that are not entirely clear to those in the Dune universe, the system involves depositing a ship from one point in space-time to another instantaneously. Though the workings of the drive are never really explained, it is intimated in Chapterhouse: Dune that tachyons are involved.

Another key component in the system is a Guild Navigator, a mutant who has been given natural prescient abilities thanks to constant exposure to spice. Using this prescience, the Navigator “sees” a path through space-time in order to guide the ship safely through. But in time, the Ixians invented a machine that was capable of doing this job as well, thus making the entire process automated and breaking the Guild’s monopoly on spacing.

Hyperspace:
Like the Warp drive, the terms hyperspace and hyperdrive have become staples withing the science fiction community. It’s most popular usage comes from Star Wars where it is the principle means of interstellar travel. Though it is never explained how a hyperdrive works, it is made abundantly clear through a series of visuals in the first and subsequent movies that it involves speeds in excess of the speed of light.

In addition, Han Solo indicated in the original movie that the Falcon’s top speed was “point five past light-speed”, indicating that it can travel 1.5 c. All other references to hyperspace speed factors in the franchise are similar, with velocities given in terms of a decimal point value. As a fast ship, the Falcon can reach point five, whereas most of the larger Imperial and Rebel ships can make only point three or four at most.

Though Star Wars is the most popular example of hyperspace, it is by no means the earliest. The first recorded example was in John Campbell’s “Islands of Space,” which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1931. Arthur C. Clarke’s also mentioned hyperspace in his 1950 story Technical Error. However, the most enduring example comes from Asimov’s Foundation universe, where hyperspace is the principal means of travel in the Galactic Republic. In I, Robot, the invention of the “hyperspatial drive” is the basis of one of the short stories, and was meant to provide a sense of continuity with his earlier Foundation series.

Other franchises that feature the concept of hyperspace include Babylon 5, Homeworld, Macross/Robotech, and Stargate. Combined with Star Wars and the Foundation series, it is the most popular – albeit the most ill-defined -form of FTL in the realm of science fiction.

Infinite Probability Drive:
The perfect mixture of irreverence and science: the Infinite Probability Drive from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This FTL concept is based on a particular perception of quantum theory which states that a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place, such as near the nucleus of an atom, but there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin.

Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space if you had sufficient control of probability. According to the Guide, in this way the drive “passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously,” meaning the traveller is “never sure where they’ll end up or even what species they’ll be when they get there” and therefore it’s important to dress accordingly!

Subspace Jump Drive:
Here we have an FTL concept which comes from one of my favorite games of all time, Descent Freespace. Subspace jumps, relying on the drive system of the same name, represent a very quick method of interstellar travel. By relying on subspace “corridors” that run from one point in space-time to another, a ship is able to move quickly from one star system to the next.

The only drawback to this concept is the fact that travel must occur along officially designated “nodes”. These nodes usually pass between large gravitational sources (i.e. between stars systems) but also can exist within a system itself. Virtually all nodes are unstable, existing for mere seconds or minutes at a time. However, nodes which will last for centuries or longer are designated as “stable” and used for transit.

Another favorite franchise which uses a similar concept is the Wing Commander universe. In all versions of the game, particularly Wing Commander: Privateer, interstellar travel comes down to plotting jumps from predesignated points in space. One cannot simply jump from one spot to another provided accurate calculations are made, they have to use the mapped out points or no jump is possible. This, as opposed to hyperspace travel, posits that subspace is a reality that exists only in certain areas of space-time and must be explored before it can be used.

TARDIS:
Officially, the Time and Relative Dimension in Space is a time machine and spacecraft that comes to us from British science fiction television program Doctor Who and its associated spin-offs. Produced by the advanced race known as the Time Lords, an extraterrestrial civilization to which the Doctor belongs, this device that makes his adventures possible.

Basically, a TARDIS gives its pilot the ability to travel to any point in time and any place in the universe. Based on a form of biotechnology which is grown, not assembled, they draw their power primarily from an artificial singularity (i.e. a black hole) known as the “Eye of Harmony”. Other sources of fuel include mercury, specialized crystals and a form of temporal energy.

Each TARDIS is primed with the biological imprint of a Time Lord so that only they can use it. Should anyone else try to commandeer one, it undergoes molecular disintegration and is lots. The interior of a TARDIS is much larger than its exterior, which can blend in with its surroundings using the ship’s “chameleon circuit”. Hence why it appears to outsiders as a phone booth in the series.

Warp Drive:
Possibly the best known form of FTL travel which comes to us from the original Star Trek and its many spinoffs. In addition to being a prime example of fictional FTL travel, it is also perhaps the best explained example.Though said explanation has evolved over time, with contributions being made in the original series, TNG, and the Star Trek technical manual, the basic concept remains the same.

By using a matter/antimatter reactor to create plasma, and by sending this plasma through warp coils, a ship is able to create a warp bubble that will move the craft into subspace and hence exceed the speed of light. Later explanations would go on to add that an anti-matter/matter reaction which powers the two separate nacelles of the ship are what create the displacement field (the aforementioned “bubble”) that allows for warp.

Apparently, Warp 10 is the threshold for warp speed, meaning that it is the point at which a ship reaches infinite speed. Though several mentions are made of ships exceeding this threshold, this was later explained as being the result of different scales. Officially, it is part of the Star Trek canon that no ship is capable of exceeding Warp 10 without outside help. When that occurs, extreme time dilation, such as anti-time, occurs, which can be disastrous for the crew!

In addition to Star Trek, several other franchises have made mention of the Warp Drive. This includes StarCraft, Mass Effect, Starship Troopers, and Doctor Who.

Final Thoughts:
Having looked through all these examples, several things become clear. In fact, it puts me in mind of a clip produced by the Space Network many years ago. Essentially, Space explored the differences between FTL in past and present franchises, connecting them to developments in real science. Whereas Warp and Hyperspace tended to be the earliest examples, based on the idea of simply exceeding the speed of light, thereby breaking the law of physics, later ideas focused on the idea of circumventing them. This required that writers come up with fictional ideas that either relied on astrophysics and quantum theory or exploited the holes within them.

One such way was to use the idea of “wormholes” in space-time, a hypothetical theory that suggests that space is permeated by topological holes that could act as “shortcuts” through space-time. A similar theory is that of subspace, a fictional universe where the normal rules of physics do not apply. Finally, and also in the same vein, is the concept of a controlled singularity, an artificial black hole that can open a rift through space-time and allow a ship to pass from one point in the universe to another.

Explanations as to how these systems would work remains entirely hypothetical and based on shaky science. As always, the purpose here is to allow for interstellar travel and communications that doesn’t take decades or even centuries. Whether or not the physics of it all works is besides the point. Which brings me to two tentative conclusions.

  1. Explanations Need Not Apply: Given the implausible (or at the very least, inexplicable) nature of most FTL concepts, the best sci-fi is likely to be the stuff that doesn’t seek to explain how its FTL system of choice works. I’st simply there and does the job. People hit a button, push a lever, do some calculations, or fly into a jump gate. Then boom! seconds later (or days and weeks) and they find themselves on the other side, light years away and ready to do their mission!
  2. That’s Hard: Given how any story that involves relativistic space travel, where both time dilation and confusing time jumps are necessarily incorporated into the story, only the hardest of hard sci-fi can ever expect to do without warp drives, hyperspace, jump or FTL drives. Any other kind of sci-fi that is looking to be accessible, and therefore commercially successful, will have to involve some kind of FTL or face extinction.

Well, that’s all I got for the time being. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the skies and don’t stop dreaming about how we’re one day going to get out there. For even if we start sending ships beyond our solar system in the near future, it’s going to be well into the distant future before they get anywhere and we start hearing back from them. At least until someone figures out how to get around Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, damn bloody genius! Until then, I’d like to sign off with a tagline:

This has been Matt Williams with another conceptual post. Good night, and happy spacing!

Sci-Fi Drugs

The other night, I had one of those moments. It was a moment where I found myself thinking about a cool concept and realized that it would make a damn fine post. It’s also one that interests me quite a bit and has even influenced my own writing. So as quickly as I could, I hopped on my laptop (even though it was 2am) and began making a list of all the sci-fi drugs I knew!

To me, the reasons for including drugs as part of a sci-fi franchise are obvious. For one, drugs and drug cultures are very much a part of our society, so it’s only natural that a sci-fi author should have something to say about it. As Gibson said, all sci-fi is really about the time in which it is written, ergo fictionalized drugs in future settings are really a reflection on the attitudes of today.

On the other hand, creating fictitious drugs and inventing subcultures that use them are a good way to give a story some realistic background. Wherever and whenever a story takes place, you have to assume that they will have narcotic substances there, and what form they take and how they go about dealing with them tells you much about that culture.

Either way, it’s a subject that has fascinated me for quite some time. So here are some highlights from the wold of sci-fi drugs!

Can-D:
Here we have a designer drug that was created by none other than sci-fi great Philip K. Dick. As fans may know, this guy was somewhat of an expert on drugs, having taken part in the Californian drug counter-culture during the 60s and 70s. As a result, he had a lot to say about drug use, their impact, and drug policy.

In this particular case, the drug comes to us from the story of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Taking place in the 21st century, where global warming has sent millions of people off Earth to the hostile environments of the Solar System, people have turned to a combination of the drug Can-D and what are known as “layouts.”

Layouts are physical props intended to simulate a sort of alternate reality where life is easier than either the grim existence of the off-world colonies or life on Earth. By taking the drug in conjunction with the layouts, people are able to experience a sort of shared hallucinogenic state. This in turn has given rise to pseudo-religious cults that have grown up around the use of layouts and the drug, consisting of people who dream of better worlds than the one they are forced to endure.

Dancer:
To complete the semi-dystopian setting of his Bridge Trilogy, Gibson was sure to add a designer drug that was all the rage amongst Californians in the near future. The drug was named Dancer, a powerful and addictive hallucinogen that apparently came in the form of a red dust. People would take it orally, rub it on their gums, smoke it or snort it.

In short, Dancer was like a red cocaine, except that it caused hallucinations rather than manic behavior. People who consumed it would typically become euphoric and mellow, causing them to get all rhythmic and break into dance (hence the name). However, it was was also known to make people violent from time to time, which made it more akin to the the effects of PCP.

Inspired by California’s drug culture and the emergence of designer drugs in the early 90s, Dancer was clearly meant to serve as an allegory for multiple drugs, or as a prediction of what the next big craze could be.

Dust:
Fans of Babylon 5 ought to remember this one. Basically, the drug was a hot item on the black market because it had the ability to give users temporary telepathic powers. It was violently addictive, and known for giving a very powerful and unique high. However, in the course of trying to stop the Dust trade to B5, Psi Cop Bester acknowledged that the drug was originally created by the Psi Corps as a way of creating telepaths.

When they realized it didn’t work, the drug was abandoned, but made its way to the black market because of its obvious appeal. As a longtime fan of B5, I can honestly say it was elements like this that made me like the show. Not only was the concept and the name cool, the fact that it began as a government-sanctioned drug was also believable and clearly inspired by the history of many real-world drugs.

Neuroin:
Inspired by Philip K Dick’s short story, Minority Report was a quasi-dystopian future where the use of precognitives promised to eliminate all violent crime from society. But of course, there’s a dark side to all this, and it just happens to be linked to the underworld drug known as Neuroin, a powerful and addictive psychoactive substance.

Though it is never explained in any real detail, the name suggests that it is of the opiate family and possibly combined with a neural stimulant. In addition to being the drug of choice of the protagonist, it is also the very thing that created the precognitives in the first place. All three psychics were once children who suffered brain damage in utero as a result of their mothers’ neuroin use. Though damaged neurologically, a side effect was the development of precognitive powers, which the state began to use in order to engineer the process known as “PreCrime.”

Based on the film adaptation, the principal means of taking neuroin appears to be through a specialized inhaler. This would allude to the fact that neuroin was taken in vaporized form. In the end, this drug served as both a commentary on the dangers of escapism as well as a plot device. While neuroin was the reason for the precognitives existence, it was also how the main character chose to numb himself over the loss of his son.

Nuke:
The designer drug from Robocop 2, and one man’s attempt at achieving his dream of becoming a Jesus-like figure! Designed by Cain, Nuke was an extremely pleasurable and addictive substance that began making the rounds in Old Detroit by the second movie. Coupled with a Police strike and financial ruin, Nuke seemed to be the thing that would finally break Detroit and allow the greedy bastards at OCP to finally take over.

There are several kinds of Nuke, but by far the most popular variety comes in the form of the red sludge. This is known as Red Ramrod, and was followed shortly thereafter by White Noise, Blue Velvet, and Black Thunder. The color scheme alluded to Cain’s “patriotic” sentiments, as he was known to say that his drug was making “Made in America” mean something again.

Nuke comes only in liquid form and is taken by means of small needles that inject the drug directly into the bloodstream. Because of its highly pleasurable nature and chemical properties, only a few doses are needed before a person becomes hooked and will experience intense withdrawal if they don’t get a regular dose. A commentary on the emergence of designer drugs, it was also served as a means for making some tough observations on drug use and its effect on society.

Snow Crash:
This drug is, admittedly a little off the beaten path. Featured in the Neal Stephenson novel of the same name, Snow Crash was essentially an allegory for a system crash, but in neurological form. Taking the form of both an inhalant and a digital virus, the “drug” had the effect of rendering users docile, passive and babbling an idioglossia similar to speaking in tongues.

But of course, there was more to it than all that. Basically, Snow Crash was designed by an information tycoon named L. Bob Rife who wanted control over people’s minds and daily habits. Using a Sumerian tablet, he basically encoded the ancient “Enki virus” – a virus that altered humanity’s neurology and spawned modern languages. So really, he was looking to reverse the Babel myth, making humanity neurologically simpler and thus programmable.

In addition to being a commentary on the drug culture, Snow Crash was also an observation about the proliferation of computer viruses in the early 90s and an allegory on the similarities between ancient myth and modern technology. It was also pretty cool and weird!

Soma:
When it comes to designer drugs, Soma pretty much takes the cake. Derived from Aldous Huxley’s classic tale of dystopia and social engineering, Brave New World, Soma was the kind of drug that came with the label “good for what ails ya” and meant it literally. Designed to cure any and all emotional problems, the pill was mass produced and a key feature of the World State’s apparatus of social control.

Use of Soma is prescribed at a very young age to citizens of the World State, as soon as children are old enough to begin sleep conditioning. Slogans such as “a gram is better than a damn” are programmed into their minds so that they respond to emotional stress by simply popping a pill. This is often referred to as “taking a vacation”.

To illustrate the effects of the drug, Huxley relied on his own experience using mescalin and other drugs. Apparently, subjects using Soma would enter a dream-like state where everything became pleasant and agreeable, all their worries and unpleasant emotions melting away. This dream-like state could be discerned by observing a person’s eyes, which would become noticeably glazed.

In addition, though the state freely distributed the drug and there were no shortages, Soma was still designed to be non-addictive and with no harmful side effects. This, added to its effectiveness, made it the ultimate designer drug and a very effective means of social control. A commentary on the pharmaceutical industry of his day and on the drug culture of the 1920s and 30s, Soma remains the most popular example of a fictional sci-fi drug!

Spice:
Then again, the spice melange is pretty damn popular too. However, as the only drug on this list that is not designed or synthesized, and is by definition an “awareness narcotic,” Spice is really in a category of its own. Taken from the Dune series, Spice was the most precious resource in the universe in more ways than one.

For starters, Spice could only be found on one planet, the desert world known as Arrakis. Mining Spice was also a highly hazardous duty, due to the inhospitable climate of Arrakis and the presence of Sandworms. And given its many benefits, which included prolonged life and expanded awareness, it’s little wonder why it was so damned expensive!

A clear allegory for oil, all life and commerce in the Imperium of Dune revolved around Spice in one way or another. The Guild Navigators used it to achieve their limited prescience and guide ships through foldspace. The Bene Gesserit used it to enhance their mental and physical acuity and make contact with their “Other Memory”. And every house used it to improve their health and longevity. In short, without Spice, all trade and commerce in the universe would end and countless people would die.

And of course, there never would have been a Paul Mua’dib or a Leto II, and humanity would have died as a result! That’s quite a drug them people got there!

Substance D:
Once again, we have a fictitious drug that comes to us straight from the mind of Philip K Dick. Featured in his 1977 book A Scanner Darkly about the drug subculture of California, Substance D was a powerful psychoactive drug that also went by the name “Slow Death.” The name proved apt, as the drug was not only violently addictive, but resulted in brain damage due to overuse.

According to the story, Substance-D was synthesized from the fictitious blue flower Mors ontologica, which is Latin for “death of being”. In the course of the story, the protagonist – an undercover narcotics agent – becomes addicted to the drug, suffers brain damage and is sent to one of the new recovery centers (“New Path”) to get clean.

In time, he is given the task of working on one of their many farms and learns that these places serve as grow ops for the flower. Hence, we see that “New Path” is the source of Substance-D, and is therefore benefiting from both the drug and the harmful effect it has on society. A commentary on strong-arm governments and the pharmaceutical industry perhaps?

Final Thoughts:
When it comes to fictionalized narcotics, a few basic features become evident. For one, fictional drugs can take one of two forms, being either of the organic or synthetic (i.e. designer) variety. Second, their use as part of a story’s background is meant to call attention to our current drug wars, warts and all. But above all, they seem to serve as a form of social commentary by pointing to the ongoing nature of temptation, escapism and repression. On the one hand, human beings will always be looking for escapes and ways to ease the burden of existence. On the other, we are always likely to feel the need to control the flow of narcotic substances and legislate what people can and can’t put in their bodies.

Finally, I found that just about all the authors here were taking a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach. Essentially, they were content to sit back and make observations on the whole issue of drug use and moral legislation, rather than making pronouncements. This would seem the preferable option considering that you can’t really offer a clear resolution without sounding either enabling or preachy. Some say that drug use destroys society, other say that people have the right to put whatever they want in their bodes. And then there are those who say that human weakness is a constant, and that criminalizing such a thing turns a flaw into a war. Complicated!

On a brighter note, all this talk puts me in mind of my own fictional creations. Years back, when I was coming up with the concept for my Legacies story, I spent a fair bit of time pondering what kind of drugs people would be using in the relatively distant future. I think I might just dedicate a page or a post to just that topic. In truth, I’d like to know what people think about my inventions. Look for it, it shall be coming soon!

Technology in the Dune Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Ships!

God, what an obvious extension of the whole conceptual sci-fi thing, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner! After all, what is a sci-fi franchise without some cool spacefaring vessels? Sometimes, these come in the form of exploratory ships that chart the unknown regions of the galaxy. Sometimes they are battleships which kick ass and don’t do much else. And sometimes they are generational ships, spending decades, centuries or even millennia cruising through space, ferrying people to new star systems and new galaxies.

But whatever their purpose, futuristic vessels are a constant source of enjoyment and interest. A lot of imagination and creativity goes into creating them, and what comes out is often a testament to the allure of speculative sci-fi. Anyway, today I thought I’d explore some choice examples of sci-fi ships and what makes them so cool. Here goes…

Defiant:
Making its debut in Star Trek: DS9, the Defiant became the workhorse of the station and the first line of defense against it’s enemies. Originally designed for combat with the Borg, the Defiant was a prototype for an entire generation of warship. Smaller than most starships, but also faster and boasting very powerful weaponry, the Defiant quickly gained a reputation for being the most dangerous vessel in the quadrant!

Yep, when this ship made its debut, I started watching the show. Every episode that featured space battles with the Defiant were worth watching, in my estimation. Blasting those rapid-fire cannons, firing those quantum torpedoes, blowing up anyone stupid enough to cross it; the Defiant did it all!

It’s prototype version even boasted a cloaking device, something the Federation borrowed from the Romulans so they could slit into Dominion territory once they found out about them. In time, the Defiant was lost, but more of its kind appeared to take up its role. The Valiant, the Sao Paolo, and a host of others were pressed into service as the series went on and the Dominion War became the focal point of the show. Much like their predecessor, these new Defiant-class ships kicked plenty of asses and never went down without a fight. A big, brutal, hard-slogging fight!

Galactica:
This ship is the namesake of the original movie and series and got a makeover for the re-imagining which was released back in 2005. And though her appearance has changed somewhat since the 1970’s when the original movie came out, the Galactica’s role and importance has remained the same. The last surviving Battlestar of the Twelve Colonies, she is the sole protector of the human fleet as it flees the Cylon onslaught and makes its way to an elusive world called Earth… and salvation!

One thing that did change between the old and new series was the sophistication of the design. Whereas in the 1970’s version, the Galactica was a state of the art, modern warship with laser cannons and a full crew, the newer version was an older, outdated vessel with projectile cannons and flak guns that had been retired from active service. As the series opens, we see that the Galactica was being converted into a museum ship that was meant to commemorate the last war against the Cylons which had ended over twenty years ago. It’s crew was skeletal and its senior officers were also due for retirement.

However, all of that changed when the Cylons launched their surprise attack on the Colonies. Being an obsolete vessel which used outdated computers and had no wireless networks, the Galactica was the only ship that wasn’t crippled by the virus the Cylon’s used to disable the Colonial fleet. After hastily equipping themselves with ammunition and some equally outdated Vipers from their showroom, the Galactica was forced into service. But by this time, the war was effectively over, and the Captain and crew dedicated themselves to a new mission: to find the only other human colony in existence (Earth) and begin repopulating their species.

Despite her age, the Galactica could still surprise her enemies when she needed to. Unlike her more modern companions, including the Pegasus which she met in season two, she had a habit of getting out of some rather tight spots. You could say that in the new series, this ship was a metaphor for humanity; aging and endangered, but a survivor nonetheless!

Millennium Falcon:
Here she is, the centerpiece of this list! For what ship is more cool than the Millennium Falcon? I mean really! Sure, she’s not the biggest or the most heavily armed ship on this list, but she is the fastest, nimblest, and she’s definitely got the most character. In some ways, she was almost part of the cast of the original Star Wars series, and I’m sure everyone felt bad for her when she got scuffed up during that last battle in Return of the Jedi ;).

Officially, the Falcon is a modified Corellian transport. Corellia, the planet Han calls home, is renowned for producing good ships in addition to good spacers. They’re fast, sleek, and infinitely modifiable. It’s little wonder then why they are a favorite amongst smugglers. And Corellian spacers especially are known for being very monogamous and loyal when it comes to their ship selection.

Prior to joining the Rebellion, the Falcon was primarily used to smuggle spice from Kessel to other regions of the Galaxy, usually at the behest of Jabba the Hutt. In spite of its speed, the Falcon would occasionally get boarded by Imperial patrols. When this happened, Han and Chewi relied on a secret compartment to stash their goods. However, on one of his final runs, Han was boarded by an Imperial patrol and was forced to ditch his manifest.

Shortly thereafter, Han and Chewi joined the Rebellion and the role of the Falcon changed considerably. Now, it was involved in attack missions, the most notable of which were the assaults on the first and second Death Star. At other times, it continued to do what it did best – fly fast and elude Imperial ships!

Nostalgia for Infinity:
Here we have an interesting ship, which comes to us from the mind of Alastair Reynolds and the Revelation Space universe. Known as a “Lighthugger”, this class of vessel was one which could travel close to the speed of light thanks to its massive “Conjoiner Drives”. These engines, which were attached to the outsides of the ships, relied on a controlled singularity to generate the necessary inertia to push the ship as close to light speed as was physically possible for a vessel of its size.

The crews of these ships were known as “Ultranauts”, or Ultras for short. Typically, these were the kinds of cybernetically enhanced human beings who were capable of interfacing with the ship’s advanced machinery, prolonged space travel and withstanding the inertial stresses caused by near-light speed travel.

In the case of the Nostalgia, the ship was commanded by a Triumvir, three Captains who took turns commanding the ship while it was in deep space and the others were in reefersleep (i.e. cryogenic suspension). This included Ilia Volyova, Sajaki and Hegazi, three Ultras who had taken over after the Captain and ship had succumbed to what was known as the “Melding Plague”. This virus is a key element to the story of RS, being alien in origin and which infects and perverts nanotechnological matter.

In the course of running their various missions to and from the many worlds of the RS universe, the crew came into possession of a series of “Cache Weapons”, missiles and gun platforms which were apparently of Conjoiner design, and were officially known as Hell-class weapons.  As the series progressed, both the Nostalgia, its crew, and these weapons played an increasingly important role in defending the human race from the alien threat of the “Inhibitors” (see Planet Killers, The Inhibitors, for more detail).

Red Dwarf:
The eponymous spaceship from the BBC series, the Red Dwarf – otherwise known as the “giant red trashcan” – was a huge mining vessel measuring 10 km in length, 6.5 km in height, and 5 km in width. Built for mining and owned by the Jupiter Mining Corporation, the ship is immense, largely self-sufficient, and run by an AI named Holly. And for some reason, it has an asteroid embedded in its hull (this is never explained).

In the beginning of the series, a radiation leak killed the entire crew, except for the protagonist Dave Lister, a technician who was apparently in suspended animation at the time. In order to ensure his survival, Lister is kept in suspension by Holly until all the background radiation dissipates, a process which takes over three million years. As a result, Lister wakes up to find that he’s the last living human in existence. His only companions are the hologram of his former bunk-mate Rimmer, and a humanoid feline named Cat who evolved from Lister’s cat (Frankenstein) over three million years that he was asleep.

Over the course of the show, the crew encounters new planets, species and time distortions aboard the Red Dwarf, all the while trying to make their back to Earth. The largely self-sufficient ship takes care of their every need, though it has begun to run out of certain supplies after three million years (including Shake n Vac and all but one After Eight mint!).

Serenity:
I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about Firefly as of late, but the list says cool ships so I don’t see how the Serenity can possibly be left off this list! As the centerpiece of the single-season series and the movie, the ship has a long story and a lot of character, much like her crew! Originally designed as a class of cargo freighter, the Firefly is apparently an older model of ship that is no longer in use with the Alliance but remains popular out on the rim.

All references to it in the early episodes indicate that the series is essentially obsolete, but due to their ruggedness, shelf-life and the presence of secret compartments, they remain a popular item amongst smugglers. Hmmm, echoes of the Millennium Falcon there. Nevertheless, as the series progresses, this reputation is illustrated in how Mal and the crew are able to stow illegal goods and how Kaylee is able to keep the ship running under tight conditions with all kinds of improvised repairs. And despite the fact that it is no longer being constructed, most of its parts are still available and easily attainable on the open and black market.

Much like all ships in the Firefly/Serenity universe, the Firefly is apparently a sub-light vessel, incapable of traveling faster than the speed of light. Though unarmed, it is fast and maneuverable in both space and planetary atmospheres. This is made possible by the addition of two external multi-directional thrusters which allow for takeoff, landing, and the occasional crazy Ivan (which the crew pulled in the pilot episode). It also boasts two shuttle pods, which can be used as escape vessels or as secondary transports. Inara, the Companion crewwoman, uses one such pod as her quarters and transport for personal away missions.

The ship also has its own medbay and crew quarters, which is another feature that makes it popular amongst spacers. In fact, the availability of a private room was intrinsic in Mal’s offer to “recruit” Jayne Cobb from another gang, which was illustrated in a flashback sequence during the episode “Out of Gas”. There was even room enough to accommodate River and Simon and Book, which would indicate that the ship contains eight bunks in total. A communal dining area and food processors also see to their needs while not sleeping, gun-slinging, or generally doing something illegal!

USS Sulaco:
After barely surviving her first encounter with the xenomorph in Alien, Ellen Ripley and a crew of Colonial Marines returned to LV-426 in Aliens to settle the score! The ship that brought them there was none other than the USS Sulaco – a big, bad, military vessel boasting big-ass guns and enough Marine firepower to level an entire colony. Much like the Nostromo, the Sulaco is a reference to the work of Joseph Conrad, writer of Heart of Darkness (significant? Oh, I think so!).

Apparently, the Sulaco is a Conestoga-class warship designed for ferrying Marines to and from conflict areas in the future. While it was only carrying one platoon of Marines and two dropships in the second movie, this class of ship is capable of carrying 20,000 tons of cargo, eight UD4L Cheyenne-class dropships and a crew of 90 personnel (according to other franchise reference material). Hmm, too bad they didn’t pack the Sulaco to capacity, otherwise Ripley would have never had to take matters into her own hands to kill the Queen Alien!

Much like everything else in the Alien franchise, the Sulaco and all other Conestoga-class vessels are built by the Weyland-Yutani corporation, military division. Clearly, their purpose is to enforce the law, hunt down (and capture) xenomorphs, and maintain the peace aboard its many, many colonies. All part of their commitment to “Building Better Worlds” I guess 😉

White Star:
My personal favorite of this list, the coolest and most badass ship to come from the Babylon 5 universe! Fast, small, and boasting incredible firepower, the White Star was the workhorse of the Shadow War, Sheridan’s campaign to liberate Earth, and the early military campaigns of the Interstellar Alliance. In a lot of ways, it is much like the Defiant from the DS9 universe… I do believe they stole the idea from Straczynski!

As a collaboration between the Mimbari and the Vorlons, the White Star ships were partially based on organic technology. This meant that the ship was essentially alive and could heal itself when damaged. In addition, its organic armor was capable of deflecting energy, giving it a sort of shielding which could protect it from anything other than a physical impact.

The ship’s main weapons consisted of pulse cannons and a single beam cannon mounted in the nose. This gave it the ability to pepper targets with rapid fire shots while conducting high-speed maneuvers, and slicing them with focused bursts while on an attack vector.  All of this came in handy when dealing with Shadow vessels, which are notoriously hard to kill! It also proved useful when up against larger, heavier ships like Earth Force cruisers, Drakh vessels, and anything else the known universe could throw at them.

From the initial prototype, the Mimbari would go on to construct thousands of White Star-class vessels which were crewed by the Rangers and members of the Religious Caste. After the formation of the Alliance, Sheridan proposed the creation of a heavier version which culminated in the design of two White Star Destroyers, the Victory and Excalibur. This latter ship was the centerpiece of the spinoff series, Crusade.

Final Thoughts:
Well, that was fun! No final thoughts today, as I really have none to offer. I just really like cool ships! And much like most toys for grown ups, they are made cool by the fact that they are used for some fun purposes – like smuggling, fighting or exploration – and generally boast one or more of the following factors: speed, firepower, special abilities, visual appeal, and maybe some secret compartments. Any or all of these will do, thank you very much. Until next time!

Hunters of Dune, part II

Hunters of Dune, part II

Okay, now that I’ve managed to sum up the book, let’s get down to why it sucked! In addition to the usual weakness one can expect out of a book by these two – bad characters, bad story, cliches, and a general feeling of exploitation – there were several other glaring points. As usual, I’ve tried to break them down as succinctly as possible, going from best to worst.

1. Sequel Complex:
As I’m sure I’ve said before, the Preludes and Legends series suffered from an unmistakable sense of duty. I.e. the story was brought down by the voluminous amount of page time that was dedicated to origins stories and explanations that really had little or nothing to do with the main plot. In this book, things were turned around slightly. Instead of explaining where everything came from, the duo dedicated all kinds of page time and chapters to explaining where everything went.

Examples abounds, but here are just a few that come to mind. In the early chapters, much is made of the differences between the BG’s and HM’s and how they were having a hard time getting along. This was best demonstrated by Murbella’s chief companions, one a BG, the other an HM (for the life of me, I can’t remember their names!). Point is, after many chapters of doing the “odd couple” thing, the HM woman suddenly kills the BG woman, Murbella forces her to take on the other’s memories, and the thread is dropped.

Another example comes in the form of Uxtal and his efforts with the HM’s. After having several chapters dedicated to him and his attempts at recreating axlotl tanks so he can make gholas, artificial spice, and the raising of the Baron Harkonnen ghola, he is killed and fed to a farmer’s sligs. If the early chapters that featured him were any indication, it was that he was supposed to be a main character. However, once he serves his purpose, he’s cast aside and the thread that took place from his POV dies. Just another victim of Brian and KJA’s writing style!

And finally, there’s the many, many chapters dedicated in the beginning designed to flesh out every single detail about the gholas, the Face Dancers efforts to infiltrate the Old Empire, and the the war between the Sisterhood and the HM holdouts. For the most part, these chapters feel like pure filler, giving us a slew of boring details that could have been left in the background and do nothing to build towards the climax.

2. Weak Writing:
Brian and KJA are known for their wooden dialogue and one-dimensional characters. But in Hunters, as with the Preludes series, things were not nearly as bad as they were with the Legends series. One can infer from this that wherever Frank’s original characters and notes were available and the duo didn’t have to rely on their own instincts, everything read much better. However, some examples of crappy writing still crept into this book and it really showed!

Take the part of the book where the Paul and Chani gholas are talking and falling back into love. Seriously, the dialogue was so weak and sappy that I was honestly reminded of the terrible love scene from Attack of the Clones! “I love you. I have always loved you. Time cannot separate us,” is literally the type of dialogue that occurs here. Who the hell talks like this? Also, consider the chapter where Sheeana decides to ride one of their captive sandworms in front of a Futar. The purpose, apparently, was to impress the half man, half felines, in order to earn their loyalty and get information from them about the Handlers (who they are, etc). It responds by saying “You better than Handlers!” And thenceforth, they become their loyal protectors. Weak!

Another glaring example is the many, many references to what is referred to as the Outside Enemy (this is actually how it appears in the text). In Chapterhouse, we are made aware that the HM’s were themselves fleeing from something, and that was why they had returned to the Old Empire and were seeking to obtain the BG’s secrets. However, at no point where they referred to as the Outside Enemy. What’s more, this is such a lame name for an enemy. Hell, it’s not even a name, it’s a basic description! It as if they had found a footnote in Frank’s notes where he described the threat in these words and decided that this was how they were going to reference it from thence forth. I’m not sure if that’s weak or just plain lazy.

And finally, there is the addition of the Phibian creatures – a race of man-fish hybrids that are basically the aquatic versions of Futars. Aside from making a brief appearance in the story, they serve no purpose and seem to only exist because Brian and KJA thought they were a cool idea. This novel and its sequel, Sandworms, abound with examples of this, things that Frank made no mention of and seem completely at odds with his original vision, but made it in because the authors seemed to think they were cool. The fact that these terms now show up in Dune terminology is both sad and discouraging!

3. Weak Plot:
As all the previous examples will attest, this story suffered from the problem of making the reader wade through a slow-buildup packed with extraneous detail and poor writing before it finally got to the climax. But by the time it arrives, the entire pace of the book changed and important revelations are simply dropped in or rushed through in a desire to get to the halfway point before all the real action starts (which takes place in book II). And in truth, I was able to endure all the weakness thanks to the anticipation factor; I hung on in the hopes that something big was going to be revealed soon!

In fact, its not until the Ithaca and its crew discover the planet that’s been cloaked by a no-field that things begin to feel like they’re picking up. Finally, we are handed the first bit of hard evidence that the threat the HM’s were fleeing was a plague that left their world’s sterilized and deserted. However, they deduce so quickly that this planet was destroyed by a terrible plague after chancing upon an abandoned library and picking up one shred of document. C’mon man! Show us some mass graves, show us some hospitals filled with dead people, show us some signs that there was a terrible holocaust! This is important stuff, don’t just have them figure it out and then take off!

What’s more, no good reason is ever given for why the Face Dancers (and their machine masters) need gholas of Paul and the Baron. It is merely said that the former is “necessary” for the “Enemy’s” calculations, i.e. to help them take over the universe. As for the Baron, no real reason is given beyond saying he’s useful too. But its pretty clear its just so they can bring back the old characters and give them a final run. And of course its obvious from the get go, even without the extremely strong hints they give, that the Ithaca’s Paul and the Face Dancers “Paolo” are going to meet up and battle it out. Wow, a battle between the hero and his evil twin! Nothing cliche or obvious about that!

The same holds true for the Ithaca’s own gholas. In their case too, Duncan, Sheeana and the rest simply decide to start making them because they figure they might be “useful”. But if Duncan is already the new Kwisatz Haderach, what do they need to be resurrecting Paul and Leto for? What reason, for that matter, do they have for creating the others aside from bringing all the old crowd back and giving them a big sendoff? I get the sentimental appeal, but it really wasn’t necessary or even plausible to be resurrecting so many old characters. What was the point of killing them off if they’re all just going to be back before the end?

And let’s not forget what Daniel said at the end of Chapterhouse when Marty mentioned how Scytale had that nullentropy tube full of ghola cells and asks why he let them get away. “Didn’t let them…,” he replies. “Gholas. He’s welcome to them.” In other words, it sounds like the old man and woman were not the slightest bit threatened by the Ithaca and its ability to create gholas, nor do they seem to have any particular use for them themselves. So why would they go to the trouble of creating their own? Like most things in this book, it doesn’t fit with Frank’s original work.

4. Tie-ins:
A major flaw in this series, one which I hear many a fan complain about bitterly, is the fact that Brian and KJA felt compelled to write their own characters into the story. Not only is there no reason for them to be included, they are shoved into the story with all the subtlety of a square peg being rammed into a round hole.

For example, we are told that Scytale’s nullentropy tube, which he carries in his chest, contains the dead cells of all the series’ major figures. This includes Paul, Leto II, Jessica, Chani, Stilgar, Duke Leto, the Baron, Duncan, Thufir, Gurney, et al. In essence, the tube is the means to create gholas of all of history’s greats. But in Hunters, Brian and KJA decided to amend this list to include Xavier Harkonnen and Serena Butler. These two characters did not exist in the original series and were not mentioned once in Chapterhouse when the ghola tube was first described. So really, throwing them in was just a shout out to their own work, which seems crass.

Also, in the course of exploring her “Other Memory” Murbella comes across the memories and personality of Serena Butler. Aside from making this brief appearance in the story, she serves no purpose other than mentioning that she knows a thing or two about wars. This did not fit with the story at all seeing as how Serena is never mentioned in any of the original books, and really served no purpose other than as a reference to the duo’s work yet again. Brian and KJA even tactitly admitted this by writing that Murbella had no idea who Serena was or how she was related to her. Her voice, much like her inclusion in the story, appears out of nowhere and then promptly disappears.

Another tie-in comes in the form of the “Oracle of Time”, a Guild Navigator who never appeared in any of the original books. Initially, it seems that she is a descendent of the “Oracle of Infinity”, the patron saint of Navigators who first appeared in Dune: House Corrino, but by the end it is revealed that she in fact Norma Cenva (a character of the Legends series). In short, she was yet another character from Brian and KJA’s shoddy prequels who was thrown into the mix to draw attention to their own work.

Her character plays a central role in this story and its sequel, unlike Xavier or Serena; however, her appearance is rendered completely implausible because of the simple fact that she made absolutely no appearances in any of the original novels. If she comes to us from the Legends series, then she’s been around for over 15,000 years, right? So where has she been all this time, and if she’s an oracle, why the hell didn’t Paul or Leto notice her in the course of their prescient sweeps? Surely the existence of another prescient being, aside from the regular navigators, would have sent up some red flags for them! But again, this was not done for the sake of consistency or plausibility, it was done solely so the duo could write their own work into Frank’s story.

5. Wrong Again!:
As I mentioned before in my reviews of the Dune prequels, one can’t help but get the feeling that these guys completely misunderstood what Frank was going for. In the Legends series, for example, we are presented with a vision of the Butlerian Jihad that involves free humans battling it out with robots for the sake of freedom and survival (a la The Terminator franchise). Not only did it seem like Brian and KJA were relying on a ton of cheap sci-fi concepts to create this series, there was absolutely no indication in the original novels that the Jihad was anything like this. Consider this definition taken from Terminology of the Imperium, the glossary for the original Dune novel:

JIHAD, BUTLERIAN: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

When one looks up Great Revolt, it simply refers back to the other definition.

GREAT REVOLT: common term for the Butlerian Jihad (See Jihad, Butlerian)

Not a lot to go on there, but notice the complete lack of any mention of cymecks, evil robots, or hive minds enslaving humanity. Also, there is no indication that this “Jihad” was a war in the literal sense. If anything, it sounds like a metaphor for a moral crusade against a specific kind of technology, a Luddite rebellion in other words. In God Emperor of Dune, Leto II explained the Jihad further:

“The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines,” Leto said. “Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed.”

Once again, sounds like Frank was talking about a war in the metaphorical sense, that humanity’s “slavery” to machines constituted a willingness to let them handle our decisions, not slavery in the literal sense. So in addition to the Brian and KJA’s books reading like pulp sci-fi crap, it also seemed to completely miss the point of what the Jihad was all about.

The same is true in Hunters of Dune. Essentially, we are expected to believe that the old man and woman, the people who represent the threat the Honored Matres were fleeing, were in fact the evil robots from the prequels. Not only did this seem like a blatant and wholly transparent attempt to tie the ending back to their own work, it also seemed like it completely missed the mark! At the end of Chapterhouse, Frank Herbert strongly implied that the old couple were in fact Face Dancers. Consider the following conversation that occurred between the old man and woman, Daniel and Marty:

“[Tleilaxu Masters] have such a hard time accepting that Face Dancers can be independent of them.” “I don’t see why. It’s a natural consequence. They gave us the power to absorb the memories and experiences of other people. Gather enough of those and…” “It’s personas we take, Marty.” “Whatever. The Masters should’ve known we would gather enough of them one day to make our own decisions about our own future.”

Notice the key words here: “US”, “WE”, “OUR”. Why use the plural, when referring to Face Dancers, if they were in fact robots in disguise (uh-oh, I sense another franchise being ripped off here!)? In addition, all kinds of hints were dropped in Heretics and Chapterhouse that alluded to the possibility that Face Dancers were evolving beyond their master’s control. And, to top it all off, there’s the part in Chapterhouse when Duncan is confronted with the image of the old man and woman where he draws the following conclusion about them:

“That thought aroused Idaho’s suspicions because now he recognized the familiarity. They looked somewhat like Face Dancers, even to the pug noses … And if they were Face Dancers, they were not Scytale’s Face Dancers. Those two people behind the shimmering net belonged to no one but themselves.”

See? Face Dancers, clearly. And clearly of a variety that had learned how to stand on their own two feet and had their own agenda, whatever that was. Turning them into Omnius and Erasmus, who were not part of the Face Dancers but LEADING them, was nothing short of forced and inaccurate. It also makes no sense, seeing as how the Face Dancers were supposed to have evolved beyond the control of their masters. Why the hell would they throw off the shackles of the Tleilaxu only to enlist with the robots? And what reason could they possibly have for wanting to see humanity, of which they are essentially a part, annihilated?

And I am certainly not the only one who sees the inconsistency in all this. Consider the following statement by author William F. Touponce from his 1988 book entitled Frank Herbert:

“Herbert gives us a segment narrated from their point of view only at the very end of the novel. They are offshoots of the Tleilaxu Face Dancers sent out in the Scattering and have become almost godlike because of their capacity to assume the persona of whoever they kill — and they have been doing this for centuries, capturing Mentats and Tleilaxu Masters and whatever else they could assimilate, until now they play with whole planets and civilizations. They are weirdly benign when they first appear in the visions of Duncan Idaho as a calm elderly couple working in a flower garden, trying to capture him in their net…”

Similarly, in an August 2007 review of Sandworms of Dune, John C. Snider of SciFiDimensions.com argued that it “doesn’t fit” or “add up” that Frank Herbert’s Daniel and Marty are the “malevolent” thinking machines Brian Herbert and Anderson created in their Legends of Dune prequel novels. I, and many fans besides are inclined to agree. For starters, how could Frank have planned to end the series with characters he didn’t even create? Repeatedly, Brian and KJA have stated that they based Hunters and Sandworms on Frank’s “copious notes” and outlines, but they also claimed that when it came to the Butlerian Jihad, Frank had left no real notes behind, so the two had to rely on their own imaginations to come up with the story.

In short, Omnius and Erasmus were the creation of Brian and KJA, not Frank. Making them the villains at the end not only didn’t fit, it was also a clear attempt to put their own indelible stamp on Frank’s series. And that, in addition to being cynical and exploitative, just seems like a big ol’ middle finger to both Frank and his fans!

Some Final Words:
When Brian and KJA began releasing the books of the Preludes series, they made it abundantly clear that they would concluding the franchise by creating Dune 7. What’s more, they insisted that they were writing it based on Frank’s original notes, of which there were many! In spite of all the accusations to the contrary, they continue to make this claim, stating that the series ended precisely how the elder Herbert had intended. However, given the content, the writing style, and the completely unlikely ending, there is no way this can be true.

For one, the entire saga ends with characters that Frank Herbert had no involvement in creating. Norma Cenva, Erasmus, Omnius – these were all the independent creations of the Brian and KJA. What’s more, the story they concocted blatantly contradicted Frank’s own work. You can say you were following the master’s plan all you like, but when the end result is loaded with references to your own stories and the whole thing reads like nothing he would ever produce, people are going to know you’re lying through your teeth!

However, what’s become clear to many over the past few years is that KJA is the real driving force behind their collaboration. In addition to the McDune books reading more like his work, the sheer number of books released since the two teamed up is more in keeping with his quick, prolific style. At this juncture, it seems clear to many that Brian’s only real role in the duo is contributing ideas and making sure the name Herbert appears on the cover. I honestly feel guilty when doing these reviews and including Brian’s name in any indictments or criticisms. Sure, he might be drinking from the cup, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being used and abused! Rather than criticize him, I want to urge him to ditch the leech that’s been sucking him and his father’s legacy dry!

Okay, that’s about what I thought of Hunters of Dune and the partnership of Brian and KJA. I shall return, just as soon as I summon up the strength to actually (gulp!) read Sandworms of Dune in full. Not an easy task, but someone has to warn others to stay away! And you really can’t criticize if you’re not willing to read… This is gonna suck, I just know it! Until next time!