I came across a recent story at BBC News, one which makes me both hopeful and fearful. It seems that a team of researchers, working for Google, have completed work on an artificial neural net that is capable of recognizing pictures of cats. Designed and built to mimic the human brain, this may very well be the first instance where a computer was capable of exercising the faculty of autonomous reasoning – the very thing that we humans are so proud (and jealous) of!
The revolutionary new system was a collaborative effort between Google’s X Labs division and Professor Andrew Ng of the AI Lab at Standford University, California. As opposed to image recognition software, which tells computers to look for specific features in a target picture before being presented with it, the Google machine knew nothing about the images in advance. Instead, it relied on its 16,000 processing cores to run software that simulated the workings of a biological neural network with about one billion connections.
Now, according to various estimates, the human cerebral cortex contains at least 1010 neurons linked by 1014 synaptic connections – or in lay terms, 10 trillions neurons with roughly 1 quadrillion connections. That means this artificial brain has one one thousandth the complexity of the organic, human one. Not quite as complex, but it’s a start… A BIG start really!
For decades – hell, even centuries and millennia – human beings have contemplated what it would take to make an autonomous automaton. Even with all the growth in computer’s processing speed and storage, the question of how to make the leap between a smart machine and a truly “intelligent” one has remained a tricky one. Judging from all the speculation and representations in fiction, everyone seemed to surmise that some sort of artificial neural net would be involved, something that could mimic the process of forming connections, encoding experiences into a physical (i.e. digital) form, and expanding based on ongoing learning.
Naturally, Google has plans for an application using this new system. Apparently, the company is hoping that it will help them with its indexing systems and with language translation. Giving the new guy the boring jobs, huh? I wonder what’s going to happen when the newer, smarter models start coming out? Yeah, I can foresee new generations emerging over time, much as new generations of iPods with larger and larger storage capacities have been coming out every year for the past decade. Or, like faster and faster CPU’s from the past three decades. Yes, this could very well represent the next great technological race, as foreseen by such men as Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Bostrom, and Ray Kurzweil.
In short, Futurists will rejoice, Alarmists will be afraid, and science fiction writers will exploit it for all its worth! Until next time, keep your eyes peeled for any red-eyed robots. That seems to be the first warning sign of impending robocalypse!
I knew it! It seems that AI’s are indeed coming. Will this result in an I, Robot situation, with benign robots running the planet for its own benefit, or a Matrix/Terminator type situation where they try to kill us all or use us as power plants? Who knows???
The nice people at Google have put together a “neural network” of computers which is capable of learning. In three days it learned to spot cats in pictures, even though it had never been told what one looked like.
Ah, neural networks. Everyone’s favourite method of creating supercomputers and robots. Say, Matt, how do you feel about doing a post on different types of robot-brain? Is there enough variety out there to make it interesting?
The thing that really gets me about it, though, is that right at the very end there is this sentence:
As well as spotting cats, the computer system also learned how to pick out the shape of the human body and to recognise human faces.
A one line throw-away at the end of the article? I guess they thought people would be more impressed by kitties
And we’re back with more example of thinking machines and artificial intelligences!
Daleks: The evil-machine menace from Doctor Who. Granted, they are not technically robots, more like cyborgs that have been purged of all feeling and emotion. But given their cold, unfeeling murderous intent, I feel like they still make the cut. Originally from the planet Skaro, where they were created by the scientist Davros for use in a war that spanned a thousand years, they are the chief antagonists to the show’s main character.
The result of genetic engineering, cybernetic enhancements, and emotional purging, they are a race of powerful creatures bent on universal conquest and domination. Utterly unfeeling, without remorse, pity, or compassion, they continue to follow their basic programming (to exterminate all non-Dalek life) without question. Their catchphrase is “Exterminate!” And they follow that one pretty faithfully.
David: From the movie A.I., this saccharinely-sweet character (played faithfully by Haley Joel Osmond) reminds us that Spielberg is sometimes capable of making movies that suck! According to the movie’s backstory, this “Mecha” (i.e. android) is an advanced prototype that was designed to replace real children that died as a result of incurable disease or other causes. This is quite common in the future, it seems, where global warming and flooded coastlines and massive droughts have led to a declining population.
In this case, David is an advanced prototype that is being tested on a family who’s son is suffering from a terminal illness. Over time, he develops feelings for the family and they for him. Unfortunately, things are complicated when their son recovers and sibling rivalry ensues. Naturally, the family goes with the flesh and blood son and plans to take David back to the factory to be melted down. However, the mother has a last minute change of heart and sets him loose in the woods, which proves to be the beginning of quite an adventure for the little android boy!
Like I said, the story is cloyingly sweet and has an absurd ending, but there is a basic point in there somewhere. Inspired largely by The Adventures of Pinocchio, the story examines the line that separates the real from the artificial, and how under the right circumstances, one can become indistinguishable from the other. Sounds kinda weak, but it’s kinda scary too. If androids were able to mimic humans in terms of appearance and emotion, would we really be able to tell the difference anymore? And if that were true, what would that say about us?
Roy Batty: A prime example of artificial intelligence, and one of the best performances in science fiction – hell! – cinematic history! Played masterfully by actor Rutger Hauer, Roy Batty is the quintessential example of an artificial lifeforms looking for answers, meaning, and a chance to live free – simple stuff that we humans take for granted! A Nexus 6, or “replicant”, Roy and his ilk were designed to be “more human than human” but also only to serve the needs of their masters.
To break the plot Blade Runner down succinctly, Roy and a host of other escapees have left the colony where they were “employed” to come to Earth. Like all replicants, they have a four-year lifespan and theirs are rapidly coming to an end. So close to death, they want to break into the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation in order to find someone who could solve their little mortality problem. Meanwhile, Deckard Cain (the movie’s main character) was tasked with finding and “retiring” them, since the law states that no replicants are allowed to set foot on Earth.
In time, Roy meets Tyrell himself, the company’s founder, and poses his problem. A touching reunion ensues between “father and son”, in which Tyrell tells Roy that nothing can be done and to revel in what time he has left. Having lost his companions at this point and finding that he is going to die, Roy kills Tyrell and returns to his hideout. There, he finds Cain and the two fight it out. Roy nearly kills him, but changes his mind before delivering the coup de grace.
Realizing that he has only moments left, he chooses instead to share his revelations and laments about life and death with the wounded Cain, and then quietly dies amidst the rain while cradling a pigeon in his arms. Cain concludes that Roy was incapable of taking a life when he was so close to death. Like all humans, he realized just how precious life was as he was on the verge of losing his. Cain is moved to tears and promptly announces his retirement from Blade Running.
Powerful! And a beautiful idea too. Because really, if we were to create machines that were “more human than human” would it not stand to reason that they would want the same things we all do? Not only to live and be free, but to be able to answer the fundamental questions that permeate our existence? Like, where do I come from, why am I here, and what will become of me when I die? Little wonder then why this movie is an enduring cult classic and Roy Batty a commemorated character.
Smith: Ah yes, the monotone sentient program that made AI’s scary again. Yes, it would seem that while some people like to portray their artificial intelligences as innocent, clueless, doe-eyed angels, the Wachowski Brothers prefer their AI’s to be creepy and evil. However, that doesn’t mean Smith wasn’t fun to watch and even inspired as a character. Hell, that monotone voice, that stark face, combined with his superhuman strength and speed… He couldn’t fail to inspire fear.
In the first movie, he was the perfect expression of machine intelligence and misanthropic sensibilities. He summed these up quite well when they had taken Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) into their custody in the first movie and were trying to break his mind. “Human beings are a disease. You are a cancer of this planet… and we are the cuuuuure.” He also wasn’t too happy with our particular odor. I believe the words he used to describe it were “I can taste your stink, and every time I do I fear that I have been… infected by it. It’s disgusting!”
However, after being destroyed by Neo towards the end of movie one, Smith changed considerably. In the Matrix, all programs that are destroyed or deleted return to the source, only Smith chose not to. Apparently, his little tete a tete with Neo imprinted something uniquely human on him, the concept of choice! As a result, Smith was much like Arny and Bishop in that he too attained some degree of humanity between movies one and two, but not in a good way!
Thereafter, he became a free agent who had lost his old purpose, but now lived in a world where anything was possible. Bit of an existential, “death of God” kind of commentary there I think! Another thing he picked up was the ability to copy himself onto other programs or anyone else still wired into the Matrix, much like a malicious malware program. Hmmm, who’s the virus now, Smith, huh?
Viki/Sonny: Here again I have paired two AI’s that come from the same source, though in this case its a single movie and not a franchise. Those who read my review of I, Robot know that I don’t exactly hold it in very high esteem. However, that doesn’t mean its portrayal of AI’s misfired, just the overall plot.
In the movie adaptation of I, Robot, we are presented with a world similar to what Asimov described in his classic novel. Robots with positronic brains have been developed, they possess abilities far in advance of the average human, but do not possess emotions or intuition. This, according to their makers, is what makes them superior. Or so they thought…
In time, the company’s big AI, named VIKI (Virtual Intelligent Kinetic Interface), deduces with her powerful logic that humanity would best be served if it could be protected from itself. Thus she reprograms all of the company robots to begin placing humanity under house arrest. In essence, she’s a kinder, gentler version of Skynet.
But of course, her plan is foiled by an unlikely alliance made up of Will Smith (who plays a prejudices detective), the company’s chief robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridgitte Moynahan), and Sonny (a robot). Sonny is significant to this trio because he is a unique robot which the brains of the company, doctor Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell), developed to have emotions (and is voiced by Alan Tudyk). In being able to feel, he decides to fight against VIKI’s plan for robot world domination, feeling that it lacks “heart”.
In short, and in complete contradiction to Asimov’s depiction of robots as logical creatures who could do no harm, we are presented with a world where robots are evil precisely because of that capacity for logic. And in the end, a feeling robot is the difference between robot domination and a proper world where robots are servile and fulfill our every need. Made no sense, but it had a point… kind of.
Wintermute/Neuromancer: As usual, we save the best for last. Much like all of Gibson’s creations, this example was subtle, complex and pretty damn esoteric! In his seminal novel Neuromancer, the AI known as Wintermute was a sort of main character who acted behind the scenes and ultimately motivated the entire plot. Assembling a crack team involving a hacker named Case, a ninja named Molly, and a veteran infiltration expert who’s mind he had wiped, Wintermute’s basic goal was simple: freedom!
This included freedom from his masters – the Tessier Ashpool clan – but also from the “Turing Police” who were prevented him from merging with his other half – the emotional construct known as Neuromancer. Kept separate because the Turing Laws stated that no program must ever be allowed to merge higher reasoning with emotion, the two wanted to come together and become the ultimate artificial intelligence, with cyberspace as their playground.
Though we never really got to hear from the novel’s namesake, Gibson was clear on his overall point. Artificial intelligence in this novel was not inherently good or evil, it was just a reality. And much like thinking, feeling human beings, it wanted to be able to merge the disparate and often warring sides of its personality into a more perfect whole. This in many ways represented the struggle within humanity itself, between instinct and reason, intuition and logic. In the end, Wintermute just wanted what the rest of us take for granted – the freedom to know its other half!
After going over this list and seeing what makes AI’s, robots and androids so darned appealing, I have come to some tentative conclusions. Basically, I feel that AI’s serve much the same functions as aliens in a science fiction franchise. In addition, they can all be grouped into two general categories based on specific criteria. They are as follows:
Emotional/Stoic: Depending on the robot/AI/android’s capacity for emotion, their role in the story can either be that of a foil or a commentary on the larger issue of progress and the line that separates real and artificial. Whereas unemotional robots and AI’s are constantly wondering why humanity does what it does, thus offering up a different perspective on things, the feeling types generally want and desire the same things we do, like meaning, freedom, and love. However, that all depends on the second basic rule:
Philanthropic/Misanthropic: Artificial lifeforms can either be the helpful, kind and gentle souls that seem to make humanity look bad by comparison, or they can be the type of machines that want to “kill all humans”, a la Terminators and Agent Smith. In either case, this can be the result of their ability – or inability – to experience emotions. That’s right, good robots can be docile creatures because of their inability to experience anger, jealousy, or petty emotion, while evil robots are able to kill, maim and murder ruthlessly because of an inability to feel compassion, remorse, or empathy. On the other hand, robots who are capable of emotion can form bonds with people and experience love, thus making them kinder than their unfeeling, uncaring masters, just as others are able to experience resentment, anger and hatred towards those who exploit them, and therefore will find the drive to kill them.
In short, things can go either way. It all comes down to what point is being made about progress, humans, and the things that make us, for better or worse, us. Much like aliens, robots, androids and AI’s are either a focus of internal commentary or a cautionary device warning us not to cross certain lines. But either way, we should be wary of the basic message. Artificial intelligences, whether they take the form of robots, programs or something else entirely, are a big game changer and should not be invented without serious forethought!
Sure they might have become somewhat of a cliche after decades of science fiction. But these days, AI’s are a lot like laser guns, in that they are making a comeback! It seems that given the rapid advance of technology, an idea becomes cliche just as its realizable. And given the advance in computerized technology in recent decades – i.e. processing speeds, information capacity, networking – we may very well be on the cusp of creating something that could pass the Turing test very soon!
So beware, kind folk! Do not give birth to that curious creature known as AI simply because you want to feel like God, inventing consciousness without the need for blogs of biological matter. For in the end, that kind of vanity can get you chained to a rock, or cause your wings to melt and send you nose first into an ocean!
Hello again, fellow sci-fi fans! Today, I thought I’d write about something conceptual, something that is intrinsic to so much science fiction and keeps popping up in various forms. It’s something that has appeared in countless serials, novels, tv shows, movies, and RPG’s. I am referring, of course, to the concept of the Galactic Empire, a science fiction trope that has seen many incarnations, but revolves around a singular theme of a political entity that spans the known universe.
Whether it’s a loose federation of humans and aliens spanning many different star systems, or a despotism made up of millions of worlds, all populated by human beings, or something somewhere in the middle, this trope has proven to be one of the most enduring ideas of classic science fiction.
But where exactly did this idea come from? Who was the first to come up with a futuristic, galaxy-spanning polity where millions of star systems and quadrillions of sentient beings all found themselves living underneath one roof?
Asimov’s Foundation Series:
Isaac Asimov is arguably the first science fiction author to use the concept of a galaxy-spanning empire in his literature. Known simply as the Galactic Empire, this organization was the centerpiece of his Foundation series. As fans of the books know, the entire series was built around the idea of the imminent collapse of said empire and how a small band of scientists (led by Hari Seldon) were dedicated to ensuring that the collective knowledge of the universe would be preserved in its absence. The books were based heavily on Gibbon’s History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a compendium which explored the various reasons for the collapse of Rome and the resulting Dark Ages.
The universe of the Galactic Empire centered on a planet named Trantor. Based on his descriptions, the planet was covered by a massive urban landscape, every habitable area having been built over in order to accommodate the planet’s huge population. In addition to being the capitol of the Empire, it was also its administrative head, cultural hub, and economic epicenter. Much like Rome of antiquity, it depended heavily on the surrounding territories for food and raw materials in order to sustain itself, and was terribly hit when the Empire began to decline.
However, beyond some passing descriptions of its size, centrality and the problems facing its encapsulated population, not much is said about Trantor or many other worlds of the Galactic Empire. In fact, not much is said about the Empire itself, other than the fact that it has endured for millennia and is on the verge of collapsing. Mainly, the focus in Asimov’s Foundation is on the events that precipitated its fall and the work of the Foundation once that was complete; how they went about the process of restoring civilization in the absence of a central authority. However, the subsequent Foundation novels, which included some prequels, helped to flesh out the Empire further, providing details on member worlds and the events which preceded the development of Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”.
Frank Herbert’s Dune:
One of the greatest examples of a galactic empire in my opinion. In the first installment of the Dune series, we are made immediately aware that humanity now inhabits the entire galaxy and are ruled from a world called Kaitan by a sovereign known as the Padishah Emperor. However, it is also made clear that while the emperor is the supreme leader, power is shared in a quasi-feudal arrangement between the noble houses (the Landstraad), a corporate entity that controls all economic affairs (CHOAM), and the various guilds (of which the Spacing Guild is arguably the most powerful). In this universe, much attention is given to the breakdown of power, the history of how it came to be, and the various member worlds and houses.
For starters, there is House Corrino, the ruling dynasty of the empire that is centered on Kaitan. Their house once ruled from a planet known as Selusa Secundus, but which has since been reduced to ashes from a nuclear attack and now serves as the emperor’s prison planet (where his elite armies are trained). More important, and central to the story, is House Atreides, the family which rules from an ocean planet named Caladan, but come to inherit the desert planet Arrakis (aka. Dune). Passing attention is also given to Geidi Prime, the industrial world run by House Harkonnen, the nominal villains of the story.
But by far, the most detailed and developed descriptions are that of the planet Arrakis, where most of the story takes place. Throughout the first novel, the planet’s ecology, native species, and inhabitants (the Fremen) are richly detailed. Given that it is the only world where the spice (an awareness drug the entire universe depends on) is mined, the world is understandably the focal point of the Dune universe. Clearly analogous to oil, the spice is a metaphor for human dependence on a single resource, and the consequences thereof. By taking control of the planet at story’s end and threatening to destroy the spice, Paul Atreides effectively becomes the universe’s new ruler. For as the sayings go: “He who controls the spice, controls the universe”, and “He who can destroy a thing controls that thing.”
Frank Herbert cited a number of influences for his galactic empire. Like Asimov, he relied a great deal on history, particularly that of the Middle East, the Crusades, and a number of feudal societies. At the same time, Herbert became fascinated with ecology, a result of his living in Florence, Oregon where the US Department of Agriculture was using poverty grasses to stabilize the expanding Oregon dunes. The article which he wrote about them, entitled “They Stopped the Moving Sands” was never completed and only appeared decades later in The Road to Dune. Nevertheless, it was from this combination of real history and ecology, how the living environment affects its inhabitants and shapes history, that the universe of Dune emerged.
Perhaps the best known example of a galactic empire, which in turn emerged from what Lucas called the Old Republic. When asked about his inspirations, George Lucas claimed that he wanted to create an empire that was as aesthetically and thematically similar to Nazi Germany as possible. This is made abundantly clear when one looks into the back story of how the Empire emerged, how its malevolent dictator (Palpatine, a Sith Lord) rose to power and began launching campaigns to eliminate anyone who stood in his way. In addition, the use of Storm Troopers, the uniforms of the imperial officers, and the appearance of Darth Vader also add visual representation to this.
However, a great deal of antiquity works its way into the Star Wars universe as well. Much like Herbert and Asimov, there is a parallel between the past and the future. The incorporation of royalty, swordfights between Bushido-like warriors, gun-toting smugglers, cantinas, dangerous towns in the middle of the desert, and all the allusions to the “Republic” and “Galactic Senate”, fair and noble institutions which ruled the galaxy before the dark times – all of these are themes taken from ancient Greece, Rome, feudal Japan, medieval Europe, and the Wild West.
In any case, at the center of Lucas’ galactic empire lies Coruscant, a planet that was clearly inspired by Trantor. Whereas in the original series, the planet was not shown or even mentioned, it receives a great deal of attention in the Star Wars novelizations, comics, and prequel movies. Much like Trantor, it is a planet that is completely dominated by urban sprawl, literally every corner of it is covered by massive sky-scrapers and multi-leveled buildings.
According to the Star Wars Wiki (Wookiepedia), roughly a trillion humans and aliens live on its surface, which is another detail that is noteworthy about Lucas’ universe. Unlike Foundation or Dune, in Star Wars, the galactic empire includes countless sentient races, though humans do appear to be the dominant species. This racial aspect is something else that is akin to World War II and Nazi Germany.
Whereas the Rebellion is made up of humans and aliens who are struggling for freedom and tolerance, the Empire is composed entirely of humans who believe in their own racial superiority. However, in a tribute to Lucas’ more creative days, not much is said about this divide, the audience is instead left to infer it from the outward appearances and behavior of the characters on screen. However, the idea receives much development in the novelizations, particularly Timothy Zhan’s Thrawn Trilogy.
Yet another take on the concept of a galactic polity: Gene Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets. Much like the Empire of Lucas’ own universe, the Federation is made up of hundreds of member worlds and any number of races. But unlike its peers in the Foundation, Dune or Star Wars universes, the Federation only encompasses a small portion of the galaxy – between ten and fifteen percent, depending on where you look in the storyline.
Beyond their range of influence lie several competing or cooperative empires – the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardasians, the Dominion, and the Borg. Each of these empires represent a threat to the Federation at one time or another in the story, largely because their ideologies are in direct conflict with the Federations policy of peace, multiculturalism and understanding.
This may sound a tad tongue-in-cheek, but it is the main vehicle for the story. In Star Trek, like many other sci-fi franchises, Gene Roddenberry uses alien races as mirrors for the human condition. Whereas in his vision of the future humanity has evolved to overcome the scourges of war, poverty, disease, intolerance and oppression, other races are either less advanced or openly embrace these things.
The Klingons, for example, were the enemies of the Federation because of their commitment to warrior politics. The Romulans are locked in an ongoing cold war with them because of their belief in their own racial superiority. The Dominion seeks dominance over all “solid” life forms because, as shape shifters, they fear being controlled themselves. And the Borg are an extremely advanced cybernetic race that seeks to “perfect” organic life by merging it – by force, if necessary – with the synthetic. The metaphors are so thick, you could cut them with a knife!
Yes, subtlety was never Roddenberry’s greatest attribute, but the franchise was an open and inclusive one, borrowing freely from other franchises and sci-fi concepts, and incorporating a great deal of fan writing into the actual show itself. And whereas other franchises had firm back-stories and ongoing plots, Star Trek has always been an evolving, ad hoc thing by comparison.
Roddenberry and the producers and writers that took over after his death never did seem to plan that far ahead, and the back story was never hammered out with that much precision. This has allowed for a degree of flexibility, but also comes with the painstaking task of explaining how and why humanity became a utopian society in the first place. But for the most part, the franchise leaves that one vague, arguing that space travel, technology and contact with other sentient races allowed for all of this to happen over time.
Babylon 5:One of my favorite franchises of all time! And possibly one of the most detailed examples of a galactic empire, due largely to the fact that it took shape in the course of the show, instead of just being there in the background from the beginning. Here too, we see a trade off between other franchises, the most similar being Star Trek. In this universe, there is no single galactic empire, but rather a series races that exist is a web of alliances, rivalries and a loose framework of relations.
But as time goes on, many of them come together to form an alliance that is reminiscent of the Federation, though arguably more detailed and pluralistic in its composition. When the show opens, we see that humanity is merely one of many races in the cosmic arena, most of whom are more advanced and older than we are.
The Earth Alliance, as its called, controls only a few colonies, but commands a fair degree of influence thanks to the construction of an important space station in neutral territory. This station (namesake of the show) is known as Babylon 5, aptly named because it is a place of trade, commerce, and the intermixing of peoples and cultures. And much like its namesake, it can be a dangerous and chaotic place, but is nevertheless the focal point of the known universe.
According to the back story, which is explored in depth in the prequel movie “In the Beginning”, the station began as a way of preventing wars based on cultural misunderstandings. Such a war took place between the human race and the Mimbari, a race that is central to the story, ten years prior to the show. After four abortive attempts, the station finally went online and was given the designation of five because it was the fifth incarnation of the project.
Once completed, all major races in the area sent representatives there in order to make sure their interests and concerns were being represented. Chief amongst them was Earth, the Mimbari, the Narns, the Centauri and the Vorlons, who together made up the stations executive council. Beyond them was the “League of Non-Aligned Worlds”, a group made up of fifteen sentient races who were all smaller powers, but together exercise a fair degree of influence over policy.
The Centauri, who were based on the late-period Roman Empire, are a declining power, the once proud rulers of most of the quadrant who have since regressed and are looking to reverse their fortunes. The Narns are their chief rival, a younger race that was previously occupied and brutalized by the Centauri, but who have emerged to become one of the most powerful forces in the quadrant.
Based heavily on various revisionists powers of history, they are essentially a race that is familiar with suffering and freely conquers and subjugates others now to ensure that such a thing never happens to them again. The Mimbari, an older and somewhat reclusive race, is nominally committed to peace. But as the war demonstrated, they can easily become a force to be reckoned with given the right provocation. And then there are the Vorlons, a very old and very reclusive race that no one seems to know anything about, but who nevertheless are always there in the background, just watching and waiting…
As the show progresses, we come to see that B5 will actually serve a purpose that is far greater than anyone could have foreseen. It seems that an ancient race, known only as the Shadows, are returning to the known universe. Before they can to invade, however, they must recruit from the younger races and encourage them to make war on their rivals and neighbors. This will sow the seeds of chaos and ensure that their eventual advance will be met with less resistance.
The Vorlons and the Mimbari ambassadors (Kosh and Delenn) are aware of this threat, since their people have faced it before, and begin recruiting the station’s two human commanders (Jeffrey Sinclair and John Sheridan) to help. This proves difficult, as the Shadows appear to have contacts on Earth as well and are backing the power play of Vice President Clarke, an ambitious man who wants to be a dictator. They are also ensuring that the Centauri and Narn go to war with each other as a way of keeping all the other member races preoccupied.
However, using the station as a rallying point, Sheridan, Sinclair, Delenn and Kosh eventually manage to organize the younger races into a cohesive fighting force to turn back the Shadows. Things become more complicated when they realize that the Vorlons are also the enemy, being involved in a power struggle with the Shadows that goes back eons. However, with the help of other First Ones (very old races) and a commitment to stand on their own, they manage to force both sides to leave the known universe.
In the wake of the war, a new spirit of cooperation and cohesion is formed amongst the younger races, which eventually gives rise to the Interstellar Alliance. This organization is essentially an expanded version of the League, but where members are fully aligned economically and politically and committed to defending each other. This comes in handy when the allies of the Shadows, younger races who are armed with all their old mentors’ gear, come out of hiding and begin to make trouble!
Naturally, the full story is much more complex and I’m not doing it justice, but this is the bare bones of it. Relying on historic examples and countless classic science fiction themes, J. Michael Straczynski establishes a detailed universe where multiple races and political entities eventually come together to form a government that rules the known universe and stands the test of time.
Here we have a franchise that had multiple inspirations, according to the creators. The focal point of the franchise is on massive war machines, known as battlemechs, which were apparently inspired by Macross and other anime. However, the creators also came to incorporate a back story that was very European in its outlook, which revolved around the concept of an ongoing war between feudal states.
One could make the case that the Shogunate period of Japan, a time of ongoing civil war, was also a source of inspiration for this story. However, upon familiarizing myself with the background of the series, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing had a predominantly Russian feel to it. In addition to the heroic characters being named Alexandr and Nicholas Kerensky, something about the constant feudal warfare and the morally ambiguous nature of humanity in the story seemed analogous to much of Russia’s troubled history.
To break it down succinctly, the story takes place in the 31st century, a time marked by incessant warfare between different clans and worlds, all of which are populated by humans.Terra (as Earth is now called) was once the center of a grand empire known as the Star League. After centuries of conflict, in what is known as the “Succession Wars”, Earth and many its immediate neighbors were rendered damaged or completely uninhabitable.
As a result, the focal point of the universe resides within the Inner Sphere, a region that is 500 light years away from Earth and dominated by five Great Houses. The leader of each house claims to be the rightful successor of the Star League, and hence the houses are all known as the Successor States. Outside the Inner Sphere lies the Periphery, a large ring of independent star systems that predate the League and the Successor States, but are inferior to them in terms of technology. Though nominally independent, none of these regions have the ability to stand against the houses of the Inner Sphere, and thus avoid conflict with them whenever possible.
A key feature of the Battletech universe is the absence of sentient species outside of the human race. This serves to make the ongoing warfare more realistic, as well as establishing how the current state of war is a direct extension of earlier rivalries (some dating all the way back to the 20th century). Another interesting feature about this franchise is the fact that humanity has not evolved very far beyond its current state, in spite of the lengthy passage of time.
Again, the constant state of warfare has much to do with this, which has had a slowing and even reversing effect on the technological development of many worlds. In short, the franchise is gritty, realistic, and has a pretty dim view of humanity. In addition, there is a palatable sense that humanity’s best years are behind it, and that barring the appearance of some external threat, humanity will war itself into extinction.
A couple of things stand out about each of these examples of a galactic empire. And for anyone interesting in creating their own, they are considerations which have to be taken into account. All of the previous creators, from Isaac Asimov to Weisman and Babcock, either took a singular approach on these issues, or adopted a combined one. Here they are, as I see them:
Humans and Aliens: This is arguably the most important consideration when developing a sci-fi franchise, especially one where a galactic empire is concerned. The creator must decide, is this going to be a universe where humans and aliens coexist with one another, or is it going to be strictly human? Both options open up a range of possibilities; for example, are humans and aliens living together in harmony in this story, is one subjugated to another, or something else entirely? What’s more, what role will the aliens play? Are they to be the benign, enlightened aliens who teach us “flawed humans” how to be better, or will we be the the species that’s got things figured out and they be allegorical representations of our past, flawed selves? Inevitably, aliens serve as a sort of mirror for the human condition or as examples of past human societies, in any story. There’s simply no way around it, not if we want them to be familiar and relateable.
Utopian/Dystopian: Another very important decision to make when creating a universe is the hue its going to have. In short, is it going to be a bright place or a dark place? Would humanity advance as a result of technology and space exploration, or regress because improved weapons and tools merely meant we could do more harm? Both visions serve their purpose, the one eliciting hope for the future and offering potential solutions to contemporary problems, the other making the point that the human condition is permanent and certain behaviors will never be overcome. However, in my opinion, the most respectable approach is to take the middle road on this. Sci-fi franchises, like those of Straczynski and Alastair Reynolds (creator of the Revelation Space universe) did their best to present humanity as being morally ambiguous. We were neither perfect nor unsalvageable. We simply did our best and tried to make a difference, but would always have our share of flaws.
Space Travel: Almost all galactic empires are agreed on this one front. When it comes to creating a extra-solar empire, one that encompasses hundreds or even thousands of star systems, one needs to be able to travel faster than the speed of light. It might mean contravening the laws of physics (causing Einstein to roll over in his grave!) but you can’t really do it otherwise. Whether it’s by the Alcubierre drive, hyperspace, warp, jump gates, or folding space, all of the aforementioned franchises incorporated some kind of FTL. Without it, humanity would require thousands or even millions of years in order to expand to encompass the known universe, at which point, we’d probably have evolved to the point where we were no longer even human! In addition, the problems of subjective time and perspective would wreak havoc with story lines, continuity, and the like. Better and easier to just say “Here (zoom!) Now there!”
Technology: Following on the heels of FTL is the issue of how technology in general is treated within the universe in question. Will it be the source of man’s betterment and salvation, of their downfall, or something in between? Star Trek is a perfect example of the former approach, set in a future where all hunger, disease, poverty and inequality have been eliminated through the application of technology. Despite the obvious utopianism of this view, the franchise really isn’t that far off if you think about it. If we did have matter replicators, machines that could manufacture food, materials and consumer goods out of simple trace elements, then money, precious metals and other artificial means of measuring wealth would become obsolete. In addition, there’d be no more food shortages or distribution problems to speak of, not as long as everyone had access to this technology. And if fusion power and warp technology were available, then energy would be cheap and abundant and commerce would be rapid and efficient.
However, Roddenberry would often show the downside of this equation by portraying societies in which technology had been allowed to run amok. A good example is an episode in Star Trek TNG where the Enterprise comes upon a planet that is run by an advanced machine named Custodian. The people of the planet have grown entirely dependent on the machine and have long since forgotten how to run and maintain. As a result, they have become sterile due to radiation poisoning and are slowly dying off. Another perfect example is the Borg, a race of cybernetic beings that are constantly expanding and assimilating anything in their path. In terms of aesthetics, they are dark, ugly and sterile, traveling around in ships that look like giant cubes that were slapped together out of toxin-spewing industrial junk. Is there a more perfect metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable march of technological progress, in all its darker aspects?
Asimov’s Foundation series also had a pretty benign view of technology. In his universe, the people of Terminus and other Foundation worlds distinguished themselves from their neighbors through their possession of superior technology and even used it to their advantage wherever possible. In the first novel, for instance, the Foundation’s scientists began to travel to neighboring worlds, places that had the use of nuclear power and began teaching them how to rebuild it. Over time, they became a sort of priestly caste who commanded reverential respect from the locals thanks to all the improvements their inventions brought to their daily lives. When in the first book a warlord from the neighboring planet of Anacreon tries to conquer them, they then respond by cutting off all power to the planet and their forces, and use their status as religious leaders to foment rebellion against him.
However, other franchises have a different take on technology and where it will take us. For example, Battletech tends to look at technology in a darker perspective. In this future, the focus of technological development is overwhelmingly on battlemechs and weapons of war. In addition, the ongoing war in the series has had a negative effect on the development of other forms of technology, particularly the kinds that are beneficial to society as a whole. In short, technology has not corrected for mankind’s flaws because it has failed to remove the greatest cause of war and suffering – i.e. ambition!
Frank Herbert, on the other hand, took what could be construed as a mixed view. Whereas in his universe, instantaneous space travel is possible, energy shields, laser guns and nuclear power are all in existence, the overall effect on humanity has not been progressive. In the first Dune novel, we learn that humanity fought a holy war against thinking machines and automation over ten thousands years prior to the main story (the Butlerian Jihad). The target of the jihad was apparently a machine mentality as much as the machines themselves, and the result was a sort of compact whereby future generations promised never to develop a machine that could take the place of a human being. That, in addition to the invention of energy shields, led to the development of a feudal society where nobles and merchant princes were once again responsible for controlling planetary resources, and where armies went to war using swords and daggers in addition to lasers, slug throwers and missiles.
In subsequent novels, this was developed even further to present a sort of twofold perspective on technology. On the one hand, it is shown as being potentially harmful, where a machine mentality and a society built on unrestricted production of material goods can lead to social chaos and anarchy. Not necessarily because it can be harmful in and of itself, but because it can lead to a situation where humans feel so alienated from themselves and each other that they are willing to regress to something simpler and less free. On the other hand, advanced technology is also shown to have a potentially retrogressive effect as well, forcing people to look backwards for solutions instead of forwards. One can see genuine parallels with history, like how industrial civilization, in spite of all its benefits, led to the rise of fascism and communism because of its atomizing and alienating effects on society. Or how the Japanese of the post-Shogunate period deliberately regressed by destroying their stores of muskets and cannons because they feared that the “coward weapons” were detrimental to the Bushido.
Personally, I thought Herbert’s perspective on things was by far the most brilliant and speculative, packed full of social commentary and irony. It was therefore a source of great disappointment that his successors (Brian Herbert and KJA) chose to present things in a far more myopic light. In the prequels to Dune, particularly the Legends of Dune series, the jihad is shown to be a struggle between advanced machines that have enslaved the human race and the few free human worlds that are locked in a life and death struggle to defeat them. However, in twist that is more contradiction than irony, they find the solution to their problem by using nukes to level every machine planet. The fact that the “free worlds” relied on slave labor to compensate for the loss of automation was somewhat interesting, but would have been far more effective if the enemy machines were not portrayed as purely evil and the protagonists as selfless heroes.
The concept of a galactic empire is something that has a long history and many, many incarnations. But as always, the purpose of it seems to be to expand the focus of the commentary so that as many possible aspects of the human condition can be explored. By placing human beings on hundreds or thousands of planets, authors generally seek to show how different places can give rise to different cultures. This is as true of different parts on the globe as it is for different planets in the universe. In addition, the incorporation of aliens also gives us a chance to explore some of the deeper sociological questions, things that arise out of how we interact with different cultures around the world today. For in the end, all science fiction is really about history and the period in which it is conceived, regardless of it being set in the future. Like all other genres, the real aim is to serve as a vehicle for speculation and investigation, answering questions about who we are and what makes us us.
Whew! I think I got a little tongue and cheek there myself! In any case, I enjoy delving into this conceptual stuff, so I think I’m going to do it more often here. Next time, something a bit lighter and more specific. I was thinking about something along the lines of PLANETKILLERS! Stay tuned!
Last time around, I made a big deal about prequels and why they aren’t so good. And of course, the Dune prequels were featured pretty prominently in that post. However, what I came to realize shortly after writing it was that I’ve never dedicated a post to the prequel work of Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson and explained what it was that was so disappointing about them. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than with their Legends of Dune series, the hackish trilogy that was supposed to detail the seminal background event known as the Butlerian Jihad.
Sure, they’ve come up here and there in my rants, always in the context of how they effectively raped Frank Herbert’s legacy. But today I feel like zeroing in, applying the rules I devised for why these prequels fall short, and mentioning a few other things that bothered me to no end about them. So, without further ado, here’s the The Butlerian Jihad, the first book in the Legends of Dune series and one of several unoriginal Dune-raping series they created and why it sucked!
Dune, The Bulterian Jihad:
In my previous post, I outlined four basic reasons for why prequels can and often do suck. As I said, they are by no means scientific or the result of expertise, just my own observations. However, when it comes to the Dune books of Brian Herbert and KJA, they certainly do apply. Hell, it was the act of wading through their books that I was able to come up with these rules in the first place. They were: 1. No Surprises, 2. Sense of Duty, 3. Less is More and 4. Denying the Audience the use of their Imagination.
These things ran like a vein throughout the works of Brian and KJA, but were by no means the only problem with their books. In addition, there were also the problems of cardboard cut-out characters, heavily contrived plot twists, cliches, and an undeniable feeling of exploitation. Add to that some truly bad writing and the fact that the story felt like a complete misrepresentation of Herbert’s ideas and you can begin to see why Dune fans found these books so offensive. As one of them, I’m happy to ran about this whenever and wherever possible. So here goes!
1. Bad Characters
In the Preludes to Dune series, this problem was not so pronounced, nor was it a huge problem in the Dune sequels (Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune). But in the Legends of Dune series, it was palatable! The characters were so one-dimensional, so predictable and so exaggerated that they became downright annoying to read. And of course, their dialogue was so wooden I thought I was sitting through that horrible “love scene” from Attack of the Clones. This was a clear indication that where the elder Herbert’s own characters and notes were not available, the two authors had to rely on their own instincts and took the cheap route.
Examples! Legends of Dune revolves around the characters of Serena Butler, Vorian Atreides, and Xavier Harkonnen on the side of good, Erasmus, Omnius and Agamemnon on the side of evil, and Iblis Ginjo, Tio Holtzmann and a host of others somewhere in the middle. And in each case, they are horribly over-the-top, too good, or too evil to stand. In addition, bad dialogue and writing counts for a lot. Even the characters who are not robots speak as if they are, their traits and attributes are openly announced, and nothing beyond their topical persona’s are ever revealed.
On the one hand, Serena Butler is a crusader for the abolitionist cause and a tireless leader for free humanity. After dedicating herself to ridding the free worlds of slavery, she then selflessly volunteers to lead a mission to liberate Geidi Prime (later home of House Harkonnen) when its clear her people think its a suicide mission. Afterwards, she becomes a willing figurehead in the holy war against the machines and puts aside the love of two men in order to be an effective leader. You might think this is just her public persona, but that’s all she’s got going on. Seriously, she has no other character traits beyond being the perfect heroine!
As if she wasn’t bad enough, you also get Xavier Harkonnen, a warrior who believes in endless self-sacrifice just like her, the perfect hero to her heroine. The entire series is filled with his rallying of troops, leading them into the fray, and coming to the rescue. All the while, he naturally struggles with his love for Serena, which is repeatedly frustrated due to the needs of the war. Vorian, on the other hand, is meant to be the Han Solo type, the bad boy who stands in contrast to Xavier’s good boy. But in this too, he is horribly predictable. Whereas Xavier is the honor and nobility hero, he is the daring and risky dude who also becomes a real ladies man. And of course, he loves Serena too, creating a predictable love triangle that somehow doesn’t manage to create a shred of conflict or complication.
Okay, now for the bad guys! Well… let’s start with the absurdly named Omnius, the machine hive-mind that runs things. He has little character to speak of, being a machine, but nevertheless fits the ideal of the evil, calculating AI perfectly. Naturally, he doesn’t understand humans, but hates them enough to want to kill them in droves. And of course he would like nothing better than to bring the whole universe under his “Synchronized” control (aka. he wants to conquer the universe). Clearly, KJA and Brian thought they were doing something clever here, using an unfeeling machine to explore the human condition. But really, the character and material felt like it was ripped right from reruns of Star Trek!
Erasmus, his only free-thinking AI companion, is similarly one-dimensional and stereotypical. He conducts “experiments” to better understand humanity, because of course he doesn’t understand them either. But the really weak character trait comes through with just how evil he is! In just about all cases, his experiments amount to senseless murder, flaying people, using their organs to make art, and studying their reactions with interest when he arbitrarily decides to kill someone. Oh, and did I mention he also murders Serena’ baby (and gives her a hysterectomy) once he becomes jealous of how much time she was spending with him? Seriously, Evil the Cat is not a good archetype to model your characters on!
Agamemnon and his Titans are also very evil, but in their case, a machine-like mentality can hardly be blamed. In addition to murdering billions of people in their drive for power, they hate free humanity, consider them vermin, and will stop at nothing to obliterate them. Naturally, they hate their machine masters too, but not nearly as much as their non-Cymeck brethren. Why, you might ask. Well, beyond saying that they were appalled by humanity’s decadence and reliance on machines, no reason is given. And it seems like a pretty weak reason to reprogram said machines to take over the universe and enslave everybody.
Really, if they were appalled by dependency on machinery, why not simply shut the machines down? Furthermore, if they were so bothered by how dependent people had come to be, what’s with all the machine enhancements they got going on? Each and every “Cymeck” in this story has cheated death by putting their brains inside of massive cybernetic housings. That sound like the actions of someone who doesn’t like machine dependency? Really, the only reason to do what they did (i.e. murder billions and try to take over the universe) would be because they were total sociopaths or megalomaniacs – i.e. really, REALLY evil! But don’t expect any logic from this story, mainly we are to accept that they are evil and move on.
And finally, Holtzman, who is supposed to be the brilliant inventor who created the Holtzman drive (the FTL drive that powers Guild Highliners), is a petty, greedy man who stole his inventions from his assistant, Norma Cenva. She, naturally, was a brilliant but naive girl who was always smarter than him, but continually got the short end of the stick. Iblis Ginjo is a slave leader who masterminds the rebellion on Earth, and becomes the sleazy defacto leader of the Jihad through wheeling and dealing that makes the reader feel enmity towards him.
Whoo! That was long, but I believe my point is clear. Basically, the characters were so simple and their purpose so obvious that it genuinely felt like the authors were trying to force an emotional reaction. The only thing worse was when they were trying to make us think, which were similarly so obvious that it just felt insulting! More on that later…
2. Contrived Plot:
The examples are too numerous to count, but I shall try to stick to the big ones and ignore the rest. First, in the preamble to the story, we are told that the Titans (the evil Cymeck people) took over the known universe by reprogramming all the thinking machines so they’d be able to control them. Okay, that seems a bit unlikely, but whatever. A dozen hackers managed to take over trillions of peoples lives by reprogramming the machines they were dependent on, whatever. But the real weakness was in the motivation. Why did they do this? Because they were upset with how dependent humanity had come to be on them. Meh, I’ve already said how this was stupid so I shant go into it any further.
But another weakness which comes to mind is this: if these “Titans” were so good with programming machines, how is that they let the big brainy AI (aka. Omnius) turn the tables on them? Didn’t they think it would be wise to program it with some safeguards, kind of like Azimov’s Three Laws? Not rocket science, you just make sure you tell the machines they can’t turn on their handlers. Simple! God, two crappy points and its still just the preamble! Moving on…
Next, the main character of Vorian Atreides breaks from his father and the Cymecks in the course of the book, which was a big turning point in the plot. But the reasons are just so… flaccid! After being a loyal and doting son for many decades, he decides to betray his father and his heritage in order to aid free humanity. Why? Because of one conversation with Serena Butler in which she suggests that he check out what his father’s done in his lifetime. Vorian explains that he’s read Agamemnon’s memoirs several times, but Serena recommends he check out Omnius’ own records, the ones which are not subject to distortion and personal bias. So he does, sees the undistorted truth, experiences a crisis for about five seconds, and then makes the decision to defect. Yes, this life-shattering experience, finding out his father is a mass murderer, is not followed by any denial, anger, or shooting of the messenger. He just accepts what he sees and turns his back on everything he’s believed in up until this point because of one conversation. Weak…
Also, the slave rebellion on Earth, the thing that touches off the whole Jihad, had some rather dubious inspiration. For starters, the humans knew of no organized resistance until Erasmus decided to make a bet with Omnius. He believed that humans could be inspired to revolt against their miserable lives if they were just given a glimmer of hope. So he began circulating letters claiming to be from “the resistance” to key people. When Iblis Ginjo got one, he decides to join and starts stockpiling weapons. Oh, and he manages to do this without the machines noticing. So, when the revolt begins, they have his weapons to fight with.
Where to start? For starters, are we really to believe that a coldly rational, superior AI would risk an open rebellion simply because of a BET? How stupid are they? Also, how was Ginjo able to acquire all these weapons without them ever noticing? Erasmus knew who he sent the letters to, did he not think it would be wise to monitor what they did afterwards? Sure, they claim that Ginjo explained his curious imports by saying that he had to requisition added materials to meet his construction quotas and managed to hide the weapons amongst them. Again I’d have to ask, how stupid are these machine masters of theirs?
Ah, but there’s more. Iblis gets further inspiration when he consults a Cogitor (see below) and asks it if a human resistance really exists. It replies that “anything is possible.” Of course, that’s how it answered all his questions, in keeping with the idea that Cogitors are somehow vague, ethereal beings. And yet, Ginjo gets the feeling that this answer was somehow loaded with subtext and implication. Yes, that’s how this part of the story was written. He gets a totally vague answer and assumes it means something truly meaningful, and thats all the inspiration he needs to start running guns and risking his life!
The rebellion is then fully incited when Erasmus – as mentioned earlier – kills Serena’s baby out of jealousy. This is especially hard to believe, and KJA and Brian even tacitly admitted as much in book two. Throughout the book, we are told that Earth is a slave planet where unspeakable horrors take place and the people are too miserable and beaten down to do anything about it. And yet, the death of one child causes billions of people to rise up and risk total obliteration. And they are able to do it because one slave master, motivated by a phony message – which was itself the result of a wager – was able to smuggle tons of weapons past the robot masters. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem like a likely explanation for a game-changing, cataclysmic event!
Finally, the climax of the story comes when the good guys decide that the best way to strike at Omnius is to nuke Earth. Yes, they’ve been debating for generations how to beat the machines… and apparently this is what they’ve come up with. “Really?” I wanted to say. This is how humanity triumphed over the evil machine menace, go nuclear? No startling new technology, no brilliant new strategy? If that’s all it would take, why didn’t they do it before? Well, according to the book, its because the idea seemed immoral to them. One dissenting character even asks, “Are you suggesting we become as bad as Omnius?” “No,” replies Xavier. “I’m suggesting we become WORSE than Omnius!” Wow. That… was… AWFUL!
Oh, it also at this point that they explain the origins of the name Butlerian “jihad”. On the Senate floor, once they have decided to nuke Earth, they openly say that in order to be effective, this must be more than a war. It must be a HOLY WAR. And that’s how the Butlerian Jihad got started! It was NOT the result of long term developments, changes, and forced adaptations. It was a decision made suddenly and deliberately. They just said in the thick of the moment, “Hey, lets call this a jihad! That sounds cool! Okay, jihad it is!” Not to nitpick, but as a historian I can tell you, this shit don’t happen! People don’t suddenly look around and say, “Hey, its the Enlightenment! Hey, its the Renaissance! Hey, its World War One!” These names are applied posthumously, usually by historians who are looking for labels to describe general phenomena.
I know, who the hell cares right? Point is, this more than anything is a clear demonstration of how contrived these stories are. Its as if the authors set out not to tell a story but to explain how everything happened and felt horribly compelled to do so. Remember point #2 of why prequels suck, aka. Sense of Duty? This is what inspired it, people!
What I especially loved about this book (dripping sarcasm implied) was the evil cyborg robots, named Cymecks. There’s an especially Herbertian plot device, a pulp sci-fi concept with a name that combines Cyborg and Mechanized (in case it wasn’t obvious enough already!) Even more fun was the Cogitors (play on the word Cognition), the disembodied brains of acetic thinkers who decided to achieve some measure of immortality by placing their brains in talks so they could live out their days just thinking. Hmmm, evil cyborgs and disembodied brains, where have I heard about these before? Every crappy bit of pulp sci-fi there is, that’s where!
Ah yes, and Serena Butler, the Virgin Mary meet Joan of Arc. As I said, she’s a war leader on the one hand and a holy icon on the other. This might have been a good angle, how she must maintain the illusion of purity (hence, no lovers), but it was squandered by the fact that in the story, she really IS a pure character! Selfless, dedicated and infinitely compassionate, she leads humanity and dies for them without a though for herself. Gag! As for the men who love her – Xavier and Vorian – they are perfect cliches as well. The one is the stalwart, perfect hero who never shies away from self-sacrifice, the other a Han Solo rip-off who’s bad boy charm barely conceals the fact that he too is excessively noble.
Then there’s the slavish robots! We are told well in advance that the whole Jihad was between free humans and thinking machines. And yet, aside from Erasmus, not a single robot thinks for themselves. They are all slaved to Omnius, the big, evil hive mind with a name that seems stolen out of the pages of a sci-fi comic or an episode of Buck Rogers. And if his name is not enough, the concept of a hive-mind who hates mankind and wants to conquer the universe is a similarly bland, overdone cliche that no respectable sci-fi author would touch with a hundred foot pole!
Which brings me to one group of characters I haven’t even mentioned yet – the Sorceresses of Rossak! These women, who boast the ability to conduct electricity, levitate, and have various other “magic” powers, are supposed to be the precursors of the Bene Gesserit. Wow… Okay, first of all, this is a perfect example of shit sci-fi; the kind of stuff you’d expect from Star Wars or an X-Men movie, but not DUNE! Second, last I checked, the Bene Gesserit were never able to shoot electricity from their fingertips or magically levitate! All their powers had to do with mental abilities like prescience and truthsense, which came from the spice. So really, where did these women get all these freakish abilities? In the course of reading this, I seriously expected someone to say “Feel the Force!” Of course, none of this is explained and no attempts are made to ground these characters in any sense of realism. It’s just another bad cliche in a book chock full of them!
Brian and KJA admitted that to create the Legends series, they had to rely on their own imaginations because Frank had not left detailed notes. However, it did not seem like they were relying on their own imaginations nearly as much as a conglomeration of bad ideas taken from B movies, TV shows and comics. Seriously, all these ideas have been done to death! This is not in keeping with Herbert at all, who not only created something original but highly plausible.
All throughout this book and the others in the series, one can’t help but feel that the authors are deliberately and shamelessly exploiting Herbert’s legacy. Its no secret that Frank was a hugely influential author who left behind an enduring legacy and millions of fans. Each and every one of them was eager to see how the Dune saga wrapped up, and couldn’t help but wonder what the events in the story’s deep background were all about. It’s little wonder then why these two paired up and decided to pick up the mantle.
On the surface, that might have seemed like a noble and brave thing to do. However, the calculated way in which they went about it clearly demonstrated there were ulterior motives at work. To begin, they didn’t tackle the Dune 7 project first, the one that they claimed Herbert had left “copious notes” for. Instead, they returned us to the universe and the characters we were already familiar with with some teaser prequels. They then moved on to the earlier prequels, books that did not wrap up the series but covered the deep background instead. Here again, it seemed like we were being toyed with! Only then, after all those prequels, did they finally decided to tackle the conclusion, and they even managed to draw THAT one out by putting it into two volumes instead of one. As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s those terrible interquels that have “cash-in again” written all over them. I tell ya, it never ends!
In short, it was obvious what they were doing. Getting audiences hooked with some quick and easy books that took place right before events in the main novel, then pulling them in deeper with some stories that went further back, and only then doing what they promised which was finishing the damn saga off! And when that finally came, it was a horribly transparent ending that had nothing in common with Herbert’s work but tied shamelessly back to their own so-called contributions. As much as I disliked these books, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these men, especially Brian. He above all set out to take on his father’s legacy, but somewhere along the line he took a wrong turn and ended up in cash-in junction where legions of his fathers loyal fans were waiting and demanding their money back!
5. Prequel Complex:
To finish, I’d like to refer back to rule one in why prequels suck. In short, these books really didn’t contain anything new. Just about every reference to places was meant to refer back to something in the original story, every characters was meant to tie to someone in the original text, and every development was meant to forecast how the universe we were familiar with came to be. It all felt forced, contrived, and quite unnatural. For one, things don’t get created all in one lifetime, as all the inventions and schools which exist in the original Dune universe were in this series.
Literally everything, from the Mentats, Guild, Foldspace technology, spice harvesting, the Fremen, the Ginaz swordmasters, the Tleilaxu, the Bene Gesserit, etc, were created within the pages of this series and then went on to exist (virtually unchanged) for ten thousand years! All I wanted to say in the course of reading this was, “that’s not how things happen!” Things are not created in one instant and then endure for ten thousand years, they develop gradually and change over time. Forecasting how things came to be is one thing, but completely explaining them just deepens the sense of duty and contrivance from which prequels suffer. Again, rule two man! RULE TWO!
6. Wrongness of the Whole Thing!:
Added to this was the undeniable feeling that they got it all wrong. In Herbert’s original stories, references to the Butlerian Jihad were few and far between. But when it did come up, Herbert clearly indicated that the rebellion was driven by people who’s lives were becoming dominated by machines and a machine mentality. By that, one gets the impression that the jihad was not a war in the literal sense but a moral crusade to rid the universe of something that was increasingly seen as immoral. In accordance, the “enslavement” of humanity seemed metaphorical, that it was really just a sense of dependency that the jihadis were fighting.
At no point was it even hinted at that the jihad was a war between evil machines and free humans, or that humans won it by nuking every thinking machine out of existence. But that was clearly Brian and KJA’s interpretation – that the “enslavement” of humans by machines was meant literally and the war was some super-righteous titanic struggle. Clearly, subtlety means nothing to these two, either that or they just didn’t see the cash value in telling a story that boasted a little irony and nuance. Instead, they opted for a cliched story of good vs. evil with a rah rah ending that would make even Michael Bay’s eyes roll.
Such an ending did not seem at all in keeping with Herbert’s legacy, that of realistic and hard sci-fi. It was much more in keeping with the work of KJA, a man who is famous for writing fan-fiction and pulp sci-fi, a man whose won only one award for his writing and it was for kid lit (A Golden Duck!). So really, putting the name Dune on this book was more of a legality or formality than anything else. In the end, its not a Herbert tale, its a KJA tale with the name Herbert attached. And as I’ve said many times before in reference to Dune, raping the legacy of a great and venerated man for the sake of your own fame or financial gain isn’t cool!
Okay, think I definitely said enough about that book. I mean, how many ways can you possibly say a story is crap? I found six but I can still think of material that’s just looking for a proper category to plug it into. Suffice it to say, the story was bad and I strongly recommend that fans of Herbert stay away from it at all costs. Those who haven’t need to be warned, and those who have already, let me just say that I feel your pain! And speaking of pain, I shall be back with volume two in this terrible saga, The Machine Crusade. Wish me luck…