Thursday, September 25, 2014

Oregon's science fiction landscape

During the mid-1950s a journalist named Frank Herbert flew to Florence, Oregon to conduct research for an article. His subject: the use of poverty grasses to control the drifting migration of sand dunes.

By the time he left Florence Herbert had developed a fascination with ecological engineering. An interest that would drive him to write one of the all time best-selling novels in science fiction.

I finally got around to reading the first three follow-on Dune novels this summer: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune. They're good. Very good, even though they lack the depth of Dune itself.

Each mostly follows a conspiracy to its ruin or fulfillment over the course of weeks or a few months. Nothing as epic as the semi-mystical enlightenment, vast sweep of planetary engineering, and years-long dynastic conflicts that made the first novel such an experience. And nowhere near the level of intense character development that accompanied the rise of the Fremen messiah, Paul Mau'dib. Revisiting this series, I immediately saw why I had such a hard time finishing the relatively terse and dry Dune Messiah as a twenty-something

That said, the follow-on books pull off a mind-bending exploration of post-human entities writen decades before post-humanism became a staple of the genre. A journey-look that kept me fully engaged this time around, a few years down the road.

By the mid-1960s Herbert was well along in exploring the headspace of humans who sense and conceptualize the world in ways not accessible to most of their family members, let alone the masses they rule as semi-divine sovereigns -- or as an apex predator in the case of Leto. At the same time, these are characters who remain anchored in the human world, even though it's a cultural and biological space in which Paul, Alia, Ghanima, and Leto II experience enormous difficulty making their intentions understood.

These ruling Atreidies are products of genetic augmentation through a centuries-long breeding program. Though environmental factors including the spice melange and their upbringing as nobility play a role in the expression and mastery of their powers.

On the often lethal stage of intrigue and war they mostly contend with other orders of enhanced human intelligence. The Bene Gesserit remain powerful actors on the extreme edges of human potential thanks to their refined training regime with its synergies of mind and body. The Guildsmen, enhanced by both specialization mutations and constant spice ingestion, share something of the Atreidies' prescient abilities as well as the dangers that go hand-in-glove with oracular powers. However, they experience nothing of the complex internal communal lives that the pre-born twins and Alia struggle to master. At the same time the trained superhuman empathy of the Facedancers makes the Teliaxians more dangerous to the other factions than even their shape shifting or advanced biotechnology. The only rivals to all of these enhanced or post-humans are technologists who are largely kept off screen and bounded by legalistic restrictions during the first four books.

It's this tense ecology of trans-, post-, and training-enhanced human intelligences that helps make the Dune universe such an exotic and high-concept place.

The three follow-on novels are very much worth your time if you're interested in byzantine politics, the viewpoints of post-humans living among humans, or just seeing what becomes of the Atreidies dynasty over the course of three thousand years. The biggest letdown, for me, is that the elite female adepts of the great schools and the post-human women of the Atreidies all end up foils for their male counterparts.

The novels are most definitely products of their time in that they ascribe several character traits and viewpoints to inherent differences between the sexes.

There are, in fact, some consistent differences between the sexes that we've zeroed in on over the fifty years since Dune was published. However, these are almost all subtle, exist largely on the borders of statistical significance, are often counter-intuitive. They're also best understood within an even larger spectrum of biology and culture that doesn't match up with the cultural assumptions that underlay the system of superhuman powers and military structure in the Dune novels. In God Emperor, Herbert's exploration of the differences between men and women in military environments is driven far more by Freudian psychology than historical militaries or anything found in biology.

All of that said, Frank Herbert was still a pioneer in the sheer amount of screen time and internal narration that he gives female characters. These books are, after all, 1960s and 70s science fiction novels. At that time women were often embodied ideals as seen by men in the pages of the genre, rather than actual characters whose perspective we get to inhabit. Herbert was well ahead of nearly all his peers in climbing that particular curve.

Even at a time when we've gone from seeing human nature as discrete poles to a spectrum with distributed probabilities, these novels are still well worth picking up. Largely because they offer a no-holds-barred glimpse of humanity as it might become, rather than what it was once thought to be.

No comments: