Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Sky People By SM Stirling

 The Sky People

By SM Stirling

I talked about Mr. Stirling's background in my review of the Peshawar Lancers so I won't rechew that soup. The Sky People was published in 2007, by Tor books. The Sky People is a combination of several genres and it's one of the reasons I really enjoy it. In this case, it's a combination of alternate history and planetary romance. I believe I've discussed both these genres before but let us do a quick overview. Alternate History is an examination of changed history, Man in the High Castle being a recent popular example. Now in most works, the rule is to change one thing and see what the effects would be but this can be difficult. For example, if the change I made was thousands of years ago, who can say what those effects would be in full? 

 Planetary Romance is an older genre and is basically a person who goes to an alien world and has adventures there. The how and why of getting that person to an alien world is generally regarded as unimportant, they can fly there on a spaceship, be teleported via experiment, or even summoned like magic. Traditionally the world in question is not a high-tech world but an exotic place with a mixture of technologies in play or is even a high fantasy setting in space. This is, unfortunately, a much-ignored genre these days but maybe someday we can see a comeback. The important part is our main character is from someplace else having adventures in a world strange to both the character and the reader. 

Our main character, in this case, is Marc Vitrac, a Bayou-born Cajun swamp rat who has done good. How good? He's beat out millions of candidates to qualify as a member of the colonial/research team for Venus. As one of the operatives of Jamestown - the US-Commonwealth joint station - in the year of our lord 1980 AD, his job is to gather information on the indigenous life forms of Venus, both past and present, and try to map out the evolution of life on a whole new planet. He also has to manage relationships with the natives, who range from stone age nomads to bronze age city dwellers. He's good at his job too, which is a good thing since life on Venus is driving the paleontologist and biologist of the Jamestown team slowly mad. Let me explain that a bit. 

Since the 1960s when the first Soviet probes landed on Venus (RIP USSR), life on Venus has been shockingly Earth-like (What?). Various literal dinosaur species are ranging across the hot, wet world (Well it is hot…).  On top of that, there are various mammalian species that show a close relationship with earth species, like the Tharg who aren't bovinoid but flat out bovine, or the natives who are homo sapiens as far as anyone can tell (No!  No!  This is not okay! {Merry Christmas buddy!}). The only real difference is that the natives have a slightly better sense of smell but that might be due to the difference in atmospheric pressure increasing their reliance on their nose because they can't depend on their eyes and ears as much. The fossil record doesn't just mirror Earth, it's full of fossils that might as well as be from Earth (Okay, what the fuck is going on here?  Did someone terraform Venus? {Read the book!})

These revelations, as well as the 1960 probes showing Venus and Mars, were life-bearing planets have radically changed a lot of things on Earth. Both the USSR and the USA worked together to tamp down any sparks of the Cold War. Because why fight over patches of dirt on one planet when there might be an entire galaxy out there? (Except that the Cold War was never actually about patches of dirt, but rather ideological hegemony. {Which can be expressed in a variety of different ways, in this case by competing to prove which system was superior at reaching out to the solar system and using the knowledge gained in that reaching} ) As a result, the middle east is a sleepy backwater with Jerusalem patrolled by an international peacekeeping force. Vietnam never happened and the Soviets aren't sending troops into Afghanistan (This is a much better world. {Of that, we can agree}). In 1980, NATO is a dead letter with Western Europe split off to form the European Union, which struggles to compete with the two superpowers. The Sino-Soviet Split never happened and the Common Wealth of Nations, the Organization of American States and the US are all slowly merging into a single organization to better share scientific and material resources for the space race. So increasingly the Warsaw Pact+the PRC and the US+OAS+Commonwealth nations competing, peacefully, for influence and turf in a solar system with three life-bearing worlds. 

However, even with vast sums and manpower being funneled into the space race, the actual shipping of people and materials is incredibly expensive (This also undercuts the notion of the Cold War being suspended {I didn’t say it was suspended, it was shifted to space, there’s a difference}). So every person who ends up on Mars and Venus is in the top 1% when it comes to intelligence and physical ability or as close as you come balancing the two. Everyone there is the result of a brutal selection and training process designed to send our best to other worlds. In this regard Marc, while not a scientist, is clearly an educated man who understands more than the regular swamp rat and has been trained to at least be able to serve as a competent lab assistant in research, while also being able to survive for days at a time out in the bush with minimal equipment and his wits. He doesn't even have to worry about the Soviets since their base, called Cosmosgrad is hundreds of miles away, although it would be nice if they would share their information on native life (If we are still in a paradigm of great power competition, why would they? {Because hoarding scientific knowledge has never worked out well?  It certain never works out well when we try to.} Are they not sharing unilaterally? {the scientific knowledge the American-Commonwealth missions find are made public, the implication is that USSR does not do so})

When an East Block space ship goes down in a crash in an unexplored part of Venus, it's a catastrophic loss for everyone. Marc, Chris, and Cynthia are selected as part of the crew of the lighter-than-air ship sent out to search for survivors, with Cosmosgrad sending over one of their own, with the wife of one of the ship's crew members, to aid in the search. However, they'll have to deal with the storms of Venus, the wildlife, and native politics to achieve their goal, and worse... What if the surviving crew of the ship no longer wish to be rescued? Or what if they've been suborned by something else? Something old, cold and advanced beyond the wildest dreams of humanity? (You mean like what very clearly terraformed Venus?) Something that may not be happy to see Terrains mucking about on Venusian clay and be willing to do all sorts of things to correct this deviation from the plan? 

So right off the bat, I think Marc is a great character. The only way to make him better would be to make him an outright anthropologist or have him be a Marine instead of an Army Ranger (I feel like this is wish fulfillment on your part.{nonsense I am clearly objective in everyway}). He even tames a Great Wolf, a sort of ramped-up Dire Wolf to serve as his loyal henchdog, and frankly does a better job than any of the Starks. Taming the native wildlife is another staple of Planetary Romance and I was honestly pleased with how well done it was. His Cajun background gives him a different viewpoint than a character from say New York City would have. Honestly, science fiction could stand to have more characters from groups like the Cajuns or the Creole ethnic groups. Now some folks may find the inclusion of Cajun-style French distracting but Stirling keeps it limited to easily figured out phrases and words. Not entire conversations like some writers I know (Oh hi Mark!  Yes, dear readers, in my own writing I will do sections in German, Yiddish, and sometimes even Russian, with contextual translation.  But then again, I am insane.). I will say that if you hate Marc, however, this book is not going to be for you because Marc is the viewpoint character for at least 85% of the book, with most of the rest of the book given over to a character I'm not going to discuss to avoid spoilers. I will say those of you who have read the books should feel free to discuss them. 

I also liked how, despite there being a love triangle (Because of course there is.), everyone manages to be a professional and an adult. I can put up with a certain amount of romantic mucking about but when it turns into self-destructive melodrama it makes my teeth hurt. Stirling clearly feels that people who have gone through a training regime designed to instill self-discipline and control should be able to deal with such things better than your average high schooler and I am incredibly thankful for that. There are of course other romantic entanglements in the story, this is in the tradition of Burroughs after all, but I'm not going to discuss them to avoid spoilers. 

I really like the supporting characters as well.  Stirling can give us an array of interesting characters from other viewpoints and backgrounds. The plot is fairly straightforward, but that's not a bad thing and sets up a fun and engaging adventure of survival in the wilderness against forces unknown and hazardous. Stirling does take his time to set up the main plot but the 100 pages he spends before that aren't wasted, giving us a look at the bronze age city-state that is the most advanced civilization on Venus and that the US-Commonwealth mission has shared things such as medical advancements, farming knowledge and is starting with much debate to share iron working with. He also gives us a full view of the Venusian wildlife which is pretty awesome. My view is that it's a shame there are only two books in this series but according to what Stirling has said on the website, that's entirely due to popular demand. The only real issue I have is that at the end of the book there are hints at this massive adventure that Marc had that we'll never get to see due to the book being under 300 pages. I could have lived with another 100 or 120 pages of the book devoted to that. Still, I encourage you to check out this book as the Sky People by SM Stirling gets an A-. 

    I hope you enjoyed this week's review, if you'd like a voice on upcoming reviews or to discuss current one consider joining us at where the polls for January and February's reviews are already up!  Next week we return to Daniel Gibs Echoes of War Universe with the second book in his series Strong and Courageous.  Until then, stay safe and keep reading! 

red text are remarks by your editor Dr. Ben Allen

black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders

Friday, November 26, 2021

Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert

Frank Patrick Herbert Jr was born on October 8, 1920, in Tacoma, Washington. His paternal grandparents had come west to live as part of a utopian community called Burley Colony. It was one of the many experimental communities that had sprung up across the United States in the late 1800s and started out championing ideas like gender equality and some socialist ideas (A note: utopian socialism, as opposed to scientific socialism, does not work and intentional communities like this tend to either revert to the capitalist commodity form of social production, or they collapse into toxicity.). For example, everyone was issued an equal salary, mostly in script printed by the Burley Colony. By the time of Frank's birth, much of the socialist element had been abandoned. His grandparents ran a general store for the community while his father pursued a variety of jobs to earn money for the family, among them running a speakeasy in the 1930s (Likely contributing to what happens later…{spoilers!}). Mr. Herbert's father was agnostic but his Mother and Aunts were devoted Catholic and they insisted that Frank be educated in a Jesuit school. 

Mr. Herbert was an intelligent child and declared at the age of eight that he was going to be a writer. He was often noted as carrying a boy scout's bookbag full of books of a wide variety of subjects and the other kids at school often deferred to his knowledge. According to Mr. Herbert, much of his childhood outside of school was full of camping, fishing, and digging for clams. Unfortunately, his teen years were also filled with having to care for his little sister Patty Lou who was born when he was 13. At this point, his parents had turned to binge drinking. I can't help but think this impacted his schooling, as his high school career is noted as “checkered” with several failed classes. I gotta point out that if he's caring for an infant at home and likely as not dodging drunk parents, it's no wonder that his classwork was faltering (Folks, don’t do this to your kids. {I almost feel like binge drinking is worse than normal drinking because it’s inconsistent, which means your kids don’t have a normal to work around.  They have days where you’re a good parent and trustworthy and then there are days when you’re a drunken mess and there’s no telling what you’re gonna be on any given day.})

Mr. Herbert threw himself into journalist work, first working for the school paper and then dropping out of high school in his senior year to work for the Tacoma Ledger for about 4 or 5 months. He did return and graduate later that year and even sold his first story, a Western that netted him $27.50 (Which is $539.45 in today’s money, factor in purchasing power, and that ain’t bad.). He also wrote two dozen stories that were flatly rejected. He used the money to bundle up the now 5-year-old Patty Lou and buy bus tickets to flee to an Aunt and Uncle's place (Good kid.  But for the love of God, people, don’t do this to your kids.). From what I can tell, he didn't regard his parents as capable of caring for her and couldn't bear to stay any longer. Patty Lou seems to have been raised by that Aunt and Uncle from that point because she fades out of the narrative of Mr. Herbert's life. As for Mr. Herbert, having seen to his little sister's safety, he promptly headed south to California to seek his own path. 

He was highly mobile in 1939 and 1940 working for both the Glendale Star and Oregon Statesmen in a variety of positions. It's during this time he met his first wife, Flora Parkinson, information about her is somewhat sparse but they were married in the spring of 1941, in Tacoma by a Night Judge. In February of 1942, his first child and only daughter Penelope was born, in July he was drafted into the Navy and served as a photographer stationed in Virginia. Flora elected to stay in California with her family. Mr. Herber would serve for six months until a head injury from an accident resulted in him getting discharged in 1943. He headed back to California only to find Flora had disappeared and taken their daughter with her and her family refused to tell him anything about where she was or why. They divorced with Flora being awarded custody of their daughter (Dear God, that sucks.{My frustration is a complete lack of anything on her reasoning or motivations so I’m gonna avoid commenting on what to me looks like a case of parental kidnapping}).

For the rest of World War II, Mr. Herbert worked in Portland for the Oregon Journal. In 1945 he found a job working for the night desk of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and sold his second story to Espire for $200. He spent his days attending the University of Washington on the GI Bill. He wouldn't last long because he refused to do things like announcing a major or attend introductory classes wanting to only study classes that immediately interested him (Oops, that isn’t a good idea. {Mr. Herbert did seem to have a problem with doing anything step by step or following rules}). It was in a creative writing class that he met his wife of 37 years and the mother of both of his sons, Beverley Stuart Forbes. Both of them were the only ones in the class who had sold fiction, as Beverley sold a romance story and had her own literary dreams. Mr. Herbert dropped out of college and married Beverley in 1946, their first son Brian, was born in 1947. Beverley would be a major factor in Frank's success, not only as a sounding board but she provided feedback and often pushed Frank to write more realistic female characters. Mr. Herbert flat out said that Lady Jessica was in many ways modeled on his wife, as an intelligent, driven woman (This is something I struggle with in my own writing, it’s a perspective I lack.  Which isn’t to say I don’t try, because I do.  But it’s hard.  So good on him for putting in the effort!)

While Mr. Herbert was always able to find newspaper work, financial difficulties haunted the couple. An attempt to build a house collapsed and the bank repossessed the half-built structure. Meanwhile, Mr. Herbert's first wife reappeared demanding child support (She sounds like a lovely person.  Granted the kid deserves support, but Jesus Christ.). In 1949 while working for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat they became close friends with Irene and Ralph Slatternly, who were both Jungian psychologists. It's here that Mr. Herbert developed an interest in ESP, genetic memory, and the idea of a collective unconsciousness. These are ideas that would show up constantly in his work (God, do they!). Mr. Herbert also met Alan Watts, who introduced him to Zen Buddhism. Mr. Herbert also began growing out his beard as his second son Bruce was born in 1951. In 1952, he sold his first science fiction story and creditors began to haunt his steps again. So when his friend and mentor, science fiction Legend Jack Vance invited Mr. Herbert to bring the family on an extended vacation to Mexico, it seemed like a good idea (I mean, fuck creditors!  Fucking parasites! {On the flip side Herbert had borrowed money and promised to pay it back})

It's in Mexico that Mr. Herbert first experimented with things such as hashish cookies and morning glory tea (Oh My! {He says the first time was an accident}). In 1954, Mr. Herbert was hired as a speechwriter for Senator Guy Cordon. This led to him spending time in Washington D.C and learning about the federal government. He even meet Senator Joe McCarthy at a party and had a front seat to the red panic (What is really funny to me is that there actually were communist spies all over the US, but the US was too incompetent to catch them, in the main.  Instead, it persecuted people who were either not communists, or who were openly communists and thus not useful as spies.  Meanwhile, during this period, the Cambridge Five were operating in the UK.). This would directly help inspire his first novel, set on a US sub in the future stealing oil from nations that they were locked into a war with. The story focused more on the paranoia of the crew as they realize one of them is likely a spy.  It was praised as a great examination of closed societies.  This book also marks where he started the process of dealing with writer's block by taking psychoactive drugs, in this case, peyote. He wrote it first as a serial series that he sold to Astonishing Science Fiction Magazine under the title Under Pressure and later rewrote it as the novel Dragon of the Sea, selling it to Doubleday. It was here that Barbara decided to abandon her own writing attempts in the mystery genre and got a day job to support the family writing fundraising copy for Tacoma's Mary Bridge Children's Hospital. 

According to Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert was at best a flawed father figure (He was a shitty father.  More on that later.). Mr. Herbert believed in corporal punishment (Which is child abuse.{Sure, but it was common to the point of being culturally expected.  On this one point, I’m not going to condemn him for doing what his culture told him was good parenting.  It’s not like he had great role models growing up}) and often subjected his sons to sessions with a lie detector (Wtf? {There are parents who pay to have that done to their kids today, it's still fucked up though}). He was also manic in preserving his isolation during writing time, even going so far as to lock the boys out of the house if their mother wasn't home (Yeah, um… that is really shitty parenting.  And suddenly, Brian not giving a shit about his father’s artistic vision for the Dune universe makes more sense. {Then Brian should have written his own damn universe.  This also wasn’t uncommon. I’m not saying it's okay but when everyone you trust tells you that this is what you should do...}). I'm not going to defend this behavior as today it would result in your kids being taken away from you and frankly, that may be to their benefit if you're treating them that way. My issues with the American foster system aside. I will note that bluntly from what I've seen and found that Mr. Herbert parenting wouldn't have stood out that much in the 1960s as corporal punishment was fairly common even decades later and even today parents are often eager to do things like stick their kids in a lie detector which seems overboard to me at best, and massively invasive and an abuse of authority at worse. 

While Dragon of the Sea sold well enough, the couple didn't use any of the money to settle their debts. So when the IRS came knocking they took another trip to Mexico so Frank could try to write a second novel, this didn't work. So in 1956, Mr. Herbert took another day job working for a Republican candidate who lost his race, but he learned about a project being done by the Department of Agriculture up in Florence Oregon. Where they were using poverty grasses like European Sea Grass to anchor the dunes. That had started engulfing entire towns and highways in sand at this point. Enthralled, Frank headed up to take a look. He started a magazine article he never finished and at some point became inspired to write a novel. To support his research efforts while Beverley was working as an ad copywriter, he would work for another Congressional candidate who lost the election 70 to 30%. (It seems his politics were as shitty as his parenting.  We’ll get there, I promise.)

At this point, Beverley was the main breadwinner of the family and when she was offered a job in San Francisco as an advertising manager, the family moved there and Mr. Herbert got a job with a local paper. At this point, Mr. Herbert was able to win custody of his daughter and was able to socialize with local science fiction writers. It was also here that he finally finished the novel that would cement him into history; he released Dune first as a serial series and then rewrote it as a novel and began shopping it around. It was rejected 23 times, with editors largely liking the work but believing it would never sell. One rejection letter even read “I feel I'm making a mistake but...” 

Dune becoming successful, especially after Ace Books bought the paperback, started a whole new chapter in Mr. Herbert's life. One that largely resolved his financial problems. His daughter Penelope married and moved out, and so did his oldest son Brian. Apollo Astronauts named a crater on the moon Dune in his honor and the sequels were well received. This is also where Mr. Herbert's relationship with his youngest son began to break down. By 1969 when Dune Messiah was published 

Bruce and Frank Herbert grew estranged over the fact that Bruce Herbert was openly gay (Good for Bruce!). Bruce Herbert not only was openly gay but deeply involved in queer theater in San Francisco and became an activist for gay rights. Although Mr. Herbert never formally disowned his son, he would openly state repeatedly that he believed that Bruce was making a choice to be gay and that was unwelcome in his home. I'm not going to defend this behavior, while I try to be neutral when writing about authors, this was flat-out bigoted behavior. Sadly from everything, I could find Mr. Herbert never grew out of it and would even try to talk Bruce out of visiting his mother when she was dying, which is honestly disgusting behavior but we'll get there. (I have absolutely no such qualms about neutrality. {I don’t think I’m being neutral when I call the man a bigot}  Fuck Frank Herbert.  I don’t ‘judge people by the times they live in’ as a means of excusing this sort of shit, unless it was literally the sort of thing that was an outside context problem at the time.  Stonewall had happened.  His son was gay and fighting for his rights as a human being.  It was Frank’s duty as a person and as a parent to stand up for his son, and of all his miserable failures as a parent, in this, he manifestly failed.  He is a contemptible man, and human being, no matter what we might say about the quality of his writing. That he tried to restrict Bruce’s contact with his dying mother only cements this.).

The 1970s were something of a heyday for the Herberts. They were able to buy a home which they set about making it as environmentally sustainable as possible with 1970s technology. This included a chicken house heated via methane from the birds dropping and a solar heated pool. Mr. Herbert started teaching courses on writing dystopian and utopian fiction at the University of Washington and wrote a number of non-Dune novels. He also emerged as an early champion of environmentalism and ecological thinking. Often arguing that humanity needed to curb its addiction to fossil fuels. In the 1970s!  Basically, he was calling for renewables and other actions before it was cool.  In 1976 Children of Dune was a break-out hit, Mr. Herbert toured 21 cities in 31 days on a book tour and then the book Dune was optioned for a movie. The beginning of the end came in 1980 when Beverley was diagnosed with lung cancer. They moved to Hawaii because they were told the warmer climate would help her. This was funded in part by money from Hollywood.  Mr. Herbert was hired as a consultant for the attempts to film his book and in part by the wild success of God Emperor of Dune. As a result, Mr. Herbert was handed what was at the time a massive advance on a 5th book. 

Mr. Herbert would split his time mostly between writing books and caring for his wife, becoming in effect her primary nurse. While he welcomed his eldest son and his daughter, he attempted to talk his son Bruce out of coming. He would never apologize or mend his relationship with Bruce (Fuck him, right in the ear.). She passed away in 1984. Frank would believe until his dying day that she would speak to him in his dreams. This became a major factor in his third and final marriage to the much younger Theresa Shackleford, who was a literary agent for Putnam books. Her job was mainly to take care of authors visiting Los Angles for book signings, it was on the job that she met Mr. Herbert in 1985, who would say later that when he was leaving L.A, Beverley appeared to him and told him to marry Theresa. They were married in 1985. Theresa would say later that Mr. Herbert was the most brilliant man she ever knew and despite that, he never made her feel stupid or inept but would always listen to her and was wonderful to talk to. Mr. Herbert would pass away in 1986 from pulmonary embolism.  He had just finished Chapterhouse Dune, the title having been chosen by Beverley before she passed away. 

Bruce Herbert continued his activism and worked in electronics, however, he contracted AIDS and passed away in 1993, his brother Brian was there with him (Good, he was better than most.  A lot of AIDS patients - gay or not - died without their families, given comfort only by their fellow LGBTQ people, many of whom were also dying.  Their governments literally laughed at them and used AIDS to kill millions in a genocide by neglect.) Brian continued his father's work as he was offered 3 million dollars to keep writing with Kevin J Anderson and finish the Dune series. Much like Philip K Dick, the best I can say is Frank Herbert is a deeply flawed man who rose from flawed beginnings. I suppose Mr. Herbert would point out this is one reason why you should beware of idolizing anyone too much and placing too much trust in the idea of heroic or charismatic leaders. Because just like him, they're at best human beings and therefore made up of good and bad. That doesn't excuse his flaws but it also doesn't bury his virtues. I leave it to you my readers to make your final judgments. 

I'm going to be honest, I wasn't expecting this overview of Frank Herbert's life to be so... Contentious?  Anyways, even if you didn't enjoy it, I hope it was educational.  Next week we'll be reviewing an SM Stirling novel, The Sky People.  If you would like a voice in upcoming reviews (polls for January and February are up!) consider joining us at for as little as a dollar a month.  

Friday, November 19, 2021

Dune By Frank Herbert


By Frank Herbert

It's 1958 in Florence Oregon the department of agriculture is trying to anchor moving sand dunes using poverty grasses. A journalist starts an article about this project that he will never finish. Instead, his studies will merge with his view of feudalism as humanity's natural state (What the actual fuck? {It’s a popular position}), his interest in superheroes and messiahs, and his observation that the desert is the home of several religions with messianic overtones. Although I would argue with him that Christianity is actually a child of the desert's edge at best. Added into this churning sea was experimentation with psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic produced by a variety of mushrooms, which Herbert made a hobby of cultivating (I am completely non-shocked by this)

What emerged after five years of research and writing was Dune. A novel that has been compared to the Lord of the Rings in its scope and influence. Much like Lord of the Rings, it has had a powerful impact on its genre and on popular culture outside of it, with music, comics, and other entertainments being directly or indirectly inspired by it. Dune is also infamous for the rocky road it traveled to be published and that difficulty seems to plague every attempt to adapt it. Let's take a look, shall we? 

Dune was first published as a serial in Analog magazine, Part I of the novel was released in three parts under the title Dune World from December 1963 to February 1964. Parts II and III were released in five parts under the title Prophet of Dune from January to May of 1965. The serial version was well received so Mr. Herbert collected them, expanded and cleaned them up, and began shopping around for a publisher for Dune as a stand-alone novel. Over twenty publishers turned him down, not because they thought the novel was bad, but because they thought it was too different and too weird for wider audiences to accept. It wasn't a Buck Rogers style, two-fisted, ray gun tale so, popular wisdom argued that science fiction audiences would reject it (It was, after all, the Fabled Age of Chrome!)

However, a fellow writer turned editor named Sterling Lanier believed in the story and pitched it to his bosses over at Chilton Company, a publishing company known for primarily printing do-it-yourself auto repair manuals. They started publishing in August 1965, the first run of Dune was priced at almost $6 which in today's dollars is about $49. Needless to say, at first it didn't sell well and critics hated it... Because it wasn't a Buck Rogers style story with ray guns and robots among other things. They complained about the pace, the density and sheer alienness of the societies presented. Lanier was fired but went on with his writing and also became a fairly acclaimed sculptor, so he would get the last laugh on his bosses in several ways here. 

Meanwhile, Dune slowly built up its popularity through word of mouth. A process that modern folks would find agonizingly slow compared to today. Remember there's no internet, no cell phones, if your buddy lives in another city you have to sit down and write him a postal letter and wait weeks for a response. The word did spread, as copies were passed around and more and more people read the book, bought their own copies, turning Dune into a success. In 1966 it won the Hugo, tying with Roger Zelazny's and winning the first Nebula award for best novel. It eventually won over defenders, such as Arthur C Clark and Robert Heinlein. Today it's been translated into over a dozen languages and sold millions of copies and will likely sell millions more. Much like the Fremen who occupy the center of the narrative, Dune endured and outlasted its critics and then burst out into the science fiction landscape in a riotous assault. 

We've done it before but let's go over the background one more time. Humanity is united in a single empire under the Padishah Emperor (Shaddam IV, at this point.  What gets me is how vast and far-flung this empire is, and I’ll get to why momentarily). His authority is not absolute.  He must contend with the Great Noble Houses of the Landsraad, the Spacing Guild, and various other organizations like the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. The Great Houses directly control the planets of the Empire. Now the Emperor does have his own planets.  Including the planet where he raises his dread Sardaukar troops but the Great Houses united could drown them in bodies. That requires them to be united however and the Great Houses are riven with feuds and petty politics (This is what gets me.   The Sardaukar are produced on one planet, and the empire is absolutely vast, with various houses controlling one or more other entire planets.  It shouldn’t necessarily take all the houses to swamp the emperor in bodies, even with his terror troops, because there’s only so terrifyingly badass one guy can be.  I don’t know, it just seems to me that Herbert didn’t consider the problem of scale.{Sure you don’t need everyone, but if a bunch of houses decide to side with the Emperor, so you need a big enough faction to convince at least most of the others to sit this one out or the outright support of the spacing guild to let you defeat everyone in detail.}). In addition, space travel is controlled by the Guild who have created a monopoly on FTL travel. So to overthrow the Emperor you need to unify a bunch of petty aristocrats and gain the approval of a corporate monopoly. Or do you? 

The empire also depends on the spice Melange, which is only found on the planet Arrakis aka Dune. Spice enables the Guild to safely travel by folding space. Spice enhances human mental and physical capabilities and even extends life. Without spice, the civilization of the Empire collapses and traps the majority of humanity into single system isolation. Dune is a desert planet, dominated by giant sandworms that devour anything in their path. Most of humanity lives in the northern hemisphere behind a ring of mountains called the shield wall. So says conventional wisdom anyways, out in the desert the Fremen, the natives of Dune live in hidden communities and resist all outside authority. Considering that outside authority is the House Harkonnen, a Great House known for its brutality, it's easy to see why they resist (It is easy to see why any indigenous people resist imperialism in any form, but the Harkonnen are like… Belgians in the Congo level bad.). Change however is in the air, as the Emperor has taken Arrakis away from the Harkonnens and given it a new house, House Atreides, and thus onto Dune comes hither Paul Atreides the central character of our narrative. 

Paul is an interesting character. He is both the product of thousands of years of controlled breeding by the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of talented women who seek to create a superhuman they call the kwisatz haderach, and an utter accident. Because Paul, according to the Bene Gesserit plan isn't supposed to exist, his mother was only supposed to give birth to daughters to marry the Harkonnen heir. Frankly, given what they planned to do to that hypothetical girl, I don't blame Jessica for having a boy instead (I don’t blame her either. And unifying the two houses with Feyd-Rauthe at the head?  Yeeesh.). That said Paul has powers beyond what anyone was expecting and has been raised outside of anyone's control while being trained by both his father's instructors and his mother Jessica (Trained as both a Male Bene Gesserit, and a Mentat, which is utterly terrifying even before the special sauce.). Once exposed to a massive amount of spice, he develops the ability to see into possible futures (Strictly speaking, he had limited prescient vision before that.).  This paired with his own education of Bene Gesserit and Atreides martial arts and political skills turns him into an impossibly charismatic and skilled leader and fighter. Which makes him dangerous to everyone. 

The first part of our novel is how House Atreides comes to Dune, is betrayed from within, and is overthrown and scattered by the combined Imperial and Harkonnen forces. It is a tragic story of good people being betrayed and mistakes made for the noblest ends. However, the well-intentioned House Atreides falls and savage Harkonnen stands triumphant. At this point, Paul and his mother are forced to flee to the Freman and fight for a place in their harsh but collectively supportive society. Paul learns of the secrets of the Freman and their secret goal to create a planet that has both greenery and desert and he works to co-opt that goal with his own goal of revenge on everyone who either helped with the destruction of his family or refused to act to prevent it(In the process, he does legitimately go native.). To this end, he and his mother train the Fremen in the Bene Gesserit martial arts and create a truly terrifying military machine. More importantly, Paul figures out how to utterly destroy all the spice on Dune. Because in his estimation it's only the person who can destroy a thing that can truly control it. 

That's only one of the conflicts driving the story, there's also Bene Gesserit's desperate attempts to save their breeding program, Jessica's attempt to keep Paul from diving into the abyss and the biggest driving conflict is Paul versus history. Because while Paul wants revenge and to topple the throne of the Known Universe, he seeks to do so in a relatively contained way. His visions increasingly show him that once you unleash violence like this, it can't be contained. He is constantly plagued with visions of a Galactic Jihad in his name, of Freman in their millions seizing control of FTL and using it to storm world after world waving the Green Banner of House Atreides as a sign of his divinity. Paul's struggle in this novel is to prevent the Jihad while achieving the throne, but his failure is in the fact that the throne and the Jihad are inseparably linked. Paul could have stopped the Jihad by giving up the throne and deciding that there was a limit to revenge but he couldn't do that. In the end, he’d rather have the blood of billions on his hands than surrender one inch of his ambitions. In short, Dune is about Paul failing to resist the temptations of power and vengeance and how all the power in the universe won't help you if you can't resist those temptations. You'll end up swept up in the tide, as helpless as any peasant (Not really sure how he could have not taken the throne though. In a situation like the one he was in, he kinda had to.  I suppose he could have just held Spice hostage forever…{Take the Imperial family hostage and just rule as Duke of Dune and Caladan and maybe seize the Harroken domains or for that matter just kill everyone and fade back into the desert and let the universe sort itself out.  There are options here, whether they’re as good as taking the throne I suggest we leave to the reader to ponder})

I should note the above is only one way to read the text, there is also the story of a tragic fall, the triumphant rise of a colonized and hunted people into a galactic superpower, or their hideous corruption into a new wave of imperialist oppressors There's the struggle of Jessica to try and save her children from themselves and the outside world. There's also Paul standing there as a prime reason why you shouldn't attempt to breed human beings like cattle (Including back-crossing!  Woooo!). You can also see an environmentalist story.  With the Fremen as a people who are consciously and constantly working to reshape the ecology of their world for the better while seeking to live in harmony with it. There is a commentary on how feudalism leads to decadence and stagnation.  Where the upper class is doomed to turn in on itself in a cannibal struggle for power and influence or even just basic safety. All of this is in the text and is paired with magnificent world-building and characterization. Even Princess Irulan is given a depth of characterization.  This is despite not appearing in the novel until the last chapters and is done by having each chapter start with a quotation written by her about the history of Paul, Dune, or the greater Universe. It's easy to see why Dune swept science fiction like a Fremen army and left a deep imprint. 

The text is somewhat dense at times. The plot starts off slow and builds to a great speed only to scream to a sudden stop (My favorite parts are all fairly early in the text to be honest.). Something Herbert admits to doing on purpose as a way of forcing the reader to come up with their own ideas on Dune.  It is still populated by unforgettable characters and intriguing societies and ideas. The Mentats and Bene Gesserit alone are utterly enthralling as ideas. I could have a dozen people read Dune and they would give me a dozen different ideas of what the story is about and still not be wrong. That fascinates me on a certain level.  I admit, I don't think you could write Dune today as it stands firmly on ideas that modern readers would dismiss in a lesser novel.  For example, racial memory, eugenic breeding programs, or using drugs to expand human perception and mental abilities. That said, I'm giving Dune by Frank Herbert an A. Every time I read it, it takes my breath away and it has more than stood the test of time. Ya hya chouhada muad'dib. 

Having also read this book, many times, it is one of my favorites and I give it an A+

     I hope you enjoyed our review of Dune, which was chosen by our ever-wise patrons.  If you would like a voice on what gets reviewed and when consider joining us at for as little as a dollar a month.  Next week we take a look at Frank Herbert himself.  Until then, stay safe and keep reading! 

Red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen

Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders

Friday, November 12, 2021

Dune (1984) Directed by David Lynch

 Dune (1984)

Directed by David Lynch

David Kieth Lynch was born on January 20th, 1946 in Missoula, Montana. He is an American artist, who’s painted, written, filmed, and played music. His father Donald was a scientist working for the US Department of Agriculture and his mother Sunny an English tutor. Because of his father's career, the family moved around a lot and David grew comfortable adjusting to changing circumstances. He had a fairly ideal childhood in his own words, incredibly Middle American with his younger brother and sister. He was never a gifted student (That actually surprises me. {By his own admission this is because of a lack of interest.  Not doing your homework will drop you at least a letter grade}) but always popular with other students and at first, was very interested in painting but dropped out of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston due to a lack of inspiration in 1965, he would travel to Europe but returned disappointed after 2 weeks. 

When he returned he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, married a fellow student, and ended up fathering his first child. It's here that he gets into filmmaking via making short films that were very well received by fellow students and professors (Sometimes, you just need to find the right medium.). This led to him moving to Los Angeles and studying at the AF Conservatory, which he described as very chaotic (Shocking no one.). He created more short films including his 1977 work Eraserhead, which took a while to catch on but became very successful on the midnight film circuit. Midnight films were cheap genre films that were usually played in movie theaters around midnight, another example you might have heard of it is The Rocky Horror Picture Show (If you haven’t, what rock have you been hiding under? {Don’t be mean, not everyone has the same upbringing or culture as you} I will grant that, but there is a distinct bias in your readership toward people who would be exposed.). If you haven't heard of that film and you're vaccinated, don't look it up just find a showing and go watch it. Thank me later. 

This film got him Hollywood attention and in the 1980s, Lynch ended up directing three major films. The first of which, Elephant Man, is usually the most widely applauded and recognized, Blue Velvet, the third, is considered critically acclaimed, which is a fancy of saying critics loved it but it was only moderately commercially successful (There is at times a rather substantial disconnect between professional film critics and an audience that doesn’t smell its own farts.). Which is another way of saying it confused the hell out of mainstream audiences. Blue Velvet, however, led to Mr. Lynch creating Twin Peaks, a television show I won't go into because frankly, it would be its own review, if not its own review series (It is occultist, strange, and wonderful). Elephant Man led to George Lucas offering Lynch a chance to direct Return of the Jedi, which he turned down feeling that Jedi should reflect Lucas' vision, not Lynch's. Although part of me desperately wonders what level of madness Lynch could have wrought, given the infighting that happened in Jedi, I think Lynch made the right call (I think his version might have been better.) Instead, Lynch would direct what is considered his failure of a movie, the subject of our review today Dune. 

Lynch's Dune was actually the 4th attempt to bring the book to film. The novel had set the imagination of millions afire and Hollywood smelled gold. However, the sheer scope and depth of Dune make it incredibly hard to film (It does not lend itself to a visual medium on a structural level either, because so much of the worldbuilding is done through an internal monologue that gets recursive at times as characters analyze and counter-analyze each other.). I mean the 2021 film is over two hours long for just the first half of the book and they still left large parts out! The first attempt was in 1971 by film producer Arthur P Jacobs and it failed after 2 years due to a lack of funds. The legendary second attempt was in 1974 when a French consortium led by Jean-Paul Gibbon, who tapped Alejandro Jodorowsky to direct. Like Twin Peaks, really digging into this would be a whole other review in and of itself, but the attempt collapsed when the film ballooned into a 14-hour epic and many of the ideas that Jodorowsky came up with would find their way into The Incal and Metabaron comic series, The Incal itself would have some influence on the 5th element and the visual design team pulled together for this version of Dune ended up working on Alien. One tragic thing I'll note, this version would have had David Carradine as Duke Leto and Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen. This combination was likely too epic for even the Almighty himself which may have been why it was doomed. Just tossing a theory out here. (Theory is legit.  Holy fuck I wish this had been made.  I will totally sit in a theater for 14 hours.{This review does not recommend sitting in a theater for 14 hours, the editor’s opinions do not reflect those of the review})

At this point, Dune was picked up by Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, the man who produced 150 films from 1946 to 2007. Some of these films include films like Army of Darkness, Barbella, Conan the Barbarian, and Hannibal just to give you an idea. Mr. De Laurentiis's first attempt brought in Ridley Scott and Frank Herbert. Mr. Scott intended to split the book into 2 films using Herbert's script which would have been over 3 hours long. This fell apart when Mr. Scott's brother died of cancer, which ironically led to Mr. Scott filming Bladerunner (see my Bladerunner review for more there).  (This version too probably would have been absolutely magical.{See, I would jump around universes just for this stuff.  Showing up in an alternate universe where Scott’s brother never died so he made Dune instead of Bladerunner just to see what that changes}

At this point, they brought in Lynch. He hammered on the script producing seven different versions before getting something that everyone could agree on, originally he wanted to direct a pair of Dune movies but was argued down to 1. They filmed in Mexico, mostly due to a favorable exchange rate, with a budget of 40 million (198 million in today's dollars). This version of Dune required 80 separate sets to be built, 16 different sound stages, a crew of 1700, and over 20,000 extras. Two-hundred men alone were employed to clear a section of the Mexican desert of all animal and plant life down to the scorpions. It was plagued by failing electricity and other logistical problems, the crew was beset by numerous health problems because basic food shipments were held up for months and one location was found to be filled with hundreds of dead dogs (Jesus Fucking Christ. For all of this.). At times 15% of the crew was down with food poisoning. However, the filming was completed in 6 months. If you ask me that alone is a major accomplishment! (That is almost enough to make me believe in a vaguely sadistic god, who rewards his miserable subs. {The Safe Word is hallelujah})

Mr. Lynch turned in a rough cut of the film that was over 4 hours long, his own edit is reported to have been about three to three and a half hours long. The only person I can confirm who has seen this version is Frank Herbert himself, who loved that version and gave it his blessing (High praise.  It actually influenced the description of spacing guild navigators in the later books.). However, Universal and other executives demanded the movie be cut to two hours (Philistines.). To make that work, scenes of Princess Irulan explaining things were filmed and added to the movie. This upset Mr. Lynch but he has refused to return to the work. There was an extended version released but he had nothing to do with it. Dune bombed at the box office, being panned by critics for being confusing and dense. It made 30 million dollars but became a cult classic whose influence lingered in the twilight for decades (Likely a failure that can be directly blamed on the fucking executives.)

So let's talk about the film itself. By now you should know the setup, humanity united in an empire, Dune the desert planet, the spice must flow. If not please read the last two reviews I've written. Lynch, unlike Dennis or the graphic novel I've reviewed, decided to pull back away from our family of doomed protagonists. Instead, focusing on the galactic context of what's going on. This is very clear in the opening scenes where the Emperor is confronted by the Spacing Guild and told in no uncertain terms that Paul Atreides must die. The movie also gives extra time to Baron Harkonnen and his nephews; the Baron played by Kenneth McMillan chews the scenery like a starving man attacking a 3-course dinner (Or, like the Baron himself devours dinner and the dignity of young boys.), and Sting playing Feyd Rautha is clearly having a great time grinning like a mad man and howling out death threats whenever he can (I WILL KILL HIM!). Patrick Stewart is also in the film as Gurney Halleck and turns in a great performance and I really wish they had given him more time on screen. 

The first hour of the film is actually fairly good and maintains a tense atmosphere but starts to feel increasingly rushed. Scenes are still cut from the book, one of them being my Smuggler's dinner party that no I am not letting go of, but it's mostly put together in a clear and understandable way. Although there are plot threads that are left dangling.  For example, when an assassination attempt on Paul almost gets the Freman head Housekeeper killed, only for Paul to save her life, she tells him there's a traitor in House Atreides, he responds to this by doing... Fuck All. The character of Duncan Idaho is drastically downplayed, which is a weird choice if you have any knowledge of the series. For that matter, Planetologist Kynes is sir not appearing in this version. I assume editing is to blame for much of this but still. By the time Paul joins the Fremen, we're in a full rush mode. 

At this point chunks of the movie are told by a voice-over and Paul's relationship with Chani is reduced to like 2 lines. While we're told that Paul leads a resistance movement with one goal, to choke off the gathering and exportation of the Spice and force the leadership of the galaxy to come to Dune where he can reach them. The Emperor and the Baron, both facing a loss of space travel and the end-of-civilization disaster that would cause, have no choice but to do so and bring all their armies with them. They are of course no match for Paul's Freman on their home turf and we're treated to a long set piece of Paul overrunning the Imperial-Harkonnen Army on worm-back and installing himself on the throne via main force and a knife fight with Sting. 

As an adaptation, one of the most obvious problems is the run time it's been crammed into. Important characters are shoved aside or cut entirely and relationships that are central to the story are given short shrift. A bigger problem for me is Lynch doing away with the theme of expanding human ability and potential by stepping away from our dependence on computers. The Atreides army isn't dangerous because of superior training in the film, but because of new technology involving sound-based weapons for example. Most of what the Mentats and Bene Gesserit can do is only hinted at and Paul's greatest abilities are left untouched. For that matter, the idea of Paul as a False Messiah is also abandoned in Lynch's Dune. Central to the idea of the story is the warning that charismatic leaders who present themselves as chosen ones are dangerous! In the book the prophecies were constructed by the Bene Gesserit as a means of social control, in this film they're presented as the real deal. Gone is Paul choosing to live up to the prophecies to use the Fremen for his own goals (Even if he is the Kwisatz Haderach and does actually go native, he is still playing to an imperialist script.). Instead, Paul is a standard Hollywood Chosen One Hero and I really think Universal is to blame for that. That's hard to prove though as Lynch has refused to discuss the film in any real depth. Because of this, I have to give Lynch's Dune a C- as an adaptation at best. 

As a stand-alone film, I honestly rate it higher. Granted it's a bit of a mess but it's a glorious mess. Dune is an ambitious project that failed not because of Lynch or the crew or the cast but because of the constraints of film at the time and executive meddling trying to force Dune into a mold it was never meant to fit into. That said, Mr. Lynch still gives us a half-alien civilization in a strange new world amid upheaval and change and lets us examine that. Mr. Lynch wasn't afraid to experiment and attempt to find new ways to communicate the story to the viewers and that also has a lot of value to me. I do think the plot is followable, the first time I saw the movie I hadn't read the book and I was able to follow it. In fact, this film is what inspired me to read the novel in the first place! I'm honestly glad to be in a place where something like David Lynch's Dune can exist, even if I prefer the 2021 Dune film. I'm giving David Lynch's Dune a C+ for the theater cut but go take a look yourself and decide. 

    Once again our thanks to our ever-wise patrons, who voted to allow this month-long look at Dune. If you'd like a vote on what gets reviewed or even just want to add books to the recommended pile, join us at for as little as a dollar a month!  Next week, we finally tackle the well spring from which all these efforts flowed, we look at the legendary novel itself.  Dune by Frank Herbert.  Until then, stay safe and keep reading! 

Red Text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen

Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders.