Fifty Years On Arrakis: The Source Of The Spice

The spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe, a desolate dry planet. 

The planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune.

dune-atreides-palace

“Deep in the human unconsciousness is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic” – Frank Herbert. 

“These waves [of sand] can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave,” Frank Herbert – then a freelance writer concentrating on ecological matters – stated in one article pitch during 1959. He was referring to the sand dunes of Florence, Oregon, and the relentless way they shifted eastwards, “pushed by strong winds off the Pacific.” 

His interest in this topic led to research into deserts and desert cultures, eventually inspiring him to draft two short novels, serialised in Analog Science Fact & Fiction. He later reworked the material into a single volume, which has led some critics – even this year: the fiftieth anniversary of its initial publication – hailing it as the finest science fiction novel of all time.

In the far future – the actual year consists of five digits – Arrakis is the only known planet to produce the most precious substance in the universe: the spice melange. 

The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness.

It also induces an “enhanced space-time perception”; aliens known as the Guild Navigators use the orange spice gas to fold space, thus travelling to any point in the universe without moving. 

It is highly addictive, capable – after ingestion – of turning the eyes of any user a deep blue. Spice mining comes with the major hazard of attracting colossal sandworms about several hundred metres in length. This most prized commodity is integral in maintaining the transport, supply and communication networks of Shaddam IV’s Empire. 

Paul Atreides: son of Duke Leto of the House of (the somewhat-Homeric) Atreides turns out to be their messianic leader: Muad’Dib, as foretold in ancient prophecies. Endeavouring to irrigate the deserts and regenerate the planet’s life-system, he sets out with his band of Fremen warriors – an indigenous nomadic race – to halt all spice production on Arrakis. 

Essentially, Herbert was promoting environmental awareness long before it ensnared mainstream sensitivities.

DUNE VI by HR Giger
DUNE VI by HR Giger
Character designs for Jodorowsky's Dune, created by French artist: Moebius.
Character designs for Jodorowsky’s Dune, created by French artist: Moebius.

“The way in which ecological relationships are made to stand for supernatural ones makes Dune one of the archetypal examples of fashionable ecological mysticism, and this may help to explain its great popularity” – Brian Stableford. 

There are strong hints of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars fantasies and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga, as well as touches of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman space operas in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Having studied Jung, Herbert met, in 1960, Alan Watts, a prominent advocate of Zen philosophy. “Long conversations” ensued. The basic sci-fi premise, distant in both time and space, gradually appropriated deeper, temporal, psychological and spiritual dimensions.

At some point this Winter, one challenge on my list is to watch Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013): a critically acclaimed documentary about the greatest SF cinema masterpiece never made. It would have made for a formidable production: both HR Giger and Moebius provided concept art; Orson Welles and Salvador Dali were persuaded to take prominent roles; and Pink Floyd would provide the soundtrack. 

Instead, we have David Lynch’s opus, (in)famous primarily for dividing critics and fans. Having completed a version several hours in length, the producer Dino De Laurentis wanted it cut down to just two. Lynch baulked at the idea and protested to have his name removed from the final print. Some regard this huge box office disaster as the Worst Film of 1984. 

No matter what the detractors of Lynch’s film might say about it, its visual effects – particularly its assortment of matte paintings – creature and costume design, some ornate sets, plus Lynch’s own distinctive surreal touches, make it, for me, a quite engaging spectacle.

It is ironic to think that not only did Jodorowsky’s Dune fail to get off the ground, but the original Dune novel almost never materialised at all neither! Firstly, 400 pages in Hardback, and then a whopping great flopping paperback tome of 900 pages, this is when publishing houses preferred brevity above all.  Nevertheless, it won the Hugo Award in 1966, and the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. 

Not surprisingly, Herbert had to deal with twenty rejections before his hefty manuscript was eventually accepted in 1965 by Chilton, a Philadelphia-based trade and hobby magazines publisher – home of the unsurpassable Dry Goods Economist(!)

A HD still from the 1984 film, featuring one of Albert Whitlock's finest matte paintings.
A HD still from the 1984 film, featuring one of Albert Whitlock’s finest matte paintings.

Dune_Concept_Art_Illustration_m01-848x400

“Paul Atreides is a young white man who fulfils a persistent colonial fantasy, that of becoming a God-king to a tribal people. Herbert’s portrayal of the ‘Fremen’ owes much to TE Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger’s enthusiastic portrayals of the Bedouin of Arabia’s Empty Quarter” – Hari Kunzru. 

In my horde of dust-gathering SF novels, there is Children of Dune, the third volume in the series, which just happened to be (back then) a rather laborious slog. It had failed to inspire me to read the original, but now – in this half-century anniversary year, and now blessed with a more sensible stock of patience and maturity – it would be appropriate to finally catch up with it, and assess for myself whether the “greatest SF novel ever” tag is warranted.

Herbert’s incorporation of Bedouin traits into the Fremen culture – even the use of such terms as razzia, bourka robes and jihad – holds more potency now in 2015 than it ever did in 1965. 

On a personal level, there is something irresistible about desert planets in sci-fi. Perhaps Tatooine in Star Wars – blatantly inspired by Arrakis – got there first. Look at Uncle Owen’s moisture farm: ripped straight from Herbert’s ecological leanings. The desolate terrains vividly – and colourfully – designed by such iconic artists as Eddie Jones and Peter Andrew Jones remain particular favourites. Yet no matter how individualistic those visions were, there is something about these desert scenes that will always link back psychologically to Frank Herbert’s Dune. 

In the original novel, the First Planetologist of Dune, named Kynes (incidentally the main protagonist of the very first draft) pondered this:

“Beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase… The question is not how many can possibly survive within [the planetary ecosystem], but what kind of existence is possible for those who survive?”  

dune-fear-is-the-mindkiller

dune_sietch_by_lsgg-d3hyovy

dune-worm

A Matter of Time

Posted: 6 February 2014

Time to travel. Travel in time.
Time to travel.
Travel in time.

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst” – William Penn.  

It had to happen sooner or later. Time travel has languished within my imagination ever since my grubby infant mits got hold of science fiction books and comics.

Since the novella: The Time Machine by H G Wells was published in 1895, popularizing the concept of travel in time, a whole cascade of time-twisting tales has hit the shelves. To go back and relive a special time in one’s past, explore an ancient period in world history, or even delve into how things might look in the future present limitless opportunities for fiction.  Moreover, its popularity stems from the fact that a considerable number of people would jump (time leap?) at the chance of immersing themselves in a simpler, less stressful time.    

While Space is three-dimensional, consisting of length, width and height, Time offers the fourth dimension, a variable element which Einstein showed to be relative: moving forward; for the moment (whenever that is!) the ability to go back exists only in the realms of science fiction.

Wrestling frustratedly with such story-lines, fuelled by copious mugs of coffee, Bradscribe has ruminated over the notion that maybe – in time – there will be a device which allows the writer to slow the passing of time, spurring him on to increase the level of his productivity and conquer his deadlines…

“About time something was done about this.”

Time Vortex: go back go forward or just go bananas
Time Vortex:
go back
go forward or just
go bananas

“Leonardo… You remember Mona Lisa? That dreadful woman with no eyebrows who wouldn’t sit still, eh? Your  idea for the helicopter took a bit longer to catch on, but as I say, these things take time” – The Doctor.

For a recent fiction project, the quandary of whether to opt for a sci-fi or historical theme was swiftly settled… by combining the two together. Bradscribe concocted an awesome scenario: what if a select band of scientists had formulated “the system,” whereby (for a hefty price of course) people could “escape” into a time period of their choice. Therein lay the dilemma: the popularity of the virtual reality thus created (based on the most accurate historical knowledge) meant that real society was being severely depleted… For the time being, no more plot details will be dispensed here.

Mind you, this is just my twist on time travel, not a blatant distortion! And the working title? “Euhypnion”…

“…What?” you all cry out, in unison.

In the 2nd century CE, Artemidorus – a diviner from Asia Minor – produced a five-volume treatise: “Oneirocritica” (The Interpretation of Dreams) in which Euhypnion has been described as “a routine dream whereby the mind sorted, processed and computerised the previous day’s events.”   

This aptly represents the weird yet wonderful delights this writer aims to create. Amazing how the study of one discipline: history, can enrich the development of another: writing fiction. So many plot-strands to contemplate, and… (ahem) so little time with which to develop them.

Time is most definitely not on my hands.

By the way, what is the time?

Tom Baker  The 4th Doctor  1974-1981
Tom Baker
The 4th Doctor
1974-1981

“I never read the scripts at all carefully, and never wanted to know what was going on, because I felt that being a benevolent alien that’s the way it should be” – Tom Baker.

It seems inevitable that a Blog on this subject should mention a few words about a certain very British television institution. After all, when viewing my first Dr Who story: “Destiny of the Daleks” with Tom Baker (the best Doctor of course) in 1979, the dip into the bizarre arena of transdimensional engineering became an enjoyable and inspirational Saturday evening ritual for me – and countless other younglings. Something about that absurdly long scarf, or his amusing knack of offering jelly babies to the surliest of adversaries… 

Although the last three regenerations of everyone’s favourite Gallifreyan did not appeal to Bradscribe, it undeniably – and quite rightly – has become a behemoth of modern broadcasting, celebrating its 50th Anniversary only last November.  

You could say that time is running out here, but then again, there always seems to be plenty of it. It’s what you do with it that counts. Will time ever wait for us? How successful will this Blog be?

Only time will tell…