Tuesday n00bsday: Science Fiction

The Background

I have nothing against science fiction, I’ve just never wanted to dig through the shelves of shit to find the gems. Lazy? Yes. Unrepentantly so. Whether in libraries or bookstores, the sci-fi section always seems inundated with the sexual fantasies of lonely, pimpled, basement-dwelling men. Yes, there’s a lot of junk in other genres too, but science fiction shelves seem to revel a little more unabashedly in the bizarre and the poorly written. Admittedly, I don’t know this firsthand. I’ve only read the short stories of Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, and I have the suspicion that sci-fi’s most hardcore enthusiasts probably don’t consider them to be legit representatives.

Bradbury and Ellison did not prepare me for this.

All that being said, Dune is one of those books that I probably should have read long before now to fulfill some sort of unstated nerd quota. Despite not having a proper introduction to sci-fi books, I’ve watched an embarrassing amount of the Syfy channel, which I truly believe has equipped me with a strong understanding of the genre’s potential.

So, stonehenge is actually a terraforming device left by aliens and Hernán Cortés fought dinosaurs while destroying the Aztec empire. Got it.

What I Thought Going In

I saw five minutes of the movie, and there were worms. Giant worms. Definitely longer than african rock pythons, and at least as tall as a school bus. I figured the worms were harmless because I don’t get worms. Despite passing Intro to Biology, I just don’t understand how they eat. I went fishing loads as a kid, and while pushing their wiggling bodies onto hooks, I never saw a mouth. Do they osmosis nutrients? Do they take infinitesimally small bites? Either way, things without mouths can’t bite.

Seriously, how do worms eat??

There’s sand. Lots of it. Farther than the eye can see and probably the inspiration for the title. Because my image of this book was just worms flinging themselves around in the sand, I forgot that there would be, like, space ships and lasers and stuff. I also knew that Syfy made a miniseries, and that the book has loads and loads of sequels which probably also take place in the desert. Also, someone told me the writing stunk but was interesting conceptually, or maybe I made that up.

Conclusion: A poorly-written jumble of philosophy set in a giant sandpit filled with train-sized nightcrawlers?

What I Learned from the Book

I actually really enjoyed Dune. All ya’ll should read it. The writing isn’t terrible, and Herbert combines politics, religion, the environment, and technology in interesting ways. The book starts with a glossary and getting into the first chapter is a little rough, but it’s worth finishing (except for the non-sequiturial what-the-fuck final sentence). Beyond that, it’s this goofy blend of a medieval feudal system and space travel.

Wikipedia tries its hand at defining Dune and ends up with planetary romance.

I also learned that the worms are not harmless. They have giant gaping holes for mouth and rows of razor-sharp teeth and they eat people. Some of the characters ride them places like a living, self-sustaining subway system, but the worms also eat entire ships and mining stations.

Sandworms are terrifying. If you want to be terrifying too, tattoo one on your knee.

The book starts when the protagonists’ family accepts control of Arrakis, a desert planet (sand: check!) which is the only source of the spice melange, which I think is kind of like cinnamon meets acid. Melange is better than cash, and drinking or eating it––which is all anyone on the planet does––changes how you look and gives you visions. Legit, wikipedia describes it as “the most important and valuable substance in the universe.” I added the emphasis because, you know, these guys make interplanetary travel seem like a trip to the cornerstone, so they probably know what’s up. Other than that, the plot is pretty common––there’s a series of unfortunate events, hardship, exile, and a grand conclusion.

“Trust me guys, this is how you dress in the desert.”

What the Internet Taught Me

I was only half-right about the sequels––Herbert wrote five. The Syfy Channel produced a miniseries, there was a 1984 film adaptation, a Syfy Channel miniseries sequel, computer games, board games, songs, and a series of prequels and sequels co-written by Kevin J. Anderson and Herbert’s son, Brian (talk about not letting go).

These guys are so psyched about the left one’s dad’s stories that they dedicated most of their lives to writing sequels and prequels, which I think counts as fanfiction.

I totally missed this when I was reading the book, but computers and AI are banned. Also, they can fold space for instantaneous travel to any point in the universe (but they hate computers? In what universe does that makes sense?). The final Dune-related factoid I learned was that Herbert was inspired to write Dune by a trip to Florence, Oregon, where the USDA was studying the effect of poverty grasses to stabilize sand dunes. So essentially, we have the USDA to thank for Dune.

“You’re welcome!” USDA responds to enthusiastic sci-fi fans.

Editor’s Note: As an sf non-n00b, I can safely say that Bradbury and Ellison are super legit. Don’t even worry about it. Also, they hate computers because (according to one of the infamous prequels) humanity faces a full-on Terminator-style robot uprising over 10,000 years before the events of Dune, which of course leads to the Butlerian Jihad, which purges all AIs and leads to the O.C. Bible’s commandment, ‘Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” WHICH is why the Dune-iverse has people called mentats (like Paul Atreides) who are trained to be human computers. (Emily would know this if she’d read the Appendices. Geez.) – Eryn


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