Sigh-fi: Why I see Dune in everything

The worm, a creature of Frank Herbert's imagination, was subsequently used in Tremors, MIB-II, Monster’s Inc. and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Illustration: Satwik Gade  

I consumed it in bits and pieces, in time snatched during a hectic week at work. It was terribly addictive. Like some sort of exotic spice churned into existence by the mysterious alchemy of an entire planet. As I went through the motions of everyday existence by rote, portions of the book shimmered into focus, throwing the rest of my attention out of it. After I put it down, it was all I could do to hold myself from doing a Harlem shake. In public, that is. In the relative privacy of home, I gyrated with wild excitement, like a Nudibranch overdosing on Red Bull.

Where are my manners? Introductions first. Reader, meet Dune, arguably (the counter-argument is terribly weak) the most definitive work of science fiction in the last century. Dune, meet prospective reader. Written in 1965 by Frank Herbert, this book heavily influenced subsequent work in a very popular literary genre, besides spawning a gazillion ideas in film.

Star Wars, The Matrix Reloaded, Tremors, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Dead Man’s Chest, Monster’s Inc., Men in Black II…off the cuff. I’ll get to all of them in a bit. You’ll have to bear with my gushing on about science fiction and its Gods. Get the irony?

I am an ardent fan of the genre and have been known to declare during unguarded, not necessarily inebriated, moments, that science fiction is potentially the richest form of literature. Period. I would define sci-fi as a multi-disciplinary process, by which thinkers and dreamers attempt to distil the improbable into the familiar, through the funnel of science. If that was too heavy, try this on for size – human relationships, alternative reality, history, fantasy – the palette of science fiction can hold all of these tools to tell stories that resonate through a broad spectrum of popular culture.

Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin have, among many others, found tributes in celluloid. However, the references from the work of these authors have been very specific. For instance, stories reproduced in their entirety. Herbert’s Dune, on the other hand, lends itself more fluidly to adaptation, allowing film and literature to borrow aspects of the book without having to explicitly betray the source.

Now that we’ve finished with the academic analyses, it’s time to let the fan-boy out. For those who came in late, here’s a simple synopsis of the story – Set in the desert planet of Arrakis, the story follows the boy Paul Atreides as he grows into his destiny as prophet, deliverer and emperor, aided in his quest by his mother, a ‘Bene Gesserit’ – a powerful matriarch with a millennia-old agenda of her own and the Fremen – the mysterious tribe that inhabit the deep desert; constantly at risk from the political machinations of the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and the dangers of Arakkis itself, where moisture is currency, where sandstorms can shred rock, and which is home to the ‘makers’ –sandworms 500 metres long.

It’s brilliant, really. The science in the book is not rocket science or holograms or time travel, but planetary ecology – study of a hostile planet to transform it into one that will comfortably support human life. This is in sync with the tone of the novel – Herbert stretches your imagination, but pleasantly, not where it gets uncomfortable.

The brilliance of Herbert is that he found the threshold of human credibility. Anywhere under the threshold leaves one unimpressed. Anywhere over leaves one unaffected. Take for instance the nemesis in Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, or the colossal disappointment of a movie Green Lantern. An entity, millions of miles across in size, capable of consuming entire worlds. To the human mind and to the CGI directors, this translates into a massive black cloud with specks of red and orange.

Herbert’s worm, on the other hand, is imaginable. And that is the book’s greatest strength. The legend of the Bene Gesserit, the mystic matrons who tip the balance of fate through guile and superior control of their mind and emotions, are coloured as super-human. But in a brilliant touch, Herbert keeps their powers well within the realm of the plausible. No telekinesis, none of the grossly direct tricks of mind-reading. There is a good deal of intuition, but all of it is, well, intuitive.

The worm as a monster has been used in many movies. Notably, in Tremors, where it swims underground and nothing less than an elephant gun point-blank can kill it. In MIB-II, Jeff the worm roams the city’s subways and bites of train coaches. Monster’s Inc. and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest use the worm’s round mouth, rows of teeth and staggeringly bad breath to monster-up their monsters.

In a rare and until then uncharacteristic turn, Herbert introduced a Victorian level of intrigue in his sci-fi tale. It is slightly jarring at first, like tasting an unfamiliar ingredient in a familiar dish. However, just the right amount of politics and Herbert’s lucidity in presenting it reels you in.

George Lucas is said to have acknowledged Dune among the many influences for his trilogy. Seen in the first of the series, the ‘Force’, which bestows superhuman senses to those who can tap into it, is not unlike the abilities that the Bene Gesserit cultivate and which Dune’s hero Paul himself has. Luke Skywalker practises swordplay against an automated training opponent, just as Paul practiced with a remote-controlled dummy. In Star Wars, the nemesis turns out to be the hero’s father. In Dune, he’s the hero’s grandfather. Look at the other influences. Spice, a substance that enhances prescience is not unlike ‘Dust’ in The Golden Compass. Versions of the Fremen, a tribe of fierce, secretive desert warriors, crop up in The Mummy and Clash of the Titans. Variants of their suit and mask can be seen in Star Wars, Armour of Gods and, stretching it a bit, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

Chronicles of Riddick mimics the fanaticism and the clan of ruthless soldiers described in Dune. Neo defines control in The Matrix Reloaded as “If we wanted, we could shut these machines down.” This is exactly how Paul defines control in Dune.

Then there’s the philosophy of the book. There’s nothing like accessible and practicable philosophy to whip nerds into frenzy and grow into a cult. Even while talking about transforming an entire planet, it talks about interdependence and balance. It raises juicy debates about selective breeding, about bloodlines and class.

I saw Dune in everything I’d seen so far. That was the obvious bit. There’s something the book did to me on a sub-dermal level. It stuck. New words and thoughts hardly leave a trace as we absorb them and turn them into memories. Some books, on the other hand, make the trail intensely clear and leave a mark. Dune left its mark on the 17-year-old in me that was blown away by Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky, Bradbury’s Fire and Ice and Theodore Sturgeon’s Killdozer. Like Pardot Kynes, the first imperial planetologist on Arrakis, I’ve gone native. I now see the world through Fremen eyes, tinged blue by the makers’ spice.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 12:52:21 AM |

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