Archeofuturist Dune

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

If science fiction is progressive, and fantasy is reactionary, then Frank Herbert’s Dune is archeofuturist, Greg Johnson suggests:

Herbert shows how religion can be cynically used by the powerful as a tool of social control. But he also shows how sincere religious fanaticism can revolutionize societies. For instance, more than 10,000 years before the setting of the first novel, a religious war, the Butlerian Jihad, destroyed all artificial intelligences and banned the creation of thinking machines. Herbert explores how ecumenical ideas — like the Traditionalist notion of the transcendental unity of religions — can be used to promote peace and tolerance, whereas exclusive forms of monotheism lead to intolerance and conflict. Finally, Herbert is very aware of the importance of religion and rituals of hierarchy and initiation in bonding together hierarchical societies, especially secret societies.

[...]

The idea of a Spacing Guild, as well as hierarchical-initiatic orders like the Bene Tleilax and the Bene Gesserit, all of which are medieval institutions which wield what are in effect magical powers, place Dune firmly in the archaic and magical cosmos of fantasy literature.

But there is swordplay as well as sorcery in the Dune universe: the galaxy is ruled by a Padishah Emperor, while many of the planets are ruled by dukes, counts, and barons who form a “Landsraad” — a college of noble houses. (Other planets, like Bene Tleilax, Ix, and Richese are equivalents of the medieval free cities.) It is an essentially feudal system.

Herbert, moreover, did not bemoan this system as repressive and unfair. Indeed, he regarded feudalism as a superior form of government and one uniquely suited for mankind’s expansion throughout the galaxy. Feudalism, unlike liberal democracy, is a highly decentralized system, which is suited to widely scattered planets and high transportation costs. Furthermore, feudalism, unlike liberal democracy, is capable of pursuing grand strategies over the vast spans of time necessary for space travel and colonization.

Because of the decentralization of power and costs of transportation, the different planets of the Empire evolve very different cultures, some free, martial, and gallant (such as Caladan, ruled by the Atreides dukes — who trace their descent to the ancient house of Atreus), others despotic, sybaritic, and cruel (like Giedi Prime, ruled by the Harkonnen barons). But all planets have hierarchical, aristocratic forms of government. Herbert never has a kind word for liberalism or democracy.

In the Dune universe, martial and aristocratic values are dominant, and commercial values, although unavoidable and widespread, are regarded with aristocratic disdain. Great houses compete and ally with each other in accordance with iron codes of honor. Atomic weapons are outlawed. Laser and projectile weapons are seldom used because of the existence of energy shields, which can stop any projectile and destroy both attacker and target when they come in contact with a laser. Shields are, however, unable to protect from slow blades at close range, so high-tech shields are actually conducive to swashbuckling combat with swords and knives. Vendettas are governed by the iron code of kanly and can be settled through treachery or duels to the death.

Now, before I discuss the main characters and plot of Dune, we must pause to ask why these novels have such a powerful appeal on the Right. The answer, of course, is that Frank Herbert was no liberal. No liberal praises feudalism over democracy, hierarchy over equality, and martial virtues over bourgeois ones — but Frank Herbert does. No liberal attaches great weight to heredity, speaks of racial memories, praises eugenics, and explains the Darwinian benefits of subjecting human populations to the ruthless culling of harsh environments — but Frank Herbert does.

Herbert believes in essential differences between men and women, which was uncontroversial when he began writing Dune more than 50 years ago, but today it is considered the height of reaction.

Herbert’s novels are deeply and disquietingly anti-humanist and anti-individualist. He thinks in terms of the evolution of the human race over vast spans of time. He looks at history like a general on a battlefield, coolly sacrificing individual lives for the greater good. His novels are filled with well-drawn individuals, but that just makes it all the more poignant when they go willy nilly to their doom — or are resurrected as gholas to play another part in a larger drama.

Herbert traces the rise and fall of civilizations through great cycles, moving from vital and heroic barbarism to cynical, sclerotic, and decadent civilizations, which are then liquidated by fresh barbarians. (His view of historical cycles is closer to Giambattista Vico and Oswald Spengler, both of whom see vital barbarism as the first phase of history, as opposed to the Golden Age of the Traditionalists.)

For the sentimental and humanistic, the overall effect can be bleak, depressing, and distasteful.

Aspects of Dune do, of course, appeal to the Left. When it first appeared in 1965, its ideas of mind-expanding drugs and sprinkling of Hindu terms found receptive ears in the counter-culture.

Dune can also be read as an anti-colonial allegory. Arrakis produces the most valuable commodity in the universe, but its people — particularly the Fremen of the desert — live in utter deprivation. Yet they dream of one day seizing control of Arrakis through guerrilla warfare and using its wealth to improve their lives.

This leads to a third theme in Dune which is popular with the Left, namely ecology, for the Fremen’s dream is the creation of the Kynes family, both father and son, the Imperial Planetologists of Arrakis who set in motion plans to reclaim parts of Arrakis from the desert and create an earthly paradise.

None of these themes appeal to the Republican or libertarian Right. But the New Right can and does embrace deep ecology, Eastern spirituality, anti-colonialism/anti-capitalism, and even a bit of spice — together with Herbert’s anti-egalitarian biopolitics — in a wider synthesis.

Saul Bass does Game of Thrones

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Saul Bass made his name doing title sequences for films, such as The Man with the Golden Arm, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho — oh, and Game of Thrones:

Weekend at the Asylum

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Most steampunk is neither steam nor punk:

In the mid-80s, the hip new movement in science fiction was cyberpunk, which stood utopian science fiction on its head, emphasizing “high tech and low life” — cybernetics and punk — and how “the street finds its own uses for things.”

Authors who weren’t part of the hip new movement naturally resented that fact. I assume that’s what Jeter was getting at when he quipped, “I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term…like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps.”

The Difference Engine, on the other hand, actually transferred the cyberpunk ethos to the Age of Steam — where it didn’t belong, I might add — to create a true steampunk story — if not a reasonable projection of how Babbage’s analytical engine might have influenced history had it worked. Since then, the term has evolved to cover just about anything involving “retro” technology — or Victorian fashion.

The movement has also evolved in exactly the manner Robert Conquest would have expected — as the inmates at the Weekend at the Asylum explain:

“We actually have a lot to say about the modern world, recycling, upcycling, multiculturalism and inclusion,” says Rosa. “Steampunks are always really nice people, really eccentric people, and everybody is welcome, whoever you are.

“A lot of it is about social justice and freedom of expression. And eating crumpets.”

[...]

Loosely speaking, “steampunk” refers to a mash-up of 19th-century ephemera and science fiction, underpinned by 21st-century liberal values, to create a “retro-futurist vision of Victorian England”.

(Hat tip to Outside In.)

Behind The Squirm

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Silicon Valley co-executive producer Clay Tarver talks about getting things right:

Mike had heard some comment from Dr. Dre, I believe, where Dre said, “If it plays in the hood, it plays everywhere.” That meant to us that if the people who actually know this world deem it accurate and genuine and funny to them then so will everybody else. It’s the Spinal Tap effect. Nobody loved Spinal Tap more than rock bands. (I know. I played in bands.) They knew it got the shit right and it was a joy to see it on screen.

I’d had no interest in tech, actually. But the more I learned — the more everyone doing the show learned — the more it became glaringly clear to us that we had to be as accurate as possible. It’s a fucking crazy world as it is. That’s the point. So you can’t take shortcuts or liberties. It really is a matter of trust that you build with an audience. And if you’re bullshitting them every once in a while or, worse, if you’re getting things wrong, then why should they believe anything you do?

Personally, I’ve written many feature scripts based on “worlds.” From hunting to barbershop singing to surfing to basketball. And the strange thing is the real details are always funnier than a bunch of shit a comedy writer would think up. The deeper you dig the more interesting things get.

Furthermore, one of this show’s biggest strengths, I think, is the satire. And maybe satire means something different to other people. But to me it means showing things for how they are by looking at it through a different lens or different point of view. Accuracy and authenticity are critical to pulling that off.

Scientist Shamans

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Frank Herbert based the Bene Gesserit “witches” of Dune in part on the scientific wizards of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Herbert’s judgment on them is implicit in the way he has reversed the roles played by such scientists in Dune.

Asimov’s trilogy is set in a crumbling galactic empire, in which a “psychohistorian” named Han Seldon has analyzed with mathematical precision the forces acting upon masses of people and can predict nearly exactly what will happen hundreds and even thousands of years in the future. Seldon has set up a foundation to act in accordance with the statistical laws of psychohistory and take the necessary steps to bring about a new order from the ruins of the old. In Seldon’s vision, the Foundation will enable the rebuilding of galactic civilization in 1,000 years instead of the 10,000 years of turmoil that would otherwise be required.

The trilogy chronicles the successes of the Foundation and the complete accuracy of the long-dead Seldon’s scientific predictions, until a freak mutant is born. An empathetic superman, called “the Mule” because he is sterile, he was completely unexpected by Seldon, whose science could predict only mass dynamics and not the truly exceptional individual. The Mule shatters the Foundation’s precious new civilization in his own hungry grab for power, and is stopped only by a mysterious “second foundation” established by Seldon to study the science of the mind and to prepare for such unforeseen emergencies as the material science of the first foundation could not handle.

Herbert questioned the assumptions about science that he saw at work in Asimov’s trilogy. In a recent essay, he wrote:

History… is manipulated for larger ends and for the greater good as determined by a scientific aristocracy. It is assumed, then, that the scientist-shamans know best which course humankind should take…. While surprises may appear in these stories (e.g., the Mule mutant), it is assumed that no surprise will be too great or too unexpected to overcome the firm grasp of science upon human destiny. This is essentially the assumption that science can produce a surprise-free future for humankind.

Dune is clearly a commentary on the Foundation trilogy. Herbert has taken a look at the same imaginative situation that provoked Asimov’s classic — the decay of a galactic empire — and restated it in a way that draws on different assumptions and suggests radically different conclusions. The twist he has introduced into Dune is that the Mule, not the Foundation, is his hero.

The Bene Gesserit are clearly parallel to the “scientist-shamans” of the Foundation. Their science of prediction and control is biological rather than statistical, but their intentions are similar to those of Asimov’s psychohistorians. In a crumbling empire, they seek to grasp the reins of change. The Sisterhood sees the need for genetic redistribution — which ultimately motivates the jihad — and has tried to control that redistribution by means of their breeding program. The Kwisatz Haderach, the capstone of their plan, is not its only goal. Their overall intention is to manage the future of the race. Paul, like the Mule, is the unexpected betrayal of their planned future.

The irony is that Paul is not a freak but an inevitable product of the Bene Gesserit’s own schemes. Although he has come a generation early in the plan due to Jessica’s willfulness in bearing a son instead of a daughter, the real surprise is not his early birth but the paradox of the Sisterhood’s achievement: the planned instrument of perfect control, the Kwisatz Haderach, was designed to see further than his creators, He could not help but know the emptiness of their dreams. The universe cannot be managed; the vitality of the human race lies in its random generation of new possibilities. The only real surety is that surprises will occur. In contrast to the Foundation trilogy’s exaltation of rationality’s march to predicted victory, Dune proclaims the power and primacy of the unconscious and the unexpected in human affairs. Paul’s wild ride on the jihad, not the careful Bene Gesserit gene manipulation, provides the answer to the Empire’s needs.

Even though Dune so clearly undercuts the assumptions about science applauded in the Foundation trilogy, such antirationalism was the culmination of a long struggle. Early on, Herbert saw that the same assumptions pervaded much of science fiction, including his own. In order to embody his visions of the future, he needed to untangle himself from their hold.

Contemporary Wisdom Reflected Back

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

In Dune, Tim O’Reilly notes, Frank Herbert puts contemporary wisdom in the mouths of his characters, so that the reader hears the insights of his own age reflected back at him out of the imagined future:

Kierkegaard’s “life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced” becomes a Bene Gesserit aphorism. Ecologist Paul B. Sears’s statement, “the highest function of science is to give us an understanding of consequences” is expressed by Kynes as a fundamental ecological principle; and his “respect for truth comes close to being the basis for all morality” is recalled as a lesson Paul had received from his father. Such statements are used without acknowledgment, reflecting the supposition that truly profound thoughts may, over time, lose their authors and become a part of the wisdom of the race. Such borrowings give the distant flights of science fiction a foundation on the solidity of contemporary fact. A feeling of familiarity is thus attached to situations that are overtly strange.

Creativity Hack

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

A popular creativity hack, Scott Adams (Dilbert) notes, is to use distractions that don’t distract — by working in a coffee shop, or taking a walk, a drive, or a shower:

My armchair guess about what is going on with the brain distractions is that we evolved to keep some important part of the brain on high alert for danger, food, and mating opportunities. If you distract that part of the brain with driving, walking, showering, and background noise it loosens its hold on the creative processing part of your brain.

This supports my hypothesis that creativity is something that happens naturally so long as your brain is not actively suppressing it for some sort of survival advantage. That makes sense because creative thinking usually isn’t helpful in immediately dangerous situations. If we were cave dwellers I would be the one that didn’t see the mastodon stampede heading my way because I was daydreaming and inventing new stone tools in my head. Sometimes you don’t need creative ideas so much as you just need to run.

Putting it in simpler terms, creativity is a mental luxury that your brain will not allow until it feels safe or until the watchdog part of your brain gets busy handling some routine task such as driving the car.

World Of PeaceCraft

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

“You’ve fought terrorists in Call of Duty and alien hordes in Gears of War. Well, now get ready for the opposite of that“:

(From Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.)

Usagi Yojimbo Short

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

This is the proof of concept short film that Lintika Films created and presented to Stan Sakai to secure the feature-film rights to Usagi Yojimbo:

Usagi, by the way, is Japanese for rabbit, and yojimbo means bodyguard. Yojimbo is also, of course, the famous a 1961 jidaigeki (period drama) film directed by Akira Kurosawa. It was based, indirectly, on Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and inspired Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars.

The Real League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Florian Liedtke has produced an opening sequence for a hypothetical League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie based on the original comics:

Did the writer of “True Detective” plagiarize Thomas Ligotti and others?

Friday, August 15th, 2014

When I saw a headline asking, Did the writer of True Detective plagiarize Thomas Ligotti and others?, I distinctly remembered that Nic Pizzolatto had explicitly mentioned Ligotti as a major influence in interviews:

MD: But isn’t it true that Pizzolatto acknowledged Ligotti’s influence on True Detective and praised his work?

JP: In the many interviews Pizzolatto gave in the lead up to episode three, the show’s influences were discussed by the show’s creator at great length. You know who wasn’t mentioned by Pizzolatto until days after episode three aired? Ligotti.

MD: But in this Wall Street Journal interview, Pizzolatto does talk at length about Ligotti’s influence on the show.

JP: Only under pressure. Here’s what was happening behind the scenes: WSJ reporter Michael Calia and I (and plenty of other Ligotti readers) had already noticed that Rust Cohle’s monologues and other dialogue were peculiarly Ligottian (his prose is very distinctive). In an interview with the True Detective creator, Arkham Digest editor Justin Steele even brought up Cohle’s “Ligottian wordview”, and I was frustrated when Pizzolatto evaded his question, at least as it concerned Thomas Ligotti or his work. Three of nine commenters on that interview page also noticed that Pizzolatto appeared to be evasive in dealing with the Ligotti influence question. At that point, I tried to get an interview with Pizzolatto about Ligotti’s influence on True Detective — writing to his agent — but I was told politely that Pizzolatto was “up to his ears in post-production and working on season two of True Detective.”

Then I started digging. Mr. Calia was coincidentally already working on an article centering on the influence by past and present masters of weird horror tales on True Detective, so I decided to analyze Cohle’s familiar dialogue and compare it side by side with Ligotti’s prose in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I quickly sent Mr. Calia the results of my research, and he used just the tip of the iceberg of evidence I had uncovered in his article — perhaps cannily implying that “The Most Shocking Thing About HBO’s ‘True Detective’” was that Pizzolatto lifted text and ideas from an author he had hitherto explicitly refused to acknowledge as an influence.

Shortly after the article’s publication, Calia interviewed Pizzolatto in a follow-up to his original article. It seems that the “too busy” writer suddenly had time for an interview mostly about, you guessed it, Thomas Ligotti. Usually I would give any kind of writer who appeared so praising of Ligotti the benefit of the doubt, but I knew how deep the plagiarism issue ran, and I had no illusions that Pizzolatto suddenly and coincidentally wanted to talk about Ligotti after already having dozens and dozens of opportunities to do so before. Was Pizzolatto in damage control mode (i.e., “I don’t want to get in legal trouble” mode)? Quite suddenly Thomas Ligotti was one of his top literary influences, an acknowledgement that would never be repeated again in a full-length interview or, to my knowledge, elsewhere.

MD: Wait, that interview was the only time Pizzolatto mentioned Ligotti as an influence?

JP: Not quite. He sent Justin Steele a follow-up paragraph clarifying Ligotti’s influence on True Detective just days after Calia’s first article on the connection between the show and Ligotti’s work was published. But after that, Pizzolatto hasn’t mentioned a word about Ligotti. Not one word. Nothing in interviews. Nothing on the DVD commentaries. Nothing. In how many interviews total does Pizzolatto mention Thomas Ligotti or his work? Two — the two I’ve mentioned.

MD: During the one WSJ interview, though, Pizzolatto states that “In episode one [of ‘True Detective’] there are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers. Which, of course, you got.” How do you respond to his claim?

JP: I consider that justification absurd and disingenuous.

‘Frozen’ Director to Write Disney’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed Frozen, will write the big-screen adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

TMZ’s Audience Exposed!

Friday, August 8th, 2014

The most shocking thing about TMZ:

Today, 42% of TMZ’s readership is male; compare that to usmagazine.com (15%) and people.com (11%).

Magic Mushrooms Inspired Dune

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Frank Herbert’s Dune included one element that particularly endeared it to the counterculture — the spice, melange, which granted its users prescience. It turns out that magic mushrooms were the inspiration for the spice, according to mycologist Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running:

Frank Herbert, the well-known author of the Dune books, told me his technique for using spores. When I met him in the early 1980s, Frank enjoyed collecting mushrooms on his property near Port Townsend, Washington. An avid mushroom collector, he felt that throwing his less-than-perfcct wild chanterelles into the garbage or compost didn’t make sense. Instead, he would put a few weathered chanterelles in a 5-gallon bucket of water, add some salt, and then, after 1 or 2 clavs, pour this spore-mass slurry on the ground at the base of newly planted firs. When he told me chanterelles were glowing from trees not even 10 years old, I couldn’t believe it. No one had previously reported chanterelles arising near such young trees, nor had anyone reported them growing as a result of using this method.” Of course, it did work for frank, who was simply following nature’s lead.

Frank’s discovery has now been confirmed in the mushroom industry. It is now known that it’s possible to grow many mushrooms using spore slurries from elder mushrooms. Many variables come into play, but in a sense this method is just a variation of what happens when it rains. Water dilutes spores from mushrooms and carries them to new environments. Our responsibility is to make that path easier. Such is the way of nature.

Frank went on to tell me that much of the premise of Dune — the magic spice (spores) that allowed the bending of space (tripping), the giant worms (maggots digesting mushrooms), the eyes of the Freman (the cerulean blue of Psilocybe mushrooms), the mysticism of the female spiritual warriors, the Bene Gesserits (influenced by tales of Maria Sabina and the sacred mushroom cults of Mexico) — came from his perception of the fungal life cycle, and his imagination was stimulated through his experiences with the use of magic mushrooms.

Groundhog Day’s Ecumenical Message

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

Charles Murray’s last piece of advice for a happy life is to watch Groundhog Day — repeatedly, of course.

Here the late Harold Ramis explains how Groundhog is remarkably ecumenical in its message. (“Embedding disabled by request.”)

(Hat tip to Borepatch.)