They mistake forgotten science for fiction

Sunday, November 7th, 2021

When historically ignorant readers read science fiction decades or centuries after it was written, they can mistake forgotten science for fiction:

When the science in SF survives the passage of time, we regard it as simply ordinary science or as an insightful prediction of the future; when it turns out to be wrong, we may write it off as fiction. Cordwainer Smith, in writing about “the pain of space” in “Scanners Live In Vain” was not (just) imagining some wild Freudian fantasy about leaving the womb, but drawing on pre-spaceflight 1940s extrapolation of hallucinations and cognitive problems in aviation; but since we now know that spaceflight is psychologically safe (and the real cognitive effects like the “overview effect” don’t look like “the pain of space”), contemporary readers read it as purely fictional and ponder the deep symbolism of the fantastical concept.

Similarly, Herbert made use of psi (still taken seriously at the time), extrapolation from the use of pheromones in insects to humans (though pheromones don’t even affect sexual behavior), various wooly ideas about transgenerational memory (never passed from woo to reality — sorry, “epigenetics” ain’t it either), Walter’s theory of warfare (crankery), and multilevel group selection (still highly debated), California Human Potential Movement beliefs about trainability of raw human abilities exemplified by Dianetics etc (a profound disappointment)… As they are presented as part of worldbuilding, it’s easy to simply accept them as fiction, no more intended real than manticores (or should I say, Martians?).

This works fine for Dune 56+ years later, because they are fun, and aren’t the focus. It holds up well, like The Dragon in the Sea or the eusocial-insect fiction like Hellstrom’s Hive. In contrast, Herbert’s Destination: Void, which has almost no interesting plot or characters, and is a long author-tract about his idiosyncratic interpretations of early cybernetics & speculation about AI, is unreadable today.

So, we should keep this in mind: if there are claims about how the world works in a SF work and they are false, is that because they are fictional or just science we are no longer familiar with?


So—this alternate paradigm can neatly explain all of the oddities of the Dune breeding program! The reason it is so odd is because Herbert was drawing on the obsolete Mendelian interpretations which were heavy on epistasis and de novo mutations, as opposed to the more plausibly relevant biometric Fisherian paradigm of highly polygenic additive traits with selection on standing variation. Herbert was throughout his life interested in agriculture & genetics, as demonstrated by his demonstration home farm project and the repeated use of agricultural themes in his works (eg Hellstrom’s Hive, where a group of humans develops into eusocial insects, or The Green Brain, where human extermination of insects has catastrophically destabilized global agriculture & provoked evolution of intelligent insects).


  1. Bruce Purcell says:

    Larry Niven once said forgotten sciences go mythical. Theology when the ignorant heathen went back to raging in their blindness, Alchemy when it transcended into chemistry, so forth.

  2. Space Nookie says:

    There are some aspects of the “breeding program” he misses, like how political power is passed patrilinearly and how ancestral memory/prescience works along bloodlines. Admittedly the latter is contrived. but it’s pretty clear that the child of an Atreides daughter-Harkonnen son combination would have enormous political power as heir to two powerful estates, ancestral memory advice from long lines of influential barons and dukes, and foresight from a long line of imperial descendants.

    It’s kind of notable that Paul struggles in books 2 and 3 because he’s just not enough of a ruthless bastard, which is presumably a characteristic the planned Kwisatz Haderach could have picked up from his Harkonnen father.

  3. TRX says:

    “Herbert’s Destination: Void, which has almost no interesting plot or characters…is unreadable today.”

    That depends. I liked the 1966 version just fine. However, the one you’re most likely to encounter is the “revised and expanded” 1978 version, which I found hard to follow, even having read the original.

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