28 - Wisdom of the Crowds: Dune

This episode, I'm joined by Liz (@pixelfish), Paige (@rhiannonrevolts), and Paul (@princejvstin) to discuss Frank Herbert's Dune, published 51 years ago.  This is the first "Wisdom of the Crowds" project, gathering audio from various listeners and then bringing it together.  We discuss Dune as Epic Fantasy In SPAAAACE, the orientalism and colonialism in Dune, and of course the Litany Against Fear and Dune's ecological messages.  This episode closes with a pitch for the People of Colo(u)r Destroy SF Kickstarter project, open through Friday, Feb 19 (in the US).

Links - 

On Problematic Faves

People of Colo(u)r Destroy SF

Wired Geek's Guide to the Galaxy interview with Nalo Hopkinson (fiction editor), Nisi Shawl (reprints editor) and Sunil Patel (personal essays editor)

Essays collected by Sunil Patel (@ghostwritingcow) by Troy Wiggins (@troylwiggins), Ken Liu (@kyliu99), and Caroline M. Yoachim (@carolineyoachim)

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by@etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet meTweet the showBe a guest on the show

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

If you want to subscribe to the show, the RSS feed is: http://www.cabbagesandkings.audio/?format=rss


L - Lis (@pixelfish)
PK - Paige Kimble (@rhiannonrevolts)
PW - Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)
JSM - Me!

L - And before long, I'm sneaking into their bedroom, I'm climbing the bookshelves and getting Dune down so I can read ahead.  I didn't exactly understand lots of it because ... age 4


JSM - Welcome to Cabbages & Kings, a podcast for readers of SFF.  I'm your host, Jonah Sutton-Morse.  This episode I asked a few people to send in their thoughts about Frank Herbert's novel Dune, which turned 50 last year but still looms large in my imagination and many others.

PW - Dune is one of my heart-books of SFF.  I read it first in the mid-80's I was a teenager which means I was the perfect age to read Dune.

JSM - That's Paul who you may remember from our past episode discussing Amber & Kate Elliott's books.  I encountered Dune when I was a bit older than Paul but much older than Lis.  I was not 4.  We'll hear from Paige next.

PK - Hi, I'm Paige Kimble.  With regards to Dune and my experience of Dune, I first tried to read Dune when I was at my father's when I was about 14 or 15 and had run out of books.  And I got through about 50 pages and bounced off the top of it.  I think I musth ave bounced off of it 3 or 4 times before I actually managed to read it in college.


JSM - We're going to start with a favorite game of SFF fans: What subgenre is it?  This book that has Dukes & Spaceships & Sandworms & Imperial Planetologists and of course prophecies and faster-than-light travel via the Spice.  How do we begin to make sense of Dune?

PW: It's really an Epic Fantasy IN SPAAAACE.  It is!  I mean you have ostensibly magic powers, you have feudal structures, you have all sorts of court intrigue, yes there are spaceships, yes there are there's wierd technology, but Dune again and again reinforces that fantasy feel.  I mean, consider the personal shield which make physical hand-to-hand combat which you'd think in the future with laser guns and big weapons would be out of fashion ... no, it's actually learning how to fight with knives & other things is not only practical it's essential in an age of personal shields and things which bring down conflict to a very personal, intimate level, and that's again Epic Fantasy.  I mean consider the final fight between Feyd and Paul, I mean that's a classic epic fantasy climax where you have the villain and the hero going at each other blade to blade.  That's not space opera at all.  There is a lot of wierd and perhaps uncomfortable orientalism in Dune.

PK - With regards to orientalism, I really have to wonder if Edward Said ever read Dune, just because it feels like an example out of that book.  At least in the first novel, we see everything through the eyes of Paul.  We never really get any one else's perspective.  We sort of do.  WE sort of get Jessica's perspective, briefly off & on.  But in terms of understanding, everything is sort of framed through how Paul understands it & how Paul comes to be part of the Fremen culture.

L - The fremen are definitely patterened on middle-eastern cultures, and as such I'm not really equipped to say how this world-building resonated or harmed folks from that culture.  I can only talk to my experience.  And reading as a child, I believed that the fremen were awesome badass fighters.  I really wanted to grow up & y'know live in a hidden fremen sietch and learn how to handle a crysknife and all that.  I do thing that there could be an element of exoticising or romantacising that sort of background.
In my most recent reading I detected a very patronizing tone from Jessica when she talks about utilizing fremen superstitions to survive.  The missionaria protectiva has been implanted by the bene gesserit centuries back among the fremen.  She can't even grant that their beliefs and cultures are their own, because she knows where they came from.  And you can kind of see how this is and indictment of both religion but it's also a very colonialistic attitude: Jessica doesn't think anything of exploiting this.
PK - I have a lot of thoughts about how Herbert looks at colonialism and what his take on it is.  And why it seems so contradictory.  I should sort of preface this by saying that I don't believe in death of the author.  I feel that the context and the history of when an author was writing is really, really critical to understanding and analyzing the work.  Herbert's writing this in the late 50's, which is right after or right around the time of the Suez crisis.  The empires of Europe were losing their imperial control, not to put too fine a point on it, but I think Herbert could've been looking at it from the perspective of a typical white american perspective even today which is that freedom is good & empire, being a colony, not being free, is bad.  Which is fine, and to a certain extent correct, but it's overly simplistic and it also ignores the fact that the US was and is a colonial power in many ways.  So my take is that Herbert's writing this from understanding and feeling that, oh these people need to be free.  But as is typical of people with privilege, he's imposing his own understanding on the situation.  He can't really comprehend it & make it work without it being on his terms, so you've got Paul Atriedes, the white savior (I mean he could be in a textbook), and he's the one who's sort of the chosen one from legend who's going to save them all.  And you'll notice that at the end of Dune the first novel, Paul basically just takes over the empire.  He realigns it so that the Frement have control of Arrakis.  He can't really comprehend a non-empire state of being, but he wants the Fremen to have control of The Spice because, well, they own it, it's theirs.  But at the same time he can't comprehend the idea of the system not working the way that he's grown up with it.  And I feel that as the novels go on you can see his growing and shifting understanding of empire, at least again from his perspective complicit in a colonialist power, his understanding of it shifts along with the understanding of it worldwide.  So what Leto does, Leto the second, by God-Emperor is he's created a whole new empire in his vision, his Golden Path, which it turns out wasn't what he wanted it to be at the end of Children of Dune by any stretch of the imagination.  He's just created stagnancy again.  So I think that you could look at that as Herbert commenting on the post-colonialist powers and what happened in a lot of the post-colonilist powers after they became independent.
I should really clarify that I think his view is flawed.  I think he, he really isn't coming at this with particular sort of sense of empathy.  But I think he's not someone who's ever really questioned his priviliege and so he's trying to tell this story about freedom and post=-colonialism and he's ending up basically just reinforcing the same old tropes.
JSM - I think it's interesting how clearly Dune indicates both the anxieties of 50 years ago & also brings out many contemporary political and literary critical trends.  I'm going to drop an essay on problematic faves that I find helpful into the show notes.
We're also going to talk now about the history and the world that Herbert built.
PK - I think what's really interesting for me is that Herbert mashes a whole bunch of stuff up in Dune.  Stuff that doesn't necessarily go together in fact stuff that we see as pretty much polar opposites.  So the Zensunni, referring to Islam and Buddhism and the Orange Catholic Bible, which William of Orange being the protestant and here in Glasgow we have Orange Marches which are Protestant sectarian marches so Orange Catholic is pretty much a contradiction in terms.  I think that's the extent of where Herbert's imagination could go with regards to how things are going to be different in the future.  That everything would be mixed up into one or two sort of dominant philosophies, and I think that's valid but then everything really sort of loses it's point.  For example he mixes up a lot of stuff out of Islam and then Judaism into it, and it sort of becomes one amalgamation of exotic that I don't think does anythign more than expresses exoticism.  These big ideas like, "oh, we can't have artificial intelligence because of some mysterious thing that's only mentioned in the back of the book", so The Butlerian Jihad and all these other things being mostly window dressing for having this culture and these characters and this other cultures and these characters.
PW - It all came about messily because that's the way history works.  In the original Dune book, we're presented this whole wierd interlocking set of things that have grown up over thousands of years and yeah they don't all quite work together, some of them feel like they should be in different books.  We have the Bene Gesserit over here, the spacing guild over there.  It's a feature, not a bug.

I also asked people about iconic scenes and characters in Dune.  Personally I always return to the banquet scene in the palace, which we see through Jessica’s eyes, where every participant, every comment, even the seating arrangement is analyzed for its political implications.  There are veiled warnings of danger through the Atriedes coded language, empty-headed plus-ones who steer the conversation towards commercially or politically relevant topics, always this looming sense of danger.  I suspect it’s a polarizing scene that plenty of readers find boring *laughs*, but I loved it.  Even though I mentioned it when I asked for responses, no one else brought it up.  Plenty of other moments came through, though.

10:39 L - One of my favorite scenes is the scene where they cross the sand at night, using the Thumper.  And make their way to the basin where the fremen are watching them.

And Paul first confronts Jamis and Stilgar and eventually Jamis has to call him out & Paul's forced to fight Jamis in order to prove that he has the right.  And not just him, but he's basically also fighting for his mother, because she would be accorded status as a witch and not allowed to live as she hasn't been trained up to the fremen ways they want to render her body down for water at this point.


It’s interesting because from here I go to the funeral, Jamis’ baliset which reminds Paul of his friend Gurney Halleck, and the iconic scene where Paul, not yet used to the fremen water discipline, cries, and the tribe is moved: Usul gives water to the dead.  But it turns out there’s even more to take from this sequence.

L -

Paul is defending his mother & yet she's perfectly capable of defending herself. (laugh)  A fact that is made perfectly clear by the fact that they actually have injunctions for Jessica not to speak lest she somehow turn the tide of the battle towards her son.  And you kind of get the feeling that Jessica is really, really powerful even when her son is fighting on her behalf.

You never felt that Jessica's power was undercut at any point.  She's just a strong woman and her son is proof that she's a strong woman.  She raised him.  She trained him. The fruit comes from the tree.


I really liked that about this series.  Jessica and Paul were easily my favorite characters even when they're being shortsighted, unfortunately. I still love them & I love Jessica & I love being in her brain.  I love that we saw so much of her thoughts as she analyzes the world around her.

PW -

The Baron, we probably should talk about the Baron and some of the problems of the book at this point.  I mean his, quote unquote sexual deviance and how it's treated as a character flaw is definitely way out of current morality. The miniseries doesn't go anywhere near that.  It just doesn't bother with talking about the Baron's preference for, for homosexuality.  In the book it's a horror, and that goes back to the whole very conservative Epic Fantasy sort of world.  Of course it is, I mean consider: he doesn't even have an heir of his own, of his own line.  I mean he has his two wacko nephews as his heirs, and one's worse than the other!

And that's presented in the book as the Baron's sexual deviance being a bad thing, so ... that's really out of step with today's society and it's something you have to look at the book and go "well that society is screwed up in the head that way, and Herbert's not advocating it or shouldn't be advocating it, he's presenting it"


Cards on the table here: my reading is that Baron Harkonnen, who’s a grossly-self-indulgent man and Leto’s archenemy, is portrayed in horrific ways as someone who’s outward disgusting appearance reveals his inner hideousness.  In Dune, I believe the pinnacle of the Baron’s despicableness is that he is not only gay but a pedophile, and that in the book there’s no real distinction between those two things - he is simply a sexual deviant along with so many other terrible characteristics.  I find this aspect of the book reprehensible.  I cannot express how much it bothers and offends and disgusts me to read the Baron portrayed in that way and to have homosexuality equated with pedophilia and to have those be representative of the Baron's moral character or lack thereof.  I find that awful.  I tend to cope by downplaying to myself the scenes where those aspects of the Baron come up whenever I think about or read the book.  Let's go back for a moment to the notion of problematic faves.  For me, I have no interest in trying to find logic or significance in any aspect of the portrayals of Baron Harkonnen. I find it easiest to simply note that he is vile, note that he sometimes moves the plot forward, and get away from that as quickly as possible.

Having said that, I think that Paul is right that like many otherepic fantasy stories, Dune is a book concerned with dynasties, and the baron’s inability to father an heir is an element of his role as the anti-Atreides, and I think that there are ways in which if you were willing to sort of entertain the notion that it's reasonable to talk about the baron and the fact that he can't produce an heir and contrast that with Leto and think about what heirs mean in the book, I think there's something you can get out of that.  It's just - I have no interest in thinking about that aspect of the Baron.  I would like to get past that part of the book as quickly as possible.  Dynastic considerations also feature prominently with Paul’s mother, the lady Jessica, and his concubine Chani, and we're going to move on to those topics now.


PK -

I mean, think of Jessica for example.  She defies the Bene Gesserit, and the Bene Gesserit are amazing in so many different ways, both bad and good.

She defies the Bene Gesserit because she loves Leto.  Because she loves Leto she won't give him a daughter like the Bene Gesserit want.  She'll give him a son.  And I don't think you'd necessarily have that today without it being sort of further examined.  And it's *really not*.  It's really just sort of a given.  She'll give him a son and an heir.

But this is 10,00 years in the future, so why would that necessarily matter?

What's interesting is Herbert really develops the Bene Gesserit later on in the series, particularly in the last 3 books that no one ever reads. And they become much more human.  Much more people with both flaws and strengths, rather than sort of hubris and heroism. Which, y'know, I gotta give Herbert a little bit of props for that, that he actually develops his writing of women over time.  It's by no means perfect, but he did learn.

And Chani I suppose is also really kind of, well, really quite disturbing.  In that she's both this very competent warrior-woman, and yet she also becomes quite submissive and, and sweet to Paul when they get together and y'know sort of really capturing the orientalist sort of perception of women in both ways y'know. I don't think Herbert really tried to write The Other in any way shape or form, I think he just sort of ended up writing up as he perceived people to be. He tried hard (I think) to perceive people and tried to perceive people who he wasn't (y'know anybody who wasn't a white guy), but I think in the end he was limited to what he could see and and what he could understand.

The Litany Against Fear came up frequently when people talked about iconic moments in the story

L -

I suppose the scene that defines Dune for me the most is the scene where Paul & Jessica are fleeing the Harkonnens and they plunge straight into a sandstorm with Paul piloting the ornithopter.  And this scene is particularly famous because it contains the litany against fear recited for the first time in the text as a whole litany.

I still use this scene in my brain when I'm flying on an airplane & encounter turbulence.  I try to recall that no matter what else is going on, I am not in a sandstorm on Arrakis.*laughs*

And it's a whole man against his environment, be the environment political, ecological, be it social, but I think that there's this whole theme of are we adapting to our surroundings or are we going to be rigid and let it kill us?

And at some point you just have to kind of ride the whole thing out, the way Paul rides out that sandstorm.

PK -

I can't really discuss this without looking at the Litany Against Fear, which I think a lot of people have really taken to heart.  I don't know that I necessarily agree with it, to be perfectly honest with you, because I feel like fear can be useful.  Fear can be a tool.  And I think that the Bene Gesserit would have known that fear can be a tool.  Though maybe that's what they're saying when they say to let it flow through you, and only you remain at the end.  So to analyze the fear and take and learn something from it.  It is really telling that that's the Bene Gesserit way of determining whether or not someone is quote unquote human.

That never really gets brought up again after the first novel.  In fact it doesn't really get brought up again after the first few scenes, y'know in the entire thing.19:04

So maybe it's there just so we can see "oh, Paul is really special, and this is how he's gonna go become Mr White Savior Last Samurai guy!"

But at the same time its not something that the Bene Gesserit usually give to men.  Which is really interesting.  It's something that they only use to judge themselves.  And so they've judged Paul as being the special man.

You have to wonder if Herbert knew about women and pain tolerances and that sort of thing or if that was something that just past him by & he was just making it up.


JSM - I also asked people about Dune's legacy.
PK -

What's Dune's legacy?


Is it bad if I say Dune's legacy is how not to Write The Other?


Which is true.


But I think Dune sort of made it acceptable in mainstream Science Fiction to write about really strange things, and really strange sort of understandings of the human mind, for example, with the Spice Trance and that sort of thing.  And to write about Drugs! But to do it in what's a very mainstream science fiction novel, rather than something that you had to be tripped out to really understand.

L -

I think that Dune is an important novel science fiction wise partly because of the ecology focus.

Right now more than ever we are seeing our planet change as the result of human action, and if we don't want to end up *laugh* in a frankly apocalyptic wasteland or other terrible future scenario, we could probably do a lot worse than to look at Dune and the lessons of ecology that are contained therein.

One of my favorite bits is when Kynes is out in the desert without his stillsuit & he realizes that his planet is going to kill him.  He loves this planet.  He is a desert creature as he puts it. He has changed and adapted to this planet & ultimately the dream that he's been working for will be realized.  He's actually aided the person that will basically push his dream into reality.  

PK - There's this prophecy among the Fremen that eventually Arrakis will become green and and fertile. And Paul thinks this is a great idea!(laughter) Lets redevelop Arrakis and make it in these people's image.

PW - In Dune, when you start mucking around with the natural environment, be it trying to mine spice, trying to harness worms, trying to, make Dune the planet into a places with water and much more hospitable to humans you're going to wind up doing things you don't intend or expect.  And, that's a very important these days especially now when we're pumping so much Co2 into the atmosphere we *are* changing our planet whether we will or no and we're not quite sure what's going to come out of it, but it's not all going to be good. And Dune 50 years later seems even more prescient about, when you start messing with the planet on a wide scale, you don't know what you're going to get & you're probably going to regret it. And THAT, that is something especially as this 21st century goes on that'll keep making Dune relevant.

L - And yet, there's this whole sense that like Kynes, he doesn't fall short, he just becomes one with his planet when it finally destroys him.

And, there's this sort of beautiful meditation on the way his planet is bent on destroying him and it's this sort of ... the way his planet destroys him is the way we're destroying our planet in some respects. If you think about our planet as sort of a body for humans and what we're doing to it is we're basically trying to mold it & change it & exploit it & I think that the ecological messages of Dune are going to be very timely in the near future.



JSM - We’re going to move now from Dune to a kickstarter project that closes this Friday.  People Of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction (and horror, and possibly fantasy) is the third annual “Destroy” short story anthology from Lightspeed Magazine.  The project will compile new and reprinted short fiction from authors of color (it is all selected by and everyone working on the project identifies as a person of color), it includes many personal statements from authors of color, many of which are already on the website destroysf.com slash poc.  (I will have plenty of links in the show notes)  This project actually came up quite a while ago when I had Akil on.  It is now live.  I highly recommend supporting the project, which again is up through this Friday February 19th (at least here in the states).  You will get a lot of really great fiction by new and established authors, selected by highly respected anthologists.  I asked the personal essays editor Sunil Patel to talk a bit about the project, which we will hear after a few clips from earlier episodes with Akil Harris and Troy Wiggins.


AH - I read, I think it was Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin a month or two ago and I think that's like the first speculative fiction novel I read by a black person.  And it was really nice, I liked it.


TW - There is a book that is directly responsible for my deciding to write Fantasy Fiction.  And it's David Anthony Durham's Acacia.  I was ... this was one of the times I was coming back to the genre. This was after college, I had just graduated.  And I was unemployed and I didn't have anything to do really but apply for jobs, so while I was applying for jobs at the library, I went and picked up a book.  And I hadn't been in the SFF section for a while, so I went over there and I had a phone, a smartphone, and I was like "black fantasy authors", I googled it.  And his name was one of the first names that came up.  And his book was called Acacia.  And so I found it and I went and I picked it up and I started reading it and it was *great*!  And I was like, this guy's writing, I mean why can't I write a book about stuff like this, and so I started writing that day.  I started writing a story.


AH - Ooh, can I tell you a little story?

JSM - Please

AH - OK, so, are you familiar with the Queers Destroy SF Kickstarter?

JSM - I am.

AH - That was through Lightspeed.  I found out about that just as I was looking into reading more about queer experiences. This is really cool.  And they did one for women too!

JSM - There's some really good stuff in there.

AH - But I was looking at it and I thought it was so cool and at the same time I was thinking, this is really cool but are they going to do one for People of Color? Because that'd be awesome too. And so what I did was I emailed them saying how awesome I thought it was that they were doing this to try to promote marginalized voices and stuff like that.  But also I was asking y'know are you guys going to do one for POC, because that'd be really cool, because I realize now I really don't see a lot of stuff written by POC.

And so John Joseph Adams [the publisher of Lightspeed Magazine] emailed me back saying that yeah, we actually are going to do one.



SP - Hi, I'm Sunil Patel, personal essays editor for Lightspeed's POC Destroy Science Fiction special issue.  We have a Kickstarter going on right now which you can find at destroySF.com/POC and I'm here to talk to you a little about it. Thank you to Jonah for having me on the podcast.

So, POC Destroy Science Fiction is a special issue of Lightspeed that is completely written, edited, produced, illustrated, all by People of Color.  Which is great!

Because as you might know from being in the world, POC, that is people who are not white, are generally seen as a minority despite the fact that actually worldwide there are more people of color than white people.  But that's a whole other issue.  This issue is about giving POC a voice.  Putting stories by POC in one place so that you can see a whole bunch of great stories.  Because what you normally see is a bunch of stories written by white people.  In my personal essays, a lot of people talked about erasure, and the fact that they didn't realize that the world was sort of this, full of white supremacy. And so when they started writing stories, they were writing white characters because that is all they'd ever seen.

I did the same thing.  I did not realize when I started writing that I could write indian people, because I'd never read indian people in books.  If they were in there at all, they were sidekicks.  They were never protagonists, they weren't doing anything.  They talked about the fact that they didn't see themselves in stories, and that made them feel like they didn't belong in stories.  Which is completely untrue! We all belong in stories, we all have a place in stories! No matter where you come from, who you are, what your background is, we all deserve to have our stories told, and POC Destroy SF is a project to allow that.

We have actually reached our goal of destroying SF, which is great.  We've also reached a stretch goal of destroying horror.  We're getting close to destroying fantasy. [update - all stretch goals met].  Now, your support will help us destroy so many genres, because there's also this, there's this thought, this notion, that people often have, that stories written by POC are inherently lesser.  And that's wrong.  And that's, it's Wrong with a capital W is what it is!

Its because white supremacy is sort of insidious and oppressive and subconscious, it's not something that you do on a regular basis.  Even I, as a nonwhite person, have been affected by it.  I inherently think, oh, it's something written by a white person, it must be better because that is the majority of our entertainment that we get.  All those books that we see pushed, the most famous, the classics of all time, everything you read in school is all written by white people. *laughs* And so you get the impression that that is what literature is, that's what stories are supposed to be.

POC Destroy SF says "No!" We can do more than that.  There are other people who have no had the chance to have their voices heard, and we're giving them a place to have those voices heard.  And, you, by supporting this project, are helping these voices find their way into the world.  You can help debut new voices! You can help promote voices that deserve to be heard even more than they already are! And as a bonus, as a kickstarter backer you will get personal essays delivered to your inbox every day.  We only have a few days left, but the backer updates are there right now online and they're all essays written by people from all around the world from different backgrounds and they explore what it means to be a POC exploring SF.  What it means to watch SF and not see yourself, or to see yourself depicted as a stereotype and a horribly offensive stereotype at that. So I hope that what you will do after listening to this podcast is go to destroySF.com/POC ,look at the backer rewrards.  At this point you get so much for just $5 it is just ridiculous.  You get the issue, you get horror, you get magazines, you get a sampler anthology, you get so much for $5, and I think it is absolutely worth your time and your money to help support this project: POC Destroy Science Fiction.


JSM - Thanks for listening to Cabbages & Kings.  Let me know what you think of the show.  On the website- cabbageandkings.audio, there's a feedback form & also a page if you'd like to be on the show.  Or just go ahead and email contact@cabbagesandkings.audio. I'm on Twitter @jsuttonmorse, the show is on twitter @kingcabbagecast.  Let me know what you enjoyed, what books you're reaching for now, what I can do to make the show better.  The website also has an occassional blog, my running tweets on what I'm reading, and importantly a link to the RSS feed for this show which you can also find on iTunes & wherever fine podcasts are aggregated.  Until next time, enjoy your reading.