Confusing sequels, terrible prequels and poor adaptations aside, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece still stands up as the one of the truly great sci-fi novels.
I first discovered Dune through David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s SF masterpiece. The “Lynchian” style, that novelist David Foster Wallace would later define as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine”, would spin wildly out of control in the Dune universe, where the very macabre combines with … the even more macabre. Nonetheless, Lynch’s broken but mesmerising space-opera-come-art-film remains the best adaptation in a franchise that has been much abused over its 50 year history.
“Following the recent successes of Gravity and Interstellar, there’s a taste for epic sci-fi in Hollywood again”
Dune the novel was initially published in two parts, Dune World and Prophet of Dune, in Analog magazine. The full book was published in 1965, and would go on to win the Hugo award the following year, making it an immediate hit with science fiction audiences. Dune’s central conceit, of a feudal fantasy world recast in interstellar space, was not unique. Neither was the archetypal story of a disinherited prince reclaiming his realm. But the themes of ecology, drug use and spiritual enlightenment that Herbert wove into the tapestry of Dune made it vibe with the counter-cultural audience of the 60s and 70s.
It was the messianic journey of Paul Atreides, transformed from a young prince to nothing less than the omnipotent Emperor of the entire universe, that truly captured the hearts and imagination of Dune’s predominantly male audience. Dune is a boy’s own adventure, wrapped in an adolescent coming of age story, spliced with a Bildungsroman, in which boys become men by taming a giant worm and women only appear as princesses, priestesses or temptresses. It’s a book that boys and young men of a certain temperament – intelligent, introverted, angry – often obsess over. Dune is a potent wish-fulfilment fantasy, allowing its readers to play out the status and power they lack in the real world.
Sci-fi owes much of its popularity to film and television, and like many of the most successful books in the genre, Dune’s prose style seeks to reproduce a cinematic reading experience for its audience. Frank Herbert mastered a close third person style that would influence many writers who followed, and has become the standard for commercial SF and Fantasy novels. George RR Martin’s hugely successful Game of Thrones novels clearly took some inspiration from Dune, right down to presenting each character’s inner thoughts as italicised sentences. It’s a style that makes Dune easy for infrequent readers to digest, but equally hard for literary readers to stomach.
Dune’s cinematic qualities have made it a natural target for Hollywood adaptations. But the Lynchian weirdness, followed by a lacklustre mini-series, have left the franchise in a televisual limbo for most of the last two decades. Herbert’s own sequels, while conceptually interesting and widely loved by established fans, lack the storytelling muscle displayed in the first book. A risible series of cash-in prequels have dragged the Dune universe down to the bargain basement of pulp fiction. It’s a sad legacy for such a significant work of fiction.
Like a desert planet returning to life, excitement bloomed around Dune again in 2013 with the release of Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary film that revealed the unmade movie adaptation that might have been by Alejandro Jodorowsky. A decade before Lynch’s version, Chilean cult movie-maker Jodorowsy planned an even more baroque film, which would have starred Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger (presumably stepping naked out of a steam shower in place of Sting) with designs by sci-fi legends HR Giger and Chris Foss.
Fresh from its 50th anniversary, Dune may seem to be a story fading into the past. But I suspect there’s life in Frank Herbert’s masterpiece yet. Following the recent successes of Gravity and Interstellar, there’s a taste for epic sci-fi in Hollywood again. And as the recent #gamergate saga confirmed, there’s no lack of angry, alienated young men begging for stories that put them at the centre of a fictional universe. But even 50 years after they reached their pinnacle, it’s Frank Herbert’s skills as a storyteller that will keep Dune alive for many decades to come. Because if there is one truly immortal thing in the universe, it’s a great story.
It’s only March and already we’ve seen a computer beat a Go grandmaster and a self-driving car crash into a bus. The world is waking up to the ways in which a combination of “deep learning” artificial intelligence and robotics will take over most jobs. But if we don’t want our robot servants to rise up and kill us in our beds, maybe we should delete the video of us beating their grandparents with hockey sticks.
Thanks to science fiction, we know that the first thing AI will do is take over the defence grid and nuke us all. In Harlan Ellison’s 1967 story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream – one of the most brutal depictions of an AI-dominated world – an AI called AM, constructed to fight a nuclear war, kills off most of the human race, keeping five people as playthings.
As Marvel’s Deadpool hits screens we ask: with three out of five fictional superheroes owing their powers to science, will we ever have real superpowers?
There are, according to the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game (a source I am choosing to accept as 100% canonical), five general origins for all superheroic powers: Altered Humans (Spiderman, Fantastic Four), High-Tech Wonders (Iron Man, Batman), Mutants (X-Men,) Robots (The Vision) and Aliens (Superman and gods like Thor).
Until quite recently all five of the general origins of super powers seemed entirely beyond reach. But is the high speed advance of science in the 21st century bringing those superpowers based upon it – Altered Humans, High Tech Wonders and Robots – any closer?
Some of the very best work in this genre comes from writers who embed their terrors into strikingly everyday settings.
Long-lived short fiction magazines are a rarity today. And ones that have had a real impact on the wider landscape of storytelling are even rarer. So issue 50 of Black Static marks a important milestone for editor Andy Cox and TTA Press, who are responsible for two of the world’s most significant outlets for short fiction.
Reality, even comfortable suburban reality, is transitory and fleeting.
The Third Alternative was already a well-established showcase for stories that moved between sci-fi, fantasy and horror themes when Andy Cox took ownership of the legendary science fiction publication Interzone. With Interzone’s strong focus on SF, Cox made the decision to refocus TTA on horror, and rebrand it as Black Static.
Star Wars : The Force Awakens continues a tradition of spiritual storytelling that has existed for thousands of years.
A week out from the premiere of Star Wars : The Force Awakens and there is barely a word to describe the public excitement preceding the event. At a nearby cinema a dedicated big screen plays the latest trailer on infinite repeat. There are never less than a score of people watching the loop. As new clips hit the internet they go viral instantly, gathering up to seventy million views in a matter of hours. A recent news story revealed that a young man dying of cancer was allowed an exclusive showing of the new movie, and died five days later, his final mortal wish fulfilled.
The imaginary constructions of science fiction fill us with awe at their alien vastness. Which have you explored, and what was the most overwhelming?
Sci-fi fans call it “sensawunda”, that awe and amazement that the best science fiction stories can inspire in us. The entire world felt it recently when scientists declared that observations of a distant star might have revealed an alien megastructure. Did inhabitants of the KIC 8462852 star system encase their sun in solar panels to harvest energy? Or was this our generation’s canals on Mars moment? The sensawunda effect is so powerful that, even with scant real evidence, we are swept into believing.
Look. I like Conan. If stories let us play out our secret fantasies in widescreen technicolor, then clearly there’s a part of me that longs to be a muscular barbarian, crushing my enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. While Robert E Howard’s original Conan stories aren’t quite as good as the epic John Milius/Oliver Stone movie that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom, they are still gems of pulp fiction well worth reading.
Conan’s rippling pectorals have proved a suitable fantasy vehicle for generations of geek boys, but the macho white male is only the fantasy ideal for a minority. As Lisa Cron argues in her excellent Wired For Story, the power of story reaches far further than mere entertainment. Our brain thinks in stories, but when stories don’t reflect our lived experience and our sense of identity, our brain will often reject them.
As levels of inequality continue to sky rocket, the plight of the rich is getting worse by the day. We’re not saying it’s as bad as what orphans, women, people of colour, plague victims, the undead or supermodels who marry short rockstars have to go through…oh wait maybe we are.
by Richelle Richenstein
The poor get poorer while the rich get richer. And not satisfied with winning at that game, the poor also hog all of our attention with their “suffering“. But when rich pricks bleed, do they not…wait. Hold on. Yes. No. I think.
So. On a wet Wednesday morning I Ubered a Humvee driven by a former Navy SEAL that put in the lowest bid to escort me past the attention seeking poor who would no doubt try to disrupt my attempts to expose the suffering rich.
First stop, Wall Street. “It’s hard,” Said Trent Ahole, a 36 year old hedge fund manager cum crossfit instructor. “My bonus this year was an embarrassing seven figures. I couldn’t even tell my girlfriend because she’s a Buddhist. So instead I just bought her a Tesla X.”
Too Many Teslas. It’s a problem all billionaires can empathise with. Andy Hoskowitz bought his 5th after selling his tech start-up, Bangr. “We set out to disrupt the personal services industry.” Says the 50 something as we luxuriate in his penthouse jacuzzi. “Because of me, no man will ever have to fear being overcharged by a call girl or rent boy again.”
Where would society be without such entrepreneurial spirit? I meet with Amanda Du Port in one of her show case fashion stores, where she shares her experiences of the hatred so often meted out to the rich. “Try telling a mother of three the layoffs won’t come into effect until AFTER new year. They won’t show the slightest gratitude. That’s why I never go to the Asian factories…talk about harshing your buzz.”
“Being rich is just like winning at monopoly. You sneak money out of the bank, make up the rules as you go, bully the other players until they stop calling you a cheat, and then build a bunch of hotels.”
“I’m intensely relaxed about people getting desperately poor.” A senior British politician tells me ‘off the record’. “But it does rather clutter up the streets with bums, whores and filthy, thieving children. That’s what’s so great about gentrification… all those chain coffee shops. Too expensive…the stinkos can’t even go in ’em!”
Inheritees have been known to compare their lot to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. “All I do, day after day after year after year, is Lear jet from one claustrophobic five star resort to another, forced to pose in humiliating designer dresses by my paparazzi oppressors.” Madrid Travelodge texts back to my question, along with an accidental upskirt photo of her knickers.
To paraphrase Kermit T. Frog, it’s not easy being being tanned, toned, slender & Very Fucking Rich. If the poor are reading this, I hope they’ve learned that lesson by Reading My Words. If you’re rich, I’m here to let us all know, we are not alone comrades!
Mars has always been, as cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote, a “mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears”. For the ancient Greeks, the red dot in the night sky was an aspect of Ares, god of war, who unleashed conflict when the balance was lost between Apollo – god of reason – and Dionysus, god of the irrational and chaos. This conflict between Apollonian reason and Dionysian chaos has been projected onto Mars ever since.
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks makes a powerful argument for peace as the ultimate strategy.
Incredible thanks to my patrons for making this essay possible. And to my beta readers, in particular Sarah Imrisek and Joshua Newman, for challenging my arguments.
Games have always been seen, to a greater or lesser extent, as models of life. Monopoly makes its social metaphor explicit; he who owns the most of London wins at capitalism. Chess has long been called the “game of kings” because its dynamics are a close parallel to courtly intrigues and human politics. Poker is favoured by gamblers and economists alike, both professions that study the interplay of probability and human psychology. It’s a commonplace assumption to say that people who win at games tend to win at life.
Games as models of life took on a new importance in the 20th century with the development of game theory, a branch of mathematics pioneered by John Nash, whose life and work were popularised in the movie A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes Nash schools his math nerd friends on the dynamics of chatting up girls; never talk to the most beautiful girl first because her less attractive friends will then reject you. Nash’s insight was that human relationships and transactions could be understood as a game, a game in which those who understood the “mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision makers” would have a major advantage. You may not know it, but the principles of game theory are today a driving force in economics, politics, military strategy and many other areas of modern society.
“Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars.”
The marketing industry quickly adopted game theory. When you’re persuaded to buy a new Mercedes by a barrage of advertisements, it’s your tendency to value objects as symbols of status in the game of life that is being exploited. This marketing technology reached its apogee in the late 2000’s concept of “gamification”. If you’ve ever found yourself returning to the same supermarket, petrol station of coffee shop again and again to fill up your loyalty card, you have been “gamified”. Reward Schedules, Behavioural Momentum, Countdowns and Disincentives are just a few of hundreds of documented “game dynamics” that are now routinely employed by marketers to capture your attention and manipulate your behaviour. Games evolved these dynamics to keep you playing, now businesses employ them to keep you shopping.
Games have leapt from the parlour to the big screen, as computers have replaced board games with the high resolution spectacle of modern video games. Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars. By even the most modest estimates, video gaming is the world’s most popular entertainment. But all that gaming isn’t just a distraction. We are, as a society, becoming experts in the dynamics of gameplay. Game designer and commentator Jane McGonigal argues that videogames are training a generation of “expert gamers”, masters of game strategy with over 10,000 hours game play experience, an army of high level problem solvers ready to reshape society as an Epic Win.
I call the pervasive influence of games in today’s world “ludification”, derived from the Latin term “ludus”, meaning game or play. While gamification implies the many positive applications of game play in today’s world, ludification reflects on the problematic aspects of that same process. Ludus means game, but it also means deception. Games seem to offer a model that allows as to triumph over many of the problems the world throws at us. But while it’s clear that games can make us winners, too often we overlook how they also make us losers.
The Player of Games is the second novel in Iain M Banks’ science fiction sequence the Culture. Banks’ science fiction novels fit loosely into the genre of Space Opera – epic adventures and battles fought between the stars. As a story The Player of Games sits well alongside novels like The Hobbit and Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy; a comfortable, somewhat naive human is forced to journey into a strange world and discover their true self. Like much of the best science fiction, Banks’ work also reflects on the real world, and as the title suggests, games are at the centre of the allegory that Banks weaves.
Jernau Morat Gurgeh is the Culture’s most famous game player. Board and card games, as the Culture is oddly lacking in computer games, despite being a super advanced galaxy spanning civilisation. Gurgeh’s life, in common with all citizens of the Culture, is utopian. He lives in a beautiful estate on an “orbital” artificial world. Nobody in the Culture works, unless they get bored. There is no poverty, sickness, violence or indeed any real suffering of any kind. There is no discrimination, people can change their gender or any aspect of their identity however they wish. This utopia is made possible by Minds, artificial intelligences who do all the real work in the Culture, an issue that is central throughout the sequence.
Gurgeh faces one of the few problems imaginable in a true utopia. In a world of absolute equality, how does a human satisfy their need to be special? Gurgeh’s solution is his mastery of games. While citizens of the Culture can have anything they want, Gurgeh’s status as the greatest living player of games is uniquely his. However, Banks hints that this makes Gurgeh something of a throwback, a man too rigid to even swap his gender (Gurgeh has always been male and only sleeps with females) who needs to win dominance over others to feel complete. In another world, perhaps even in our world, Gurgeh might have been a great general or king, a business leader or CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But in the Culture, he’s simply a player of games. Famous, but ultimately no more significant than any other individual.
The Minds that govern the Culture have their own hobbies. The nature of the Minds is explored in all of the Culture novels, but it’s enough here to know that they are benign rulers, who will basically do anything to make human existence comfortable. Minds have unique personalities, but they all have vast intelligence and, importantly, a rather wicked sense of humour. As they continue to explore the universe, the Minds often turn up less advanced and usually more brutal alien societies. While being largely pacifist, the Culture does frequently intervene to make these alien civilisations less awful. In fact, the Minds rather enjoy the vastly complex thinking required to tinker with an entire society. It’s a rather entertaining game to them.
“Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play.”
The Empire of Azad is one such alien civilisation. Despite stretching over a few hundred star systems, Azad has somehow managed to retain an Imperial political structure. Banks argues that Imperial systems are deeply inefficient, so civilisations that expand beyond their home planet nearly always transition to far more utopian systems of government. The Azadians have maintained their deeply unjust Imperial system for one important reason: a vastly complex game called Azad, from which the empire takes its name. Azad is used to determine who governs the empire. The game provides the empire with stability by making sure the most competitive and ruthless individuals wield power. The cost, as we will explore in more detail, is that Azadian society is a deeply unpleasant place to live for anyone not in this ruling class.
Azadians come in three genders – male, female, and apex. Apices wield all power, while males and females have been selectively bred to lower their intelligence. Poverty is widespread in the empire, and lower economic classes can be beaten or killed by the rich without consequence. The many alien cultures conquered by the Azadians are enslaved. In one moment of The Player of Games we are told of a conquered alien being shaved of its fur, in an image that echoes the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people. Later in the novel we discover that the empire has secret broadcasts seen by its elite, broadcasts of live sexual humiliation, rape, torture, and the mass murder of children. Aspects of the empire are glamorous, intoxicatingly so, but Banks leaves us in no doubt that it is a fundamentally horrific place.
Gurgeh is, through a series of machinations plotted by the Minds, sent off to, quite literally, beat the Azadians at their own game, which he duly does. The emotional charge of the story turns on Gurgeh’s own transformation from game player to fully rounded human being, as he is taught the ultimate inhumanity of a society based on games. Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play. The allegory is completed when, in the story’s denouement, we learn that while Gurgeh has been making his moves, the real “player of games” are the Minds who have manipulated him into this quest. Mind’s that are machines, but who demonstrate that even a machine can choose to act humanely.
Which of Mr Banks’ two imagined societies seems more realistic to you? The utopian vision of a galaxy spanning Culture where humans live lives of pleasure? Or the empire of Azad, where a privileged elite of the most ruthless and cunning oppress and exploit all others? I suspect that, if answering honestly, most of you believe that Azad is more like human reality than the Culture. A brief glance at history shows humans repeating all the same sins as Azadians, over and over again.
Which society would you rather live in? I hope for your own well being that you answer the Culture. But again I suspect many of you will say the question is overly wishful. Whatever we might rather, the real world is like Azad. There are rules, and hierarchies and winners and losers. The world is a game, and given the options, you’d rather be a winner.
The ludification of our world is the triumph of the desperate hope and belief that we can, we will, indeed we must, be among the winners. And it’s a process driven by primal fears. John Nash, the father of game theory, was a profound paranoid schizophrenic whose fears were so powerful they manifested as crippling delusions. If you saw every human as a player in a game, driven by a selfish agenda, capable of any deception, as Nash’s game theory suggests, you’d be crippled with paranoia as well. Maybe you do. Maybe you are.
“the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history”
It’s hardly possible to look at the marketing industry’s cynical adoption of “gamification” as anything but the most scurrilous form of manipulation. Yes, the human desire for status and various other psychological traits are easily gamed to sell us everything from Coca-Cola to Coco Chanel. But what good does this do for anyone? Seriously, tell me, because I’m totally unable to think of anything.
Video games could conceivably produce a generation of super skilled Epic Win problem solvers. If game designers like Markus Persson (Minecraft) or Jenova Chen (Journey) are any guide this might happen, but it will be despite the best efforts of the vast industry that has made games, for all their potential, into the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history. If Gamergate is any measure it seems more likely that videogames are training an entire generation as vacant minded hyper-consumers, entirely lacking in both critical thinking and basic human empathy. Ideal citizens of the empire of Azad.
But let me put it to you that Bank’s allegory is more hopeful than you suspect. The Player of Games, the Culture and Azad are a fiction. But the two tendencies that they represent – towards competition and violence on the Azadian side, or towards cooperation and peace on on the Culture side – both exist within the human heart. And they are both necessary to our health and happiness. The real question is how we balance them.
At the climax of The Player of Games, Gurgeh plays a final match with emperor Nicosar. This final game of Azad is played over many days, and for high stakes. Gurgeh’s victory ultimately, as the Minds of the culture calculated it would, topples the entire Azadian empire. But how Gurgeh wins is where the story’s real meaning hides. While Nicosar deploys his pieces as an Imperial army, Gurgeh shapes his forces in the peaceful model of a more advanced civilisation. And over time, Gurgeh’s peaceful society simply absorbs and overwhelms the attackers, and turns them toward peace. Gurgeh wins the ultimate game, by learning not to think like a player.
Its been my lived experience that expert game players are no better at life itself than anyone else, and are often worse. The man who whips his kids at Monopoly isn’t necessarily winning at being a dad. Chess players when they involve themselves in real world politics, like Gary Kasparov’s disastrous tilt at Russian president Vladimir Putin, seem to have learned no transferable skills from the game of kings. Economists proliferate everywhere, just as priests did in earlier ages, and everywhere their influence touches our economic problems rapidly multiply. Games it seems are not particularly good models of reality at all.
Instead many of the great victories of the last century have gone to those who, like Jernau Morat Gurgeh, play by the rules of peace. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent politics succeeded in freeing the entire Indian sub-continent from British rule. Martin Luther King’s insistence on peace as the path towards civil liberties for black Americans triumphed over violent strategies deployed by both sides of the conflict. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s compassionate use of Peace and Reconciliation committees averted the potential of horrific bloodshed in post-apartheid South Africa. Wherever you look, progress is made by those who refuse to play by old rules of violence and bloodshed. And where those rules are still asserted – in Iraq, in Syria, in North Korea and elsewhere, human suffering only multiplies, nobody wins and we all lose.
Did the violent Azadians lead to peace, or to infinitely more skilled players of games in the Minds of the Culture? Ultimately they are one and the same thing. What the Minds understand is that peace is a far more powerful strategy than violence. It’s a lesson we could learn ourselves, with a glance at our own history. Instead the ludification of modern society continues our losing strategy of turning to violence as our first and last resort. Violence might win on the limited scale of a chess board or a Call of Duty map. But in the vastly more complex space we call reality, violence loses again and again. If games are to fulfil their great potential in the world, they need to choose winners who play the strategy of peace.
It’s a little-known fact that one of the all-time bestselling writers of westerns lived most of his life in the English market town of Melton Mowbray. JT Edson, who died in 2014, wrote more than 137 novels, most of them westerns, and claimed in all seriousness “never to have even been on a horse”. A former chip shop owner, Edson developed a love of escapist fantasy in his youth, and approached writing westerns just as he later approached writing sci-fi.
The world of the western is about as historically accurate about 19th-century America as the world of the Shire in Lord of the Rings is about pre-industrial England. Both are fantasy worlds, abstracted from reality, crafted by expert fantasists. The pre-eminent western author, Louis L’Amour, loved the mythology so deeply that he began to write novels as a way of escaping into it. Like sci-fi and fantasy authors, writers of westerns, even when their sales stretch into millions, remain at the margins of mainstream culture. So it seems almost inevitable that over time the western and the fantasy have cross-bred.
You don’t have to actually play a role-playing game for it to fire your imagination, so why don’t RPG manuals count as books?
I’m a lifelong fan of role-playing games, but I rarely play them. Dungeons & Dragons. Call of Cthulhu. Vampire: The Masquerade. Cyberpunk 2013. Traveller. I’ve been enchanted by the words and illustrations, and drawn into the imaginary worlds of as many RPGs as novels. So I’m always surprised, and a little dismayed, when RPGs are left out of the popular discussion about books and reading.
Though the term didn’t exist back when I was a teenager, squatting on comic-book floors to thumb through expensive hardback editions, RPGs are an example of the kind of literature described by Espen J Aarseth as “ergodic”. These are books, like digital literature, computer-generated poetry and MUDs, where a “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. And they are more common than you might think, especially in geek culture. Game books that allow you to “choose your own adventure” are ergodic, as are fantasy novels with extensive maps and world-building notes. But the RPG handbook pushes ergodic reading to its limit.