Dune at 50(ish)

November 29, 2016

2015 marked the half-centenary of Dune, Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction novel that is so vast in scope it almost defies categorization, although the combination of psychodrama, political thriller, eco-fable and space-opera-cum-Western begins to hint at its complexity. Much like The Lord of the Rings – perhaps the only title it can be compared to, in terms of the scale and credibility of an entirely invented world – its iconic images are familiar parts of popular culture even to people who have never read it; unlike Tolkien’s novel, Dune has achieved this without the aid of a wildly successful movie adaptation. (David Lynch’s film version, released in 1984, was critically panned as being so confusing as to be virtually unwatchable, and Lynch himself regarded it as a turkey, going as far as to have it credited to ‘Alan Smithee’ – the byname used by Hollywood directors when they wish to disown a film – in the TV releases.) Stillsuited Fremen warriors, the addictive and life-extending drug melange, or ‘spice’, the shaven-headed sisters of the Bene Gesserit and, above all, Paul Atreides with his blue-within-blue eyes riding a colossal sandworm across the endless Arrakeen desert are recognizable to many internet users as memes, often turned into animated .gifs or image macros, or referenced in comics and animations.

Given that Dune is widely considered the greatest sci-fi novel of all time, it’s notable just how many of the standard tropes of the genre – already well established by the 1960s – it studiously avoids. ‘Aliens’, as such – intelligent non-human species – are notably absent, and it’s hinted in the later novels that even the great sandworms are not indigenous to the planet, having perhaps been brought there by humans in the distant past and may even have been a product of genetic engineering. A vital back-story plot element in the ‘Duniverse’, a revolt against ‘thinking machines’ known as the Butlerian Jihad, explains the universal taboo against artificial intelligence and the absence of computers even of the sort available in the 1960s; all forms of calculation and logical reasoning are conducted by specially trained ‘human computers’ called mentats. And while lasers – still a brand-new technology in the ’60s – had quickly found a place in sci-fi as the best realistic candidate for death-ray weapons, another piece of Dune‘s fictional technology renders them effectively useless (the intersection of a high-power laser beam with a ‘shield’, or protective force-field, causes a runaway feedback reaction that destroys both the target and the aggressor in a nuclear explosion).

But before delving into the details, a very good question for the uninitiated, and perhaps also for many who’ve read the book two or three times, is: just what is Dune all about? It has become a bromide to describe novels, films and so on as ‘working on so many levels’, but in this case the cliché actually does ring true. The most obvious layer of the story is that of a bildungsroman following the adventures of Paul Atreides, an adolescent nobleman treacherously cast into a pit of vipers, suffering the murder of his father, his mother’s and his own narrowly averted assassination, and their journey into exile in an unimaginably inhospitable desert, with a dream of revenge that goes far beyond the fate of his own family and involves him in the millennial prophecies of a race of ferocious desert fanatics. On another level, it is a masterful exposition of the psychology of power-politics, pitting powerful ancient dynasties, quasi-religious societies and vast corporations against each other in the context of a drug war upon which rests the fate of the galactic empire. And delving yet further, it explores the origin, nature and function of religion, the untapped potential of the human mind and body and the intimate relationship between humans who live in extreme environments and the landscape, climate and ecosystem that just about affords them the necessities of life, and constantly threatens to snuff it out altogether. It comes as no surprise that one of Herbert’s favourite books was Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the landmark work of anthropology that traces the origins of the universal belief in magic, which subsequently evolved into the basis for all religions, to the same urge to connect cause with effect that ultimately gave rise to the scientific method and with it the modern world as we know it.

Quite apart from any theoretical musings, the novel has a resonance with very concrete events that have effectively come to define the 21st century so far. It would be easy to dismiss as trite a comparison between the giant sandworms ridden by Paul Muad’Dib and his Fremen warriors crashing through a nuke-blasted gap in the great rock wall protecting the Harkonnens’ capital and the passenger jets piloted by jihadi hijackers that crashed into the World Trade Center, were it not for the curious hypothesis that Osama bin Laden may have been a fan of another classic of the sci-fi canon, Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series. These novels, known to have been a big influence on Herbert, among many other writers, feature a vast and seemingly all-powerful galactic empire; apparently destined to last forever, just as all empires see themselves in their heyday, one man – a sort of mathematician-cum-historian-cum-sociologist – formulates an equation describing long-term cultural trends that predicts the decline and, eventually, the total collapse of human civilization. In order to shortcut what would otherwise be a dark age of many thousands of years until the rise of the next great civilization to an interlude of mere centuries, he brings about the establishment of the titular Foundation: a storehouse of all human knowledge and culture, securely located on an obscure planet thousands of light-years distant from the galactic capital. The first novel in the series, titled simply Foundation, was published in serial form during WWII and again as a single volume in 1951. Its success caused it to be translated into a wide range of languages, including Arabic, for which version the title was chosen simply as the common Arabic word for ‘foundation’ or ‘base’, in the physical sense, also meaning ‘basis’ or ‘framework’: al-Qaeda.

The theme of a sect of purists who keep the flame of ‘true’ culture alive while an enfeebled civilization disintegrates around them, eventually emerging triumphant to establish their own order among the ashes of the old, makes sense as a story that may have appealed to the young bin Laden, perhaps around the same time he began to take on the influences of Salafism and Qutbism. But it is intriguing to imagine the influence that Dune may have had on the young future terrorist: consider the elementary plotline of a privileged young nobleman turned rebel guerilla hero who leads a race of fanatical desert warriors in an unstoppable jihad which eventually overthrows a vast and powerful, but decadent and declining, empire…while we will of course never have a full knowledge of bin Laden’s reading habits, the notion is suggestive, to say the least. It may further be noted that the name given to Paul after he is accepted into Fremen society is ‘Usul’, said by the Fremen to mean ‘the base of the pillar’; in reality, another Arabic word meaning ‘basis’ or ‘principles’, as in Uṣūl al-fiqh, the principles of Islamic jurisprudence.

But rather than look to the USA and the site of the culmination of bin Laden’s terrorist career, the parts of the world where real events have darkly mirrored those of Dune, both prior to its publication and afterwards, are surely the Middle East itself, and nearby regions of North Africa and Central Asia. Adam Curtis’s 2015 feature-length documentary, Bitter Lake, focusses mainly on the fortunes (or rather, misfortunes, for the most part) of Afghanistan from the 1950s to the present and the role of Saudi Arabia in propagating an intolerant and literalist form of Islam around the world. The Afghan thread of the story begins soon after the end of WWII, when the country’s king invited American engineers to his still overwhelmingly tribal and pastoral country to modernize it using state-of-the-art geological and hydrological engineering techniques. Specifically, a series of dams were build along the mighty Helmand River for the dual purpose of generating electricity and creating lakes, allowing previously barren land to be irrigated and therefore cultivated. The reader familiar with Dune should need no prompting to think of the backstory involving the Fremen’s long-term plan to terraform Arrakis using carefully hoarded water supplies, the musings of the ‘Imperial planetologist’ turned native Liet Kynes, and even the direct authorial quote before the start of the narrative: the famous dedication to “the dry-land ecologists”. It’s certainly not hard to see in the Mujahideen and their successors the Taliban, raised in the unforgiving conditions of an arid, mountainous country, something of the indomitable Fremen, the mystically-inclined warrior people whose culture has been shaped almost in its entirety by the climate and geography of Arrakis, the planet said to have been “created by God to train the faithful”.

The other main thread of Curtis’s film is the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the USA, begun in the dying days of WWII aboard an American warship on the titular Great Bitter Lake, connected to the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal. The ailing Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, and the two men cemented a deal that would ensure America’s access to Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth in return for a promise of American non-intervention in the internal politics of Saudi Arabia. In particular, Roosevelt had to provide a guarantee that the USA would not oppose the Saudi state religion, Wahhabism, founded in the 18th century as an ultra-conservative reform movement within Sunni Islam at a time when the dominant polity in the Muslim world was the Ottoman Empire. A desert land (or planet) with an economy based on the exploitation of a single natural resource which the rest of the world (or galaxy) depends on, and eventually goes to war over – Herbert didn’t have to invent this from scratch for use in his novel, of course. But back in Afghanistan, an unintended consequence of all the hydro-engineering was a general raising of the water table, which brought with it a great deal of rock salt. In many areas, fields that had briefly had good, fertile soil for growing wheat, fruit trees and vegetables gradually become too saline for most crops, with one notable exception: Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. So here is an arid region which is – very nearly – the sole source of an extremely valuable and addictive drug (Afghanistan is estimated to account for more than 90% of the world’s illicit opium and heroin production).

And this is all before we consider the role of religion in Dune, which is given an exceptionally thorough treatment, especially by the standards of science fiction. Most notably, the Fremen follow one of the Duniverse’s widespread popular religions, the intriguingly named syncretic faith Zensunni – as its name suggests, an amalgam of Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam – in a particularly fanatical form, as befits their survivalist culture in the harsh environment of the Arrakeen desert. (A common Fremen proverb is “Speed comes from Shaitan” – an apt saying, warning the desert traveller of the perils of excessive moisture loss from sweating and breathing hard.) The origin of all three Abrahamic faiths in the arid and semi-arid regions of the Near and Middle East come through very strongly in the Fremen’s cultural background, in which the overwhelming totality of the planet’s harsh sun forms a natural basis for monotheism, with an utter absence of oceans, rivers, grasslands and forests that form the home of the nature spirits of polytheistic and animistic belief systems. But the influence of landscape and climate on religion is only half the story, as another vital plot element is the Missionaria Protectiva, a specialized arm of the Bene Gesserit charged with undertaking a millennia-long programme called the Panoplia Protectiva, a system of myths, prophecies and superstitions implanted by the sisterhood on inhabited worlds throughout the galaxy to further their own mysterious ends and to ensure the cooperation of locals should a BG sister ever find herself there in need of assistance or rescue. It is ultimately for this reason, as well as Jessica’s ‘weirding’ abilities, that the Fremen who come upon the mother and son take them in rather than killing them; an act of prophetically-inspired mercy upon which the fate of the galaxy hangs.

Quite apart from the complex and subtle themes explored by Herbert, his novel is remarkable for the vivid mental images he conjures up. Dune is full of visual contrasts; between the pomp and decadence of Shaddam IV’s imperial court and the ascetic, spartan lifestyle of the Fremen, between city-sized Guild spacecraft that travel between distant star systems in mere moments and the low-tech physicality of a knife fight to the death, between the simple elegance of the Bene Gesserit-trained Lady Jessica and the extreme corporeal grossness of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (who – spoiler alert – turns out to be Jessica’s biological father). There was plenty of inspiration for David Lynch when he came to direct his movie adaptation, certainly, and it’s perhaps in the costumes, sets and props that the film can be considered an unqualified success. The tight-fitting military uniforms worn by Duke Leto, his son Paul and their various advisors and retainers suggest the 19th or early 20th century, while Lady Jessica’s dress and intricately coiffed hair are inspired by the European high middle ages – as befits the Duniverse’s galactic feudalism. The interiors of the royal residences on Caladan and Arrakis are marvelously future-gothic, while Geidi Prime, the homeworld of Harkonnens, is a nightmarish vision of techno-Hades, complete with an enslaved populace fitted with all sorts of sadistic surgical modifications. The acme of physical ugliness mirroring moral degradation is found in the loathsome Baron himself, so grotesquely fat that he requires a personal antigravity generator just to move around. The Baron, portrayed with great gusto and evident glee by Kenneth McMillan, has a capricious camp about him, like a great despotic toddler; Lynch’s decision to play up the Baron’s homosexuality, along with giving him a hideous skin disease – bearing in mind the prominence of the Aids epidemic in the public consciousness at the time – led one reviewer to call Lynch’s Dune the most homophobic film he had ever seen.

Entrances To Hell Around The UK

September 17, 2016

Been an age since I made a post, but I was thinking about this fantastic website the other day for some reason. Internet users of a certain age and range of interests will no doubt have come across it many years ago, but on the offchance you haven’t, do please take a look. There’s a whiff of psychogeography about the whole enterprise, although in an extremely lighthearted way, and some of the photos have an air almost of suburban Lovecraftianism about them. And the great thing is, once you’re aware of the concept, you see them everywhere – and if you ever meet someone else who’s seen the site, you’ll both be like “Oh, that’s one of them entrances to hell”, and other people who aren’t in the know are like “Huh?”, and then you have the pleasure of explaining it.

My favourite for name alone is ‘Ssssuuuuft’, but there are many others.


Tooky is a sister-entrance to Quetty Orarna but unlike that entrance, which was bricked up by explorers, Tooky is still available. Scene of the devils last minute escape before Christmas 1942, when Al Capone made his ill-advised attempt to kidnap the devil’s son, Big Joe. Tooky’s great beauty and renown draws many admirers from overseas who come to inhale the emanating warm wind.

Radiation trace: nil




DEAD SPACE/DEEP TIME by Sid Viscous – available now!

September 13, 2016

Well, available a couple of weeks ago, actually. But I only just thought to mention it on the blog. Only a fiver, and if you buy a copy and get in touch I can send you a physical copy as well!





December 25, 2015

These works are dedicated to the master architects of delirium: to Edgar Allan Poe, to J.K. Huysmans, to Isidore-Lucien Ducasse, to Arthur Machen, to Robert W. Chambers, to H. P. Lovecraft, to William S. Burroughs, to Haruki Murukami, to Junji Ito, to David Lynch, to John Carpenter, to Maurice Sendak, to Peter Ackroyd, to Thomas Ligotti, to Kristen Alvanson and to Reza Negarestani.

To all those whose vocation it is to disrupt reality and invite the hallucinatory experiences whereby Art and Myth are manifested:


When The Stars Are Right

December 25, 2015

It happened at a time when society had ground to a halt just as it accelerated virtually to the point of singularity, like a gerbil in a wheel, running ever faster and faster, expending its life’s blood in going precisely nowhere. Televised news reports had become indistinguishable from the programmes that ostensibly parodied them – the people laughed aloud at the words of politicians and took the pronouncements of comedians as deadly serious analysis – holy men were caught with whores and catamites on a weekly basis while the words of athletes were revered as if they were prophets and sibyls.

Governments fought wars against the groups they’d armed the week before and jihadis destroyed the fast food joints where they’d taken their first dates four years previously. The sciences made the distinctions between man and beast and between matter and information more porous and diaphanous with each passing month; space probes whispered the echoes of secrets from the womb of Time and those who listened to them shuddered and doubted themselves, while their colleagues in adjacent departments reknitted the stuff of Life to recipes sponsored by pharmaceutical industrialists. The seasons were horribly mixed, and the birds, beasts and fish swarmed this way and that in a fashion that perplexed the greatest authorities on living things; those who staffed the asylums began to fear that their patients displayed not insanity but super-sanity, a new form of intellect fit to understand this new phase of existence, terrifying to the old order that could not comprehend it.

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The Apprentice

December 24, 2015

Old Syd had been working this spot for, ooh, coming up to about 130 years now? It was the best spot for miles around and he took his work very seriously. The King’s Arms Hotel was one of those establishments that had acquired a reputation for haunting over its long history, with the result that this actually contributed considerably to its appeal to customers. The irony at work here was that a great many of the punters whom Syd didn’t consider worth bothering with nonetheless managed to convince themselves they’d felt some atmospheric ‘presence’ and went away prepared to tell friends and relatives about the sound of a groaning water pipe they’d heard in the night that was undoubtedly the tortured wail of an unquiet spirit, while those on whom he did actually decide to lavish his attention typically had the most horrible experience of their lives, left the place at the hurry-up and never mentioned the incident to anyone else, except perhaps a psychiatrist or priest.

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December 23, 2015

Doctor Benway’s patented Complete De-Anxietization Programme (CDAP, pronounced ‘see-dap’ to those in the know) had been nothing short of a resounding success since its introduction on the NHS. Admittedly, each procedure was expensive in itself (the actual cost of materials and labour made up only 12% of the price Benway’s Seychelles-registered company charged for the service) but the savings made on medical care throughout the subjects’ future lives were phenomenal. It was, in fact, hailed as the key factor that saved the NHS from total disintegration after two continuous decades of austerity.

The completely de-anxietized patients squirmed and wriggled happily (one must assume) out of the specialized wards that began to make up larger and larger portions of every public hospital, until each hospital was virtually nothing but CDAP wards performing CDAP procedures on patient after patient. Very soon all forms of crime and antisocial behaviour, along with all the other social ills associated with unhappiness, dissatisfaction and mental illness in the most general sense, were in steep decline. The programme was quickly franchised to several other countries, both with and without socialized medical care systems.

Benway was publicly heralded as ‘the new Nye Bevan’ by the government of the day and much of the press. He preferred to see himself more as a sort of cross between Hippocrates, Edward Jenner and Jesus Christ, but since he was a modest man he kept this – along with a personal fortune estimated at a hundred and fifteen billion dollars (US) – quite to himself.

Judgement Town – a parable

December 22, 2015

A chill wind whispers through the streets,
It seems a voice, or something near;
The clouds are white as winding sheets,
The people glance around in fear.
A gull emits a lonely cry,
As if in answer to the wind.
A pall of guilt hangs from the sky –
All know who cheated, lied and sinned.
There is no hiding in this town,
From consequence of each misdeed;
You’ll reap the fruit of evil seed
That finds this place such fertile ground.

It once was otherwise, you see.
The sun shone down, the breeze was mild;
The park was filled sounds of glee,
The joy of woman, man and child.
Each one had secrets, things they’d done,
And wanted others not to know;
But all were blithe beneath the sun
While crimes and mischiefs didn’t show.
Thus life was easy, while it lasted:
All were confident and gay.
Until occurred that awful day,
And now the town is bleak and blasted.

It happened thus, so pay attention:
A trav’ler came upon the road.
None guessed that he had ill intention –
Trust was their accustomed mode.
They asked whence he had come, and he
Declared he was no man of note;
No bishop, lawyer or grandee –
A poor man in a tattered coat.
Before the town, he loud confessed
To countless crimes, both great and mean.
The townsfolk thought it quite obscene
That justice should go unaddressed.

They tried him there and then on charges
Taken from his own confession.
(The town’s chief legal man enlarges
On penalties for each transgression.)
They whipped and hanged him in a trice,
But madness fell upon the crowd:
Each found he knew his neighbour’s vice
As if the deed were spoke aloud!
Now misery and guilt abound,
With sorrow etched on every face;
And that’s how this unlucky place
Acquired the name of Judgement Town.

Damned (a ghost story in 115 words)

December 20, 2015

The séance party links hands and the lights are dimmed. “We seek the shade of the late Mr Gibbons”, intones the medium. Mrs Gibbons looks uncertainly from the medium to her adult son and daughter and back again. The table starts to wobble and there is an unearthly groan. “I sense the presence of a spirit – is that you, Mr Gibbons?”

The widow can contain herself no longer. “Is there something you want to tell us, Derek? You left us so suddenly.”

A ghastly rattle, the candle flames shiver, and then an uncanny voice:

“You lot bored me silly while I was alive, and I’m damned if I have anything to say to you now.”

The Fall of the House of Hali

December 20, 2015

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

* * * * *

The irony that the last three descendants of the Carcosan Dynasty had ended up living in the penthouse apartment of a building on the Rue de la Republique had long ago lost even the slightest trace of grim humour for them, yet half-siblings Claudine and Jean-Laurent and their cousin Thierry had never been able to put it out of their minds completely.

Consider the three of them, lounging around the salon on that sultry early evening in mid-August, caught up once again in one of their customary situations of simmering resentment and jealousy. Claudine, the eldest of the three by a small margin although still a young woman in the scheme of things, was the only one to have had bestowed on her the mahogany hair, pale complexion with a hint of olive to it, thick brows and large, soft, dark-brown eyes characteristic of their ancient House, looks which cause her frequently to be mistaken for an immigrée from the Levant; both her half-brother and their mutual cousin, the youngest of the three, had inherited their greenish eyes, sandy hair and skin that tended towards the florid from their grandmother, an American of Irish stock. As had happened in every generation of this unguessably ancient line, there had been a terrible tension between the need to maintain the family’s power and wealth through marriage with outlying cadet branches, and the knowledge that this persistent inbreeding was leading to the ever more prevalent occurrence of both physical and mental feebleness and, over the last century especially, outright madness.

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fig-2: a new art exhibition every week for 2015 (aj dehany)

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