The power in sci-fi and fantasy lies in the creation of new worlds. Why do these worlds capture the imagination?
Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. ― Frank Herbert, Dune
Science fiction and fantasy authors don’t have to be accurate in the descriptions of their worlds in the same way that writers of historical fiction do. No one can prove them wrong by research or study. Their job is difficult on another level. They are required to visualize and understand a world no one else has seen and describe it in a fashion that makes it believable. If either their imagination or their storytelling prove insufficient, we will never inhabit and fall in love with their creation.
Authors painstakingly create not only locales and settings, but entire social structures, complete with religion, philosophy and the arts. Tolkien’s Middle Earth did so with stunning success, elevating the fantasy novel and influencing science fiction and other genres. Countless authors use these tactics, but few novels become classics. What makes the classics different? Certainly craft and ability come into play, but is there something else?
Frank Herbert’s Dune is a story of a marginalized desert people, the Fremen of Arrakis, who, through science, have been given a dream of making the rainless desert bloom. They are oppressed by foreign invaders who underestimate them, people hungry for a commodity that lies beneath the sand. Dune chronicles the arrival of a Messiah figure from another planet who is fated to lead them out of bondage and into a horrible jihad which he will not be able to control. As spectators, we are torn. On one hand we are proud to see these people improve their lives and free themselves. On the other, we are afraid what will happen when they have done so. Will they become like their oppressors?
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the link between the Fremen and the desert Bedouins of the Middle East and North Africa or to see that commodity beneath the sand as oil. Herbert has also laced the text with words modified from Arabic, with a nod to Hebrew and French in some places, to further aid our recognition. In the light of the Arab Spring, Herbert’s novel, written in 1965, seems prophetic. This journalist knew something. He also stumbled on to the power of myth, which transcends location and culture.
In Dune, Frank Herbert paints a galaxy both believable and strange. We do not recognize the worlds of Caladan and Arrakis, nor the mental telepathy and sorcery that underlies this galaxy. We have no experience with giant sandworms, called Shai-Hulud, or the addictive, hallucinogenic spice known as Melange. The forms of Christianity and Islam present here are vaguely familiar, but altered in a disorienting fashion. What we do recognize are the people: people who fight for power, who long for liberation, who are torn with grief and fear for loved ones. It is this that convinces me that I have to hunt down every last novel in the Dune Universe. How about you?
Do you have a favorite sci-fi or fantasy world? What draws you in and keeps you reading?
Want to know more about Dune? Check out these links:
Dune (Essays in Idleness)
List of Religions in Dune (wikipedia)
Arabic and Islamic Themes in Frank Herbert’s Dune (baheyeldin.com)
The Dune Litany: Fear is the Mind Killer (taichimaster.com)
Dune presents a complex and ruthless Messiah (canadianchristianity.com)