I went into The Visit, the latest offering by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s, with high hopes and restrained expectations. I hadn’t seen anything of his since Signs and, based on widely-held critical opinions, had no reason to regret that. But there had been some good buzz about The Visit. Maybe Shyamalan had found his footing, again.

I think in some ways he has. The Visit is quite an effective little horror film about two children meeting their grandparents for the first time.  It was made for only 5 million dollars, and relies on nothing but finely-tuned acting and sharp camera work to make it scary. And it was—I jumped, I flinched, I gasped in shocked surprise. Is it derivative? Absolutely. Is it predictable? Frequently. Is it scary? Yes, indeed. While it has its flaws, The Visit is well-constructed and well-cast, with a minimum of gore and a number of solid scares leading up to the big finish.

Spoilers ahead

The Visit--Rebecca and Nana
The Visit–Rebecca and Nana

Visually, The Visit grabs the eye. Against the isolation of a rural winter and the drab costumes of Pop-pop and Nana, the children’s bright yellow, green, and pink clothing demands attention. It also allows the gradually-revealed threat to blend into the grey background until it is ready to spring.

Shyamalan sets up The Visit’s style immediately, by giving his adolescent female character a camera and the mission to make a documentary of a week with her never-met grandparents. Her project becomes the impetus for the storytelling and the device upon which Shyamalan hangs his cinematography. There is almost seamless editing between traditional filming and the hand-held/found footage effect, to the point that it is not always clear which is which. Certain scenes are strongly reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and the similar films that followed. I think the technique is better realized, here, even though it loses any shock value it may have had.

The cast is talented. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould as the protagonists Rebecca and Tyler have an easy chemistry that is almost too familiar for siblings of their ages (15 and 13, respectively). They are precocious and funny and comfortable in their roles, even when saddled with goofy quirks. As the children’s mother, Kathryn Hand invests her character with a youthful energy that speaks of an immature parent. She loves her kids, but the impression I got was that they parent her as much if not more than she parents them.

Deanna Dunagan as Nana brings an often believable portrayal of barely-checked madness to the film. She has a face like an aged china doll, making her lunatic turns all the more shocking. Peter McRobbie is less obviously insane as Pop-pop, and he inflects his character’s paranoia with the suggestion of a real desire for connection. At times he seems so lost it is difficult to not feel pity for him.

There were some false steps in the movie that bog it down. The children’s weaknesses are too precise and are exploited a little too plainly in the final showdown, taking away some of the impact. The final confrontation came across to me like a cheap thrill, an opportunity for an easy fright and a little gross-out. And I was left with a few random questions: Why do concerned neighbors stop by instead of calling? Why is there an internet connection fast enough for glitch-free Skyping, but no cell phone service or land line? Why did their mother not introduce the kids to their grandparents on Facebook? Why, knowing that their real grandparents have been replaced by progressively-more-unhinged strangers, would Rebecca ever go down in the basement?

My Take Away

Visiting Grandma
Visiting Grandma

Questions aside, I think The Visit is a small, scary movie that dips regularly into the obvious. The climax of the film is still Shyamalan’s usual twist, and it is intense and heavy-handed compared to the wonderfully inflicted build up. Its final message of “Don’t hold on to anger” seems just a wee bit maudlin after what goes before it.

But it is still a pretty good movie. The Visit probably won’t turn out to be as enduring or fondly remembered as The Sixth Sense, but it is well worth seeing. It is funny, it is tense, it is frightening, and it somehow makes you care about all of its characters. Even the wrong ones. That’s the kind of twist it is hard to see coming.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Once, he thought, I would have seen the stars. But now it’s only the dust; no one has seen a star in years, at least not from Earth –Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Familiar to many as the film Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is another classic of science fiction. Published in 1968, it dresses the traditional tropes of nuclear apocalypse, religion, and artificial intelligence in a brittle dystopic modernity. But its real subject is the eternal puzzle of our own humanity.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? describes one very long day for bounty hunter Rick Deckard, who is charged with “retiring” six  androids who killed their human masters on Mars and escaped to Earth to try to live as human beings. The novel considers the issue of artificial intelligence obliquely—it is assumed that the androids of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’s  dwindling Earth have their own desires and motivations, and are all but impossible to tell from natural humans without highly specialized empathy tests. In this world, it is not the androids’ ability to be self-aware that defines the difference, but their inability to feel for anyone but themselves. Or so the humans believe, in order to justify how androids are treated. Decker “had wondered… precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted with an empathy-measuring test” (30). This question, and the assumptions it carries, twist beneath the plot in a way that never quite reaches an answer.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is full of quiet desperation laced with dry humor. Every smile, every scrap of joy in this dusty world seems to be poisoned with sadness and disappointment. The apocalypse has come and gone, and the world still straggles on: “The legacy of World War Terminus had diminished in potency; those who could not survive the dust had passed into oblivion years ago, and the dust, weaker now and confronting the strong survivors, only deranged minds and genetic properties” (8).

Normal, Special, Other

Do Androids Dream of Electric Cities?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Cities?

Radiation-damaged humans are kept separated and dispossessed: “Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind” (16). But even a special can instinctively grasp what the normal human characters often overlook: “You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all” (204). On an Earth where the damaged are not considered truly human, it is the androids who can become the “other people,” who enable even a special man to fully live.

Human and android characters intersect frequently, both openly and in disguise. But they are all still dogged by loneliness, isolation, and the long slow drag of dehumanization. Decker’s wife explains that, “although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn’t feel it… then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it ‘absence of appropriate affect.'” (5). The absence of appropriate affect is attributed to androids by their human masters, but the androids, enslaved on Mars, feel the emptiness, too: “‘nobody should have to live there. It wasn’t conceived for habitation, at least not within the last billion years. It’s so old. You feel it in the stones, the terrible old age'” (150). Distinctions are not so clear as the humans would have them.

Over the course of the novel Decker passes through stages of doubt, belief, and renewed doubt in android empathy. There are many descriptions of the range of emotions in the androids. “He did not like the idea of being stalked; he had seen the effect on androids. It brought about certain notable changes, even in them” (57); and “The androids,” she said,” are lonely, too” (150). But Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  leaves such references only partially explored by unreliable narrators, making them hard to evaluate. Even as the androids express needs and desires of their own, their reactions are presented as distinctly not human—at least not as humanity is defined by the human characters. When threatened with death, “The classic resignation. Mechanical, intellectual acceptance of that which a genuine organism—with two billion years of the pressure to live and evolve hagriding it—could never have reconciled itself to” (200); when using facts against faith, “They will have trouble understanding why nothing has changed” (214); when asked to react to a rare-to-vanishing living wasp, “‘I’d kill it.'” (49). But the differences described are vague and subjective. Decker’s inconsistency is understandable.

Empathy, Sympathy, Compassion

An Android Owl
An Android Owl

It is not only Decker. Many of the human characters are themselves adrift, searching for a way to connect. Post-war society has warped into something that enforces separations. Yet faith still endures. “At the black empathy box his wife crouched, her face rapt. He stood beside her for a time, his hand resting on her breast; he felt it rise and fall, the life in her, the activity. Iran did not notice him; the experience with Mercer had, as always, become complete” (177-8). Mercer, a Christ-figure, is the means through which believers experience community. But they do it in their own separate cells, using their own individual machines. They commune in solitude.

Empathy boxes are not the only mechanical attempt to connect with another being. With most animals dead, humanity has created artificial ones like the title’s electric sheep, robotic pets to fill the void left by extinction. But the nostalgia these imitations beasts produce is palpable:

“For a long time he stood gazing at the owl, who dozed on its perch. A thousand thoughts came to his mind, thoughts about the war, about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the ‘papes had reported it each day–foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits” (42)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? purposely muddies the distinctions between human and android, electric animal and living beast. It is never cleanly established what makes the androids truly different from humans. Aside from a short lifespan and a slower emotional response time to human-centric questions, they resemble their makers in all essential ways. What Decker believes about the androids is not always supported by what he observes, yet he clings to his version of the truth even as it seems less and less true. He has to. In a world where humans fill a void by embracing clockwork substitutes for real, living creatures, he cannot afford to embrace a substitute for himself.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

H.P. Lovecraft’s output has been thoroughly mined and mulled over, anthologized and, as I’ve mentioned before, annotated. But the popular focus has long been on his Cthulhu Mythos. While “In the Walls of Eryx” has always been one of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories, it stands apart from that particularly haunted universe. Instead, its universe is a bit closer to home.

The Backstory

In addition to his own distinctive output, H.P. Lovecraft was a frequent collaborator. He lent his particular, disturbing expertise to at least thirty-three collaborative works during his lifetime. Some of his co-authors were famous in their own right, like Harry Houdini, C.L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard. Most of the others had more modest writing careers. And some, like Lovecraft’s co-author for the short story “In the Walls of Eryx”, barely made another ripple in the literary world.

Kenneth J. Sterling was a Providence high school student when he approached Lovecraft for assistance in writing “In the Walls of Eryx”. Of course, as with many of his other collaborations, Lovecraft made it his own by writing the vast bulk of the finished story. And as was Lovecraft’s habit, even though the seeds of the story belonged to someone else, he inserted his insidious themes and colored the entire piece. What started as a straightforward, if juvenile, derivative misadventure became complicated with Lovecraft’s hallmark hints of cosmic doom: “I believe we have violated some obscure and mysterious law—some law buried deep in the arcana of the cosmos…”. “Eryx” may not be part of Lovecraft’s sprawling mythos, but it still manages to evoke the same haunting dread.

The Details

Lovecraft’s ventures into science fiction are much like Ray Bradbury’s or Fritz Leiber’s; the tales are science fiction only in setting, not detail, because their authors are fantasists, not scientists. This in no way diminishes the stories, but one should not approach them looking for solidly grounded scientific or technological ideas. Although it is set on Venus and throws about superficially impressive terminology such as flame-pistols, oxygen masks with sponge resevoirs, crystal detectors, N-force, and an alternate Venusian dating system, “In the Walls of Eryx” still hangs entirely on pure human fear, and brings Lovecraft’s beloved tentacles into the mix within the first page. It is a horror story masquerading as science fiction, not a syllable of it contingent on technology.

Scenes from a swamp
Scenes from a swamp

Lovecraft’s conception of Venus in “In the Walls of Eryx” is in keeping with how the planet was often imagined in the early twentieth century. Venus was pictured as a soggy place, swampy and hot and overgrown, and the jungles of Venus were a popular setting for a number of early fantasy and science fiction authors. Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury all painted Venus as wet and steamy—Lovecraft was in very good company.

In addition to his take on the swamps of Venus, Lovecraft also provides some vivid if not particularly active aliens for us to revile. The natives are described throughout the story as damnable, skulking, slinking, detestable, scaly wretches; man-lizards with “green, slimy, frog-like skin”, and an “accidental physical resemblance to terrestrial man.” The human narrator is disgusted by them but sees them as more nuisance than threat since they are so clearly lesser beings. I can only wonder if Kenneth Sterling had any say in them at all, since the creatures seem as much Innsmouth as Venus.

Tentacles
And some tentacles

In Lovecraft’s hands, the imaginary technology, grossly inferior aliens and gloomy Venusian swamps still produce an undeniably eldritch effect. This story is scary in the creeping, unclean way that all Lovecraft’s stories are scary. The marvelous, sticky dread Lovecraft weaves through all his work is in full bloom, here. He builds his mood with carefully chosen imagery rather that evokes huge off-page events, and the end result is his hallmark bleak despair.

The inherent uncleanness of “In the Walls of Eryx” does not lie in the farnoth flies or the slimy mud, the random dead body or the spongy vines. It is instead generated by the absolute hopelessness of the narrator’s situation. He has wandered into an invisible maze with twenty foot high walls, and he cannot find his way out. There is paranoia to be found here, and enforced helplessness. Like so much other work that Lovecraft left his fingerprints on, the end can only be grim for our protagonist.

Some Possibilities?

Part of Lovecraft’s appeal here is in how he builds up the creep-factor through repetitions of the character’s experiences, ratcheting up the intensity as he deals with a recurring yet progressively worsening scenario. “In the Walls of Eryx” is twelve thousand words of a man trying and failing, repeatedly, to escape from an invisible maze. That is the summary of both plot and action—but it still manages to leave the reader with a grim tension not quite dispelled at the end.

That lingering tension is why I think this story could easily be expanded into a nerve-wracking film. While it doesn’t have the somewhat more action-driven plot as the famous, cult-movie inspiring Herbert West, Re-Animator (see our Mort Delciver’s reviews of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator for details), “In the Walls of Eryx” has potential. Its claustrophobia is a familiar horror trope.  The lurking aliens, the unsee-able maze, the utter aloneness of the narrator, all point to a creepy little film, should anyone wish to make it.

maze_wikimedia_commons
What maze?

It also provides an excellent gaming scenario. “In the Walls of Eryx” did inspire a very simple browser video game a few years ago, but the premise can be exploited for so much more. Most Lovecraftian video games focus on the mythos. The tabletop games as well, dominated by Call of Cthulhu, do not stray very far afield. Certainly not as far as Venus.

Unfortunately, since the story isn’t part of Lovecraft’s main mythos, it tends to get shunted to the side (and I may certainly have missed something). But from the swampy landscape thick with carnivorous plants to the tentacled lizard-men, from the potential conflicts of a human commercial outpost on Venus to the starkly simple threat of an alien invisible maze, there is an entire extended narrative to be built from this. August Derleth had his shot. This one is ours.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Emergence, first edition
Emergence, first edition

Sometimes, you really can’t go home again.

I first read Emergence, by David R. Palmer, in the magazine Analog back in 1981, when Emergence was only a novelette. I was thrilled with it then. The protagonist, Candy Smith-Foster, all of eleven years old, was close to my age and a self-described plucky female adventurer taking on a depopulated post-apocalypse world with the help of her hyacinthine macaw companion. How could I not be thrilled? Palmer pulled the same successful trick again in 1983 with Seeking, publishing a second installment of the story in Analog. These two novellas were renamed Volumes I and II in what would become the full, Hugo-award nominated novel in 1984.

However, life got busy and despite the best intentions I never got around to reading the expanded version of Candy’s saga. Consequently, I am both delighted and sadly disappointed with what happened to Palmer’s energetic kid heroine.

First, the delight. Emergence is written in a snappy, abbreviated first-person journal style that gives an almost breathless rush to the action and an immediacy to the exposition. It is imaginative, well-paced, and colorful, and it jumps immediately into the fray: “Unfortunate. Regrettable. Vicious cycle—snake swallowing own tail. Mind dwells on problems; problems fester, assume even greater importance for mind to dwell on. Etc. Bad enough where problems minor. Mine aren’t” (1). After this tantalizing opening, Palmer draws back long enough to provide a brief autobiography of the narrator and some limited background on the state of the world.

Palmer’s primary stylistic device is that Candy’s journal is written for the ages in Pittman shorthand, which does a great deal to drive the speed of the plot. While descriptive and at points an internal monologue, chopping down full sentences to subject/verb keeps the story moving. There is little to bog a reader down once the action begins in earnest.

Set in the aftermath of a combined nuclear and biological apocalypse instigated by the Soviets, Emergence is often a snapshot of mid-eighties state-of-the-art technology. For example, Candy is thrilled to find an “administration building well stocked with modern communications media marvels: electric typewriters, photocopiers, etc” (59). A phone answering machine is an important plot component. Computers are bulky and limited to academia and military settings. Candy makes frequent use of good old-fashioned phone books to find resources as she wanders through various cities on her quest for other survivors. The fly-in-amber quality to the novel’s frame of reference has its own quirky charm—if the world had ended in 1983, it would look an awful lot like this.

While no new technology is introduced, Palmer does offer up a new species. Candy is a member of the hardy new breed, Homo post hominem. In the great tradition of mitochondrial DNA and viral recombination, “The grandmothers of these children were all…conceived during the rampage of the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19…Sweeping genetic recombination, due to specific viral invasion” (40). This lucky twist of mutated fate makes the hominems into super-intelligent super-humans and allows them to survive the germ warfare that annihilates the Homo sapien population.

Candy Smith-Foster, Emergence
Candy Smith-Foster, Emergence

The beginning of the disappointment lies with Palmer’s assurance that he can sustain a believable eleven year old female character. Over the course of the full novel this works out far less well than the journal-style narration. Let’s leave out the new species, end of the world scenario. Palmer is awkward at integrating the emotional vagaries of a preadolescent girl with what he envisions is an evolutionarily superior being. The effect is only amplified by the extended storyline. And Palmer reminds his readers fairly relentlessly that Candy is only eleven, as a way of underscoring her inherent exceptionalism. “Candy must have gone up on a shuttle; she must be in space right now. What’s an eleven-year-old kid doing in space?” (279).

Also, in returning to Candy’s adventures as an adult, I found a few recurring themes to be… off.

An especially awkward addition is the sexuality Palmer interjects from Volume III onward. There is something inescapably squicky about the sexual thoughts, advances, and descriptions in Emergence as put forth by the forty-ish year old male author. At times Palmer’s presentation of Candy’s desires and conflicts veers uncomfortably close to Lolita territory—although Nabokov never tried to get into his girl’s head. A few examples of the awkwardness: “Am not ready for babies: not physically, not emotionally—not now!” (107); ”I cannot and will not endure your company on a celibate basis if, after speculum examination, it is my professional opinion that you are physically capable of accepting me as a lover” (151)—this is spoken by a forty year old man; “Perhaps should have gone ahead with Adam. Then at least wouldn’t be dying as virgin…But only 11, after all” (224); “If only little bit older, would see to it they both died smiling” (247)—this refers to men who are in their thirties and fifties, respectively.

And the loving descriptions of the adult female characters are, despite multiple disclaimers from Candy, the fantasies of an adult male: “Kim could serve as judging standard for California Golden Beach Girls…Slim, willowy, long-legged. Waist-length natural Swedish-blonde mane…Pact with Devil not uncommon result when mortal female encounters Kim’s type” (166); “woman entered…tall, marvelous figure…waist-length ponytail” (200).

Analog Magazine, January 1981
Analog Magazine, January 1981

Palmer also indulges in the lightly scatological. He dwells with uncomfortable frequency on bodily functions, with a special fondness for the Foley catheter. These particular interludes do not advance the plot in any appreciable way. I can only imagine these various details were an attempt to keep this from being lumped in with juvenile fiction.

Emergence will always be a book I remember fondly, but I doubt I will ever come back to it. While I was happy to read it again after all this time, in the end it didn’t, really couldn’t, hold up for me. Emergence is an easy way to pass a few hours, an exciting and well put together but ultimately shallow story that has moments of what struck me as trying too hard. Candy wasn’t the girl I remembered. Best to leave her where I found her, thirty years in the past.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Desert full of Dunes
Desert full of Dunes

Arrakis—Dune—Desert Planet

First edition of Dune
First edition of Dune

It is hard to believe it has been fifty years since Frank Herbert’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning Dune was published in August, 1965. The novel, and its titular planet, are still as vast and imposing as when they were new. Dune is probably one of the first novels named when someone speaks of “classic science fiction.” It is space opera at its finest, a grand sweep of empire and conquest set on a planet so forbidding that its desert-dwelling Fremen inhabitants have developed near-instantaneous blood clotting to preserve the moisture needed to survive there.

A summary of Dune’s plot would do it no justice—Herbert’s epic is best experienced as he wrote it. I will just examine a few of what I think are Dune’s more interesting components.

Herbert’s Dune is often what comes to mind when we speak of fictional world-building. Herbert dug into terrestrial ecology and human history and extrapolated believably from what he found. Through this permutation, the universe Dune inhabits is at once alien, half-recognized, and strangely familiar both physically and culturally.

The planet Arrakis, inspired by the ecology of the Oregon Dunes, is a harsh and dangerous world: “Those storms build up across six or seven thousand kilometers of flatlands, feed on anything that can give them a push—coriolis force, other storms, anything that has an ounce of energy in it…They can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to slivers” (28). But Herbert goes beyond the impressive drama of sandstorms and his famous worms, into the quietly important Arrakian ecosystem of bats, birds, desert mice, and poverty plants that can anchor the shifting sand. The indigenous Fremen dream of making Arrakis a gentler place, given time, faith, and carefully guarded alterations to the fragile ecology: “And what is it you do to the face of Arrakis that must not be seen? We change it…slowly but with certainty…to make it fit for human life. Our generation will not see it, nor our children nor our children’s children nor the grandchildren of their children…but it will come” (283).

The language and culture of Dune’s Empire, its Great Houses, and in particular the Fremen of Arrakis, are culled from clearly identifiable human societies, and in many instances are only slightly modified. Herbert employs repurposed Judeo-Christian terminology for Dune’s dominant religious culture (the Orange Catholic Bible, the Bene Gesserit, Reverend Mothers and sisters) and, making extensive use of Earth’s desert cultures, adapts many Arabic words and concepts to create the Fremen way of life. Jihad retains its earthly meaning and function on dry Arrakis, while Shari-a, Mu zein, Wallah and Ichwan Bedwine persist with only slight variation (the Dune Wiki is a great resource for looking up the origins of some of Herbert’s wide-ranging terminology). Herbert also hints at the Fremen connection to modern Earth, and of their long history as nomads: “the Fremen culture was far older than she had suspected…There had been Fremen on Poritrin, she saw, a people grown soft with an easy planet, fair game for Imperial raiders to harvest and plant human colonies on Bela Tegeuse and Salusa Secundus” (348).

Although set in the far future, Dune seems to reach back to the middle ages for its byzantine politics and feudal social structure. Despite their planet-wide holdings, atomic weaponry, and space faring technology, the Great Houses of Dune’s Empire form a typical monarchy—interrelated noble families in a state of constantly shifting alliances, each jockeying for power. The Great Houses also all share a certain medieval barbarism. They hold entire planetary populations in servitude. They keep their concubines and wage their ritual vendettas. They engage in coliseum-style combat for sport, and poison their enemies as the opportunity arises. Royal tasters are replaced by poison snoopers, but the game is the same.

Arrakis
Arrakis

Dune’s structure relies on the solid foundation of political maneuvering and economic drivers to create a believable, indeed all too familiar, far-future society. Trade, costs, and control of resources are all mentioned casually and frequently. Of a room built to hold a rain forest on desert Arrakis, it is simply said, “This had been the government mansion in the days of the Old Empire. Costs had been of less importance then” (48). Economies have shifted. Ruling families have changed. The greatest sense of Dune’s political universe is gathered through details of the vendetta between the Great Houses of Harkonnen and Atreides. The personal plays out beside the commercial in their battle to control Arrakis and its invaluable product, spice.

Religion is also hugely important in Dune. It is a tool of the powerful, and the solace of the oppressed. The House Harkonnen dismisses faith’s wilder forms out of hand as a convenient distraction to control the local population: “They’ve a new prophet or religious leader of some kind among the Fremen…let them have their religion. It’ll keep them occupied” (358).

While certain Houses may be cynical about faith, on the whole Dune treats religion as an important practical component of the world. Where Walter Miller used religious faith as a transcendent human quality in A Canticle for Leibowitz, Herbert uses it in Dune as a political tool. The religious figures in Dune are not the pure idealists of Canticle. They are the prime, if often hidden, movers of their society, but not its moral center. They work toward their own secret goals. Herbert is very clear that everyone in Dune has an agenda. All his characters want something, and are actively, often aggressively, maneuvering to get it.

The Bene Gesserits, an all-female mystic order, are particularly adept at using religious faith to control the course of events large and small. They have done so for centuries: “Jessica thought about the prophecy—the Shari-a and all the panoplia propheticus, a Bene Gesserit of the Missionaria Protectiva dropped here long centuries ago—long dead, no doubt, but her purpose accomplished: the protective legends implanted in these people against the day of a Bene Gesserit’s need” (54). While the sisters quote fluently from the Orange Catholic Bible, their adherence to it seems less a matter of enduring belief in the divine than of long-term social engineering. Every action, every suggestion, builds to the final goal.

And the goal of the Bene Gesserit sisters is to produce the Kwisatz Haderach—the planned, prophesied male Bene Gesserit—through selective inbreeding among the Great Houses. The long success of their machinations, and their ultimate loss of control because of that success, are the root of Dune’s story: “You cannot avoid the interplay of politics with an orthodox religion…the leaders of such a community must invariably face that ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price of maintaining their rule, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethic?” (390).

Dune is epic, fully realized and powerful in its richness. The many, many characters are larger-than-life, with sweeping powers and ravenous appetites that drive them. They move Dune’s grand intrigues and fight its planetary guerrilla wars. But they are still believable. They are flawed, they are hurt, and they hurt in return. Because Dune draws so deeply from human history, the characters are, for all their strangeness, still us.

And that is how you build a world.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!