The Shadow of Dune: Sci-Fi Examined

Benjamin Baruch Woody


What is science fiction? The term seems like an oxymoron. Science is facts and fiction is make-believe, right? Why would the two go together? To quote the great Wikipedia “Science is a genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a ‘literature of ideas’ “. A “literature of ideas”. I like that term. Maybe all literature should be about ideas.

One way that we know that Sci-Fi is about ideas is because many ideas that Sci-Fi writers have invented in their writing, have come true. Jules Verne may be considered the first Sci-Fi writer and many of the wild, futuristic visions he (and his just later peer H.G. Wells) conjured have come to past. George Orwell and his bleak vision of the surveillance state presaged the way the ubiquity of the internet and mobile technology have changed our world. Artificial Intelligence and robots are already here and their power and usefulness will grow exponentially as per Moore’s Law.

I must begin this discussion of Sci-Fi literature with the men known as the Big Three: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. These writers (and many more) got their start writing for the pulp magazines of the 30’s and 40’s. Heinlein’s most famous novels are Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I find Heinlein to still be a good read. He has an archaic style, but with a certain eccentric rhythm and energy that is entertaining. He definitely is intelligent and prolific. If you start reading Heinlein (pronounced Hineline by the way. I didn’t know that for years) and get hooked; you will not run out of books to read. Isaac Asimov is best known for his Foundation Trilogy. These books show the collapse of a Galactic Civilization. Apropos reading in our time. Clarke is well known for his 2001: A Space Odyssey series. I personally find Clarke the least of the Big Three. The movies based on his writing are much better.

Now we come to the great masterwork of Science Fiction. DUNE… Every literate person in the world should read Dune at least once every five years. This masterpiece, by Frank Herbert, is just an amazing piece of imagination, intelligence, ecology, religion, philosophy, politics/ court intrigue, eugenics, genetics, and almost anything else you can think of. Mostly set on the desert world of Dune, a young man becomes a messiah. Or does he? Every time I read the novel it changes, much like the shifting sands of Arrakis. Herbert wrote five more books in the series which continue the story but they do not quite match the genius of the first book. Herbert’s son has written many books also set in the Dune universe. Alas, the son is but a pale shadow of his father. I cannot recommend Brian Herbert’s books.

I have no fancy title for the next three writers I will discuss. They are not part of a particular group. In fact, I have no good reason to group them together other than it just feels right and I love their work. Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, and David Brin are all known as “hard-science” writers. They all have advanced degrees in a scientific field and Vinge and Brin have taught computer science and physics at the collegiate level. From Niven I recommend Ringworld (our copy is missing but will be replaced!); from Vinge I recommend A Deepness in the Sky; from Brin I recommend Existence.

The last trio of writers I will talk about are our “cyberpunk” heroes. Cyberpunk is science fiction mixed with some of the rebelliousness of the 60’s counterculture, the attitude and aesthetic of punk music and its subcultures, and the diy, anti-establishment attitude of hacker culture. My favorite practitioners of this subgenre are William Gibson, Richard K. Morgan, and Neal Stephenson. William Gibson basically invented cyber punk with his classic Neuromancer. His books are always good and embody the “literature of ideas”. No writer has as many consistently interesting ideas about technology and our world. Morgan’s great Altered Carbon (also missing) has just become a Netflix show, so these books will become popular. Neal Stephenson is one of my top 3 living writers. He will soon be getting his own blog post. He is a genius and probably immortal. His Snow Crash is a classic of the cyberpunk scene and yet it his his first book that sold anything and all of his subsequent books are even better.


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