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Science Fiction as Literature

The Smithsonian Institution, July 15, 1999 Jonathon White, GWU, American Literature Professor, Cultural Studies, SF Film and Literature GB's Notes Return to Home Page

What's different about science fiction since Dune? Reader demographics has changed: there are more readers as a whole, a greater percentage are now women readers, and there are many more readers without a scientific background. The forms of SF writing have changed: Dune is "dialogic," with different "modes:" the setting fosters unconscious dialogue, followed by inner conscious dialogue, and finally a spoken dialogue. Ecology expanded to mean interactions among people, culture, and more. Concepts of religion have changed. Before Dune religion was seen as a tyrannical tool for manipulating the masses. In some works religion is completely absent or is used strictly as a secular device. After Dune religion is seen in it's fundamental position relating to social behavior. Religion has become syncratic (sp?) meaning religions have become synchronized and are highly influencing one another. SF has become not only a product of technological enlightenment, but also of "ecological" (in its broader Herbert definition) enlightenment. Dune is the first SF postmodern literature. (The basic literary scheme of all postmodern literature follows SF devices, themes, etc.; e.g., William Burroughs.) Dune was the first work of literature to use the concept of "world-building." What is a world? (see Heideger (sp?) (Nazi writer)) Answer: an earth and its social and cultural constructs, complete in terms of religion, culture, ecology and economy. Herbert's people are different from us. [I did not really understand what White was saying here but I'll try to interpret in the following. The difference is more than just with individual SF tropes (prescience, anthropology, use of future physics), the difference concerns the essence of a person. For example, one of the myths surrounding the American Indian is that his life was bound not only to the environment but also to the spirit of the environment, a sort of wholistic notion. The person was in balance with the environment, remove the person and the environment continues albeit in a diminished mode, remove some aspect of the environment and the environment likewise continues but in a diminished mode. The person is less defined by limited interactions (such as those caused by the evolving Internet community's bandwidth limitations, or contemporary notions of specialization which tend to limit consideration of alternate perspectives) than by interactions with all aspects of the environment. Therefore, richness of individual consciousness (the person) is directly related to richness of environmental interaction. Phew, enough for my philosophizing!] The Herbert world is different from prior literature in an anthropological sense. [I did not understand White here either, so here goes another interpretation. He may have been referring to the Guild navigators' physical

differences (or was that just in the movie?), the Mentat's evolved and trained specializations, the ability to access ancestral memories, Fremen bodily adaptations, etc. Let's assume White meant that these kind of SF tropes define the anthropological differences. I would then venture that Herbert's use of these tropes differs from prior SF literature in that the Dune "person" still exists as an entity with whom the reader can identify. In contrast for example, one could never identify with Wells' Martians: the closest we get to a dialogue with them was in the ecological sense when they die from the effects of a common Earth bacteria.] Dune's "science" is not limited to physics as in much past literature; it includes culture, economy, ecology, etc. White referred to the Dune physics as "balonium," that is, nonsense (bologna). To interpret this kindly, he meant that the physics was an incidental part of the work. [This interpretation is in consonance with something I read/heard some years ago (can't remember where) saying something like the Dune plot exists only to provide the framework for dialogue.] Ways in which Dune is a 1960s book. 1 It contains a great deal of mysticism. [I don't buy this, I think the mysticism is incidental, i.e., framework for dialogue. Also, I wouldn't consider the BG's search for a Kwisatz Haderach to be an example of mysticism; however, I would consider the Fremen hope for Lisan al-Gaib to be an example of mysticism. I may be missing a nuance of the definition of mysticism as used in comparative literary analysis.] It contains elements of anti-establishment action. It uses ethnography as a tool for examining human differences; it questions whether western civilization is a universal norm. It delved into theories of human consciousness at a time predating the idea that psychedelic drugs were intrinsically bad. It examined political and economic power issues via natural resource control.

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Other Comments Hydraulic despotism is a theme repeated at several levels: water is to Arrakis as spice is to the universe. Spice is the foundation of the Guild, religious and political hegemonies. Bene Gesserit relationship to the Asimov's Second Foundation. Power systems in Dune: religion is matriarchal, politics is patriarchal. The BG tenets combine the roles of nuns and witches, resulting in a synergistic increase in power rather than a stripping of power (e.g., the concepts defining Salem witches raised the fear of power, but the standing religious hegemony easily overpowered the witches, though with devastating effects upon the community). The matriarchal system is therefore more in balance with the patriarchal system. Further 1960s relationship. Balances of power lead to both a more stable and stagnant universe. The Dune universe contained a triumvirate following a gender spectrum: Guild (male), Landsraad (patriarchal), and Bene Gesserit (matriarchal). In this sense, a balance of power implies gender equilibrium in which the terms of BG power rely upon human reproduction control. However, triumvirates are intrinsically less stable than systems

with two power centers. (JW seemed obsessed with the importance of sex in Dune, even entitling the Dune seminar "Space Travel Means Big Changes for Sex and Religion.") CHOAM is an advanced capitalistic social and market system, upon which is grafted a feudal society. Artificial methods of birth control are taboo. On the Guild: mysticism as a form of technology. On the Butlerian Jihad: compared to the Tower of Babel. The BJ is not only a defining limit upon ecological evolution, but also a generative power. The BJ led to advanced engineering techniques and drug use. On mysticism: characterized by inexplicability, an experiential nature, and an expression of opposites. Whitman as the experiential mystic. St. John of the Cross as the intrinsic mystic. On governance: what is governance from an oracular base? For his answer, JW referred to the discussion on mysticism and to a methodology of literary analysis. The mystic answer: the oracle summarizes cultural experience, considers the opposites and strives for an explicable resolution in a possibly inexplicable world. The literary analysis methodology asks what it is that is hidden, what manipulative actions occur and what the historical context of the situation is. The literary answer seeks an explicable resolution through knowledge of these cultural currents and undercurrents.