Monday Motivation: I’m holding my breath for December 18
In December, Warner Bros releases Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. That bare announcement, long anticipated, was enough to get science fiction aficionados taking to social media in their thousands.
Many of you who have never dipped their imaginations in the ambiguous waters of science fiction won’t be familiar with Dune. You might also not know that Villeneuve directed the astonishing Sicario, a bloody tale starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent who sets out to bring down a powerful Mexican cartel boss. Or that he also directed the even more astonishing Arrival, a science fiction story about an attempt by a linguist to communicate with aliens who’ve landed on Earth. Or that, most recently, he directed Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
That’s the director. But how about the book? Have you read Dune? It was written by an American writer called Frank Herbert and published in 1965. It won the top awards for science fiction in that year and has remained the favourite of literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of sci-fi fans.
It’s a novel that defies easy explanation. In fact, it has also defied easy translation into film. Through the early 1970s, various unsuccessful attempts were made to adapt it by various producers. The stories that emerged from one failure (by the director Alejandro Jodorowsky) are quite astonishing. For instance: Salvador Dali demanded $100 000 an hour to play the Emperor. Jodorowsky agreed to his terms – but ensured that Dali would be required for just one hour of shooting. The money that was raised, was withdrawn by the investors when the project threatened to balloon into a twelve-hour epic.
David Lynch made a version of the novel, or at least the first hundred pages of it – but in typical fashion he imposed his particular vision to such a degree that the film that emerged from his editing rooms bore little resemblance to the novel.*
Dune is set in the far distant future where the galaxy is ruled by an Emperor. Beneath him, vying for power among themselves, are a number of noble families. A semi-secret sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit strives to control the future through a programme of carefully orchestrated breeding. Commerce between the stars is controlled by a single organisation. Central to the economy of the galaxy is a drug, melange, which promotes longevity.
Melange is found in only one location – on the desert planet of Arrakis. On Arrakis, water is wealth. An ecology has developed in response to Arrakis’s aridity, and the native society of Fremen has evolved customs that are utterly strange to an outsider, but make absolute environmental and survival sense.
These are the bare bones of Herbert’s world-building. What’s instructive about Dune (and the books that followed it in a series that ultimately numbered six novels) is that he followed ruthlessly, and logically, the consequences of his premises.
Think about it: you imagine a world which is the only source of a drug that is valuable beyond measure, bequeathing on its users immortality, or something close to it. Then make that planet as dry and desiccated as the Namib Desert, where the only source of water is the dew that falls each night.
Then put a society of desert dwellers onto the planet, whose society has evolved in response to the presence of the drug, on the one hand, and the scarcity of water on the other.
So, one of the consequences is that the Fremen revere water so greatly that when one of their number dies, his water is reclaimed. His flesh might belong to him, they say, but his water belongs to the tribe.
The lesson we can learn from Frank Herbert is this: when you invent a world (and every novel invents a world, not just science fiction novels), the determining principles you establish of character and technology and family history, have consequences. The character will behave in character. The technology (cell-phones, radio, the internal combustion engine – it all depends on the era in which you set your story) will enable certain kinds of plot development and inhibit others. The history of your protagonist will motivate certain decisions and deflect your character from making others.
This, after all, is a matter of respecting the foundations of your story. Having once established that your character is frightened of strangers, you have to respect that fear through all the events that constitute her journey through the story.
This is both liberating – constraints in fiction are always liberating, didn’t you know? – and respectful of your own invention.
Now, I have to get back to Dune again, which I’m rereading for the umpteenth time.
Oh, except to say, don’t miss the movie.
*The film won a Stinkers Bad Movie Award for Worst Picture.