Archive for the ‘Prose’ Category

I’ve been wondering what I might do as an ongoing kind of project, because I like having a theme to write to. I may have found it…

I’ve been sicker than usual this week, and while recuperating decided to re-read some old favorites in genre fiction for distraction. Some were great, and I want to do posts about books that I now realize were early good influences on me, or later inspirations. Some were awful. This brings me to Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune.

Dune is a classic in sf, and for reasons that remain worthwhile. It was one of the first works of science fiction to put ecology front and center, treating the behavior of a whole living planet as a thing that could and should matter, and the study of it as worthwhile and important. It also went far beyond the norms of the time (indeed, beyond the prevailing norms outside certain narrow sub-genres) in bringing to life a society with Arab roots. It also did sprawling galactic-scale intrigue about as well as anyone’s ever done it, zooming in to the intensely personal and out to warfare—and espionage, and other drama—across the skies.

But there’s something rotten right at the heart of it.

An important theme in Dune is that all the epic conspiracies have gotten various important things wrong. But their fundamental premise is still sound: there are in fact, in the Dune universe (as in other stories by Herbert) people of such qualitatively superior cognition and self-mastery that they comprise the only genuine, true humanity, and are surrounded by the overwhelming majority of people who aren’t really any better than animals. Dune and its sequels are about rival efforts to bring the true humans to the foreground and let them shape the race’s destiny.

This is crap. And it is very much the crap that fed movement conservatism and its insane schemes of empire, and that pollutes a whole lot of discourse about privilege and bias even among allegedly liberal or progressive people.

Using myself as an example…I spent a lot of time growing up as a misfit. Well, duh. But even looking just at regularly nerd stuff, I was miserable partly because I’d imbibed the idea that there was a natural elite, to which I belonged because I was bright, and that ignoring or excluding me wasn’t just bad for me but ultimately damaging to the whole society. Welcome to being the kid of engineers, I guess. I did eventually get over it and recognize it as a bit of totally unearned privilege BS, but it took time. And yes, one of the places I got this überman idea was from the Dune series, which I devoured enthusiastically in my early teens.

This particular kind of supremacism isn’t original to Herbert, of course. Within science fiction fandom, there’d been decades of prior back and forth about A.E. Van Vogt’s notion of “slans”, genetically superior people with access to untapped super-powers. (And one of those who took the idea and ran with it was L. Ron Hubbard. He was probably most heavily influenced by the occult circle of Aleister Crowley devotees led by Jack Parsons, but Van Vogt was another inspiration to take the idea and by golly do something with it.) Back further we find Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson, among many others. But Herbert gave expression to the “scientific” form of this kind of racism with particular power—if he’d been a worse author, this wouldn’t matter, but he did a great job making an evil idea seem worthwhile.

What’s pernicious about this is precisely that it isn’t anchored in conventional racism and other bias. The master race isn’t defined by ethnicity, gender, or even culture: the complex matrix of genes that makes me a true human while you remain just an animal person can emerge anywhere. Controlled breeding programs work, though not infallibly, but there are also “wild” true humans outside anyone’s planning.

In practice, though, this doesn’t work. Those who believe themselves superior identify qualities of the groups with which they affiliate as indicators of likely superiority, and end up thinking that they’re superior because their chosen groups are. Anyone superior outside those groups is just a fluke that doesn’t affect this comparison. Thus, for instance, the all-too-common phenomenon of the naive libertarian boy who starts by glorifying a select set of features out of white middle-class society and ends up a thorough-going racist, classist, ableist, sexist, homophobe and transphobe.

I wonder how many of the guys on the geeky side of America’s power structures took it in and never thought about it consciously again.

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