Iron Lensman

Every now and then I have the impulse to do a little literary criticism, although I can usually control it with prescription medication. But the other day I was watching Iron Man II (I really watched the MCU out of order) and a parallel struck me that I haven’t heard anyone else talk about before, so you lucky readers get to hear me ramble on about it.

The Lensman series, by E. E. “Doc” Smith was one of the seminal works of Golden Age SF, appearing in Astounding magazine from 1937-1948, and later reworked in the 1950s as a series of seven novels. Roughly, the titular heroes, the Lensmen, were an organization that fought crime on a galactic scale. Their lenses amplified their psionic powers, and no person who could be corrupted by wealth and power could wield a lens.

The length of the series, the poverty of the plot (which generally just featured the Lensmen going up against more and more powerful foes, armed with ever-more esoteric and larger superbattlefleets) and Smith’s excruciatingly awful prose meant that the Lensman series never saw release as anything approaching a major motion picture, which is on some level a relief and on another a profound disappointment. I always thought the series might have some hope in the hands of a really awesome screenwriter. But the themes he launched were a major influence on Star Wars (incorruptible psionic supersoldiers, anyone?) Other than that, it’s hard to find a direct heir to Smith’s style of storytelling.

And then it hit me that Tony Stark is pretty much a lensman par excellance, updated for the modern world. There are several parallels: like many other writers of that generation, such as Asimov, to whose Foundation series Smith lost the 1966 Hugo for Best Series, Smith’s lensmen are trained and expected to function as scientists, and frequently make discoveries and invent new weapons and vehicles. This whole thing struck me as i watched Tony Stark invent a new element under the guidance of his father’s notes to replace the palladium in his arc reactor heart. Like the lensmen, Tony Stark relies on a scientistic talisman that grants him his power, but it is always clear that his real power is in his willingness to do the right thing. Also like the first family of lensmen, the Kinnisons, Tony Stark gets a big helping hand from his father’s legacy of great genes and connections. Finally, by Civil War we see that Tony Stark is also concerned, as was Smith, with the idea of oversight. There is a major difference here, since the lensman’s source of power was also his shield against corruption. Tony Stark loses faith in himself and his fellow Avengers, but it’s interesting to me that this lack of faith is ultimately shown to be misplaced when he goes up against Captain America. Who also has his own “lens” made for him by Howard Stark, in a sense. The shape is even similar.

Although I really liked the conclusion of the major arc of the MCU, I’m going to miss Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. I hope that another generation of lensmen — whatever they are called — comes quickly.


A Late Review From Avalon: Ready Player One

So, obviously, what with the huge copyright issues involved and not being an idiot, I expected a whole lot of changes to Ready Player One when I sat down to watch the movie. It was, considered as a thing in itself, not terrible.

But it wasn’t the same story, either. And that was disappointing.

See, what made Ready Player One work for me was never the awesome geekery of the premise. That was always just the icing on the cake. Really cool icing, but icing. What made the story work was Wade’s journey of self-discovery. It was the old story of a loser taking on the system, but most importantly, the way he stopped being a loser and grew from a hurt little boy to a very dangerous man. A man who stepped into the dragon’s lair to steal the prize and walked out again.

All that went away. Instead, the characters pretty much just walked through a cheesy video game solving puzzles that the book’s Wade Watts would have figured out without a second thought.

The subtlety also went away. We don’t get to see Wade and Art3mis slowly falling for each other while trying to outdo each other at the same time. We don’t get to see Aech’s and Wade’s friendship develop. And don’t tell me that this isn’t possible in movies. The book’s source material: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ladyhawke, The Breakfast Club,  all excelled in weaving atmospheric slow builds of character development throughout their scripts. Hell, even The Goonies did. But Ready Player One is a sprint to the finish, with the outcome never really in doubt.

And as the protagonists were dumbed down, so did the villains have to be. Nolan Sorrento of the book was a dangerous, evil geek, who wrote his own video games and could almost match Wade’s knowledge.* He was a villain that you could respect. The Sorrento of the film is Dilbert’s PHB, dumb enough to leave a ridiculously easy-to-memorize password out where anyone can see it.

In short the movie isn’t a disappointment because it isn’t the book. It’s a disappointment because it’s so much less than the book.

And it didn’t have to be.

*I will admit this was one of the major flaws in the book: the idea that someone of Sorrento’s talents with his resources of literally hundreds of professional geeks would not have won the contest in a walk, but the Rule Of Cool nullifies that.

An Open Letter To The Manufacturers of the Spice Melange

Dear CHOAM Company,

I would like to take the time to complain about your spice “MELANGE (a genuine Arrakis product!) It is my opinion that not only is your overhyped and overpriced, but is deceptive and dangerous as well. My own family’s case will prove illustrative.

My wife came home with a jar of melange about six months ago, for which she paid the exorbitant price of $575. While the jar was approximately the size of the other jars in our spice rack, we were surprised and dismayed to discover that within the jar stood barely enough melange to be visible, and no, I am afraid that thoughtful as it was, the microtweezers and hufuf oil magnifying lens included was not enough to significantly improve the inconvenience of digging out enough to use in cooking. Which brings me to my second point. Regardless of your advertising copy that promises “a flavor unmatchable in the known Universe,” the overwhelming impression I got from the scent of melange is cinnamon, the best grade of which is easily purchased at about $10 for a full ounce. As to the claim that melange is “never the same taste twice,” it’s rather ridiculous to make the claim when there is not more than one taste in the jar, even for the most artful of cooks.

Finally, I must question the wisdom of allowing — let alone advertising — the fact that melange is an indispensable part of foldspace drives. I can’t think of any other machine additive I would be well-advised to put on my food and consume. Besides the which, ever since we did use melange on our Thanksgiving apple pie, our familial harmony has been shattered. Not only did no one in the family notice the expense and trouble to which we went, but my wife has been going abut murmuring that she thinks I will divorce her when I discover what she really paid for the jar of spice. My high-school age son has decided it is impossible to pass calculus no matter what he does, and the younger children are all complaining about what they are getting for Christmas, and I haven’t even finished my shopping yet. Plus ever since that meal they youngest one has seemed to be in several places at once.  If the doctor says that’s more than the fact that he’s seven years old, you may advise your legal department that they will be hearing from my lawyers.


Malcolm Idaho
Duchy of Grumman

memo: write the Ix division about eye treatments, re: younger brother DI


Less Controversial Science-Fiction Rant: The Aliens Who Hate Everything Every Million Years or So.

Am I the only one who is tired of the plot that goes: “Well, you see, a long time ago there was a huge alien race that got pissed off that other people existed, so they decided to wipe everyone back to microbes every now and then.”

Sometimes, there’s a putative cause for it, as in Babylon 5, a series I love. But the whole Vorlon-Shadow war which was like, in the words of John Sheridan, “a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides” was my least favorite part of it. Because it was like watching a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides!! I mean, these were two demi-god-like races! I wanted the war to be over some transcendent disagreement or point of history Not Meant For Man To Know. Instead, it was basically American politics and personal pettiness (but I repeat myself).

David Weber did it a little better with his Achuultani in The Armageddon Inheritance, where the aliens at least have the excuse of being enslaved to an evil AI that can do self-maintenance for millennia.

At its worst, this trope takes the form it did in the game Mass Effect where the ultra-powerful Reapers sterilize the galaxy every million years or so because Reasons.

Folks, this trope is TIRED. And it’s an idiot plot. If the aliens are that powerful, why don’t they just create a fleet of robot ships to go burn the life off every planet that shows cholorophyll? Answer: because DRAMA! They always wait until humanity et al. develop the technology to play David to their Goliath and then get stopped. Also, how is it that the aliens always have this amazing social and political cohesion? They hang around, absolutely loyal to each other and content to do bugger all until the Evolutionary Alarm Clock sounds and reminds them it’s time to get back to slaughtering the Younger Races again.


Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.


Why Superweapons Don’t Work: Or Why The Rebels Should Have Had the Death Star.

One of the most popular tropes, especially in science-fiction, is that of the superweapon: the huge, iconic invention that will turn the tide of battle and ensure the ultimate victory of the side that wields it. The most easily-recognized of these weapons is, of course, the Death Star, the planet-killer with the Achilles’ heel exploitable by the scrappy fighters the Rebels had. But why is it that historically, superweapons tend to work, not just as badly as the Death Star, but even worse? After all, the Death Star vaporized a planet.  Historically, experimental supposed-to-be war-winning weapons don’t usually get even that close to success. Why not?

Because The Wrong Side Has Them

Historically, superweapons are not developed by the equivalents of the Empire. Superweapons are developed by the Rebel Alliance. In other words, they are developed by the side that has the smaller army, the smaller economy, and that is in the most desperate straits. And the reason for this is easy to see: because the stronger side is already winning with the weapons they have! It was the Confederates that produced ironclads and submarines, not the Union with its overwhelming Navy. It was Nazi Germany that produced jet fighters and V-2 rockets in the late days of the war, not the Allies with their overwhelming air superiority. It’s only when you’re losing that you need a game-changing weapon to turn the tide of battle. The only exception to this rule is the atomic bomb, which is not actually an exception (see below).

Because They Tend to Come With A Whole Lot Of Suck

Superweapons are pretty much by definition untested systems, for reasons discussed  above: the side that needs them needs them right away, and they don’t have time for refining the technology. Just to give a few examples, the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship in wartime, the CSS Hunley, went down with its target. This was predictable, as she had already killed two crews in training. Hunley was very good at the “submerging” part of “submarine,” and not so good at the “surfacing” part. The Nazi jet fighters performed excellently, but had ridiculously short ranges because of fuel inefficiency. Similarly, their V-2 rockets were a triumph of cutting-edge technology, and the Germans desperately needed artillery that could strike hundreds of miles away, but since they had no guidance systems beyond Doing Trig Very Well, this meant that they couldn’t hit anything smaller and more mobile than say, a city.

Because They Attract Attention

On the rare occasions when superweapons do work the way they are supposed to, they do tend to get dogpiled on by the stronger side that they are almost inevitably facing (see above). The Bismarck is an excellent example of this. Built with all the latest technology, the Germans decided to use her as a superweapon that would be tough enough to destroy entire convoys and fast enough to run from the British Navy.

She lasted nine days.

They were a very impressive nine days, and began with the utter annihilation of the battlecruiser Hood and the damaging of the battleship Prince Of Wales, but the result of the effort was that Bismarck attracted the attention of about five battleships and two aircraft carriers, along with many heavy cruisers. After air attacks damaged Bismarck’s rudder, this force pounded Bismarck to scrap. Lest we think this was mere coincidence, the Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz met a similar fate, being used in only one offensive operation over her entire career, and subject to something like 26 Allied operations mounted specifically to get rid of her, which they eventually did.

Because They Are Easily Reproducible

Generally, the better the superweapon is, the more it has been tested. And the more it has been tested, the better it is understood. And the better it is understood, the more easily it can be copied. This is what happened with the Confederate ironclads. With the bulk of the Navy remaining loyal to the Union, the Confederates needed to break the Union blockade of their ports. And since ironclads were being built in Europe, first by France (significantly, the weaker naval power) and soon afterward by Britain (the stronger), their incentive to build ironclads was high, and the technology was becoming known.
Of course, the Union also knew this, and having discovered that the Confederates were building ironclads, quickly did the same. The first battle between ironclads saw the Union rushing its own ironclad to the battlefield only a day after the Confederate fielded the CSS Virginia. Despite the fact that the Virginia had faced three Union warships the previous day and had destroyed two while taking only minor damage to itself (a successful superweapon if anything was), the Monitor proved a match for it.
And that was the beginning of the end. Because the Confederacy was the poorer and less-industrialized of the combatants, they managed to produce only 30 ironclad vessels during the war in total, while the Union turned out about 50 ships of the Monitor class alone. If a superweapon really works, it won’t work fast enough to stop the stronger side from building more of them faster.

If Matching Them Doesn’t Work, Countermeasures Often Do

One of the most successful “superweapons,” pioneered by Germany, has been the torpedo-armed submarine. It was created to destroy the British Navy, and had many advantages that scared the pants off naval planners at the time: The submarine could travel invisibly. The submarine’s torpedoes attacked below the waterline, potentially killing a battleship in one shot. The submarine could scatter and hunt merchant ships in the ocean, killing them at will. The submarine could pass underneath blockades, rendering them ineffective.

In some ways, this appeared to be the perfect superweapon, especially because it didn’t matter whether the British matched it! What would it do with its subs? Guard the convoys? Submarines in the World Wars couldn’t hit each other with dumb-fire torpedoes except by sheer luck. Kill German merchant ships or naval vessels? The British Navy could already do that!

Well, it turned out that the British (and Americans) could do a number of things that weren’t terribly complicated. They could develop long-range patrol aircraft that could hunt and track the subs when they inevitably had to surface for air. They could create armored belts below the waterline for their ships, and anti-torpedo screens that could make the torpedoes detonate prematurely. Faster and stronger destroyers could guard the convoys and use cannon and depth-charges to sink the subs. As it turned out, subs could only effectively threaten surface warships (which were all bigger and more heavily armed and armored) when they managed to line up a shot unseen, and the torpedoes themselves tended to suffer from copious amounts of the aforementioned suck.

But Wait! What About The Atomic Bomb? Doesn’t That Disprove All Your Points?

Not at all. In fact, it reinforces them. First of all, the United States and the Allies were not yet fighting the war when Albert Einstein sent his famous letter to FDR, recommending its development. They were losing it when the Manhattan Project began. Most importantly, it was triggered by the belief that Germany, the weaker side in the wider war, was already researching them. By the time the bombs were actually built, of course, things had changed, and they were no longer necessary to win the war. To shorten it, yes, but that’s a different thing. And it attracted enough attention for the Soviets to place spies in the Manhattan Project, which they reproduced in only four years. Finally, the atomic bombs, contrary to appearances, really did contain a lot of suck. They poisoned the battlespace with fallout, and the bombers then necessary to carry them were vulnerable to interception. As a deterrent to large-scale war, the atomic bomb is a wonderful weapon. As an actually usable weapon system, it is not.

And that’s why, although superweapons are an awesome ingredient in fiction, they really don’t show up in history very often.



The Awful Choices

This one’s going to be fast, because I’m running out of time, but it’s one I hope is useful to other writers.

Recently I was reworking a story because of length issues. Amazingly, it was because the story was too SHORT for a market by about 3,000 words, and if you don’t know how rare that is, then oh, my sweet summer child. As I worked on it, I realized that I had made a blithe assumption about how possible it was to do something involving helicopters.

So I consulted an expert and simultaneously realized that a) there were two really obvious workarounds if “something” turned out to be impossible. As it turned out, the expert got back to me and told me that “something” was quite workable so long as you did, in fact, have really GOOD helicopter pilots.

So now I had three possible ways of solving my problem, but the following issues:

Most Dramatic/Awesome Approach (i.e. “something”) is also Least Plausible Approach.

Least Dramatic/Awesome Approach is also Most Plausible.

Most Plausible Approach also is Most Likely To Surprise Protagonists (which needs to happen).

Middling/Plausible Approach makes it difficult for the protagonists to ever find out what happened.

I turned to my research to see if it could nudge me along the right track, here. No such luck. The research basically said you could do whatever and justify it from there. So what should I do?

I still don;t know. But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going with the high action/drama, because that shit is FUN, and why the hell else do people read science-fiction?


Unanswerable Questions: What Would A Space Battle Really Be Like?

Years ago I was asked one of those questions that is fascinating. I was sitting at home with my flatmate (this was before I was married) and he asked me, “So what would a space battle really be like?”

And the problem is that, after pondering it, I had to conclude that the question was basically unanswerable.

I’m bringing it up because, as we all know, the Internets have no shortage of self-proclaimed experts willing to defend their vision of space-battles to the teeth. Often, they have very good arguments, because they’ve been thinking about this a long time. Sometimes too long. And they will rip into anyone, fan or writer, for not agreeing with them. But almost always, their superiority rests on a certain set of assumptions. Within those assumptions, they are very often right. But the assumptions have to be identified.

The first assumption that has to be addressed is the general level of technology you are fighting with. What is your power source? Your space drive? What weapons are available? What defenses? The beam weapon, the force shield, and the reactionless drive are all SF commonplaces. But they don’t always exist together. Which ones do, their power, and in what combination they exist all inform what a space-battle would look like.

A very well-realized universe for this is David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. With gravitic drives that protect ships absolutely from above and below, lesser shields (sidewalls) that protect them on the flanks, and vulnerable bows and sterns, his starfleets can resemble old Naploeonic-style sailing fleets. Cheap fusion power and antiacceleration fields enable the ships to accelerate at hundreds of gravities, and to launch missiles for long-range combat and use fixed-mount beam weapons at shorter ranges. Once you buy into all those givens, you have a system of “real” space combat.

But even once we’ve agreed on the technology, it would be difficult to answer the question. I mean, we might ask, “What would space combat look like with present-day technology?” That’s a better question, but then you have to ask a few more. Do you mean right now? That’s easy. It looks like robotic or remote-operated killer satellites trying to take out enemy recon satellites and stopping them from doing the same to us. Or do you mean, “What could we build right now if we really wanted to?” Because now you have to start asking questions like, “What’s the mission?” “How long do we have until we have to use it?” And, “Who are we fighting?”

It should be obvious that the answers to those questions will very much determine the answer to the original question. If the object is to invade or destroy a nation on Earth, then an offensive spacecraft would pretty much need to look like a bomber, ready to rain death on the planet, perhaps with defensive measures against nuclear-tipped missiles. How big the bomber would be would depend on how long we expected to need it. In a sense, an ICBM is a one-use, robotic version of this. Since we expect the enemy nation to be destroyed by using them, we don’t need them more than once.

Obviously, if the mission differs, so will the spacecraft, and so will the battle. If we need to shoot down an enemy space platform, what will we need? Missiles? Or actual space fighters? Or do we want to capture it, necessitating boarding equipment and tactics? What if we want to defend the planet against an unknown threat? Should we develop fighters? A fighter carrier? Or a really big battleship? Or what if we want to send a ship to mine the asteroids and we suspect someone would like to prevent that? Or capture the ship on its way back when its hold is full of valuable metal?

Our navies on Earth have a variety of ships to do a variety of jobs, form surface cruisers, to submarines, to aircraft carriers and a host of others. What a “sea battle” — or for that matter, a “land battle” “really” looks like depends very much on what forces are involved in accomplishing what objectives against what opposition. Space combat will, too.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: The Road Warrior

I decided the other week to fill in one of the holes in my filmography and watch The Road Warrior, which I somehow missed seeing. I feel like I missed a few classic movies in the following manner: Too young to see it when it came out (I was 8 in 1981), too many other things to see to bother watching it when I was a teen, and it seemed old, trashy  and hard to get when I grew up. Thank you public library!

Now I saw Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters and absolutely loved it. It was much, much better than I had expected it to be, and watching The Road Warrior it was obvious that the director had seen and loved it, too. This was the film to which Fury Road was the homage. I mean the parallels between Immortan Joe and The Humungus, and the chase of the big rig are all too obvious to be worth re-hashing. In general, I feel that Fury Road did a wonderful job of staying true to the feel of its source while also elevating it to heights of spectacle and madness that just weren’t possible in 1981.

The one thing that really bothers me about The Road Warrior, though is that I felt the ending suffered from a terrible case of anticlimax, almost as though the writer really could not tell whether Lord Humungus or Wez was supposed to be the “real” antagonist for Max. It seems obvious that the roles were originally envisioned in such a fashion as to be analogous to Darth Vader’s and the Emperor’s relationship to Luke, in that Darth Vader was to be the more personal antagonist, with the Emperor being the ultimate power. In that light, it makes sense that Luke must defeat (not kill) Darth Vader first in order to ultimately defeat (again, not kill) the Emperor.

But in The Road Warrior it is curious that the ultimate death of Humungus happens so quickly. It makes sense, in that Mad Max turns the tanker around and Humungus doesn’t know about (blind hills can be dangerous, kids!) But the fact that timing such a collision would be almost impossible, and that there is further no evidence in the film that Max planned it, really made it feel like the director simply ordained that Max would win. Max is driving a rig, Humungus a car, and Humungus dies. Very unlike the death of Immortan Joe, who is killed more or less in hand-to-hand combat. Killed by a trick with a chain and a car, yes. But killed much more by planned physical violence. Humungus’s death is pretty much an accident. Having Wez die in the same accident — while distracting Max on top of it — only amplifies the anticlimax. The whole thing left me feeling unsatisfied.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s take on it. What was here that I missed?

The White Sands Of Arrakis (A Fisking)

Those of you who are even passingly familiar with this blog will realize that the novel Dune is something near and dear to my heart. So about a week ago, my attention was drawn to this article that pretty much makes Frank Herbert’s novel out to be the original “White Man’s Burden.” I rebut this argument. Rules for the fisking: The fisked article is in italics, and my responses are in bold.

Original can be found on The Escapist. If you want to go there yourself, have fun. I’m not interested in dignifying it with more hits.

With news that a new Dune film is in the works, it’s worth pausing to

hope that the filmmakers remember that the Imperium doesn’t use guns in regular combat?

remember that Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides is the most egregiously, preposterously, overpowered uber-hero in the history of explored space.

Aw, shit, for a moment I thought we were going to talk about something important.

In Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel, Paul is

1. an unbeatable ninja hand to hand fighter

Except for Gurney Halleck, who fights him to a draw, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, who very nearly beats him, and Count Fenring, who (Paul knows) WOULD beat him, but refuses to fight him. So, unbeatable except for people who can beat him, right.

2. a human calculating supercomputer

In an Imperium where that quality is a known and trained profession, something like spies are today. So, he’s got a talent for a career path. Yes, incredible.

3. a genetically engineered male witch with a Voice that must be obeyed

Trained in that Voice by his mother, who was trained in it from her membership in an order of thousands and thousands of women who train in that same ability. Amazing. A kid who learns from his parents. Well, that IS unusual. 

4. a seer with the ability to predict the future

Very erratically and with little idea, especially at first, what he’s seeing.

5. a matchless military strategist

Trained by and partnered with older and wiser military strategists who are pretty much planetary general officers. I would hope he’d get pretty good at it.

6. the chosen one of multiple interlocking prophecies

All of which were engineered by the Bene Gesserit just in case one of their own ever needed to use them to save her skin by playing prophetess. So it’s really just one prophecy. You weren’t paying attention, were you? 

7. all of the above. He probably shits gold too while flowers spring up where he walks. Why the hell not?

Well, at a guess because there was no justification for that given in the novel. What kind of argumentation is this? OMG, THIS CHARACTER CAN DO A WHOLE BUNCH OF THINGS THAT ARE ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED BY THE TECHNOLOGY, CULTURE, AND CLASS THE CHARACTER GREW UP IN, BUT THAT WOULD BE COMPLETELY OUT OF THE QUESTION FOR ANY OF US TODAY!! I GUESS THAT MEANS HE CAN DO BULLSHIT MAGIC, TOO!!! Are you aware that science-fiction is generally about people who can do stuff that we can’t do today, because of reasons explained in the text?

Superman has super breath and even super-hypnosis in some iterations, but even when he’s muscling planets around, he looks like a pallid also-ran next to Paul, who spends his days ruling the universe, not foiling bank robberies.

Um, Paul spends exactly 0% of the novel ruling the universe. He spends about 2.5 pages at the end of the book knowing he will rule the universe as its emperor. He spends approximately 67% of the book leading a guerrilla army and running away from Harkonnens. Again: read the book. 

No wonder everyone in Dune is always staring at Paul open-mouthed and thinking about how awesome he is.

“EVERYONE IS ALWAYS!” Except for the people who aren’t and don’t. Like Gurney Halleck, who treats him like the kid he trained, and later his lord. Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, who just wants to gut him. Jamis, who wants to gut him. Stilgar, who starts out treating him like prey, and later like a Fremen boy. “Everyone is always” means you’re going to make your point, facts be damned. Like those people who go around claiming that Jesus is basically Mithra by conveniently ignoring all the differences between those two stories. They’re the same except for where they’re different. The United States is exactly like Nazi Germany, except for the free elections, constitutional rights, and lack of gas chambers. Got it. 

Even Jessica, Paul’s mother, is overwhelmed, musing about how she’strained [his] intelligence … but now she found herself fearful of it.” Paul is amazing; Paul is terrifying. Be amazed and terrified, reader!

Because no parent has ever freaked out when realizing that they’ve managed to raise a child stronger or smarter or whatever else-er than they are. That’s a major theme of the book, in case you’d like to be better informed than the author, here.

Dune is basically a long, tripped out, ecstatically bloated reiteration of the Mighty Whitey trope. A Mighty Whitey is a European or white character who adopts the culture of indigenous people, becoming their king and gaining near mystical powers along the way. James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, a white man who adopted the ways of Native Americans and became the most strong and noble of them all, is an early example. Other iterations include Tarzan, the comic strip character the Phantom, C3P0 among the Ewoks, Dr. Strange (who goes to Tibet to learn Eastern magic and ends up being better at it than any Tibetans) and Iron Fist (who goes to the East to learn martial arts and ends up being better at it than … well, you know the drill.)

And aside from the rather ridiculous inclusion of C3P0 among the Ewoks, which is a parody played for laughs, all of those examples take place on pretty much contemporary Earth, with racial definitions much the same as our own.

Besides which: Paul is white? Where exactly does it say that Paul is white? He’s described early on with green eyes and black hair and a thin nose. Okay, that’s not conclusive, but let’s grant that those features seem “whiter” than not.

Then are the Fremen NON-white? Let’s look at how they’re described. Like Stilgar. When we meet Stilgar, he is anxious to reclaim a lost crysknife. He enters veiled, but reveals a face with “a thin nose and a full-lipped mouth in a glistening black beard.” Likewise inconclusive. “Full-lipped” might be taken as a racist dogwhistle, but the thin nose is exactly like Paul. But why is Stilgar concerned about the crysknife? Well, the evil Harkonnens (who are related closely to the Atreides, remember) are offering a huge reward for one. Why do they want a crysknife? Duncan Idaho explains: “With [one], a blue-eyed man could penetrate any sietch in the land.”
Wait. He could? Well then, if Paul is white… and therefore the Harkonnens are white… and a white man with blue eyes only needs a crysknife to spy on the Fremen… then what color are the Fremen?
Say it with me…

Dune is set in the far future, but Herbert wasn’t coy about drawing parallels with earthbound colonial narratives. Paul is a noble duke from a planet with a temperate climate. Though it’s the far future, he’s associated with a European-style noble tradition.

And we know that because he’s called a duke and his enemy is a baron, and they’re all ruled by a Padishah Emperor, which is a European title. Oh, wait, no: that’s stupid. Padishah is Persian, and was also used by Ottoman and Mughal rulers in West Asia. Hey, here’s an idea: maybe when so much is mashed up like this, we should consider that the parallels aren’t as absolute as all that.

He’s also the product of a centuries long breeding experiment, so he’s effectively a perfect eugenic specimen.

Um, did you just say that we know Paul must be European/white because he’s A PERFECT EUGENIC SPECIMEN? Or that a perfect eugenic specimen must be white? That’s… not a good assumption, either way, to say the least.

He goes to Arrakis, a desert planet whose inhabitants, the Fremen, are persistently linked to Arabs.

And were based, according to Frank Herbert, not only on Arabs, but the San of the Kalahari, and the Navajo. And they speak Chakobsa, which really is a secret language of the Caucasus, probably based on West Circassian. You know what word we get from “Caucasus,” don’t you?
Say it with me…

Their culture includes both the hajj and jihad.

PAUL’S culture also includes the jihad. From the Butlerian Jihad, specifically, which would be far more relevant to everyone in the universe than what Arabs believed over 10,000 years prior. So who borrowed “jihad” from whom, here? And how do the Fremen make hajj to Mecca when Earth is lost? Now if you were familiar enough with the book to really delve into it, you’d find that Herbert was way ahead of you. As hinted at above, there’s evidence that that the whole feudal system in DUNE is based on the Ottoman Empire, which would make Paul and the rest of the ruling class Muslim. Herbert even claims that the religion of the Atreides’ Caladanin peasants was a purer form of Islam than the Fremen’s religion was (Appendix II). So there’s a pretty strong case here that either EVERYBODY in this book is white or NOBODY is.*

The Freemen (sic), are portrayed with the familiar tropes of noble savages. They are fierce, proud, dangerous, loyal, and organized into tribes where (male) leadership is determined through trial by combat.

How is that different from Paul’s culture, except that Great Houses substitute for “tribe?” And birth substitutes for combat? And the Fremen are still white.

As in many an earlier colonial fantasy, the Fremen first plan to kill Paul, but when they find out just how cool he is, they quickly make him their leader and worship him.

Again, reading comprehension escapes us: They plan to kill Paul and his mother until they find out how awesome SHE is. Jessica is the one who disarms Stilgar with her bare hands. Paul has to go through another trial by combat, and even then is barely declared a man.

This isn’t a one time thing for the Fremen, either; before Paul, their previous leader/god figure was an off-world ecologist named Liet, who, in Herbert’s words “had gone native.”

And was half-Fremen, which you’d know if you read the book. Liet’s father, Pardot Kynes, would be a much better case for Mighty Whitey shenanigans, but that would require you to both a) read the book and b) base your essay on a character that only shows up in the appendices, and that’s just not as sexy, is it?
What you have here is a real failure of the imagination: you cannot comprehend that Frank Herbert might have been combining LOTS of features of LOTS of civilizations in a way to portray a culture so far in the future (over 10,000 years) that it is completely alien to us. And that’s a common means for science-fiction to portray such hypothetical distant cultures. The idea that DUNE concerns itself with our present racial angst at all is really ridiculous on the surface. Think about it. How many civilizations that are 10,000 years old can you even name? The pyramids are more recent than that! What social constructs of “race” did such people even HAVE?
Now, I’m sure if the author were to comment on this piece, he would say something like: “You idiot, I’m not talking about how the culture of the Imperium would really work: I’m talking about how Frank Herbert can’t help framing his triumphant narrative in racist and colonialist terms in a novel written in late 20th-Century America.”
To which I respond, “That frame is only there because you put it there.” I mean, you could make the exact same argument with Octavia Butler’s Dawn series: Because the Oankali arrive to save humanity from the consequences of its fratricidal war, and alter humanity without consulting them, which actually changes humanity for the better, this is a justification of real-world colonialism and “uplift” schemes. Now, how ridiculous would it be to read Octavia Butler (who is emphatically NOT WHITE) this way? Ridiculous, right?
Now obviously this is not to say that neither Herbert nor Butler were ENGAGING with issues of race and colonialism. Of bloody course they were! But they aren’t singing a hymn in praise of The White Man’s Burden, either!

The Mighty Whitey trope suggests that a white person dumped among less white people will automatically become a king and a god. But in Dune, as in other Mighty Whitey stories, there’s a bit more going on.

Firstly, that the Fremen are not less white.

Paul’s whiteness makes him an object of worship for the Fremen.

Other, less race-obsessed people, might consider that Paul’s military and physical training, his knowledge of military history and genetically-engineered prescience make him an object of worship for the Fremen, who desperately need all those qualities, considering they’re being hunted by the Emperor’s elite troops. But they say to write what you know.

But his time with them also gives him access to his full prophetic abilities, ultimately allowing him to defeat the Emperor and become the effective ruler of the universe.

Because Arrakis is the only place where the spice will become inescapable for Paul and bring him to his full powers. Again, that’s in the book.

Similarly, Tarzan is tougher and stronger than other European whites and Iron Fist has powers denied to most white people. Whitey is mighty not just in contrast to people of color, but because of his affinity for people of color.

Or just as possibly, other white people who have been forced into serfdom and outlawry. Amazingly, people do sometimes learn and grow strong when they are exposed to the ways of others who have had to survive tough conditions. I guess Paul should have kept living like he did on Caladan? Because that wouldn’t have been insulting, condescending, or racist at all.

This makes sense if you see Mighty Whitey’s might as a metaphor for imperialism. White people grow wealthy and powerful by subjugating other peoples and extracting their resources.

Now, what’s really funny here is that in order to make your narrative of “Paul The White Oppressor” work, you have to erase huge swaths of the book. YES, there’s a metaphor for imperialism, here. Arrakis is a victim of imperialism by their Harkonnen overlords supported in their imperialism by — pay attention, the name is a clue, here — the Padishah** EMPEROR. Who “grow wealthy and powerful by subjugating other peoples and extracting their resources.” Paul is a LIBERATOR of the Fremen. He is helping them to fight AGAINST that oppression. Which according to you, makes him their oppressor! I await with breathtaking interest your next essay in which you explain that sand is a metaphor for water!

In Dune, the Arrakis desert contains a loose oil analogue called spice. Spice powers spaceships rather than cars or factories. The spice is a drug which sparks telepathic and precognitive abilities and pilots must take it to steer from planet to planet. The Fremen have been made into super fighters by the harsh conditions of Arrakis. Paul takes the spice to become a prophet, and capitalizes on the misery of the Fremen when they become his warriors and sweep away all before them.

Incidentally freeing them from the Harkonnens, who made a ritual out of mocking people dying of thirst, and the Emperor, whose forces happily killed women and babies. The Fremen were already competent-but-miserable warriors who were losing. Paul’s prescience, training, knowledge of weapons, and more importantly his ability to train the Fremen, turned them into warriors that could win. But that doesn’t matter: the important part is that Paul capitalized and that’s bad. Because it sounds like capitalism. Which is bad.

Paul’s divinity and power comes from his ability to capitalize on the resources and pain of others.

No. No it does not. Paul’s powers were already there, and they are activated by the spice that is in the food he eats and in the air he breathes. He begins experiencing his expanded psychic powers before he ever meets the Fremen in the desert. The author is literally accusing Paul of breathing the Fremen’s air and equating that to theft. And by the way, the Fremen claim to “indigenous” status is pretty sketchy in the first place, considering that their ancestors are not native to Arrakis. If anything in Dune can claim “indigenous” status, it’s the sandworms, who are harnessed as riding beasts by the wonderful, “indigenous” Fremen, who plunge hooks into them and ride them to exhaustion. And Paul’s “divinity” comes from the Fremen only on a very surface level: the Fremen were primed to accept Paul not on their own, but by the schemes of the Bene Gesserit, who planted religious legends (Panoplia Propheticus) literally everywhere centuries ago so that their members could use them.

On the surface, Mighty Whitey characters are superior because of their whiteness.

Except they’re not, because the Fremen are just as “provably” as white as Paul. Paul is superior because he has powers other people do not and cannot have. He’s superior because he has wealth and training very few people have. Now if you wanted to argue that Paul is superior because of his privilege, that would be undeniable. He’s a ducal heir. He literally DOES have noble privileges. 

But dig a little deeper, and their powers are borrowed or, more accurately, stolen. They are godlike because they’ve appropriated the labor and wealth of others.

OMG! Nobles steal shit from commoners? NO! Say it ain’t so! In this essay about a novel in which feudalism is portrayed as oppressive, you have detected that feudalism is oppressive. So perhaps I was wrong, and I should instead eagerly await your essay revealing that sand is dry.
This is what happens when people get so wrapped up in current political dogma that they don’t study actual history. Revolutions and revolts are nearly ALWAYS led by discontented elites. It was true of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc. DUNE is one more story about that.
I suspect, however, that the point of this essay is that you want stories of a Revolution explicitly and exclusively led by non-whites and/or the proletariat victorious without help. The hero should not be Paul, but rather Stilgar.*** If Stilgar weren’t, you know, a white guy leading white people. Paul should not exist.
What is it that outrages you here? That Paul might use his privilege to help the oppressed attain liberation. But I thought that’s what privilege was SUPPOSED to be used for!
There is literally no way to tell this story that would please you. You want characters in Paul’s position to be simply irredeemable, not based on what they do, but based upon who they are. In actual feudal times, it used to be unconscionable for a slave to aspire to noble blood. Now, it is unconscionable for a noble to aspire to proletarian blood. If Paul acts like an Atreides, he is an oppressor. If he acts like a Fremen, he’s a worse oppressor. Doubtless if he’d done nothing and left the Fremen to the Harkonnens and the Empire, he would be complicit. When EVERYTHING is oppression, NOTHING is.

Paul claims to be wracked with guilt because he sees a future in which he leads the Fremen in a path of bloody destruction across the universe. But really the guilt is for his present glory, built on blood and a deceit that the story won’t, and can’t, quite acknowledge.

Well of course it can’t. You won’t let it. None of Paul’s skill is allowed to count. All his training, all his work, all his determination counts for nothing because it comes from privilege. None of his suffering is allowed to count. He loses his father, his son, almost all of his friends and mentors, is forced to keep the woman he loves as a concubine in a last desperate gambit to mitigate the terrors of the jihad he’s failed to prevent. Paul’s choice is to either completely repudiate his status as the Messiah — in which case he and the Fremen would both lose and become victims of WORSE oppressors — or to accept the lie. That’s one of the main tragedies of the book: that Paul cannot ultimately find a path between tacit deceit and leaving the Fremen oppressed by rulers that intend to commit literal genocide.

A novel that does acknowledge it is Tasha Suri’s 2018 epic fantasy Empire of Sand. Like Dune, Suri’s book is set in a desert and features an incredibly powerful leader, the Maha. Paul’s eyes are blue, because of the spice he takes; the Maha’s pupils have “points of light within them, light as sharp and jagged as shattered glass.” And like Paul, the Maha has a terrifying attraction. Mehr, the novel’s heroine, fears that, “If [the Maha] had wanted to make me love him, I think he could have.”

The Maha is an ageless emperor whose subjects adore and fear him. But his power doesn’t come from himself. Instead, it comes from people like Mehr.

Mehr is a member of the Amrithi, a people who have an intimate connection with daiva, or desert spirits. Amritihi dancing rituals can control the gods. The Maha enslaves Amritihi and forces them to pray for his power and his empire. He’s larger than life because he’s taken other people’s lives and added them to his own.

“Without the dreamfire, you’re nothing but a man who likes to hurt people,” Mehr tells the Maha towards the book’s conclusion. The dreamfire in Empire of Sand is the connection to the gods — but it’s also just other people’s stuff and other people’s labor. Paul is a ninja/computer/prophet/king/mighty whitey only as long as the Fremen aren’t free. When they get their liberty, Tasha Suri suggests, we’ll have fewer god emperors, and maybe a more just world.

Not having read Empire of Sand, I can’t comment much here, except to note that if we accept your claim that Paul is an oppressor for teaching the Fremen the skills they need to defeat their oppressors, another parallel follows. You are (so far as my research can determine) a white American who is trying to point out all the ways non-whites are oppressed, and alert them to their oppression. And you’re making a career of writing about that. Which you could not do unless there was oppression. What does that make you?

*And if you don’t like the book because everybody is white, fine. Just don’t try to make the Fremen non-white AS WELL.
**Still neither a white nor a European title.

** Whose power, let us remember, is based on his ability to be the nastiest son-of-a-bitch with a knife in the sietch. Remember? You said that.