Dune – Just Another Fascist Sci-Fi Pornographic Fantasy?

By “pornographic”, incidentally, I don’t mean sexually pornographic.  I mean in the sense of distilling an artistic entity into it’s most obvious, banal, and debasing parts.  I mean it in the same way that I would tell you that Disney is mostly pornographic: it is film that caters to banal fantasies and fetishes about heroism and suffering.

I have never read “Dune”.  I tried but it bored me, very quickly.  I generally despise banal fantasies.  I might try again some day– certain people keep telling me it’s great– , but for now I’m going to build a personal synopsis using online resources.  Yes, I know: that is inadequate.  But before I commit to reading 900 pages of dreck, I want to know if there is anything worthwhile in there.  I’m getting old.  I don’t have that much time left to waste.

Synopsis of Dune:

First of all, we have an Emperor.  Are science fiction writers congenitally incapable of imagining a universe without a royal family?  (Well, P. K. Dick did, in “Blade Runner”).  And if we have a royal family, we have a princess, in this case, Timothee Chalamet, (because I guess Leonardo Di Caprio and Andrew McCarthy and the princesses are getting too big now).

So we have House Atreides headed by Leto and the emperor Padishah. Emperor Shaddam IV orders Leto to rule the planet Arrakis (which is the putative Dune of the title).    Arrakis is where you get LSD.

Leto has a concubine, a witch, with magical powers, like Peter Pan, Lady Jessica, who is an “acolyte” of the Bene Gesserit, a very, very mysterious group.  So mysterious, we can’t tell you anything about it.  Just wallow in the mystery, okay?

Oh, there’s too many characters, none of whom sound interesting yet.  Lady Jessica bears Leto a son, Paul, who is so obviously a Christ figure that Frank Herbert can count on most reviewers not mentioning it for fear of appearing crass.  Paul passes a test with higher marks than anyone else ever– he’s just so special.  After all, he’s a princess.  That’s why we have Timothy Chalamet.  And less interesting now, because we know that this sequence is merely a device to keep us from thinking Paul wants to be the chosen one.  The chosen one never wants to be the chosen one.  He is always dragged, reluctantly, kicking and screaming, to his DESTINY.  The same way princesses are always compelled to wear glorious dresses and jewelry and accept the worship of the masses of people who think that princesses should be worshipped.

So they move to Arrakeen– Leto, Jessica, Paul, and the indentured servants.  Arrakeen is a “stronghold”– nice — on Arrakis.

And we have the bad guys, the Harkonnens.   And the perfidious Suk doctor Wellington, who has mixed motives, and thus becomes more interesting than he was, but still, he BETRAYS our hero, Leto, and brings suffering to the real hero, the Christ figure, Paul.

The name… Paul?  Seriously?

And what makes Paul utterly dull and lifeless: he acquires magical powers of by drinking the “Waters of Life” which are supposed to poison males (here we get all the suffering again, to prove that Paul is no greedy little parvenu, but a suffering, selfless, honest-to-god hero.  Here the reader feels good about himself.  He goes to sleep fantasizing he is Paul, and everyone loves him because he suffered for his power– he didn’t take it because he was a fucking, greedy little arrogant twerp, which is probably the truth.  It is almost always the truth.  Show me a ruler who actually sat back and waited for authority and power to be thrust upon him?

If you believe Hollywood movies, heroism is bestowed upon humble reluctant protagonists by accident or fate or whatever– anything except personal ego and ambition.  Just the opposite, in fact, of Shakespeare.

So Paul is now dull: he prevails, when he prevails, not because he tries harder or is witty or clever or well-educated or has learned to lead– no, no, no– he has magic.  It’s way easier and saves the novelist years of work.  And now he really is the “messiah”, the Kwisatz Haderach, the fruit of the long-term Bene Gesserit breeding program.

Doesn’t that all just sound fascinating to you?  No, not me either.  We already have a bible, and Greek myths, and Star Wars (God spare us the ultimate mediocrity in sci-fi).   We already have a film version of “Dune” by David Lynch that was so bad that he disowned it.   And I suspect he disowned it not because the studio destroyed his film, as he insisted, but because he couldn’t believe how bad his own work was.  The studio didn’t invent Sting’s costume, or Kyle MacLachlan’s incomprehensibly British accent or the voice-over of every character.

Why Dune?  What is supposedly so original or powerful about it?  Villeneuve made “Blade Runner 2049″ and “Arrival” both of which were, frankly, dumb.   What can he do with the “Dune” franchise?  (“Incendies“, on the other hand, was fine.)

Helen MacDonald interviewed director Villeneuve for the Times.  I generally want to trust my sources here but she says this, as she is about to interview Villeneuve by Zoom:

When I held up my “Star Wars” mug to demonstrate my sci-fi credentials, his eyebrows rose high over his half-rim glasses, and he grinned.


You are trying to tell me that “Dune” is profound and complex and smart and original and brilliant, and yet you are a fan of the dumbest science fiction franchise in the known universe?

And you tell me Villeneuve “grinned” when you said that?

Let’s see if she can rebuild her credibility.   No, she can’t.  “Star Wars” was purposely conceived of as a “B” franchise, a dumb, childish, unsophisticated story of princesses and cute robots and lasers and space ships and rogues and almost nothing genuinely interesting about man or science or space.   It is worse than uninteresting: it actually saps genuine curiosity and wonder from the viewer’s brain.

Helen MacDonald, author of the wonderful “H is for Hawk”,  is clearly a fan-girl or maybe she’s hoping Villeneuve will take on one of her own books in the future: she is a major suck-up.  She writes, “Timothée Chalamet described him as ‘one of the most beautiful souls.’ ”  She blathers about how nice he was to her on the Zoom call.

Give it a rest, mom.






A Bill Jamesian Analysis of Voter Suppression

This fascinating article in the New York Times gives a surprisingly anodyne perspective on voter suppression efforts by Republican (and some Democrat) State Legislatures.

The key takeaway is that, for all the fuss, most of the Republican efforts to reduce voter turnout among perceived Democratic constituencies have little overall effect on the outcome.

Why?  Partly because many of the legislative changes don’t work.  Voters continue to turn out, even if voting times and locations are reduced, and voter id is required.  Partly because some of the policies also impact Republican voters.  Partly because the numbers involved are actually quite small.

In baseball, many fans have the impression that the 50-home run hitting first baseman is irreplaceable, because they don’t take into account the fact that his replacement will also hit a lot of home runs.  You don’t lose 50– you lose maybe 10, maybe 15.  And the intentional walk– yes, you reduced the chances of a good-hitter driving in a run, but you also increase the chance that that hitter who is now a baserunner will also score.   It’s a wash and now most astute baseball commentators and managers recognize it.

So take the actual number of voters who don’t turn out and subtract the number of them who vote for the other party and then calculate that as a percentage of the total number of voters– and you have a marginal effect.

I admit, I was a bit surprised.  What do critics of this analysis say?  They don’t say it’s wrong.  They say that the principle of voting rights is more important than the actual effect, and I agree with that.


What Normal Americans Think

In an interview, Mr. Schmidt said his goal was to show Dr. Journey “what normal Americans think.”

A student at the University of Chicago named Daniel Schmidt found out that there was a course being offered called “The Problem of Whiteness”.  The course was described as an exploration of how the racial category of “white” has evolved over time.

Students explore how white people are treated as the norm, affecting, among other things, wealth and political power.

Dr. Journey’s syllabus included readings like, “How Did Jews Become White Folks?” by Karen Brodkin and “The Souls of White Folk,” a lesser-known essay by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Sounds pretty harmless to me.  I’m not sure I would have agreed with Dr. Journey’s perspective, but I would certainly have attended the course before criticizing it.  If she’s into tagging “white privilege” at every opportunity, I won’t be a fan.  If she believes the U.S. is fundamentally founded on racists beliefs, I don’t believe you can really dispute it.  Nor can you dispute the evidence of, yes, “systemic racism” in the U.S.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and suppose that there was something in this course that you disagreed with.  Say you think that it doesn’t give enough credit to the achievements of white civilizations like Sweden and Finland and Scarborough.  Or the ineluctable charms of tap-dancing.  Or why “Gone With the Wind” is the greatest film ever made.  At the University of Chicago, you are free to disagree— assertively so.

Even Mr. Schmidt admits that the University of Chicago has an admirable policy on free speech.  If Anne Coulter wants to come and perform some witchcraft and spew her toxic white nationalism– let her.  If Noam Chomsky wants to come and spew his toxic progressivism– let him.  I’m being sardonic here, but I vehemently agree with the policy.  Nobody should ever ban Anne Coulter from speaking anywhere.  Nobody should ever invite her either, but, if you really want to, go ahead.  Her character and vitriol speaks for itself.  Does she speak for you?  Own it.

But Mr. Schmidt, like so many of his ilk, didn’t choose to simply exercise his freedom to disagree.  He didn’t even take the fucking course to find out what was actually in it and what the professor, Rebecca Journey, had to say about white culture.  I repeat– like so many of his ilk.  What he did was tweet ignorant comments along with Ms.  Journey’s email address and photo obviously intending that she would be harassed.  Not debated.  Not disputed.  Not argued with: simply harassed.  That’s the way assholes like Schmidt and his party do it.  And it worked, exactly as he hoped: hundreds of his “followers”– his sheep– sent her harassing messages, letters, and emails.

I would invite Ms. Journey to have thicker skin.  She postponed the course.  She should not have, and the University, which did back her up, should have taken modest if necessary steps to ensure that she was safe from any idiots out there who regarded Mr. Schmidt as something other than a moron.  But she should perhaps accept that some hate mail — in today’s culture– is the inevitable byproduct of political polarization right now and the worst thing one can do is let them win.

Does she really want Schmidt to crow in triumph that he stopped the woke mob in its tracks?