Backward Flow

Originally published on October 24, 2014, available at All rights reserved.

The trike is a pixellated metal cock crawling across the desert. It penetrates the darkness at the edge of my vision, tracing a tiny path across the planet’s golden skin, dark granite clefts, orange rashes of spice blistered with red sores ready to burst. It lifts the black veil from the desert’s contours so that my fleet of greedy harvesters can crawl to the spice. It finds my enemies so that I can crush them with steel tracks and bury them under fire until nothing at all remains, no color staining the sand but my own. When my city is a vast concrete scab swollen with spice and my enemies are mapped and surrounded, the trike keeps pushing. I force it mindlessly against every remaining mystery until the map is complete. The trike is painted in Atreides blue. Atreides are the good guys, so they are blue.

In fact, blue is not the color of the Atreides at all. My Dune education was backwards, starting with Westwood’s Dune II and ending, recently, with Frank Herbert’s novel. The original, it turns out, is full of surprises for someone who grew up on the games. In this case: Atreides wear black uniforms emblazoned with red hawks. Their flag is black, green and red. The change doesn’t surprise me. Can you really have good guys in black and red uniforms? Isn’t the flag a bit Middle-Eastern for a personification of Anglo-Saxon power and virtue? Herbert’s book bristles with these little barbs of disquiet.

The trike is a striped metal condom encasing nothing. I’m at the murky dregs of adolescence, mind at sea on a tide of antidepressants and unable to feel or think. My waking moments are Dune 2000 or Diablo II or Alpha Centauri. At least, these games are the concrete colonies on my mind’s terrain, the paving laid over a field of unhealed wounds. Blood and terror and unrequited love are welling up somewhere within, but I can coax the three-wheeled rover out once again and make Arrakis sing.

The voice of this planet is passive-aggressive: chimes and moans and growls, sand that will keep blasting against concrete until only the desert remains. The planet is distant. It broods. I dimly understand that my relationship with Arrakis is an abusive one, but I keep pushing. When I eventually see David Lynch’s film, the drug-addicted scrotum monster he uses for a Guild navigator will tell me what I already know: that the spice is something terrible, stolen by my harvesters from a place that will always hide secrets just beyond my vision, no matter how far I send the trike.

I realize now that Frank Keplacki’s score for Dune II and Dune 2000 has more in common with the gilded luster of Lynch’s baroque abomination than Herbert’s stilted prose, but it remains true to the mythos: arabesque pastiche mashed with bloody animus, half paean and half dirge. Herbert seems to revel in the mystical and antiquarian, but he also surprises and teases.

Take young Paul Atreides. Clearly the hero. He is the Kwisatz Haderach, the chosen one gifted with prophetic powers and destined to overthrow the emperor, and he follows the traditional arc of the hero’s journey, being thrust from his sheltered aristocratic life into the planet Arrakis’ desert wastes, from whence he will return at max level, with points in mind control and messianic prophesy, to assume his rightful place as Padishah Emperor.

Paul’s journey involves an initiation into the society of the Fremen, obscure tribes of the desert. This initiation, like everything in Fremen society, is violent and unforgiving: Paul must fight to the death with a member of the tribe for the right to survive.

This contest has no relation to any real desert-dwelling society, but it fits ideas about the “savagery” of non-sedentary peoples. The Fremen are quite a strange concoction, Beduin as noble savages imagined by Thomas Hobbes: one with nature, physically perfect and relentlessly violent. Not only are they engaged in constant internecine warfare, but, in a eugenic twist, they destroy the “weak,” whom they see as a burden to survival in the unforgiving wastes.

Paul’s initiation is also a cliché of the pulp tradition going back to cowboy romances, not to mention nineteenth century “racial science.” Paul’s fight reveals his superior, aristocratic savagery to the simple natives. As an upperclass white man, Paul isn’t just better at being civilized; he is better at being uncivilized. Naturally, he eventually becomes not only the leader of his adoptive tribe, but the messiah of all the Freman tribes, after using ethnic superiority to explain the need for unity against their Harkonnen oppressors. The Fremen were already the perfect fascist army; they awaited only their bloody white savior, their Lawrence of Arabia in Furs, to show up in an SS uniform and lead a jihad against the urban interior.

There are those barbs again. Unlike the generic pulp hero, who reaches his logical fruition in the late Robert Heinlein’s solipsistic Oedipal fantasies of self-authoring, Paul’s relationship with his parents is more conventionally Oedipal. The Kwisatz Haderach is a project by the mysterious Bene Gesserit Sisterhood to unite some Jungian-sounding masculine and feminine principles into a pliable organic superweapon, and Paul is its premature launch, one generation too soon, due to his mother choosing to have a boy instead of the girl she was supposed to.

Paul is the creation of women – fulfilling his Jungian destiny and robbing him of agency all at once. The natives of Arrakeen, Arrakis’ seat of power, have had their belief in a messiah implanted in them by Bene Gesserit missionaries. Paul’s hypermasculine jihad draws on powers that are not his own, and will end, it is intimated, in a wave of bloodshed that is beyond his control. He also uses his abilities to manipulate his followers, even to the point of convincing a young woman to go to bed with him: “I have seen the future, and it involves us in bed” seems an unlikely proposition, but it works for Paul.

Herbert, then, is a bit more sly than he first appears. And yet – the jihadis remain easily manipulated, uncontrollably violent savages. Women are either 1950’s housewives or, in the case of the passionate, violent and sexually available Fremen, the products of what are clearly rather lurid fantasies.

“A leader, you see, is one of the things that distinguishes a mob from a people. He maintains the level of individuals. Too few individuals, and a people reverts to a mob,” Herbert has a character say. He is merely repeating the chauvinist liberal-conservative platitude that you need leaders to control the rabble and pluralism to control the leaders. It feels like this book has no desire to go anywhere but the place it started; this is the literary equivalent of the Bioshock games. Circles within circles. Lies within lies.

The trike is a child’s finger drawing trails through the sand. I am the child, kicking at digital sandcastles and crushing my enemies with red Harkonnen tanks. When I am nervous, I lick my lips. I am always nervous. My mouth is ringed by an ugly rash my classmates call my “moustache”. It stings and itches; on hot summer days it feels so raw I want to tear my face off. Being a Harkonnen means being swallowed by a soothing armored shell. It means power armor and rotary cannons. It means a giant, nuclear-powered tank spitting fiery plasma and crushing people under its tracks before exploding in a glorious atomic halo. Harkonnen are the blood-red conquest of a hostile planet, concrete plastered over rocky islands amidst a desert sea. Harkonnen are meant to rise. When I speak, words pour out of me so quickly no one can understand what I’m saying; but Harkonnen always obey without question, and conquer.

Harkonnen are meant to fall. Dune conspicuously lacks the futuristic death machines that make Dune II what it is. Indeed, one of the most striking things about Dune is that there is no science in its fiction. This is a universe in which technological change was strangled by what Herbert calls the “Butlerian Jihad,” which destroyed the machines that made humanity “soft” and instituted a quasi-feudal reign of resurgent religion and duelling aristocrats.

With advanced technology banished and the mysterious spice mélange flowing from Arrakis, people can develop supernatural mental and physical powers. Where once computers had calculated paths between the stars, now the monstrous Guild navigators have paths revealed to them by the spice. In a world in which flesh surpasses technology, the decadent Harkonnen are clearly on their way out.

Lynch’s film is problematic in its portrayal of homosexuality, to put it mildly: at the height of the AIDS scare, his camp Baron Harkonnen was a depraved sexual predator covered with cysts and pustules. Here, Lynch was at least true to his source. The film’s ornate parade of grotesques is Herbert’s gallery of stereotypes, only filmed in long shot. The Harkonnen are not machinelike conquerors: they are fat, sick, effeminate and corrupt. Herbert freely associates transgressions against gender boundaries with incest, cruelty, illness and indolence, and the Harkonnen’s endemic homosexuality is supposed to be another feature of their rot.

The barb is the Baron’s nephew Feyd Rautha, played with bright-eyed aplomb by Sting in the film. Feyd is slim and aggressive where his cousins are fat and slow. Feyd is a killer. In this respect, he is like Paul. In a grotesque mirror image of Paul’s violent initiation into Fremen society, Feyd chooses to fight in a gladiatorial contest, but cheats – he has noble Harkonnen strength, but cannot escape his house’s corruption. In fact, Feyd was supposed to marry the girl Paul never was in order to father the Kwisatz Haderach – he is Paul’s Harkonnen mirror image. Herbert makes it clear that Feyd contains the germ of Harkonnen’s tainted nobility.

One implication is that the Harkonnen are what the Atreides might become. In an echo of the work of 14th century Maghreb scholar Ibn Khaldun, Paul and Feyd are on different sides of the same cycle. The conquering jihadis will one day settle, and become rich and indolent, just as the emperor’s elite Sardaukar legions, once fierce desert warriors, have become feeble compared to their primitive Fremen cousins. Herbert sees in my victorious army, my grand spires perched on the rocks, not only a past soaked in blood but a future consumed by decay. Dune knows what sort of scabbed and sullen child revels in conquest, but it also looks at his need to build himself a city of refuge with contempt.

Indeed, for all its subversion of the hero’s journey, heroic masculinity is central to Dune. This is story of tight-laced aristocrats, warriors and mystics, and anyone outside of those categories – feeble civilians, corrupt merchants, “parasite” courtiers – is an enemy or an object of disgust when mentioned at all.

Notably, the loathesome Harkonnen are new money whose wealth is based on trade, while the heroic Atreides are related to the imperial family. Again and again, Herbert emphasizes self-consciousness, discipline, courage, and knowing one’s place. I don’t think this is meant as satire – Herbert, an early Western student of Zen, clearly loves his renaissance fair pomp and faux-Oriental mysticism – rather, the arc of Dune is a tragic one.

Just as court society cannot help but become a weeping sore flocked by parasites, the jihad cannot but be a reign of terror as Paul succumbs to his own power and the mindless masses drown themselves in it. Ultimately, the villain is femininity, whether in the form of the scheming Bene Gesserit witches, Paul’s faintly Oedipal relationship with his mother, the effeminate influence of civilization, or the moisture that is fatally toxic to the monstrous, phallic sandworms whose “spice”, literally ejaculated by the planet, allows Dune’s heroic feats of masculinity in the first place.

That said, it’s not clear how things could be any different. Womanhood – depraved, manipulative, corrupt, weakening – is contagious, and it deforms Paul just as it threatens the sandworms via terraforming. This does not mean that Herbert’s women cannot be heroic – just that they must be either be more manly than most men, as in the case of Fremen like Paul’s mistress Chani, or repressed (but mentally strong) housewives like his mother.

Professional shit-disturber Slavoj Žižek once wrote that Dune is a deliberate display of the “libidinal obscenity” at the heart of power. I’m only half convinced. Herbert’s sexual metaphors for power fantasy are certainly incisive, even comical, but his unconcealed contempt for anybody who does not conform to his rigid, hierarchical Zen ideal reveals an authoritarian desire to be perpetually turned on by discipline while insulated from any femininity he can’t control.

In other words: Dune’s psyche is just as crippled as its technology. This should not be surprising: any human condition that does not encompass our relationship with technology is a lie. Westwood’s Dune is about power as an armored erection that crushes all opposition, because that’s how games understand potency. Herbert’s Dune is technological fetishism stripped of its technology; it is masturbation. No wonder some fans crawl out of the woodwork to condemn every adaptation with impatient disgust – they want fleshy triumph and they are offered mechanized folly. How, though, would the machinations of the Bene Gesserit, or the story of power fantasy as selfdestructive cycle, fit into a videogame? Crusader Kings comes close, but lends itself more to farce than tragedy.

Dune is still with us: sweat in the pores of Dark Sun, Fading Suns, Warhammer 40,000, Morrowind, The Mandate, Iron Empires, Grimes; but mostly in the sense that the spice must flow. The game industry continues to trickle anaesthetic dreams of conquest into sterile imaginary deserts. The planet’s ecology unravels. Autonomous ornithopters murder children of the desert in the name of the Emperor. Jihadis scheme and die. Huge fresh slabs of concrete, laid across the desert by abused and exploited guest workers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, serve as foundations for impossible monstrosities paid for with imperial capital. Herbert’s appropriated mysticism-as-elitist-fantasy is now a consumer good. Google pushes its trikes further through the veil. There is no wormsign.

The trike is an immortal cybernetic prosthesis. I’m sitting here, sweating, scratching these itches that seem to spring up everywhere when I’m hot. I’m finished with Arrakis, in all its incarnations; the sands are too busy. And yet I’ll still be there, sometimes, pressing silently against the darkness at the edge of the map with a clutch of metal pseudophalli, waiting for my death wish to be fulfilled.