Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Dune’s Worldbuilding and Carroll’s Violence: or, Reciting the Litany on the Dover Road

This isn’t exactly a review of Villeneuve’s Dune — there’s no lack of those buzzing around the internet at the moment, after all — although I will start by saying that I loved this movie. If you’re curious about my reaction, this twitter-thread, typos and all, covers it. I can’t, as I say there, pretend absolute objectivity. I read Herbert’s novels over and over as a kid, and adored them. Villeneuve’s aesthetic really hits-home for me. I can see why some people disliked the film. But I loved it.

Still, I’m struck by how many people are praising this movie specifically for its worldbuilding. So I’m going to notate something, briefly, about worldbuilding as such, and about SF and Fantasy more broadly. I’m not going to rehearse Mike Harrison’s ‘clomping foot of nerdism’ take, although it’s clearly right and correct and I entirely agree with it. It doesn’t mean that a book or film should, or can, dispense with worldbuilding altogether, of course; or that the worldbuilding should be so shoddy as to distract the reader or viewer from the whole of the work. I do, however, think people misunderstand the place and worth of worldbuilding, both praise it for the wrong reasons, and miss the point of the good things it does. So that’s what I’m blogging about today. But first, a detour, via children’s literature.

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Yesterday I was teaching Lewis Carroll, on my Children’s Literature RHUL course. We discussed the Alice books in the seminars and several people noted how violent they are — more so than the Disney or even the Tim Burton adaptations. It’s not just the ‘off with his head!’ shrieking, it’s the walrus and the carpenter tricking and then literally devouring the oyster-children. It’s the ‘how doth the little crocodile’ rhyme, and ‘speak roughly to your little boy/And beat him when he sneezes/He only does it to annoy/Because he knows it teases’. It’s also, as a couple of my students noted, in the form of the books: the abrupt shifts of story and scene, the jolting succession of bizarre and horrible characters and moments.

I suggested that this stuff is darkly hilarious, but several of the students disagreed. Some reported that they hadn’t been bothered by any of it when they read the books as kids, but that now, re-reading as adults for class, they found it quite disturbing, actually. Child abuse is a serious, distressing matter, after all. Babies are sometimes literally beaten to death. What’s funny about that?

Discussion ranged beyond Carroll. We talked about the hyperbolic violence of Tom and Jerry, so expertly parodied in the Simpson’s ‘Itchy and Scratchy’. I mentioned watching my teenage son play video games that, sometimes, struck me as upsettingly violent. At the same time, the violence doesn’t bother him. We might say ‘it doesn’t bother him because he doesn’t know any better’, but that strikes me as, simply, condescending, wrongheadedly so. This is, of course, part-and-parcel of a wider moral panic about the effect of TV and video-game violence on young people — ‘it is warping their tender minds! they will become habituated to violence, desensitized to it, and turn into serial killers!’, all that — which (without wishing to dive deeply into it, here) I think, simply, wrong. I don’t think Shadows of Mordor will turn my son into a decapitating psychopath, any more than watching Tom and Jerry, or (indeed) reading the Alice books, brutalised me.

Instead I suggested a different take. One of the larger questions to which we have been returning on the Children’s Literature course is: the balance in these works between mimesis and fantasy. Some children’s literature is, broadly, mimetic: Eric (1858) or Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) are set in recognisable schools, places with real-world analogues, and the books include only those kinds of things that actually happen in the world. Of course, the things that happen are exaggerated and melodramatised in various ways; but there are no, as it might be, time-machines, or dragons, or superpowers in either of those two novels. The case with The Water-Babies or Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan is different: here the stories work according to a fantastical rather than a strictly mimetic logic. They include unreal creatures, magical powers and so on. One question with respect to this divide in children’s literature is: which predominates? Are there more fantasy, or more mimetic, book and films for kids? And I’d say a still more interesting question, pendant to that, is: what does each mode do for the kind of story it is telling? Grange Hill is a mimetic school-story, Harry Potter a fantastical school-story. We might say that Grange Hill is more ‘realistic’ (a word I prefer to avoid when teaching: it’s a surprisingly complicated and tricky piece of critical terminology actually … but you see what I mean) and Harry Potter less ‘realistic’, as representations of school life. But I don’t think this is the right way of putting it. It’s true as a statement on the level of the exteriorised content of the text, but school life is about more than just the kind of buildings, uniforms and lesson-topics. It’s also — and indeed it is much more importantly — about the friendships and enmities you find there, about the fellowship, the tedium and excitement, the stress and the work and the joy and the fun. It’s about the interiorised emotional and psychological realities, and those are poorly captured by merely mimetic representational logics (especially in visual modes, like TV and film).

Samuel Delany once said that SF is a radically metaphorical literature because it aims to represent the world without reproducing it. I think this is a profound insight, and one we can take further. There are lots of things that are more eloquently, more powerfully and more truly represented metaphorically than mimetically. All the magical gubbins in Potter possesses its in-text worldbuilding logic, but it also and more importantly articulates something in a metaphorical manner about childhood: about its intensities and potencies, its wonders and terrors and joys, and this strikes me as far more important than buildings and uniforms.

My take here is that children’s literature is not only much more fantastical than it is mimetic, it’s that even when it appears mimetic (as with Eric) it’s not really mimetic, not ‘realistic’ in a Zola or Gissing-ish sense. I could dilate upon that at length, but will forebear at this point.

What about violence? Violence in real-life is horrific, sickening, upsetting and destabilising. Actual violence is always destructive and never constructive, is always degrading and never uplifting. A properly mimetic representation of violence would be a very painful and traumatising thing. The violence in Tom and Jerry not only isn’t mimetic violence — a fact we sort-of understand, when we distinguish it from, say, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, by calling it ‘cartoon violence’ — it isn’t physical violence at all, although it might be mistaken for a representation of such. It is better understood as a metaphorical, rather than a mimetic, thing. If Alice were a mimetic story about beating baby boys when they sneeze, it would be horrific. It is not, though. That’s not how the violence in the novel figures, or lands with its readers.

There is a lot of violence in the Grimms’-Tales and Carrollian, the Dahlian and Tom-Jerryan text because children understand violence — not physical violence necessarily, but intensities of affect and reaction, passionate desire and passionate anger. No parent who has ever watched their 3-year-old have a full-on tantrum, one of those absolute freak-outs, lying on the floor screaming and kicking their heels and slapping their little arms, can doubt that . The amazing thing about tiny-tot tantrums, it always strikes me, is just how wholehearted they are. If I tried to emulate it, in my fifties, I’d wear myself out in moments and have to have a breather and a cup of tea to recuperate. Tiny kids can go on and on with near-Olympic levels of physical engagement and persistence. It’s very impressive, really.

The Alice books are, in one sense, quite rational, sometimes even cerebral works. There’s a lot of word-play, language games, logic puzzles, and much of the joy of the books is the way structures of nonsense work elaborate, baroque patterns through the world and characters and their interactions. Brilliant. Much of the time Alice is in charge of herself, and indeed is often the only ‘sensible’ person present. But she’s also a kid, and sometimes she loses control — for example, when she cries in frustration at the beginning of Wonderland at being thwarted of her desire (to enter the garden), cries so much that when she then shrinks down she finds herself swimming around in a lake made of her own tears. The violence that bubbles along through the book is a metaphorical apprehension of how violently our passions can be, how intensely we can feel, both positively — how violently, even predatorially, our appetites can manifest, for sweets and food as a kid, for other things too as adults — and negatively as well: our senses of frustration and unfairness, of powerlessness and fear.

I’m going to suggest something with respect to SF fandom now. Many SF fans — and I am myself a SF fan — find it hard to parse metaphor. This is not because they are not clever. They may be very clever, and still prefer the more linear, logically-connective worlds of metonymy, of rules and system and consistency, to the conceptual leap of metaphor. Ever since Roman Jakobson discovered a century ago, working with kids (often bright, lovely kids) on the autism spectrum that they could grasp metonymy in a way that they couldn’t with metaphor, I have wondered before how far the fanbases for SF are distributed along that spectrum. Quite a way, I suspect. That’s mere speculation on my part. Anyway: back to Dune.

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One approach to worldbuilding will prioritise internal consistency, range, scope, detail and the whole interlocking web of it. Look over there! It’s Tolkien, working literally for decades, readying his worldbuilding necessaries, notating the languages of Middle Earth, its different races, the geographies and topographies, drafting maps, chronicling major events in the backstory, creating mythologies and pedigrees and magical systems — and only then sitting down to write The Lord of the Rings. The reality was more complex and rather less efficiently systematic than this of course (Tolkien’s world-building shifted a lot over those decades, which necessitated for instance rewriting the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ chapter in the second edition of The Hobbit to accommodate changes and so on); but as a model, you understand what I’m getting at.

Frank Herbert did not work that way. It is not a criticism of him as a writer to say so. Indeed, I would suggest, rather the reverse: I have long been enamoured of the last great age of properly Pulp SF literary production — there seems to me something marvellous, even heroic, in Philip K Dick churning out hundreds of stories and novels, pepping himself up chemically in the morning to facilitate writing at speed and having to wind-down with wine at the end of the day (it did nothing good for his health, that regimen). Or Michael Moorcock boasting about how he once wrote an Elric novel in a single weekend, a day-and-night frenzy of amphetemine-typing. Or the Perry Rhodan team which, in its early days in the 1960s committed to the publication of weekly Pulp SF novels, such that when the team of writers fluctuated in strength, at some points shrinking to just two men, each geezer was writing a novel a fortnight for long stretches of time. This kind of writing is never going to be Proust, of course; but it can do things Proust cannot, actually— it can, I think, liberate particular often exciting energies, can achieve an automatic-writing kinesis that liberates the imagination. Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop, published in serial episodes in 1840–41, starts with a narrator called Master Humphrey, wandering around London. After a few chapters Dickens got bored with Master Humphrey, dropped him and swapped the narrative from first to third person. Did he go back and revise these opening chapters when the book was published as a single-volume book? He did not. He could easily have done so, could easily have made the opening chapters consistent with the rest of the novel, but he didn’t. Early Dickens is all about the onward movement, the textual momentum, not the fussing and primping and revising, not Lot’s wife casting her glance backwards.

Herbert was not a pulp writer to quite the niagara degree that Dick was, but he did write a lot, first as a journalist and then as a novelist, for the good reason that it was only by writing a lot that he was able to earn a living and pay the bills. Later, when Dune had established itself as his most famous, and best-selling book, and he was producing multiple sequels, he liked to say he spent many years planning and crafting the book. He didn’t though. He may have had the idea back in 1957, working on a magazine article on the sand dune problem in Oregon, but he wrote Dune itself quickly, on the go, as a monthly serial in Analog from December 1963 through to (with a gap in the middle) May 1965. He’d just seen Lawrence of Arabia (Peter O’Toole’s sapphire-blue eyes! All that sand! A hero leading desert-dwellers against an evil empire!) and had decided to write a SF version of that, working the worldbuilding as he went to situate his story. That’s fine. Lots of great SF has been written that way.

You can tell that Herbert is inventing as he goes. For example: in the (striking, and powerful!) opening scene, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam tests Paul Atreides with the gom jabbar: he must put his hand in the box, endure the pain, and so avoid death. Why does the Reverend Mother put the lad through this ordeal? She is quite clear: it is to test whether he is a human being or an animal.

“You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.”

In other words, at this early stage in the story, Herbert is thinking: some of the characters in my imagined universe will be human beings, but others will only appear to be human beings, they will actually be animals of some kind. But this is not part of the world-building of Dune as we have it! The human beings we meet in these novels are all human beings. There are no wolves-dressed-as-grandma, no V-style lizards in human masks. I presume Herbert, as he worked his way into the novel, changed his mind, or failed to follow up on this angle. Which is fine. Why not go back and revise the scene? Doesn’t matter. The point of the scene was not setting up some future animals-disguised-about-humans plot content. The point is something else.

Or again: a big hole in the worldbuilding of the novel (one so widely discussed by fans that Herbert, in the later Dune novels, tried to retrofit an explanation for it) is Arrakis’s breathable atmosphere. How? The planet has no vegetation, and therefore no means by which its air could be oxygenated. Pff. Does it matter? I mean, matter to you, to me, reading (or watching) Dune? I think the answer is: it only matters if we are going to treat worldbuilding as a pseudo-mimetic business, and I don’t think we should treat worldbuilding that way. I think Dune works, worldbuilding-wise, metaphorically rather than mimetically. I think it is saying something about desolation, about emptiness and waste, about grief and purposelessness (and therefore about love, and about purpose). It misses the point of this to object ‘but where does the oxygen come from?’ This worldbuilding exists to articulate something affective, something psychological, something about humanness on an experiential and existential level. It is not a window into an actually existing world, and the later Herbertian attempt to bung a sticking-plaster on this demeans rather than enhances the way the worldbuilding in the novel works. [That sticking-plaster retrofitted into the worldbuilding? Herbert later claimed that the sandworms fart oxygen, which they would have to do in absolutely vast quantities to fill-up 20% of the atmosphere of an Earthsize planet — I mean, they must be just constantly farting. Shai Hulud? Shai Huff-lord more like.]

Similarly the scene with the Reverend Mother, the box and the gom jabbar. This works much more like a poetic image than it does as one jigsaw-piece in a systematically worked-through worldbuilding pattern. It works in part because it comes when it does, before the reader (or viewer) has a clear sense who the Bene Gesserit are, or what they want. It says something that kids understand — about not just the power adults hold over them, but the arbitrariness of it, the (as Carroll would say) illogic of it, the formal or structural violence of that relationship and its imbalance. And it says something about fear and more importantly about overcoming fear, about enduring and surpassing it. About resilience.

When I was a kid I memorised — don’t laugh — the Bene Gesserit ‘Litany Against Fear’, and used to repeat it quietly to myself when I was in a place of terror. I was eleven or twelve, and my family had moved to Canterbury in Kent, from London SE23. Where we lived was about a mile’s walk into town, and the only way was down the narrow pavement alongside the Dover Road, on which enormous lorries and trucks would hurtle at incredible, terrifying speeds, on their ways to and from the port at Dover and London town — nowadays the city has built a ring-road to relieve its city centre of this burden of traffic, but that postdates me. Walking along this road as these T.I.R’s roared and howled inches from me was scary. Repeating the litany helped me cope with that fear.

I mean, sure: by all means laugh at me if you like … I was a massive SF nerd, not skilled at making friends, quite inward and withdrawn. I can see this little story has its ridiculous side. Then again, if I’m honest, when I look back at my younger self I find something touching and even, in its miniscule way, heroic about it, actually. I made it into town. I went to the Albion bookshop and spent my pocket-money on yet another pulp SF book. I got home again without being swallowed or consumed by my fear, although the fear, which perhaps looks trivial to you, was, inside me, vast and pressing and lupine, and was given prodigious materiality by the howling hundred-ton trucks speeding inches past me and whipping their trailing winds about me. I wasn’t really scared of the lorries; the lorries only gave temporary physical shape to something more pervasively in me and my relationship to life. I was a much and deeply frightened kid, as, in many ways, I still am, as an adult. Stories for kids should be beautiful and moving, but they should also furnish kids with the psychological wherewithal to understand and navigate the world and their own feelings about it.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.