IT Perspective: 50 years of Dune

IT professionals celebrate 50 years of Dune

In 1965 Frank Herbert’s epic Sci-Fi novel Dune burst into the marketplace to a fanfare of awards and catcalls of audience fandom. From there, an initial series of six books and subsequent 1984 David Lynch film steadily accrued half a century’s worth of love, loyalty and laudation.

To mark 50 years of Dune the Folio Society has brought out a beautiful new limited edition copy and even canvassed some research from 2,000 UK fans. Despite the clear connection between IT and Sci-Fi – 48% of those polled classed themselves as sci-fi and fantasy fans – some of these quirky findings may (or may not) be surprising. These showed 72% read print books, just 15% only buy books online… while 78% would rather read a good book than play sport.

But wacky PR headlines aside, what really intrigued me about this book was how it has connected with today’s IT professionals. So, I contacted a couple of sci-fi fans to get their “gut reaction” on the book. It was a big question and possibly unfairly large – so, I’ve published two first-person accounts in their entirety below.  This book has had a huge impact. As Roel Castelein concluded in his cover note: “Read Dune, it is mind blowing.”

Dune – Science Fiction ‘without’ technology

Roel Castelein is GTM Strategy for EMEA, EMC and Marketing Committee Vice-Chair for The Green Grid. He has been contributing to IDG Connect since 2011.

As a 15 year-old-kid I was a fan of Iron Maiden. On the album ‘Piece of Mind’ [YouTube], the song ‘To Tame a Land’, mentioned exotic things like Arrakis and Gom Jabar. I wanted to find out what it meant. This led me to ‘Dune’, on which the song was inspired. I finished the book in three days. Dune painted a deep, rich and complex universe, only equaled by Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. So 50 years on, how does Dune relate to our present day? I would say it is the complete opposite of where we are heading.

Our modern world relies on computers, networks and data. And our dependence on technology grows exponentially. Global air traffic, local city traffic lights, trains and ships are controlled by computers. Payments systems, banks, credit cards, and the global flow of money are mostly virtual bits and bytes on fiber optic cables. Even finding our way home is done by GPS, no need for maps, but neither for map reading skills. Drawing buildings, roads or any product is done through CAD/CAM, so there is less need for pen and paper drawing skills. Why bother looking up at the sky to read clouds and the sun, when apps tell you the weather and time? And why listen to people passing on wisdom and stories, when all this is available on Netflix? And what is easier, actually talking to somebody, or sending an email?

In the Dune universe, all technology and computers were destroyed during the Butlerian Jihad, a holy war against thinking machines. Hence the importance of the mind and thinking without using computers. Mentats, human computers, were bred and replaced what is now called big data analytics. No need for expensive and complex machinery, a mentat will do. Or the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers, who access memories of past generations, so all wisdom is in-mind, and not in databases or the internet. Religion, rituals and psychology play a vital role in managing and controlling information flow across the empire. Even space travel, although supported by technological advanced space ships, is done by the Space Guild who use spice melange to enhance their mental abilities to ‘fold’ space. Not machinery, but the mind is all powerful on Dune.

And this is one of the accomplishment of Dune, envisioning a world without computers, without the Internet of Things, and putting technology as secondary to an enhanced state of mind. Herbert replaced the need for technology by advanced mind skills, LSD-like mind expanders (spice melange) and complex rituals and religion to manage and educate future generations. And Dune’s universe is not backward, it just leapfrogs (computer) technology to a state more advanced and complex.

As it stands today, our ever increasing dependence on computers and technology is maybe questionable? And if we want to solve our times’ challenges, like fossil fuel dependence, population growth and dwindling natural resources, we need more advanced thinking skills, complex rituals and ancient wisdom, and not just more technology?

I for one believe we need both, but Dune’s legacy as science fiction is powerful, in that it paints a future universe where technology takes a back seat, and the mind, religion, rituals and psychology are back where they belong, in the drivers seat.   

Dune – Code for the human mind

Dana Paxson has worked at the coalface of the IT industry for 50 years. His career has spanned mainframes in the 60s, reading octal numbers in the 70s and building the BT phone directory in the 80s. For the last 20 years he has married his software skills with a love of sci-fi to invent a whole new, fully immersive story experience incorporating audio, visual and text.

Few written works last long. Works of fiction become entangled in their times and cultures and contexts, becoming dated in values, obscured in language, overwhelmed by invention. But there are exceptions. Frank Herbert's Dune is an exception.

Exceptional works of fiction confront the same issues as all others, but they overcome. Why? It’s fun to speculate. Let’s compare obsolescences: fiction - programming for the brain - with code - programming for the machine. Code mutates much faster, so maybe it’s easier to study the appeal of code first.

What keeps code alive through its many incarnations, publications in machine after machine, year-after- year? Two important qualities come to mind: richness of potential, and impact of effect. Code grows. A simple first-person shooter game called Star Raiders on an Atari 400 6502 chip grows over the years into Doom, and World of Warcraft, and Call of Duty on multicore Intel machines. Code quickly becomes what its seed-makers only imagine, and it rides the waves of impact forward and upward to greater and richer forms.

What keeps a book alive, so that 50 years after its first appearance, it still grips the human mind, immersing it in a rich created world? The same two important qualities as in code, richness and impact, characterize the lasting works. They seed the fields of writing, expression, and imagination; their impacts reshape reading and writing.

Dune is one such book, one in a luminous stream of rare and similarly-distinctive works, and its immersive depths, its comprehensive consistency of interplays, its wealth of language and process and structure, its pacing and power, mark it always as worthy of revisiting.

And when we read works by others such as China Miéville and Iain Banks, they awaken potent resonances with this book. What new levels of becoming has Dune been engendering in our written expression? Where will some newer code-for-the-human-brain take us?

We do not read Dune. It programs us, teleports us into its waiting customs agency. We arrive there, passports and visas in hand, and in that arrival we forget everything else. Game on.