Something else celebrated its fiftieth year in 2015 besides me and my age-mates. Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune was published in that same fateful year of 1965. Some say it’s the best science fiction novel there’s ever been. It’s also one of the most ecological.
It was a student giving a presentation on space opera who introduced me to the notion of ‘sword and planet’ – derived from ‘sword and sandal’ movies like Cleopatra and The Ten Commandments – to refer to epic SF whose action takes place mainly on a planetary surface and involves picturesque low-tech impedimenta (e.g. swords) future-primitively mixed with more advanced tech. It covers things as varied as Flash Gordon, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom and Venus books, Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure, and Dune.
This kind of fiction isn’t always going to concern itself with profound explorations of science, but the choice of a planetary setting and outdoor adventure – over, say, spaceship-based action – does invite an author to think about the ecology of the planet in question. In the first Barsoom novel, A Princess of Mars, there’s a surprising amount of ecological content, largely inspired by Percival Lowell’s invention of the myth of Mars as the site of catastrophic climate change and a crumbling civilisation that has undertaken heroic feats of engineering to try to keep going.
Dune is more ‘sword and planet’ than its five sequels and also contains more ecology. Herbert was an enthusiastic greenie; he fitted up his house with all manner of resource-saving features. In Dune he thought through not only the cycles of the planet’s ecosystem but also the terraforming programme by which its people – the Fremen – would modify those cycles to green the deserts, and the ironic consequences of this for a society formed by the hard necessities of surviving on a desert planet. The Fremen’s motivations draw upon the desert Arabs’ dream, in our own history, of paradise as a lush green garden. The vision of Dune has in turn fed into the ongoing dreams, in both SF and space science, of terraforming Mars – most exhaustively in Kim Stanley Robinson’s gigantic Mars trilogy.
I first encountered Dune in the hardback edition of the first Dune trilogy (Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune) they had at the library. I was fifteen and had never before encountered SF of such complexity and sophistication. My genre expectations were unsettled by the fantasy-style artwork depicting a giant sandworm and native Fremen. But the novel delivered on the promise of its cover, in a way that much SF I read didn’t, by transporting me into a fully imagined experience of an alien world. Happy fiftieth birthday, Dune – a science fiction masterpiece!