Popular music went through its punk phase in the mid Nineteen Seventies. It was almost an extinction event for some of the pop and rock establishment of the time and heralded a brief new era of musical diversity and experimentation.
SF had experienced its own punk revolution in the late Sixties, The New Wave movement, at the forefront of which, along with Judith Merrill, JG Ballard, MJ Harrison and others, was Michael Moorcock. The New Wave was an attempt to invigorate the SF genre and produce a more literary product with an emphasis on character, ‘inner space’ rather than outer space, and experimentation.
Their flagship magazine was ‘New Worlds,’ an already extant magazine which Moorcock took over as editor in the mid-Sixties. It was a groundbreaking publication which has since reappeared in various formats up to 1997.
‘Behold The Man’ was expanded from a novella which appeared in New Worlds in 1967.
Some New Wave writers set out to shock, and one would imagine that as controversial subjects go, Jesus Christ has to be fairly near the top of the list.
In a weird parallel with ‘The Life of Brian’ however, the subject of this novel is not the real Jesus of Nazareth, but one Karl Glogauer, of London.
Glogauer is one of Moorcock’s more fascinating creations, born presumably at the beginning of World War II and growing up in Nineteen Forties and Fifties England, much like Moorcock himself.
Glogauer is one of life’s victims; a target for bullies and a sadistic couple who run a children’s summer camp. He is in search of sexual and spiritual fulfillment, and finds neither although he does become fascinated by the work of Jung and hosts a regular meeting of like-minded individuals to discuss his work.
Glogauer is invited to the country by a member of the group, Sir James Headington, a scientist who claims to have discovered the secret of time travel. Even he, it seems has ulterior motives since he attempts, unsuccessfully, to seduce Glogauer. It does appear, however that the time travel equipment does work. Animals have apparently been sent to the past although the equipment has not as yet been tested with human subjects.
Subsequently, Glogauer becomes fixated on the life of Christ as his relationship with his girlfriend Monica begins to break down. Monica is an atheist who has her own views about where ‘Christian’ ideals originated.
When he finally breaks up with Monica, Glogauer immediately rings Sir James and volunteers to travel back in time, as long as he can choose the time and place of arrival.
And this is where this extraordinary novel begins, with Glogauer arriving in the Palestine area in around 28 AD. His experiences from herein on are interspersed with extracts from his life in the twentieth century, and passages from the Bible.
Initially, Glogauer’s desire is to meet Christ – who is destined to be crucified within a year – and to determine for himself the truth of the gospels. Glogauer is however injured when the time capsule arrives and the vehicle itself essentially destroyed since no technology exists in his current timeline to repair it.
He is taken on by the Essenes who believe that he is a prophet from Egypt. John the Baptist, who appears to be the leader of the Essenes, hopes to foster this belief and employ Glogauer in his resistance to Herod and Roman rule. He baptises Karl who then, seized with confusion, runs off and is lost in the wilderness.
Eventually, Glogauer finds his way to Nazareth and the home of Joseph the carpenter and his wife Mary.
Their son, Jesus, the result of an assignation on Mary’s part before she married Joseph, turns out to be a physically and mentally disabled man who can do nothing more than giggle and repeat his own name.
This is then the pivotal point. Glogauer now realises that he is on a predestinate path and must take on the role for which, it seems, he was born.
Having been trained in the basics of psychiatry and hypnotism Glogauer is able to easily cure some people of hysterical or psychosomatic conditions and, followed by a growing number of followers begins his inevitable journey toward Jerusalem and his death by crucifixion.
For a short novel it manages to pack a great deal in and says an awful lot about religion and the phenomenon of belief.
The author makes a telling point about the priests of the time which is just as relevant to today’s priesthood (of whatever religion) as it was two thousand years ago.
‘They would ask questions of the rabbis but the wise men would tell them nothing, save that they should go about their business, that there were things they were not yer meant to know. In this way, as priests had always done, they avoided questions they could not answer while at the same time appearing to have much more knowledge than they actually possessed.’
There are some shock factors in that, in line with the style of the New Wave, Moorcock introduces subjects one would not normally expect to find in a Science Fiction novel such as child abuse, sexual fetishism and homosexuality. Added to which, to hammer the final nail (an unfortunate metaphor I know) into the Christ myth Moorcock has Glogauer return to Joseph’s house once Joseph has gone to sell his wares, where he has sex with ‘the Virgin Mary’ until they are interrupted by the giggling drooling form of the real Jesus.
It’s a shame Mary Whitehouse never discovered this book as it would no doubt now be far more widely read than it is, which can only be a good thing.
For me, it’s one of Moorcock’s most original and underrated novels, possibly his best.
‘When Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction legends Philip K Dick and Roger Zelazny combined their talents to write Deus Irae, the result was a visionary novel both playful and profound.
The story begins after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed all that is familiar, including humanity’s faith in a benevolent God. Out of the ashes arises a mighty new religion based on fear and death – worship of the God of Wrath, the Deus Irae.
Two men, one an armless and legless artist, and the other a young Christian, unwillingly make an arduous pilgrimage across a fantastic landscape in search of the mysterious godhead’s identity. Each step brings fresh danger and adventure as the men encounter the bizarre consequences of a poisonous war: tribes of talking lizards, robots hungry for human energy, an insane machine that turns bicycles into pogo sticks and a hunter with a strange, powerful knowledge. Blending action, religion and philosophy, Deus Irae is a work of high imagination and originality – by two of sci-fi’s greatest writers.’
Blurb from the 1993 Collier Nucleus Science Fiction Classic edition
This collaboration is a kind of inverted ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’
In a North America devastated by a Nuclear War, Tibor McMasters is a talented artist. Despite having no hands or legs he produces his work by battery-operated extensors and travels around in a cart pulled by a cow. He is commissioned by the Church of the Sons of Wrath to paint a murch (a church mural) showing the true face of the Deus Irae, the God of Wrath. This is the deified aspect of Carleton Lufteufel, the man responsible for the war which ravaged the world.
To see the face of the man, Tibor is sent on a Pilg to find Carleton and take photographs to work from.
He is joined in his quest by Pete Sands, a member of the dwindling Christian faith, whose ulterior motive is to stop Tibor from finding the Deus Irae, as Tibor’s success would inevitably increase support for the Sons of Wrath at the expense of the Christians.
It’s an odd mixture of fantasy and SF elements, some of which read too much like allegorical fables to sit well with the internal logic of the novel.
On his journey – like the original Christian – Tibor meets various characters who are either friendly, dangerous or merely insane, such as the female avatars of the Great C, a degraded computer system which captures passers-by and dissolves them in an underground vat of acid as a kind of analogue stomach.
Finally, in an ironic twist, Tibor and Pete meet a hunter, a man who seems to have a strange talent for survival, but a man to whom Tibor’s dog takes a dislike. The Hunter kills Tibor’s dog and Tibor, in a fit of rage, kills him not realising – as Pete does – that the man is Carleton Lufteufel, the Deus Irae.
Pete, finding a neat way to complete his mission, hires a local imbecile to pretend to be the Deus Irae and Tibor gets his pictures, returns to the Church and completes his mural.
One suspects that had one or other of these very individual writers written this alone it would have been a far stronger work. Certainly the Dick elements seem to overwhelm the Zelazny elements, but there is a half-heartedness about the novel, what one can only describe as complacency. It treads a lot of ground that both writers have already explored. There are echoes of ‘Damnation Alley’ and ‘Dr Bloodmoney’ here. Indeed, Carleton is merely the figure of Dr Bloodmoney transformed to another novel and both authors seem to be merely going through the motions.
‘To VENTUR, the Subs were a nuisance. All the underworld’s billions were fed and housed: under the stern loving care of VENTUR’s great machine systems. No one could deny the benefits of VENTURan organisation, VENTURan welfare. Of all the cultures, only the Subs refused to be grateful and humble.
ALIC was an innocent tourist, a retired games conceiver; drawn to the Subcontinent in the hope of a little old-fashioned excitement. Then she met Millie Mohun, who invited her to play a game that would beat any other she had ever tried…
And then ALIC fell into the depths, into the churning people void… her whole existence became a desperate attempt to escape, while around her a great ancient culture was surging towards violent revolution.
This powerful futuristic novel is the new book by the author of the critically acclaimed DIVINE ENDURANCE. It is the chilling and convincing portrait of a world ruled by all-embracing technology and an arrogant oligarchy, a world in need of hopes and dreams.’
Blurb from the Orion 1986 paperback edition
Aeleysi, or ALIC, is in a future India taking a vacation from her off-world habitat home. Humans on Earth have become not only segregated from an Earth healing from its rape by Humanity, but tagged and controlled by omnipotent computer systems. ALIC becomes attached to a young jockey called Millie, one of the Subs (i.e. inhabitants of the subcontinent) and in a misguided attempt to help her out of what ALIC imagines is a bad situation, becomes embroiled in a revolution against the computer technocracy.
Millie, it turns out, may or may not be an immortal – possibly alien – Messianic figure, tales of whom are becoming gospel as the novel progresses,
It is by no means an easy read. Jones is a stylist who is at the opposite extreme to those writers who infodump ad nauseum in order to acquaint the reader with the back story, added to which is Jones’ decision to write this as first person narrative from a character who speaks a variation of English peppered with acronyms and invented vernacular. To attempt to capture the flavour of an evolved language is not a new thing, since Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’ and Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ successfully established a dialect within the text with which the reader gradually comes to terms. There was, however, a certain beauty and poetry in these books which is lacking here.
The rather daunting blocks of CAPITALISED words which pepper the pages restrict the flow of the eye and one would have thought that the language would have evolved (as languages do) to shorten the acronyms into more acceptable sounding words, or at the very least would lost the capitals. One feels as if one is being intermittently shouted at while reading.
In Jones’ defence, it has to be said that this is a brave and relatively successful attempt to construct a narrative as it would have been written in ALIC’s time. Jones does not condescend to explain the situations to her readers. The clues are there, and it is up to us, the readers, to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
I have never been fond of novels which need a glossary of terms as an appendix, unless they contain additional information not immediately pertinent to the novel. In this case however, despite the fact that glossary is vital to one’s understanding of the text, some of the definitions are vague and incoherent and leave one more perplexed than ever.
ALIC is, one might say, the naïve middle-class tourist who has never seriously thought about how the other half live, although the message would have been more powerful were it not for the ponderous style and the seemingly inflexible feminist ethic which allows only one – quite insignificant – male character in the entire novel. Historically, SF has served female readers, writers and characters badly. This is a sad fact which most authors now accept and explore and, in most cases, have sought to change. If Jones were writing a novel in which the absence of male characters could be justified it would not be an issue, but it seems as if this is an intentional device to prove some unspecified point. It only succeeds in further lessening whatever point the novel is attempting to make, which itself is obfuscated by the obscurity of the text.
Indeed, one is left with the idea that society is not safe left in the hands of a Femocracy.
‘A holy war has made Paul Atreides the religious and political leader of a thousand planets. The malign sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, unable to dominate the man they have made a god, set out to destroy him.
Paul, who is able to foresee the plans of his enemies, resolves to adapt and shape them to a goal that is as shocking as it is unexpected.
‘Dune Messiah’ – long awaited successor to double award winner ‘Dune’ – is an epic of imperial intrigue that spans the universe, rich and strange in its evocation of the history, institutions and people of a far future age. ‘
Blurb to the 1972 NEL paperback edition
The second book in Herbert’s ‘Dune’ sequence takes us forward twelve years to where Paul Muad D’ib Atreides is now undisputed Emperor of the Galaxy. The Fremen have adopted him and his sister Alia (not, it has to be said, without their implicit consent) as Godlike figures which has prompted a jihad in which the Fremen have pillaged and occupied most of the worlds in the Dune galaxy.
Unlike the first novel, which was undeniably an epic and featured varied exotic locations around the galaxy, this book is much shorter and keeps its narrative firmly rooted on the planet Arrakis.
Muad D’ib finds the burden of Empire a heavy one to carry, particularly in view of the fact that his prescience (boosted into full awareness of the future due to the effects of the spice melange) seems to allow him no way to stop the jihad which is sweeping across the galaxy in his name, killing billions in a wave of religious fervour. He thus becomes something of a Shakespearean figure, locked into a destiny in which the concept of free will loses all meaning.
We are immediately introduced to the Bene Tleilaxu, a Guild similar to that of the Bene Gesserit, in that they are dedicated to selective breeding and the manipulation of genetic material to a specified end, but their methods are far different.
The Tleilaxu believe in directly modifying themselves and have become ‘Face Dancers’ (shape-changers) who pride themselves on their ability to reshape their flesh and mimic people to such an extent that their closest friends and family can be fooled.
They are also masterful cloners who are attempting to perfect the art of creating a ghola; a cloned copy of a dead individual which retains not only the original’s physical attributes, but their memories and personality. As part of their scheme to destroy Muad D’ib, the Tleilaxu, conspiring with both the Bene Gesserit and the Spacer’s Guild produce a copy of Muad D’ib’s old friend and mentor, Duncan Idaho, reborn as a mentat philosopher and offered to the Emperor as a gift.
Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda though, and the Tleilaxu are hoping that if the ghola does not destroy Muad D’ib, then the psychological pressure imposed upon him will in any case awaken the real Duncan and make their experiment a success so that they win either way.
‘messiah’ for me fails because it tries too hard to be a different sort of novel. The original was a triumph of contrasts, from the intensity of the Bene Gesserit disciplines through to the moral solidity of the Atreides and then the gross and decadent mores of the Harkonnens. There was the contrast with Caladan and Arrakis, between educated society and the Fremen, between water world and desert world. It was a riotous mixture of tastes and flavours.
Herbert, in concentrating on a somewhat claustrophobic and, has been suggested, Shakespearean sequel, has lost a little of what made Dune such a marvellous novel.
One cannot fault the plotting. Herbert has a mastery of the use of political intrigue, double-bluffing, double-crossing and paranoia.
It does seem, however, that the Bene Tleilax – who as far as I recall were not mentioned in ‘Dune’ – were brought in to add that flavour of spice (for want of a better word) to what is a rather cynical view of Humanity and religion.
As in ‘Dune’ religion (or rather the concept of belief) is used as a political tool, but by this time Muad D’ib has realised that the Godhood which has been bestowed upon him is merely a monkey on his back. It now controls him and he seems powerless to control the religious mania which has taken over the galaxy, or indeed his own future since he walks into traps fully knowing the consequences but also cogniscent of worse consequences should he take another path.
One suspects that this was meant to be a longer novel. The philosophy and the aims of the Bene Tleilax for instance are never fully explained and much of the colour and spectacle of the original are missing.
Some characters are underused. The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam was, in ‘Dune’, used sparsely but to great effect. Here she is simply used, and might just as well have never appeared in the novel at all.
Similarly, the Spacers’ Guild, who in the original are an exotic and mysterious human mutation are here reduced to the status of ‘man in a tank’.
The relationship between Alia and Hayt (the cloned Duncan Idaho) could have made a fascinating sub-plot but failed to materialise into something of solidity.
The Tleilaxu are the most fascinating element and the character of Scytale is the only one of the conspirators whose behaviour and actions hold any dramatic interest. The Tleilaxu were instrumental in the plot against Muad D’ib since they produced the resurrected body (and possibly soul) of Duncan Idaho. This is another Shakespearean motif in that Hayt can be seen as performing the same symbolic and dramatic purpose as Banquo’s Ghost, or that of Hamlet’s father, a former close associate returned from the grave. It may be significant that the Tleilaxu gave the reborn Idaho steel eyes which would naturally reflect the face of anyone he spoke to. Is it then his function to make the Mahdi Muad D’ib see himself for what he is?
Essentially, this novel reads as a first draft. Although well-written and packed with Herbert’s stylish inventiveness and his talent for designing societies and institutions, one can’t help feeling that the main characters are under-developed and are never given the opportunities (rather than the space) to show us their personalities the way they did with such panache in ‘Dune’.
The denouement in particular seems very rushed, as if Herbert were under pressure to bring the novel to a satisfactory conclusion.
‘At the furthest reaches of the galaxy exist The Thousand Cultures, run by humans and drawing together through the new technology of instantaneous travel. Giraut and Margaret work as professional diplomats, easing the entry of new and diverse societies into The Thousand Cultures.
Their new mission is to prevent war between two cultures on the terrifyingly hostile world of Briand, all the time battling its harsh environment and trying not to let the strain of the task affect their own relationship.’
Blurb from the 1999 Millennium paperback edition.
Barnes’ sequel to the impressive ‘A Million Open Doors’ sees cultural agents from the Council of Humanity’s Special Projects Office Giraut Leones and his wife Margaret, sent to the 1.3 gravity world of Briand.
The backstory is that Humanity has been spread over numerous planets for hundreds of years, each of which is home to one or more cultures, some of which are (or were) recreated dead cultures from Earth’s past.
Most of the cultures have now been reassimilated into ‘Interstellar culture’ mainly due to the fact that ancient alien artifacts have been discovered on several worlds, and the Council of Humanity wants a united Human race to meet the inevitable First Contact.
Briand is a literary work of art in itself. It is a volcanic poisonous world whose only habitable areas are two island plateaux. On these were settled recreated Tamil and Mayan civilisations. Unfortunately, the Mayan plateau was rendered uninhabitable by a volcano eruption and the Mayans had to relocated on the Tamil plateau.
Tensions between the two cultures run high and the OSP agents are sent in to attempt a diplomatic solution.
Barnes’ scene-setting, descriptive skills and characterisation are top-notch and meld to produce a complex and compelling novel.
The Mayans, in an apparent bid to offer the hand of friendship, produce a prophet, Ix; a highly charismatic and Messianic figure whose charm and wisdom seduce many, but it may be that this is only the first move in a convoluted game of diplomatic and political chess in which all become embroiled.
It’s a novel about relationships (between individuals and cultures); about the nature of Truth, the power and danger of fundamentalist belief systems and it’s also about love.
The simmering hatred of the two cultures for each other is contrasted with the marriage of Giraut and Margaret, whose failure to communicate with each other is mirrored by the tension between the Mayans and the Tamils.
‘Old Paul Atreides, who led the Fremen to domination of the human galaxy, is gone now, and Arrakis itself is slowly changing; ecological change has brought vast areas of greenery and even open water to the desert planet. But all is not well; the altered climate is threatening extinction to the sandworms which are essential to the planet’s economy, and the continued rule of the Atreides family is being challenged by fanatics and their worst enemy, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.
These are problems potentially far more deadly than any Paul had had to contend with. How the Children of Dune faced up to them creates an impressive climax to one of science fiction’s greatest achievements.’
Blurb from the 1980 NEL paperback edition
Herbert’s saga moves on in this disjointed sequel which suffers from its political complexity more than anything.
Paul Muad D’ib has disappeared into the desert, presumed dead, leaving his unstable sister Alia to start a religion in his name, although her sanity is being undermined by the memories and personalities of her ancestors. Paul’s children, Leto and Ghanima, also became aware of themselves and their ancestral memories while in the womb, but determine to devise a solution to combating the threat of ‘possession’.
Paul’s mother, the Reverend Mother Jessica Atreides of the Bene Gesserit, is sent back to Arrakis by the sisterhood to check the children and the rumours of Alia’s state of mind.
A preacher has appeared, one who speaks out against Alia and her Muad D’ib based religion, and who may or may not be her brother, Muad D’ib himself.
Meanwhile on Salusa Secundus, the daughter of Shaddam IV, the previous emperor, is grooming her son Faradin for the throne, and devising a plot to kill the Atreides twins.
Frank Herbert must have felt a lot of sympathy for Muad D’ib since, if one considers it in that way. the Dune universe constrained him to his own form of preordained destiny and I do not doubt that publishers put a lot of pressure on him to continue producing sequels. Essentially, in the real world there’s nothing wrong with that, and a working writer is obviously grateful for a success like this, but as Conan Doyle discovered, it can very quickly become an albatross.
‘Children of Dune’ is compelling enough, but for my money it reads like a first draft. There’s little of the poetry, panache and descriptive beauty of the original novel and some puzzling plot-holes and dubious character actions which no doubt puzzled other readers long before myself.
For instance, House Corrino’s brilliant plot to kill the Atreides twins is to train genetically modified tigers to attack children wearing a particular style of clothing. Then, several sets of this particular fashionwear is sent to the children as a gift and the evil tigers (who are remotely controlled in any case) are smuggled onto the planet.
For the plan to succeed one has to guarantee that the children a) will wear the clothing and b) will go outside while wearing the clothes, alone.
One also has to guarantee that the tigers are in the same area of the planet as the twins and ready to kill.
It seems a ludicrous plan, flawed by indeterminable variables.
Similarly, later, when Leto goes to the lost sietch of Jacurutu, he is held captive by Gurney Halleck, apparently under orders from lady Jessica, but in actual fact this is Alia. If Jessica and/or Alia believed Leto to be dead why send Halleck to the sietch? It’s all very woolly and (unless there were some plot elements I misread) not very well thought-out.
It suffers therefore from a surfeit of factions and subterfuge. The reader, after all, is expected to keep track of who is lying to who and why, and this gets very wearing after the first two hundred and fifty pages.
Bringing back the dead is seldom a good idea. Duncan Idaho had already been cloned, turned into a mentat golem and returned to Paul Muad D’ib as a murderous gift.
Muad D’ib himself has returned, somewhat figuratively, from the dead as The Preacher, and now from the ashes of the original novel comes Baron Vladimir Harkonnen to posses and control Alia. We don’t see enough of him, however. as Alia has to keep his possession a secret, the fat Baron’s role is a drastically minimal one.
All in all, a decent enough read, but as one of the sequels to ‘Dune‘ it should have been so much better.
Following Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ which showed an ‘innocent’ Messiah transforming human society and creating chaos, Silverberg presents us with a much more structured and indeed literary examination of Humanity’s need for faith, and what a double-edged sword that may be.
The setting is 1999, or at least it begins on Christmas day 1998 when Vornan-19, a visitor from the far future, manifests naked in a public square in Rome.
The date is symbolic for the purposes of the novel, since although the visitor claims no knowledge of Christ or the date of his birth, many people see his coming on this day as a religious sign whereas there is the subliminal suggestion to the reader that he may be the antichrist.
Earth at this time is gripped by a new religious mania, an apocalyptic cult who believe that the world will end at the turn of the century. They are destructive and Bacchanalian, seeing sex and rioting as the preferred activities with which to fill one’s time in the final months before destruction.
Vornan, of course, stands in the face of their beliefs, since if he is indeed from the future, then the world is not going to end.
The novel is the journal of scientist Leo Garfield who has been conducting experiments in how to send subatomic particles into the past. His assistant, Jack Bryant, appears to be on the verge of discovering how to produce limitless free energy, and in a possible crisis of conscience quits his job to live a self-sufficient life in the desert with his wife. This becomes an occasional retreat for Garfield, until he is recruited by the government to be one of a group of scientists assigned to accompany Vornan-19 on his exploration of the US.
From the outset Vornan undermines (as does Valentine Smith in SIASL) the moral codes of society. He finds our need to cover our nakedness amusing and is happy to have sex with male or female with no sense of guilt or shame. Religions are a mystery to him and he explains later in the novel that life on earth emerged through aliens in the area having dumped some of their organic waste on a sterile earth, from which our biosphere eventually emerged. In one way or another he manages to obliquely destroy the lives of several individuals.
Beliefs are destroyed just as casually since Vornan (having already dropped the bombshell that the future does not know who Jesus is) goes on to confirm that religion, capitalism, sexual fidelity and the concept of money are unknown to people of the future.
It’s a vastly underrated novel and deserves to be reappraised as not only one of Silverberg’s best works, but one of the best SF novels of the 60s.
A novel which broke the mould, reinvented the concept of Space Opera and begot a minor cult, as groundbreaking novels are wont to do.
It’s rather spooky to look at Dune again in the light of the events of September 11, since we have in this book a situation where a desert people are militarily outclassed and dominated by a Superpower which wishes to retain control over the desert’s vital resource.
It’s not a realistic comparison, since in no way can I compare the revolt of Herbert’s Fremen with the cowardly actions of certain terrorists, but there are no doubt conspiracy theorists who will find the comparisons attractive. In this case it isn’t oil which is being fought over, but the melange spice of Arrakis, just as vital to transportation between stars as oil is for transportation between cities.
One could possibly compare the USA with the Evil Empire of Shaddam (even that name has a spooky resonance, but with the wrong side) and the planet Arrakis with the Middle East, but one would have to examine Arab-American relations in the Nineteen Sixties to get much mileage from that.
Undeniably, the Fremen are essentially Arabic in flavour, but the rest of Galactic Society is based around a feudal aristocratic system of powerful Houses, presided over by the Emperor Shaddam. It is an aggressive and brutal system in which assassination and treachery are rife.
Interlacing this network of families is the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, an organisation which has its own reasons for an intense interest in the melange spice, a strange organic substance which can endow its users with a form of prescience and telepathy.
Another major player in the politics of the galaxy is the Spacer’s Guild, a professional group of mutated humans who use the properties of the spice to sense changes in space and steer ships through hyperspace across the galaxy. They are also bound into the political web which is battling for control of Arrakis, since without the spice, which can only be found on Arrakis, the guildsmen would be useless, and traffic throughout the galaxy would come to a halt.
Herbert skilfully stage-manages the political manoeuvring and chicanery which may or may not be being controlled from behind the scenes by the Sisterhood. Thus it seems as though politics itself conspires to set in motion the events leading to the fulfilment of a Bene Gesserit prophesy.
Ironically, the religion which is integral to Fremen life contains elements implanted centuries before by the Bene Gesserit in order that the Sisterhood would be welcomed by their society. Thus, the Fremen, like the Sisterhood themselves, also know of the prophecy of the Kwisatz Hadderach.
It’s a clever trick on Herbert’s part, as the coming of the Superior Being can be seen simultaneously as the unexpected culmination of a long term Bene Gesserit plan and the true fulfilment of a long religious expectation on the part of the Fremen.
It’s not by any means an anti-religious book, although it is realistic about the nature of organised religion. It shows that religious systems are, by their very nature, political systems, or at least are tied into the political structures within which they exist.
Herbert’s universe of techno-feudalism is so well realised the reader feels quite at ease with the absurd and anachronistic ideas of Dukes and Barons wielding power over dominions of planets. There is a pervasive atmosphere of decadence and unhealthy opulence (particularly with regard to the House Harkonnen whose Baron is a corpulent gay monster who revels in the sexual gratification derived from the dying throes of his young victims) which is contrasted with the simple yet disciplined lives of the Fremen.
Gorgeous, complex, multi-layered. It’s a work of genius.
‘From the moment Blake crashes his stolen aircraft into the Thames, the unlimited dream company takes over and the town of Shepperton is transformed into an apocalyptic kingdom of desire and stunning imagination ruled over by Blake’s messianic figure. Tropical flora and fauna appear; pan-sexual celebrations occur regularly; and in a final climax of liberation, the townspeople learn to fly.’
Blurb from the 1990 Paladin paperback edition.
Ballard plunges us headlong into a Messianic fantasy which begins when his hero, Blake, steals a Cessna aeroplane from an airfield and crashes into the river at Shepperton.
The setting is important as Shepperton is a place famous for its film and TV studios and stands symbolically in the British consciousness as a media Mecca.
Blake escapes from the plane, collapses, and is revived by the amazed townsfolk who tell him that he had been dead for about eleven minutes.
Following his ‘resurrection’ Blake begins to entertain sexual fantasies as tropical birds and flora start to manifest and transform the town into a jungle paradise.
The symbolism of the plane could be read as that of a cruciform, emphasised by the fact that the crippled children whom he befriends, collect pieces of the dead plane like the relics of a Saint.
Blake is involved with four people in particular:-
Miriam St Cloud: Miriam is a doctor. Her scientific scepticism is damaged immediately by Blake’s apparent return from the dead. Later she becomes – at least in the eyes of Blake’s followers – his bride.
Mrs St Cloud: Miriam’s mother. Blake engages in a feverish act of sex with her which transforms into a symbolic act of birth with Mrs St Cloud giving birth to Blake, born anew. Thus she becomes a mother figure. The father figure is the Reverend Wingate, a ‘father’ in the religious as well as symbolic sense, filling the role of father to Blake. Wingate is the first to see Blake’s ‘divinity’ and hands over his church to him to do with as he wants.
Finally, there is Starks. His role seems to be as a Judas and to oppose Blake. Indeed, some aspects of his life are the antithesis of Blake’s. he cages or kills animals or birds. Blake seems to generate animals and birds which are far happier and healthier than Starks’ caged specimens.
As Blake’s powers increase, Shepperton is transformed into a jungle and in his dreams Blake himself turns into a bird or whale and in turn transforms the townsfolk into appropriate creatures to accompany him. When he awakens it appears that the townsfolk seem to remember having the same ‘dream’.
The Messianic drama continues. Blake begins to heal people. He absorbs people into his own body (symbolic cannibalism) and, in a kind of orgiastic carnival, teaches the entire town how to fly.
As with many messiahs, his followers – led by Starks – eventually turn on him and he is killed again, his body left in the strange shrine-cum-grave which the disabled children have been building from dead flowers and Blake’s ‘relics’.
Then, by absorbing the life-forces of the creatures of the forest, he rebuilds his body, acquiring aspects of the various creatures of the woodland and rises once more, this time transforming the entire population of Shepperton and releasing them into what Ballard terms ‘the true reality.’
As in ‘Concrete Island’ the hero finds himself trapped in a specific environment, and is forced to either adapt himself to it or fight to escape. In this case, as escape seems impossible (the landscape recedes whenever he tries and he can never pass the barrier) he is forced to transform the environment to suit himself.
There are other Ballard motifs. We have the low-flying aircraft; his obsession with modernistic public architecture (a multi-storey car-park is the venue for Blake’s marriage to Miriam); the exotic landscape which permeates most of the book, and sexual fetishism and transference.
It is not an easy novel, but then Ballard’s novels are never easy to understand, but unlike other ‘difficult’ books Ballard’s work can be read for the sheer poetic beauty and the imagery alone.