Dune and Battlefield Earth—Science Fantasy & Sci-Fi Worldbuilding
Guest blogger Eva Mahoney (Part 1 of 3)
With the film remake of Frank Herbert’s classic science fantasy novel Dune coming to theatres (hopefully) in December of this year, there has been an upsurge of interest in science fiction and fantasy as a whole. Especially, the classic works that brought sci-fi out of the realm of fantasy worlds and imagination and into the modern-day universe of scientific and technical plausibility.
For fun, I thought you’d enjoy the trailer with its amazing all-star cast:
In this three part series, I look into Frank Herbert’s Dune and L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth and how these science fiction authors crafted the major components of most sci-fi epics: worldbuilding, future technology, and heroes—especially heroes. For a great saga is more than its bells and whistles, or rather black holes and quantum theory. The heart of every great story is human. Dune and Battlefield Earth are no exception.
The key elements of an epic sci-fi saga are often a hero of larger than life proportions, advanced technologies not yet available to mankind, and an alien (to the reader) environment. These features are especially compelling where the boundaries of travel and conquest are extended out to near-infinite distances. Whereas we earthbound citizens may wonder whether there is more to Heaven and Earth than can be currently seen, these speculations are fact to Paul Atreides and Jonnie Goodboy Tyler respectively, in their struggles for survival against formidable galactic enemies.
If you are not yet familiar with Battlefield Earth, you can read the first 13 chapters for free or listen to the first hour of the unabridged audio production (a personal favorite).
Worldbuilding (Part 1)
For a hero to tell his story and give us insights into his particular struggle to prevail, the author frequently builds an environment or even a complete universe—complete with maps, landscapes, and a backstory.
In science fiction and fantasy, this is “worldbuilding.”
This new environment is usually fraught with dangers and hardships to challenge the hero in his quest. Even the complacencies can be hazardous as if to suggest that we humans love nothing better than a good life-or-death struggle in any form.
In the case of Dune, Frank Herbert has created a universe which exists tens of thousands of years into the future, where human beings have “evolved” along political, social, and religious lines that had become blurred and intermingled at some point.
In the wake of a now distant revolution (the Butlerian Jihad), “computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots” have been banned. Dune characters include gifted humans that have been trained along various disciplines to take the place of computers. Some, called Mentats, are trained to think and calculate like a computer. Others have superior navigational powers and can cross vast distances by bending space and time. Still others, the sisters of the Bene Gesserit, are trained along socio-political/religious lines to control, forecast, and mold the future, as advisors to dukes and kings. It is the gifted aspect of the humans that set this early classic science fantasy apart—Mr. Herbert did not limit it to futuristic science alone, and yet there is futuristic sci-fi technology (which I explore in part 2, stay tuned!).
All these human “computers” have one critical thing in common in the Dune universe, and that is the spice also known as “mélange.”
Spice is a substance that can greatly enhance the natural or trained abilities of the user and prolong life. It is also highly addictive in quantities over a moderate amount. And most importantly, the spice is only found on one planet in the known universe: the harsh desert planet called Arrakis, also known as Dune. So, the ruling families of the Landsraad, the sisters of the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild Navigators, and the Royal Imperium all vie for control of Dune and the vast power and wealth it represents.
Author Frank Herbert put much care into creating the desert planet that is the focus of the novel. The casual reader will get some inkling of a larger story that is going on behind the primary plot of the conflict between the ruling families and councils.
The Fremen are quietly collecting water in hidden places to transform the planet from a harsh wasteland into a paradise, a process that will take hundreds of years, but one that could be poisonous to the giant sandworms that create the spice.
Mr. Herbert wrote the fictional backstory to the “terraforming” of Dune in an appendix at the end of the novel. He had a keen interest in the subject of ecology. His son, Brian Herbert, later wrote that the spice was an analogy to the finite resource of oil on Earth in the 20th century and the threat to the ecology of our planet by over-mining it. 50 years after the publication of Dune, major global powers are still fighting over it.
In Dune, the powers that be are so intent on competing with each other, forming alliances and sabotaging their enemies, that they overlook the most compelling enemy of all, the Fremen.
The Fremen, are the native inhabitants of Dune, having migrated there at some time in the past. They have adapted to live in the harsh environment where water is so precious that wasting even a small amount can be punishable by death in a Fremen tribe. And the dead are reduced to their water, to give back to the tribe. Unlike the ruling classes, they understand the spice and how it is formed, and its relationship to the gigantic sandworms that roam the deserts of Dune.
They have their larger purpose for the future in the dream given to them by Pardot Kynes, the ecologist. They ride the great Dune worms as a rite of passage and live mainly free in the remote desert, smart, able, and determined. They are the force to be reckoned with in the universe of Dune. And Paul Atreides is their savior.
Here is one of the Dune quotes from Paul that gives you a sense of his approach to leadership:
“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.”
—Paul Atreides (Frank Herbert Dune)
Mr. Herbert’s future world, while advanced in terms of technology, is yet filled with the barbarisms that have plagued mankind from time immemorial. It is a world full of vice and assassins, tightly controlled by “polite” codes of conduct and political intrigue. It is a world where there is a great chasm between the rich and powerful and the poor and seemingly powerless. It is a universe which, having freed itself from one form of repression, is yet still laboring under the repression of dictatorial, brutal rulers, as if to say that man has yet to learn…
But it is also a world where hope lives in the most unlikely places. In L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, we see worldbuilding, or rather unbuilding, of a different sort. It takes place on Earth a thousand years after an alien invasion has wiped out nearly all of humanity using deadly gas drones.
In our naivety, humans sent a capsule into space carrying a solid gold disk with a map showing the location of the planet. So the Psychlos, an alien race specializing in mining, have invaded the planet to mine for gold and other natural resources, with the extermination of mankind as collateral damage.
After a thousand years, nearly all traces of the civilization that once existed have deteriorated and fallen to dust or been covered over by dirt and vegetation—a devastatingly post-apocalyptic wasteland.
After the initial attack, the Psychlos keep surveillance drones circling the planet year after year, century after century to keep track of the few remaining groups of humans, while they are busy operating mining facilities in several places on earth. So the men that remain stay hidden in jungles, highlands, and remote mountains, struggling to survive in a world come undone.
In the village where Jonnie Goodboy Tyler lives, there is a source of radioactivity nearby, which is poisoning the water and sickening many in the village. Having long lost the true knowledge of their ancestors, the villagers have sunk into apathy and hopelessness, haunted by superstition (a real dystopian society).
Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, through fortune, intelligence, and spirit, is different. He observes his environment and makes conclusions about his ancestors—that they did not die tamely.
He also concludes that there is something wrong with the area where his village is located. Many of the villagers are sick and dying, yet the animals living on the plains grow fat and healthy. This leads Jonnie Goodboy Tyler to find a better location for his village, despite the surveillance drones—an adventure that changes the course of his future and that of Earth. And it also throws him straight into the clutches of the scheming, evil head of security for Earth, Terl.
Terl is a Psychlo with dreams of grandeur. He has found what looks like a deep vein of gold on the side of a cliff in the Rocky Mountains. It’s full of radiation from decaying nuclear landmines, which is deadly to Psychlos. But Terl has a plan to capture humans and train them to mine the vein.
As fate would have it, his first “trainee” is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. Terl uses a speed learning machine while keeping him captive in a cage and feeding him raw rat. In his arrogance, he assumes that Jonnie and men in general are too stupid to be dangerous. That, of course, is a big mistake.
Jonnie is keenly observant of not only his captors but also the world around him. We see through his eyes the ruins of Denver, where he discovers broken shards of glass from old windows and books with strange marks in them (Jonnie has never seen a book before). We see the outlines of a deserted highway where no car has driven for a thousand years. We also see what has happened to humanity through his eyes. Some have given up hope like the villagers in Jonnie’s village. Some have thrown in their lot with their captors and become sadistic mercenaries like the Brigantes that hunt other humans in the jungles of Africa. And then there are the Scots, who are inspired that they can prevail with teamwork, sacrifice, and a little luck. Thus the core of the rebellion is born.
Here is one of my favorite quotes, when Jonnie first meets the Scots:
“I am a messenger from Mankind—before we become extinct forever.”
—Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth)
Like Dune, Battlefield Earth is a world of polar-opposites. The conquering Psychlos are harsh and brutal. They kill and torture humans and animals for sport. They disparage the strangeness of Earth’s environment compared to their own. But most importantly, the Psychlos discount the abilities of men like Jonnie Goodboy Tyler and Robert the Fox, men conditioned by hardship and desperation and determination.
Brought together by seemingly insurmountable odds, willing to die for a chance to be free of their oppressive masters, the last surviving men of Earth are led by Jonnie Goodboy Tyler in an all-out fight to rid Earth of the Psychlos.
If you have not yet read it, read the first 13 chapters or listen to the first hour for free (it is my favorite sci-fi audiobook production).
Though beautiful and wild, the devastated, radiation leaking Earth of the future is every bit as harsh as the desert planet Dune.
Frank Herbert and L. Ron Hubbard have created worlds which, though strikingly different, have key similarities.
They are both worlds laboring under repressive masters who are unthinkingly and uncaringly plundering the precious natural resources of the planet. While the vast majority of the subjugated peoples are seemingly resigned to their fate, all it takes is a few brave individuals willing to follow a strong leader with a good purpose, to restore their hope and resolve.
Kevin J. Anderson, co-author of Dune series, on Battlefield Earth:
In the next part, we will look at future technology and how the heroes and villains of Dune and Battlefield Earth transverse the worlds that their authors have created.
Eva Mahoney is a writer, musician, and all-around renaissance woman with a passion for sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction, and epic thrillers—in short, great storytelling. She is currently operating out of a converted garage loft on the family farm in upstate New York while taking care of her parents and a small menagerie of pets and wild animals. In her “spare time,” she telecommutes for a large NYC law firm on the weekends, writes songs, and blogs for several causes. She dreams of a place for all people of goodwill to unite in helping to a create better world and is developing a digital platform to “make it so.” And, most importantly, she is a grandmother!
Additional articles and resources that may be of interest: