Thursday, 25 November 2010

They live among us (2) - The sandworm of Dune

Had a good ponder? Me too.

In case you missed it, the starting point was the realism of aliens in fiction, whether wargames, cinema or literature. The whole thing was set off by our new friend, the squid worm. The question was how the preoccupation of the moment might mean we make the alien less realistic.

Let's start with a biggie, Dune by Frank Herbert, and the sandworms. Look away now if you're squeamish - the film version is definitely not for you.

I was grinning by the final shot. Remember, it is a David Lynch film...

If you haven't read the book, I recommend it. It's a modern classic and for good reason, not least perceptive writing and immense scope. (If you're a young man, try to keep a sense of proportion.)

Getting back to zeitgeist, the big issue of the time was ecology and the book highlights the interrelatedness of life at every turn. The sandworms are vital to Fremen culture and in fact interstellar civilisation, but the water we need kills them. They get a complex life cycle which we rely on. As a fictional device they seem to be telling us we ignore the natural order at our peril.

As for the physical, they're massive and powerful, but subtle with it. They sense shifting sands and strike from out of sight. (They're faster and more dangerous than the clip suggests - in the same film, the worm in the harvester scene leaps clear of the sand.)

All in all, the sandworms are masters of their world and ours, and represent the destructive potential of even a small miscalculation or lack of knowledge. It doesn't matter much who makes it - an unsuspecting wanderer in the deep desert or a society changing a world to suit themselves. We're all in trouble.

I'd guess in this case the mood sneaking in was more design than accident. If you're an intelligent guy writing an SF novel three years after Silent Spring, you might well have a sense of wonder, a sense of pride in a lesson learned or just a sense of mission. (And the last is reflected in the plot after all...) The sandworms would then be a defence of mother nature's honour, some forgivable showing off or an educational tool.

The point is that there is a point. The creature is a product in part of the preoccupation of the author and his society at the time. Science and imagination must coexist also with this driving force. The lifeform is less likely to be a realistic vision for the compromise.

So what does this mean for the creature's shape? A happy coincidence? A whole other post I think and I'll leave it for someone else...

The sandworm of Dune then. The astrobiological organism for its time?

Update: This was re-posted here about three months later, beginning a new discussion.


Satiran said...

I’ll start by posting a few fragmented thoughts here, if for no other reason than I’m an avid fan of David Lynch’s Dune – visually a masterpiece, IMHO, thanks to the vast numbers of talented artists involved in its creation. As far as starting here at part 2 of this series, I realize that I’ve fallen behind, with no hope of keeping up. I’ve been pondering some of the questions you pose in this (and other) posts for days now, and the conclusion I’ve come to is this: It is unlikely that I will be able to add anything meaningful, thought provoking, or intelligent to the open discussion you are facilitating here. I bring only disconnected crumbs of knowledge, the frayed remnants of a fifth-grade education, and a (comparatively) microscopic field of vision – perhaps something akin to the contribution you might expect from one of the squid worms. Even worse, I’m a barbaric, coffee-drinking American.

All that being said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed dropping in and reading. It’s been a real challenge – your blog is not for the careless reader, and I’ve discovered that researching the links you provide throughout each post is a must to follow your thought process. I can feel myself growing smarter here (new neural pathways sparking painfully into being), instead of dumber. I begin to understand, perhaps in some small way, the graphic you’ve chosen for your Avatar (the lidless eyes, keeping endless watch?). I also applaud the choice of the word “Expanse” in the title of your blog – very appropriate. But all this is merely the unsolicited critique of a village simpleton. I mean it all in the most positive way, for whatever that is worth. I can hardly wait for some of your peers to start chiming in – I could learn much from that interplay, I think.

With regard to the question you pose here, I wrestled with a bit of blather, about how imagining alien forms of life might begin with a look at how the form, function, and behavior of creatures here on earth seems inextricably linked to their environment. For instance, why are some poisonous frogs brightly colored, while others, equally poisonous, have adapted effective camouflage? If we think about the Tyranids in 40K, it seems clear that most of the inspiration came not from a thoughtful consideration of adaptation to life in the void, but from the artistic visionings of others, and then forcing them into the constraints necessary to get them down onto planets, fighting in the trenches against the other races. I can see the necessity, of course, but isn’t it also a tad bit ridiculous? If I were a void-born organism who ate planets for the nutrition provided by the living biomass, I would probably use the limitless vastness of space to grow really, really big. Imagine, then, a Tyranid organism (let’s say it looks like a space faring version of our squid worm) large enough to encircle an inhabited planet with its tendrils and pull it directly into its feeding maw. The atmosphere is expulsed (oh, excuse me!), the biomass digested, and the heat generated by the planet’s core warms its belly for a time as it “swims” off toward the next meal. Somewhere along the way between warps, the sterile ball of rock is ejected as excreta, which shoots off into space to eventually become re-inhabited by Orks.

Well, it would save the Hive Mind all that tedious trench warfare, anyway. But it would also make for a mighty different game of 40K – and it’s hard to imagine how much the World Gobbler kit would cost when it finally came out in plastic.

I wish that I could work out the benighted mysteries of our digital camera, so I could share a picture of my Sardaukar-inspired Storm Troopers. Gas-hoods with sickly, glowing-green face plates…they make me happy. Perhaps someday I’ll get the right chants and sacred unguents for that camera...

Porky said...

Satiran! I think you really did break the internet - I have a series of posts in my spam inbox which are certainly not spam. Just give me a general idea of which version you want me to post and I will.

Satiran said...

*Grins* How dare a mere machine presume to imply that I am far too long winded for the little I actually say? Bluster and harumph! I think I started my diatribe with "I'll start by posting..." and ended with "...unguents for that camera." If it needs to be split into multiple sections, that is of course fine. *laughs self-consciously*

For future meanderings, is there an anti-spam solution, or should I try and think aloud with more brutal conciseness? (not easy).

Porky said...

I've restored it, but I seem to have little real control and it's jumped to the front of the list. These mere machines have big ambitions and they're starting by cutting us out.

I don't know where to start with your post. It's remarkable, impressively so. You do yourself down - you are a peer, and I'm glad you're chiming in. And the compliments go way too far!

That second paragraph is especially good fun. Shrewd observation and pragmatism become existential horror! I'd never taken the idea to that point. It's like reading about the Tyranids for the first time again. Lack of table space will go well beyond a joke when the release date arrives.

When you've got the camera down pat, you should really put up a blog of your own to give that mind freer reign. But please keep commenting until then - its a privilege for the rest of us!