Tag Archives: Dune

Brains, bugs, ecology, & entomology from Herbert

Frank Herbert gave us The Green Brain in 1966, right on the heels of the publication of Dune, and the two books are close in more than just chronology. This novel is another expression of Herbert’s deep interest in ecology, which was such a major part of the foundation of Dune. What we have here is a look at imminent ecological disaster due to human shortsightedness.

In Dune Herbert wrote:

“The thing the ecologically illiterate don’t realize about an ecosystem,” Kynes said, “is that it’s a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams the flow, order collapses. The untrained miss the collapse until too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.

That quote could have been custom-designed for The Green Brain, since the book is all about the ecologically illiterate and how they don’t understand the consequences of their actions. The niche in the system that humanity fiddles around with in this novel is a hell of a big one: the planet’s insect population. Most of the world’s governments decide that, with an ever-growing human population, insects can no longer be tolerated, due to their massive destruction of crops and their role as a disease vector. So a great crusade is initiated to eradicate them from the planet — not just certain species, but all of them (with the exception of bees, which will be engineered to take over certain insect functions). This war is waged with an array of modern weapons and equipment, from various poisons to sonic devices. As land is cleared it becomes part of the Green zone, while the insects are continually pushed back into ever-shrinking Red zones ringed by barriers they cannot pass. Much of the planet has been cleared over a number of years, and the largest remaining Red zone is in the jungles of Brazil. The book is built around several characters involved in the Brazilian campaign.

But like other surprises of nature such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria, insects adapt and evolve in response to this survival threat. And the results of that evolution are astounding: a sophisticated mimicry ability, resistance to many poisons, the development of their own chemical warfare substances, and….. intelligence! The title of the book is more than simply metaphorical; there actually is a big green brain sitting in the jungle. And it realizes, unlike the humans, that the entire world ecosystem is threatened, that all the creatures of the world exist together in a vast complex web of relationships, and one can’t just start cutting the strands. And if the humans don’t understand this, well then they’ll simply have to be taught a lesson!

As events turn sour for the book’s protagonists, at least one of them begins to get the picture:

Joao pulled a sprayman’s emblem from his breast pocket, fingered it. “I believed it…. then. We could shape mutated bees to fill every gap in the insect ecology. It was a…. Great Crusade. This I believed. Like the people of China, I said: ‘Only the useful shall live!’ And I meant it. But that was quite a few years ago, father. I’ve come to realize since then that we don’t have complete understanding of what’s useful.”

There’s nothing much about this book that’s realistic: the idea that you can keep certain areas completely insect-free is silly; the incredible speed of insect evolution is hard to swallow; and the biologists of the world would never sign off on such a project, knowing how disastrous it would be. But surely Herbert never meant this to be a scientifically rigorous scenario. It’s one of those books that teaches a lesson in stark terms; it takes a concept, a present-day trend or issue, and pushes it to the farthest extreme possible in order to make a point. And I think it succeeds fairly well at that goal, even if it was a bit weak in terms of characterization and plot.

Worth reading? Sure.

Short clip: Frank Herbert speaks about Dune

Here’s a very short video I found of a television interview with Frank Herbert, the only such video I’ve been able to find. I don’t know the date on this, but I’d guess it’s from sometime in the late 70′s or early 80′s. I wish I could find the whole interview, assuming there was more to it — this is only about a minute and a half long. Nothing new here for Dune fans, but as I’ve said before, it’s just nice sometimes to be able to hear your favorite authors in their own words and voice.

I’ve been thinking lately about Herbert’s thoughts on power. He said he thought the old adage “power corrupts” isn’t quite right, and put forth his own version: “power attracts the corruptible.” What I think is that BOTH statements are correct. No doubt many people are drawn to positions of authority because deep down, whether they consciously recognize it or not, they desire power and the perks that come with it, whether that’s wealth or the ability to impose their will on others. On the other hand, I believe there are people who go into politics or other positions of responsibility with the noblest of intentions, truly desiring to do good; but as time passes, the temptations of power slowly erode their defenses and wear them down, corrupting them to varying degrees.

(Hmmm…… most pictures I’ve seen of Frank show him with a beard. He looks pretty different in this clip.)

What was your introduction to sci-fi?

I certainly hope it was more elegant and, umm… cleaner than in this story Nancy Kress shares about one of her fans. Of course, if the young lady had to go through that to get some good science fiction, at least she was lucky enough to find such a superb novel. One could hardly do better than starting off with Beggars in Spain as one’s first sci-fi reading experience. Kress says she herself started with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

My memory is a bit shaky going that far back, but I think the first sci-fi book I ever read was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. That would have been in grade school, I’m sure, because I have a clear memory of the book being in the grade school library. I just don’t recall what year it was, exactly. Most likely I was around 9 or 10 years old.

It’s possible I read some other juvenile-type sci-fi around that time that has completely escaped my memory. The next thing I remember is reading whatever fantasy was in the school library, which wasn’t that much: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and Quag Keep by Andre Norton. Those were around age 11-12.

I think I was 14 when I was looking through a box of old books my parents had picked up at a yard sale. In it I found a hardcover book missing its dust jacket, called A Time of Changes, by some fellow named Robert Silverberg whom I’d never heard of before. I didn’t even have any idea it was science fiction. Out of idle curiosity, I opened to the first page for a brief scan to see if there was anything interesting. And there was. I was drawn in by the fantastic narrative hook, and before I knew it I was finished reading what was to become one of my favorite novels ever. At age 15 I happened upon another “favorite novel ever” — Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune. By that time, I was thoroughly hooked and and my sci-fi readings became more frequent.

So there you have it, some of my foundational SF experiences. All in the usual manner, I might add…. nothing strange, no stickiness involved, nothing like that. Just me and some great books.

So what’s your story?