The Science Of Dune edited by Kevin R. Grazier (book review).

A common problem with Science Fiction is that it doesn’t hold up well to scientific scrutiny. Things that make sense superficially, such as faster-than-light travel, don’t really make any sense when thought about scientifically. It’s not that we just don’t how to make spacecraft travel faster than light, it’s more that physics as we understand it states categorically that accelerating anything to lightspeed, let alone beyond it, would be impossible.

This, fundamentally, is the problem with any book about the ‘science’ behind fantasy or Science Fiction franchises. Unless you accept the technobabble at face value, these books tend to be explanations about why what you’ve read or seen can’t be done. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the technobabble, and ‘The Science Of Dune’ does have some merit.

Among other things, what’s covered in ‘The Science Of Dune’ are topics as diverse as the functionality of the spice melange, the biology of the sandworms, the mechanics of pain induction, genetic manipulation of human bloodlines and the mathematics of prophecy. Each of the articles is written by someone with some sort of scientific background, often as a freelance science writer, rather than a bona fide expert in the field. While this does mean that all the essays are accessible and readable although they’re not necessarily scholarly.

There are some exceptions though: Kevin Grazer is a planetary scientist at NASA and his essay on the stars featured in ‘Dune’ is both comprehensive and well referenced, making this entry a particular pleasure to read. On the other hand, the chapter on anthropology by an anthropology professor at Northern Kentucky University should be good, but is so broad and superficial that it ultimately feels rather unsatisfying.

Sometimes it’s the essays by the more casual experts, the fan non-fiction if you like, that prove to be the most stimulating. Csilla Csori is a programmer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and one of her two essays in this volume, on human memory, is really rather good. Focussing specifically on the revitalisation of forgotten memories in the ghola Duncan Idaho, she looks at how memories might be passed on from the original person to their clone (in Dune-speak, a ghola).

As with pretty much any unauthorised pop-culture study of a well-known franchise, the quality of what’s presented here varies. Long-term fans of ‘Dune’ will probably contrast this collection of essays with the in-universe ‘Dune Encyclopaedia’ (1984) edited by Willis E. McNelly. That book is now long out of print and deprecated by the publishers of the ‘Dune’ sequels, but the high quality of the fiction contained therein, as well as the copious artwork, have ensured its popularity over the years. ‘The Science Of Dune’ isn’t really at that sort of level, but it does benefit from being written from our perspective and through the lens of early 21st century science, which has made some of the ideas Herbert created easier to accept or rubbish.

Neale Monks

December 2017

(pub: Smart Pop Books. 248 pages paperback. Price: $17.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-93377-128-1)

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