Tag Archives: Dune

Enter the Villain

The year was 1967. I was standing in the store holding a copy of the first paperback edition of Frank Herbert’s Dune in my hand. It was huge. I don’t remember how many pages it was, but it was way larger than any single book I’d ever owned or read. The Lord of the Rings was the only single story I knew of that was larger. And it was priced at $0.95, which was an outlandish price for a paperback book at the time. Most paperbacks were either $0.40 or $.045, with $0.50 being the extreme. So Dune was running two to two-and-a-half times the price of a regular book. Of course, it was also about twice as long as a regular book. But I really had to talk myself into buying it. That was a lot of money for a sixteen year-old kid back then.

David 3It helped that a cover quote from a name author compared Dune to The Lord of the Rings. I had discovered Tolkien the previous year, and was absolutely enraptured by Middle Earth, so anything that compared favorably to Tolkien’s masterwork certainly caught my attention. And that may have been the deciding element that ended up convincing me to buy it.

The quote author was pretty much on target. Dune is a masterpiece. It is absolutely the pinnacle of Frank Herbert’s career, having won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for 1966, the only time he won either of those awards. None of his earlier works approach it in scope and awesome world building, and of his later works, only The Dosadi Experiment comes close to matching it.

At age sixteen, I had no clue that I would one day be a writer. Nonetheless, I learned an early lesson in writing from Dune, and that is the proper handling of a villain in a story.

Every story has to have a protagonist—the character the story is about. Just about every story will have an antagonist—the counterfoil that the protagonist plays off of or against. But the antagonist is not necessarily either ‘a’ or ‘the’ villain of the piece. In Dune, however, the roles of antagonist and villain are united in one character: Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

The Baron is a real piece of work. Herbert draws him with bold lines as a man who seems to have no redeeming qualities. He seems to be purely evil, although naturally so. There is no supernatural element to the Baron as there is to Paul Atreides, the protagonist and hero of Dune. This, perhaps, makes the Baron even scarier than he would have been had he been portrayed as some sort of Satan-analog or anti-Kwisatz Haderach to counterbalance Paul.

Herbert made the Baron stick in my mind by understating him. The Baron is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile, yet very little of that is shown “on screen” so to speak in the novel. The reader is given glimpses here and there of the raw evil lying beneath the surface of what is otherwise a very forceful, articulate, and urbane man. This is so effective in Herbert’s hands. I literally shivered when I first encountered the Baron in Dune. And even today, I can get a chill running up my spine if I reread those scenes, or think about them.

The other masterful approach Herbert took in limning the Baron for the readers is that his descriptions of the Baron’s physical nature were relatively vague and restrained. He seems to be a fairly big man, with a basso voice and hands and cheeks that are described as “fat”. He is described as being so large he needs “suspensor” units (small anti-gravity devices) to support his weight while he walks around. Yet there is little more given to the reader, so we are each allowed to visualize the Baron as we desire. Again, an understated style.

All of this combined in my mind to create an image of a very flawed yet very powerful man, a very sinister man. And it was all done without graphic or explicit presentations of violence, sex or debauchery. I was impressed by that character in 1967; I remain impressed with that character today, almost fifty years later. And the more I grow as a writer, the more impressed I am with the skill and craft and techniques by which Herbert evoked then and evokes now that most sinister of characters in my mind.

This was underlined in 1978 when the Dune calendar was published, which presented some of the illustrations the great John Schoenherr had done for the original magazine serializations in 1963-1965 of the early components of what became Dune. Frank Herbert praised Schoenherr’s illustrations as really capturing the essence and feel of the Dune universe. The following illustration was shown to a wider audience in the calendar, and I believe it shows the genius of Schoenherr, as that figure sitting in the shadows to me reeks of sinisterness.

David 1

But we can’t talk about Dune and not talk about the movie based on the book as realized by writer and director David Lynch, which was released in 1984. The movie has its fans, and it has its detractors. For myself, there were several things that I disagreed with the concepts of in the film (Bene Gesserit in pseudo-Victorian gowns, for example), but ultimately the film failed for me because of one significant element, and that was the presentation of Baron Harkonnen.

Even in 1984 I wasn’t naïve about the film-making process. I understood that textual works need to be adapted if they move to a different medium, and particularly in moving to the screen. So I was prepared to make allowances for that—even great allowances. But when I was sitting in the first run theater and the Baron came on the screen, I was totally blown out of the viewer’s trance, and I never really regained it.

David 2

Instead of the sinister figure of the novel, I was presented with a garish bumbler. Instead of the corpulent but smooth figure of the novel, I was presented with a not so large person covered by excrescences. Instead of the dominant controlling chess master who was coopting the Emperor, attempting an end run around the Bene Gesserit, and thinking and playing at least four moves ahead of Duke Leto, I was presented with a bumbling, almost slapstick figure who seemed to succeed in spite of himself and was himself being played by others. And instead of the smooth urbane deviant who controlled his passions and only expressed them when he was in control and when he felt it was safe, I was presented with a twitching idiot who would expose his lusts in public. (The whole heart plug scene fails on multiple levels.)

The nature and power of Baron Harkonnen is critical to the story that was told in the novel, yet Lynch gutted that character and turned him into a clown. And that, to me, is the major reason why the movie basically failed. I didn’t want it to fail. I wanted it to succeed. I wanted it to live up to the potential it contained. I wanted it to at least be a workmanlike and competent telling of the story. But by so radically transmogrifying the character of the primary antagonist who was also the primary villain, Lynch basically foredoomed the movie to failure as a story. (Transmogrify—thank you, Bill Watterson, for that lovely word.)

I know there are those who will disagree with my opinions and judgments here, but I call them as I see them. And the purpose here is really not to downgrade the film, but to expose the contrast between the two treatments of the same character. As writers, we can learn from both.

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen—one of the absolutely most sinister characters ever written. We can learn a lot from Frank Herbert on how to craft a villain.

Excuse me while I shiver.

Rejection: Everybody Hurts Sometimes

Rarely Oftentimes, the writing life feels like an uphill climb. First comes the Dear Sir or Madam rejection, then the personalized rejection. Then, the editor gives you personal feedback and/or reasons why they couldn’t publish your work. After that, you cry into a Blue Bonnet-sized bucket of chocolate ice cream and ask the gods why you can’t just be good enough, already. All of that time, all of that work! What you wouldn’t do for a hot, luscious, sexy, multi-paged contract in your inbox. You are the Charles Barkley of the writing world: pretty good, just not good enough to win a championship. You’re a Baby Ruth when all you want is to be a Snickers bar.

I know it may be hard to believe (har har), but you’re not alone. You’re actually in really good company.

Every now and then Pretty much every week or so, I read about a classic or popular book that had been rejected a bajillion times by every publisher on the planet until one said yes. Here is a list of those books, just for you to keep handy. May it bless you and keep you, and may it help pry your fingers off of the tub of Rocky Road.

1. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Rejected 140 times, one publisher claiming it was “too positive.”

2. Dubliners by James Joyce. Rejected 22 times, only sold 379 copies in the first year (James Joyce bought 120 of them).

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Rejected 121 times.

4. Carrie by Stephen King. Rejected 30 times. We have Tabitha King to thank for it seeing the light of day, as she dug it out of the trash when King threw it away.

5. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Rejected 38 times. Mitchell won a Pulitzer for her efforts.

6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Rejected 26 times. Awarded a Newbery Medal.

7. Anything by C.S. Lewis. Lewis amassed over 800 rejections before selling a single piece of writing.

8. The Diary of Anne Frank. Rejected 15 times. Recieved the editorial comment, “This girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.”

9. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. After receiving so many rejections, Potter was forced to publish the book herself.

But my favorite story of all time goes to Dune. You can read an interesting story from Frederik Pohl here, but here’s the abridged version of Dune‘s publishing history. Frank Herbert spent years trying to get a publisher to pick up Dune, and received about 20 rejections. After years and lots of revisions, he sold the book to a small publisher that was known for mechanical manuals for automobiles and motorcycles. It’s now one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of all time.

Keep your head up, and keep on going. You really don’t know when or from where your big break is going to come.

Perfectly Harmless Lake Flies

A guest post by Gama Martinez.

lakefliesWhen asked to do this post, a couple of things came to mind. I could’ve written about how a trip running for the bulls turned out to be the beginning of a friendship with someone, or about how I once managed to get away with stealing a test in high school even though every shred of evidence said I’d done it. I almost wrote about the time I nearly poisoned myself with peanut butter. I finally settled on the time I got attacked by a swarm of perfectly harmless African lake flies.

It was 2009. As people (or at least I) tended to do in those days, I kept my eyes on the prices of plane tickets to Uganda. You see, I have some dear friends who at that time were long-term missionaries, and I wanted to see them. I’d also been saving up for this trip for a while, as the price of the flight tended to run about $2,000. I was a little more than halfway there when the flights suddenly dropped to $1,200, so I bought my ticket for March the following year. I didn’t have a lot of vacation at that job, so I only took a week.

A few months later, I had my yellow fever shot, a box full of malaria medicine, and a couple of carry-ons filled with clothes (I don’t need to check luggage unless I’m transporting weapons or am staying longer than ten days). Twenty-four hours of travelling later, I landed in Entebbe, Uganda. It was late so we spent the night there. The next morning, we travelled to the village of Mitiyana. No, we’re not talking mud huts or anything. They actually had a rather nice house, but I digress.

There is a nine-hour time difference between Dallas and Uganda. A week just wasn’t enough time to acclimate myself to it. It was never bad. I would just wake up at 5:00 in the morning or something like that. Generally, I stayed in bed and tried to sleep more, but one day I decided to read. You see, I was going to the very first Superstars Writing Seminar two weeks after I got back, and I was way behind on Dune. By the way, going from Dallas to Uganda and spending a week there followed by returning to Dallas and going to work for four days and then a trip to L.A. for an intense seminar on the business of writing… not the best idea if you don’t want to take yourself to the very brink of exhaustion.

Anyway, back to Africa at 5:00 in the morning.

I flipped on the light and started read The Winds of Dune. Before long, I noticed a large winged insect crawling on the mosquito net around the bed. I slowly reached out and grabbed another Dune book, intending to smash the insect between the books, but by the time I had done that, a second insect appeared. Then a third. In a few seconds, the room was swarming with them.

Being a writer, naturally, my mind was filled with all the terrible stories of deadly animals that live in Africa. Could these animals sting? Were they poisonous? There was an episode of The Simpsons where a butterfly lands on Homer’s finger. It then curls up and burrows into his hand. You can see it move under his skin until it reaches his head and digs into his brain. I know it’s ridiculous, but that was what I was thinking. Hugging the wall, I made my way out without getting killed. I woke my missionary hosts and was promptly informed that they were just lake flies. They were completely harmless and had probably been attracted by the light.

People get attacked by deadly animals in fiction all the time, but those are generally plot devices. For the most part, real animals don’t attack unless provoked. People are willing to overlook that because it advances the story, but being attacked by a swarm of perfectly harmless animals? I could just imagine trying to put that in a story and having the editor come back and say, “No, that’s stupid.

10306784_10154114800860057_1389195880_nGuest Writer Bio:
Gama Martinez lives near Dallas and collects weapons in case he ever needs to supply a medieval battalion. He greatly resents when work or other real life things get in the way of writing. Other than writing, he does normal things like run from bulls and attempt to leave the Earth to be a Martian colonist. He has the first two books of the Oracles of Kurnugi trilogy out, with the third coming later this year. Take a few minutes to visit his website!

Honoring the Giants

A while ago, I was at a book reading by an intriguing new fantasy author at one of my local bookstores. I’m naturally curious about how ideas originate and evolve, so during the Q & A period I asked him what other authors in the genre influenced him. I had expected a laundry list of the classics of old-Tolkien, LeGuin, Eddison-or at least some mention of today’s bestsellers. But the stammered and confused response I received was along the lines of, “I don’t have any influences, I don’t want to talk about it.” I left the reading feeling a little perplexed and disappointed, yet not fully understanding why.

This wasn’t the first time that I had this kind of response. I’ve heard similar questions fielded at conventions with similar answers given. It’s not something that’s made sense to me-I’m always quick to spout off my favorite authors and the things they do that I think are amazing-and given my inclination for seeking the origins of ideas, I wanted to know why people were refusing to admit that they have been influenced.

Of course, there is the fear that of being called derivative. Many, if not most, authors fear this, myself included. In any genre, but especially in speculative fiction, originality is of paramount importance. After all, isn’t that what writing is? The creation of something new? This is a real, and I think legitimate, fear, but I don’t think it adequately described what I had been seeing with these authors’ reactions, since many authors who fear being labeled as derivative have no problem discussing their influences. Deeper digging was required.

I believe the answer lies with how many people view creativity.

On a superficial level, creativity is the process by which something new comes about. That’s not controversial, but there is dispute about where this new thing comes from.

The common view of creativity is that it is intuitive, that an idea is not truly new unless it plucked from the ether, and not at all associated with anything else in existence. This follows suit with how many of us actually experience a new idea: sometimes it just pops into your head, and you don’t know where it came from.

But if that were true, every new idea would be completely incomprehensible since it would be divorced from any context we could comprehend (which is much the state of nonrepresentational modern visual art, and why it turns so many people off). In order for this new creation to be meaningful to us, it has to have some place in the world as we understand it, and thus it has to relate in some way to the things we have experienced before.

I think that creativity works the same way, but in reverse: the creator takes elements of their experiences and combines them in new ways.

Einstein’s development of the theory of relativity is often considered to be a work of staggering genius and the pinnacle of scientific creativity, and rightly so. Most people have difficulty understanding relativity, and can’t imagine how anyone else could conceive of it. But Einstein certainly didn’t pluck it out of the ether (especially since relativity helped destroy the very concept of the ether); he developed it as an answer to the problems that had been found in Newtonian physics. He combined his knowledge of physics with observed measurements in a way that resulted in a completely new theory. Far from being divorced from reality, his achievement attempted to describe it totally.

Other forms of creativity are no different. The unicorn, for example, is a mythical creature that has permeated cultures throughout the world for hundreds if not thousands of years, and is often a symbol of the fantastic. Yet ultimately, the unicorn is just a horse with a horn on its head and magical powers. It is nothing more than the combination of these attributes, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a completely original creation.

Imagine asking the creator of the unicorn to describe it. “Well,” he would say, “it has a horn, and magical powers, four legs, hooves, a mane and a tail… but it is definitely not a horse or related to horses in any fashion.”

This is akin to what many of these authors are saying about their own works in their frantic scramble to distance them from those of their influences.

Some of the greatest works of literature have clear influences. Tolkien was influenced by mythology (no, he didn’t invent the idea of Elves, though his Elves were nonetheless a remarkable creation), The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan can in many ways be seen as a fusion of Dune and Arthurian legend (the Aviendha/Chani connection), and Steven Erikson proudly declares that he was shaped by Glen Cook’s writing, and a side-by-side read of Gardens of the Moon and The Black Company supports this (can you tell I’m biased toward fantasy?). Despite the fact that their works were influenced by many things, they still stand at the high-water mark of creativity in fantasy fiction.

Now, I’m not at all suggesting that you should become a complete hack. Tolkien already wrote The Lord of the Rings; we don’t need you to write it again. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t let him or anyone else inform your own stories, so long as your stories and the elements that comprise them are your own.

Nor am I trying to diminish your creativity as being unoriginal. Utilizing what exists in the world and combining it in new and fresh ways is really hard work. Just ask Einstein.

So if you find yourself famous someday and asked who influenced you, feel no guilt as you give us your laundry list, and honor those giants upon whose shoulders you stand.


If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

P.S. My epic fantasy novelette, Dark Tree: A Tale of the Fourth World, is now available for free on Smashwords! I hope you’ll check it out!