Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Frank Herbert: visionary

I had the good fortune of being introduced to Dune by seeing some or most of the original movie as a little kid (probably on HBO or something- not on the big screen), not really following or understanding it but being intrigued with the look and feel of it, and then reading the original novel without having the plot spoiled for me in 7th or 8th grade. So I approached Dune without ever having too-quickly dismissed it as something stupid or corny, didn't know much about what it was about beside giant worms when I first read it, and at that time read the whole marvelous thing all the way through. I think I started reading it again as soon as I was done with it, and to this day it's one of the best things I've ever read (If you've seen the movie, there are some pretty significant changes (One significant change, which doesn't affect the characters or the plot, is that in the book, Paul Atreides teaches the desert-people martial arts, which apparently his people know bettter than they do, but in the movie, he teaches them to build and use a weapon which apparently enhances psychic telekinetic powers so ordinary people can use it to hurt people and destroy things-- the desert-people who fervently follow Paul end up being most effective with the weapon when they utter the name they've given him, Muad Dib, as they fire it. So, if you thought the weapon in the movie was corny-- it wasn't Frank Herbert's idea, as far as I know.) and things left out from the book, and the book is largely filled with the characters' thoughts about the situations they find themselves in (more so, in fact, than in any other novel I've ever read- and characters' thoughts are something which you can't put a lot of on film and make it work out well)-- more a literature book than a science fiction book, sci-fi just being the medium for a great story. So, the film is necessarily a lot different than the book, and the book is definitely worth reading.

I was looking at Frank Herbert's Wikipedia page today and I noticed, as one would expect, that he was a really interesting guy. The page links to some old intereviews of him, now online, and he has a few cool quotes in one of them (although some of it is a little hard to follow, because he speaks in a colloquial style, and about a lot of big ideas, all of which take some knowledge to understand). Standing out among all of them are these, in which Herbert (speaking in 1977) foresees aspects of the War Against Terror, proliferation of consumer use of computers, and the commercialization of the internet:

Herbert: I don't believe in fission power for the generation of electricity - not for the usual reasons. I would love to build a fission power plant for the generation of electricity. I know we have to find the energy somewhere. I say fission rather than fusion because I'm not sure about that either, but that's a different bag.

Breeder reactors are an act of desperation which are only going to cause us enormous trouble - ENORMOUS trouble. We are condemning our great-great-great-GREAT-grandchildren, many times down, to cursing us. If this society goes ahead with breeder reactors, our descendants will rewrite the history books to erase names. They will plow up our cemeteries to use the bones to make their china.

Interviewer: What's wrong with breeder reactors?

Herbert: They're targets. We're going into a period of enormous social unrest worldwide. Right now, one person, one kamikaze - I say we're going into the time of the kamikaze. As yet we don't have a means of preventing a kamikaze from hitting his target; we can't even prevent a kamikaze from hitting a president.

Right now, one man with a light airplane loaded with explosives could make the entire downriver of the Columbia (River, major waterway separating Washington state from Oregon) uninhabitable - from Hanford over here.

The thing that really gets me is not that we're going ahead with breeder reactors, but that we don't have anti-aircraft facilities and radar facilities around all of our existing atomic plants. We don't have such defense systems around. It is absolute stupidity.

When you say that you have guards and protection systems around these plants, there's an assumption in that, that historically has never been accurate. This is, that all your guards and your protective people - the operative word, ABSOLUTELY - are trustworthy. That they will never go psychotic or anything like that. You're saying all of these things - like, "We don't have that kind of protective system."

Even then, who did the programming? Who did the software? (laughs) What is your janitor like?

What we're doing is committing ourselves to building a system where we need absolute protection. And we have no absolute protection. The consequences of not having that absolute protection. The consequences of not having that absolute protection (Editor's Note: are worse) than if we just let it all go to hell and got by without the energy. Go back to burning wood, coal and all kinds of nasty things.

[material cut out by me ~Swan]

Interviewer: Let's take a look at modern day jihads. What lies ahead?

Herbert: We're going to have a lot of violence and upset. It's no simple, one thing. One of the things that's involved is the information explosion. Computers are going to have more influence on the society that involves this world for the next 35 years, very likely, than fire did. Computers are going to make an enormous difference.

I'll go WAY out on a limb. I think you're going to see biological linkage between human and computer. The computer is going to enter all phases of life, including what we generally feel is our individual freedom. The minute you can make a simulation model of a segment of society, then it's predictable that you're going to be able to refine that down to smaller and smaller bits. So you're going to be able to tell eventually what... you'll have uses. You see, this is not a totally bad thing. You'll be able to tell what the energy demand of the city of Seattle will be. You'll be able to tell the energy demand of the Mount Baker district. You'll be able to tell what the energy demand of Pete MacKenzie will be.

But you will also be able to tell what you talk, how you can talk Pete MacKenzie into buying "X". What are his buttons, yes. Now, the other side of that coin is that, historically, whenever this has happened people have tended to grow calluses.

They're having trouble on television right now selling things on television commercials.