How the novels of Neal Stephenson illuminate the present and the future.
In my last essay, I wrote about Frank Herbert’s Dune, after essays on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories and the ongoing Apple TV+ adaptation. This series on science fiction, the problem of political decadence, and the way it arouses the ambition of a new founding must also include cinematic vision. Asimov and Herbert affect to a significant extent to write like historians rather than poets. Perhaps we can even say that, since they talk science, they play the philosopher—or, as futurists—the prophet.
The claims of storytelling are also worth hearing. Art and artist judge each other: David Lynch in 1984 and Denis Villeneuve now have both adapted Dune in accordance with their distinctive poetic vision—audiences can immediately recognize their work. I believe both of their movies can also make sense of their reputations as artists. Both reflect on what’s wrong with the story they chose to adapt: Dune comes out of a humanist effort, since it wants to save mankind, or enlighten the audience, but it leads to an astonishing mix of rationalist arrogance and a despair springing from a moral conviction that man is doomed.
In judging these filmmakers’ work, we have to comprehend what poetry is supposed to do. Lynch and Villeneuve are the editors Herbert didn’t have in the 60s: they have to fix the story. They are also Herbert’s most important audience, the readers who want to get at the moral core of the story. Finally, they are responsible to the public—they have a duty to the American audience. We may have no good public judge, given the woke madness in the media and the reduction of criticism to celebrity worship, but it’s a real duty. We all judge a story, even if only privately, in accord with a standard of justice we might not be able to articulate except after we see the movie and we praise or blame it. Were we not decadent, we’d have intelligent public statements of these judgments.
So there are two ways you can think about Dune. One way is as an atheistic, materialist story about political corruption and religious gullibility—not too different, say, from Game of Thrones, where the superior few cynically control the ignorant masses. In this version of Herbert’s story, real power is based on a theory of race that makes the Nazis seem nice: the Nazis believed biological power was based on an entire race of superior men, but Herbert goes further, to genetically engineer an übermensch. Granted, Herbert claimed he only indulged all this impiety to warn us against following demagogic, fanatic leaders like his protagonist.
The less popular view of Dune is writer-director David Lynch’s: It’s a fable about a young man growing up to be honorable and to do justice. Paul Atreides sees his family betrayed and his father murdered, yet he survives, so he wants revenge on the wicked Harkonnen who perpetrated the slaughter and the Emperor who abetted it. But gradually, he becomes a man, and accordingly comes to see that his private problem is not all there is to the world—he nobly embraces a race of savage warriors who share his nobility. Like him, they hate duplicity, share the same enemies, and would make much more honorable guardians of the empire. Lynch’s Dune is much maligned because the special effects don’t wow people and because of its earnestness in a time when people who think themselves sophisticated would rather be charmed by visions of corruption and decadence, which seem much cleverer. Worse, the studio compelled Lynch to cut Dune down to 135 minutes, so there is only enough time for the fundamentals, whereas modern audiences, and especially critics, prefer overdone and indulgent work as a sign of luxury. There’s something to these criticisms—it’s not a great movie. But the criticism is simply narrow-minded and does not dare to see as clearly as Lynch does what it means to be a boy looking to become a man, dominated by passions that are in turn guided by idealism. This beautiful vision of justice must mean war.
Lynch’s movie is less pompous and pedantic than Herbert’s prose, but it borrows from it the use of interior monologue, since individuality is hardly conceivable without interiority, and yet that interiority must be available to us, the audience. Speech is the obvious solution, but it turns out that it relies on trust. People are much more sophisticated than they used to be, but they’re also damaged goods. So maybe they’re too clever for Lynch’s script, but maybe they’re incapable of accepting these characters as they present themselves in their own words, because they despise honesty. Lynch, for his part, makes his fable very intelligent indeed: He uses words as part of the technology of war, making literal the idea that people kill in the name of a prophet. People who despise the obvious have no use for him, but Lynch is a good teacher to those who see in beautiful art an inspired working out of our ordinary experience, of our secret longings, of the things about ourselves we most tend to take for granted or overlook.
The most obvious sign of Lynch’s deep understanding of Dune and both his moral and intellectual superiority to Herbert appears in the conclusion of the story. There, we see a literal fulfillment of the Biblical sentiment expressed in Amos 5:24: “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Paul finally delivers his people out of the desert and water makes for a new life. People don’t like the movie because it rubs in their faces that we Christians, as the Jews before us, make this desperate demand for justice. Since it cannot be explained on the basis of atheism, and since most critics and arbiters of taste fancy themselves as better than believers, the call of justice must be silenced. As sophisticated people, they teach everyone to laugh at someone like Lynch, who is honest about what Americans really believe. Their only sophistication, however, is the fear that Americans might really listen to a fable about justice that takes sacrifice seriously, showing a noble young man risking everything to save what’s good about a people, a way of life—a principle even.
Lynch raised up the banner of justice, morality, and spiritual longing more consistently than any other director in the last two generations. His movies show the ugliness of our lives because that’s where the desire for justice comes from. The boy Paul Atreides finds himself only in the terror of deadly injustice, wanting to prove that his love for his noble father was right by growing up to be a man his father would have been proud of, the son succeeding where the father failed. Lynch shows that even good people can be driven to madness or at least deluded by our crazy way of life and that the struggle to be good and to be oneself are one. Dune is his only fable, but his more sophisticated movies are at core the same defense of America. His favored actor, Kyle MacLachlan, later played a similar hero in his movie Blue Velvet (1986), a coming of age story in mid-century middle-class America, and Twin Peaks (1990), a TV show about the confrontation of good and evil in post-war America in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Lynch became pessimistic about America, to judge by Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), but by then, the whole country had gone mad.
The reception of Dune and opinion about Lynch go together: Liberals despise his moralism, but like his sophisticated art, conservatives are disgusted by the ugliness he shows and reject his art. America is divided and he cannot put it back together, though he has tried all his life.
The new movie tries hard to avoid Lynch’s reception — it tries to learn from experience. Lynch was in his mid-thirties and new to Hollywood when he made Dune, at that time an expensive enterprise involving a vast crew. He had only made one, much smaller Hollywood movie, The Elephant Man (1980), a commercial and critical hit that received eight Oscar nominations, including two for writer-director Lynch. Villeneuve was 50 when he started work on Dune and already had at least a decade’s experience in Hollywood. He knows that, more than vision, the elite liberals that decide America’s taste in cinema want polish, and the new Dune is nothing if not polished, every scene a potential commercial for some visionary corporate product or another.
Lynch showed America both delicate and grotesque things, mixed in a uniquely cinematic way, the images succeeding one another while we retain in our hearts the ones we most love or admire. Villeneuve, however, never offers his audience one moment of joy, but tries to find a solemn, austere beauty in his vast, sometimes massive designs, to give a sense of an unredeemed, maybe even doomed world. The desert and the CGI alike seem alien to us, but there is no image of the home that alienation might point to. The only cheerful guy gets himself killed nobly, which only makes everyone else even more depressed. The only religious guy is gruff and keeps barking at people or putting knives to their throats. Maybe this is a movie about how close to suicidal the mood in America is right now.
Granted, movies cannot afford cynicism about politics in the way novels can, since we are more impressed by images than words. Lynch discarded it entirely and instead made a fable where the good can conquer the evil, seemingly permanently. Villeneuve instead wants to show us the effect of this cynicism on human beings who want to be good, so his protagonists act like trauma victims. This completely ruins the political intrigue he spends so much time building up. Villeneuve’s Duke is an idealist who tells his son Paul that he should just be himself and, if he doesn’t want to be a duke, that’s alright. People do talk this nonsense in our times, but it smacks of nihilism. Why is the duke endangering his life, family, and everything he holds dear if he doesn’t even know he will pass it on to his son?
Worse, it seems Villeneuve just told his actor that his defining feature is a glass jaw, formerly not an attractive quality in a fighter. Similarly, Paul’s mother spends most of the film cringing or trembling at the terrible suffering in store. This makes a mockery of the idea that she is an intelligent woman, more dangerous than anyone else in their court—to say nothing of the way this undermines the idea that she educated Paul to be incredibly powerful. Perhaps mothers are wracked by fear in this mad time of ours, but it makes no sense in the story. This caricature of morality is abandoned at the end, when she’s suddenly the most wonderful warrior you’ve ever seen. Paul himself is mopey and depressed, dreaming about having a girlfriend, a young woman who turns out to be manlier than he is. To look at him is to know, “he’s not gonna make it,” as they say on the internet.
Suddenly turning traumatized people into deadly warriors also requires the reverse absurdity, which the movie also delivers—a supposed desert warrior who is surprised in the middle of the desert and stabbed in the back by someone from another planet. This is played for drama and should not be taken as an insult to the intelligence of the audience—only perhaps a measure of the intelligence of the artists. So in order to preserve the political doom of the novel and use the dominant emotions of our decadent times to make it plausible, Villeneuve destroys any plausibility of motivation and action. The characters stumble through the story, the pawns of destiny appearing less than human in their obliviousness. This is being applauded by otherwise intelligent people, which suggests nobody is capable of paying attention to the obvious, to what’s staring them in the face—and these are the people who despise Lynch’s movie.
In an interview, Lynch talked about his vision of Paul Atreides’ character: He should have innocence, the strength for leadership, intelligence readily apparent in his eyes, and a spiritual quality as well. This, you may say, is idealism. Perhaps. But the alternative we have ended up with is no character at all, which is the problem of the new story, whose protagonist is too silly to compare to a youthful warrior-king like Alexander the Great. It’s not Villeneuve’s fault—since the movie is a success, obviously, lots of people are themselves unable any longer to judge character in a story and they really don’t care about the protagonists’ motivations. The entire story might make no sense, but they never expected it to, so it’s no matter to them—that’s just our life now, isn’t it? They are perhaps able only to look at their own confusion, or even depression, and be flattered by a story that’s just full of pining, slumped shoulders, and resigned staring. Healthy people will find this show boring, however, which is suggested by the one tough-talking guy in the story, a Fremen warrior who treats these exquisitely anguished actors like simpletons. He’s not wrong.
Fables and Cynicism
From a certain point of view, fables are vulgar—they do not do justice to the complexity of human affairs. Their reassurance or happy end is cheaply bought. This may be called cheating, a form of injustice. But sophisticated visions are no less vulgar just because they don’t reassure us. The audience of a fable is understood to be at the beginning of an education, but I wonder whether the audience of such polished spectacles is even aware of what sort of education is necessary for living well.
The 80s were incredibly vulgar in pop culture, but not as rotten as our days; it’s not an accident that America got one version of Dune then and another now—it follows from a kind of inner necessity, from an enthusiasm that has since turned to depression, despair, or hysteria. Villeneuve tries to fend off hysteria, but the result is unending depression. In my judgment, it’s much easier to slap someone out of a hysteric fit, however, than to restore some hope or nerve to the depressed. Villeneuve understands we are decadent and our peculiar love of beauty is part of this decadence, but he indulges the worst carelessness in the audience, and so cannot escape it. Lynch failed to conquer the times, too, because the studio and critics were against him.
The universal opinion may be right, that it’s too much to expect of a story to have popular appeal and also be good for the people.