Microfiction + Film Notes: Dune 2021


Take It To The Top

 "I'm sorry!" he squealed, holding his hands in the air. "It's not my fault!"

"What to you mean?" I said, doing my best to seem grim and resolved. In truth, my murderous rage had been replaced with a mixture of regret and pity. 

"I... well, there's no easy way to say this," he said, "but I automated my job a few years ago. The quarterly reviews are written by a program that takes your metrics and assigns them sentences from a lookup table. I know I shouldn't have done it, but it was..."

"Motherfucker!" I exclaimed, and he dove for the floor. When he cautiously stuck his head back up, I was already sitting, gun in my lap, giggling away. "You lazy bastard, I knew it! I thought you just copy-pasted old reviews."

"I did at first," he said, apologetically, "but this was quicker. You were a good worker, for what it's worth. Never had any complaints."

"That's because I automated my job years ago," I chuckled.

"That makes sense. Anyway, I wasn't the one who fired you. Not really. I got an email from the Department Manager saying we needed to cut staff, and I picked your name at random. Downsizing, the email said. I guess it's contagious because they fired me next. Look," he said, gesturing around the office. For the first time, I noticed the lack of decorations and the tragically overstuffed banker box in one corner. "It's my last day."

"Well let's go talk to the DM," I said. 

[Three Days Later]

"And it turns out nobody is responsible! Even the people who write the programs don't fully understand the programs. And what I want to know is," I said, waving an admonishing finger, "what you're doing about it! Is this the plan for your creation?"

God leaned forward, stroking His beard with one hand. "You aren't going to like this," He said, "but..."

Silicone Dreams

Silicone! Glass made flesh! A magical substance that bonds metal to glass, glass to plastic, plastic to cloth, cloth to wood, wood to metal. The alchemists dreamed of a universal solvent; instead, we created a universal glue. Secreted into every joint of a modern home, the connective tissue of whatever architecture is calling itself these days. Imagine a world where things had to fit together instead of nestling in a squamous bed of all-engulfing silicone. Cracks sealed, gaps filled, the home becomes a perfect capsule.

Lignin, that miracle polymer, made plants into titans. A few ambitious and temperamental bacteria eat lignin. Termites and cows don't; they're just sacs full of bacteria. That's how we got coal; the lag between lignin and anything that could eat lignin. We talk of rot as if it were some inevitable law, but rot is far more unnatural than rust. 

A tree can remain a tree only so long as it lives, pumped full of antifungal chemicals and healing sap. When defenses fail, rot sets in, and fungi have their day. But silicone will never rot, never be devoured by ambitious bacteria, at least not in the forseeable human future. Give it a few million years. Plastics and resins can burn and have some tasty-looking bonds; they'll be the first to go, but little pellets of silicone will roll around the world long after we are gone.

Or maybe, filled with regret, we will give bacteria a head start via directed evolution and turn them loose on the world. Silicone erodes easily but doesn't rot. Imagine a silicone beach bubbling between your toes. Squishy sand, immortal, vulnerable to light and time but not life. Silicone, reeking of acetone like a dying monk or casting off clouds of acetic acid, stimulating the appetite while remaining implacably inedible. All hail the glass made flesh!

Notes on Dune (2021)

Dune (2021) features concrete, the distant future, genetic memories, Navigators, and musings on human evolution. It had a 165 million USD budget and is 2.5 hours long. Dune is full of noise. Incredible, visceral sounds. Jumps from darkness to blinding light. It's not quite a hostile filmgoing experience, but I did feel like a pea in a tin can by the end of it. At least I could understand most of the dialogue. Cinematography by Greig Fraser (of Rogue One fame), using a lot of the same visual textures (for good or for ill). 

The Last and First Men (2020) features concrete, the distant future, genetic memories, Navigators, and musings on human evolution. It had a budget of [not much] and is 1 hour long.

The Last and First Men consists of a thrumming score, narration, an oscilloscope, and long black-and-white shots of the monuments of Yugoslavia. These monuments are famous on the internet. They're usually presented without context, mislabeled, or given entirely fictitious histories.

Is their use in The Last and First Men appropriate? I think so. The film is about deep time. Using decaying monuments whose meaning is largely forgotten, makes sense. It's hard to argue that they're being exploited for profit; the film grossed less than $10k at the box office.

The Last and First is a quiet, contemplative, hypnotic, arty film. As science fiction, it's as dated as its source material, but so is Dune

It's been a long time since I read the books and I don't have access to a local copy of the film, so these notes might be less coherent than usual.

Et tu, Brutalism?

Are the ships in Dune brutalist, or do they merely appear to be? Can a structure be brutalist without the context of the brutalist movement? Brutalism, as Kate Wagner says, is as much a "big mood" as a formal style linked to a particular period and to specific architects.

I don't know. It's not my area of expertise.

It's interesting that a concrete starship with crazing and pour layers and lumps of aggregate feels right - even intriguing - in 2021, but would have been completely ridiculous in the '70s. "You can't just film a retaining wall and pretend it's a space ship. Space ships are sleek and colourful, or if they're not, they're at least clearly technological."

Dune also has a peculiar blend of high and low technologies. Some ships hover as if by magic. Some require balloons. Some require wings. Some feel like they're steered by holographic controls or mind-links. Some have buttons and toggle switches like a '60s helicopter. It's all a bit odd. Why use flappy ornithropters or hot air balloons when the spice harvester scout pods hover like many indie developers without any visible means of support? The divide is not consistent; the high-resource Sardaukar use balloon-ships. What are the rules of this setting?

Low Gravitas Warning Signal

The film can't decide if it's using formal language or not. Some conversations are stylized, some are full of contractions and generic Hollywood filler dialogue. All the actors are competent, but there's a tiny nagging sense that they're winking at the camera and saying "we're in a film, isn't this all a bit silly".

This is odd because Dune is an immensely serious film. There's no comic relief. I don't mean Whedon-esque quips and banter, I mean anything that relieves tension and allows the film to build momentum again. The closest it comes is landscape shots. If you're going to go full serious, commit! Put the Opera back in Space Opera. Write dialogue that uses the English language to its full extent, and get some classically trained actors to deliver it. They're used to saying very silly things with gravitas.

Containment and Contentment

It would be interesting to see a film that contains its own sequels, in the form of flash-forwards and prophecies. We know how Dune plays out. Revenge. Blood. Triumph. Etc. We might not know the details (and some of those details are fucking weird, but the basic plot is clearly and unambiguously given to us in the first film. We don't need to see the love story; we've seen it. We don't need to see the revenge-murders; we can imagine them them. It's a retelling of the same story. We know how it ends.

It would be amazing (and impossible) for Dune Parts 2 and 3 and Maybe More to take a different direction. Dune (2021) isn't telling a story. It's portraying historical events. Any deviation feels like alt-history. Sure, scenes get cut and details get changed, but it's still Dune, in the same way that the Christmas Carol is the Christmas Carol. But they could do it. They could introduce a twist or two that nobody who's read the books or seen the other films expects. Give the Spacing Guild a subtle plot of their own. Introduce another Great House. Change Paul's attitude towards the Golden Path. Bring back Thinking Machines. They won't (the cowards), but they could.

It's also interesting that this version of the story cuts the CHOAM corporation, or any corporate aspects, out of the script. It's an entirely feudal affair, not capitalism-as-feudalism. There's still talk of profit and loss, but no directorships or all-consuming commercial power. Imperialism is fine as long as it's the right kind of imperialism. Resource extraction is fine as long as it's done by nice people.

Ambivalent Schemes

The Atreides are nice to the Fremen because they want to use them. Their strategy is subtler than the Harkonnen burn-and-oppress tactics, but they're not winning hearts and minds for their own sake. They want an army for ambitious political reasons; the Fremen could be manipulated to be that army. The film vaguely presents this as a good thing. Rebellion against the system is only intolerable until the system can utilize the rebellion.

"The Holy war is spreading across the universe like an unquenchable fire. A warrior religion that waves the Atreides banner in my father’s name. Fanatical legions worshiping at the shine of my father’s skull."

It's not their cause. It's just another move in the game of the great houses. Will the sequels address this in any meaningful way? Probably not. Critique the savior-narrative, but still go along with it, because it's fine as long as you feel guilty.


  1. The a sense of "everything in this setting is fucked beyond belief and there is no way out besides greater fuckening" is something I appreciate in Dune quite a bit but also probably why I distrust any adaptations of it. It's a setting where stuff like "human rights" or "critical thinking" is dead and gone, but this isn't as overtly obvious about it as, say, 40k. Which makes adapting it something of a fool's errand because even if the director and writer understand (good luck), the audience won't.

    I'd want to see the thinking machines too, but I guarantee they'd turn it into "they are sapient now and want to destroy us" instead of the unthinking automation that pre-Butler society had enslaved itself to.

    1. I suppose this is a conflict new-40k is having as well. What do you do with a setting that lacks marketable acceptable protagonists? Do you gloss over the faults? Lean into them (but ironically)? How do you take the bite out of satire? It was all well and good to attack Caesar when you were persecuted, but now you are Caesar.

    2. Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" is probably the closest approach to a WH40K movie we're likely to get, though I can see an argument for "Event Horizon."

  2. Confused as to why you mentioned The Last and First Men (one of my all time favorite books, not to mention authors.) Was it merely as counterpoint to Dune?

    1. A film version was released at about the same time and is definitely worth looking into as a counterpoint to Dune (or on its own merits).

  3. The absence of CHOAM is understandable, if somewhat irritating. However, I didn't get much notion of the Landsraad either - which is a shame, given Leto is nominally the leading man of a (diffuse) counterweight to Imperial power.

    This is the third Dune adaptation; by now it effectively feels more like a collection of scenes that necessarily a story. There's something of the Stations of the Cross in it. As you say, any deviation feels like alt-history - but interpretations can differ, and that line about 'Fanatical legions worshiping at the shine of my father’s skull' is rather franker about what an Atriedes victory means than other adaptations have been.