Sunday, November 19, 2006


How fiction mimics real life

Avid readers of this blog (there must be some?) will remember my incisive analysis of how James Michener's novel, Caravans (12 June), echoes some of the difficulties encountered by coalition forces in Iraq as they strive to bring order to what is essentially a tribal and fractured society. Literature often apes life.

Another interesting literary parallel can be found in Dune by Frank Herbert. This is one of the best books ever written. Read it. It is thoroughly excellent.

Herbert's clever use of historical fact to draw the reader into his imaginary world of space and time has never been equaled. His imaginary world is the desert planet, Arrakis, populated by the “Fremen” whose religion is a quasi-distillation of Islam here on Earth – made all the more powerful by exposure to mysticism and the harsh living conditions of the planet. Coupled with their sense of being persecuted, conditions are ripe for jihad as the Freman explode across the galaxy under the leadership of their mystical fanatic leader, Paul Muad'dib.

Sound familiar?

It ought to, for it is similar to the conditions which have been the root cause of much of the violence in Iraq and the sense of dissatisfaction felt by Muslim minorities throughout the Middle East. Dune would be a very popular book if you were a fundamentalist, jihadist cleric seeking to foment anti-western feelings. Perhaps, fortunately, such preachers are unlikely to be fans of science fiction. Perhaps they are. We may never know. What we can say is that the present Muslim population of this planet feels that they are being “got at” and are not happy about it. Today's news that the authorities in the Netherlands are seeking to ban some Muslim dress for women on the grounds that the (normally super tolerant) Dutch need to be able to see someone in order to interact with them will send another shock wave of discontent throughout many law-abiding Muslims.

The tradition of science fiction being in tune with prognostication goes back a long way.

Disregarding Nostradamus the line can be traced from Galileo through Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke. Today's science fiction is tomorrow's science fact.

When religion, any religion, becomes entangled with an “accepted” set of science principles; we are in big trouble. The fact that many authors are (seemingly) able to predict the scientific future says more, probably, about science than we care to admit. The “known unknowns” seemingly greatly outnumber the “unknown unknowns” - otherwise it wouldn't be so easy to predict the next great leap forward.

If only we could this principle to the problems in the Middle East, things might be working out much better. In the mean time, if you need a good read find a copy of Dune. You may be surprised at how much of the fiction applies literally today.

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