Figures of Dune, 2

The Problem of Fiction

2017-03-29

Why do we talk about fiction? Why do we talk about stories? Why do we continue to produce papers and books and fan-theories and YouTube commentaries, and go so far as to spend years of our lives and thousands of dollars earning degrees, all for the sake of what some might disparagingly call make believe? It’s pretend, a pretense, made up—so what is the point? When will we, with our interests of dubious value, grow up? And how do we respond to such questions without resorting to distinctions of taste, without defining ourselves and our interests against those other people—whoever one chooses to scapegoat? Whether one is passionate about Beowulf or Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses or The Hunger Games, whether one reads only realist literature, or serious literature, or Literature with a capital L, the problem of fiction remains. It is in our blood.

Such is the problem to be faced as I embark upon this study of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).1 I of course believe that Dune is a work of great value; it is challenging, compelling, and provocative fiction. I believe that any reader with an appreciation for science fiction should read it, and that readers who have been on the fence regarding science fiction should give it a try. I believe that even readers who disdain science fiction, who would never dare go into the science fiction section at a bookstore (which, as Neil Gaiman tells us (2013), is so often the function of genre), should give Dune a chance; it transcends the narrow bounds of the label ascribed to it, and is a powerful example of the capacities of fiction more broadly. But do not such beliefs, such commitments, such feelings, merely indicate that am I just another who has failed to grow up? Within the domains of English departments and literary studies, am I not just another who has failed to graduate to more significant, more substantial, more serious fare (those euphemisms meant to signify better)? Am I not just seeking to vindicate my own position, my own inclinations, to persuade you of the importance of my words?

The science fiction community is not untouched by these questions, not free from the judgments and manoeuvers of taste: science fiction or speculative fiction; hard sci-fi or soft sci-fi; science fantasy, space opera, cyberpunk, weird fiction—one could endlessly define and confuse and refuse these boundaries. And this is not to trivialize them either, nor to argue for some true or proper genre beyond their limits; rather, we must acknowledge and engage with what is at stake in their constant negotiation, and so allow for the opening that such negotiation affords. There is something here that requires closer consideration, something that brings us directly to the centre of the problem of fiction, something with which Dune is intimately concerned.

In Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Jean Baudrillard contends that the West “became engaged in [a] wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could be exchanged for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange” (5). This system of exchange was the “imaginary of representation,” and the problem of fiction here exposed is a result of this system’s failure (2). The persistence of the unreal in the real can no longer be covered over; our narratives and institutions cannot support their own weight; fiction falters in its reference, virally expanding to encompass all discourse (is this not the meaning of post-truth?)—in all of this, meaning trembles at the nothingness within. Indeed, it was no outside force that led to this state of affairs. The system was “imaginary” from the beginning. And the long history of fiction, of story, of legend, of myth only emphasizes this fact. The imaginary of representation died from the inside—or, we should say, is dying from the inside. There is no one upon whom we can pin this ongoing murder; the collapse is autoimmune.

Herein lies the significance of Dune as a work of fiction. It is not just an example, a case study, tangentially related to the broader philosophical issue with which we are concerned. No, Dune is a fiction of the disintegration of representation, a thematization of its death. What is more, Dune does not tell us about this collapse but enacts it, posing to us an ineluctable challenge. It beckons us out of the “desert of the real” and into the “hyperreal” of the “era of simulation” (Baudrillard 1, 2). But in signifying the “pure simulacrum,” which is the fourth phase of Baudrillard’s “precession of simulacra,” Dune does not leave us in futility; Dune heralds an elsewhere, a new space emerging from the “shreds” and “ruins” of the former “Empire” (6, 1). As I attempt to chart the course of this emergence, I recognize the risk of a conceptual atavism, of falling back into the dream of a “profound reality,” of attempting to reassemble the imploded imaginary (6). But it is a risk that must be taken if we are to look away from the carnage and toward that which is to come.

The problem of fiction is in our blood. And yet, to push fiction outside, to render it anterior to our being, to make it an infection, an invader, an accident, an other, to consider it as less than, as mere appearance, as shadows on the wall, is to persist in the autoimmune logic of a system that has tried to exclude the force of fiction, or better, the mode of the fictive, from its inception. Such self-consuming violence cannot go on. Through a careful analysis of Herbert’s seminal work, this study seeks to enter into this mode of the fictive, to embrace and dwell within it, and so to welcome the field of possibility that it opens. We proceed here in the manner of Merleau-Ponty, awakened to the wonder of “philosophy [as] an ever-renewed experiment of its own beginning” (1945, lxxviii), which is to say, to the uncertain, unfounded, and indeterminate delight of reading.


Notes

  1. Another piece rediscovered on June 3, 2022. This was a first attempt at an introduction to my master’s thesis, “Fiction in the Integrated Circuit,” September 26, 2018, https://www.academia.edu/40272048/. You can see the line of inquiry that would eventually overtake the project becoming sharper (though I still believed I was writing about Dune), as well as arguments that I have returned to again and again—critique of the “outside,” of the metaphysics of presence, of Plato’s cave.