Spaces, spice and Lynch’s Dune

from science fiction films in the early 80’s

Growing up in the early eighties, science fiction was my obsession.  There was a definite absence of quality science fiction at that time, certainly on screen and in cinemas.  I would reflexively and obsessively check anything which was labelled as science fiction.  During this time, weird, flakey films like Space Hunter, Battle beyond the Stars or Gerry Anderson‘s latest fare on TV, often felt like pale, substandard alternatives to the stories which had opened to realisation, a life of outer space and its worlds of adventure.

These giants of the genre were primarily Star Wars and the accumulating impact of Star Trek.  Although as the 80’s continued, there was more of an effort to produce successful sci fi stories for the screen, despite the fact that special effects, so critical in many ways were often abysmal looking unless expensive or imaginatively applied (e.g. early Peter Jackson).

There were also some unusual entrants to the genre at this time, like Michael Crichton’s Looker (1981) which (Spoiler) featured Albert Finney and others finding themselves coming up against a light based trance weapon while investigating the murders of women who have had their likeness virtualised for advertising.

But it wasn’t until nearer the mid eighties that the genre got its next film of paradigmatic propotions with 1984’s Bladerunner, often until then it was things like Steel Dawn, Hawk the Slayer, Krull and The Last Starfighter (okay, the latter two had their charms).  I do recall on one partcularly horrendous encounter, being taken by my father to Llanelli Odeon to see Hawk the Slayer (which had captured my imagintion probably through trailers like this!) which was on as a double bill with Saturn 3 on its release.  I remember feeling the effects of a divergence of time, Saturn 3 which opened the bill filled me with little but horror and seemed to drag on for hours holding no redeeming qualities for a five year old.  Hawk the Slayer by contrast seemed to take about ten minutes and with its ultra low rent LoTR-lite storyline, redeemed the experience.

Image result for they live
Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ 1989 – late 80’s capitalism as alien invasion

Sci Fi Horror had been having some defining moments with Alien in 1979 and The Thing in 1982, as well as 1985’s Terminator, its also noteworthy that in science fiction terms it was the horror genre which facilitated the emergence of two of the most defining mainstream directors since; James Cameron and Ridley Scott (alongside some vivid and bold films from early John Carpenter and David Cronenburg).  But in the mainstream of movie productions, it was a little while before Arnold Schwarzenegger took scifi on as a vehicle and again it was Horror Scifi which played a role as Arnie went from Terminator to 1987’s Running Man and Predator and ultimately Total Recall in 1990.  This rising stardom of an SF action hero added to the timely Hollywood incursion from Dutch art house director Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall had followed his horror sci fi smasher Robocop in 87, preceding the fascistic pin-up satire of Starship Troopers in 1997) formed a bankable route for science fiction just as CGI was emerging as a more realistic proposition for screen stories.  This was also a time when the concatenating of intellectual properties and shared universes was not the norm though Star Wars had brought toy selling to the fore.

There were other curious or impactful films around then; the realisations of the worlds of Flash Gordon (1980) were a lot of fun and there was the genuinely bold design and execution of Tron (which was also an early exemplar of the ‘trapped in the virtual real of a video game’ storyline, which anime has had particular fun with), but which somehow failed to ultimately spark.

Dune first appeeared in 1984, preceded by a giant marketing campaign that showed the desperation for another Star Wars level success and for which the fanatical following of Frank Herbert’s books (begun in the 60’s) seemed like the perfect fodder.  This I recall by the parade of Dune film images and paraphernalia all over then’s breakfast cereal boxes (advertising feasts on innocence).  It was though sometime before I caught up with the film itself, of course Dune has its fair share of horror, no more so than the predatory Harkonnen Baron and his retinue who feed on live beings via arterial plugs.

Dune had already been around as a film project for a decade or so and millions had been spent on its development when Lynch was hired to finally bring a version to the screen.  Although his first major project (with some $40m in budget) – he had made powerful and compelling films including the Elephant Man and Eraserhead (the surrealistic horror film which Dune’s producers had not seen and which they admit would have dissuaded them from hiring Lynch).  While succeeding in bringing brilliant moments to life on the screen, Lynch and his film were undercut and hamstrung in the production demands of the studio over runtime and final cut (they also ran out of money) and the end product was a messy, patchy affair with its missing story elements, extra voice overs and variable fx.  Lynch himself described making the film as a ‘nightmare’ (from which he learned a lot) saying that the ‘big lesson’ was ‘don’t make a film if it can’t be the film you want to make, it’s a joke, and a sick joke, and it’ll kill you.’

Unsurprisingly under such circumstances the film failed to take off.  As a story of a story, Dune has been revisited more recently by Jodorowsky’s Dune, which went through the extraordinary process entered into by Alejandro Jodorowsky in his attempts to make the film in the 1970’s after the success of the mind-beinding film The Holy Mountain.

The studios encouraged, but never commissioned Jodorowsky, ostensibly stringing him along in amazement at the extraordinary parade of material generated by the process (he had recruited among others; Pink Floyd, Magma, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Moebius, pre-Alien Dan O’Bannon and H.R Giger).  Instead those ideas formed a collective touchstone-of-the-visual for a slew of future science fiction projects over the proceeding decades.  As the documentary shows for years and years to come directors were encouraged to look at and take from Jodorowsky’s massive tome of how he would have created, shaped and visually realised the story.

‘They were afraid of his imagination’ as one contributor puts it, but codified and unattached to an active artist in production – those works become an invaluable resource for Hollywood to feed its tamer dreamers and writers.  Not that such a description could be applied to Lynch and other artists who have had difficult and tumultous relationships with the hyper capitalised, LA film making assemblage.

As time went by and I would return to Lynch’s Dune, one of the more fascinating primary elements came through from Herbert’s writing; the story of the drug spice melange and its attendant, involved cast of characters, including the Spacing Guild and their Navigators.  The spice comes through as a substance described as allowing guild navigators to fold space (spacetime?) and transport vast amounts of matter directly from one remote location to another instantaneously.  The spice creates mutation in those who use it and its power of prescience allows for the intuitive navigating of folded space and the finding of routes.  In fact, the books base this folding space on a drive discovered by a scientist named Holtzman, which allows ‘space to be folded at the quantum level.’

Lynch’s Dune made much more of the mysterious interelation on a biological level of the spice drug and its relation to folding space in the form of the Navigators.  According to the film’s introduction, ‘the spice extends life, expands consciousness and is vital to space travel…. the navigators… who the spice has mutated over 4,000 years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space, that is travel to any part of the universe without moving…’

The conventional mode by which expanded consciousness and mutation are referred to, relate to the Navigators powers of spice-given prescience, but there is an ambiguity to Lynch’s story, wherein the drug itself seems a part of the process of folding the space as something beyond an aid for navigatory calculation and understanding.

The resonance here is with psychoactive drugs and Herbert himself had experiences apparently with psilocybin mushrooms as the correlate for the idea of the spice.  There is a radicality in the idea that the substance when imbibed can facilitate in organic beings, an alteration of space(-time) allowing for relocation without moving.  Philip K Dick wrote extensively in his fiction of drugs which changed reality, allowed for movement between dimensions and times, but the Lynch-Herbert Spice continuum feels different and interesting for its expansion of consciousness and changes to longevity and perception (such that prescience is possible) but primarily in that it requires the virtual fields of cognition, consciousness, thought, understanding, to interrelate with the material in a directly and ‘impossibly’ transformative way.  The significance here being that the interelated, connective, co-existing planes of understanding the virtual-real and the material-real are given a form of equivalence in being and action (and precisely not to imply that these definitions are binary, or completing, or even exactly distinct).

The image of the psychoactive drug as transformed experience (and any of its related ‘motionality’ in a trip sense) is almost always that it is ultimately a contained, internalised, mental-virtual kind of experience, also based through perception.   In this sense, Lynch-Herbert’s spice is unending or de-capping a conception of the virtual, which in this fiction, is a transformative recontextualisation (in the themselves transformed engagements and possibilities of those affected and mutated by the spice melange).  Now as a virtual-real which is transformatively and actively instantiated as a space of modalities (among other things) whose productions entail materiality as virtually engaged and subject to radical repositioning in those terms.

What is consistent about this is that in effect it is the virtual-real of the quantum (mentioned above as part explanation in Herbert’s writing) which is being availed as accessible for the productions-real of our conceptualisations on space and matter.  Instead of appearing behind a curtain of the sub-atomic, Lynch-Herbert brings a quantum world of enactable (im)possibility to a plane of ‘stable’ matters through the intersectional focus of a bio-mutational drug compound and enhanced consciousness / faculties.

Its also interesting in this fictional space of conceptions, that there is an immediate power element to this capacity.  First, the spice’s alteration of the lifeform through mutation, entails an intent that is not borne or knowlingly possible in the mutated organism alone.  Additionally and primarily – in the Dune fiction there is a power structure in operation within which this capacity is esconced and primarily traded upon for that power’s entrenchment.  In this respect and in this fictional world, it is necessary to understand the transformational virtual-real-as-radicalised-material as being an achievement held within a captured social capital formation, whose uses only further serve power. it is as such an assemblage whose mode in relation to the story is that of control for the radicality of (folding) space.  In later Dune works, the Spacing Guild’s monopoly on folding is broken,  Deleuze also points out that an assemblage can be tipped over.  The third (and darkest) mode of power in relation to this circumstance and the story is that – for anyone so influenced or mutated by spice, to stop taking it means death.

What I think stands out with the spice is its role as a compound which alters being on a biological, mental and perceptual level, while introducing modes, capacities and consequent faculties which belong to an order (or disorder) of conceiving spacetime which has already undergone a kind of transformation or change (/…now space can be folded…/… now we are folding space…/…).   As the conception for an engine of direction, even on a fictional level, it has a resonant quality and yet while still in these terms, it is as an incursive and never-ending habit through which the spice is enjoined.

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Vurt by Jess Noon

While thinking about the spice melange and its relationship with space (spacetime) there was a resonance with some of the writing of the Manchester novelist and writer Jeff Noon.  His book Vurt lays out an entire milieu of possibility for those who use different coloured Vurt feathers and travel into the Vurt, a shared but alien world of consistent existence, from which it is possible to exchange matters (when a character is accidentally lost in the vurt, our crew end up returning with a bizarre alien life form in exchange).  The principle here, that the virtual (or at least the virtual-real of this Vurt) is a space which is entered through changes in perception, whose corresponding reality can allow for life forms, creatures, spaces to be exchanged between what are effectively different dimensions of perception and realisation as experiences of different but connected worlds of reality.

star trek spores
the secret spore drive in Star Trek Discovery

Most recently and what kicked this post off, was a return of the habitual sci fi itch in wanting to check the re-booted Star Trek Discovery.  It’s mostly best avoided, although lead Sonequa Martin-Green stands out.  However, as they unveiled their new experimental technology which allows a ship to instantaneously travel anwhere in the galaxy, I was mometarily taken aback at their description of this technology as a ‘mycelial spore drive.’   As a concept, it’s in contact with the Deleuze/Guattari elucidation of the rhizome and simultaneously connects with the spice melange and psilocybin, but now as an unfolding space of possibility through a sub-spatial mycelial (aka quasi-mushroom or fungal root network) rhizome that connects everything simultaneously.  The extra dimension of the story depth is here too as the spore drive requires a sentient biological navigator (genetically suitable) who can interact with and become the sub-space mycelia in order to accurately and safely transport. Something I am sure will be investigated in stories to come, not that I would generally recommend watching the show itself, but my laughter was from a real moment of joy at seeing our old mushroom friends popping up again, doubled, virtual, rhizomatic… radicalizing the story-world of spaces and human engagements.

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