Aug. 05, 2014

Meet the 'Dune' Readers: Kim Stanley Robinson and Sara Imari Walker

by Annie Minoff

Click to enlarge images
Two weeks ago, Kim Stanley Robinson and Sara Imari Walker helped Ira and me introduce this summer’s SciFri Book Club pick: Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, Dune. Over the next few weeks, they’ll continue reading Dune along with you while preparing for our on-air wrap-up discussion on August 22nd. (For more info about how you can join that conversation, scroll to the end of this article.)
While neither Stan (as he likes to be called) nor Sara are strangers to Herbert’s “Duniverse,” both admit it’s been a while since they visited planet Arrakis. Stan can date his last visit exactly: 43 years ago, on a road trip through the American desert. At the time, he was in college and a relative newcomer to sci-fi. He remembers putting Dune on his vacation reading list because “[it] was famous.” Herbert’s epic didn’t disappoint.
“I would read by flashlight, I would read in tents, I would read in the backseat of the car when other people were driving,” he recalls. “I was very impressed [by Dune].”
Today, Stan is a critically acclaimed sci-fi writer, whose books include 2312 (about human civilization in 2312), Pacific Edge (about a near-future Orange County, California), and the Mars trilogy (about Mars colonization). Whether and how natural environments should be re-shaped for human purposes is a recurring theme in his work—and it’s one he shares with Frank Herbert. In Stan’s Mars trilogy, for example, a group of scientist-colonists attempt to remake Mars into an Earth-like oasis through terraforming, much like Herbert’s Fremen attempt to do on Arrakis.
Scientifically rigorous depictions of extraterrestrial environments are another thing Stan’s books have in common with Herbert’s. As Stan points out, Herbert was one of the first sci-fi writers to take planetary ecology seriously in the 1960s, back when ecology was first establishing itself as a scientific field. More than previous authors of so-called “planetary romances,” he explains, Herbert was interested in “how a planet’s environment came about in the first place, and how it would affect the people involved, and the creatures.”
Forty-three years later, Stan is re-reading the same cracked, mouse-chewed copy of Dune he first perused in the deserts of Nevada and Utah. Will Herbert’s tale hold up better than that old paperback? He’s keeping an open mind: “I don’t have any expectations,” he says.
Like Stan, Sara is returning to Arrakis older and wiser than she was on her first pass. Since reading Dune back in high school, she’s become an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. There she draws on her astrobiology and theoretical physics training to investigate the origins of life: how chemical evolution eventually became biological evolution.
Part of the job, Sara explains, entails thinking about what biology here on earth might have in common with life on other planets. When it comes to alien life, “you’re usually thinking about microorganisms,” she says. And so “it’s kind of fun to think about the entire ecology of a planet and how it would actually work in practice.”
While re-reading Dune, Sara’s considering what Herbert’s story might have to tell us about the prospects for long-term space colonization (another professional interest of hers). “Dune’s sort of interesting to think [about in terms of] if we made the next step to Mars, what would the long-term future of human colonization of the galaxy look like?” she says, though she admits that the Duniverse, with its feudal system of warring noble houses, “is not a very optimistic [scenario] as far as the social structure goes!”
Another question she’ll have in mind is how Dune might have been written differently had Herbert known what scientists know today about our cosmos. “We now think most alien life is going to be microbial, so maybe the giant worms would be replaced by some kind of microbe” she muses. “It wouldn’t be as romantic.”
Want to talk Dune with Sara and Stan? You can, when the SciFri Book Club reconvenes on August 22nd during the 2-3pm ET hour of “Science Friday.” Share your Dune comments and questions on-air by calling 844-724-8255. You can also Tweet us @scifri with the hashtag #SciFriBookClub.
About Annie Minoff

Annie Minoff is Science Friday’s SciArts producer. She's visited Olympic ski jumps and a nuclear reactor in the name of science.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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