Sunday, February 3, 2013

The science of Dune

Kevin Grazier, PhD (editor)
BenBella Books, 2007 (my review copy was gracefully provided by BenBella Books)
Size: Short (my paperback copy has 232 pages)
Theme: Scientific and technological essay

This is my first review of non-SFF, but very appropriate since this book focuses on the science and technology behind Frank Herbert’s Dune universe. It is a discussion and assessment on the real science behind the story told in that epic sci-fi series. Each short chapter handles a different aspect of Dune, from planetary ecology to still-suits, from prescience to sandworms, from celestial dynamics to melange. In every case, the author of each chapter has extensive knowledge in that specific area, and among them there are physicists, geneticists, biologists, programmers, anthropologists, and historians. 

Let me start by saying that I greatly enjoyed reading through this, and that having a technological background (or at least being technology savvy, aka nerd), comes in handy to really follow the text. Some parts of it are quite technical while other are conceptual musings, but it reads very well and most of them actually attempt to make a bridge between the current state-of-the-art and how that can explain or support the feasibility of Dune technology. Frank Herbert was very smart in his vague descriptions of the actual inner workings of almost all Dune technology, thus allowing room for scientific credibility (at least in terms of future developments), while simultaneously enabling the reader to fill in the gaps. Scientific achievements of recent years have really paved the way for many of Dune’s technology to be feasible in the near or the long-term future, and this book will guide readers through that.

The chapters I enjoyed the most were:
- prescience and how probabilities affect events, although little was added to my previous knowledge of statistics;
- the star systems of Dune, which are described with great scientific accuracy, and about which I had never really pondered much;
- evolution, which had some redundancy with another chapter on breeding programs (I would say the latter is the only superfluous chapter in the book);
- melange and how mind-expanding drugs work;
- the lifecycle of sandworms, which also covered in general the practical limits to animal size and biology in Dune-like conditions;
- memory of ghoulas and how the brain creates, stores and retrieves memories;
- the ecology of Dune, which covers climate, terraforming, and ecosystems.

Overall, I’d say any hardcore Dune fan should go through this book and be given the chance to either think a bit more about much of what’s behind the story in Dune, or to understand better how we can (or might in the future) have similar technology in our daily life. Obviously, the book is meant to be read by Dune fans, and anyone else would be entirely out of context. I greatly enjoyed it (having read through it in only a few days), and strongly recommend it to fellow Dune fans.