Literature – Dune Scholar

Dune Scholar

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Category: Literature (page 1 of 2)

Comparisons between Naomi Alderman’s The Power and the Dune Series

I’ve just finished Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power (2016) Naomi Alderman's The Power novelafter it was recommended by several colleagues. It was a quick-moving, enjoyable read, and potentially a good ‘gateway’ novel to science fiction/speculative fiction, especially for women who don’t see what the genre has to offer them. It felt like an update on the 1970s feminist science fiction stories that turned around sexist norms and gender roles in order to enable the reader to examine them in a new light. It can be considered science fiction rather than fantasy due to the brief explanation of origins of the electro-power that women gain access to – that during WWII a certain chemical was put into the water supply and caused this extra part to grow in their necks. I also noticed several parallels with the characters in the later Dune series books that feature the Honored Matres, and I offer some brief comparisons below.

Power as a Corrupting Force

Heretics of Dune book coverThe Dune series is certainly concerned with power, but in the last two books the series takes an interesting turn to explore how a lust for power might corrupt women. Many readers never get to these last two books of the six-book saga, and they have hardly been touched by academic critics. But they offer a group of women characters that is a clear foil to the Bene Gesserit and worthy of more study. Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune introduce the characters known as the Honored Matres, some kind of amalgamation-gone-wrong of the Fish Speakers from God Emperor Leto II’s all-female army in God Emperor of Dune and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. Unlike the Bene Gesserit – who are powerful yet prefer to work behind the scenes and are not shown killing and torturing others – the Honored Matres are characterized as sadistic and evil, potentially even more so than the Bene Tleilaxu, who up until that point usually occupy that slot. They have perfected a way of turning men into their slaves, ‘bonding’ them so they obey the Honored Matres in everything.

The Honored Matres share similar attributes with the Harkonnens, the villains of the first novel who delight in enslaving, torturing, and killing others. One of the functions of the Honored Matres seems to be showing the reader that it is not one’s gender that makes one more or less violent; that anyone can become corrupt if they give in to a lust for acquiring and maintaining power at any cost.

In The Power, power becomes a corrupting force as women discover how much control they can gain over others by exercising their new-found electric shock abilities. We see women doing a range of behaviors, from merely zapping others all the way to torturing and raping them. Like the Honored Matres, they appear to primarily use their abilities on men, but in a world that resembles Earth, they justify this by remembering how long men have been violent and aggressive toward women. Some of the first women to rise up are those who had been trafficked and had virtually no agency in their own lives. But although some might be after equality, others are after revenge and domination. This raises one of the key questions in feminist thought and in criticism of the feminist movement – are women trying to attain equality, however that’s defined, or do they really want to be elevated over men?

“He will not stop screaming. Two of the women take him by the throat and send a paralysis into his spine. One squats on top of him. She pulls off his trousers. He is not unconscious.” (The Power, pg 280)

We know this scene, but almost always it is the reverse. For those who wonder if a world ruled by women would be different, as long as their socialization remained the same, this book seems to say, there would still be violence and assault and torture.

Acquiring Power

Chapterhouse Dune book coverHow the women in The Power acquire their power is explained as the result of some chemical dumped in the water supply during World War II that caused an extra part to grow on their necks. We first see young girls being able to electrocute others with their hands, twisting something inside them to make their ‘skein’ work. As they learn how to control it, and show other women how to access their power, they are better able to use it as a weapon.

In a similar way, the Honored Matres acquire their power through mainly organic means. This is one of the features of the Dune series that makes it different from other science fiction, which often features a need for external technology to bolster humankind’s abilities. Being some kind of offshoot of the Bene Gesserit, the Honored Matres have similar skills in hand-to-hand combat, notably a deadly lightning-fast kick, and abilities with vocal control over others. They also have knowledge of poisons, although they appear to lack the Bene Gesserit’s ability to neutralize them. The Honored Matres do rely on some external tech — we see them employing the torture device of the T-Probe to try to extract information out of the Bene Gesserit’s military commander, Miles Teg.

The end result for women in all of these novels is that knowing they have this power and can use it whenever they want affords them the security to be able to go where they want and do what they want. In The Power, it is men who end up having a curfew and having to be careful of themselves around women, because they are now the ones who lack power. This reversal of the usual scenario for women—who are told to not go out alone or late at night, or to be careful what they wear—enables the novel to highlight the reality of women’s real everyday lives. What might the world be like, it asks us to consider, if the situation were reversed?

Gender Essentialism

Another feature the Dune series and The Power share is the gender essentialism, that is, the idea that the powerful abilities are linked to women in some way. The Dune series never explicitly states this, and we see a few select men in earlier novels gaining Bene Gesserit abilities as taught to them by their mothers. However, because it does not show any male Honored Matres, we associate their abilities and their corrupted use of them with women. In The Power, there is a more explicit link to genetics, with only a handful of individuals (implied to be intersex) who are men having the extra feature in their neck. They are treated as anomalies. Such gender essentialism appears to be necessary for the novels to achieve the aim of highlighting the effects of power – we may be so used to seeing powerful men exerting their will on others that it takes the reversal of having powerful women doing so to make us think about why this is and what might be done to change the situation.

A Tsunami Change

“In Delhi, he follows behind a pack of women rampaging through Janpath market. There was a time that a woman could not walk alone here, not if she were under seventy, and not with certainty even then. There had been protests for many years, and placards, and shouted slogans. These things rise up and afterwards it is as if it had never been. Now the women are making what they call ‘a show of force’ with those who were killed under the bridge and starved of water.

Tunde interviews a woman in the crowd. She had been here for the protests three years earlier; es, she had held up her banner and shouted and signed her petitions. ‘It was like being part of a wave of water,’ she says. ‘A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. Then you feel maybe it never happened. That is how it was with us. The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami. You have to tear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.’” (The Power, pg 133)

This quote alludes to the wave analogy for the feminist movement and implies that a more powerful force is needed than protests and the like to create lasting change. In the Dune series, this is also true in a way, since the planet-destroying, male-enslaving force of the Honored Matres is what changes the dynamics of the universe and forces everyone else to take a new path.

I think The Power would make for an accessible and thought-provoking text in the classroom. Several of its viewpoint characters are relatable young women, and it could offer a new way into the introduction of certain feminist topics.

Digital Humanities Article

I am excited to share that my Digital Humanities article on digital literacy has been published in the open-access journal Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ) in a special issue (11.3) on undergraduate education. The article is titled “A Long-Belated Welcome: Accepting Digital Humanities Methods into Non-DH Classrooms” and argues that there is a place for DH methods in all Humanities classrooms and that women especially can benefit from increased engagement and confidence with digital technology in the subjects in which they comprise the majority of students.

I look forward to reading all of the other articles in this issue and appreciate being able to share it widely because DHQ is open access! Thanks to all those who have supported me in the two-year journey from start to finish.

Flatland: The Movie in Science Fiction Class

The 2007 animated short film Flatland: The Movie featuring the voices of Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell appears to be a popular teaching tool in math classes because it includes angles and other math concepts, but I have found it also works well in science fiction classes [see film website for more information]. Its short running time (around 30 minutes) allows it to fit into a normal class session with plenty of time for questions and discussion. It is based on  Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott and set in a society known as Flatland, a two-dimensional world. The graphics and pace are good, the themes are still relevant today, and there is a delightful irony in one of the characters who brings wisdom to others yet still cannot break free from his own limited worldview. It offers a nice break from the norm toward the end of the semester while still being a science fiction film that allows students to compare their world to the one in the film.Flatland movie poster

Activity for Flatland: The Movie (2007) featuring Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell

Based on Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott

Questions:*

Which character did you identify the most with?

What are the rules of Flatland society? How does your shape affect your status?

Who makes the rules in this society?

What does heresy mean? What kinds of things are considered heresy in your society?

Why can’t the King of Lineland see the square? Why does Spherius resist the idea of a 4th dimension?

Compare our society to Flatland’s society. What are the similarities and differences? Which would you prefer to live in?

Do you think science fiction as a genre helps people understand their world better than more “realistic” fiction? Why do you think science fiction movies have become so popular?

 

*Some questions are from a math teacher’s wiki; others are my own. The possibilities for more science fiction questions are many!

Shakespeare through Digital Humanities Textual Analysis

I wanted to briefly introduce students to Digital Humanities in an introductory-level Shakespeare course I was helping teach, partly because they might not hear about it otherwise and partly because I really enjoy DH. Textual analysis seemed like the quickest and simplest method to choose, and Voyant Tools is a free and easy program (CC BY 4.0 Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell) available with just a browser and internet connection. I also showed them some searches of the plays using regular expressions. The following images are taken from my slides.

Analyzing Shakespearean Plays in Voyant Tools

Hoping to demonstrate just a few of the possibilities of Digital Humanities methods applied to literature, I put the online versions of the four plays we had studied throughout the semester into Voyant to see if there were any interesting insights that stood out which I could then discuss. I first showed the current play we were studying (The Winter’s Tale), then ‘zoomed out’ even farther to show all four plays (The Winter’s Tale, Richard III, As You Like It, and King Lear).

The Word Clouds (Figures 1 and 2) were unsurprising and most students have already seen these on the web.

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Figure 1: Word Cloud of Shakespeare Play

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Figure 2: Word Clouds of Shakespeare Plays

But the Trends charts (Figures 3 and 4) allowed me to point out how we can see the appearance and disappearance (or rise and fall) of certain characters in a visual way.

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Figure 3: Trends Chart of Shakespeare Play

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Figure 4: Trends Charts of Shakespeare Plays

And looking at the word ‘like’ in the Contexts chart (Figure 5), I showed them how this chart can help us see (in one place) and compare what kinds of similes Shakespeare used, for example. My favorite was ‘like the basilisk’ because that creature features prominently in one of the Harry Potter books.

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Figure 5: Contexts Chart of Shakespeare Play

I also checked out the Microsearch chart (Figure 6), which I believe is similar to one I saw demonstrated at a conference. I’d like to look more into what can be done with these kinds of visual displays.

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Figure 6: Microsearch Charts of Shakespeare Plays

Searching Shakespearean Plays in RegExr

For regular expressions, I borrowed a practice activity that was part of a DH workshop at the aforementioned conference. They used the RegExr sandbox website to have everyone look up all of the questions in the play Othello. Since in the class we had already examined a passage in The Winter’s Tale where King Leontes’ paranoia manifests itself through a series of questions he asks himself, I hoped the students could see the potential value in isolating questions to see what they might reveal about a play. I also showed them how to look up certain words along with surrounding words to see the context, such as all of the words ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ in a play about family.

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Figure 7: Regular Expressions Exercise 1 in Shakespeare Play

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Figure 8: Regular Expressions Exercise 2 in Shakespeare Play

This brief introduction gave them a glimpse at what one can do with a text once digitized, as Shakespeare’s are. It was enjoyable tinkering with the different tools in Voyant and seeing what connections and insights they revealed about the plays. It does seem to be a good first step into textual analysis.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

One of the main issues in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is ethnography and its limitations. The main character Genly Ai is an ambassador for the Ekumen confederation who is conducting a mission on the planet Gethen and making reports about its population, cultures, customs, etc. He especially has trouble understanding the androgynous nature of the people. To try to start students thinking about the practice of ethnography and the potential drawbacks before we began our discussion of themes in the novel, I created a short list of generic questions they were to ask a classmate. They then shared their findings with the class, and we all learned how different people’s everyday lives were, even in the same city attending the same university. One student decided to alter their fellow student’s responses because they seemed too boring; although it was obvious they were making up information by the tone of their voice, it provided a good opportunity to discuss how accurate these kinds of records are and what motives the interviewer might have for changing information. A lot depends on what questions are being asked or what is being studied — someone might not know to even ask about a custom that their own culture lacks, for example.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

Ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures (Merriam-Webster).

Take turns being the ethnographer and the person being interviewed.
You may wish to take notes so you can present a summary of your findings to the class.

Questions:

Could you describe a typical day for you in your home city?

Could you give an example of a typical meal (breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack) in your city/country? How is it prepared and who prepares it?

Could you describe an important holiday or festival?

When you meet someone for the first time, how do you greet them? Is there a difference in how you interact with women and men?

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