I’ve been on a bit of a world-building kick when it comes to my Writing Theory posts lately (other than that slight detour into the closely-related art of character-building last week, of course). I’m not exactly sure why. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that it was because my three favorite genres – fantasy, science fiction and horror – all depend on creating worlds different than the one we live in, and making us believe in them. I take great pleasure in exploring those worlds, and I’m always pleased when I find signs that the world was built with diligence and care.
Thusfar, I’ve mostly focused on fantasy worlds, because – as I’ve repeated over and over – fantasy offers the greatest freedom in terms of world-building. On the other hand, it would be remiss of me to leave out science fiction entirely, not least because science fiction writers are some of the most enthusiastic world-builders out there. Oh, sure, there are plenty of political dystopias, cyberpunk slums and laser-sword space operas out there, but they’re far outnumbered by the Children of Tolkien who are willing to settle for Generic Fantasy Setting #3,786,428. Indeed, for some science fiction writers, it seems that the worldbuilding is the whole point of the exercise.
The primary example I’m thinking of right now is Frank Herbert, writer of Dune. Here was a man who clearly loved to create cultures, smash them against each other, and recombine the pieces. And he managed to create those cultures with the most subtle and masterful of touches.
Three examples. Each has to do with the Fremen, who were clearly his favorite creations.
For those unfamiliar with Dune, the Fremen are a (human) people who live on the desert planet of Arrakis. Unlike our world, which is mostly watery despite having a few deserts, Arrakis has no oceans, no lakes, no rivers, and few oases. The idea of water actually falling from the sky is a fairy tale to them. Wealthier people on Arrakis have water imported from the polar ice caps, or from off-world, but for the Fremen, water is everything. Indeed, part of every funeral is to extract all of the water from the body: “The flesh belongs to the person, but the water belongs to the tribe.”
(In fact, extraction of water is so connected with death in the Fremen mind that a euphemism for killing someone is to “take (their) water”.)
No, that’s not one of the three examples, though it would be a good one. It makes me wonder what’s left of the “flesh” once the water is extracted. I imagine it crumbles to dust.
Anyway. First example: the heroic Duke Leto Atreides, who has recently been given rulership of the planet Arrakis by the interstellar Old Empire, is meeting with a Fremen tribal leader named Stilgar. One of Duke Leto’s most trusted aides, one Duncan Idaho, has been living among the Fremen for some time as an ambassador of sorts. One of Stilgar’s men – who had become Duncan’s friend – has been killed while taking a saboteur team left by the villainous Harkonnen, the previous rulers of Arrakis. Duncan and Stilgar propose that Duncan join Stilgar’s tribe in truth, sharing dual allegiance with Duke Atreides, both to replace the lost warrior and to aid the reconciliation process between House Atreides and the Fremen, who were horrifically oppressed by the Harkonnen, the only representatives of the Old Empire that they ever knew. Duke Atreides is a bit startled by the idea, but agrees. Stilgar then spits on the floor in front of him.
Naturally, the Duke’s retainers reach for their weapons, but the Duke’s son Paul quickly defuses the situation: “We thank you for the gift of your body’s water.”
Could. Not. Have been done better. There is literally no way I can think of to better illustrate how absolutely precious water is to the Fremen, than to have a gesture that would be an insult to us (or the Duke’s people) be a gift.
Stilgar leaves the body of his tribesman with the Duke, because although House Atreides probably won’t extract it (another sign of their water-wealth), his water now belongs to the Atreides as a bond between the Noble House and the tribe.
(Spoiler alert for the next example)
Some time later, after the Harkonnen (with the connivance of the Emperor) have killed Duke Leto and overthrown House Atreides, some the Atreides supporters have taken refuge with the Fremen. Thufir Hawat, one of the duke’s mentats (advisors, to grossly oversimplify), is among them.
He appeals to the Fremen for help in mounting a resistance to the Harkonnen, and they ask: “Is this a water matter?”
Thufir has studied up enough on the Fremen to understand what they’re asking: “Is this about blood and loyalty to you? Was Duke Leto just your employer, or was he your tribe?”
Thufir answers yes. In response, the Fremen take up the body of one of the Atreides men who has died and carry it off to extract its water. At first, the other Atreides men are confused and a bit offended: “Are we buying their help with Arkie’s water?”
Thufir knows better: “Not buying. We’ve joined these people.” The flesh belongs to the person, but the water belongs to the tribe. And now Arkie’s water belongs to that particular tribe of Fremen, which means that he and his companions do as well.
The final example doesn’t have anything to do with water. Instead, it reveals some interesting things about other Fremen beliefs.
After the fall of House Atreides, Leto’s wife-in-all-but-name (she was a commoner, and the option for marriage to another royal house had to remain open, so despite the fact that he had no other lovers, she was his concubine) Jessica and their son Paul flee into the desert, where they encounter Stilgar and a patrol of his people in what’s supposed to be a secret outpost. Most of the patrol is ready to kill the two Atreides to keep the outpost secret, but Jessica, who belongs to a mystical order known as the Bene Gesserit, demonstrates some of her order’s martial arts, kicking enough ass to convince Stilgar to place them under his protection. Such skills would be valuable to the tribe, if she would teach them.
Unfortunately, one of Stilgar’s scouts, a hot-tempered fellow named Jamis, got his ass-kicking from Paul, and he doesn’t appreciate it. As soon as they reach a safe house, he challenges Paul to a duel.
Jessica is none too eager to see her teenage son in a death-duel, so she attempts to use one of the other Bene Gesserit talents to dissuade Jamis.
You see, the Bene Gesserit have developed a way to use their voice to control others. If this was a fantasy story, it would be magic. But since this is science fiction, they have to make at least some pretense that it’s science: the Bene Gesserit has to hear the person speak first, so they can understand the harmonics of the blah blah blah. It’s magic.
However, as she strongly suggests that Jamis find some honorable way to let this go, Jamis claps his hands to his ears and shouts “Silence! I invoke silence. She’s trying to put a spell on me.”
Now, Jamis is uneducated, superstitious, and absolutely right. She is a witch – or at least, that’s the closest he can come to understanding what she is. And she is trying to put a spell on him. And what’s more, invoking silence upon her was precisely the most effective thing he could have done.
Fremen superstition knows how to incapacitate witches.
(We later discover that the Bene Gesserit have visited Arrakis before, and disseminated their propaganda throughout Fremen culture. What I seriously doubt that they did was to spread knowledge of how to disable their greatest power. The Fremen figured that out on their own.)
More interesting yet, Stilgar then tells Jessica that if she tries to do that again, he won’t be able to protect her anymore. He doesn’t mind that she’s a witch – he already knew that, and as long as she was their witch, he was fine with it. But turning her powers on the tribe? That’s just not done.
Frank Herbert clearly enjoyed creating the Fremen. He never missed an opportunity to let us hear an aphorism, show us some facet of their everyday life, or give us some example of their oddly practical superstition and their fiercely competitive, yet communal, society. Every such detail, however inconsequential in itself, helped to build a culture that is still one of the most beloved in science fiction. Go and do thou likewise.