some thoughts on Herbert’s Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert has been, and still is, an inspiration to me. That it should still be read by so many people—more than fifty years after its publication—is a testament to its greatness. I would suggest that a major factor underlying this success is how skilfully Herbert plundered history. He did not, as so many writers do, merely break European Medieval history into a handful of pieces and reassemble them to make his story—instead he took hold of a far greater spread of history, both in time and space, and, smashing this into fragments, put together a mosaic that forms a wholly original and distinctive creation.

His noble Houses, with their Landsraad, evoke the Germanic princely states of the Holy Roman Empire; it stands in stark contrast to the rise of Paul Atreides from the desert that, in language and sentiment, resembles that of Mohammed in Arabia. This is not simply history thinly disguised. The Emperor in Dune rejoices in the Persian title Padishah, Great King—a title of ancient usage in Asia; a title adopted by the Ottoman Sultans who, with their Sardaukar-like Janissaries, were a terror to the Germanic princes of Austria, but also held sway over Islamic Arabia.

The Bene Gesserit, with their Reverend Mothers, have an odour of the Catholic Church—more specifically the Jesuits—but the esoterica of their Weirding way takes in not only the martial arts of the East, but the sublime mystical powers attributed to Tibetan Lamas and Zen Buddhists.

This heady mix is enriched by the ingenious and central fixation with spice that parallels, in its economic power, the petroleum that similarly arises from the sands of the Land of the Prophet. Its cinnamon scent betrays the two thousand year old European obsession with Eastern spices, as well as evoking Yemeni frankincense that bled the Roman Empire of its gold. That this should, as oil does, power the transport systems essential to civilization, is a brilliant subversion, especially when one considers that, in the Dune universe, the Navigators effect this through an extreme addiction to that substance. This addiction extends throughout Herbert’s world and eventually to the Messiah Muad’dib himself. Spice thus somewhat subsumes the role of cocaine and heroin in our world.

Such a brilliant restitching of history gives Dune a relevance today perhaps even greater than when it was written. Herbert could not have imagined the means by which Bin Laden and his successors would attempt to recreate the Caliphate in Baghdad, but when one weaves a tapestry with such well-chosen strands, the result can never lose its power.

This is an updated piece I wrote for a Transworld newsletter some years back.

Phamie Gow releases her Stone Dance music

In 2003, I had only known Phamie for a year, but she had already become a cherished friend. She was only 22 years old then, but had already recorded two CDs of her own compositions; in the intervening years, she has gone on to release many more albums of her own music and to build a successful touring career. She sings and plays the piano, but it was her mastery of the clarsach—the Celtic harp—that caught my ear.

At some point I got the crazed idea of asking her to write a piece for what was my first website. My initial notion was that I wanted something like the court music that the sybling Quenthas play in The Chosen. Being conjoined twins, the Quenthas played with four hands; to emulate their playing, Phamie would have had to overlay two separate tracks.

Fortunately, when I actually came to make the commission, I had the sense to let her do her own thing. I merely asked her to listen to some virginal pieces by William Byrd, some Bach and some Toumani Diabate; a genius of the kora—a now world-famous, traditional harp from Mali.

When Phamie invited me to spend a couple of days with her at a cottage she was looking after in Galloway, I arrived to find that she had composed her first impression of what she chose to name Stone Dance of the Chameleon. Though beautiful, I saw this as only a beginning. I revealed to her some of the deeper themes underlying the Stone Dance, particularly the centrality of the number ‘three’. I went off to cook dinner; when I returned she had already—miraculously—magicked up two more themes to add to the first—each having at its core a triple of notes, in which either the first, second or third are stressed.

Through several more collaborative meetings, the piece evolved to match, somewhat, the structure of my story. One day, she came to see me and played the finished work.

Now, for the first time, she has recorded Stone Dance of the Chameleon and released it across all digital platforms.

I have to confess that, early on, I lost hold of my original goal. The delight, that I derived from collaborating with such a talented musician, became an end in itself. The result is far grander than anything I could have envisaged. It was even played at a recital given for the Dalai Lama.

The single is available on all digital platforms including iTunes and Spotify. Give it a listen and, if you enjoy it, please give it a like and share it to support Phamie.

the second book of the Second Edition released

I’m pleased to announce the release of the second volume of the Second Edition of the Stone Dance, The Chosen (I hope people aren’t confused by my recycling of the First Edition titles—it’ll all make sense in the end!). I published the book on Saturday because I wanted to give it a leap year publication date. My previous experience taught me that it takes time for a new book to propagate through the Amazon ecosystem. The ebook is now available from all amazon stores, and the paperback from the majority of them. I commend the new edition of The Chosen to you. Happy reading 🙂

the Second Edition adventure begins

I am happy to announce that The Masters, the first volume of the seven that will constitute the Second Edition of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, is now live as an ebook on all Amazon stores, and as a paperback on Amazon in the USA, the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Japan and Canada.

The First Edition took me at least ten years to write, and the Second Edition a further two—the traditional publishing industry will consider this madness—and it certainly has not made the slightest financial sense—but it is a labour of love and, constitutionally, I seem to be incapable of doing things half-heartedly. So, from my heart, I hope that you will join me on this journey. I intend to publish all seven books throughout 2020 and have some notions for little extras that I will release here as we go along.

Roy Eastland on life drawing

a life drawing by Roy Eastland

Roy Eastland is an old friend of mine. When he put up another of his beautiful life drawings on Instagram, I asked him: “Roy, what is that you get from doing this?” I would like to share his sublime answer with you.

“Good question. Hard to answer briefly and hard to know fully. Here are some thoughts off the top of my head though. I don’t exactly enjoy drawing but there is pleasure in seeing good lines, or bits of good lines, come into play in the drawing-process. I suppose it’s a pleasure of surprise and meaningfulness. It’s to do with what hand-drawn lines ‘say’. For example, the way a single continuous line might change its function as it plays out its time to mean different things. It might designate a separation between the figure and air, and then it might continue to become a shadow (implying the presence of something solid), then a texture, the weight of a part of the body, an implied but invisible line between two points, it might also simply be the course of the line between two points on the paper or the speed of the hand drawing or its hesitancy or decisiveness (implying the presence of the person)… etc. There is something really interesting in the way drawings are the traces of ideas. I think the whole process, of carefully paying attention (through drawing) to the presence of somebody, can be quite a meditative act. It’s partly to do with noticing one’s own presence in the act of drawing too. Drawing, for me, is never about achieving a preconceived effect for its own sake or achieving a specific outcome that can be predicted. For me it’s a process of noticing things and changing my mind about what I think I am in the presence of. I think it’s also got something to do with touch, or memory of touch, and some kind of affection for the presence of people or things. Drawing generally (for me) has also got something to do with making souvenirs of moments (for want of a better phrase) and it’s got something to do with noticing the presence of time. A hand-drawn line has its ‘life story’ of beginning somewhere, of changing and then coming to its end. But we can look at the drawn line out of sequence and all at once. I like playing with ways of seeing and playing with ways of conjuring up the presence of things through drawing. These are just stream-of-consciousness thoughts btw.”

Take a look at more of his drawings on his website.

a special offer on signed Matryoshka hardbacks

As part of the process of ‘clearing the decks’—in the run up to the publication of The Masters—I want to pay a little attention to my novella, Matryoshka—with a special offer over the next two days on the limited edition hardback (see below).

After ten years working on the Stone Dance, I set out to write something considerably more modest, and Matryoshka was the result. To be honest, I overshot: it was supposed to be a novel but ended up being a novella. Don’t let its shortness fool you: it required a serious effort of world creation.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Matryoshka was to be the stepping stone between the two editions of the Stone Dance. Through countless rewrites, I developed a leaner, terser style that was a reaction against—what I came to feel was—the verbosity of the First Edition Stone Dance. I applied this new style to produce a vastly leaner and reworked Second Edition.

Matryoshka is a response to Robert Holdstock’s wonderful Mythago Wood in which, like Narnia, there is a hidden world in which time passes more slowly; so that visitors to that world from ours experience adventures that last years—decades even—and still return to our world only a short time after they left. I wondered what would happen if time in the hidden world, instead of slowing down, were to speed up: so that, like a spacefarer, returning from a long journey close to the speed of light, the traveller would find that an immense span of time has elapsed on Earth. I suppose that such a story is more Rip Van Winkle than it is Mythago Wood.

Another inspiration for Matryoshka is Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers—from which Tarkovsky made the film Stalker—where ‘rubbish’ discarded by alien picnickers has startling and terrible effects on the physical world. Such a device lies at the centre of Matryoshka—vibrating at relativistic speeds that distort time ever more violently the closer you get to it. Thus, though it appears to be a tale of fantasy, underlying it is a series of fairly ‘hard science’ conceits; those interested in puzzles may seek to decrypt the references in the story. In short, Matryoshka is science fiction. Alas, I did not make this clear to Ian Whates, my editor and publisher at Newcon, and when I received a hard copy of the book, I discovered Matryoshka had been labelled as fantasy. In truth, I may have made the sci-fi underpinnings a tad too subtle…

raffling off proofs

Following your feedback, I decided that I would simply raffle off the proofs. One of you, Tooru, suggested that I video the process and so I did—you will find it below.

If you recognise your name being called out, please send me an email with your snail address so that I can post you the book. Do let me know if you would like me to write anything in it. I will try and contact the ‘winners’… but if I don’t get a response in a reasonable time, I will get out my trusty tartan hat and pick another name as a replacement…

the dreamtime resumes

stencil art at Carnarvon Gorge (processed)
stencil art at Carnarvon Gorge (processed)

The Invaders were here for less than eleven generations. The land—especially where it nears the ocean—is disfigured by the bleached shells of their habitations. People trek there to salvage trinkets. It’s dangerous: you have to tread carefully. Children love to burn the brightly coloured plastic—that is the only way to get rid of it. The Elders warn against the noxious smoke and say its stench is characteristic of that terrible time.

The Invaders devastated the land with their unnatural power. They poisoned the sky and the ocean. Their reckless, insatiable greed provoked retribution. The land burned, not the way the Elders do it—with love and knowledge—but with such fury that it drove the Invaders away. When children ask where they went, the Elders admit they do not know. Perhaps they are all dead: there was a great dying. The Elders show the children a record of that time scratched into the rock: strange, narrow figures almost lost in the wide record of the vast, sacred time before the Invasion. What are those eleven generations in the stretch of thousands of the dreaming? Nothing but a bout of fever we have recovered from.

giveaway proofs

Happy Twenties! Let’s hope they’re cheerier than the Tens or Noughties.

As I run up to the release of the first volume of the Second Edition of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, I have a stack of proofs to giveaway. They sat by my stove for a while, but I couldn’t bring myself to burn or recycle them, and a friend suggested I give them away. They are from different phases of the proofing process, and one or two may be covered in corrections. These unique if flawed versions of the new text might be fun to own.

We need to work out who gets them. A competition of some kind has been suggested, and so I am asking you to please write any ideas you may have for one, below . . .

(only people on my mailing list are eligible for this giveaway)

towards 2020

City living eclipses solstices. Their significance is more obvious in the countryside. Cresting the summer solstice could be sad—starting the toboggan slide down into winter darkness—but the ease and glory of midsummer makes it hard to be glum. Besides, here in Scotland, with sea to west and north and east, our summer only peaks in August.

The winter solstice is a more ravenous beast. At this darkest time—here the sun sets before 4pm—our bodies do not make vitamin D, and so we fall prey to colds and flus, and are more prone to the blues. On our bellies, we squeeze under the heavy dip of the year and begin the climb to summer.

Events have cast shadows over 2019, but the birth of a new year brings hope, and I am looking forward to re-engaging with you in 2020. Until then, happy solstice!

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