Friday, April 15, 2022

Science Fiction Remix - Baron Harkonnen

My first introduction to the world of Dune happened years before I read the book, when I saw Wayne Barlowe's illustration of a navigator who was mutated by consuming Spice in the quantities needed to allow interstellar faster-than-light travel without the benefit of computers.

The illustration is colorful, and seemed to promise a setting filled with post-human beings, descendants of Old Earth who had gone so far, adapted so much, and been apart so long that they were effectively aliens. 

image from Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials

Frank Herbert offers us just the barest glimpse of this. Spice consumption allows the Steersmen to navigate between the stars, the Mentats to remember and calculate at a level akin to the real world computers of 1965, and grants the leaders of the royal houses a superhuman longevity. 

The text also gives us an interstellar society that's halfway between the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch East India Company - great houses, supposedly peers within the Landsraad beneath an elected emperor who is like the first among equals, all squabbling and jockeying for position and control and a larger cut of land and money and power and influence and Spice, the most valuable resource in human space, Spice, the whale oil or petroleum of its day, the source of the best medicines, the fuel for all travel, the thing that the shared economy cannot function without.

I imagined the costumes in Dune as being modeled after 18th and 19th century European military and nobility, Ruritania in space, and to a greater or lesser extent, both the David Lynch film and the Sci Fi Channel miniseries gave me back some of what I'd imagined, with costumes inspired by Moebius and HR Geiger and probably Star Wars, whose look was allegedly inspired by Moebius and Geiger anyway by way of the unproduced Alejandro Jodorosky version.

The recent Denis Villeneuve Dune film certainly plays up the militarism of the houses, but it also might as well have been filmed in black and white for all the color that Villeneuve allows to appear onscreen. The recent Apple TV version of Foundation probably looks more like my dream vision of Dune than any of the adaptations that actually exist. (The plot modifications probably make Apple's Foundation closer to Dune than to Isaac Asimov's Foundation anyway.)

I'll admit that I might like the world of Dune, with its psychics and mutants, its Great Powers competition that's equal parts espionage and economics, better than the story of Paul Atreides gradually accumulating various Chosen One statuses until he is the Duke of House Atreides, and a trained Mentat, and a trained Voice user, and the culmination of the Bene Gesserit eugenics program, and the leader by marriage of the Fremen of Arakis, and the fiancé of the daughter of the Emperor of Space, and and AND! Paul is the ultimate of what C Wright Mills calls the "power elite," combining military, political, and economic power; he accumulates every possible type of what Max Weber calls "the sources of legitimate domination," hereditary, charismatic, meritorious in every way.

Look - color! Look - costumes that visually distinguish the different factions!
image from Foundation

In contrast to Paul's over-determined heroism, Herbert poured a super-abundance of "villainous" traits onto his chief antagonist, Baron Harkonnen. It's not enough for him simply to be the enemy of House Atreides, or for him to be a sore loser about being forced off Arrakis and away from the most lucrative part of the Spice business. No, Herbert REALLY wants you to know that he's a bad person, so the Baron is fat, so fat he can't support his own bodyweight without antigravity devices, and he's gay, and he's a rapist of adults, and pedophile, AND, because this somehow wasn't enough, the Lynch film also covers him in scars and boils and other skin ailments. 

There's maybe some message in Baron Harkonnen's traits about how unchecked autocratic power allows a person to indulge and over-indulge in every possible kind of appetite, and how people who derive pleasure from pushing past limits and boundaries need to keep escalating, keep doing more and more extreme versions of whatever it is they enjoy if they want to keep one-upping the severity and outlandishness of their own past endeavors. There's maybe a warning about what happens to a person when no one else can say no to them for fear for their lives.

Okay. But like, real talk, it certainly seems like Frank Herbert wrote the Baron as fat and gay because he's the villain.

Apparently one of the prequel novels claims that Harkonnen isn't fat because of overindulgence, but because the Bene Gesserit give him a venereal disease that causes obesity and muscle wasting. This is a retcon that I actually think is worse than the original interpretation.

image from National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe

The thing is, the larger setting of Dune is one where, kind of, everyone is a villain. Everyone the audience is likely to meet, anyway. The emperor assigns each great house a planet to govern; the locals have no say in who governs them or how often new regimes are rotated through. The houses themselves are absolutist monarchies with a single, superannuated hereditary ruler. The economy is colonial and feudal, with the resources of entire worlds getting funneled inward to purchase of Spice and other luxuries, which the houses use to keep their members young and healthy, and to allow themselves the interstellar travel that makes the whole system possible. This is a morally abhorrent society, which means its leaders can be interesting, compelling, captivating characters, but they can't really be good in any meaningful sense.

And while the elite of this society may designate certain of their members as being on the margins of acceptability, its more likely to be for violations of etiquette and decorum as it is for anything the rest of us would consider wrong or cruel. The leaders inherently cannot be criminals, both because they make the laws for everyone else, and because they themselves are explicitly above them. Baron Harkonnen is more interesting to me when he's not THE singular villain, laden down with so many cartoonishly evil characteristics that he needs his antigrav harness just to support the weight of all those tropes, he's more interesting when he is both flawed and, in some small ways, admirable or sympathetic, when he's A bad person in a setting full of bad people. A Harkonnen who's not pure evil is also less likely to make his enemies seem good just by virtue of opposing him.

Let's start with Baron Harkonnen's sexuality, because I'm intrigued by the idea of the head of one of the planetary governments being an out, proud gay man. While I'm sure he has as many consorts, courtesans, and flings as any other house leader, I would prefer to avoid any implication that his homosexuality gives him a special taste for nonconsensual encounters.

In Dune, in addition to the Emperor and his house, and the other great houses that make up the Landsraad, and whatever indigenous political structures exist on the planets underneath the colonial rule of the houses, you have a few major non-governmental power centers. You've got the Guild of navigators who control space travel, CHOAM, which in my limited understanding serves as the equivalent of both the stock market and the marketplace for the sale and trade of Spice and manufactured goods, and the Bene Gesserit, an all-female organization of geneticists and eugenecists devoted to increasing human psychic potential by selective breeding, who hide their scientific prowess beneath a religious mystique, and who have enough social power to insist that every house leader take a Gesserit consort and participate in their breeding program.

Arranged marriages, obligatory consummations, tracking "matings" and "pairings" with the obsessive attention of a zookeeper trying to revive a near-extinct species, and really the whole idea of mandatory "breeding" of human beings are already incompatible with the idea of consent as we understand it. None of the other parts of the history of eugenics are any more palatable. The Bene Gesserit have unlocked humanity's latent psychic potential, but those born with powers just become the psychic bureaucrats so necessary to keep the imperial system running, and the Gesserit themselves are a secondary source of tyranny, alongside the empire. 

Remix Harkonnen has no interest in "doing his duty" to the species, "lying on his back and thinking of the empire," or any of the rest of it. He is an open critic of the Bene Gesserit and their eugenics program, opposes their attempts to arrange marriages and breedings, not just for himself, but for everyone, and he will eventually pass rulership of his house down to a protégé rather than a child. Remix Baron Harkonnen might still be a reprehensible bastard on other issues, but let's let him be right about this one thing.

Next, the Baron's size and weight. The detail I keep thinking about is his antigravity device. What if Remix Harkonnen isn't simply a fat man, but truly someone who can't move around, or perhaps even survive, under Earth-normal conditions? I imagine that he's basically spherical, and looks like the illustration of hypothetical Venusians from the old Our Universe book, seen above. His body has been adapted to survive in an atmosphere that is incredibly thick, heavy, and crushing, and simultaneously very buoyant, like the deep ocean. The inside of any House Harkonnen building recreates this atmosphere, and requires pressure suits for anyone who looks like the humans of Old Earth to survive inside. But when the Baron travels to other houses, he needs a forcefield bubble to protect himself from the same effects you or I would feel in a vacuum.

Why do the members of House Harkonnen look like that? I think that an earlier era of space exploration relied on direct genetic engineering to produce durable, post-human bodies, rather than the combination of Gesserit eugenics, Spice, and high technology that are used in the current age. (As an aside, maybe the natives of each planet have been engineered to survive their specific conditions. This permits them to live openly and in poverty on the surface, rather than requiring specialized and luxurious habitats like the great houses. It also means they can never leave, unlike the comparatively hyper-mobile ruling class, who jet from planet to planet as the Emperor demands. The Fremen would likely be another example of this type of engineering.)

As the product of this prior regime of human improvement, Remix Harkonnen has yet another reason to oppose the Gesserit and their way of doing things. His body is visibly different from the Old Earth phenotype that most of the other ruling houses wear - although perhaps the Harkonnens are not the only ones who have been engineered rather than bred. I imagine he comes from a trash planet that falls outside the empire's direct sphere of influence, meaning that no great house is ever required to relocate there. 

Like some ambitious combination of Kingpin and Jabba the Hutt, Remix Baron Harkonnen started out as one gangster among many, became the don of dons through a combination of smarts and ruthlessness, and graduated to the interplanetary and interstellar big leagues, forcing his way into great house status and a seat on the Landsraad. The other house leaders dislike him for his disreputable origin, post-human appearance, and perhaps for refusing to hide his thuggishness behind the veneer of respectability the rest of them maintain. 

I suppose I ought to consider what sort of economic resource the Baron brings to the table that requires the others to offer him a seat. Perhaps a metal that can only be mined on his planet, or technology from before the AI wars that can no longer be replicated, or knowledge of genetic engineering that can produce results that the Gesserits can't reproduce in the short term. Or maybe he's just that good at bribery, coercion, extortion, etc. Or maybe his knowledge of the above makes his house ideal for rooting out local corruption and slapping the hand of any other great house that sticks their wrist too deep into the cookie jar. 
My remix version of Baron Harkonnen is more like Magneto or Killmonger - a man with a sympathetic origin and understandable agenda, who is nonetheless still deserving of condemnation for his actions. If your Remix Dune coexists in the same setting as a Remix Legion of Superheroes, then I have to assume that Bouncing Boy is a do-gooder outcast from House Harkonnen. If your Remix Dune is also a Solar Dune, then Harkonnen might come from Venus, or perhaps from a cloud city on Jupiter that's deep enough beneath the "surface" to require his distinctive body modifications to survive.


  1. I really really need to reread Dune, you make it sound so fascinating. This Remixed Harkonnen is also an excellent character. This was a great post.

    1. If you do reread, I hope you enjoy it! As I said, I think my favorite ideas in the book are basically peripheral to the main storyline.

  2. Love that Barlowe book, picked it up by luck years ago. Wish he'd do a new one.

    I was delighted to see some of my own thoughts in alignment with what you lay out here - the Baron as the one person who really knows how to play the game that everyone else bumbles through fits very well with my 'Dune is a universe where critical thinking is not only dead, but inconceivable' thesis.

    Also especially like the bit of where pantropic modification is used as a means of severely controlling the population by the elites. Excellent

    1. I really wanna hear more about your "dune is an anti-critical-thought" setting thesis tbh, always hyped for more left-field dune takes!!

    2. Basically, it's that the Empire in Dune has become so fossilized in its social structure and thought that it requires the creation of a living god and the deaths of billions to take any step forward, because it has become actually impossible for anyone to conceive of "what if we did literally anything differently"

    3. That's an interesting take, Dan. You definitely see a society that is trying to reproduce itself almost unchanged since it recovered from the AI wars. Tradition is valued, education consists of rote memorization, and all the political power structures are cloaked in religious mysticism and reinforced by propaganda, which is seemingly the only media outside the Orange Catholic Bible that anyone consumes.

      Leto Atreides shows a bit of original thought, but you're right that Vladimir Harkonnen is by far the most cunning and far-sighted person we meet until Paul literally starts hallucinating the future. And even he finds himself just acting out what's he's foreseen, unable to change anything. Harkonnen is shockingly agentic by comparison.

      One supposes that in the aftermath of the AI wars, maybe critical thought, progress, and science all got a bad reputation as leading inevitably to extinction-level disaster. This turns out to be convenient for the ruling elites, who seem to enjoy a level of obedience and loyalty from their subjects that might be unobtainable from a more free-thinking public.

      Your reading of Dune kind of reminds me of Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror," which is about a time in medieval Europe when the various royalty's blind faith in both tradition and their own abilities leads repeatedly to disaster.

  3. DUNE your MOM lmao

    but fr, fantastic fucking piece. dune is a great mold for science-fantasy done right, and I wish more settings in that general vein followed in its footsteps instead of aping Star Wars, but there's so much left desired from Herbert's actual text...

  4. "maybe he's just that good at bribery, coercion, extortion, etc. Or maybe his knowledge of the above makes his house ideal for rooting out local corruption and slapping the hand of any other great house that sticks their wrist too deep into the cookie jar."

    Which actually jives with how the Emperor uses House Harkonnen in the novel. So Remix Harkonnen would probably serve as the Emperor's hatchet man, making him easy prey for villainization in the future "histories" - and also creating tension between himself and the Emperor. "Why am I doing all this hard work just to keep *him* in the throne...?"

    1. Nice idea!

      And you're right, I think even in the original, there's a sense that the Emperor has kind of messed up and made Harkonnen too powerful. Giving Arakkis to the Atreides seems like it's supposed to be a counterbalance to prevent the Baron from getting any stronger, but like, it's already too late.

      If not for Paul (again!), I suspect the Baron would have been on track to seize the Imperial throne for himself.

  5. On my way to draw some weird posthumans...

    1. Sounds like a fun brainstorming activity. Please share them on your blog if you do!

  6. The idea that Harkonnen exists to root out corruption makes me wonder what terrible stuff Paul's dad was getting up to.

    (Tho I've only read the first book so maybe there's a real answer for that.)

    1. Admittedly, it's been awhile since I read "Dune" myself, but if I recall, Leto Atreides greatest sin from an Imperial perspective would probably be that he was a bit of a populist.

      He projected as much of an image of being a "man of the people" as he could get away with. (I feel like I remember him explaining that they have to waste a certain amount of water because the people WANT their leader to displace some minimal level of extravagance and above-the-law-ness.)

      And he was trying to broker an alliance with the Fremen, rather than scapegoating them and using them as bogeymen to help keep the people of the cities in line.

      I think his closest contemporary would be a South American leader who spooks the US by trying to uplift the working class and/or various ethnic minorities.

  7. The idea of the genetically engineered commoners, remind me of a collection of short stories I read as a kid.
    They were about a universe were humans expanded by seeding worlds with genetically engineered groups of humans, that were optimized for those places, and leave instructions so their descendants would be able to create a spacefaring civilasation. I don't remember what it was called, and it had some dodgy ideas (yes I know, a book from 60ties oder 70ties about genetic engineering being dodgy, who would have thought). But the core idea was very cool. It ended with a story about a mission, to a deserted poisned earth not fit for standard-line human life anymore.