Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) is a science-fiction classic in part because it’s such brilliant pastiche. Drawing inspiration from the midcentury United States’s nascent environmental movement, European feudalism, Middle Eastern oil politics, and Zen Buddhism, Herbert created a universe that is at once exotic and familiar. Not all of the book’s success is a result of inspired borrowing, but much of the richness and depth in Herbert’s imagined future of religious fanaticism and aristocratic intrigue can be traced to its creator’s talent for appropriation.
Melange, the hallucinogenic drug at the heart of Herbert’s book, acts as a prerequisite for interstellar travel and can only be obtained on one harsh, desert planet populated by tribes of warlike nomads. Even a casual political observer will recognize the parallels between the universe of Dune and the Middle East of the late 20th century. Islamic theology, mysticism, and the history of the Arab world clearly influenced Dune, but part of Herbert’s genius lay in his willingness to reach for more idiosyncratic sources of inspiration. The Sabres of Paradise (1960) served as one of those sources, a half-forgotten masterpiece of narrative history recounting a mid-19th century Islamic holy war against Russian imperialism in the Caucasus.
Once you start losing a few things, it’s easier to lose the rest so you can be left alone to think. I left the chaotic house in Hackney that I shared with four guys and their various women and moved into a flat on a street filled with old people and expensive cars. I’m house sitting, so I put my stuff in storage and am living out of a suitcase and a bit of floor – a permanent state of transience. I quit my job in a busy open-plan newsroom to go freelance and pulled up the final anchor of a 9-to-5. I reduced my daily human interaction, piece by piece, to nil.
I have no schedule, no dependents but a cat. I go to the cinema when there’s no one there except occasionally one old man. I watch the credits until the end because there’s no one putting their jacket on to suggest we should go (like me, the old guy has nowhere to be). When I leave the sun is still out, the streets are empty. At night, in hotel rooms around the world, there are writers avoiding deadlines while serving as lifelines for others avoiding theirs: a population of people who have jetlagged themselves over work, who are adrift from their own time zone and friends. We send each other pictures of coffee machines and digital clocks reading 3.12am – flares into the sky. I have engineered a life in which I exist in a rare London with no one in it except for the unemployed, the drunk and the lonely.
To abolish character-based writing invited serious peril, however. What would become of China’s vast corpus of philosophy, literature, poetry, and history, all written in Chinese characters? Might not this inestimable heritage be lost to all but the epigraphers and specialists of tomorrow? Were China to abandon characters, moreover, what would become of the country’s pronounced linguistic diversity? Cantonese, Hokkienese, and other so-called “dialects” of Chinese are as mutually distinct as Portuguese and French. Indeed, many have argued that the coherence and persistence of the Chinese polity, civilization, and culture have in no small part been predicated upon the unifying influence of a common character-based script. Were China to go the route of phonetic writing, would not these linguistic differences in the oral realm be made more insurmountable, and politically charged, once formalized in writing? Might the elimination of character-based writing precipitate the breakup of the country along fault lines of language? Might China cease to be one country, and instead become a continent of countries, like Europe?
The puzzle of Chinese linguistic modernity would appear, then, to be a perfectly irresolvable one. Characters held China together, but they also held China back. Characters maintained China’s connection with its past, but so too did they isolate China from the Hegelian sense of historical progress. How then was China to make this seemingly impossible transition?