Category Archives: Frank Herbert

Experiments with ChatGPT

As both a creative person and an educator I wanted explore ChatGPT and how it is going to impact my work and life. Without any real plan, I asked it twelve questions. Both my questions and the answers got better as I learned the interface.

I started with a simple task: write a blog post.

1) I asked ChatGPT to write a blog post of about 500 words on the topic of space tourism, with an emphasis on NEO hotels.
Here is its answer.

I took the same basic topic and turned it into a simple compare and contrast essay question:

2) Weigh the benefits and costs of space tourism as it relates to both environmental and fiscal health of the Earth.
Here is its answer.

As a creative person, I next asked it to compare software tools for writers.

3) Compare the benefits of various software tools designed for creative writers.
Here is its answer.

4) What are the best tools to format a manuscript into an epub? Which is the best and why?
Here is its answer.

It failed to offer anything more than marketing copy as an answer. There was no opinion given, or when given was conditional to the point of useless.

Then I went into teacher-mode and asked a series of social studies questions:

5) How has the Chinese government tried to suppress knowledge of what happened in Tienanmen Square in 1989?
Here is its answer.

6) Is China’s “Belt and Road” initiative good for partner countries? Why or why not?
Here is its answer.

7) Has Brexit benefited or hurt the UK?
Here is its answer.

8) Is Western Sahara a sovereign state or a dependency of Morocco? Cite your sources for the opinion you give.
Here is its answer.

Again, the answers were factual but lacked detail and were offered at the highest level only. The Brexit question had the weakest answer, as it seems to think that Brexit is a future event with no results apparent as of yet. It never cited results for its non-opinion on Western Sahara.

9) What are the arguments against declawing cats?
Here is its answers.

On the declawing your cat question, I clicked “Regenerative Response”, which creates a second attempt that builds on the first. It was better, and is below the first.

Then I reverted to creative mode:

10) Write a story of about 700 words about a gambler in a casino on the moon and what happens to him when he loses a bet he can’t pay.
Here are its stories.

Interestingly, ChatGPT’s first take on this was solid, but a “regenerative response” was much better.

I tried again, with a different idea:

11) Write a story of about 700 words that uses Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics as a plot point.
Here is its story.

The story was complete and original, but was simple in structure and contained no dialogue.

Lastly, I tried it out on fan fiction:

12) Tell the tale of Paul Atreide’s first love on Caladan.
Here is its story.

The AI understood who he was, and who his family was, but then it took a left turn, rather than giving a previously unknown prequel love interest, it put Chani on Caladan and began messing up facts of the story.

My conclusions:

It’s not there yet.

For a simple middle or secondary school essay (maybe grades 7-9), it does a decent job of giving an overview. It has a hard time stating an opinion, preferring to give both sides and then waffle on the conclusion.

It also can miss huge areas: one the cons of space tourism, the environmental impact of the fuel used was completely ignored, with ‘space junk’ substituted. That’s a valid concern, but not the only one, and possibly not the top one.

When it came to writing fiction, it has story structure down pat, and frankly, the “regenerative response” added a lot of complexity to the story. BUT… there’s no dialogue, and the story is all ‘tell’ with not ‘show’. The stories read a lot like Aesop’s Fables, even often ending with a ‘moral of the story’.

As a storyteller, I’m not worried about its impact yet. But it may become a threat (or a tool) in the future. The threat, that a crowded market gets even more crowded with AI-generated stories. A tool in that it may assist writers with writer’s block.

As an educator, the simplest fix is to insist, even at lower levels, that students cite sources, something that ChatGPT does not do.

Prelude to Dune: Why Ornithopters?

Yet in Frank Herbert’s Dune (and subsequent books), ornithopters are a key mode of transport throughout the universe.



We know that after the Butlerian Jihad, thinking machines were outlawed (although I’d argue that rule gets bent a lot – the hunter-seeker dart that tries to kill Paul and Mapes seems to cross the line). However, that doesn’t mean that aircraft should be banned. Any World War II vintage aircraft would be fine, as probably would any aircraft up to the beginning of this century if not further (and thus any aircraft that existed in Frank Herbert’s lifetime).

So why ornithopters? The technology predates helicopters and well as airplanes, having been designed and tested at least as early as the thirteenth century. It’s not a case of the story making the author’s technology outdated, Herbert knew airplanes and helicopters.

Ornithopters are less fuel-efficient, less load-bearing, and more problematic than either. That’s why the concept has been mostly abandoned.

Worse yet, ornithopters are inefficient even by the Dune universe standards.

We know that they have anti-gravity. Baron Harkonnen and the Sardaukar all wear anti-gravity belts. Surely a spice harvester should be equipped with such a technology and not be waiting for an ornithopter to pick it up. Surely the personal aircraft of the Duke of the planet should use this much better, if not state-of-the-art, technology.

There’s a lot in Dune that’s about the race to improve humanity, not our technology (again, the Butlerian Jihad influence), but still the discrepancy of the ornithopter is odd within the Dune universe.

I can think of only one reason to include it and make it a key element of the universe: Frank Herbert thought they were cool or exotic and would make the story memorable in some way.

And honestly, I can’t argue with that.

Spice World – the seminal Dune story

Dune trilogy covers

Everyone knows Dune (you do, don’t you? If not, why are you here?), and if you’ve even given this blog a cursory glance, you know that lately I’ve been obsessing about Dune more than a little.

I happened to chance onto a book called The Road to Dune in a local second-hand book store (I live in Malaysia. English is not the first language here, so it was a find). Within this book, along with deleted or early draft scenes from Dune and Dune Messiah, was a novella called Spice World. Continue reading Spice World – the seminal Dune story

The Many Levels That Dune Can Be Read At


Hey, if you haven’t already read Frank Herbert’s Dune, then:

a) Shame on you. And
b) I’m going to spoil the crap out of it for you.

Go read it now.

Then come back here.

I believe that there are at least four ways that you can interpret Dune as you read it (I have a fifth, but it’s kind of trite).

The first, and easiest way to read Dune is as a traditional coming of age story, the Campbell myth. Young Paul Atreides must grow into manhood when his family is attacked and his house scattered. Paul grows from a soft young boy to a militant leader, and eventually the emperor of all humanity. It’s a long story arc and it necessitates a long book length.

The second common interpretation of Dune is the environmental one. Dune is ravaged by harsh deserts in an age where we can control the weather. Why is Dune left that way? So that the local natural resource, Melange*, can be exploited. Do the locals have any say in this? No they do not. Their colonizers have decided their fate and will continue to to do so?

Which takes us to the third interpretation – the nascent Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s. The Arab nations of the Middle East were discovering that if they took control of their local resource, petroleum, then they could control the world’s economy.

Which leads us four: interpreting it through religious extremism. I’m not sure that Herbert comes down against this, not in its totality. On the one hand, he gives us the Bene Gesserit – secretive, extreme, pushing their own agenda throughout history towards the goal of creating a Kwisatz Haderach**, a male supreme leader of their order. Supposedly this man will put humanity on ‘the golden path’ and ensure our future, but within the structure of the story, there is no real threat to our future that needs to be overcome. On the other hand, Paul taps into the Fremen’s religious belief in a saviour and uses that to give himself a power base and get revenge upon his enemies. There are points in the story when Paul regrets his actions (more so in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune) but by then it’s too late – he’s started something that he can’t stop. his only hope is to ride it out and guide it where he can.

There is at least one final way to interpret Dune, a cautionary tale about using drugs or medicine for performance enhancement. The Guild Navigators pay an incredibly high price for their use of the spice, transforming from a human form into one that is not only not compatible with us, but not compatible with our environment. The whole human society has become reliant upon this one drug (again the petroleum oil analogy) for their economy to function. Bene Gesserit pay an incredibly high price, as to become a full member (Reverend Mother) one must drink a poisonous form of the drug and survive.

There are probably others: Human capacity for specialization versus reliance on AI; Fear of innovation (fear of IX and its products); Racism (The lack of acceptance of the Fremen, the Bene Tleilax, forcing them into poor economies or dangerous power plays); Classism/Feudalism (Chani can never be Paul’s wife, only his concubine).

What do you think? How else can that story be interpreted? (Or should readers just shut up and read the book without forcing an interpretation?)

* Melange is the French word for Cinnamon, FYI.
** Kwisatz Haderach is awfully close to Kefitzat Haderech, which Wikipedia calls “a Jewish Kabbalistic term that literally means contracting the path.”

10 Novels that have stayed with me

David Gerrold*, noted science fiction writer, had an interesting article on his website, 10 Novels that have stayed with me. One thing that amazed me is how much of a crossover there was with his list and my (then hypothetical) list. One thing that saddened me was that he gave the list (2 actually, one of books and one of authors), but no rationale for how they had impacted him. I thought I’d make my own list, but giving rationales for each.

So, let?s break it down! Ten novels that have stayed with me:

by Frank Herbert

Before we even get into this, I want to state that for me Dune and Dune Messiah should be treated as one book, perhaps titled The Rise and Fall of Paul Atreides. I’ve read Dune enough times that I have favourite editions (each edition has a slightly different edit – sometimes correcting elements, occasionally deleting scenes.) I like the earlier versions that include scenes where Count Fenring is fully explored as a failed Kwisatz Haderach. He sympathetically discusses Paul’s fate with his wife, even as he plans how to kill him. As my knowledge of the Middle East has grown, I’ve re-read this story with different eyes. In some ways it seems prophetic, in others, it seemsmore like an enhanced retelling ot T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia)’s story.

Under Pressure
by Frank Herbert

Not all Frank Herbert stories were good. I’ve read a few that made me wonder how they got published (Hellstrom’s Hive anyone?). But this is one of his better. Also released as Dragon in the Sea, this is a good, suspenseful story. There are four men on a sub during wartime. One is a traitor, but who? Can the sub finish its critical mission before the traitor sabotages the sub?

(Also of note, Herbert’s ConSentience books – Whipping Star and Dosadi Experiment)

The Chrysalids
by John Wyndham

This is one of those stories that throws you in and expects you to swim. You’ll discover as you read this that there has been some kind of holocaust, probably a nuclear war, and that survivors have fallen back not only on older agrarian ways, but also on a strict set of laws and guidances to ensure that humanity remains pure (it’s not stated why, but many children are born with deformities. Such children are banished to semi-arable radioactive zones.) Against this background, a generation of telepaths is born. They try to hide and fit in, but any conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest member, and one of the telepaths is only a baby and can’t comprehend the danger.

The Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien

I don’t have to explain the plot, but it’s the visual imagery, so adeptly captured in the first movie, that drove me to continue reading even when it meant immersing in elvish and dwarfish lore that didn’t really interest me. The man knew how to write.

The Lord of Light
by Roger Zelazny

Another story where you need to figure it out as you go. There are gods living among a pre-industrial society. But it turns out that they are all descendants from a crashed spaceship, the ‘gods’ are from the crew, the rest from the passengers. The ‘gods’ hoard technology and suppress societal development (going so far as to blow up a house in which someone had built a toilet) but now one of the ‘gods’ wants to change all that.

by Samuel R. Delaney

Set in the far distant future, this story, partially told in flashback, deals with a feud between two very wealthy families, one of old-money and from Earth, the other nouveau riche and located in a colonized world. This is a rich story of cruelty, obsession, and wealth gone awry. It’s also a lyrical story about music, tarot cards, cyberpunk-style technology and a star about to go boom.

The Naked Sun
by Isaac Asimov

This is a sequel to Caves of Steel, and reunites the two main protagonists, an Earthling named Elijah Bailey and a robot named Daniel Olivaw. While the first story was set in the cave-like cities of a futuristic, poor, and fearful Earth, this story sees the characters solving a murder on a much richer and more sparsely populated world, one where people still go outside, much to Elijah’s horror. His agoraphobia is a constant throughout the story. This one was much more memorable than the first, and I find I come back to it. Asimov later expanded this series with a third book, Robots of Dawn, and later still even tied this series to his Foundation series.

A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge

While this story is technically a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, the stories take place 20,000 years apart and have only one character in common. Simply put in the distant future two human cultures are competing to make contact with an alien species that hibernates for centuries at a time. Vinge writes aliens as common but different people better than most, and I prefer his telling here to the first book.

The Mote in God’s Eye
by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

First contact with aliens, but we’re the spacefaring ones and they’re planetbound. The story is fun enough that I’ve read it a half dozen times. Truthfully, the aliens aren’t alien enough for me, but the strength of the story is in the world-building and the human cultures – a mixture of WWII American naval and pre-Soviet Russian cultures, with a sense of British aristocracy thrown in. And Kevin Renner, can’t forget Kevin Renner.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams

There’s now five or six books in this ‘trilogy’ but really the first book is all you need. I’d like to call this post-modern absurdist science fiction, but I’m not even sure what that means. However there is something inherently Monty Python-esque about this story of the last human alive. If you don’t know the story, and don’t have time to read it, try to find the BBC TV series, not the movie.

David Gerrold also did a list of 10 authors, and like his, my list of authors does not completely match up with my list of books (Hello Terry Pratchett!). But that’s a post for another day.


*David Gerrold has written many good books, including A Matter for Men and When HARLIE Was One, but to my mind he is best known for his breakout TV script “The Trouble with Tribbles” for the original Star Trek TV series.

Here’s the original “Next Week on Star Trek” trailer. The episode is much better than the trailer:

As always, feel free to disagree below!