5 stars
A timeless masterpiece about power and belief

Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet. Long before I read Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic, it exerted its pull on me. As a kid, I spent dozens of hours playing Dune II (1992), which kickstarted the real-time strategy genre in gaming, with a thin plot loosely based on Herbert’s novel. I enjoyed Star Wars, which owes many of its ideas and settings to Dune. And I ran away (as you should) from the botched 1984 movie adaptation.

In 2020, how does the novel hold up?

Dune tells the story of a conflict in the far future, with cataclysmic consequences for a humanity that has become an interplanetary civilization. The conflict centers on the planet Arrakis, the only source of “spice”, a mind-enhancing drug needed for space navigation.

Young Paul Atreides, member of one of several powerful Houses that rule the galaxy, joins his father, Duke Leto, on a journey to take charge of Arrakis on behalf of the Emperor, displacing House Harkonnen. The Harkonnens have other plans—and so, it turns out, does the Emperor. Will the inhabitants of the desert planet, the native Fremen, take a side in the conflict? And what is the meaning of Paul’s visions of the future?

Frank Herbert is an incredibly imaginative author, and he manages to pack so many complex ideas into just a few paragraphs that it can make your head spin. The future of Dune is one where humanity has not only invented AI, it has decided to do away with it, in a jihad against technology. Instead of AI, a select few serve as mental computers—mentats—on behalf of the ruling class.

Religion, too, plays a powerful role. A religious order known as the Bene Gesserit has fused faith, eugenics, and mental discipline to pursue a long term agenda alongside secular rulers. Through its Missionaria Protectiva, it has seeded superstitious beliefs in human settlements throughout the galaxy, so it can exploit those beliefs later.

All this world-building is at times dizzying, especially when Herbert uses invented words and concepts without much introduction, leaving the reader to figure out what they mean (or inviting her to read the book’s glossary). But this is not a book without payoff—the characters and the world come alive as the story unfolds.

Herbert wrote five more novels that continued the story, and his son Brian Herbert has co-authored many additional books set in the same universe. While this sheer volume may seem daunting, the story told in Dune stands on its own, with or without sequels or prequels.

The Verdict

Dune is a masterpiece, at times challenging, but highly rewarding. By focusing on timeless themes of power and belief (instead of obsessing about the future of technology), Herbert managed to write a story that is just as much at home in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.

In some ways, it feels more relevant than ever. Part of the book is a plea for ecological literacy (it even features an appendix on the ecology of Arrakis), for understanding the interdependence of life and life-giving resources. And as we grapple with AI not just as a concept but as a reality, Dune depicts a fascinating future where the human intellect is augmented, not replaced.

I’ll withhold judgment on the arc of Herbert’s books until I’ve read more of them—but I can wholeheartedly recommend the first book in the series. A new movie adaptation is in the works, but with a world-wide pandemic, who knows when we’ll actually see it. In the meantime, you can’t go wrong reading the book that started it all.


4 stars
A solo sojourn in a space station full of 3D memories

As my reviews of Gone Home and Firewatch make clear, I am favorably disposed towards exploration games (sometimes described as “walking simulators) where the player explores a story-rich world with relatively few action or puzzle elements.

Tacoma is the second game by the makers of Gone Home, Fullbright Games from Portland, Oregon. In Gone Home, the main character (a woman named Katie) returned to an empty home and tried to find out why her family wan’t there to meet her. In Tacoma, the main character (a woman named Amy) visits an empty space station and tries to find out what happened to its crew.

But where the world of Gone Home was littered with notes and other papers for the player to sort through, Tacoma tells its story through the experiences of the crew, which Amy can review through recovered Augmented Reality recordings. The ghostly figures of the crew can be observed in conversation, taking a smoke break, or playing AR games.



In the lounge of the space station, watching an AR recording of the station’s medical officer talking to its AI. (Credit: Fullbright Games. Fair use.)

Ostensibly, Amy’s job is to recover the valuable “wetware” that powers the ship’s Artificial Intelligence, but in the process, we are learning more and more about the events that caused Tacoma to drift through space without its crew. It quickly becomes clear that an accident happened on Tacoma, but we still don’t know the fate of the crew, and whether there is a deeper mystery to uncover.

In addition to AR recordings, Amy can access some of the crew members’ most intimate personal files—calls and instant messages, emails, private notes. Much of this does not add to the main story, but paints a more complete picture of each crew member’s motivations and emotional connections.

There are no real puzzles, but there are countless objects you can interact with, from books you can pick up to a zero-g basketball game you can play. These details serve no purpose other than to create a richer world for the player to explore.

There’s also a fair bit of world-building to center the story of Tacoma in a future where humans and AI must learn to co-exist, and a small number of corporations is fighting for control of people’s lives. This world is intelligently constructed, and whether or not you find it plausible, it’s internally consistent.

In spite of all this, you’ll likely finish the game in 2-3 hours—double that if you add another playthrough for more exploration or to access the commentary track.

In short, Tacoma is an atmospheric game that lets you feel like you’re on a space station, without having to deal with demons or aliens. As a story, I found it less compelling than Gone Home, in spite of the clever storytelling mechanics. It’s hard to become invested in any of the characters, and the clues we get about their backstories provide very little narrative payoff.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the time I spent on Tacoma. I wouldn’t recommend paying full price for it, but it regularly drops to $5-$7.50, at which it offers good value.


4 stars
We All Shine On

Is rudimentary consciousness a fundamental property of matter? The idea strikes many people as bizarre, because it evokes notions of self-aware household objects and tomatoes screaming in pain as they make their way into the pasta sauce. But it deserves more precise articulation and a fair hearing.

In “Galileo’s Error”, philosopher Philip Goff makes the case for this idea, known as panpsychism, for a general audience. He begins by outlining the problems with dualist mind/matter explanations (where the mind is a separate “thing” that somehow interacts with matter), and with strictly materialist explanations that neglect to offer any explanation for the quality of conscious experience.

What if those qualities are the intrinsic nature of matter itself? In this view, the human mind is continuous with the universe in which it is embedded. There’s no need to postulate “special mind stuff”, to invent deities, or to wave your hands and say “emergent property”.

Instead, in this view, subatomic particles like electrons experience change, and more complex forms of consciousness can be built up (or indeed arise) from simple ones. The qualities of human experience—the color red, the smell of coffee, a loving touch—must have their foundations in matter itself.

Of course, this is not a new idea, and many philosophies and religions have embraced forms of panpsychism. It is not even new to Western philosophy, and Goff especially cites the debates between Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington. This context is where the book offers what I consider to be the most succinct argument in favor of the panpsychist hypothesis (p. 134):

Eddington’s starting point is as follows:

  1. Physical science tells us absolutely nothing about the intrinsic nature of matter.

  2. The only thing we know about the instrinsic nature of matter is that some of it, i.e., the matter inside brains, has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness.

It is hard to really absorb these two facts, as they are diametrically opposed to the way our culture thinks about science. But if we manage to do so, it becomes apparent that the simplest hypothesis concerning the intrinsic nature of matter outside of brains is that it is continuous with the intrinsic nature of matter inside of brains, in the sense that both inside and outside of brains matter has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness.


Aurora Borealis, seen from Iceland in February 2014. The complexity of the nonliving world invites the question whether it is fully discontinuous with embodied human experiences. (Credit: Schnuffel2002. License: CC-BY-SA.)

Yet, current scientific attempts to explain consciousness rarely consider it a phenomenon that is even worth studying outside of the context of a brain. And these “explanations” (e.g., efforts to show that certain neural activity is correlated with certain conscious experiences) are at best predictions—they don’t get us much closer to understanding what conscious experience is.

Goff points the finger at Galileo Galilei for setting science on a path that is strictly quantitative, a path where any effort to explain the quality of an experience (the color red, the smell of coffee, a loving touch) is out of bounds, or at least suspect. Goff argues that to disregard these qualities is to disregard fundamental scientific facts. Indeed, no fact is as foundational and undeniable as the reality of our own conscious minds.

Panpsychism is an attractive hypothesis. Like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, it elegantly resolves tricky questions at the very “bottom” of existence. It also has similar difficulties of testability, which could put it in the “not even wrong” realm of speculation. Perhaps, as our ability to predict conscious states increases thanks to efforts like integrated information theory, we will predict them in places where we wouldn’t expect them. Then the more difficult claim to defend may be that “mere matter” is not continuous with conscious experience.

The Verdict

Philip Goff presents a cogent and beautiful argument in defense of a thesis many “materialists” will seek to dismiss as New Age woo. But the idea that consciousness needs no rudimentary precursor in nonliving matter may itself turn out to be woo. Goff does not assert that the panpsychist hypothesis is correct—only that it should be considered seriously in our efforts to understand consciousness.

The book is strongest when it presents this core argument. Goff lost me in the last chapter, where he makes what I consider to be a very weak argument for a non-deterministic universe and the existence of free will. He argues that “free will” is the “responsiveness to rational considerations”, but it’s not clear why a deterministic brain cannot be “responsive to rational considerations”, and why determinism must be a constraint to be “freed” from. Perhaps that is a matter for another book; in any event, it seems out of place in this one.

I recommend Galileo’s Error not as any definitive answer to questions about the nature of consciousness, but as a very well-reasoned argument for expanding the Overton window of science, especially when it comes to explaining the very qualities that make life worth living.

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