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Vox - Front Page
Vox - Front Page
How biological detective work can reveal who engineered a virus
Bio labs leave their distinctive traces on DNA and RNA they engineer. | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images Exciting new research should make it easier to hold rogue bioengineers accountable. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, wasn’t intentionally created in a lab. We don’t have much evidence one way or the other whether its emergence into the world was the result of a lab accident or a natural jump from animal to human, but we know for sure that the virus is not the product of deliberate gene editing in a lab. How do we know that? Bioengineering leaves traces — characteristic patterns in the RNA, the genetic code of a virus, that come from splicing in genes from elsewhere. And investigations by researchers have definitively shown that the novel coronavirus behind Covid-19 doesn’t bear the hallmarks of such manipulation. That fact about bioengineered viruses raises an interesting question: What if those traces that gene editing leave behind were more like fingerprints? That is, what if it’s possible not just to tell if a virus was engineered but precisely where it was engineered? That’s the idea behind genetic engineering attribution:the effort to develop tools that let us look at a genetically engineered sequence and determine which lab developed it. A big international contest among researchers earlier this year demonstrates that the technology is within our reach — though it’ll take lots of refining to move from impressive contest results to tools we can reliably use for bio detective work. The contest, the Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge, was sponsored by some of the leading bioresearch labs in the world. The idea was to challenge teams to develop techniques in genetic engineering attribution. The most successful entrants in the competition could predict, using machine-learning algorithms, which lab produced a certain genetic sequence with more than 80 percent accuracy, according to a new preprint summing up the results of the contest. This may seem technical, but it could actually be fairly consequential in the effort to make the world safe from a type of threat we should all be more attuned to post-pandemic: bioengineered weapons and leaks of bioengineered viruses. One of the challenges of preventing bioweapon research and deployment is that perpetrators can remain hidden — it’s difficult to find the source ofa killer virus and hold them accountable. But if it’s widely known that bioweapons can immediately and verifiably be traced right back to a bad actor, that could be a valuable deterrent. It’s also extremely important for biosafety more broadly. If an engineered virus is accidentally leaked, tools like these would allow us to identify where they leaked from and know what labs are doing genetic engineering work with inadequate safety procedures. The fingerprint of a virus Hundreds of design choices go into genetic engineering: “what genes you use, what enzymes you use to connect them together, what software you use to make those decisions for you,” computational immunologist Will Bradshaw, a co-author on the paper, told me. “The enzymes that people use to cut up the DNA cut in different patterns and have different error profiles,” Bradshaw says. “You can do that in the same way that you can recognize handwriting.” Because different researchers with different training and different equipment have their own distinctive “tells,” it’s possible to look at a genetically engineered organism and guess who made it — at least if you’re using machine-learning algorithms. The algorithms that are trained to do this work are fed data on more than 60,000 genetic sequences different labs produced. The idea is that, when fed an unfamiliar sequence, the algorithmsare able to predict which of the labs they’ve encountered (if any) likely produced it. A year ago, researchers at altLabs, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and other top bioresearch programs collaborated on the challenge, organizing a competition to find the best approaches to this biological forensics problem. The contest attracted intense interest from academics, industry professionals, and citizen scientists — one member of a winning team was a kindergarten teacher. Nearly 300 teams from all over the world submitted at least one machine-learning system for identifying the lab of origin of different sequences. In that preprint paper (which is still undergoing peer review), the challenge’s organizers summarize the results: The competitors collectively took a big step forward on this problem. “Winning teams achieved dramatically better results than any previous attempt at genetic engineering attribution, with the top-scoring team and all-winners ensemble both beating the previous state-of-the-art by over 10 percentage points,” the paper notes. The big picture is that researchers, aided by machine-learning systems, are getting really good at finding the lab that built a given plasmid, ora specific DNA strand used in gene manipulation. The top-performing teams had 95 percent accuracy at naming a plasmid’s creator by one metric called “top 10 accuracy” — meaning if the algorithm identifies 10 candidate labs, the true lab is one of them. They had 82 percent top 1 accuracy — that is, 82 percent of the time, the lab they identified as the likely designer of that bioengineered plasmid was, in fact, the lab that designed it. Top 1 accuracy is showy, but for biological detective work, top 10 accuracy is nearly as good: If you can narrow down the search for culprits to a small number of labs, you can then use other approaches to identify the exact lab. There’s still a lot of work to do. The competition looked at only simple engineered plasmids; ideally, we’d have approaches that work for fully engineered viruses and bacteria. And the competition didn’t look at adversarial examples, where researchers deliberately try to conceal the fingerprints of their lab on their work. How genetic fingerprinting can keep the world safer Knowing which lab produced a bioweapon can protect us in three ways, biosecurity researchers argued in Nature Communications last year. First, “knowledge of who was responsible can inform response efforts by shedding light on motives and capabilities, and so mitigate the event’s consequences.” That is, figuring out who built something will also give us clues about the goals they might have had and the risk we might be facing. Second, obviously, it allows the world to sanction and stop any lab or government that is producing bioweapons in violation of international law. And third, the article argues, hopefully, if these capabilities are widely known, they make the use of bioweapons much less appealing in the first place. But the techniques have more mundane uses as well. Bradshaw told me he envisions applications of the technology could be used to find accidental lab leaks, identify plagiarism in academic papers, and protect biological intellectual property — and those applications will validate and extend the tools for the really critical uses. It’s worth repeating that SARS-CoV-2 was not an engineered virus. But the past year and a half should have us all thinking about how devastating pandemic disease can be — and about whether the precautions being taken by research labs and governments are really adequate to prevent the next pandemic. The answer, to my mind, is that we’re not doing enough, but more sophisticated biological forensics could certainly help. Genetic engineering attribution is still a new field. With more effort, it’ll likely be possible to one day make attribution possible on a much larger scale and to do it for viruses and bacteria. That could make for a much safer future. A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!
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vox.com
What Dave Chappelle gets wrong about trans people and comedy
Neverending Nina speaks as trans employees and allies at Netflix walk out in protest of the Dave Chappelle special on October 20, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. | Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images Dave Chappelle’s trans friend knew how to take a joke. So what? Toward the end of Dave Chappelle’s incendiary Netflix standup special The Closer, he says something revealing about the fight he’s waged against trans people — a fight that’s drawn Netflix itself into the fray and which led to a walkout and protest against the company on October 20. After discussing the death of his friend, a trans comedian named Daphne Dorman who Chappelle also mentioned in his previous special Sticks and Stones, Chappelle makes a joke where the punchline is to blatantly misgender her. Then he says, “As hard as it is to hear a joke like that, I’m telling you right now — Daphne would have loved that joke.” As I’ve attempted to grapple with the aims of Chappelle’s comedy, this line has stuck with me. Chappelle’s use of Dorman as a kind of totem for the type of relationship he’d like to have with the trans community at large is both telling and confusing — not because of what it says about Chappelle and Dorman, but because of what it says about the nature of comedy and the nature of pain. Trans people have expressed outrage at both Chappelle and Netflix for amplifying overtly transphobic and anti-scientific views about gender and trans identity. In his defense of Chappelle, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos first said that he didn’t believe The Closer could cause any real-world harm, and then, after recanting that statement, said that trans people would simply have to deal with the special being on the platform. What we wind up with, then, is this: Yes, The Closer could cause real-world harm, but trans people will just have to get over it. So perhaps the real question is, should trans people have to get over it? “Yes” seems to be the answer from The Closer, more or less. There’s no getting around the reality that transphobic rhetoric like Chappelle’s absolutely contributes to real-life harm. But Chappelle seems to view that hurt, and even the immediate pain of his transphobic jokes, as a worthy trade-off. Chappelle wants to make classes of oppression into a zero-sum game. Individual identity doesn’t work that way. Throughout The Closer, Chappelle argues — often savvily, if with glaring hypocrisy — that many queer and trans people enjoy white privilege, and that their white privilege makes them essentially more cosseted and protected than Chappelle and other Black men in America. “Gay people are minorities until they need to be white again,” he notes at one point. Chappelle gets close to lobbing a critique of social justice movements that mainly focus on aiding white people, but his analysis lacks nuance: He frames whiteness as the protective cover most gay and transgender people default to, ignoring Black trans people in the course of the show. Chappelle repeatedly attempts to redirect the conversation back to concerns of Black oppression and violence against Black communities. These are serious problems — but in contrast, he treats the equality movement among sexual and gender minorities as essentially shrill window-dressing. Chappelle rarely acknowledges that these communities contain people of color; instead, he frames the concerns of queer and genderqueer people — especially the linguistic arguments about pronouns, anatomy, and bodily functions that often arise from conversations about trans and nonbinary identity — as solely a product of white progressive hysteria gone mad. In fact, in the moment where he comes closest to accepting trans identity, again using his friend Daphne as his lodestar, it’s the semantic argument that makes the crucial difference for Chappelle. Praising Dorman for her skills as a comedian and her good-natured attitude, he recalls Dorman telling him, “I don’t need you to understand me. I just need you to believe that I’m having a human experience.” Then he points out that he accepted her explicitly “because she didn’t say anything about pronouns” or make him feel like he was about to be “in trouble” for saying something wrong. On one level, Chappelle’s anxiety here is deeply relatable. It’s the anxiety felt by many people who are frustrated by cancel culture and what they perceive as its policing of language and free speech. No one likes to be yelled at or told they’re problematic, especially if they say the “wrong” thing when they’re trying to get clarity on complex situations. Much of the conversation around “canceling” and the reactionary politics it engenders — reactionary politics that include all of Chappelle’s recent comedy material — seems to demand a degree of patience with people who are still working out the basic issues surrounding complicated identity vectors. Often, thinking about these things is hard. But Chappelle makes it clear that he needs Dorman to exist on his terms, not hers — not as a trans woman with autonomy, but as a trans woman who’s proven she deserves autonomy by way of having a chill, laid-back sense of humor. Furthermore, in repeatedly reducing Dorman’s existence to her body parts and her relationship to them and the language surrounding them, Chappelle dehumanizes her and dehumanizes other trans people. Dorman’s fate — she died by suicide shortly after the release of Sticks and Stones in 2019 — directly undermines Chappelle’s logic. Because Dorman was trans, she was at an extremely high risk of dying by suicide or transphobic violence. Any way you look at it, trans people are among the most vulnerable populations in society: Out of all hate crimes that result in homicide, 72 percent of the victims are trans women, according to 2013 data. 50 percent of trans people will experience sexual assault or abuse in their lifetimes; this number is even higher for Black trans people. 54 percent of trans people experience intimate partner violence. Trans people of color are six times more likely to experience police brutality than white cisgender people. 10 percent of trans people experience violence from a family member after coming out as trans. Eight percent of trans people are kicked out of their homes after coming out. 30 percent of trans people experience homelessness at least once in their lives. In 2015, 30 percent of trans people reported experiencing workplace harassment, including sexual assault, physical harassment, or being fired for their gender expression. More than 50 percent of trans teens seriously considered suicide in the last year; more than 66 percent of trans teens experienced major symptoms of depression within the two weeks prior to the survey. This is what Chappelle’s critics mean when they discuss the real-world impact of Chappelle’s transphobia. His comedy, which involves continually insisting, against science, that gender is always tied to biology, isn’t just reactionary semantics. It’s dangerous rhetoric that’s been shown in study after study can directly impact the levels of anti-trans violence and societal prejudice that trans people already face daily. It’s important not to omit this reality from the equation — which is what Chappelle does when he treats Dorman as though she’s a comedian first and a trans woman second. Chappelle seems to think all trans people should have the attitude of comedians like Dorman Chappelle views comedians as their own “tribe.” In The Closer, he even claims Dorman for his own “tribe” and not for the trans community: “She wasn’t their tribe, she was mine,” he says. “She was a comedian in her soul.” Chappelle’s not just talking about comedy as a medium here, he’s talking about comedy as a worldview. Comedy is a subculture, after all, with its own very particular set of rules and mores. Perhaps the chief rule is the one comedians tend to embrace the hardest: Always, always be able to take a joke. In the past, this principle has led to the privileging, within the comedy community, of the comedian’s right to make rude, disturbing, or even heinously offensive jokes. The logic goes that if the comedian can take a joke, the audience should be less sensitive, too. (See, for instance, the notorious moment in 2012 when a comedian heckled a woman in the audience who reacted to a sketch about rape jokes by making a rape joke about her.) Much of the recent cultural conversation over comedy and free speech has centered on the idea that comedians should be able to discomfit their audiences, whether in the service of making them laugh or making them think, without backlash — and that if you can’t handle a joke that makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem, not the joke-maker’s. Dorman herself was adept at taking an offensive joke. As Chappelle recalls, when an audience member interrupted one of Dorman’s shows with a transphobic question, she shot back by making an even better joke about her own anatomy. This, Chappelle wants us all to know, should be the response when we’re confronted with transphobia: not anger, hurt, or pain; not a walkout in protest of Netflix, but good-humored deflection. This rule applies, at best, within the realm of comedy, between a comedian and their audience, not to the lived experiences of people in their everyday lives. Chappelle seems to need all trans people to accept the mores of his own very specific professional subculture, and he makes this request sound reasonable — he’s just a guy wanting to be allowed to make transphobic jokes without getting canceled for it, geez — but in practice, it’s baffling. Most people aren’t comedians, and most people are sensitive to jokes designed specifically to hurt them. Chappelle’s idea that trans people should have to prove, like Dorman, that they can take a joke without getting offended before they’re worthy of respect is a bit like a journalist demanding trans people prove they can use AP style before allowing them to command a conversation about their own gender identity. What’s more, if “always be able to take a joke” is sacrosanct, there’s another rule that comedy holds just as dear: the one about never “punching down.” In comedy, punching down refers to humor that targets vulnerable groups of people who don’t hold much power in society. It exists in opposition to the kind of “punch up” that aims to critique people and institutions with power. Onstage, punching down is generally considered a huge “No” — the kind of thing that can immediately alienate an audience if you’re not doing it to make a deeper point. (Chappelle talks about this concept in The Closer, asking the larger LGBTQIA community not to “punch down” on his people, using Kevin Hart and DaBaby as examples.) Chappelle’s deeper point seems to return again and again to the idea that trans people are too sensitive and that this sensitivity is somehow bolstered by white fragility. He seems to feel that his prioritization of the pain of Black communities over those of trans communities — as if, again, they are entirely separate — justifies an evening devoted to homophobic and transphobic jokes. Because Chappelle seems to believe that all queer and trans people have white privilege, he views himself as punching neither up nor down and even quotes Dorman as suggesting as much. But Chappelle, of all people, should know better. He’s hyper-aware, as a comedian who frequently uses humor to make points about racial and social justice, that comedy impacts the real world. In fact, in 2005, Chappelle completely killed his own hit comedy show, the legendary Chappelle’s Show, because of one joke that made him realize, according to an interview he gave to Time, that rather than critiquing racist comedy, he might instead be reinforcing racist stereotypes for white audiences who were enjoying the joke unironically. At the very least, then, Chappelle should know that there’s a possibility his jokes about trans people could be taken the wrong way and used to hurt trans people. There’s even an echo of the 2005 moment in the new special, when Chappelle has to stop and gently reprimand an audience member who starts to applaud a transphobic law. As Vulture’s Craig Jenkins put it, “You talk enough shit, and you’ll draw flies.” Rather than acknowledging this possibility and its potential for harm, Chappelle not only justifies his comedy using white privilege, but seems to go a step further: He suggests that being hurt is good for trans and nonbinary people. When he says, “As hard as it is to hear a joke like that,” and then follows it up with any kind of defense, he’s telling audiences that he knows the joke is painful, hurtful, and transphobic — but that it’s somehow productive for trans people to be confronted by it. That it’s a learning experience to be confronted with transphobia onstage, as though trans people aren’t confronted with gender policing in every other moment of their lives. Only then, in Chappelle’s telling, can Chappelle and trans people “[start] getting to the bottom of shit.” Once trans people have shown him that they’re capable of being good-humored about other people’s continual objectification and degrading dismissal of transgender identity issues, they can — on the terms of the person using transphobia to interact with them — be heard and accepted and loved. This isn’t equality. Chappelle, who’s spent his entire comedy career using humor to make sharp, trenchant commentary on racism and injustice, should know that. Trans people should never have to just live with or get over or get used to rhetoric that dehumanizes them. The man who speaks viscerally about the fear Black Americans experience daily should know that asking trans people to accept and embrace transphobic ideology isn’t tolerance. It certainly isn’t the love and good humor he wants to be credited with. And despite the audience laughing with Chappelle, it’s not funny at all.
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vox.com
Who should get a Covid-19 booster shot right now?
Hattie Pierce, 75, receives a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine booster shot from Dr. Tiffany Taliaferro at the Safeway on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on October 4. | Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images Three big questions about booster shots, answered. It may be time for your Covid-19 vaccine booster shot. The Food and Drug Administration has now authorized additional doses of all three Covid-19 vaccines in the US — Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — for certain higher-risk groups and has said that booster shots don’t have to be the same brand as the first round of vaccination. The CDC has seconded those recommendations. The government’s recommendations for booster doses are based on different subgroups’ risk from Covid-19; thus far, boosters are only recommended for older adults or people at higher risk because of their health or occupation. Experts have debated to what extent boosters are appropriate for everybody, given the evidence of persistently strong protection against severe illness for many people. But most seem to agree an additional dose makes sense to increase immunity for people considered more vulnerable to the virus. While boosters still aren’t technically recommended for everyone yet, the groups already okayed by the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for booster shots are quite broad and cover much of the adult population. Everybody over age 65 is eligible for an additional dose — that’s 54 million people. People with certain medical conditions such as heart disease (as much as 48 percent of adults) and people who are obese (about 42 percent) are also eligible for a booster. So are people in occupations deemed to be higher risk, such as first responders, manufacturing workers, teachers, and grocery store employees. The bottom line for now: If you were vaccinated at least six months ago with the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna shot and you’re at higher risk for Covid-19 based on your age, job, or medical history, it’s recommended that you receive a booster. So should anyone vaccinated at least two months ago with the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the FDA. Who is recommended for a booster shot? The FDA has approved booster shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and J&J vaccines, and the CDC has finalized matching recommendations for who should receive a booster. Under the FDA’s authorization, the following people are eligible for an additional Covid-19 vaccine dose: Any person over age 65 who initially received either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine Any person over age 18 who initially received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine People ages 18 to 64 who initially received either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine and whose health puts them at higher risk from Covid-19 People ages 18 to 64 who initially received the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine and whose job puts them at higher risk of exposure to Covid-19 The lists of medical conditions and occupations that qualify for a booster shot extend eligibility to a lot of Americans. Those medical conditions include not only heart disease, diabetes, and cancer but also depression and pregnancy. High-risk jobs include the people in the food and agriculture industry, nursing home workers, and US Postal Service employees. Check the list — more people are eligible than you may think. Age is the strongest indicator for a booster shot, according to the experts I’ve spoken to. Even those who think the case for booster shots for younger and healthier people is not as strong agree that people over 65 would likely benefit from an additional dose. Most experts also support boosters for immunocompromised people, though the vaccines are still not as effective for those people to begin with. There is less consensus among experts about workers in jobs considered to be high risk, if they don’t already qualify because of age or health. Experts stress that research continues to show strong protection against severe illness for younger people without any significant medical conditions. But senior government health officials have insisted on including those workers in the groups eligible for a booster shot. Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images Sandra Lindsay gets a Pfizer booster shot at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, on October 6. Lindsay, an intensive care unit nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, became the first American to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in December 2020. For the eligible people whose first doses were either the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, they can receive their next dose at least six months after their initial vaccine course was completed, the FDA said. For people whose first dose was the J&J vaccine, they can get a booster shot two months after their first shot. The federal guidance matches what many experts have said is appropriate based on the current scientific evidence. There have been indications of the Covid-19 vaccines waning in effectiveness over time and against the delta variant. But the protection they provide against severe disease — resulting in hospitalization or death — remains strong for many people. The exceptions are older people, who have seen a greater drop in efficacy over time, and people with compromised immune systems, for whom the vaccines are often not as effective to start with. They are the focus of the booster guidelines, along with workers in higher-risk settings. What about mixing and matching different shots? All of the Covid-19 vaccines offer good protection against severe illness, but they are not equal. The Moderna vaccine has held up the best over time, including since the delta variant became dominant. Pfizer/BioNTech performs the next best, while Johnson & Johnson was the weakest of the three in its original one-dose regimen (though it has not seen much waning over time). Those differences have led some people — J&J recipients, in particular — to wonder whether they should get a dose of one of the better-performing vaccines for their booster shot. As the Atlantic reported last week, research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found the people who received a first dose of J&J and a second dose of Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech showed higher antibody levels than the people who got J&J for both doses. Antibody levels are not the only metric by which immunity is measured, but they are a useful proxy. The evidence is not as clear about whether it’s better to get a Moderna booster if you previously received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine (or vice versa) because the NIH study used a full dose of the Moderna vaccine for its booster, whereas, in the real world, the Moderna booster will be a half dose. The new FDA guidance does say that people should be okay mixing and matching different vaccines. Generally speaking, they can get whichever booster shot they like if they fall in one of the subgroups recommended for an additional dose and sufficient time has passed: again, two months for J&J recipients or six months for Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna recipients. Different vaccines also have different side effects, another consideration for booster shots. Younger men who receive the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines have been found to be at a slightly higher risk of heart inflammation. Younger women who receive the J&J vaccine may be at a somewhat elevated risk of a rare blood-clotting problem. Both of those side effects, though serious, have been rare, and the FDA said the expected benefits of a booster shot for each of the vaccines outweigh the risks. Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images Wanda Shaffer, 83, got her Pfizer booster shot at a California McDonald’s in September, as the California Department of Public Health and local McDonald’s franchisees held pop-up vaccine clinics at locations throughout Southern California. Should I get a booster shot? First off: The vaccines work. Recent waves of Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths have been concentrated in the remaining unvaccinated population. People who receive a vaccine are less likely to contract Covid-19 in the first place, much less likely to develop severe symptoms, less likely to transmit the virus to other people, and less likely to develop long Covid. But the vaccines aren’t perfect. There are going to be breakthrough cases. For some people, they don’t work as well. The recent death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell — who was fully vaccinated but immunocompromised because of blood cancer — served as a reminder that some people remain at risk so long as the virus is still circulating. The current federal guidance is concentrated on those people, to provide them more protection ahead of the winter. In the best-case scenario over the next few months, at-risk people get this additional immunity, more people get their first vaccine dose, and the virus slows down without new variants emerging. We should see fewer deaths than we did during last winter’s devastating wave. Still, Covid-19 isn’t going to disappear entirely, and experts expect booster shots may eventually be authorized for most people. A lot of Americans had already gone ahead and gotten an extra dose before the FDA officially approved it. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University, told me she thought people who are already eligible should get their booster “as soon as possible.” Other people might consider it, she said, if they were expecting to congregate with a lot of others during the holiday season or if they have to spend a lot of time around unvaccinated people or individuals whose vaccination status they don’t know. Covid-19 is here to stay, and booster shots are a reflection of that reality. They are one way to make it more palatable to live with this disease.
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vox.com
The French Dispatch is peak Wes Anderson. I wish I loved it.
Bill Murray in The French Dispatch. | Searchlight Pictures Anderson’s latest film feasts on melancholy nostalgia for a world gone by — but the flavor is off. The French Dispatch takes place in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France — the name of which, to my chagrin, neatly matches my feelings about the movie. Wes Anderson’s latest (full title: The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) is not bad, per se. It’s just that the eponymous listlessness and indifference is, for me, its entire emotional effect. Part of the trouble with Wes Anderson is that I know he’s making movies specifically for me, an occasionally pretentious dreamer with francophile tendencies and a fetish for printed magazines. The French Dispatch is nostalgic, a little weird, visually sumptuous — all characteristics that are far too uncommon in mainstream American film today. In a plot- and spoiler-obsessed film culture, he’s the rare filmmaker who reminds people that movies are a primordially visual medium. He favors symmetry and fussiness, intricately designed tableaus and meticulously selected color palettes. (Occasionally I might argue he’s too visually oriented.) For some people, his movies play like some kind of soothing ASMR for the eyes. The French Dispatch seems formulated in a lab for my narrative preferences.It’s not just that Ennui-sur-Blasé stands in for some imagined version of Paris, the kind that Francophile Americans imagine still exists in some corner of that storied town, a little seedy but also incredibly cute. It’s that the whole film is a tribute to the kind of literary magazine that so many writers of my vintage dream of working for, specifically the New Yorker, whose famed editors and writers, like Mavis Gallant, Harold Ross, and James Baldwin, furnish the models for a number of the film’s characters. While there are some obvious differences between the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun and the New Yorker — among other things, the latter has soldiered on into the new millennium — Anderson’s status as a New Yorker fanboy is clear from the start. He’s loved the publication since his teens, and owns almost every issue from the 1940s onward. In a recent interview with the magazine itself, Anderson said that in adulthood, “I found myself reading various writers’ accounts of life at The New Yorker—Brendan Gill, James Thurber, Ben Yagoda—and I got caught up in the whole aura of the thing.” He’s even worked to compile a book containing some of the articles from the magazine’s archive that inspired the film. Searchlight Pictures Wally Wolodarsky, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson in The French Dispatch. I’ve seen The French Dispatch twice, and I felt that aura, too. But both times, watching it was like smacking into one of those white limestone walls that line most Parisian streets. I struggled to care about its characters or stories or journalism more broadly. Somewhere in my soul, I feel this ought not to be. If you’re a Wes Anderson fan and you’re mad at me now, I’m sorry! Kind of. Let me try to explain. For Wes-heads, The French Dispatch is likely satisfying. It’s like a greatest hits album, with many of his favorite themes: loneliness, friendship, family, love, death. Every intricate tableau and winking nod to his influences feels like a nudge to the audience, an invitation to be in on the joke. Which I mostly am. Yet I came away cold. Anderson’s New Yorker stand-in was started by Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), scion of the owner of the Kansas Evening Sun, who more or less conned his way into putting out a “little-read Sunday supplement” to that paper for five decades. He posted up in Ennui-sur-Blasé as a youth in 1925 and ended his tenure when he died in 1975, whereupon the French Dispatch shut down — paying, of course, a handsome bonus to its already handsomely paid staff writers. (Nearly 50 years in the future, we who write for magazines on paper and otherwise can only dream of that kind of life.) On his staff are celebrated journalists like Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). They write about art and history, food and culture, protests and poetry. After revealing to its audience that Howitzer will have died by the end of the movie, The French Dispatch moves backward slightly to see Howitzer gruffly guiding them through the editing process (there’s a strictly enforced “No Crying” sign above his office door), inquiring about their expense reports and helping shape their prose. Based on an amalgam of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross and his successor William Shawn, Howitzer is the kind of hands-on editor you don’t see much anymore. When he dies, the movie tells us, he receives “an editor’s burial.” The French Dispatch is arranged as if it’s the final edition of Howitzer’s Sunday supplement, the one he was working on when he died. It’s an anthology film, with small segments that furnish the “articles” — one on the outsider artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard muse (Léa Seydoux); one on the leader of roiling student protests (Timothée Chalamet) and the girl he falls for (Lyna Khoudri); one on the author’s (Jeffrey Wright) encounter with a curious corner of French cuisine; and one by a roaming cyclist-reporter (Owen Wilson) on Ennui-sur-Blasé itself. There’s also an obituary for Howitzer, written by his staff. Searchlight Pictures The French Dispatch roams from color to black and white and back again. Stylistically, The French Dispatch is Anderson working at the height of his powers. A delightful sequence near the beginning of the film features just a close-up of the hands of an expert preparing coffee and cocktails for the magazine’s staff on a rotating silver platter, then a wide shot of a waiter maneuvering the platter up an intricate set of staircases and doorways to reach the offices and deliver the drinks. He moves from black and white to color, playing delightedly with framings and image composition. Sometimes Anderson seems to be making a Jacques Tati movie; at others, he’s channeling Truffaut or Hitchcock or Visconti. That may be the problem. The French Dispatch is so referential that the pastiche overwhelms, delivering a swirling vortex of references that don’t quite add up to anything in particular. Watching it reminded me of legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s response to Anderson when, in 1998, he showed his film, Rushmore, to his then-retired hero. “I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes,” Kael said. I don’t know what he’s got in The French Dispatch, either. There’s a strand of arguing for the essential joy of things that can’t be easily commodified, whether they’re old markets in French towns or a painting that can’t be easily transported or cuisine that can’t be easily located or little-read Sunday supplements to Midwestern newspapers. Anderson’s films are, themselves, part of this heritage of impracticality — his brand of fussiness is not easy or cheap to replicate. But his world is a fantasy one, an imagined ideal that can be fun to sink into yet doesn’t leave a lot of room to walk around and think in. I felt like I was being distracted from something while watching the movie, my attention turned away from the bigger tragedy — the slow death of magazines — that’s hiding underneath. Maybe it’s just the fact that the fantasy of the kind that The French Dispatch weaves feels a lot more like calamity if you work inside the world of magazines. Just this week, the announcement that The Believer, one of the few remaining staunchly impractical French Dispatch-like magazines out there, will cease publication next year, as part of a “strategic realignment” within the Black Mountain Institute, which publishes the magazine. The “little magazines” that shaped American thought during the last century have been slowly dying off, as have legendary alt-weeklies and local journalism. Most writers barely get paid enough to live on; workers at magazines and newspapers (including the New Yorker) are fighting for fair pay; those of us lucky enough to have jobs are always watching our backs, having seen friends lose theirs over and over again. Searchlight Pictures The staff of the French Dispatch — played by Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens, and Griffin Dunne — try not to cry. The New Yorker, for now, endures. (May it live long and prosper.) But watching market forces eat away at this kind of nourishing, curious, resolutely unlucrative but vital writing is soul-crushing. I can’t help but wonder if thefrantic pastiche and rampant nostalgia of this film weakened my ability to enjoy it. It feels hollow. One single moment in The French Dispatch did worm its way into my heart, however. Roebuck Wright, the amalgamation of James Baldwin and food writer A.J. Liebling played by Jeffrey Wright, is asked by an interviewer (Liev Schreiber) why he, an accomplished writer who’s covered many topics, has so often returned to writing about food. Wright responds, slowly and thoughtfully, that the life of being a journalist is difficult and lonely. “I chose this life,” he acknowledges, before explaining that, at the end of the day, there’s always been a table somewhere for him, with a chef and a waiter ready to warm his heart and fortify him with a good meal. “The solitary feast has been very like a comrade,” he says. Which I read, just a little, as Anderson’s statement about the feast that an issue of a great magazine has been to him. Or a great movie or, indeed, a literal feast. Something that sustains and delights the soul. So if I feel blasé about The French Dispatch — and despite my best efforts, I do — at least I admire and know what it’s getting at. Everybody’s feast is movable, and with movies and writing and art, there’s no accounting for taste. The French Dispatch is playing in theaters.
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vox.com
The Supreme Court’s very unusual new abortion orders, explained
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 02: Women rights activists gather in front of the supreme court after a rally at freedom plaza for the annual Women’s March October 2, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Women’s March and other groups organized marches across the country to protest the new abortion law in Texas. | Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images The Court still won’t stop Texas from banning abortions, but it wants to bring this saga to a final resolution quickly. The Supreme Court handed down a pair of very closely related orders on Friday concerning SB 8, a Texas law that effectively bans all abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy. The punchline is that the ban on nearly all abortions in Texas remains in effect, but the justices appear very eager to resolve the very unusual legal questions presented by this law. The two orders arise out of two separate cases. Whole Woman’s Health v. Jacksonis a suit brought by abortion providers hoping to block SB 8. United States v. Texas involves a case brought by President Joe Biden’s administration after the Court denied relief to the abortion provider plaintiffs in early September, despite the fact that the law is unconstitutional under existing Supreme Court precedents like Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The Court held in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) that “the right of the woman to choose to have an abortion before viability and to obtain it without undue interference from the state” is protected by the Constitution. A fetus becomes “viable,” meaning that it can survive outside the womb, around the 24th week of pregnancy. And, again, SB 8 effectively prohibits abortion after the sixth week — before many people even know they’re pregnant. The Court’s decision to allow SB 8 to take effect in September despite it contravening that precedent was widely viewed as a sign that the Court is likely to overrule — or, at least, gut — Roe. Neither of the new abortion orders disturb that September decision. So SB 8 remains in effect. And the constitutional right to an abortion still appears to be in jeopardy. Yet, while SB 8 remains in effect after the two new orders, the Court did take two steps suggesting that it wants to bring the litigation over this Texas law to a close fairly soon. The Court ruled that both the Whole Woman’s Health case and the Texas case will receive full briefing and a full hearing before the justices — though it limited both cases to the question of whether the abortion providers or the United States is allowed to pursue these lawsuits. Just as significantly, the justices plan to consider these cases on an extraordinarily expedited basis. The parties in both cases have just days to write their briefs — briefing must be completed by October 29, and the justices will hear oral arguments on November 1. It’s worth noting, moreover, that the justices also plan to hear another abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which asks the Court to overrule Roe in its entirety. It’s notable that the justices scheduled arguments in Whole Woman’s Health and Texas a month before the argument in Dobbs. That suggests that, at the very least, the justices want to resolve the question of whether either lawsuit against SB 8 may move forward very soon. Again, nothing in these orders should give comfort to supporters of abortion rights. Texas passed an extraordinarily aggressive ban on abortions, and that ban remains in effect despite the fact that it violates Roe and Casey. But the two new orders do suggest that the Court is eager to resolve the very unusual procedural questions raised by SB 8. So why is there any doubt about whether anyone can sue Texas to block SB 8? SB 8 is a simply extraordinary law that was drafted for the very purpose of evading judicial review. Briefly, under a doctrine known as “sovereign immunity,” private parties are rarely allowed to sue a state directly in federal court. Instead, they typically must sue the state official tasked with enforcing the law that the plaintiff wishes to challenge. But SB 8 explicitly forbids any “officer or employee of a state or local governmental entity” in Texas from enforcing it. Instead, it may only be enforced through private lawsuits. These lawsuits may be filed by “any person” who is not an employee of the state against anyone who either performs an abortion or who “aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion.” Plaintiffs who prevail in these lawsuits receive a bounty of at least $10,000, which must be paid by the defendant. In short, you can’t sue to stop SB 8 from being enforced because there’s no one to sue. The abortion providers argue in their case, among other things, that they did sue a state official charged with enforcing the law. Even if executive branch officials in Texas may not enforce SB 8, state court judges must still issue the orders requiring abortion providers to pay a bounty, and these orders must be docketed by state court clerks. So the abortion providers argue that these judges and clerks are the proper defendants. In its September order permitting SB 8 to go into effect, the Supreme Court refused to answer this question of whether state court judges and clerks may be sued. But that issue is now likely to be resolved. Meanwhile, the Justice Department argues in its suit that there must be some way to vindicate the “supremacy of federal law and the traditional mechanisms of judicial review,” even if the abortion providers aren’t allowed to pursue their lawsuit. DOJ’s argument is if no one else can sue to block SB 8, then the United States must be allowed to do so in order to vindicate the principle that all states must obey the Constitution. The Court will now decide whether either of these parties is allowed to sue — although it is less clear whether the Court will immediately resolve the question of whether to strike down SB 8 or require the parties to jump through additional procedural hoops in the lower courts. SB 8 created a crisis for abortion providers in Texas and in neighboring states In the Court’s order agreeing to hear the Texas case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a partial dissent arguing that the Court should have also blocked SB 8 while this litigation is pending. “For the second time,” Sotomayor writes, referring back to the September order allowing SB 8 to take effect, “the Court is presented with an application to enjoin a statute enacted in open disregard of the constitutional rights of women seeking abortion care in Texas.” And, “for the second time, the Court declines to act immediately to protect these women from grave and irreparable harm.” As Sotomayor explains, the Court’s September order created a crisis for abortion providers. In Texas, between 85 and 95 percent of abortions are now illegal. Moreover, Sotomayor notes that abortion “providers are ‘seriously concerned that even providing abortions in compliance with S.B. 8 will draw lawsuits from anti-abortion vigilantes or others seeking financial gain.’” Meanwhile, nearby states are flooded with pregnant people from Texas seeking abortions in places where it is still legal. “An Oklahoma provider, for example, reported a ‘staggering 646% increase of Texan patients per day,’ occupying between 50% and 75% of capacity,” Sotomayor writes. Similarly a Kansas clinic “reported that about half of its patients now come from Texas.” It is likely that the five conservative justices who voted to let SB 8 take effect in September are quite happy with this state of affairs. Many, if not all of them, owe their seats to a concerted effort by the Republican Party to build an anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court. Former President Donald Trump, who appointed a third of the Supreme Court, promised to fill it with justices who will overrule Roe. And, as Sotomayor writes in her dissent, the impact of SB 8 on Texas and nearby states offers a preview of what the country will look like if Roe is overruled. “Those with sufficient resources may spend thousands of dollars and multiple days anxiously seeking care from out-of-state providers so overwhelmed with Texas patients that they cannot adequately serve their own communities,” Sotomayor writes. Meanwhile, “those without the ability to make this journey, whether due to lack of money or childcare or employment flexibility or the myriad other constraints that shape people’s day-to-day lives, may be forced to carry to term against their wishes or resort to dangerous methods of self-help.”
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vox.com
How you’ll know when Covid-19 has gone from “pandemic” to “endemic”
Experts say it is unrealistic to think Covid-19 will be totally eradicated. | Getty Images It’s more subjective than you might think. You’ve probably heard it by now: Covid-19 is not going away. The broad consensus among experts is that it’s not realistic to think we’re going to totally eradicate this virus. We will, however, see it move out of the pandemic phase and into the endemic phase. That means the virus will keep circulating in parts of the global population for years, but its prevalence and impactwill come down to relatively manageable levels, so it becomes more like the flu than a world-stopping disease. For now, “we have to remember that we are still in a pandemic with this virus,” said Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “We’re not yet at a point where we’re living with endemic Covid. When we get to that point some of this will be much easier, but we’re not there.” So, how will we know when we are there? Is there some clear threshold or some magical metricthat will tell us, objectively and undeniably? Yes and no. For an infectious disease to be classed in the endemic phase, the rate of infections has to more or less stabilize across years (though occasional increases, say, in the winter, are expected). “A disease is endemic if the reproductive number is stably at one. That means one infected person, on average, infects one other person,” explained Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray. “Right now, we are nowhere near that. Each person who’s infected is infecting more than one person.” That’s largely due to the hyper-contagious delta variant and the fact that most of the global population doesn’t yet have immunity — whether through vaccination or infection — so susceptibility is still high. (For a while, there had been hope that the arrival of vaccines would mean we could reach herd immunity — that is, when enough of a population has gained immunity to confer protection to everyone. But those hopes have been dashed as we’ve failed to vaccinate enough people and more contagious variants have circulated widely.) But getting the virus’s reproductive number down to one is just “the bare minimum” for earning the endemic classification, Murray said. There are other factors that come into play, too — and assessing these factors is a more subjective business. In general, a virus becomes endemic when we — health experts, governmental bodies, and the public —collectively decide that we’re okay with accepting the level of impact the virus has. And obviously, that’s a tricky thing: People will differ as to what constitutes an acceptable level. The multiple factors that determine when a disease is endemic The worst outcome from becoming infected with a virus is obviously death. The flu, for example, kills between 12,000 and 52,000 Americans each year, according to CDC estimates. Is that figure “acceptable” or too high? “The way I think about it, even with influenza, that’s too much,” Joshua Petrie, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told me. But as a society, we’ve implicitly decided that we will accept that level of mortality rather than taking measures to lower it by, say, wearing masks in winter or mandating flu vaccines. Similarly, with Covid-19, people will disagree about what constitutes an “acceptable” level of mortality. “I am not prepared to say what the appropriate benchmark is yet, but it certainly is much, much lower than where we are, and much closer to where the flu is,” Kates said. Because pandemics don’t end by a disease just fading away, & pandemics don’t end with everyone able to completely forget about the disease.Pandemics end when we decide how much death and disease we’re satisfied with. I dont know about you, but for me—this is too much death. pic.twitter.com/yRGoZ2euEd— Dr Ellie Murray, ScD (@EpiEllie) October 1, 2021 Mortality isn’t the only type of impact we need to take seriously. Covid-19 can lead to long-haul symptoms in a minority of cases — estimates range from 10 to 30 percent in unvaccinated people, with a small number of vaccinated people also affected. The symptoms, like brain fog, memory loss, and fatigue, are sometimes so debilitating that the condition is recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The reasons why some people get “long Covid” and others recover quickly are still not well understood, and the path to effective treatments for long-haulers is uncertain. In determining endemicity, Murray said she’d look at the availability of treatments for long-haulers as well as treatments for people in the early stages of the disease (Merck’s pill molnupiravir, which the pharma giant said cuts hospitalizations in half for at-risk patients, looks like it’ll be helpful in this regard). She’d also consider other factors like ICU and hospital bed capacity, supply-chain issues, and whether the use of medications for Covid-19 is detracting from the supply of those medications for other chronic conditions that they’d normally be treating. “What you want is to get to a stage where you don’t have to worry about disruption because of Covid,” Murray told me. “The pandemic is over when the crises stop — not just when we get to a certain level of death.” Again, though, determining when something stops being a crisis can be a bit subjective. There’s one imminent development that makes Murray hopeful about the pandemic phase winding down in the US by 2022: Vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds are expected to be approved within weeks. “I think once we have vaccines for all ages, I’m a lot more hopeful about the control situation in the US,” she said. Vaccinating school-going kids is crucial both because it’ll protect them and because it’ll limit spread in the community. Will we get an official declaration saying the state of emergency is over? In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic. Soon after, the US government declared a national emergency. Then, one by one, states followed suit. As we move toward endemicity, we can expect to watch this process happen in reverse, experts told me. First, we’ll likely see individual states declaring an end to the emergency (some states already have). This will be staggered. Some areas, notably those with high vaccination rates, will reach a reasonable approximation of endemicity sooner than others. On a national level, “the CDC may pull back our state of emergency in the US if cases remain low at some point in the future,” said Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University. “But we still have a long way to go in controlling the virus around the globe,” she added. “A pandemic by nature is global, and while we’re doing better in the US and other wealthy countries, vaccine availability in many low- and middle-income countries has been atrocious.” The WHO will eventually declare an end to the global pandemic, just like it’s done in the past for, say, the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic. You just shouldn’t expect to hear the WHO’s declaration anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean you can’t move forward with your life in the meantime. If you live in the US, “it’s certainly possible” your region will be reasonably classed as being in the endemic phase in 2022, Petrie said. When the time comes, your state health department and local officials will likely make an announcement, based partly on the virus’s objective reproductive number and partly on the more subjective criteria above. And until then? Rather than thinking of endemicity as an on-off switch next year, plan to think of it as a dimmer switch, Petrie told me. He plans to keep an eye on the CDC’s county data tracker to monitor local transmission levels. When his county is no longer in the red zone, he’ll start to feel more comfortable doing more public activities. We all have different levels of risk tolerance, so, for a while yet, we’ll be making our own subjective choices about which thresholds feel safe enough. “As we’re transitioning to a more endemic level,” he said, “I think adjusting your behavior based on what’s happening locally makes a lot of sense.” A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!
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vox.com
Why Dune endures
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune. | Warner Bros. Denis Villeneuve’s new big-screen adaptation underlines why generations have been fascinated by the story. Harkonnens. Messiahs. Deadly, insect-like hunter-seekers. A secretive all-women order of spies, nuns, scientists, and theologians that’s bending history to its will. A spice harvested from an arid desert that enables space travel. ’Thopters. Interstellar war. Giant sand worms. The world of Dune is a wild one, a tale spun by Frank Herbert in the tumultuous 1960s that mixes fear of authoritarian rule and environmental collapse with fascism, racism, and hallucinatory imagery. The 1965 novel, which eventually garnered widespread acclaim, was followed by a universe of sequels for its rabidly devoted fans. The trappings of its imagined, distant-future world feel wondrous, unfamiliar, and strange. Or they would, if we hadn’t been steeped in Dune fever for so many years, even prior to the recent arrival of Denis Villeneuve’s extraordinary and resolutely abstruse film adaptation. Even the most Dune-averse person can hardly avoid the long tail of Herbert’s saga, whether they realize it or not. The story has been referenced by pop stars like Lady Gaga, who made a sly nod to Dune in the “Telephone” music video, and Grimes, whose debut studio album, Geidi Primes, is a concept album based on Dune. Fatboy Slim’s song “Weapon of Choice,” the one with the music video starring Christopher Walken, is one big reference to the book (“Walk without rhythm / It won’t attract the worm”). Video games like Fallout and World of Warcraft contain references to Dune, as do plenty of TV shows from Scooby-Dooto Rick & Morty to SpongeBob SquarePants. There’s a crater on the moon officially named Dune, and some of the features on Saturn’s moon Titan have been named for planets from the series. Nickelodeon That’s a Dune reference in SpongeBob SquarePants. Then there’s all the original storytelling Dune has inspired. The most notable example, perhaps, is George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy, which shares so much with Herbert’s series that Herbert and a few colleagues organized the farcical “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.” If you’ve watched the Star Wars films, Dune’s reluctant, petulant, fated hero living on a desert planet in the shadow of a looming empire and the battle for the fate of the galaxy will feel a little familiar. This long line of descendants shows the expansive influence of Dune on a wide swath of pop culture. But it doesn’t really explain why it’s so compelling. What is it about Herbert’s books — especially the first one — that exerts such a magnetic force on everyone from 13-year-old sci-fi readers to megafamous musicians? There’s no single answer to that question. But as Villeneuve — who’s shown his sci-fi chops as a filmmaker in movies like Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) — takes a crack at the story, new audiences will encounter Paul Atreides, the planet of Arrakis, and the unnaturally blue eyes of the Fremen. So the matter of Dune’s staying power is once again in the air. As a Dune newbie (a Dune-bie?) this year, I dug into Herbert’s novel, previous attempts to make a good movie out of it, and the way that people interact with the sprawling world it envisions. What I realized is that there’s no one reason Dune’s fans love the world Herbert created. Its enduring significance traces back to its history as a cultural phenomenon, its difficult-to-adapt story, its capacious complexity, and, perhaps more than anything, the room it leaves for the audience to have an experience all their own. Frank Herbert’s story is a sweeping, imaginative epic Dune predates Star Wars by more than a decade. The first installment of Herbert’s story was published in 1963 as a serial, then collected into a novel in 1965. (The version I read this summer was 896 pages long, including a lengthy and limpid appendix.) Herbert went on to write five more novels: Dune Messiah (1969), Children of Dune (1976), God Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984), and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985), and his son and other science fiction writers have continued building out the narrative for eager fans. That’s a lot of Dune. Most people just read the first novel, though; fans sometimes note that the quality drops off precipitously afterward. So that’s the one to know about. Dune is set in the year 10191, which is actually about 20,000 years into our future; the year is roughly calculated from a time in which humanity overthrew and destroyed all human-made intelligent machines, like robots and computers. Now people live an interstellar existence, without any AI to threaten them, and the extinction of human-made intelligence is so far in the past that it doesn’t come up as more than a distant historical fact for Dune’s characters. It’s as if the Roman Empire fell 10,000 years ago, instead of just under 2,000. The novel begins the epic saga of Paul Atreides, a 15-year-old son of a duke. House Atreides, one of the “great houses” in the Galactic Padishah Empire, has recently been tasked by the Emperor to move from their lush, green home world of Caladan to the desert planet Arrakis. Arrakis is colloquially known as Dune, and most recently overseen by the ruthless House Harkonnen; the Emperor mysteriously ordered Harkonnen to vacate rule of Arrakis, and Atreides is set to take over. Arrakis is a barren and seemingly barely habitable planet, but it’s important for one big reason: It’s the only place to mine a spice called melange (or just “spice”), which among other things makes accurate interstellar travel possible. A fierce people called the Fremen live in the desert there, wearing “stillsuits” that harvest precious body moisture for drinking. They don’t control the spice, however; until recently it’s been harvested by the cruel Harkonnens. Warner Bros. Timothée Chalamet plays the young Paul Atreides in the newest big-screen version of Dune. Predictably, sending House Atreides to Arrakis in place of Harkonnen doesn’t exactly endear Atreides to the Harkonnens. But the possibility of violence between those houses is all part of the Emperor’s big plan. Meanwhile, there’s Paul. His mother, Jessica, is the longtime mistress of Duke Atreides, and they love one another passionately. But there’s a deeper story here, too: Jessica is one of the Bene Gesserit, an ancient sisterhood of women who pull the strings of history. (This part of the story is incredibly cool.) For thousands of years, they’ve been cultivating the conditions necessary for the rise of the Kwisatz Haderach, a male leader who can bridge space and time with his mind, heal the divide between the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, and ascend the Emperor’s throne. Most importantly, he would be under Bene Gesserit control. The Bene Gesserit’s efforts have involved 10,000 years of careful cross-breeding to create a young man whose genetics will permit him to become the Kwisatz Haderach; they’ve also seeded a belief in a future leader, comparable to a messiah or savior figure, within the ancient religion of the Fremen. As part of this long game, Jessica was supposed to bear the duke a daughter, who could then be bred to a Harkonnen man and produce the Kwisatz Haderach, bridging the enmity between the two houses. The complicating wrinkle is that Jessica loved the duke, who wasn’t aware of the Bene Gesserit’s plan — and he wanted a son. So she bore him a son instead: Paul. (Among the many powers of the Bene Gesserit is the ability to decide these sorts of things.) From his childhood, Paul learned the ways of the Bene Gesserit from his mother, and Jessica has become convinced he is, in fact, fit to be the Kwisatz Haderach. When House Atreides moves to Arrakis, palace tumult and betrayal ensues. Jessica and Paul find themselves in the desert outside the palace walls, among the Fremen. It seems the way for Paul’s ascent has been laid. But to truly take the reins of power, he’ll need to harness the power of the Fremen, and that path won’t be easy. It’s all very exciting and sweeping, at least in plot-summary form. Herbert’s writing is another matter, pretentious and ponderous at times — it’s obvious that Dune was originally published as a serial. But the story, and the mystical web it weaves, has been immensely attractive to readers for decades. The novel has sold more than 20 million copies, and it’s often cited as one of the greatest science fiction books ever written. Getting a good version of Dune onscreen has been legendarily difficult Despite the popularity of Dune’s world, cinematic adaptations of the novel, to this point, have flopped — and in rather legendary ways. In the mid-1970s, the Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was tapped to direct a version of the story, to be produced by Michel Seydoux (the great-uncle, incidentally, of actress and most recent Bond girl Léa Seydoux). Jodorowsky’s vision for the film was psychedelic and wild and altogether unfilmable in the pre-CGI 1970s, if not also today. As he told an interviewer in 2013, “I wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating.” Jodorowsky hired incredible artists to come up with frame-by-frame storyboards and concept art, and he had wild plans to change the story in multiple ways, from depicting Duke Atreides as having been castrated to filming a totally different ending from the novel. He had incredible casting ideas, too, envisioning Salvador Dalí as the Emperor (Dalí wanted to be paid $100,000 an hour) and Orson Welles (the director of Citizen Kane) as Baron Harkonnen. Jodorowsky’s teenage son was slated to play Paul. He trained for two years in martial arts and other fighting techniques to prepare for the role. It all came to naught, unsurprisingly. Big studios were not going to make such an expensive, unwieldy, hugely risky film. All that remains of Jodorowsky’s grand plans are several enormous copies of the book of art and storyboards. But in 2013, the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune told the story of the movie that never was, with Jodorowsky’s full participation, and it weaves a mystical tale all its own. The film is well worth watching, if only to spend some time with a man who went on a Don Quixote-like mission and is still full of passion for his quest decades later. Also unsurprisingly, Hollywood’s desire to capitalize on Dune’s literary popularity didn’t abate.Through some typical industry twists and turns, the film rights landed in the hands of producer Dino de Laurentiis, who tried to figure out what to do with it. Initially he hired Herbert himself to write the screenplay, but the result was far too long. Then Ridley Scott signed on, but he ended up deciding, instead, to make Blade Runner in 1982. Universal Pictures Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides in David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune. Lynch hates the movie. Eventually, David Lynch got a call about the project, and though he had offers to direct other movies — including Return of the Jedi (just imagine!) — Lynch agreed. At the time, Lynch was a young director with a knack for the surreal and bizarre, and he’d made two films: Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980). (Jodorowsky says in the 2013 documentary that he was surprised and even delighted by the hiring news, since Lynch seemed like a good fit for the material.) So Lynch got to work. Dune, the Lynch version, came out in 1984, and starred fresh new face Kyle MacLachlan as Paul. (McLachlan would go on to frequently collaborate with Lynch, most notably on Lynch’s seminalTV show Twin Peaks.) It also stars Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Virginia Madsen, Linda Hunt, Max von Sydow, and Sting, among others, with music by Toto. The movie is ... bad. It’s cumbersome, overloaded with explanation, and not particularly well-acted in many spots. Now a cult classic, it does have certain charms, and isn’t quite as bad as Lynch seems to think it is; he disowned the film upon release, even removing his name from some versions, and hates talking about it. It bombed at the box office and became a bit of a punchline. And other than a workmanlike but forgettable 2000 miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel, Dune would not be adapted again. Until now. Denis Villeneuve is an ideal match for the material, and the movie he’s made — which covers only a little over half of the first novel — is, on the whole, excellent. It’s like the novel in many ways, chiefly in that it shrouds much of its terminology and mythology in mystery. This Dune is not interested in explaining itself to the audience. You have to pay attention and accept that some of what’s happening onscreen isn’t going to make a ton of sense, at least not at first, especially if you’ve never read the book. (Reading it before you watch isn’t necessary, but knowing some of the plot does help.) It’s also one of those pure cinematic experiences that remind you why you go to the movies. Expertly cast — Oscar Isaac as the Duke Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, and especially Timothée Chalamet as Paul and Zendaya as Chani, the daughter of a Fremen leader — the film feels like the book come to life, but without some of Herbert’s more ornate and purple prose. Instead of following Lynch’s lead and using voiceover to let us in on his characters’ inner monologues — an important part of the novel — he allows the actors to clue us in via facial expressions and body language. And the imagery is, frankly, quite stunning. With Herbert’s bloated flourishes stripped away, the breathtaking imagination of Dune’s world can come to life. No matter that the characters, with the possible exception of Jessica, are essentially cogs in a machine without much of a rich inner life. Villeneuve knows how to shape that kind of story and fill it with wonder and awe. The film moves slowly at times, and that’s entirely on purpose. Cinema is primarily a visual medium, and Dune provides a terrific opportunity to lean in and experience what that really means. The long, long, long and storied history of bringing Dune to the screen has, in a sense, been exactly what the film adaptation needed to put some wind in its sails. People have been talking about adapting Dune for so long, or trying and failing, that its legend has grown. Even if you’ve never read Dune, or have no real grasp of what it’s about, you may have considered reading it at some point. The buildup is part of the appeal. And that’s a big part of why some people are so invested in the new film. Chia Bella James/Warner Bros. Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and Timothée Chalamet in Dune. Dune is a complex, complicated story that doesn’t easily align with anyone’s politics But there’s still more to Dune’s allure than just all the pent-up anticipation for a good film. Dune looks like a story about a chosen one, a hero, who will save the world. That’s a common trope in science fiction and fantasy. Of course, as with many stories, it’s a little more complicated than that. Paul, for instance, is not the de facto Kwisatz Haderach; throughout the novel, there’s the distinct feeling that he could turn out to be a dud, and the Bene Gesserit make it clear that they have other candidates in waiting elsewhere. They’ve been hedging their bets. After all, Paul is not a chosen messiah of the universe, at least not by some transcendent deity; he’s the product of a program of eugenics. More importantly, though, Paul succeeding as Kwisatz Haderach will in no way guarantee a rosy future for the universe — a fact of which he is well aware. He can see the future, or the possible future, and talks of seeing people waging a bloody “jihad” (the novel’s terminology) in his name. (Villeneuve’s version opts to call it “holy war.”) Future books chronicle the fallout from his ascent to power, revealing the staggering fact that the “holy war” will take the lives of 61 billion people. Planets are pillaged and sterilized. Whole religions and groups are wiped out, all in service to Paul’s vision for the future of mankind. That’s all very complicated, and has led some to argue that now is, at minimum, an awfully weird time to be adapting a novel with this kind of hero. Add to that Herbert’s characterization of the Fremen — typical of the period, but no less uncomfortable to contemporary ears — in distinctly Orientalist terms, as well as the possibility of interpreting Paul as a “white savior.” Many contemporary fascists and figures of the alt-right (including the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer) are avowed fans of the book, perhaps seeing it through a distorted lens as a triumphant story about a leader who violently overturns a depraved empire and creates an ethnostate. Meanwhile, plenty of folks on the left love it as well, for entirely different reasons, and sometimes in spite of itself. Herbert’s personalpolitics were complex and often reactionary, which probably accounts for the various messages people have taken from it. A distant relative of Joseph McCarthy, Herbertopposed the Vietnam War but supported Richard Nixon; he helped anti-labor efforts, was openly homophobic (which is clear in the novel) and racist, and espoused, above all, a rugged individualism. Dune has been held up as supporting a range of ideologies, from anti-authoritarian conservatism to fascism to neoliberalism, and everyone’s kind of right. Herbert, for his part, explained that his books were meant to critique authoritarianism, declaring that “superheroes are disastrous for mankind.” “Even if we find a real hero (whatever or whoever that may be),” he wrote, “eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that always comes into being around such a leader.” That all means there are a lot of different ways to think about the book. You can read it as a warning tale about fascism or, if you want, a story about the inevitability of the triumph of fascist ideology in any world. You can read Dune as a screed about the uselessness of religion, or an argument about the incredible usefulness of it. It’s a book about the cost of fixing environmental disasters, and about individual destiny taking precedence over the collective. So much malleability undoubtedly adds to Dune’s appeal. Science fiction aims to give us ways to confront our own world from another angle; Dune provides that in spades. The idiosyncrasies of its author and its politics leave a lot of room to swim around in. So Dune is still relevant, if you’re willing to slog through some narrative mush. Warner Bros. Timothée Chalamet in Dune, on Paul Atreides’s home world of Caladan. Dune’s world-building is so expansive that the audience feels like they’re part of it The keenest reason that Dune endures may simply be baked into its structure. The chapters of the novel are introduced with quotations from texts about the history of the world, written by a character to whom we haven’t yet been introduced — and we slowly realize that she, whoever she may be, may be playing an angle of her own. The novels are among the pantheon of science fiction and fantasy novels with a capacious historical imagination, extending way into the future and the past. And in the world of Dune, the readers (and viewers) themselves kind of exist. Our oft-imagined future — in which the machines take over and we have to fight them — is in the very distant past of Dune’s characters. They give us a way to project ourselves into the future, as a species, and think about what might happen. That’s a common storytelling technique in fantasy and science fiction. Think of how The Lord of the Rings universe hangs on J.R.R. Tolkien’s exquisitely detailed histories of a world that far predates our own. Or how Star Wars takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Or howmy personal favorite (and another classic work of the genre), Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, mixes past and future in its explosive, apocalyptic tale. (Someone needs to adapt that one into a movie!) Dune, and stories like it, spins a legend that extends far before and after the events of the book, and that makes the reader feel like they’re part of something. In that way, these types of stories are not unlike the sacred texts and oral mythologies that form the basis of religions. Perhaps that explains why they’ve given rise to such rabidly invested fans. Dune is, in some ways, about the dangers and powers of religion, and how it can be manipulated to accomplish dubious ends. But it’s also, in a sense, its own religious text. Who wouldn’t be excited to see that come to life? Dune opened in theaters on October 21 and is streaming on HBO Max.
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