In case you haven’t heard, “cli-fi” is now a thing; in fact, it’s been a thing for over half a decade now. But wait, what is cli-fi you might ask, and rightfully so if I might add. It’s proximity in sound to sci-fi should give you an inkling of an idea; the newly born/already veteran sub-genre is indeed a subset of science fiction. It’s a sort of science fiction which revolves around ecological ideas, usually man’s opposition or harmony with nature. One of its first instances, a brilliant book called Earth Abides (written by George R. Stewart in 1949), set many of its tropes. It and, indeed, the rest of the genre, ask a host of questions revolving around the place of humanity in nature, its inherent opposition to us and our complete dependence on it. The questions range in type from the practical (“how can we survive if nature dies?” or “what happens to nature if humanity is radically diminished?”) to philosophical (“is humanity inherently destructive?” or “are there cycles in the evolution of societies?”).
One of the most famous books to ask these questions, and one of the best, is Frank Hebert’s Dune. Regardless of similarities to a certain other, and slightly superior, science fiction book (warning, rabbit hole) Dune is an absolutely essential novel to understanding cli-fi and, indeed, the entirety of sci-fi in the so-called “New Age of Science Fiction” (for more info on this, you can refer to this post. Or this one). Beyond a terrible adaptation into film, Dune gave us a whole genre of ideas which were later used and re-used in science fiction: the role of religion, politics, economy and more in space opera, the idea of manipulating prophecy, the idea of a “space exile”, of a people scattered across space and many, many more. The story told in “Dune”‘s pages still echoes to this day; we might even get a proper movie rendition sometime in the future. Most importantly, Dune put climate, sustainability and humanity’s need/hate of harmony with nature at its forefront. The different ways to use natural resources, approaches to what industry means and how it should be channeled, the role of science in the destruction and preservation of planet wide ecosystems.
As evidence of this long standing and absolutely essential echo of Herbert’s writings, I present to you now a metal album released in 2017, namely Dvne‘s Asheran. We’ve already sung the praises of its music in other places, where we also hinted that it might be a concept album. We weren’t sure then but we had our suspicions (I mean, the band’s name is literally Dvne and their Bandcamp user name is songs-of-arrakis, so there wasn’t too much doubt in my mind) and following a brief chat with the band and a look at the lyrics turned those into certainty. And so, here we stand, gazing down the barrel of yet another fruitful collaboration between science fiction and metal. This time, the type of sci-fi at hand will very much be cli-fi as an ancient race returns to an overgrown homeworld (oh boy, remember that reference please, we’re going to need it in just a minute) and is met by resistance from the past, the future and the very nature of the planet on which they land.
Asheran starts off with “The Crimson Path”, a track which, musically, announces what we’re going to be handling right off the bat. The thick bass notes which open it and the massive riff into which they turn to as the intro ends are the perfect opening shots for the rest of the album. Fittingly enough, this is also the case with the lyrics, which introduce one of the two main “protagonists” of the album. I use that word in quotes because, instead of using singular characters for its drama and conflict, Asheran paints its picture with the broadest of brushes. Its main characters are factions of a race, separated by thousands of years and thousands of light-years. The first faction are the Asheran themselves, the titular people for whom this album is named. They appear to be returning home, an exceptionally important notion for science fiction (I won’t go into detail here but take Google that phrase and Ursula Le Guin. Warning, rabbit hole).
What they appear to be returning from is, naturally, an exile. The details of their exile or where they are returning from are unknown to us and, honestly, less important. What’s important is that we understand their situation when we meet them; they have been adrift for decades in space, a last, desperate lunge backwards instead of forwards by a people destroyed by some unknown threat. This is reflected in the lyrics themselves (“last legion / A dying storm”), describing in gloomy detail the desperate mindset and conditions that the Asheran are in. They have lost many on the way, quite literally; the dangers of space and FLT propulsion are brilliantly hinted at during this passage:
“Pyres alight moonrise in silence
From light they transpose
We hold communion for those drifting, beacons set loose for each we lost
Crimson torch vibrant, so they won’t venture in the dark
As always we strive towards the hope of returning home”
Those that lose their way when travelling in space, especially if the spiritual/psychedelic milieu of FTL is involved, are often associated with ghosts, lost travelers or the somehow translated into the inkiness of space. A simple skim of the examples on the TV Tropes page for FTL, (warning, rabbit hole), should give you a sense of the ideas involved with such occurrences but Asheran does it just as well. Getting lost in space is a weight proposition; something about the confluence of infinity, void and the willpower of technology piercing through them sets our imagination ablaze and these lyrics are no different. If we skip a few lines back, we’ll find another dimension to this semi-religious outlook on space travel; note the word “Hegira” which appears on the second line of the track. This word, in our context, has two layers of meaning: the first is a reference while the second is a semantic, religious layer.
First, in the context of space travel, empires going home and a voyage through space, “Hegira” is a reference to one of the best game franchises ever made, Homeworld. The storyline behind heavily influences that of Asheran: it also involves an exiled people going home through endless space, searching for their fabled and lost home so that they may survive. But the deeper layer is the Semitic source of the word. “Hegira” in Arabic (and its close sister word, “Hagira” in Hebrew) means, in the general sense, “migration” but in the specific sense refers to Muhammad’s clandestine journey from Mecca to Yathrib (turned Medina when the prophet arrived). This is one of the turning points in the history of the prophet, doing much to consolidate the idea of his followers as a separate people (an idea which later turned into the all-important Muslim idea of “Ummah“).
By using “Hegira” to describe their protagonists’ journey, both Homeworld and Asheran cleverly inject the religious, communal and quasi-mystical in to their story-lines. These ties to Abrahamic religions deepen during the following track. “Viridian Bloom”, the counterpart to “The Crimson Path” (both contain a color, beyond the fact that the band explicitly divide the album into four parts in the album’s description) shows us the flipside of the Asheran and, in doing so, introduces us to our second “protagonist”. These are an unnamed people who were left behind on the Asheran’s home planet. Later in the album, it is hinted that even before they had left, there was a difference/rift between the two kinds of people, as if Asheran is a faction or a racial group distinct from the rest of the people on the planet.
In any case, those left behind are first introduced to us living in an idyllic state. True to the “cli-fi” elements that we mentioned above, this idyllic state is inherently tied into harmony with nature. It seems no wonder that the Asheran want to get back to their homeworld:
“Roots of solace, tower high
Crystal waters reflect the leaf filled sky
As seeds fall patterns form
The Canopy Unfolds
Harvester of dawn
In fact, the very reason for their departure needs to be given at this point. Why would anyone leave such a paradise (later even referred to directly as an “Eden”)? The answer is given to us in the closing of the first track, an answer we can now understand (“From hubris arise all kingdoms, through hubris kingdoms fall”). Now, given the description of the planet from which they originated, we can grasp the mighty hubris of the Asheran. It wasn’t a mistake to leave their planet only because of how comfortable or paradise-like it was; the planet is the literary and conceptual opposite of the Asheran themselves. Hubris is not simply pride, as its modern conception would have it. It is the desire to be above your station, to not know your place in the world; to be out of harmony. Thus, those who suffer from hubris in Greek mythology (from which the word, of course, originated) are inherently unhappy; they are out of sync with the world.
On the planet which the Asheran left, everything is in sync; “The Canopy Unfolds”. Every seed knows its place in the pattern and thus too the people who lived there or that had remained behind. There, there is no hubris and thus there is no sadness; all know their place and rejoice in it. Even in the face of such Eden, the Asheran chose to leave. But now, they are returning and, naturally and in accordance with the tropes thus far established, their return cannot be harmonious. In response to them even entering orbit and scouting the upper layers of the planet (their descent will come later), the planet reacts:
A warning cry
To undergrowth we scatter
In secret there we hide
Giants clash before us
Giants clash above
Hooves cleave down like lightning
Wounded screams deafening
Sentinels abhorrent, sentinels dead
We leave them behind us
We see through trees, to sands, to our past”
This passage, and mainly the last few lines, further solidify the tension between the two protagonists. While one, the Asheran, is hyper-technological and tainted by the hubris which comes with that, the other suffers from a different fault; Luddism. Named after the Luddites, a workers movement which rebelled against the conditions of their labor by smashing the weaving machines at which they worked, Luddism is (falsely, since the movement was not anti-technological in general) the name for anyone who views technology is inherently evil or even degenerate. It seems as if those who remained behind, perhaps they were even like that before the Asheran left and this was the source of the divide, bask in the protection of the technology present on the planet but have forgotten much of what makes it work. Naturally, they coated it in the flimsy film of moral degeneration, religious decree and fear, turning away from their past and spending their lives oblivious of their past. When the Asheran return, said technology seeks to defend the planet and its denizens from what it must see as invaders; the sound of orbital and aerial combat rips through the forests and the collateral damage from the combat drives those who remained behind into hiding.
This is the point in the story in which it becomes impossible to no longer directly mention Frank Herbert’s Dune and avoid a closer look at the parallels between the album and the book. First, the underpinnings of the protagonists and the binary tension between them is very much reminiscent of the differences between the Fremen and the Atreides. The latter is a space-faring race sunk in technology (not only that, but their technology is also ephemeral and quasi-mystical, manifesting in the form of engines and shields rather than the Harkonnen’s heavy industry and machinery) who depart on a self-imposed exile to the center of the political galaxy. They arrive from space on to this planet. On that planet live the Fremen. They are a desert dwelling race who would like to believe they are no longer dependent on the technology that once betrayed them and that they have been able to sever themselves from the galaxy at large.
However, (and here a reading of more than the first book is somewhat required) that is far from the truth. In fact, they are pivotal to the technological and political machinations (they are one and the same in Herbert’s world and, indeed, often in ours) of the galaxy. Even more telling of the comparisons between book and album is that while the Fremen and the Atreides were never of the same race, they did fight and live together in the distant past of the book’s world. Lastly, the Fremen are the epitome of the “noble savage”, they which live a simple and rustic life but are in tune with their ecological system. But wait, you might say, if I know anything about Dune it’s that it’s set in a desert. Here we’ve only seen forests and verdant ecosystem. Don’t you think this is all a bit of a stretch?
You’d be right if the next track wasn’t called “Thirst” and took us right into the desert of the world’s past. As the previous track ends, equating “sands” and “past”, so too the third one begins. Leaving their sheltered lives in the forests, they must not only forge into the harsh desert but also take a good, hard look at the past which they wanted to leave behind. Of course, as only befits this kind of story, while their fear from the past is irrational to the extreme it is also somewhat well founded; there was a real reason to abandon the technology behind. The drama of the rediscovery and the undoubtedly hazardous (if not disastrous) reunion with their technology starts building in the first few passages of “Thirst”:
Stark white barren leagues of bone
Campestral desert corrupt stones
Giants stand here. Vacuum scarred
Their face an abyss. Their voice a warning loud
Past grandeur, lifeless idols
Shells hollow, totems cold
Past grandeur, lifeless idols
What are these “totems” that the planet dwellers now discover in the desert? They appear to be nothing more than ships, the same perhaps that now carry the Asheran back home. These would indeed justify a religious taboo, both to keep people away from the technologies contained therein (as a star-faring ship obviously represents a crowning achievement of technology and science) and to make sure they aren’t tempted to leave their idyllic paradise ever again. This double-edged idea behind prohibition rings true; such rules often serve more than one purpose. In this case, as we said just above, these warnings were anything but hollow; something inside these ships still slumbers. This is undoubtedly a form of AI (“Ageless daughter, ancient guard / Too long rested in comfort, in silence, in sloth / In caves of logic, caves of mind / A true form taken, truth left behind”). Whether meant to guide the ships or serve as some sort of weapon (or both), it appears this guardian has forgotten its programming.
The presence of a mind, one obviously degraded by years of disuse and derelict existence gives new meaning to the fear these people hold of technology; the totem is not silent and indeed houses a “spirit” of sorts, a spirit which, should it be awakened, might enforce directives and ideas no longer relevant to the reality it finds itself in. Faced with such a notion, not of evil but of a powerful tool gone awry, the people left on the planet should, of course, turn away. But remember the lines with which we started this journey: “From hubris arise all kingdoms, through hubris kingdoms fall”. There is no question that they are going to awaken whatever is there, in answer to the return of the Asheran who, for them, represent an ultimate enemy. In keeping with the tropes of the genre, this cannot have positive results. When reading through the next lines, notice the clever contrast with the opening images of both races. The first contrast, between where the people left behind stand now and where they started is obvious enough. But the second one, which is the similarities between them and the Asheran, as they stand in the presence of the same technology which fuels their Hegira, is more interesting:
To create Edenfall
Casks pulse with diamond glow
Waters expose rusted champions, titan born
Black Door of wheels
Gates Turn in Harmony
White Door of Vines
lifeblood cast down, shattered lines fall
Forsake sacred, primal Oath
In our depths of arrogance, passage too far too deep gone
rend the bonds so recently joined, from this usher Edenfall
In the face of the destructive technology which they know lies before them, those who stayed on the planet react with the knowledge that what they are doing is wrong. Unlike the Asheran, cloaked in their pride and assurance in their just cause (for when has an exile been sensitive to the damages caused by his return?), they know that the lessons and creeds they have handed down through the generations weren’t baseless; something truly dangerous (“Atrophy, incandescent”) lies in these caves. Perhaps the last lines then are motivated from two fears; first, they are obviously breaking their oath and creed here, to not touch this technology. They are doing it out of absolute necessity but they are still doing it. But, second, what if they’re also worried, driven to this act, by what the Asheran would do if they awoke this dormant technology, unrestrained as they are by their beliefs?
And, as if conjured by the comparison, the Asheran attend. “Descent of the Asheran”, the next track, finally sees the returning race land on their former home. Since it has been two tracks since we have last handled them, the first stanza cleverly reminds us that nothing has changed in the Asheran; leaving their home planet, where they were in favor of wild and unrestrained technological advances, did nothing to cure them of their pride (“Cosmos provides no reassurance / Guilt preserved in amber”). Thus, there can be no question as to the result of this descent. These two races, one by virtue of its pride and one by the impetus of their historical/spiritual beliefs, have been set on the path of violent collision. Of course, as we said above, they have no qualms with using force to retake their planet; it is theirs, after all. For now, those who were left behind have no means of self defense; huddling in the underground caverns (“Cursed, we gather in pools of moonlight, / awaiting conviction / Questing, our eyes turn skyward bound, / to watch our kin arrive”), there’s nothing much for them to do but await what comes next:
“The thousands descend – Starfarers
In ships iron wrought
They come to reclaim – Asheran
They come to despoil
Nimbus once tinted brilliant crystalline,
now vanished, is this real?
We fight over roots that we once shared
We fight for the return of our past
Strike down those who refute ancient claims, our rightful home
No refuge in logic, no refuge in thought
Bonding conventions, don’t forge on tainted ground
Rising upwards, spinning outwards”
These passages are eerie for how accurately they reflect the mindset of the returning conqueror. There’s no negotiation for the Asheran; you can’t deal with this kind of people! The end justifies the means and those would resist the ancient, and inevitable, rights of the Asheran must be defeated. Note that there’s no evil masterplan; genocide is viewed as a necessity, something which must be done to secure what is, ultimately, a goal that’s deemed as just or right. They know that this planet was once shared, that there’s no inevitability in the war; another way of life exists and they once were part of it. But logic and thought have been discarded in the face of the extreme situation in which they find themselves now. With a heavy burden in their heart, the Asheran must go to war.
Of course, the “enlightened” Asheran can’t take pride in this war; this isn’t a “fair” fight, there’s no glory in this. In literature and, sadly, in real life, a people forced into this kind of situation must find some way to justify themselves to themselves. Since there’s an inherent contradiction here in their values (“we are scientists and explorers, we don’t inherently mean anyone harm” and “we must fight for what is ours, at all costs”) and that contradiction creates tension, something must be done to frame the Asheran’s emotional, psychological and philosophical stance towards this conflict, to make it understandable and digestible. This is what’s accomplished on the next track (hoping over the magnificent, but instrumental, “Sunsets’ Grace”), “Rite of Seven Mournings”. Making this “coming to terms” a ritual is a brilliant move on Dvne’s end; rituals are indeed often the ways in which a civilization comes to terms with the violence it feels it must commit.
And so, this ritual first re-frames what must be done in the language of religious inevitability. Like humanity has itself done over millennia, the Asheran frame this conflict as preordained for, if it is preordained, who is to blame for the carrying out of fate: “Speak prophet of ending, of chasm, of retribution / Act prophet (bring) / Send terror (fury) / Send vengeance (raw) / Reform Elysium”. A prophet is a vessel for god, simply a conduit through which divine will is manifested (in the Abrahamic religions that is, which is the cultural milieu we are dealing with here). They do not act on their own will; they are simply manifesting the divine one. Thus, what blame can be placed at their door? But, make no mistake, the Asheran do feel pain for what they must do. Divine as it may be, in service of rebuilding “Elysium” (that is, paradise), it is still something to be mourned and lamented:
Seven eyes crossed
We fire from the heavens,
we weep as their halls burn.
The land once theirs is ours.
Broken and Forlorn”
That last stanza is the Asheran writ large and, indeed, the entire trope which they represent (the “enlightened” conquerors, that is): we are the fire from the heavens but we weep as what we destroy burns underneath us. We are able to recognize what we’ve done to those who we have subjugated but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to subjugate them; remember, we are on a holy mission of restoration! Of course, if you’ve read Dune or any of other dozens and dozens of science fiction books about this sort of narrative, you know what’s coming next. The high must be made low and the lofty be brought down; after all, Asheran itself has already told us that “through hubris kingdoms fall”. What greater hubris is there than believing that you are the messenger of the restoration of Eden?
Moreover, Eden already exists; it is the very same planet which the Asheran are now destroying. Thus, “Edenfall”, our seventh track, is doubly well named. Once, it is well named since it adds more depth to the description of the Asheran’s landing (also sometimes called “planet-fall”). With the cleansing fires of their ships, they are destroying the environmental Eden that was already there, disrupting the ecological balance with their technology. Twice, it is well named because it spells out their eventual doom; in response to this desecration, there will be an answer. Of course, it will come from those defeated. Like the Fremen in Dune (or Jesus in the New Testament, or the Judaic rebellion against Rome, or the one prophet Muhammad against the might of the Arabian Peninsula’s proto-empires), those who are on the verge of defeat will usher in the retribution against those who think they are victorious:
“We wilt unguarded
Brought down, on crumbling knees fall
Countless wretched fragments pulsate
For resolution, our time revolves in dark corners
Through exploration, our time revolves
The unseen path
To seek that’s lost is to embrace the nature of man’s downfall,
the nature of gods”
These are all the lyrics on the “Edenfall” and they do their job well by stressing to us the situation in which those who remained on the planet now find themselves. Huddling in their sanctum sanctorum, the one place where all believers are forbidden to go, they now find themselves faced with an impossible choice: break the oaths which bind them together and make them who they are or face annihilation. They choose the former, choosing to dig back into the past and bring forth whatever it was that broke the planet and drove the Asheran into exile in the first place. Only by tapping into the one thing they do not want to tap into, can they hope to bring the Asheran to their knees and perhaps preserve the very same Eden which was destroyed last time. This brings us back, right before the end, to the cover art of the album. Notice the two colors that dominate it? These are allusions to the two races, as the band’s Bandcamp page might drive even further home.
Here, at the end, they’ve finally come together and intermingled, not in the return of the Asheran only but in the turning of those who stayed behind towards the same technology which first fueled the Asheran’s departure. Finally, the two peoples, members of a single race, can find some common ground: the disastrous embrace of technology. The first, Asheran, were brought to a wretched exile in space, tempted by the unbounded and constantly evolving limits of science and technology. The other, those who stayed behind, finally pushed into technology’s embrace by their need to survive. What is born of such a surrender, from the appeal to ancient force once forbidden? It appears that we are finally to be introduced to the figure which stands alone on the forefront of the cover art to Asheran; out of those who remained behind, one steps forwarded. Chosen? Cursed? In the well known manner of such tales, it’s hard to tell the difference:
Last Truth Keeper
Vengeful wraith flows
Baseness of earth
Tide of Belial, spear of North
Ignorant creature of lessons unlearnt,
we’d forgotten myths of form and deities to hail”
The reference to “Belial” here is unclear; it is one of the names of the local Canaanite deities which preceded Judaism. Its name came to be associated with Satan (like many others) in the New Testament where before it simply signified an enemy. Perhaps it is an allusion to the primordial, destructive force this man now yields? It appears the AI or “technological spirit” has joined with him, giving him some of the basic and primal powers of the earth, here to be understood as an allusion to nature as a whole (“vengeful wraith flows / baseness of earth”). This man then is the answer, the escape which a race on the brink of destruction by their returning brethren has unleashed. But what is the promise? What does this “spear of the North” promise those who remain, Asheran or otherwise? If you’ve read enough science fiction or fantasy, you know it’s nothing good.
And, indeed, Edenfall has arrived. In a sense, it is everything those who had remained behind on the planet had longed for: peace, harmony, and the rule of nature. But, near the end, they too were agents of chaos and technology; are they to be spared this fall? Are they, who forgot their oath and awakened the ancient forces which once threatened to destroy the entire world, to be entrusted with nature itself once the Asheran have been defeated? One more look at the album’s cover art will reveal the answer to you. Who is the hero of the artwork? Who stands tall and large and dominates the most space? Surely not Man, a tiny figure in the foreground, looking out in awe over a landscape which features nature and technology blending into one. The hero, and the hero of this album all along, is Gaia, nature, the ecosystem, balance. The entire planet, which will now cleanse itself of the true invaders, which were every single human on it all along, Asheran or not.
Thus, we have our tragic hero and our triumphant hero at the same time. The tragic one is the “scion in absentia”, the last remnant of his race and the one who has ushered in their destruction. On the other, the triumphant one is the planet itself as it cleanses itself of anything that is non-sustainable. This, at the close, is the true moment of all cli-fi, the answer that must be given to the question: “if we are but part of nature and we become toxic, will nature not rid itself of us?” The genre, and Asheran as a complex and accomplished example of it, drives home the point that it is not the planet which needs to be rescued from us; it is us who owe our very survival to the planet. As I leave you with the closing words of the album, consider the perspective which it takes on these issues. It’s a powerful example of how a basically familiar story, which you’ve heard in one form or the other before, can have impact and meaning when cast in the right light. Try to think of how, and which, exile restores grace. Is it the Asheran’s exile which was elegant? The exile of those who went into the caves? Or a much deeper exile, a surrendering of existence which all humanity must undertake in the face of nature.
“All stone crumbles, to mire broken
Weave grave furrows, sow rows of seed
Scion blooms in absentia
Our exile restores grace
Eventide, dawns Gaia
New Night, rise Gaia”