Friday, March 16, 2018

Dune by Frank Herbert

A few months ago I was meditating upon the fact that while many of my favourite novels are fantasy, most of my favourite films are science fiction, when I realised that part of the reason for this might be that I haven't actually read a lot of science fiction. 
So I decided that was 2018 would be The Year I Dug Into Sci-Fi. Or specifically, my favourite subgenre of science fiction: space opera. You know space opera, of course, from Star Wars - TV Tropes summarises it like this:
Space Opera refers to works set in a spacefaring civilization, usually, though not always, set in the future, specifically the far future. Technology is ubiquitous and secondary to the story. Space opera has an epic character to it: the universe is big, there are usually many sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigue. The action will range part of a solar system, at least, and possibly a whole galaxy or more than one. It frequently takes place in a Standard Sci Fi Setting. It has a romantic element which distinguishes it from most Hard Science Fiction: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring scenery, and insanely gorgeous men and women. 
Historically, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations. Planetary Romance was more or less Heroic Fantasy In Space. [...] 
Expect to see a dashing hero cavorting around in a Cool Starship, Green Skinned Space Babes, Crystal Spires and Togas civilizations full of Space Elves, Wave Motion Guns capable of dealing an Earth-Shattering Kaboom on a daily basis, and an evil Galactic Empire with a Standard Sci-Fi Fleet, including an entire universe full of beat-up mechanical objects capable of being resurrected with Percussive Maintenance.
Space opera is often rather light on the science part of science fiction, though it doesn't have to be - John C Wright's Golden Age trilogy is a good bit harder than Star Wars. What space opera always should be, is awesome. Peirce Brown's Red Rising trilogy, especially the two later books, are another excellent example of the genre. I had loved these books, so I decided to hunt up a few more, and finally decided to read Frank Herbert's 1966 space opera/plantetary romance classic, Dune.

The deadly desert planet Arrakis is the galaxy's only source of melange, an addictive spice which grants the user undefined mental enhancement. When the Padishah Emperor grants the planet as a fief to Duke Leto Atriedes, however, it doesn't take the duke long to figure out that this is actually part of a complicated plot by the planet's previous lord, Baron Harkonnen, to destroy House Atreides once and for all. With the whole galaxy stacked against his family, young Paul Atreides realises that his only hope of survival lies in the desert, with the secretive, nomadic Fremen people...

I don't know why I left this book so long, although in hindsight reading it now was a good choice. The main star of Dune is not plot, characters, nor theme: it's the setting (or worldbuilding, as the term is in speculative fiction). Most of the book takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis, which is almost a character in its own right, and Herbert constructs his fictional cultures from a fascinating web of elements taken from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Islamic and even Jewish culture, with just a pinch of ancient Rome for good measure. Obviously, all this means much more to me now, after three years researching the medieval history of the Near East. 

Additionally, this level of worldbuilding - the politics, the ecology, the backstory - is something that usually takes a good deal of exposition to bring readers up to date. And there is a lot of exposition in this book. One of the things that astonished me was how brilliantly Herbert handled it, using one simple trick: suspense. Early on in the story, we learn the baddies' plot in full. Meanwhile, the Atreides are going about their business with no cloud on the horizon, while the reader is on tenterhooks for the backstabbing to start. But perhaps the most stunning example of this technique comes in one chapter which is basically an extended lecture on ecology. Herbert takes something that would otherwise be rather dry and uninteresting, and he puts us on the edge of our seats for it. How? Well, the person giving the lecture is a hallucination, and the person listening to the lecture is lost in the desert, aware that he is lying directly on top of something that could blow up any minute. It wasn't just a dramatic moment within the story - it was a brilliant and even audacious move on the part of the author himself.

Another of the unique aspects of this book was its female characters, especially Paul's mother Jessica. As I was reading the book, I was thinking, "When was the last time I read a story about a boy and his mother having adventures?" And then, "When was the last time I read a story about a pregnant woman fighting a nomad chief and winning?" Lady Jessica was unusually prominent in this story, especially for a book published in 1966. Even for today, she was an awesome character - level-headed, practical, and three-dimensional. It wasn't just that she got to have adventures: it was that Herbert treated her with every bit as much respect and attention to detail as he treated his male characters. While CS Lewis's Orual from Till We Have Faces will probably always be my favourite example of men writing women well, Herbert's Lady Jessica was excellent too. 

It's surprising, then, to see how, well, badly the women in this story are treated. Both Jessica and another prominent female character are smart, competent women who remain the concubines of powerful men who decide not to marry them because it's possible that in the future, there may be an opportunity for a more advantageous political marriage. It made the book rather depressing to see these excellent female characters voluntarily accepting less than they deserved.

In fact, this whole book has something of a downer ending. It's not one of those series where the individual books work well as standalones; this is clearly just the first instalments of a much bigger story, which is by no means over yet. So the ending is not very conclusive to begin with. I think the depressing aspect of the book has more to do with its theme.


Paul Atreides, our protagonist, turns out to be the fulfillment of not one but two prophecies. The Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood with awesome Jedi powers (it didn't take long to figure out that Star Wars borrows heavily from Dune, which is so much fun) have been overseeing an extensive breeding program for centuries in order to produce the Kwisatz Haderach - a man with all the Bene Gesserit abilities, but without their blind spot. Meanwhile, the Fremen desert dwellers are waiting for the Lisan-al-Gaib who will transform their wild desert planet to a garden paradise. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Paul Atreides may be both. With advanced mental powers including the ability to see present, past, and future, Paul is the galaxy's smartest individual and well on the way to becoming the most powerful. 

But his messianic status is far from being a good thing. First, he can't change the future no matter what he tries to do. Despite every attempt, he still realises that in the future his followers will kill and destroy their way across the galaxy in his name. Second, despite the partial insight given by his powers, he still doesn't know everything and when he can't see what's about to happen, he's paralysed by the unaccustomed uncertainty. Third, he quickly discovers that being a messiah is murder on personal relationships and the people around him. As messiah, Paul has worshippers, but not friends. "Will I lose Gurney, too? Paul wondered. The way I lost Stilgar - losing a friend to gain a creature?" It's the same dilemma Jessica faces - she can use the Voice, a sort of Jedi mind trick, to force the people she loves to obey her - but then they will no longer be the people she loves and who love her. They will be her slaves. 

The theme of Dune therefore has to do with the dangers of deification. And while the message is presented in a pessimistic way, I think it's actually a very important one. Humans aren't God, and any assumption of divinity will only bring destruction. And here's where I could dig into theology and talk about how it makes all the difference to have God become man as opposed to man becoming God - but instead I'll just point you to RJ Rushdoony's excellent book The Foundations of Social Order.

Frank Herbert's Dune is a terrific science fiction adventure with much to think about, which takes a uniquely tragic look at the old "Chosen One" trope. Recommended for teens and up.

I haven't seen any film adaptations of Dune, but I'm pretty excited to hear that Denis Villeneuve is going to direct a movie shortly. Villeneuve has done some terrific work recently and if anyone can bring Arrakis to life, it's him.

Find Dune at Amazon or The Book Depository.

8 comments:

Joshua Grubb said...

Great review Suzannah! You might also be interested in the Doxacon Prime talk on Dune "The Golden Path: Frank Herbert’s Dune as Religious Fantasy" here:
http://www.doxacon.org/podcasts--dc.html It goes into some of Herbert's religious ideas.

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it! It was a really good read. Also, thanks for the link! Argh! If only I had any time these days to listen to things--I've come across a LOT of really delicious looking DUNE studies. Anyway, I'll save this up and try to get to it :)

Anonymous said...

"Peirce Brown"… ahem, I think you mean Pierce Brown. — PB (the 'ei' PB)

Suzannah said...

Congratulations, TPB! You, and you alone, are the reason I don't know how to spell "pierce" anymore.

Tesh N said...

I'd heard Dune was something of a classic, but I didn't know it was worth reading. I've read a leetle bit of stuff that falls under science fiction broadly, namely "The Time Machine", and abridged version of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and Robin Klein's Zyrgon duology (a lot of fun, if not a bit more wierd and edgy in the 2nd book). But that definition is interesting - seems to explain why space opera could be a lot more hopeful than hard-core science fiction seems to be.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your interesting blog.

I read Dune years ago and liked it enough to read through the five sequels.

I enjoyed the quotes that begin each chapter and the political intrigue at the start of the book. Somewhere in the middle the story lagged for me though it picked up towards the end.

The Baron's defeat a bit anti-climatic, though the image of Fremen riding giant worms into battle is a good one. Alia was off-putting for me as well.

Fair warning, Mr. Herbert did not finish the series though I heard his son carried on his work but by then I'd had enough.

I can't say anymore without risk of ruining things but if you keep reading I'm curious to see what you make of 'em.

Fantastic image at the top o' the page; did you draw that, did someone do it for you?

cheers

Not My Real Name

Suzannah said...

Tesh, I don't know that DUNE would strike you as being hopeful - it definitely didn't come across as very optimistic to me, although I did think it was well worth reading.

Anonymous, I'm glad you're enjoying the blog! I'll probably read a couple more of the books, though I don't think I'll read all of them.

bob kek mando - ( I love the smell of Autism on the internet. It smells like ... victoREEEEEEEEE ) said...

a lot of the really old ( early 1900s ) skiffy is hard to deal with, both from a science and a writing standpoint.

you should read at least one book from each one of the three "Masters": 'Foundation' by Asimov, '2001' by Clarke and ... probably 'Starship Troopers' by Heinlein.

i loved Edgar Rice Burroughs ( Tarzan and John Carter amongst others ) as a teenager but i tried re-reading some John Carter a couple of years ago and found them painful in the extreme. characters travel to the other side of an entire planet, traversing many cultures and species ... and bump right back into each other ... with neither party having been aware that the other was nearby. this happens often as a plot device. very annoying.

Ender's Game by Card is well done and you already noted the estimable Mr. John C. Wright.

if you don't care for any of that, then Sci-Fi is probably not the genre for you.

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