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As Good As I Remember It? – Frank Herbert’s Dune

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Some people have The Lord of the Rings, some people have Dune. They reread one of the two books on a regular basis. While I don’t read Dune every year, it’s the sf novel I’ve probably read the most times (and I haven’t reread The Lord of the Rings since I was about nineteen). This year I read Dune once again as it’s one of the titles on my list of favourite sf novels.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is generally considered a classic science fiction novel. It’s certainly a best-selling sf novel – and there aren’t that many of them. In fact, it’s still in print now, more than 40 years after its debut. Common wisdom has it that the Dune series falls in quality as it progresses, although there are those who consider the sequel to Dune, Dune Messiah, the best of the lot. Since Frank Herbert himself conceived of the original trilogy – Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune – as a whole, it’s unfair to consider them sequels. The trilogy is a thematic whole – as FH himself wrote: “I conceived of a long novel, the whole trilogy as one book about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us … This grows from my theory that superheroes are disastrous for mankind, that even if we find a real hero (whatever that may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that comes into being around such a leader.”

As for the later Dune books – yes, God Emperor of Dune is less a novel than it is a manifesto, but once you accept that the book becomes a more interesting read. Both Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune are, I think, technically better-written than the original three. Admittedly, Miles Teg’s development of superhuman speed always struck me as pushing plausibility just a little too far out of the suspension of disbelief envelope. And back-fitting an underground Judaic society into the universe felt a bit like pandering and unnecessary.

The less said about the Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson prequels and sequels, the better.

For those few who’ve not read the book, Dune is the story of Paul Atreides. It is set some twenty thousand years in the future, in a feudal interstellar empire in which computers , “thinking machines”, have been banned for millennia. Interstellar travel is controlled by the Spacing Guild, who use the spice melange to see into the near-future and so safely pilot their starships via foldspace. Melange is only found on a single world, Arrakis, AKA Dune. Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, is charged by the Emperor with taking over Arrakis from his mortal enemy, Baron Harkonnen. But this is just a ploy by Harkonnen, who intends to destroy House Atreides. He attacks, but Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, escape into the vast deserts of Arrakis and join the native Fremen. These are a hard people, and superlative fighters. Paul proves to be prescient and the messiah their religion foretold, and he leads them in battle against the Harkonnens and the Emperor. And wins.

Dune, for all its popularity and success, is not a very well-written novel. Here’s a sample passage:

His mother had undergone this test. There must be terrible purpose in it… the pain and fear had been terrible. He understood terrible purposes. They drove against all odds. They were their own necessity. Paul felt he had been infected with terrible purpose. He did not know yet what the terrible purpose was.

FH’s prose rarely rises above serviceable. It often drops below it. His poetry – presented as the lyrics of Gurney Halleck’s ballads – is bad. It’s no better in his collection of poetry, Songs of Muad’Dib. But then he did write a lot of haiku, and I hate haiku. Further, the continuous “head-hopping” is often confusing. That’s not to say FH was a bad writer, just that Dune doesn’t showcase his best. His writing in The Green Brain is, I feel, much, much sharper; and he draws his setting and characters much more effectively and skilfully in The Santaroga Barrier.

What FH was, however, was perhaps the deepest-thinking sf writer of his generation. Even if his prose often got in the way of the story, his fiction always left the impression it was never based on, or built around, trivia. He didn’t write escapist adventure-stories. Even a fix-up such as The Godmakers, in which the joins are painfully obvious, had something intelligent to say about government and religion.

FH spent a lot of time on the background of Dune, and it shows a depth and richness matched by few novels in the genre. Its feudal, somewhat old-fashioned, nature has also meant it has stood the test of time well. Dune reads pretty much the same now as it did when I first read it thirty years ago. The protagonist, Paul, is a young man whose words and actions continually seem to chime with prophecy, suggesting he is heir to greatness. And so it proves. There’s plenty there for young male adolescents to identify with, especially those who read science fiction. I no longer identify with Paul to the extent I did as a callow youth. And Baron Harkonnen now seems more of a pantomime villain than a real antagonist. All he lacks is a moustache to twirl. However, the setting remains as fascinating as ever – it’s easy to feel that the background is the real achievement of Dune. Both it and The Lord of the Rings were notable first and foremost for their deep and detailed settings, and both of them perhaps led to the current privileging of immersion over everything else in genre novels and novel series.

Each time I reread Dune, I find its narrative message harder to swallow – i.e., the human race is slowly stagnating, and a jihad is needed to mix up the genes and inject some vitality back into it. Paul tries to prevent this – or rather, he tries to find a less violent solution. But he fails. For me, jihad is the wrong word. It means “struggle” – and what exactly is the jihad in Dune struggling against? Second, Herbert equates a stagnating civilisation with genetic stagnation, which is not necessarily true. And, finally, going out and killing lots of humans is a pretty peculiar way of injecting some vitality back into the gene pool.

Speaking of killing, Dune is full of it. I hadn’t realised until this reading quite how many people are slaughtered throughout the story. And often for the most trivial of reasons. In one scene, two guards are a little quick to obey Feyd-Rautha in the presence of Baron Harkonnen. Since those guards are clearly more loyal to Feyd-Rautha than the baron, Harkonnen has them killed. Feyd-Rautha’s harem is also murdered as punishment for something he did wrong. It’s not just the villains of the piece. Perhaps it’s not unexpected that the Harkonnens would place little value on life, but the Fremen view it equally as cheap. Duke Leto is the only character who values the lives of his men. On joining the Fremen, Paul adopts their view. It all makes for a somewhat callous read. And, of course, it’s stated that the jihad will slaughter billions more after Dune‘s story has finished…

Unfortunately, David Lynch’s 1985 film of Dune has also slightly spoiled the book for me. For much of the novel, Stilgar remains as described in the novel. But when Paul and Jessica join the Fremen and Paul chooses his Fremen name… I kept on hearing Stilgar’s dialogue in Everett McGill’s voice. After seeing the movie, it’s almost impossible to hear, “We call that one muad’dib,” any other way.

Even though I’ve read Dune at least half a dozen times in the last 30 years, I don’t doubt I’ll read it again. For years I’ve been promising myself I’ll read all six of the FH-penned Dune books in succession. Maybe I’ll set myself that as a challenge one year, and blog the results. If I can bring myself to do so, I might even continue onto the two “Dune 7″ novels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson… Which would sort of be the opposite of going from dreadful sf B-movies to Ingmar Bergman… but with just as explosive results (see below).

Yes, Dune remains a favourite – although for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand. It’s not FH’s best-written novel. It’s not even the best-written of the Dune series. It is also a somewhat heartless novel – its core ideas have never really convinced me. But its setting remains a work of genius, and – let’s be honest – every male sf reader secretly wants to be Paul Atreides…

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8 thoughts on “As Good As I Remember It? – Frank Herbert’s Dune

  1. Thats a fascinating take on the book, and it’s always good to see tempered fandom – Dune isn’t perfect, it’ maybe just more perfect than most other speculative fiction of its time.I know what you mean about the credibility of the back-story, however I’d say it has faired far better than most SF, maybe because it is so alien, so divorced from the world of today.I’d also agree that Dune Messiah is better written, there’s a more interesting, more complex story going on. One that certainly builds nicely onto Dune. However, I always felt that FH became too fixated on his setting. Dune to me was about much more than sand and big worms. I wanted to be taken to other wondrous places, built with the same depth and subtly as Dune, but instead I the tiniest hints of what’s going on in the rest of the universe.

  2. What do you mean, “secretly?”

  3. Nice write up , the Jihad was to overthrow the previous government and clean up houses not loyal basically the freman conquest of the world – letting savages loose. Without it , there are many bad scenarios ( such as a number of houses raising an army and invading Dune) .I do think he intended to show how even when you have a super man ruling a universe when normal people take over the results are bad. He kind of changed this a bit with God emporer which takes a different view but its clear in the 3rd book that Paul didnt launch the Jihad to toughen people up as he didnt want to take the golden path . Anyway thats my take the beauty is there are many interpretations and as i get older it changes.Not sure about the sequal and prequal books by his son but they feel so poor and hollow in comparison.I would have liked to see more of the rest of teh Universe but you can see in Chapter House it didnt compare to the 6 years he put into the first book defining the ecology /environment etc.

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  8. I agree that Frank Herbert’s world building is some of the best. The Dune series one of my favorite SF series, but I have to say, from God Emperor onward, they strained belief. I think that Herbert’s use of jihad does not refer to it’s true definition, but rather to the definition that many now, and 40 years ago, thought of jihad as being, a war of religious zealots against the sinful infidel. If you think of jihad in that way, it pretty much matches Herbert’s vision of the results of Paul becoming emperor.

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