Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Reading :: Dune

Originally posted: Wed, 13 Apr 2005 09:12:25


by Frank Herbert

In class today, we were finishing up our discussion of Aramis and my grad students were complaining that although it was an interesting study, it was not an especially good novel. Yes, I agreed, it had the form of a novel but was still ensconced in the genre of ethnography, making it an uncomfortable and at times incoherent hybrid -- sort of like certain theme albums. Shortly after this exchange, one grad student pointed out that the glossary at the end, which defined a seemingly endless series of acronyms and participants, seemed a lot like the similarly endless back matter in Frank Herbert's Dune.

Oh yes, I agreed. How interesting that you should mention that. I'm reading that book right now.

He lifted his eyebrows and said something like: "Dune and Rush? We're getting some really scary insights into your personality." Ouch.

Why am I reading Dune? The truth is that my wife and I were cleaning out the garage the other day, opened a box, and discovered all of these books from our childhood. Correction: most were hers; I had cleaned house a while back and gotten rid of most of my collections. Now I have only a handful of books. But I just couldn't get rid of Dune.

That's not because it's a good book, although it is. It's because this book, this very copy, represented an entire youth spent reading countless paperbacks countless times. My older brother gave me Dune for Christmas one year, and I must have been quite young. Maybe fifth grade. I know that I read Tony Rothman's The World is Round in fifth or sixth grade -- I remember paging through it in Mr. Long's class -- and I'm quite sure I had read Dune before that. A few hundred pages' worth of assassinations, breeding programs, slavery, and apocalyptic imagery is probably not the ideal gift for a fifth-grader, but it did set the bar fairly high for science fiction; I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by Foundation in comparison.

How did it set the bar high? Like other disturbingly intricate works of fiction, Dune managed to describe an entire reality in detail. Herbert clearly had far more stories in his head than made it onto the page. So each section of each chapter starts with a quote from a book or religious text from this universe; characters made constant references to other happenings and to historical events outside the present story; and a string of appendices gave the most intrepid reader still more insight. Like Lord of the Rings or The Matrix, it created a universe with enough hinted detail that it could become the nexus of what Jason Craft calls a fiction network: an ever expanding set of stories told by other authors and fans. You can imagine.

Dune also has an interesting take on the future. It avoids becoming outdated by keeping the technology to a minimum (the plot device here is that humans had destroyed and banned all thinking machines centuries earlier, after being enslaved by them) and by using feudalism to underpin the social structure. The one thing that really dates the book is that the fanatical Fremen (who at one point are identified as descendants of Sunni) stun onlookers by being willing to sacrifice their own lives. In one scene, a battle-hardened observer sees a Fremen pilot a stolen airship right into a troop carrier, killing hundreds of enemy soldiers along with himself. "What kind of men are these?" he wonders. After 9/11, the act seems unremarkable.

Dune is Machiavellian in the crude sense: amoral rulers and elaborate treacheries abound, but we detect none of the enthusiasm for republican government that the historical Machiavelli showed. Indeed, the message seems to be that the strong were meant to rule over the weak, and the strongest of all is also one who has the divine right of rule. It is also sociological in the crude sense, postulating a complex set of social structures and a broader fate of the species that ultimately controls them. In this sense, it suffers in comparison with Aramis which (written by a sociologist) is much more sophisticated and much more Machiavellian: Aramis has the same republican urge and the same determination to follow the actors that old Machiavelli had. Dune, in contrast, is essentially the sociological landscape seen through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy. When we first meet Paul Atriedes, he's fourteen, and already amazingly intelligent, a proficient fighter, a man who has total control over his emotions and actions -- the kind of person a young male reader of science fiction would want to be -- and his world is tailor made for him, full of people who are alternately trying to kill him and amazed by his abilities and wisdom.

It's not surprising, then, that Paul Atriedes doesn't seem to change much as he matures into an eighteen-year-old emperor of the galaxy. Character development in Dune is about the same as in Stephen R. Donaldson's earlier works, which is to say, imperceptible. The characters all start out grim and with "terrible purpose," and Herbert tries to steadily ramp up this grim terrible-purposedness. When Paul Atriedes' mother is frightened near the end by his very grim grimness and his terribly terrible purpose, we have a hard time seeing why: Herbert stacks the adjectives like cordwood, but we don't see a whole lot of concrete change beyond that.

Unfortunately, Herbert's later work in this universe suffers from the same malaise as Donaldson's. The dramatic thread tapered off in the books Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, then falls off a cliff in works such as God Emperor of Dune, which I charitably like to believe was ghostwritten by Herbert's son Brian. Brian Herbert has subsequently written an enormous number of Dune-themed books, none of which I have read.

Dune is a guilty pleasure, and reading through it this last time, I wonder if its style and detail helped to prepare me for my current reading diet, which mostly consists of ethnographies constructed from similarly detailed fragments. It also reminds me of the many, many hours I spent reading similar fiction. I thought of Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, which led me to Ringworld and Childhood's End; Inherit the Stars, with its sublimely creepy cover art and wooden prose; The Starchild Trilogy, whose exploding collars were appropriated by The Running Man; and so many others. Childhood's end indeed.

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