Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dune (1966)

Subgenre: Ecology, superhuman abilities

A few days ago, I read an article on media you want to experience "for the first time" again, and couldn't help being a little disappointed by the focus on music and movies. Except for one predictable choice (Catcher in the Rye? Come on...) no one mentioned any books. I'd love to watch Charade without knowing the ending, or listen to This Magnificent Bird Will Rise and fall in love with Deerhoof again, but that all pales to the chance to read Dune through as a clean slate.

Some books take hold of you, and if you're the right age, become an inextricable part of your childhood. Ender's Game is a common one, but mine were different, including The Westing Game, Catch-22, Foundation, and Dune. Of these, Dune stood out to me as being the most compulsive reading. I remember picking it up by chance, and spending all night reading. The next day, my parents had to force me to put the book down and talk to the people we were visiting. I remember the book's smell; I remember its texture. I'm not the only one who had this experience - I have seen many, many people with tattoos of the Litany against Fear. Why is Dune so compelling to a certain type of youngster?

Dune paints a world where flesh, politics, and the vast sweep of history can be controlled by the intelligent and disciplined mind. Its protagonist, Paul Atreides, is an isolated, intelligent fifteen-year-old with extraordinary mental powers, driven by things he doesn't fully understand. Maybe it's not surprising that a teenager or pre-teen would be compelled by this story - at one level, Dune reads like an extended metaphor for adolescence, paired with the appealing dream that sheer logic can remake the world. Of course, there's more than this - as Herbert himself notes in one of the book's many aphorisms:
Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.
The hero's-triumph story is paired with a complementary tragedy: Paul's battle with predestination, attempting to work against giant, inevitable forces. Does Paul choose the best of all possible worlds? Does he, in fact, have a choice at all, or does his prescience just create the illusion of free will? Maybe Paul's self-interest drives him; Herbert makes genes the mechanism for fate, and Paul never chooses a path that would lead to his own destruction. But I don't really want to talk about this - it's difficult to talk about the success or failure of Paul's plans without the later books coming up, particularly Dune Messiah, and that would be opening a can of (no pun intended) worms.

I have read Dune many, many times - enough that a lot of that initial excitement has faded, and what's left is appreciation for how well Herbert builds such a complex world. There are a few keys to this: every trait of a political group is matched with an anecdote, almost every plot development is foreshadowed, and though a vast array of new words and concepts are thrown out, they are either not crucial to the main plot, or explained quickly. Take for example:
"Kanly, is it?" the Baron asked. "Vendetta, heh? And he uses the nice old word so rich in tradition to be sure I know he means it."
Look at the first scene in the book; Herbert doesn't just tell the reader that the Bene Gesserit are ruthless and manipulative, he has one torture a child for the sake of a convoluted ideal. The gom jabbar scene ("What's in the box?" "Pain") is iconic, and it's six pages in.

Throughout the entire novel, but especially in the first part, Herbert breaks the story down into relatively small scenes, moving the plot along with character-oriented vignettes. He keeps the characters manageable by making them memorable and tagging them, "Gurney the valorous," "Yueh the traitor," and so on. That last one reminds me - Herbert is not worried about keeping secrets from the reader. Most of the plot is laid out in the first fifteen pages, and the moment we meet Yueh, we are told he's a traitor (and also the next time we see him, just in case we forgot). Because the characters are clear, and the plot is laid out well, following the standard forms, we have time to soak up all of the side details. And of course, that's where the meat of Dune's power comes from - the detail of the world. I don't really want to write yet another paen to the ecology that Herbert invented, or the clever repurposing of aspects of various different cultures (later novels characterize the "Zensunni" religion), because it's been done. However, reading C.J. Cherryh (and, to a lesser extent Kim Stanley Robinson) has taught me that all of the world-building falls apart without that character-plot skeleton that Herbert manages so efficiently.


  • Like I was going to get away without quoting this one:
    "Think you of the fact that a deaf person cannot hear. Then, what deafness may we not possess? What sense do we lack that we cannot see and cannot hear another world all around us?"

  • I wonder if Dune would have grabbed me in the same way if I had been a girl - there isn't a strong (young) female character - Chani is woefully underdeveloped, and part of the compelling part of the story (from the adolescent perspective) is Paul knowing better than his mother, eliminating her as a possible role model
  • Hat tip to the Onion's AV Club at the top for inspiring this one (and also because I stole my format from their TV Club articles)

Hugo-worthy? Should be in pretty much every best-of, especially for extending "hard" science fiction beyond physics and into ecology. A

1 comment:

  1. I'll never forget discovering Dune. I was in 9th grade, so it was '97 or '98, but the library computer was old, with green text on a black background. I started putting keywords together, trying to find an interesting book. I had never heard of Dune or of Frank Herbert.

    That library moved out of that building sometime in the past decade, but I can still remember the little room I had to go in. The book was on a tall shelf so I needed a stool to reach it.

    I thought I had discovered some long-lost secret, this amazing book.

    Later, when I was voraciously reading it during a study hall, my friend said, "Oh, I've seen that movie." I pictured the book, seeming so forlorn in the library, as if no one had ever found it before, and I couldn't imagine that it was a movie.

    (The book was so amazing that I went on to read just about every book Frank Herbert has ever written, which was a mistake, because he starts to seem predictable.)