Dune — Frank Herbert

Unlike, say, Ray Bradbury and or Dan Simmons’ novels, the Dune series is probably best appreciated before one’s literary taste has better developed. It still offers some treats like a plot that moves worlds, which begins with a deadly test that, even if we know Paul Muad’dib will pass, still offers immediate tension reminiscent of the later His Dark Materials trilogy.

Granted, some of the motives regarding moves and action don’t stand up to great scrutiny—why go to Arrakis in the first place, again?—but writing that isn’t actively abhorrent. Dune does some things really, really well—most notably its descriptions of cognitive states, which have the subtlety and nuance absent from the many, many moments when the book drops into characters’ mind to telegraph what they’re feeling instead of letting us infer it. Thufir Hawat, one of the many guards and weapons masters, thinks:

He might be at that, Hawat thought. That witch-mother of his is giving him the deep training, certainly. I wonder what her precious school thinks of that? Maybe that’s why they sent the old Proctor here—to whip our dear Lady Jessica into line.

Somehow we need to be immersed in the world and given information about it, but this seems a clumsy and transparent way of doing it—and it persists through the novel, and most of the time it conveys that we’re not smart enough to understand the characters without their little soliloquies. We’re constantly hearing about how “This must not get out of hand” even when the need is already obvious. The Harry Potter series is guilty of the same problem, as revealing too much about characters while simultaneously making them flat, stealing the mystery that might otherwise make us interesting. Hamlet’s soliloquies make him less scrutable and more real; Hawat and Paul’s have the opposite effect.

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the dialog clangs, whether it’s within or spoken. Early on, we’re treated to standard fantasy/sci-fi pablum about independence and caring:

“The old woman’s voice softened. “Jessica, girl, I wish I could stand in your place and take your sufferings. But each of us must make her own path.”
“I know.”
“You’re as dear to me as any of my own daughters, but I cannot let that interfere with duty.”

We could be in a Marine barracks, or a royal court, or a foreign planet, or a softball game, or any number of other places. This extends to the characters. The villains are irredeemably evil and cruel, taking obvious delight in those traits like a child with an over-sized ice cream. They’re more laughable than anything else, but they never laugh at themselves—how could they and maintain their dignity?—but no one else laughs at them either.

The entire absence of laughter makes Dune harder to take than it might have been in the past. The poignancy of its lack is most notable when references appear, like this one: “Paul held himself apart from the humor, his attention focused on the projection and the question that filled his mind.” But Paul never becomes part of the humor, and neither does the reader. We’re too busy being bombarded with relentless seriousness and nobility, like a 15th Century morality play. Destiny is so important that one can ignore life. Honor and codes are everything.

We’ve taken that 15th Century attitude and brought it forward thousands of years; Paul kills a woman’s husband and is asked by one of the many Noble Savages on Arrakis, “Do you accept Harah as woman or servant?” Maybe one should ask her. Maybe she should read The Feminine Mystique and ask herself if she should submit to cultural imperatives making her property to whichever buck has the biggest horns. But it’s not her place to grow—not in this narrative, or at least not in a meaningful way, and we’re not supposed to feel for her: we’re with Paul Muad’dib and his seductive powers, which give Dune its chief pleasures as he overcomes obstacle after obstacle, both physical mental, the two forming a dialectical cycle that, once begun, will of course break all the rules, as we would like to.

The issues I raise aren’t new ones, and their basic contours were known long before Dune was published. Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye writes:

It is… quite possible to take the alazon [which Frye says “means imposter, someone who pretends or tries to be something more than he is”] at his own valuation: this is done for instance by the creators of the inscrutable gloomy heroes in Gothic thrillers, with their wild or piercing eyes and their dark hints of interesting sins. The result as a rule is not tragedy so much as the kind of melodrama which may be defined as comedy without humor.

Alas, that’s Dune to the experienced reader: comedy without humor because the characters are too busy posturing to perceive their ridiculousness; they can’t see their own situation and so are affected by grandiose myopia. That seems common in descriptions of modern dictators as well; Mark Bowden’s Tales of the Tyrant describes Saddam Hussein as suffering from the same ailment. In Dune the heaviness of “dark hints of interesting sins,” or at least knowledge, is pervasive, though I didn’t have language in which to put the problem properly until I read Frye, giving better form to the ideas that had plagued me without resolution.

Although it’s unfair to say so, it seems that a great deal of fantasy has the humor problem, and for all its flaws one advantage of Harry Potter is that momentous prophecy is leavened with a sense of schoolyard folly. Lord of the Rings has Sam Gamgee and other hobbits to alleviate the gloom. Dune becomes ponderous by comparison, with characters’ religious roles of honor, death, need, and codes, as if the whole of 20th Century criticism and aesthetics hadn’t happened. This is, I suspect, the quality that science fiction and fantasy detractors point to when denigrating those two forms of literature, but just because the forms the genres tend to take are weak doesn’t mean the genres themselves have to be: their best practitioners avoid the Dune problems, or outgrow them. Some phrases, like the famous mantra that fear is the mind killer, have staying power.

Dune still has flair, but not the sense of inexhaustible possibility that a novel needs to endure over a lifetime or through generations. On re-reading it, the book feels exhausted, superseded, an artifact from an earlier age rather than a living story. I wish it were otherwise.

EDIT: See also this post on Dune and its laughable honor code.

4 responses

  1. I’m with you on this, but it makes me wonder: What, other than nostalgia, drives the occasional rumors that Dune might get yet another TV or film adaptation?

    I’m currently putting together the syllabus for a sci-fi and fantasy course, and this past weekend a friend recommended assigning Dune for its depiction of cultures intermingling across centuries and millennia. But what else can one say about the book to make it worth three hours of precious class time and countless hours of my students’ equally precious reading time? It’s not clear to me that Dune has had a lasting impact on the genre, and I’m thinking that the book doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said better in more concise books that haven’t generated progressively worse sequels.


  2. Jeff —

    When I was younger, I read two or three of the Dune sequels before giving up. SF and fantasy both suffer from the problem of the hero becoming steadily closer to God as he (or she) gains power, which is ultimately where one would have to end up if one obtains infinite power, and the later books are good examples of the inherent weakness of this approach. Incidentally, the limit on powers is one of the (many) things that sets Lord of the Rings apart from weaker fantasy.

    What, other than nostalgia, drives the occasional rumors that Dune might get yet another TV or film adaptation?

    One can only assume some combination of hubris and the belief that 12 million books sold means a sufficiently large built-in market that money can be made. Granted, that might be an overly cynical answer, but this is Hollywood we’re discussing. The Devil’s Candy no doubt provides further illumination.

    But what else can one say about the book to make it worth three hours of precious class time and countless hours of my students’ equally precious reading time?

    Good call. You could put a list of “classic science fiction” or “famous science fiction that a lot of people like but that we don’t have time to read” at the end of your syllabus—that would be a great place for Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Hyperion, and other historically/culturally important books that don’t make the scholarly/aesthetic/literary cut necessary for class. The only thing I would say is that if you don’t teach Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, you’re perilously close to doing your students a disservice. That’s an amazing novel—if you haven’t read it, get a copy!—and one assigned in the undergrad SF class I took. Oh, and Lem’s nonfiction essay collection Microworlds and his novel Solaris are other favorites worth considering, but probably aren’t as vital as Left Hand.


  3. Pingback: Dune and its laughable honor code relative to Beowulf and Fast & Furious « The Story's Story

  4. This kind of tone is no longer used seriously by modern SF and fantasy writers (along with the archaic notions).

    Unfortunately, Dune is quite dated in this regard. I think it has something to do with its influences and pulp roots.
    We will see if it would hold up for future genrerations. (If you really loved it as a teenager, i wouldn’t deny the possibility.)

    By the way, some people criticised Tolkien for similar things.


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