Author: Frank Herbert
Series: Dune #1
Everything’s been written about Dune many times over, so forgive me if my review will be somewhat off beat this time. I don’t feel the need to detail the plot or the worldbuilding.
Dune is unequivocally a masterwork of SF, a SF at its best, openly acknowledging its ties to myths and the belief in universal truths of human cognition. But Dune also reaches way beyond SF, having become one of the few absolutely crucial works of fiction of the 20th century. And yet, and yet, while I admire it with passion, it’s a book I cannot love. It leaves me cold and uncaring. It leaves me wanting to pick it apart, and dirty my hands in its bloody insides, and emerge holding the offending element in my palms, triumphant in finding what fault exactly makes me less than welcoming toward it.
But the truth is, I suspect I know it already.
Nice opening, huh? So now I’m going to subvert your expectations, and launch into a lengthy consideration of the socio-ecological ramifications of Herbert’s universe. Kidding!
Though not entirely.
Dune is one of those books which upon their conception were viewed as SF. Inhabited planets, alien life forms, space travel, etc. – all the accoutrements of ‘60s’ SF were there. Ironically enough, when read today, Dune seems more like a mix of fantasy/SF, with its supernatural, nearly “magical” powers of precognition and heightened mental/physical awareness, with the Chosen One trope forming the backbone of the story, with the incorrigibly feudal social structure which in itself is a mixture of medieval Europe, Byzantium, ancient Rome, and North Africa. While this in itself has no bearing on the quality of the book, it touches tangentially on one of the reasons why I don’t like Dune more: namely, the time gap between the ‘60s and now, which is at once too long and too short.
But let’s start at the beginning. The mythical aspects forming the foundations of Dune, the ancient Greek myth of the curse on the House of Atreides, are extremely powerful in their own right. It’s what it meant to be a hero for the Greeks – something simultaneously more and less than human, more and less than god. All humans had their fates decreed by the Moirai, and these fates, once set, were unbending and unbroken. But in the case of heroes, their fates were a matter of additional scrutiny, of additional suffering, of more triumph and despair, of impact that spanned generations and geographies. Dune drinks deeply from that well, and openly acknowledges its loyalties. Herbert’s intimate understanding of this aspect of Greek mythology is admirable and laudable, and I would love for the new authors to have even a slice of this understanding (spoiler alert: they don’t).
And yet, Herbert’s sip from this ancient well might’ve been poisoned, because while it lends gravitas to the protagonists of Dune, it doesn’t seem to imbue them with pathos. The tragedy of the House Atreides in Dune makes me sad, a little, but not moved. And the reason for this, I suspect, is that I feel that in Dune all of them, their whole inbred bunch of manipulated manipulators, fully deserved what they got. Paul, Jessica, Leto, Harkonnens, the emperor… They had it coming. And the reason for this is, I suspect, the ‘60s. The way Herbert writes these characters – and his writing is impeccable, so this is probably intentional – seems somehow off to me. There’s not much empathy in Herbert for his creations; he treats them like pawns on a board. Confluences of events accelerate certain processes; genetic manipulations generations in the making come to fruition early due to one willful decision. Any emotion can be fully regulated, subdued, or evoked as needed; control is everything; nothing is left to chance.
I feel echoes of Asimov’s Foundation in Dune, and that’s not a compliment. The vision of the future as a place where logic fully controls emotions, when humans achieve the (questionably interpreted) Nietzchean ideal of the Übermensch is a 20th century dream which now seems rather dystopian. And while I can dissect Greek myths and tragedies with quite a calm head and heart, dispassionately looking at the worldviews and dominant ideas of the time, the analysis of the Weltanschauung of the 1960s is a different matter entirely. I feel too enmeshed in the culture of this period to judge it impartially; and as such, I tend to be a much harsher critic of it.
See, I am not fond of the superhuman aspects of Dune. That’s a load of BS for me, and while I see it as a useful plot device, at the same time I grind my teeth at the author, because so much of the Dune universe (at least the first three books that I’ve read) is based on this concept. I feel that it Herbert uses it instead of the personified Fate of Greek mythos, allowing the characters to glimpse the tragedy awaiting them, as in the original, but because his concept of precognition can become such a powerful tool for the characters to escape their preordained paths, he limits the usefulness of it through the murky discussion on free will and/or lack thereof. The world in Dune cannot be not deterministic because of its acknowledged debt to the Greeks. But Herbert seems not entirely happy with this conclusion, and so tries to find a way out – poetically describing the bends in the road, the murky horizons of causality, allowing Paul his reckless duel with Feyd-Rautha as the last attempt at escape from fate.
Herbert is a feminist in this book – all characters regardless of their sex/gender are equally guilty and broken, fallible and odious and deserving our sympathy. Even Vladimir Harkonnen, the nominal villain of Dune, is, in the end, a dupe of Bene Gesserit, who are as despicable as they are powerful, and yet, in the end, are rendered helpless by their own creation. Even Alia, the hapless victim of her mother’s quest for power, couched in very biblical terms of consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, embraces her knowledge with ruthless abandon. As in the Greek myths, there are no innocents: we are all guilty of our fathers’ sins.
And yet this book is magnetic. The deliberation inherent in the creation of the universe of Dune, the research into desert ecologies, history, anthropology, religious studies, mythology – I am awed by the work Herbert poured into this novel, by the patience with which he spun this story for over a decade before he was content with his opus magnum. I long for more books like Dune – books I can disagree with, vehemently at times, and yet be drawn to. Books I can admire even if I don’t love them. Books that are truly masterpieces, that will be read and analyzed centuries later, and maybe with less chagrin because the time gap will be sufficient to cure the future generations of the malaise of the 20th century ;). Is Dune perfect? No, but that’s all right, because there are no perfect books. Its imperfections, the signs of internal struggle and contradictions, are what stays with us the longest, I think.
So here’s my rambling skim on the surface of Dune. There are so many aspects I haven’t touched upon, from the Butlerian Jihad to the deficiencies of the idea of a feudal rule in space (at least it’s acknowledged and limited somewhat by the mercantile and/or scientific/religious forces of Spacing Guild and other big players, such as Bene Gesserit), to the fascinating details of desert ecology of Arrakis and the ramifications of employing Nietzchean philosophy of Übermensch. The good thing is that you can find all of these somewhere if you’re interested; like with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or Zelazny’s Amber, Herbert’s Dune lives on in countless discussions and analyses, and, most importantly, in human imagination.