Supersonic Man

October 30, 2021

the novel “Dune” is both great and flawed

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:23 am

Dune, the career-defining 1965 novel by Frank Herbert which is the source of the current blockbuster film, is certainly a magnificent epic. It is a richly complex work with a lot of meaning, and it deconstructs a lot of narrative tropes familiar from our favorite legends and entertainment, at a time when such things were usually accepted uncritically. Hero’s journey, chosen one, white savior — they’re all there, played halfway straight but always askew and always illuminated from an unusual angle that makes you see it in a new way. And the book is packed with everything that was popular and trendy in its time, from martial arts to mind-expanding drugs, from youth rebellion to superpower origin stories, from the feudal struggles of high fantasy to the new science of ecology.

(Someone recently summarized the tale, when asked to boil it down to one sentence, as a bunch of greedy horny men failing to peacefully share a planet made of cocaine.)

To summarize it somewhat less briefly, the protagonist is Paul Atreides, the teenage heir of a feudal lord who rules an entire planet. Thousands of years in the future, the galaxy is divided among such families. The Atreides family is offered an upgrade — a chance to take over as rulers of another planet, Arrakis or Dune, which despite its arid barrenness is the most lucrative in the galaxy because it is the sole source of The Spice — a drug which not only extends human life but gives some users vision across spacetime, without which interstellar navigation is impossible. They suspect the offer is a trap but have no way to turn it down. Sure enough, once they arrive they are attacked, and Paul’s father is killed, along with the majority of his staff and followers. Paul and his mother Jessica escape into the desert, where they encounter the untamed indigenous people, the Fremen. Paul integrates into Fremen society, eats spice, and develops prophetic visionary abilities. He teaches the Fremen advanced techniques which he has been trained with since infancy because of his privileged upbringing, and this training raises their already formidable combat abilities to near superhuman levels. He emerges as their messianic leader, and leads the Fremen in a rebellion that overthrows not only the villains who killed his father, but the emperor of the galaxy. Oh, and there are giant worms.

Hard science fiction it’s not — this story is more a fantasy set in the future than a tale of science.

What that summary can’t begin to capture is how rich the novel is as literature. From the delicate balance of genteel wit and murderous intrigue at a formal banquet to the complex ecological cycles which underlie the worms and the spice, from the way that Paul’s parents blend simple heartfelt decency and love with ruthless scheming (and I will note that Jessica, not Paul, is the novel’s deepest character), to the endless depth of history and culture that is apparent in the Fremen way of life (which has its origins in Central Asia), I would say this is a towering achievement which can stand right beside genre-defining immortal works like The Lord of the Rings.

Or rather, I would have said that when I was younger. Now I’m less certain.

The novel struggled to be published, but then became the best-selling work of all time in its genre, just as Tolkien’s trilogy did.  It also ended up being the start of a series in which Herbert wrote five sequels during his lifetime, while leaving notes on two more which he thought would wrap the series up. But his son Brian and others have decided to keep on a-milking the cash cow with prequels and spinoffs, and have produced a run of books that now brings the series to 22 novels, along with numerous shorter works and a bunch of ancillary nonfiction. I have no intention of ever reading all this surplus. Even in Herbert’s own books I never got to the last sequel. Like most long series the returns diminish at a very noticeable rate. And Herbert’s own final work ends on a cliffhanger.

But some of those sequels are pretty important for understanding the original. Because the original, as I said, plays all those chosen-white-heroic-quest tropes kind of straight, so you can read it on one level as a ripping adventure of a young hero righteously kicking villains’ asses. But as Herbert put it, the second novel, Dune Messiah, plays the heroic theme inverted. The former protagonist now lives through a tale mostly consisting of frustration and futility. Only after reading this does the message sink in that it never was right or good to root for Paul Atreides to win — that his victory is not really a triumph of good over evil, and that the real message is to not be a follower like the poor misguided Fremen.

But is that the real message? Despite his intent, Herbert never did make this subversion of heroic themes, and of the impulse to follow a messianic leader, very coherent or clear in those first two. To this day it’s far from inarguable that this is the subtext, no matter how much Herbert said out loud that it was. So he got more clear and explicit in the third and fourth books. In Children of Dune he returns to a more heroic mode and makes the new protagonist, Paul’s son, into something explicitly like a comic book superhero. Here he casts the futility of Paul’s story in book two as a failure of nerve — he was unwilling to take this extreme path. But in its followup, God Emperor of Dune, our new superhero runs a totalitarian theocratic dictatorship and is worshiped as a god. Yet this never makes him a villain, as he has knowledge that supposedly makes it necessary for him to play the bad guy so that humanity will survive a coming crisis, and then sacrifice himself at the right time to make this possible. (The nature of said crisis was revealed only in the posthumous works, and involves artificial intelligence.)  This feels to me like kind of a cop-out, so the protagonist can still be the hero.

In the remaining books, there’s a prolonged war as a faction of baddies conquers most of the galaxy, with a worse threat lurking behind them, and the protagonists are no longer named Atreides.

The message may still be somewhat unclear, but that’s Herbert: he seemingly never makes his themes or characters unambiguous. Villains may sometimes be purely rotten but no hero is purely good, and no noble motive is without its negative side.

An interesting example of this is a non-Dune novel that Frank Herbert wrote in 1968, The Santaroga Barrier. This also involves a mind-altering drug, though one with more subtle effects. This drug exerts a suspicious level of control over its users lives. And the thing is, the question of whether it’s a destructive menace or an opportunity to take a next step of human development is kept balanced and unresolved through the entire novel. Herbert utterly refused to allow the reader a settled answer.

A later novel, The White Plague (which is the most impressive non-Dune work of his that I’ve read, and shows him as a better conventional writer than anything in the series does) is set largely in Ireland and features an IRA terrorist as one of the primary characters.  The guy’s a fanatical murderer and yet the most persuasive and compelling viewpoint in the book is his.

The drug in Santaroga, like the spice in Dune, is of biological orgin, and is cultivated in a manner resembling the raising of mushrooms. This is a clear connection to Herbert’s real life hobby of mushroom cultivation… in which his favorite type of ’shrooms were of the “magic” variety in genus psilocybe. Yeah, there’s a reason why his heroes are tripping balls as a way to gain enhanced abilities. Even the way the spice turns the whites of the eyes blue is inspired by the blue color these mushrooms can develop after picking, especially if damaged.  He had been known to do peyote as well.

Even in the original Dune the ambiguity is there throughout.  At every step Paul is striving for survival and victory, and doing everything necessary to pass every test… yet he’s also desperately looking for a way off of the path he’s on, as he foresees the extreme bloodshed which will occur in his name.  He wants a way to get the success without the awful cost, never finds it, and seems unable to choose the path which would save millions.  But since that would leave some vicious sadists in power, the novel certainly doesn’t recommend that as an alternative.  In fact it doesn’t even consider it.  Paul doesn’t even see himself as having the free will to make such a choice — his desire to escape produces a lot of hoping and wishing, but very little deciding and acting.  His capacity to see the future robs him of choice — a process which becomes complete in the sequels. As a way of subverting a hero’s journey, that’s kind of unsatisfying: since we have to mostly take Paul’s word for it that the violence is inevitable, it seems almost as if God is putting a stamp of approval on what is essentially a tragic outcome, and in the end everyone we’ve followed through the novel cheers the bloodshed.

The subversion is a good deal more successful where it deals with the Chosen One trope.  The Fremen do indeed see Paul as chosen, as destined… but only because covert operatives centuries ago seeded hundreds of cultures, including theirs, with carefully crafted myths that would make them ripe for exploitation by a figure like Paul. His mother Jessica is a member of the organization that set this up, the Bene Gesserit, and knows how to take full advantage.  That is a pretty sharp barb at how our society has historically combined religion and colonialism.

(But religion itself plays a surprisingly small role in the Dune series. A lot of the old faiths have blended and combined until they have become vague and empty, and the engineered myths adapt to whatever local variations they find. Herbert himself began as Catholic but turned to Zen.)

As to the white part… the relationship of the galactic noble families to the people of Arrakis is as colonial as can be, but he doesn’t overtly bring race into it.  In this future it appears that historical shades of pure black and white are somewhat blended away, and some people have color combinations not seen today, like dark skin with red hair… but still, the lordly families seem fairly close to white, and the Fremen are definitely swarthy, though not as dark as Paul’s friend and combat tutor Duncan Idaho.  Race is not a thing to the people of this future — at no point does anyone care about it… yet the old racial divides still inform the story for us.  The whitest-looking family, by Herbert’s descriptions, is the Emperor’s.

Anyway,  since I haven’t cracked it open for decades, and I’m feeling a lot of uncertainty about some aspects of it now, it’s time to reread Dune.

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