The OF Blog: Frank Herbert, Dune

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Frank Herbert, Dune

"I must not fear.  Fear is the mind-killer.  Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.  I will face my fear.  I will permit it to pass over me and through me.  And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.  Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.  Only I will remain." (p. 8)

The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear is perhaps one of the most famous passages from a 20th century SF novel.  It certainly is a powerful truism and it is one of the things that people first associate with Frank Herbert's Dune.  Published in 1965, Dune was the first winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966, in  addition to winning the Hugo Award that year as well.  I first read it and its five sequels in the Fall of 2001 and while I have not read the others since this, this is the third time total that I have read Dune and the first since April 2008.  It is always interesting to see how a reader's reaction to a text evolves over time.  Sometimes, the text "improves" with a re-reading (this happened when I re-read Moby Dick at 23 after hating it at 17) and sometimes the text seems to have more flaws than was the case on the initial read.  For Dune, it is a mixture of both.

Dune is one of the earlier "ecological" SF novels, predating the first Earth Day by five years.  As such, there is a powerful unspoken character, the planet Arrakis, who comes to dominate the narrative much more than any of the human protagonists.  Harsh, seemingly unyielding and full of dangers, Arrakis appears at first glance to be untameable, but ultimately it is the taming of this planet that drives much of the novel.  From the awesome Shai-Halud (or the huge sandworms) to the water-preserving stillsuits that the Fremen wear to the cataloging of the effects that the spice melange has on its users, Herbert develops a vividly-rendered desert environment that contains an aura of mystery and danger.  Arrakis indeed is by far the most realized and dynamic of the characters that appear in this novel.

The human conflicts, whether it be between the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, between the Emperor and the Landsraad or between the Fremen and the Harkonnen, are nowhere near as well-developed.  Despite the interesting choice of naming the name of Paul Muad'Dib after the mythological Greek house of Agamemnon, very little is made of this purported connection with Greek tragedy.  Perhaps Paul's father Leto I, fated it seems to die and with everyone expecting it, may seem at first to fit the tragic role, this is undercut by Herbert's sloppy narrative.

The characters in Dune rarely seem to be "human" in their thoughts, actions, or mistakes.  In large part, this is due to Herbert's unfortunate tendency to overuse internal monologues, with several scenes containing multiple characters, each of whom will be shown to say something, only to be followed with their internal monologue indicating whether or not "truth" was spoken.  Below is a scene where Duke Leto, his Bene Gesserit concubine Jessica, the water-shipper Bewt and the Imperial Planetologist Kynes interact:

"My Lord, the Duke, and I have other plans for our conservatory," Jessica said.  She smiled at Leto.  "We intend to keep it, certainly, but only to hold it in trust for the people of Arrakis.  It is our dream that someday the climate of Arrakis may be changed sufficiently to grow such plants anywhere in the open."

Bless her!  Leto thought.  Let our water-shipper chew on that.

"Your interest in water and weather control is obvious," the Duke said.  "I'd advise you to diversify your holdings.  One day, water will not be a precious commodity on Arrakis."

And he thought:  Hawat must redouble his efforts at infiltrating this Bewt's organization.  And we must start on stand-by water facilities at once.  No man is going to hold a club over my head!

Bewt nodded, the smile still on his face.  "A commendable dream, my Lord."  He withdrew a pace.

Leto's attention was caught by the expression on Kynes' face.  The man was staring at Jessica.  He appeared transfigured - like a man in love...or caught in a religious trance.

Kynes' thoughts were overwhelmed at last by the words of prophecy:  "And they shall share your most precious dream."  He spoke directly to Jessica:  "Do you bring the shortening of the way?"

"Ah, Dr. Kynes," the water-shipper said.  "You've come in from tramping around with your mobs of Fremen.  How gracious of you."

Kynes passed an unreadable glance acros Bewt, said:  "It is said in the desert that possession of water in great amount can inflict a man with fatal carelessness."

"They have many strange sayings in the desert," Bewt said, but his voice betrayed uneasiness.

Jessica crossed to Leto, slipped her hand under his arm to gain a moment in which to calm herself.  Kynes had said: "...the shortening of the way."  In the old tongue, the phrase translated as Kwisatz haderach."  The planetologist's odd question seemed to have gone unnoticed by the others, and now Kynes was bending over one of the consort women, listening to a low-voiced coquetry.

Kwisatz Haderach, Jessica thought.  Did our Missionaria Protectiva plant that legend here, too?  The thought fanned her secret hope for Paul.  He could be the Kwisatz Haderach.  He could be. (pp. 130-131)
Obviously, this scene is meant to convey much - Kynes coming to realize the goal of the Atreides, the pointing out of the other source of wealth on Arrakis, Jessica's hopes for her son Paul, and Leto's resistance to manipulation.  However, there just is not much "life" to this passage, nor is there in the majority of similar passages in the novel.  The characters are there, thought overwhelms action overmuch, and the end result is that there is a sense of staticity about the characters; they rarely show plausible character development.  They are little more than the background to the war for the environment.

There are other concerns that cropped up when reading this novel.  It is interesting how 45 years ago, women, even those of societies in the imaginary 200 centuries after our time, are little more than domestic help or are seen as vague threatening nunneries that seek to manipulate men.  Jessica and Chani are defined much more by whom they love (Leto, Paul) than by what they themselves accomplish.  While certainly not a topic that would have dominated SF talk as much back in the mid-1960s, Herbert's treatment of women certainly would raise eyebrows in the early 21st century.  His treatment of homosexuality is even more troublesome for the modern reader.  The only homosexual character that appears in this novel is the main villain, Baron Harkonnen and in one chilling passage, he requests that his Mentat, Pietr, send him a male youth that has been drugged, since he hates for him to be thrashing about. Herbert's implied connection between homosexuality and pedophilia certainly is troublesome at best, especially considering that modern studies have shown no correlation between sexual orientation and pedophilia.  Needless to say, popular attitudes about this sensitive topic have changed much in the intervening 45 years, which made that passage all the more odd to me.

However, these concerns, which I noticed much more on this re-read than I had during my initial 2001 read or my 2008 re-read, only dampen the effect of the novel.  Herbert's Arrakis is one of the more powerful settings that I have read in any fictional work and perhaps is one of the more fully-realized secondary-world creations.  Not just the complex interactions between desert and its organisms, but also how well Herbert mixes in religious faith and tradition with these interactions of humans and environment.  Although there were a few times where the symbiotic relationships seemed a bit too strained and unrealistic, on the whole, the novel as a whole works because of the sense that the "real" story was unfolding around the action involving the human groups.  It will be interesting to see if this strong environmental presence will be seen in the succeeding novels (my memory of those is faint, to be honest) or if the irritating narrative quirks mentioned above will overshadow any interesting developments.  Will note that I will wait to the second volume to discuss Herbert's concept of jihad.

On the whole, Dune is a very flawed novel that, despite its many flaws, is a very powerful read, especially for those readers intrigued by the idea of a fiction considering how environments can shape people and their beliefs.  Certainly, it has been a very influential novel, as evidenced by some minor elements present in the next series I shall review, Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series.  In many ways, its status as being one of the most influential American SF novels is justified; attention to how the human and environmental elements interact is done to a much larger scale here and perhaps served as a precursor to sweeping SF trilogies such as the Mars novels that Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in the 1990s.  This re-read served not only to strengthen my appreciation for the series, but also to make me more aware of how a novel can contain troubling flaws and yet still be a worthwhile read.  Highly recommended for most, with caveats noted in several paragraphs above.


Anonymous said...


Great post. Your observations about Herbert's treatment of women and homosexuality brought a lot of questions to my mind. Do you have the same reaction to the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and other writers who betray the prejudices of their day as you do to Dune? Or is there something about expressing the prejudice in a future setting, rather than contemporary setting, that makes it jump off the page?

I guess what I'm in-artfully getting at is this: Is it easier to accept the prejudice as the relic of a bygone era when the book itself is set in a bygone era? Does the future setting of most SF novels make it easy to overlook the values of when it was written and instead ascribe the values of when it was read?


Larry Nolen said...


I do, to an extent. It's a reaction that I note to myself, then I reflect on the origins of the text and I see if the reaction and the subtext can be reconciled. If they can, I tend to be more forgiving. But when a writer is, for example, misogynistic even for another time in which such as more readily accepted, I'm probably going to have a feeling of loathing that I wouldn't have if I understood that the writer's attitudes reflected the Zeitgeist of a time different from our own.

The setting of the story doesn't matter as much as the time period in which the story is written. Noting an author's antiquated beliefs on gender and sexuality is to me nothing more than noting a point in which a reader's present world-view might conflict with the mores of a different time. It isn't to judge that prior time, but rather to note a potential conflict between Reader and Text.

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