In league with the future: Frank Herbert’s Dune

Dune is a book that sneaks up on you. It’s an easy book to make fun of—ultra-baroque, ridiculously complex plotting, long pauses while people assess each other—and yet when all’s said and done, it sneaks up on you and sucks you in. It does a number of clever things, and it plays with some interesting ideas, and step by step it builds a very seductive world. It’s far from an Aristotelean plot—it’s a weird cocktail, part messianic, part intrigue, part ecological, but it works. I loved it when I was twelve, and I read the sequels, which are each half as good as the one before, and I didn’t give up until they were homeopathically good. I reread Dune frequently when I was young, but I hadn’t read it for a long time, certainly not since 1990. I thought maybe you had to be twelve, and I had grown out of it. But picking it up now to consider it as 1966’s Hugo winner, I was wrong. It got me again. I have reservations, of course I do. But I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I’d recommend it.

This is another one for the “religious SF” pile. But the religion in question is a distorted Islam. One of the things Herbert succeeds in doing here is making this seem like a far future that starts from here, and making the time between seem like history. He does it mainly by hinting and not explaining, and it works. It also has great names that plausibly come from different cultures—Duncan Idaho and Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen and Stilgar.

Paul Atreides is the heir to a Dukedom, and we are told unequivocably and right away in the chapter start quotes that he will become Muad’Dib, that he will be a phenomenon, somebody worth writing books about within his universe. Before we know what Muad’Dib is, we know that’s Paul’s destiny. The quotes come from books Arrakis Awakening, A Child’s History of Muad’Dib, In My Father’s House, etc., all written in the future of the text we are reading. They do a number of clever things. First, they give information, secondly they give information the characters don’t yet know and hence foreshadow, sometimes more subtly and sometimes less. They therefore build up a sense of tragic inevitability, as with Yueh’s betrayal and Leto’s downfall. We know it’s going to happen, we know it’s going to have huge mythic significance, but we don’t know exactly when, and we don’t know how Paul and Jessica will survive. Thus the chapter start quotes set us up to be ready for Paul’s weird prophetic abilities, how they show and hide events at the same time, they make us understand them as if they have happened to us. This really is amazingly clever—chapter start quotes are an old device, but this is an astonishing use of them. It’s giving us a prescient weighted experience and two layers of time at the same time, so that when Paul gets that we understand it. The other clever thing the quotes do is that they come from a whole pile of books about Paul and written by “the Princess Irulan.” When we finally meet Irulan as a character and hear she has literary aspirations, that’s another and unexpected connection.

We have a universe that is balanced, Great Houses against Emperor against Guild—the Guild of pilots who are the only ones who can move ships between the stars. And moving across this balance there’s the all-female Bene Gesserit, a eugenic society with secret aims, and the Spice, which allows the Guild to see futures and therefore fly, and the Bene Gesserit to see futures and therefore plot. Spice comes only from Arrakis, the dune planet. The balance falters when Arrakis is given to Paul’s father Duke Leto, and Leto has plans for the desert dwellers, the Fremen. Unknown to him they have secret terraforming plans, and a strand of ecology has got into their religion. Their religion has also been twisted in the past by the Bene Gesserit, who spread legends on planets to make it easier for any of their members who happen to get stuck there. In addition to this, there was a revolt in the past (the Butlerian Jihad, mentioned, not described) in which computers were destroyed, and now people trained to think like computers, mentats, are valuable members of society, though both the ones we see are also trained as assassins. The whole plot is what happens after the balance is tipped, and how it comes into a new balance.

Everybody has their own agenda, and all the agendas are twisted. The Harkonnens, enemies of the Atreides, the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen, everyone. A lot of what makes the book good is the depth of the worldbuilding. Herbert takes all the time he needs to build his world, one funny word at a time. The book starts on Caledan, and moves slowly to Arrakis, and this is good, we need that time. It starts really slowly, establishing characters. Paul and Jessica aren’t normal but they come from a world much more like ours into a world where every drop of water is precious and the culture has been utterly shaped by that. And it really feels as if it has. Paul and Jessica are thrust out among the Fremen and have to learn to adjust, at the same time as Paul is learning to use his prescient powers. The different cultures build up drop by drop until they feel completely real.

So, caveats. It’s incredibly overwritten and purple. At times it almost seems like self-parody. The plotting is unnecessarily baroque. There are some lovely set pieces, but there are also some ridiculous ones. The prescience is brilliant, but the race memory—if you had race memory of all your ancestors through your genes, that would give you their memory up to the time they conceived their child, not their wisdom in old age and experience, but a whole pile of twenty year olds. Agamemnon’s children were all conceived before Troy, and Shakespeare’s before he left Stratford. Their memories won’t be that much use.

But all of that aside, it got me, I wanted to keep reading it, and by the end I was utterly caught up in it and asking myself if the sequels really were as bad as I remember, because I wanted more.

The sequels are not worth it. But if you haven’t read Dune itself, do pick it up. It’s entirely self contained, it has a beginning and a satisfying end, it’s a classic, it’s a good story, and it’s one of the things helps define the edges of what science fiction can be.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out on January 18th, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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