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The Dune Trilogy (1965-76) by Frank Herbert

  • Dune (1965), Dune Messiah (1969), and Children of Dune (1976)
    by Frank Herbert.

    The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes
    – Frank Herbert

    'Didn't you learn the difference between Harkonnen and Atreides so that you could smell a Harkonnen trick by the stink they left on it. Didn't you learn that Atreides loyalty is bought with love, while the Harkonnen coin is hate?
    – also Frank Herbert

    Dune shouldn't work: there's a lot of the worst of fantasy fiction in it. The spurious black and white morality, above; cod-medieval dialogue; noble-savagery and bizarro Orientalism; its spoilers for itself (through its constant first-person precognition); and the po-faced chapter epigrams about how great the main character is... *

    But it does work. It works because of the loveable setting and its thrilling ecosystem; the sharp, rapid dialogue; its sheer, smushy pastiche of human history (American environmentalism, medieval feudalism, Arabic sheikism, and Zen martial hokum ("he is a Zensunni prophet", "to use the family atomics"); its mystical anti-Star Trek historical materialism; excellent setpieces; and because the book contains a realist reading of its own magical-heroic events. (Here's a start: Everything takes place on a world made of shroom heroin! You can't trust a thing these people say!)

    This hidden realism is clearest in the (heavy) appendices to the book - these aren't the ordinary conceited footnotes of fantasy, which assume you care about its little world as much as the author does. They're instead a rationalist palate cleanser after 600 pages of woo. A scientific, academic register erupts, mocking the internally real mysticism of the foregoing. I was even a little disappointed to find a huge glossary at the end, containing all the words I had been puzzling over. Mystery and gnosis and not-quite-getting-it suits the plot. The appendices say the book is more than its plot, and the world more than its books.

    (The big realist moment within the book is when you see that the great prophecy is just a scam, planted to manipulate people.)

    The baddies, the Harkonnens, are a bit much though: nothing they do is not repulsive. Herbert has the protagonists use mysticism and authoritarianism, while having most of the best characters resist and despise these things. There's no such tension with the main antagonists, no nominally redeeming feature. So you can feel Herbert hissing and booing the Harkonnens. Here is the first scene with the evil Baron:

    It was a relief globe of a world, partly in shadows, spinning under the impetus of a fat hand that glittered with rings... A chuckle sounded beside the globe. A basso voice rumbled out of the chuckle:
    'There it is, Piter, the biggest mantrap in all history. And the Duke's headed into its jaws. Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?'

    Herbert gets away with this because Harkonnen is supposed to be over-the-top, and, more, because his world has a black and grey morality. (Do you want the genocidal decadent rapist Machiavels or the square-chinned aristocratic Machiavels?)

    The greyness of the Atreides leads to the biggest plot problem. (It's not exactly a plot hole, but it takes interpretive labour to make it make sense.): Paul's Jihad is unmotivated. Nobody wants it, including the Messiah it is carried out for. Paul even compares himself to Mega Hitler:

    'There's another emperor I want you to note in passing - a Hitler. He killed more than six million. Pretty good for those days.'
    'Killed by his legions?'
    'Not very impressive statistics, m'Lord.'
    '... at a conservative estimate, I've killed sixty-one billion, sterilised ninety planets... We'll be a hundred generations recovering from Muad'dib's jihad.'

    and it's implied that the previous tyrant, Padishah, did not do such things. This completely undermines the exciting and righteous revolution that we spent a book and a half cheering on. If unprecedented death and misery is the payoff, what is the gain of having a noble ruler?

    OK, Paul frequently speaks of not being able to stop the jihad - scrying that if he does try and stop it, he just gets usurped and then it carries on worse. But then he shouldn't have come to power at all, and the book tacitly tells us that things would have been better if the Harkonnens succeeded and none of the last three-quarters happened.

    The way to make sense of this is to take Herbert's anti-hero line seriously. Paul made a terrible situation worse. We're not supposed to root for him. But, Herbert knows, we can't help it, because Paul is the Underdog and Loyal and Smart and Competent and (obvs) dead handsome.

    Miscellaneous little notes:
    • There's very good dialogue throughout, with some of the best lines given to an array of anonymous guards. It is good because spare in the face of a baroque religion and politics.

    • The Nietzschean philosophy of the book (that is, of Herbert, not just of the Fremen or of Paul) suggests a stronger connection between strength, suffering, and spiritual superiority than there actually is. But, even here, it would not be too hard to make a dove reading of Dune, where the actions of all ruthless parties are actually perverse.

    • Dune even has a proper dialect, not the usual mere conlangs. Vocal memes: several different characters say "Ah-h-h-h-h" in a particular way.

    • The Bene Gesserit are the best thing in the book, a cabal of galactic, psychic, eugenicist spies.

    • The books eventually turn against the Bene Gesserits' specific eugenics program, but it never lets up with its hardass Darwinism (which in modern respectable form has been called Haidtism):
      The race of humans had felt its own dormancy, sensed itself grown stale and knew now only the need to experience turmoil in which the genes would mingle and the strong new mixtures survive. All humans were alive as an unconscious single organism in this moment, experiencing a kind of sexual hear that could override any barrier.
      There's a Randian seduction in the Fremen hardass ethic. As in Nietzsche: Herbert is inviting the reader to view themselves as strong, above the mob. (If you feel nothing seductive about these books - well, you're a more modest soul than I.)

    • The second book goes into even more gritty detail: the Fremen toilets are 'reclamation stills', for instance. (I'm just impressed at the speech-act of grossing out your readers with your hero characters.)

    • I've been toying with a connection between Kynes (Dune's divine ecologist, who designs the rejuvenation of Arrakis) and the Kynde of Piers Plowman (Nature itself, or the intuitive transcendental grasp of it). I mention this mostly just to score a literary point: no-one else has noticed.

    • The Fremen, his Muslim Tuareg, are actually Thracians. As Xenophanes says of Thrace:
      Men create the gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair.

    • I also love his Vulcans. Rather than being the mockable and inhuman they are just better at thinking:
      'A mentat could not function without realising he worked in infinite systems. Fixed knowledge could not surround the infinite. Everywhere could not be brought into finite perspective.'
      "Be a man and a mentat!" "I am a mentat and a man."

    • * On the last page you are told that the epigrams are all written out of sexual frustration, the joke on the author of them:
      'See that princess standing there, so haughty and confident. They say she has pretensions of a literary nature. Let us hope she finds solace in such things; she'll have little else.'

      Cue laughtrack.

    The quality dropped sharply between books: Dune is amazing, Messiah is slow but satisfying, Children of Dune is ok.

    I have more to say about this, cos I read Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land immediately afterward and a comparative study burst out of me.

    4*/5, 3*/5, 3/5.

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