My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What the hell, I thought, I’ll read Dune. It’s not easy to read, either: “grand littérature,” I recall Jodorowsky complaining in the famous documentary about why he couldn’t film the novel, both words meant in the half-pejorative, semi-laudatory sense that the novel is complicated and a bit confusing, as in the anecdote about an uncouth sailor who’d gotten his dirty hands on Lolita only to complain that it was not the pornography he’d been expecting but “goddamn lit’acha.” Popular fiction or genre fiction has since modernism supposedly been at the opposite pole from literary fiction, the former a transparent populist entertainment and the latter a recursive and elitist art object. But by the time Herbert published Dune in the mid-1960s, science fiction, especially in its New Wave variant, was itself often modernist in method: its novels demanded immersion before understanding, and they almost begged to be reread before they could be read for the first time. So despite Dune’s being an imperial romance and adventure novel of intrigue, it requires almost as much attention as Joyce or Faulkner. Herbert drops us into a strange, complicated, and self-consistent universe with no preliminary exposition, and he lets us find our way if and as we will. To give just one hint of the novel’s imaginative intricacy, it ends with a 23-page glossary of terms specific to the setting.
Dune is set in a far-future intergalactic empire run on feudal lines, with power distributed among an Emperor and his court, various aristocratic Houses, a kind of intergalactic senate, a commercial consortium, and a spacefaring guild. Having violently dispensed long ago with computer technology—they now operate on the commandment, “Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of a human mind”—humanity operates instead on mental power bred through various semi-secret societies’ eugenics programs and enhanced by a drug called spice melange mined on the titular desert planet Arrakis. The novel begins when the Emperor transfers control of Arrakis to the House Atreides, led by the noble Duke Leto and his band of warrior allies. This ostensible boon disguises a trap, however: the planet’s previous controllers, the gross House Harkonnen, plan to destroy Leto in collaboration with the Emperor and thereby eliminate the Atreides as competitors.
But Duke Leto has a precocious and gifted son, Paul, with his concubine, the Lady Jessica, a woman trained by the Bene Gesserit. The latter is a secretive all-female occult order. Unbeknownst to the Empire at large, these witches have been working behind the scenes to manipulate noble bloodlines and produce a messianic male figure, prophecies of whose arrival they’ve seeded among the Empire’s planetary cultures. Shortly after arriving on Arrakis, the Atreides are brutally deposed by the Harkonnens in collaboration with the Emperor’s own warriors in disguise and even a traitor in their midst. Duke Leto is murdered, while Paul and Jessica escape into the desert where the spice is mined, and where giant sandworms threaten to devour anything in their path.
There they are taken in by the Fremen, the planet’s indigenous people, who quickly come to view Paul as the messianic figure promised by the Bene Gesserit, the prophet who will lead them to defeat their imperial overlords and convert Arrakis into a land of plenty rather than a barren desert. For his part, the already gifted Paul has been transformed into a seer by consuming the spice melange; he receives visions of his potential futures, including one where he incites interstellar jihad as the Fremen prophet who brings a fiery new universal religion and order to the Empire. The last third of the novel grandly works out his revenge against his father’s killers and his ambiguous ascent to just this messianic role.
While Dune has innumerable sequels that apparently complicate the conclusion’s seeming triumph—superficially, it’s as if Hamlet had a happy ending—Herbert includes clues in this first novel that Paul’s achievement should be read as equivocal and even dangerous. A worthless and decadent empire is supplanted not by the rational nobility of Duke Leto but by the mad fanaticism of the army led by his son. Paul sees this future as a nightmare in a vision he receives on his first night in the desert, before he even falls among the Fremen:
He had seen a warrior religion there, a fire spreading across the universe with the Atreides green and black banner waving at the head of fanatic legions drunk on spice liquor.
He remained silent, thinking like the seed he was, thinking with the race consciousness he had first experienced as a terrible purpose. He found that he could no longer hate the Bene Gesserit or the Emperor or even the Harkonnens, They were all caught up in the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes. And the race knew only one sure way for this—the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path: jihad.
In other words, Paul understands himself as the nexus of other people’s plots and of impersonal cosmic and historical forces, working through him, and in the medium of slaughter, to advance a humanity grown inbred and indolent.
Herbert can’t really sustain a grand style—his narrative and dialogue are functionally informative in the manner of the popular novel, albeit ornamented with enough Biblical and Shakespearean archaisms to convince us we’re among prophets and emperors—but one brilliant way he establishes Paul’s legend from the very beginning is to preface each chapter with an epigraph quoted from the voluminous writings of Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor (we learn at the end of the novel that she becomes Paul’s wife for diplomatic purposes after his defeat of the Empire, though his heart remains with his Fremen concubine, Chani). Irulan’s epigraphs, often “sayings” from Paul himself, offer wryly aphoristic commentary on the epic action, as in these nonconsecutive examples:
The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.
Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.
When law and duty are one, united by religion, you never become fully conscious, fully aware of yourself. You are always a little less than an individual.
The Lady Jessica, too, warns Paul that his course is dangerous with a Bene Gesserit proverb:
“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong—faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”
Paul, spice-intoxicated and impelled by the winds of history, is a rather blank protagonist, Hamlet without the antic disposition. This leaves Jessica as far and away the novel’s most complex and sympathetic character, its real protagonist if not its epic-tragic hero. She earns the novel’s memorable final sentence: “While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine, history will call us wives.”
This sentence is not so final, however. Already Herbert couldn’t stop himself from adding to his meticulous and gargantuan world. In addition to maps and the aforementioned glossary, he gives us several appendices—on Arrakis’s ecology, on the religion of the empire, and on the Bene Gesserit’s machinations—all of them almost more fascinating than the novel, with some superior and telling sentences. One describes Arrakis post-Paul as “afflicted with a Hero.” Another quotes more wisdom from this afflictive prophet himself: “I say to you that man remains on trial, each man in his own dock. Each man is a little war.”
Denis Villeneuve, director of the most recent film adaptation, sharply compares Paul Atreides to Michael Corleone. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969) hit the bestseller list around the time Dune itself, published four years earlier, was becoming a word-of-mouth success among the counterculture. Both novels are popular tragedies that show a promising prince led by degrees into the inexorable corruption of his milieu; this prince’s climactic triumph, coming in both novels as an orgy of violence, really signifies the degradation of his soul, a tragic fall framed in each case by the women who look warily upon this male tumult with plans of their own. But these novels didn’t become popular just because they warn us away from powerful men. Dune in particular lives on the aphoristic wisdom-writing scattered through its pages, as if it were the ecumenical Bible read in its fictional Empire; I haven’t even quoted “Fear is the mind-killer” yet. And like The Godfather, it succeeds in giving the midcentury reader, alienated in the administered society of TV and air conditioning and the welfare state, imaginative access to an exotic, integral, and gratifyingly violent society, whether Fremen or mafia.
At this moment in the essay, I am supposed to denounce Herbert righteously for his “cultural appropriation,” since his Fremen are a melange (if you will) of existing cultures, histories, and languages, mainly Arabic and Native American. But the idea that culture is “owned” is itself only coherent if we accept the dubious reduction of culture to ethnos. I don’t find Herbert’s Orientalism any more—or, more to the point, any less—ethically and politically questionable than Puzo’s conscious exotification of his “own” Italian milieu. And how different is Dune, really, from the major multicultural novels of the subsequent two decades in American literature, such as Mumbo Jumbo, Ceremony, Song of Solomon, Love Medicine, or The Joy Luck Club? It’s nearly the same story in each case—redemption through a return to some more rooted way of life—and in each case, the more relevant political issue, whatever the “race” of the author, is that we find middle-class artist-intellectuals bored and disgusted with the contemporary and offering us a highly aestheticized “ethnic” substitute in novel form.
I enjoy reading such stories as much as anybody else, but I also think it’s a doubtful gambit, both when the ethnicities of author and character don’t align and when they do. Herbert’s many cautions throughout the novel that we are reading a tragedy and not a heroic epic honorably offset the atavist tendency, as do the sophisticated and more exquisitely literary metafictions of Reed, Silko, Morrison, et al. No great novel, nor even a very good one, can pose for long as the untrammeled expression of what Herbert calls “race consciousness,” because great art is the product of the individual imagination, not some organic collective.
Here I should mention Herbert’s actual politics. Daniel Immerwahr places them in the context of Herbert’s background in his essay, “Heresies of Dune”:
It’s easy to imagine that this socialist-raised, Native American-sympathizing young man would become a leftist. But for Herbert, commune living and Indian Henry’s backwoods lessons firmed up a hostility to the federal government. He came to oppose “any kind of public charity system,” he explained, because he “learned early on that our society’s institutions often weaken people’s self-reliance.” So, rather than following the trail of cooperative socialism to New Deal liberalism, he tacked in the opposite direction. Herbert became a Republican.
Academics, being bureaucrats, are natural socialists, and are therefore surprised and disappointed to learn that un-academicized artists often tend toward libertarianism. A rueful essay in the socialist journal Jacobin asks “What Draws Us to the Reactionary Darkness of Dune?” The author notes Herbert’s quasi-fascist archetypes pitting the earthy native Männerbund against the decadent, rootless-cosmopolitan elite (have I mentioned that Baron Harkonnen is a corpulent pederast?), yet seems most dismayed that the libertarian novelist can’t think of anything good for even fictional governments to do:
Almost all the series’ collectives are delusional, its political saviors great villains in disguise, its indigenous peoples a divine punishment for cartoonish white homosexual elites. But the tone is also slippery. While some characters are ludicrously didactic, their lessons often resist neat ideological categorization beyond a suspicion of government.
The last observation, though, makes Dune art, not propaganda, even if it’s art about propaganda; this is reason enough to be drawn to its “reactionary darkness”—that and such darkness’s possibly being somewhat truer to life than progressive meliorism—regardless of one’s own political inclination. Is it good art, though? A pseudonymous Twitter user helpfully found J. G. Ballard’s early review of the novel, a decided pan:
[T]he novel contains almost no element of imagination other than its original premise. Set in the far future on a vast and arid planet entirely covered with sand, it describes in elaborate detail the unending dynastic feuds of two warring families as they hunt each other among the caves and bleds. The narrative, of immense length and repetitiveness, is fitted out with a map and appendices, interminable italicised excerpts from sacred and devotional texts, and a mixture of jaw-cracking pseudo-Arabic and ruritanian names, together designed to impress the unwary as “literature.” […] What is missing in this closed world is any point of contact with the reader’s life, any yardsticks by which to measure the plausibility or conviction of the narrative.
Ballard has a point. The novel’s world is so titanically imagined that you almost forget to notice how thinly its dialogue-heavy pages and telegraphically short paragraphs render this cosmos. Because—and here I commit a heresy against poptimism—world-building is not literature. Literature should convey a mood, a style, a sensibility, an affect, maybe even a pattern, best when a refraction—not a reflection—of this world. To confuse this ambition with the schematic design of a self-sufficient cosmos, like a child sprawled on a carpet with crayons and poster paper, strikes me as no less literal a gesture than mere naturalism—the same type of error, an error of taste more than of intellect, as assuming Bible stories to be true history.
Herbert’s aridity not only of style but also of characterization—all the characters but the remarkable Jessica are cartoons or archetypes; and of these, only the amusingly preternatural and ultraviolent toddler St. Alia-of-the-Knife succeeds in being a true grotesque—can’t help but fail the world he designed, precisely, I suspect, because he over-designed it and didn’t leave enough room for more poetic forms of imagination. I couldn’t help but think as I read what a different novel it might have been had one of science fiction’s poets or stylists—Ballard himself, but also Bradbury, Delany, Le Guin, Miéville—handled the material. Here there is no comparison at all to writers like Morrison and Erdrich.
None of these blows can strike the book down, though. As we’ve seen in these electronic pages before, when criticizing popular classics as various as Dracula and The Color Purple, there is finally nothing to be said against a novel that creates a pop-culture myth lasting generations. If criticism had any power against such imaginative acts, we’d know it by now, because people would have stopped reading these books, and they haven’t. Dune doesn’t satisfy my rarefied and possibly Harkonnen-like desire for fancier prose—has a novel so concerned with psychedelia ever used less psychedelic rhetoric?—but it still obviously answers many more human needs, from a love of grand spectacle to a thirst for scriptural wisdom, like an oasis in a cultural desert.