Sunday, 31 July 2011

Dune by Frank Herbert

The definitive Dune cover illustration!
I haven't read Dune since I was a teenager, deep into my personal golden age and reading up everything I could lay my hands on. Dune is still a classic, but back then it stood out even more distinctly in the field that wasn't quite so crowded. By the time I got to it, there were already two or three fat sequels, which was still a remarkable feat. I remember stories in Starlog and Starburst about the abortive Jodorowsky movie, and there was a board game that I never could quite fathom.

When I actually read it, though, I was a bit disappointed. I found it a bit baffling and a bit dull. I couldn't work out what everyone wanted, and there was a lot of talk compared to action. I liked bits of it – the imperial backdrop was really cool, and the weird powers and strange magic mixed with high tech appealed to me, but because I didn't quite “get it” it left me a bit cold. My impressions were further confused by the David Lynch movie, which I also found hard to follow (and I haven't seen since except in snatches on TV, but inevitably, it is available on youtube).

I can't help thinking that I didn't do Dune justice; maybe I was a bit young, and I read it in a concentrated blast in the week before the movie came out (demonstrating even then my particularity about reading a book before seeing the movie). It's been on my vague re-read list for a while, but I never picked it up. However, when I came across this marvellous old New English Edition at a book sale, I knew the time had come! This is the same edition I read back in the 80s: who can forget those thrilling Bruce Pennington covers? They were definitely a big part of the series' appeal, suggesting all sorts of of exotic fantasies within!

This time around, I found it much easier to follow, and in fact I was quite impressed by it in many ways. The eco-system of Arrakis and the history of the galactic empire are detailed and consistent, and the economy based on the vital spice provides the necessary impetus for the slightly histrionic story. The various factions and their rivalries are cleverly developed and the story has a momentum gained from the trade off between these clearly identified conflicts and mutual interests.

It's steeped with a wonderfully weird blend of mysticism, super-science and high adventure. The messianic plan of the Bene Gesserit to breed a super-human through selective breeding and strange mental disciplines strikes a brilliant balance between far-future plausibility and just plain bonkers. The social and planetary engineering projects are like mega-technology of the social sciences, a kind of applied super-anthropology and ultra long-term environmental planning. Herbert gives all this a swashbuckling twist by making knife fighting ubiquitous as the personal shields render conventional guns and projectile weapons useless.

Mix in a bit of old fashioned imperial pomp – with dukes and barons and princesses and empresses – and it's easy to see why it's such a hit, and it's influence has been huge. It's an obvious source for a lot of the unpinnings of the Star Wars universe. Both feature orphans who seek a greater destiny in conflict with a galactic empire, and both have that mix of super science and a mystical hero's journey. Both take the pulp approach to world building, considering planets as a mono-culture dominated by ecological concerns – even Luke Skywalker's home of Tatooine recalls Dune, with its moisture farming and masked and tubed-up “desert people”. Arrakis is like one of those planets brought into sharp focus, with a wealth of history and particular circumstance building it up into a credible setting.

Dune's other big influence was on SF/F publishing. It's a pioneer of the open-ended multi-saga series, having four sequels already by the time the David Lynch movie came out, and since then having spear-headed the field of post-humous collaboration. On the back of the New English Library edition, Arthur C Clarke says, “Dune seems to me unique among SF novels in the depth of its characterisation and the extraordinary detail of the world it creates. I know nothing comparable to it except THE LORD OF THE RINGS.” (Capitals in the original!)

The comparison with The Lord of the Rings is obviously a reference to the exhaustive conception of Arrakis and the intricately detailed galactic history of which the events of Dune are a kind of culmination, as with the destruction of the One Ring. Like The Lord of the Rings, it's one of the inspirations behind the modern fantasy series, with its map and appendices of invented history, natural history and language. Althought I haven't read the Dune sequels, my instinct, which has yet to be proved wrong in practice, is that long-running series like these inevitably become inward-looking, losing sight of the thematic push that got them going in favour of tittle tattle about the lives of made-up people. The novel Dune itself, however, is clearly engaged with quite strong themes.

It is highly didactic, and few of the characters can resist dropping aphorisms or fictional proverbs (which also add texture to the setting) into conversations or the their thoughts, most famously “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

There's an underlying rumination on human perfection, how it could be achieved and what it means. The mentats are described as human computers, an engineered mind trained to do the work of the artificial intelligences that have been (for reasons somewhat obscure) deemed illegal; meanwhile, the mysticism of the Bene Gesserit masks a highly materialistic view of humanity where the human form can be manufactured through genetics (via selected breeding, as the idea of direct manipulation of the human genome never comes up, presumably beyond Herbert's scientific scope at the time). For a novel concerned with prophecy and a coming messiah there is very little talk of God. The appendices mention the general universal belief in a divine being, but most of the sacred aspects of the setting revolve around Paul Maud Dib.

Paul stands as the pinnacle of human perfection, and his conflict is how to use his power or destiny wisely, standing in contrast to the heir of the Harkonnen family, Feyd-Ruatha. They are both groomed for the same role, to rule Arrakis, and both are products of the Bene Gesserit breeding programme.

Paul's ambitions for peace are contrasted with the violent nature of the Harkonnen heir, such as where Paul's duel with Jamis and his regret at Jamis's death are contrasted with Feyd-Ruatha's delight  in killing the psychically incapacitated slave. Because the Bene Gesserit have controlled their breeding, it's strongly implied that the differences between the people stem from differences in their backgrounds. Paul is instinctively good and decent and brave, thanks in large part to his father and his teachers, who have shaped the man he is. These teachers are contrasted with the Harkonnen house, a place of murder, deceit and greed taken to its most appalling extremes.

The climax of this rivalry, at the denouement of Paul's plans and the end of the book, is actually a bit of a let down. The book has a few structural problems that undermine what should have been the highly satisfying sticky end of the matter. I think the problem is partly that Feyd-Ruatha doesn't get enough time in his few appearances to develop anything more than a shallow impression, but crucially, I think, that the two don't appear to have met before the duel. If they'd had a sparring relationship, a more personal hatred, this would have been much more satisfying.

This could have happened during the long campaign to take Arrakis, but in the last third of the book, we start skipping through events rather more quickly. Weeks and months, even years pass, between encounters. Paul's sister Alia is born, and he has a son who never appears on screen as far as I recall, and is rather cruelly despatched in a Harkonnen raid, perhaps to give Paul's final revenge a bit more savour but, once more, because we lack a personal connection with the child it's hard to feel to much about him.

The first two-thirds of this is pretty solid, if a bit talky and written in a somewhat shallow third-person omniscient style, but the last third rather lets the whole show down. What should have been a the action climax is reduced to a few vignettes, and then what appears to be a hurried climax. Without the dense texture of the earlier sections, the melodrama lies a bit threadbare and the trial by combat comes across as cheesy rather than cathartic.

While I was reading it, I kept thinking about Jack Vance. Vance was a friend of Herbert's and, as he recalls in this (audio) interview with Starship Sofa he didn't think much of Dune when Herbert showed it to him. However, it's a lot like some of Vance's own planetary romance work, and the story of the boy who loses everything to cheats and bullies, and then fights his way back to the top is pure Vance, even if the mystical element is not something he would admit in his own work. I thought in particular of Durdane, written, in the early seventies, just when Vance's friend Herbert was doing so well with Dune, and in three volumes probably not a great deal longer than Dune itslef. Maybe Herbert's success is what made Vance attempt his own longer narrative? Compared to Vance, though, Herbert doesn't have quite the ability to infuse Paul's battle with the kind of vitality Vance gives Gastel Etzwane, and the gross Harkonnens can't match the inventive teasing despicableness of Vance's villainous characters.

I'm glad I read this again, and it's an enjoyable book, but like a lot of half-decent SF books, I walked away kind of unsatisfied. I liked the trappings, and the set-up was full of excitement, but the way it played out worked against these pleasures. This vague feeling of semi-satisfaction is similar to what I felt as kid, I think. I liked the atmosphere of it then, too, but something about the story didn't click. I suppose I might articulate my dissatisfaction more clearly, but it's about the same, I'd say.

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