Frank Herbert's Dune novels
I have just read all six of Frank Herbert's Dune novels, I feel like critiquing them. OK, so I started Dune several weeks ago, and just finished Chaperhouse Dune.
Dune, the first book, is the work of a vigorous young author. In plot it conforms closely to Joseph Campbell's standard mythic structure of the Hero With A Thousand Faces: a young man (Paul Atreides) is cast out, discovers his true powers and returns a victorious hero.
Dune distinguishes itself by the richness and detail of its milieu. This is one of those books that feel as if it is a very narrow window into a wide and enthralling universe which you want to see more of. The book may or may not be a great achievement of language, but it certainly is a great achievement of story, invention and insight. It is a classic of Science Fiction.
Throughout, Herbert's writing is easily readable without being simplistic. He is no wordsmith like Salman Rushdie, who seems to write just for the sheer joy of his ability to play with language, but Herbert often comes close to that lucidity characteristic of Stephen King: The words seem to vanish, leaving you in direct contact with the story behind them. But Herbert pulls back from this. He wants you to dwell on concepts and insights as worded in his somewhat cryptic epigrams. This often leaves the reader poring over the words for meanings.
The book is very original in that it shows a far distant future where human beings have become far more (and in some ways less) than they are now. It is enthralling in the very alienness of the humans. Adaptation to environment is a key message. So is specialisation.
The book is not without faults. On a mature rereading it is in a few ways heavy-handed in its depiction of the society; the points are often rather unsubtle. The proverbs and anecdotes can become slightly cheesy after a while. No matter their attributed source, they all sound similar. Not surprising, as Frank Herbert wrote them all.
The role that various drugs play in the plot and society betrays the book's origins in the heady days of the 1960s. And sadly, some elements of the story, for instance Faster-Than-Light travel, prescience, commanding voice, secret physical and mental powers, mind-merging and ancestral memories place it purely in the realm of fantasy, not as a plausible future.
I also get the impression that the emphasis on subtle and
extraordinary powers of body and mind mean that the power-structures of the Dune universe owe more to how one geek would like things to be than to any analysis of the real world's power politics. In the real world, how much influence do, for instance, highly trained ninjas have over global politics. What use are unarmed martial arts in a society that can use orbital bombardment?
The sheer power of the hero: Duke, Mentat, Messiah, avenger, conqueror and Emperor all in one suggests that it may be an ego-trip on the part of the author. To what extent is Paul Ateides a wish-fulfilment stand-in for Frank Herbert? Who knows.
The most amusing titbit in the book that I saw was the concept of semuta: a combination of a drug and style of music which is addictive even though the components may not be. Herbert seems to have foreseen 1990s rave culture.
Dune Messiah, the second book, is a mercifully short exercise in sequelitis. It shows how the society of Arrakis must inevitably change and decay after the Fremen's triumph. The logical, almost inevitable progression from one situation to another changed by time is a broad theme of the Dune novels.
Paul Atreides is still the central character, though grown older and more set in his ways as Emperor. I found the motivations for his actions in this book to be mostly obscure. Perhaps his motivations were supposed to be beyond human, and the closest that Herbert, being merely human, could come to this was incomprehesible randomness.
Children of Dune
Children of Dune, the third book, is quite good. The plot structure takes young Leto on a parallel journey to his father: He in turn is cast out, discovers his true powers and returns victorious.
God Emperor of Dune
God Emperor of Dune in my opinion, is in some ways the finest of the series. It is wordy and philosophical, almost sad in tone, with little action, but is magnificently deep. This is not the work of a young author. It is set some three thousand years after the events of the first three books, and details events that were briefly foretold in the closing pages of Children of Dune. Not only the planet Dune, but the entire empire, has been changed utterly under the heavy hand of Leto II
Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune
The last two Dune books, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune, can be read together, as they follow on from each other. Both are set several thousand years after the events of God Emperor of Dune, and have as their focus the Bene Gesserit order, which seems to have become full of Atreides descendants, and has changed subtley over the years into something more worthy of admiration.
Both are good novels, if rather wordy. Characters talk to each other, trading deep and meaningful secret insights for page after page with little action. Sorry, but there are few deep secrets in global power politics - why should the future be different?
Herbert takes the time to describe such details as what the characters like to eat for dinner. This does humanise them them, and no doubt in his age Herbert has realised the wisdom of finding satisfaction in small, everyday things. But with all the discussion and description, this is no swashbuckling action adventure.
However, both books pick up towards the end and offer unexpected twists.
I see both of these books as struggling under the weight of the history that precedes them.
For all the underlying theme of change, it is worth remembering that eight thousand years have passed from the events of Dune to those of Chapterhouse Dune. Human beings must have become profoundly more conservative for events that long ago to still be relevant, and institutions still to endure. We do not commemorate any events from circa 6000 BCE, nor do most of us even know about any institutions or individuals from that time. It's just not relevant given the vast changes that have occurred.
Yet in the Dune universe, it is. This can perhaps be explained (other then the simple explanation that it is a lapse on the author's part) by the factors that human lifespans have been extended up to three hundred years, and by the conditioning that occurred under Leto II. Or perhaps they just have a continuity of history and culture that we yet lack, as we are so recently civilised.
Herbert has recognised the fundamental instabilities of the original milieu, which really rested on a central, implausible conceit: the spice is necessary for civilisation to function, and the spice cannot be synthesised, mass produced or substituted. This has changed by the time of the last two books. (Eight thousand years needed to synthesise a particular molecule?)
One of the deeper messages of the second three books is that change is the only constant. The effects of the Butlerian Jihad are waning, and inhuman technologies are slowly on the rise again. The effects of technological progress on our humanity are being examined.
Sadly this is a future that we ourselves may see within the next hundred years. But then we are adapting: we talk of the posthuman. But "human" is a moving target: people in a hundred years time will be comfortable with things that we find shocking, just as we would in some ways appal an observer from 1900.
It is sometimes said that the concept of improving the human race by breeding programs is Nazi and therefore Dune is Fascist. Whilst there is is some truth in this, the Atreides are repeatedly described as having the qualities of compassion and loyalty. Their mortal enemies in Dune, the house Harkonnen, behave far more like fascist despots. Indeed, one of the points of Chapterhouse Dune is that lust for power is self-destructive.
As for Brian Herbert. I read half a book by Brian Herbert once, before discarding it in disgust. If he is any good as a writer, then why does he need to trade on his father's name? Why does he need a ghostwriter? I won't be touching his Dune books with a bargepole.