After a brief hiatus, David Forbes’ All Tomorrows column, your informal classroom on the glories of sci-fi’s Deviant Age, returns to Coilhouse. Welcome back, David!
Paul took a deep breath to still his trembling. “If I call out there’ll be servants on you in seconds and you’ll die.”
“Servants will not pass your mother who stands guard outside that door. Depend on it. Your mother survived this test. Now it’s your turn. Be honored. We seldom administer this to men-children.”
Curiosity reduced Paul’s fear to a manageable level. He heard truth in the old woman’s voice, no denying it. If his mother stood guard outside… if this were truly a test… And whatever it was, he knew himself caught in it, trapped by that hand at his neck: the gom jabbar. He recalled the response from the Litany against Fear as his mother had taught him out of the Bene Gesserit rite.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Chilton published car manuals. So it must have come as some surprise, 45 years ago, when, out of nowhere, they released a lengthy, phenomenally strange science fiction novel by a nearly unknown journalist. The man’s agent wasn’t even enthusiastic about the manuscript and it had seen rejection from every reputable sci-fi publishing house before squeaking into the pages of Analog.
Dune, read the imposing cover, with its evocatively psychedelic sand swirls and tiny white figures straining against an implied storm. The John Schoenherr art revealed little about the plot or themes inside, other than to convey a sense of struggle and desolation in an otherworldly place.
Opening it up, the reader was plunged into a story of universe-shaking drugs, dynastic backstabbing and heterodox mysticism sprinkled with a tumble of words (Bene Gesserit, Kwisatz Haderach, Sardaukar, gom jabbar) so strange as to constitute a second language. Whatever the sci-fi readers of the day might have expected, this was doubtlessly not it. By all rights, this unexpected book should have sunk beneath the proverbial sands, awaiting rediscovery in a friendlier artistic age.
Instead, after a somewhat tepid start, it proved a runaway best-seller, sweeping every award sci-fi had to offer. Dune would go on to define the rest of Herbert’s life and ripple into the surrounding culture with an impact that no one, including its author, could have foreseen.
In many ways Dune was the epic Omega to the Alpha of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; released about a decade before. It was sci-fi’s answer to fantasy’s magnum opus, and its only book that can rival Tolkien’s in terms of cultural influence. Herbert’s masterpiece proved tenaciously infectious, its tendrils stretching into all sorts of unexpected corners of the culture, with even its mantras showing up as warning or inspiration.
What is it about this ornate myth that keeps fascinating new generations, why has Dune outlasted its era with such influence?
Paul undergoes trial at the Mother Superior’s hands. Art by John Schoenherr, from the original Analog serial
The Duke must exchange his lands. Instead of his own lands, rich and well-watered, he and his wife and son must move to and accept a barren desert, where a drop of water is worth its weight in platinum.
Why? The all-powerful Emperor fears Duke Leto—fears his strength, his popularity, his growing wealth. And the Duke has other enemies, notably the great rival house of Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir, the living symbol of evil.
A page of medieval history? Not quite. Duke Leto Atreides is moving from a planet, which he owns, to another planet, which he has been given in exchange. The Emperor, Shaddam IV, is Emperor of the known Universe, not a country. And Duke Leto’s son, Paul, is not a normal noble heir. In fact, he is so little normal in any way that he happens to be possible key to all human rule, power and indeed knowledge!
– Summary from the book jacket of the first edition of Dune, exclamation points are in the original
If you can’t hear the orchestral music swelling in the background, you’re not listening hard enough.
One could be forgiven, perhaps, for reading that description, written up by some anonymous salaryman at Chilton, for thinking they had another typical sci-fi ubermensch novel on their hands.
Frank Herbert didn’t work that way, and we are far better for it. Here instead were fully realized characters set in an equally fleshed-out world. Dune had that key magic of every great epic, managing to balance the archetypal with the utterly human (there’s a reason Tolkien kept the focus on hobbits, and Homer devoted time to grief).
Not everyone sees it that way, in an excellent LA Times article earlier this year about Dune’s origins, UC Riverside’s Rob Latham observes that “it culminates a pulp tradition, with ridiculous villains and a pseudo-medieval empire set in outer space, and some bad writing … Then it has these ’70s elements — environmental concerns, drugs and mystical experiences. And somehow it managed to coalesce all of them.” There’s an important point there about the larger synthesis, but I think he shouldn’t be quite so dismissive of the strength of the old pulp archetypes, especially as Herbert writes well enough (usually) to transcend their limitations.
So it is that even in that the ultra-drug Spice (a new version of the pulp superweapons) is both gateway to superpowers and a mutating addiction. So it is that even in the aftermath of assassination attempts, we get a sense of twistedly familial care from the Baron Harkonnen and his nephew/heir, Feyd-Rautha. Paul’s mother, the badass Lady Jessica busts out of the traditional pulp sorceress role she at first seems relegated to and emerges as a powerful protagonist in her own right, presaging the feminist wave that would soon challenge the simmering misogyny early sci-fi often fermented.
Even the would-be messiah, Paul, is portrayed as a brilliant but terrified (he says the Litany Against Fear frequently for a reason) teenager simultaneously deeply driven and thrust into a destiny he often doesn’t want.
Most of the scenes in Dune, if not bloodshed, are mystical experience, character interaction, or intrigue of some sort, entrenched in the detailed namesake world and delivered in a terse, omniscient style. Latham is right about Dune’s second claim to fame: an epic that not only didn’t fall into the Planet of Hats trap, but blasted it totally apart. It was a harbinger of things to come that while Herbert dedicated the book to scientists, it wasn’t the physicists and technologists of yesteryear, but “to the people whose labors go beyond ‘real materials’—to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work.”
While the seed of Dune was planted while Herbert was researching ecology, he devoted no less care to how that world shaped its people and the outside powers who sought to control it.
That’s also what leads some to dismiss Dune as far too elaborate. It tends to be a love-it-or-hate-it book for many sci-fi fans. Re-reading it recently, I can understand that; there’s a lot to absorb to care about its ensemble. It’s noteworthy that the first edition begins with a sizable glossary detailing much of the elaborate jargon that populated his created universe. The same poor Chilton employee who received the massive manuscript from the surly northwestern writer probably ran around the office, cursing profusely at trying to make sense of all this.
Yet the exoticism is also a strength: Herbert’s words and characters, drawn from a wide array of myths and etymological influences (especially Arabic), don’t sound like anything expected. His words are not mundane words, because, Herbert seems to be declare, this is no mundane story; they ring around in the brain, merging with the unfolding drama into something gloriously unique. Herbert understood the value of the exotic, the half-revealed. The glossary and appendices give just enough away but don’t explain to death what they detail.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, there’s the eerie style Herbert uses, cutting back and forth between conversations internal and external among different figures, often in the same room. For a novel so deeply rooted in “plots within plots” style intrigue, it’s an amazingly good fit, juggling the wide array of characters working at cross-purposes throughout the epic.
It’s also hard as hell to do well (and notably Herbert wouldn’t pull it off to the same degree again). When I began putting this piece together, I asked for people’s thoughts on why Dune worked and what it meant to them. The sci-fi writer Madeline Ashby was kind enough to respond and, praising Herbert’s style, wrote “omniscient seems easy, until you try it. And then you realize that it’s like standing in front of Adrian Veidt’s video wall and trying to absorb the entirety of each broadcast, all day, every day, when you wake up and when you try to sleep, and you run whimpering back to third person limited and promise never to leave again, ever.”
Picking up Dune again, I’d forgotten some of the more obscure jargon, but that didn’t really matter, as immediately the plot and the creatures Herbert created to inhabit it drew me back. Despite all its universal intrigue, many moments are surprisingly humane, as when Paul and Jessica are alternating between insight and familial grief:
Hesitating, still worried by the harshness in his voice, Jessica returned to the book, studied an illustrated constellation from the Arrakeen sky: “Muad’dib: The Mouse,” and noted that the tail pointed north.
Paul stared into the tent’s darkness at the dimly discerned movements of his mother revealed by the manual’s glowtab. Now is the time to carry out my father’s wish, he thought. I must give her his message now while she has the time for grief. Grief would inconvenience us later. And he found himself shocked by precise logic.
“Mother,” he said.
She heard the change in his voice, felt coldness in her entrails at the sound. Never had she heard such harsh control.
“My father is dead,” he said.
She searched within herself for the coupling of fact and fact and fact—the Bene Gesserit way of assessing data—and it came to her: the sensation of terrifying loss.
Jessica nodded, unable to speak.
“My father charged me once,” Paul said. “to give you a message if anything happened to him. He feared you might believe he distrusted you.”
That useless suspicion, she thought.
“He wanted you to know he never suspected you,” Paul said, and explained the deception, adding: “He wanted you to know he always trusted you completely, always loved you and cherished you. He said he would sooner have mistrusted himself and he had but one regret—that he never made you his Duchess.”
She brushed the tears coursing down her cheeks, thought: What a stupid waste of the body’s water! But she knew this thought for what it was—the attempt to retreat from grief into anger. Leto, my Leto she thought. What terrible things we do to those we love! With a violent motion, she extinguished the little manual’s glowtab.
Sobs shook her.
Paul heard his mother’s grief and felt the emptiness within himself. I have no grief, he thought. Why? Why? He felt the inability to grieve as a terrible flaw.
“A time to get and a time to lose,” Jessica thought, quoting to herself from the O.C. Bible. “A time to keep and a time to cast away; a time for love and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace.”
Much of Dune’s central power comes from the emotional handiwork Herbert pulls. As several people I spoke to about the book noted, one of the main struggles is Paul trying — and failing — not to become a messianic leader. It’s hard not to catch the regret when he sees his followers shouting his name as they kill.
Paul administers the oath to the Fedaykin, by Schoenherr
Yet in the midst of all the bloody intrigue and visions, Herbert gave us a future that assured us were more than our machines and could even survive after rejecting them to some degree. This future was one where thought, drugs, fate, ecology, skill and, yes, religious mysticism continued to form a vital part of the human story, as they always have. Especially as skepticism grew about the impact of technophilia, Herbert offered a starkly different tale. Here the Bene Gesserit awe peoples not with gadgetry, but by implanting myths in their nascent cultures. The superpowers of its inhabitants come from perseverance and focus. For sci-fi, this was groundbreaking.
And indeed, as it grew popular, Dune became one of the books not just of its genre, but of the larger culture of its time. Attempts to adapt it into other mediums could fill a whole book in their own right, but each seemed touched by the same strangeness that Herbert had channeled, while never quite managing to capture the core of his work. The novel almost seemed one of a kind, an epiphany nearly impossible to replicate.
Moebius’ designs for Duke Leto and a Sardaukar soldier, for Jodorowky’s film
Alejandro Jodorowsky, who fits the “epic mad genius” role if anyone does, surely tried, so enthusiastic about the novel that he swore Herbert had received it from space gods. His attempt mustered in a who’s-who of alt culture figures but the aborted result was a 14-hour shooting script and an effort so out of control with its own hubristic insanity that eventually David Lynch was brought in to make it more sane.
What Lynch produced was aesthetically influential (Herbert dubbed it “a visual feast”) but narratively incomprehensible, in part hamstrung by extensive studio meddling. The Sci-Fi Channel later made a low-budget miniseries, and another film adaptation is in development hell.
Though Lynch did put Sting in baroque space undies, so there’s that
Yet cinematic fumbles aside, Dune has, I think, an indisputable place for many in the What Made You Weird pantheon for very good reasons. Upon moving to a new city a number of years ago, I remember finding a local online alt culture forum with “any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere,” among other quotes, emblazoned on the top of the page, and I knew that I’d found a home. I’ve known people, across a variety of spiritual creeds, who’ve actually used Herbert’s Litany Against Fear to help deal with turmoil.
Dune tends to catch many of us during adolescence, where its story has a certain appeal. It’s not a bad thing; there are far worst memes for impressionable youth to absorb than “if you want to do something badass in life, practice a lot and don’t be so afraid.”
The novel’s true power, I think, lies in its combination of accessibility and mystery. In an interview towards the end of his life, Herbert reminded readers that he was writing on current themes and he was absolutely correct. But past the harsh lessons on resource addiction (an insidious poison “that won’t even kill you unless you stop taking it”) and desert insurgents, there are themes still more primal. This is, after all, a story about world-shaping schemers in which none of them get what they really want.
And then there is fear, a reason why, aside from its potent effect on fashion and film, one of the most viral legacies is the litany I began this piece with.
Dune, at its heart, is about fear, not just in Jessica and Paul’s struggles, but in the increasingly desperate maneuvers of the tyrants they face, and even in the independent-minded Fremen, whose ominous mantras (“we will never forgive and we will never forget”) bear the scars of generational trauma.
Herbert’s talking about the current day because we also live in an era of fear, pumped out constantly around us. There is fear of a thousand things in the world, fear of everything we can’t control and, finally, all the old terrors (death, rejection, failure) hammering around inside our lives for good measure. “You want a better future?” Dune seems to cry out over the storms depicted within its pages. “Fear less.”
For, to be human, Herbert wrote here, is to overcome fear, and without that victory — again and again — we cannot become something better than we were at the beginning. With each reading, Herbert’s masterpiece reminds us why that struggle remains so important, and so damned hard.
Herbert’s sequels varied wildly in quality, and he died with the series’ ultimate resolution unfinished. But, in my mind, Dune‘s ending is just about perfect by itself. Paul has revenged his family and brought the galaxy’s rulers low. He is a boy, turned into a very dangerous man, with an army of fanatics awaiting his word to unleash jihad. He divides up spoils among his surviving loved ones, only to break hearts as he is reminded, again, that some things bind even messiahs. But he has crushed his greatest obstacles, with his final enemy dead at his feet. Only he remains.
But he is still human, and has not spoken to his would-be hordes. Not yet. The floor is soaked in blood. Fear still waits and the future, as ever, remains unwritten.