Monday, October 14, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Dune (1966, Best Novel)

Dossier: Herbert, Frank. Dune [Chilton, 1965]

Filetype: Novel

Executive Summary: Dune is the story of Paul Atreides. Heir to the one of the most powerful noble Houses of an Galactic Imperium tens of thousands of years in the future, Dune tells of his story of his family’s fall, and his rise again among the Fremen natives of the planet Arrakis, the titular Dune. Along that journey, we learn of the long running genetic breeding program that has gone somewhat wrong to produce him early as the kwisatz haderach, a man with prodigious powers of prescience and mental power. Dune follows Paul as he learns to harness his superior abilities to avenge his family’s fall, and topple the Emperor who ultimately orchestrated it all.

Legacy:  Until the advent of Star Wars, I think I can reasonably argue that the most influential work of space opera in science fiction was Dune. Although Star Wars quickly took pride of place in that regard, Dune has been a novel that has influenced astronomy (a crater on the moon, and features on the Saturnian moon of Titan are named in honor of Dune and its locations), music, video games, and a raft of science fiction. The novel is the first science fiction novel to really grapple with the problems and issues of the ecology and ecosystems of an entire planet in a deep dive sort of way (the novel;s origin lies with Herbert researching a never completed nonfiction article on the Oregon Dunes). Dune is the origin star, ultimately, of writers who go heavily into the worldbuilding side of SFF.

I do find it interesting that the literary style of the novel is far less influential and employed today. The third person omniscient style of the novel, which sometimes switches protagonists within the same paragraph, much less the same page, is a style that has not been imitated much since. It’s really difficult to pull off well. When it is done badly, it gets derided, for quality as well as stylistic distaste reasons, as “head hopping”. But the third person omniscient style allows Herbert to present a variety of characters with well rounded personalities and more importantly agendas that make the novel complex, dense and endlessly fascinating. Novels, in general, especially with a single point of view, do have an artificiality to them, since we sit just in one person’s point of view all the time. That’s how we see the real world, but that’s not how the world actually is. By having a third person omniscient endlessly shifting set of points of view, complete with long strings of mental thoughts, one really gets to know the characters, their plots, plans, and their world in a way that is very difficult to replicate, or to capture in other media. Listening to the audiobook, as I did recently, requires a careful ear to pick up changes in perspective.

Although out of the purview of this essay, it must be noted that Herbert ultimately wrote a slew of sequels to the novel, extending the history of the Atreides family and those around them for thousands of years into the future that Paul saw there in the sands, and the attempts to break that future. In addition, the son of Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, together with Kevin J Anderson has continued that tradition with a large number of novels set in the same universe. 

In Retrospect: Dune was and still is one of my heart novels. I discovered the novel right in my teen years, and fell hard for a story of “another misunderstood Paul” who was the son of a Noble House, but even so, unbeknownst to him, was the most special person in the entire universe and destined to become Emperor of Everything. This is heady stuff for a teenager to absorb, its catnip to a certain class and stratum of SF reader that I was a member of. And so I fell for the book, hard, and read and re-read Dune over the years, and discovered and consumed the 2.n adaptations of the novel.

The novel still holds power for me. Several years ago, a brand new gorgeous Folio Society edition of Dune was an auction item for a local con. I *had* to make it mine, and I did.

But 2019 is thirty years and change removed from my first contact with the novel. There is a lot to unpack to look at Dune, from the perspective of 2019. A lot of the major structure of the novel and its plot looks very different in 2019 than it did in 1965, and some of the novel has aged very badly as a result.

Let’s take the premise. Paul Atreides winds up, with his mother, taking refuge among the Fremen natives of the planet Arrakis, and grows to lead them, and to lead them as an army against the Harkonnens and ultimately the Emperor as well. If one wanted the quintessential example of the white savior trope in science fiction, it would be difficult to do better than Dune as an example. In a time where Science fiction is recognizing and celebrating own voices, Dune feels much more like a missed opportunity. With such a wonderful culture as the Fremen, why, precisely, do they need Paul? If I were, in the mode of the movie Yesterday, were to submit Dune as a novel today in a world where it did not previously exist, I’d make Paul, or his equivalent, a native of Arrakis.

Then there is the gender and sexual politics of the novel. The place of women in the novel does feel very 1960’s in tone and style. Sure, people like Jessica and the rest of the Bene Gesserit have power, and schemes, and long range plans. But the unrelenting patriarchal nature of the Empire also strikes a very discordant and sour note in this time and age. The narrator of the novel is reduced to being a prize to be won without any real agency of her own within its bounds. Science fiction can, and has, done better, since.

And then there is the Baron. The Baron, now, is probably my favorite character in the novel. When I was young, I identified as Paul, because Herbert very deliberately wrote Dune that way to have teenage readers identify with his main character. It’s part of the power of the novel, even today. But as I have aged, I have come to appreciate the manipulativeness, the daring, the scheming and the power of the Baron. The idea that a novel, movie or other work really rests on the strength of the villain is true in Dune as well, as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen has plans and designs and personality in plenty. The issue with him, today, is that in depicting his evil and venality, his non heteronormative sexual preferences are presented as prima facie evidence that he is evil. This sexual deviance =evil person equation simply is offensive in this day and age. I am ashamed I didn’t see that, back in the day, but I can’t mistake it in the novel now. There is plenty to show the Baron’s nature without the editorial commentary and shading of the novel that so tightly ties that evil to his sexual preference. The novel simply doesn’t need it and it is hurtful to non heteronormative readers.

Given all of its problems and issues in the modern age, though, there is an undeniably power of the monomyth that makes Dune one of the most powerful SF novels, then, or now. The extremely complex narrative, style and worldbuilding is probably the only reason why the novel has had so few adaptations on the screen. I am delighted to see news of a new one, but I do wonder how the director and producers will ensure that the issues mentioned above are dealt with so that a movie of Dune in this day and age can offer something for everyone.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 9/10 

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

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