written by frank herbert
2 shiny little stars lost amid 5 unnecessary supernovas
Sprawling: (adj) Spreading out over a large area in an untidy or irregular way ; oxford living dictionary
Science fiction’s appeal sometimes dovetails with escapism. Here is a genre where both reader and author are permitted to land on an alien planet filled with exotic florafauna and go for a stroll. They can immerse themselves in extraterrestrial politics, intrigue, and religion. Fantastic technologies wait to be discovered. In this new world, the imagination expands and boggles appropriately. Worldbuilding means laying out set pieces, background history, language, characters, and culture---a hefty undertaking whether you’re reading or writing it. Scope-creep seems inevitable. Dune, the venerable scifi classic that it is, is a blizzard of characters and environments and plot points. A sprawling epic in every sense, and not to its advantage.
The book, you’ll recall, concerns the arid planet arrakis (dune) where two great houses stage a climactic, multigenerational feud packed with schemes, assassinations, fluid allegiances, breeding programs, and knife fights that all spill out among the fremen, local badasses and expert gardeners. Meanwhile an intergalactic order of space witches with boosted mental abilities waits in the wings to fulfill a prophecy about the kwizatch haderach, a manwitch who can peer through the veils of time and see both male and female energies/pasts/futures, which the fremen coincidentally also have a prophecy concerning the messiah muad’dib, who’ll lead them through bloody jihad to freedom and a duneic garden of eden by terraforming (duneaforming?) the planet and directly impacting a certain crop---spice---that has pseudomystical and eyetinting properties. It also happens to be the only thing the space guild can use to see possible futures and thus navigate thousands of spaceships through special hyperspace avenues so they’re obviously going to have something to say about two houses plus the fremen plus the witches plus maybe the emperor battling it out on the one planet that supplies their superdrug...you get the idea.
Simply, it’s fiendishly complicated. The original game of thrones. Just about every character is a main character---the point of view jumps among them from chapter to chapter and no detail is spared.
Different authors are different household items. Stephen king is a closet, full of amorphous darkness. Hemingway is a stiff whiskey straight up, nothing but the essentials. Harper lee is a single, elegant earring that you wish was a matched set. Frank herbert is an industrial blender, the kind that can demolish five pounds of veggies, two raw steaks, a dozen eggs, and a brick. Nothing fazes him. Dune can be read as a political novel, an argument for responsible ecological practices, a religious text, a coming of age story, or all of the above.
There’s a lot to love. The peculiar mixture of futuristic and primitive tech that engenders swashbuckling, mano a mano duels with lasers, shields, and swords. The fremen’s functional-chic desertwear (‘stillsuits’) that limit water loss. The idea that, due to an artificial intelligence revolt in the past, humans can train themselves to make advanced statistical and probabilistic calculations without relying on computers. And especially the ecologist keynes, who swaggers around and bows to no one and commands the respect of dukes and fremen alike and wins my vote for mvp.
Most of all, the sand worms. Giant, desert-tunneling worms capable of swallowing up helicopters and spice factories, rising from the depths like jaws and generally scaring the bejeezus out of everyone. Primal and virtually unkillable, they act as guardians of arrakian wealth by ensuring no one gets a free spice lunch. Herbert began the book as an ecological treatise, and, though it eventually escaped its cage and grew into the scifi behemoth we know today, the awe-some worms keep the story tied to its original, environmental principles. Ultimately, this is a story about managing a planet’s resources, and the sand worms are apt symbols for ‘fucking with mothanature ain’t easy.’
But the herbert-blender produced some sticky, hardtoswallow lumps. His decision to keep such a wide focus means that events get multiple interpretations, and the plot bogs down under the weight of a plethora of perspectives. Every time we really sink a tooth into the story, the chapter ends, the narrative shifts, and we’re left hanging. Witness when paul atreides muad’dib (the main main character) must mount and ride a sand worm to prove his fremenship, and his account is interrupted twice for long chapters on intricate subplots involving his sister, his mother, his wife, his enemy the evil baron, etc etc. We breeze past certain, seemingly crucial points (the death of paul’s son, jessica’s transformation into an uber-medicine woman, the space guild itself that’s the key to paul’s plan to retake arrakis), while setting up camp around who-cares moments (the baron’s sexual predations, paul’s maybe-marriage to a princess, the details behind the emperor's prison planet and how that relates to dune).
One of the most important arcs is arguably paul’s transformation—-he fulfills various prophecies to become the man the space witches regret bringing into the world and the savior the fremen idolize. It involves him consuming plenty of spice and gaining the ability to see faintly into the future. Cool. Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of trope that reddit movietrolls are always complaining about: it only works when it’s convenient for the plot. When we need to move forward, paul can see the future and makes the appropriate decision. When we need dramatic tension, he can’t. Moreover, descriptions of his inner journeys read like an army of verb tenses marching across the page in search of a landmark -
Paul-Muad’Dib remembered there had been a meal heavy with spice essence. He clung to this memory because it was an anchor point and he could tell himself from this vantage that his immediate experience must be a dream. I am a theater of processes, he told himself. I am a prey to this imperfect vision, and to the race consciousness and its terrible purpose. Yet, he could not escape the fear that he had somehow overrun himself, lost his position in time, so that past and future and present mingled without distinction. It was a kind of visual fatigue and it came, he knew, from the constant necessity of holding the prescient future as a kind of memory that was in itself a thing intrinsically of the past.
In dune, frank herbert embraced a scope that would’ve made even tolkien blush. Middle earth is a sleepy english village compared to arrakis’ tokyoesque proportions. If some references in this review are confusing (‘wait, paul has a wife but also tries to marry a princess?’), rest assured that confusion is echoed when you first go through the book. Multiple, careful readings are necessary to catch everything herbert’s up to. And that’s without mentioning the four appendices on the ecology of dune, the religion of dune, the space witch plans, and mini biographies of the noble houses. Or the postscript on terminology. Or the other postscript of dune’s cartography. Or the map, separate from the cartography.
Clearly, this is exactly the kind of worldbuilding that fantasy nerds the world over get hot and sweaty for. And dune’s accolades suggest it appeals to normal people too: hugo award, nebula award for best novel, twenty million+ copies sold, and ‘considered by some critics to be the best science fiction book ever written.’ [via wikipedia] It’s a staggering feat of directed imagination. But all that imagination doesn’t serve the story, it sabotages it. As the foundation of a sand-worm-sized franchise, it works well. As a single book, it doesn’t.