#290 – Dune by Frank Herbert

I feel like I should hand in my nerd card for not having read this before now, though I did watch the David Lynch (er… I mean, Alan Smithee) movie. I just never got around to as a kid. Or, to put it in my kid’s brain way of thinking: sure the space stuff is cool, but it’s mostly desert stuff.

Dune is one of those books that has a bit of a legend surrounding its very existence. It started out as a serialized story in Analog magazine, then was later expanded on into the novel we know today. Unable to find a more traditional publisher to accept it (he tried over 20) it was eventually accepted by Chilton Books, who were best known for publishing auto repair manuals.

The story has influenced science fiction and fantasy ever since, and even gaming. It’s hard not to look at the classic 80’s rock-em-sock-em robot game Battletech and not feel some influence on its lore.

(And maybe Game of Thrones if ya think about it 😉 )

Duke Leto Atreides has been ordered by the Emperor to take possession of the planet Arrakis from the previous rulers, the Harkonnen. Arrakis is a harsh desert world that is the only source of “spice,” an incredibly valuable resource that, among its many other qualities, extends human life.

This is actually a plot devised by the Emperor, who sees House Atreides as a threat to his power. The handover is meant to set the Duke up for a sneak attack by House Harkonnen, who plan to wipe out their rivals completely and retake the planet stronger than before.

The true focus of the story, however, is on Leto’s heir, Paul. When the betrayal of House Atreides ultimately comes, he and his mother manage to escape to the unforgiving deserts of Arrakis, where their only hope lies in the people who dwell there, the Fremen.

But the stage was set long in advance for Paul to do more than simply become one of them. He will, in time, lead the Fremen into battle. But this “terrible purpose” haunts Paul, who foresees a bloody jihad that must be avoided at all costs…

One thing that struck me while reading this novel was a similar feel to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The two have nothing in common, of course, but despite being science fiction, there is a certain epic world building and myth-that-feels-like-history vibe to it. Also, wordy prose. Neither of them are exactly Hemmingway when it comes to brevity.

So imagine my surprise when I read that Tolkien, without providing details, once confessed: “In fact I dislike Dune with some intensity.”

This lead me to wonder why, and having read it, I have a few possible theories as to what that might be.

For one thing, there is the nature of how religion is portrayed. The Bene Gesserit are effectively a religious order, and one that has a long-term game plan for humanity, planting the seeds of prophecy everywhere they need to be and manipulating everyone behind the scenes over the course of centuries. What better way to set up a messiah figure if you have told the locals ahead of time what to expect, and made it part of their culture? For a devout Catholic such as Tolkien, perhaps this cynical view of what religious orders do rubbed him the wrong way.

It might have to do with the mythic tone Dune carries, but being applied to very modern ideas. Tolkien writes of long lost golden ages, of the rise and fall of nations and races, and clearly defined forces of good and evil. The first third of Dune feels like it’s about the rise and fall of economies and corporations, and deals with the cynical realpolitik of the various factions.

Tolkien loved history, but Dune looked to the distant future. Maybe Tolkien asked himself what myth might look like a thousand years from now, and if Dune represented where it was going, it certainly wasn’t to his taste.

Or perhaps, as a linguist, he didn’t appreciate how Herbert utilized language in his work (such as Chakobsa, the language of the Fremen, which is based on the Caucasian hunting language of the same name).

But this is all guesswork on my part. Part of me is saddened that he felt the way that he did about the novel, because, much like Tolkien, Herbert has very strong environmental feelings that come out in his work.

Still, fans of Lord of the Rings reading Dune should perhaps ask themselves what they think Tolkien hated about it, if only to look for possible insight on both books and authors.

For those wondering about the recent adaptation of the novel, the 2021 movie covers the first half of the book, and for the most part is a faithful adaptation, and even feels like it carried some influence over from Lynch’s (er… Smithee’s) version.

For me, Dune was good, but it was also enough. Having peeked online as to the weird places the series goes from here, I think I’m good for my Herbert fix.

5 comments on “#290 – Dune by Frank HerbertAdd yours →

  1. Lynch was happy to have his name on the theatrical version; the “expanded” version was done without his consent or participation, which is why he used the Smithee name there.

  2. It’s been a *very* long time since I’ve read Dune – more or less 40 years, probably just before I discovered The Lord of the Rings.

    I have read the latter literally too many times to count; I suspect that i re-read Dune once, and not long after the first time.

    All that said, I’m surprised by your finding similarities between the two, but not at all surprised (now that I know he read it) to learn that Tolkien disliked it. Without having given myself a recent refresher on Dune, I’ll guess that Tolkien disliked the real-politik and, probably, the godlike turn that Paul takes (if that actually happens in the first book).

    But maybe it’s time for a re-read …

    1. No the God-turn doesn’t happen until later. The book simply ends with the confrontation with the Emperor, so the Messiah stage, if you will.

  3. Back when the book was new, several writers (including as I recall, Poul Anderson, a close friend of Herbert’s) pointed out that the ecology of Arrakis is impossible. What do the sandworms eat? Where does the food chain start? The Dune universe, so admired for its detail, rests on nothing at all. That may be what Tolkien was criticizing, a badly constructed Secondary World.

    It was also noticed, back in the day, that the Emperor’s super-soldiers, the Fremen, and the Mentats + Bene Gesserit closely parallel Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai, Friendlies, and Exotics. Just sayin’…

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