Dune – Frank Herbert
For sensitive film viewers of a certain age, the name Dune brings up memories of Sting in leather underpants and nothing else. It is strange, therefore, that Herbert’s book is not a work of horror fiction. In my adolescence, it was one of those uber-works that those of a certain bent gravitated to. Rather than Tolkien and Lewis, the grandfathers of respectable English fantasy, or Heinlein, the stern daddy figure of Science Fiction, our conversation was of Dune, of the ludicrous Gor series (surely the most perverse series ever produced, 20 or so volumes of fantasy mixed with sado-masochism and matter of fact to gleeful rape), of the Shannara trilogy by Terry Brooks, of the Thomas Covenant trilogy (with his despairing, angst ridden moan whenever he was asked to do something – “But I’m a leper”). To dip back into that world knowingly is a trifle off putting.
The bizarreness of the reading experience is compounded by several things – the fact that I know the broad outline of the plot straight off. However, I can’t actually remember having read the book, and the film is a dim memory of half viewing and then turning off in disgust once I saw the afore-mentioned Mr Sumner. It’s almost as if existing on the edges of nerd-dom hardwires it into your DNA.
The book itself doesn’t help. For all the worthy and wordy summation in the post-script by Brian Herbert, the author’s parasitic leech…I mean, “son” (and some day, a book will be written on the psychology of the act of “bringing your father’s lost work to the public”, and Herbert and his close cousin Christopher Tolkien will feature heavily), Dune is not a “Marvelous tapestry of words, sounds and images”. It doesn’t “work on many layers”, and you can’t read once following one layer “and then start the book all over again, focusing on an entirely different layer”. It would be lovely to think so, but unfortunately Brian, t’aint true. The revelation that Herbert wrote passages in poetry first, which he then expanded and coverted to prose, forming sentences that included elements of the original poems just leaves you with the conclusion that he was, in fact, a pretty damn awful poet.
The first, and major problem, with the story is info-dump. This is one of the defining characteristics of bad writing, in your reviewers humble opinion, whether it be from Archer, Clancy, Brown or any number of fantasy or sci-fi authors. You can, of course, understand the temptation, especially for the the author of the fantastical. In the case of Archer, he’s not building an entirely new world, so he doesn’t need to have enormous clunking passages of dialogue in which people say things like “You know, Frank, you aren’t just my oldest friend, since our days at prep-school together, but also a damn good lawyer and the reason my business is the success it is”. It is either laziness or a staggering lack of talent that produces that kind of guff. In the case of the fantastic though, one could make an argument or a defence – you are making an entirely new, and different reality, and introducing the reader to it. Then, it becomes a case of how you sneak it in past the defences.
Dune starts with the court of Duke Leto Atriedes, father of the protagonist Paul, preparing to embark from their ancestral home planet of Caladan,a world of water and greenery, to the desert planet of Arrakis, their new fief, which they have seemingly won in some political battle from their enemies, the Harkonnens. Paul is an adolescent, and therefore being taught by his tutors about the new world, and this gives Herbert the barest bones of a structure to dump the info on us (the adolescent growing to man is one of the major tropes of the fantasy novel – and despite it’s science fiction trappings, I’d argue Dune was Space Fantasy, or at least Space Medievalism – and one could claim it serves two purposes. The first, a structural, giving the ability to discover this strange different world/universe through the eyes of someone not as wise and knowledgeable – one thinks, for instance, of David Eddings “The Belgariad” in which we follow the semi messiah protagonist from childhood on, and his learning of the world is our learning of the world, but not exactly done in an artful manner. The second is that of audience. A surly maladjusted – generally male – teen is going to enjoy more the story of a person of similar age who turns out to be a great warrior or wizard or the like. The reputation of fantasy as kids stuff has a just basis, I would contend, in this stylistic device).
And so we get info dump after info dump. We have internal monologues which tell us the political situation, the religious situation, the shape of the universe and the ecology of the planets. And we have the strange device whereby each chapter is headed by quotations from some future history /religious books looking back at the events. I say strange because of the nature of these quotes. It’s not enough for Herbert to use them to give some sort of depth and meaning to the work, some sense of these being the build up to momentous events. Oh no. He has to give away enormous bloody plot devices. Pretty early on – within two or three chapters – we know what will happen to Duke Leto, broadly. We know who will be behind it. We know that Paul will survive any threats to him (compare this, for instance, to the current master of the long fantasy genre, George RR Martin – in Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series, it becomes pretty certain by three quarters of the way through book 1 that what we thought was the shape of things, the characters we thought would survive and be the protagonists, those characters eminently expendable when faced with the brute logic of Martin’s plot. And these are characters, drawn, with foibles, history, past, quirks, confused motivations…not merely engines to drive the narrative like so many of those in Dune). We don’t get “foreshadowings”, as much as enormous flashing signs stating “this will happen”.
Yet despite these major flaws, a strange thing happens. The book pulls you in. Through it’s three segments, the court based intrigue, the flight to the desert, and the conclusion, you find yourself ignoring such things in the hope of getting to the end, in finding out how it all finishes.
And therein lies the other, final flaw of the book. After what feels like thousands of pages, and a segment where Herbert’s narrative completely overwhelms you (the middle, desert based part of the story), the conclusion is…well…limp. Limp and hurried. Given all the preceeding intimations of a galaxy spanning jihad, of wild power and universe vaunting ambition, the conclusion? One assault under cover of a sand-storm. Two bad guys killed, one in a knife fight. One imperial abdication. The universe set to rights by the messiah figure come into his own. The sharing of the spoils. The end. At no point do you thrill, marvel, exult in this. It’s as if, in setting his universe up, and sketching his – rather tedious – cast of central characters, Herbert has used all his narrative juice up (one can say, looking at the vast tomes produced after that this is sadly not the case), and just wants to tie the loose ends up, bish bash bosh, there you go, one universe spanning saga completed, can I have my money now?
I’d not recommend Dune, then. You could make the case that Herbert was intending sequel after sequel, and that the ending feeling so inconclusive was entirely to keep you on tenterhooks for the next installment, to wonder “what happened next?”. All well and good, but having waded through reams of often turgid prose, boring psycho-babble, tedious info-dump and apologies for religion in the hope of reaching a conclusion, the rather hollow and boring end leaves the reader feeling cheated. Maybe all is revealed in books 2-7 of the series, but as this was originally marketed as a stand alone book, this reader was left feeling cheated, with a feeling of “is that it?”, not least because I could have told you what was going to happen within a chapter or two, and all the book then revealed was the mechanics of how. No joy in the telling, no feeling of being immersed, no missing of the “characters” once they have gone. Just “oh, that’s how you tied it all together”.
Pulp. Done badly. At inordinate length. On finishing, I picked up “The High Crusade” by Poul Anderson, which was everything Dune is not – short, several hundred pages; light, easy to read, not portentous, fun. If you are going to write pulp, at least make it fun.