October 12, 2020

Love In The Time Of Spice: Dune at its End

Dune isn't about normal humans going on an adventure, it's more like a space prophet starting a galaxy-altering religion while safeguarding civilization's sole source of drugs.

Love In The Time Of Spice: Dune at its End

Does Maud'Dib save the day? Is there even a day to be saved? Does it matter when we have giant sand worms?

Frank Herbert's Dune is a classic, and in the way of so many classics, it's filled with incredible scenes and ideas while, at the same time, dragged down by outdated tropes and strange stylistic choices that make the story harder to parse than it needs to be.

To get it out of the way first - in my opinion, is Dune worth reading today?

Yes. That's it, yes. It may not all make sense, and you might throw some side-eye at some scenes and characters and words, but its grand scope and willingness to embrace the crazy make it a book that expands science fiction's horizons.

Now I'm going to go ahead and get the negative outta the way first because nobody likes to wallow in that stuff in these fraught times.

Published in 1965, Dune embraces its time. At its heart, this is a colonialism narrative where the colonist becomes the savior of those being subjugated. Women are given significant power, but are, at the same time, reduced to wives and concubines. At the end, a male character essentially labels another woman as a pawn and declares that's all she'll ever be.

Reading the novel through a 2020 lens involves frequent wincing at what's going on here, which boils down to medieval gender roles (all the scientists, fighters, pilots, etc. are men, while women get maternal duties and 'wise women' positions). I wouldn't say this ruins the story, but it's a distraction that disappoints in what's otherwise a very visionary take.

Beyond those significant issues, there's a more subjective take that speaks to how I enjoyed the novel: I wanted more of it. As I noted in my halfway take a little bit ago, Dune takes liberal time jumps, often skipping major events and relaying their outcomes in conversation after the fact. A chapter might end with a character on the precipice of a major action, and the next one begins half a world away, two months later, with the outcome delivered via monologue.

It's a little like watching the trailer for a movie, then going online and reading a plot summary.

Anyway, now that I've dug myself a nice, deep hole and thrown Dune into it, how can I persuade myself to go in and get it out?

First, the scope. Herbert does marvelous work building up a far future galaxy with enough bones that we're able to follow along without losing hundreds of pages to unnecessary description. We don't see every planet, we don't get in-depth explanations to how the Guild operates or the strange CHOAM company, but we get just enough to understand their role in the Dune universe.

Dune also comes at you with a term whirlwind–I always get a little nervous when novels come with appendices at the back–but, by the book's end, I didn't have much issue with the new word blizzard. Coupled with the vast scope, the terms are often given without much straight definition, relying on the reader to pick up the threads as they go. There's a potential danger here that too many unfamiliar words turns off readers, but Herbert manages to couch them in known environments, giving you a chance to see each one as a mystery to unravel, a language to learn.

The characters are also a fascinating strength. These aren't traditional leads, like Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk. Herbert employees an omniscient view to hop between heads during scenes, which keeps you both in touch and at a remove from the people going through the story. Paul, Jessica, Leto, the Baron, and others all bring their personalities, but also their devastating purpose to the story. We watch them with a sort of detached wonderment as they fight to survive, forced apart by how other they become as the story goes along.

Dune isn't about normal humans going on an adventure, people. It's more like a space prophet starting a galaxy-altering religion while safeguarding civilization's sole source of drugs.

Lastly, the setting. I said, earlier, that Herbert generally hits the worldbuilding sweet spot, dumping in mystery and keeping his digressions in line. What I didn't mention is that Arrakis and its sand worms are cool! The Fremen and the Harkonnen and the Emperor's soldiers are cool! These aren't faceless drones, but interesting societies with their own reasons for being that are even plausible (which, for sci-fi, is a big win).

Everything about Dune drags you into the desert, and you feel the sand's harshness in almost every scene. It's an irresistible place that nonetheless kills most that dare to try taming it. By the end, when the story's heroes finally achieve some mastery, it's not really defeating the Baron and his sinister legions that strikes as the main obstacle, but rather learning to live on, with, and by the endless sand.

Ultimately, Dune, to me, remains a sci-fi classic with enough awesome to cover up its flaws. I'm not going to pick it up to reread because I want to spend time with its characters, but because I want to fall into a mystical, deeply-developed world.

And because sand worms are awesomely terrifying.


Not too much other news today as we get ready for Rogue Bet's launch in a couple weeks.

Oratus is free this week, though - I'll talk a little more about it on Wednesday, but like The Spear, it's a short story/novella set in The Skyward Saga's universe, all from a non-human point-of-view.