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Journeys to Dune: Reviews

Dune, Frank Herbert, Berkley, 1984, 537 pp. (originally published in 1965)

Simply put, Dune is the central text of science fiction -- vast, astonishing, intricate, far-future, and incredibly aware of all the details of ecology and religion. Herbert instantly raised the stakes and the level of discourse in science fiction, but few have matched his work since, Herbert included. Dune won both the Hugo and Nebula awards and was followed by five sequels, a movie based on the original work, and three computer games set in Herbert's universe. I have a nostalgic reason for my appreciation of Dune -- it started me reading science fiction (along with Clarke's Childhood's End) many years ago. I still remember the look (art by John Schoenherr) and the feel (hefty) of that edition I borrowed from the library. And then Herbert's narrative, hiding a number of flaws, but marvellous nonetheless...

The House Atreides has been given control of the planet Arrakis (or Dune) by the Emperor, as part of a plot between the Emperor and House Harkonnen to destroy the Atreides. Dune is the only source of the spice, a drug that allows faster-than-light space travel (which is a monopoly of the Guild) due to expanded mind powers. The Bene Gesserit order has been manipulating gene lines in the 8000 years since our time, and their plans for an advanced human are somehow wrapped up in Paul Atreides. The Atreides land on Arrakis. Treachery is followed by a flight into the desert by Paul and his mother. The Fremen, who harbour the two Atreides, live in the desert and they have their own beliefs and aspirations.

Herbert takes great pains to show the thought processes of all of his characters. The society of Dune has made all thinking machines illegal (immoral might be a better description), so intense pressures have been put on the human mind -- Mentats are essentially human computers, and the Kwisatz Haderach of the Bene Gesserit schemes can hold all space and all time in his mind. Put this in the context of Dune's feudal system, with its intrigue and violence, and you get heady stuff. Part of the attraction of Herbert's writing is following the leaps in intuition of the characters as they scheme and problem-solve.

Dune tells the ultimate coming-of-age story -- Paul Atreides starts as a teenager and ends as the most powerful individual in the universe. Herbert works continuously to make us sympathize with Paul, beginning with the gom jabbar scene that opens the book and throws us headlong into Paul's world. Some of the events feel manipulative, like the death of his father, the most archetypal milestone in a rite of passage for a young man. For the most part, we happily follow Paul's progress, and this makes the sections that deal with prescience especially effective. We don't see Paul's visions, but we see the harrowing choices he must make. Herbert balances the depiction of Paul skillfully on the line between archetype and real character.

And that is how I would describe most of the people in Dune. A number of characters can be dismissed as purely functional or typical, like Paul's father, the Emperor, or Princess Irulan (although see my next review for a comment about the atypical way Herbert uses Irulan). The various Fremen characters are differentiated, sometimes only by role, sometimes by force of personality, like Stilgar or Chani. However, one of the main Fremen cultural attributes -- deferring to their own tradition and culture -- can make the Fremen blur together after long familiarity with the whole series. I like Lady Jessica -- she is given an active role much deeper and more complex than the typical mother in such rite of passage stories. I also appreciate how Herbert lets the Atreides' friends, like Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, intensify Jessica's character, and strengthen themselves in return. As for the Harkonnens, I find it hard to separate Herbert's version from Lynch's in the movie, a depiction which I dislike immensely. And just as a final note in the discussion of character, I think Herbert should have excised Count Fenring. This minor character confuses the ending greatly, and the issues raised by his presence are discussed much more usefully in Dune Messiah with other characters.

Dune is a violent book, due to feudalism and to the Fremen. The reasons for the galaxy-wide feudal system are explained explicitly in Children of Dune -- here, Herbert has already worked out the balance of technology that allows it. The same kind of structural violence exists in the pressures that formed the Fremen society and its rigorous water rules. But I have always wondered about a paradox at the heart of Fremen society, with their propensity to kill at the drop of a hat. Wouldn't a particular Fremen's ability to produce energy (gather water, harvest spice, etc.) over a lifetime outweigh the short-term benefits of killing that Fremen for energy (the body's water)? I would maintain that there are certainly more rational ways to enforce cultural dictates, survival itself being one. Compared to Slonczewski's A Door Into Ocean -- a world-building exercise along the lines of Herbert's achievement -- Dune models poor conflict resolution. Does Herbert want us to side with the Fremen? That becomes ambiguous as Paul experiences his visions of the jihad. Fremen respect for ecology is always held as an ideal, with good reason, but Paul has to fight against other aspects of their culture (ironically, with much the same method as the Fremen, the Sardaukar, and the Harkonnen all use). The Fremen are the most ruthless of all, which is how Paul achieves victory -- Dune leaves us with that problem, and thankfully Herbert uses Dune Messiah to address it.

Herbert throws such a large amount of philosophy and jargon at the reader that finding the heart of the book is a difficult task. One passage in Dune that seems central to me deals with the Bene Gesserit motivation for breeding the Kwisatz Haderach (arguably the basis of the whole story). The Bene Gesserit, a female order, has a "place" inside them where their visions cannot see, and the Kwisatz Haderach is intended to see into that place. But when we finally discover more, Herbert seems to wander into some horrible generalizations. Paul is speaking: "'There is in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives. A man finds little difficulty facing that place within himself where the taking force dwells, but it's almost impossible for him to see into the giving force without changing into something other than man. For a woman, the situation is reversed'" (445). This disturbing passage and the excessive use of violence are the book's main two flaws.

Dune is not perfect, but fortunately for the field of science fiction, displays many amazing traits that have enriched the genre. Herbert's enduring influence makes me optimistic about the future of the fictional worlds science fiction creates, and also the real track of history ahead of us. Awareness of ecology and the dangers of power are quite enough to make Herbert proud.

Dune, written by David Lynch from the novel by Frank Herbert, directed by David Lynch, 1984, 120 min.

Dune is perhaps the most interesting failure of a movie ever made. Lynch's screenplay treats its source material with a blend of awe and disdain. The treatment of the characters and storyline is decidedly mixed, and the special effects are likewise an uneasy combination of appealing moments and horrendous design decisions. Lynch faced a good deal of opposition in his final cut of the film, and the theatrical version is considerably shorter than he intended, which is evident in almost every aspect (a problem glossed over in The Making of Dune). I have never seen the longer version hacked together for TV without Lynch's consent, but I don't know if even a Director's Cut could solve all the problems here.

Dune follows the broad strokes of the plot of Herbert's book. House Atreides takes control of Dune, only to be brought down by the Harkonnens. Paul and his mother survive, and Paul rallies the native Fremen to a stunning victory against everyone and all odds. Paul himself becomes a superbeing, the Kwisatz Haderach, worshipped by the Fremen. A number of subplots get dropped, like Count Fenring's storyline, but Lynch doesn't clear enough of the thicket to make what remains comprehensible. Take the story of the traitor for example (spoilers ahead), who has Imperial Conditioning. This phrase is mentioned once or twice, but is meaningless to the audience because it is never demonstrated (something Herbert could get away with in a different medium). So the whole storyline of Dr. Yueh loses much of its impact, and reflects badly on the Atreides for not suspecting him. The death of Duncan Idaho (in different circumstances as well) also lacks any kind of lasting reverberation, because we know as little about him as the various other Atreides retainers dying at the time. I felt that Lynch set a number of stories in motion, but didn't have the time (wasn't given the time) to give them all adequate pay-off.

The characterization of both Paul and Lady Jessica, perhaps the two strongest people in the book, is thoughtful and interesting, capitalizing on the non-stereotypical aspects that Herbert provided. Unfortunately, Lady Jessica fades towards the end of the film, another casualty of the way Lynch had to reduce everyone to their barest function. Paul remains at the centre of the film throughout, and Kyle Maclachlan's portrayal of Paul is believable both as a querulous teenager and a hardened veteran of physical and mental struggle. Good work, if a bit strange after the halfway mark for those who haven't read the book. The minor characters among the Atreides and Fremen are extremely well-cast, if a bit under-written.

Unfortunately, every bit of good that Lynch does elsewhere with character is overwhelmed by the Harkonnens. The Harkonnens are: ridiculous, completely over the top, plain silly, and so on. Lynch's apparent point about how evil folds in on its own rottenness is well-taken, if insultingly obvious. Lynch's proven fondness for bizarre, twisted imagery found an outlet here, and has destroyed the Harkonnens forever as credible villains in my mind (as I mentioned in my review of Herbert's book). Heart plugs and cow tongues... I just don't want to think about it. My revulsion is Lynch's exact ploy, of course, but the feeling transfers to the movie itself. I generally say, on principle, that visionary film-makers should give their idiosyncrasies full rein. The fact that the Harkonnens ruin Dune for me demonstrates the perils that can accompany the benefits of a unique vision. I shudder to think how much more screen time the Harkonnens would have received if Lynch had released a three hour movie.

Should Dune the book even be made into a movie to begin with? To my mind, Princess Irulan's voice-over is evidence of the impossibility of putting Herbert's work on the big screen. In the book, the chapter headings are "excerpted" from various books by Irulan (with one or two exceptions, like a preface by Stilgar to a book by Irulan), mostly about Paul. These excerpts actually build her character (in the absence of any other evidence about her life), plus add a clever postmodern touch in the context of Herbert's discussions of prescience, history, religion, and so on. In the movie, we have something totally different, an omniscient narrator, who speaks up randomly, intrusively. What else could Lynch have done? The device works best in print.

Two other things that bother me about Dune. Lynch's battle scenes are hopelessly confusing, and become quite nonsensical. The movie loses almost all sense of the hand to hand combat that the book emphasizes. Why are the Fremen better fighters than the Sardaukar? The movie implies that the Fremen prevail because of the Atreides' sonic weapons, while Herbert wanted to show how the intense conditions honed them to the perfect fighting machines, no matter the weaponry. With this in mind, the final victory seems silly. And my other peeve also concerns the ending. Rain? Where did that come from?

So what to say about this movie adaptation of the famous book? My attitude towards adaptations does not include a belief that faithfulness to the book is the best for the audience or for artistic integrity (witness the ultimate success of Blade Runner). Lynch worked hard to preserve the best parts of the book, but lost sight of the needs of his medium. Of course, putting the blame on Lynch omits mention of the studio execs who fiddled with his vision and hacked down its length.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert, Berkley, 1984, 279 pp. (originally published in 1969)

My fondness for Dune Messiah has increased immensely over the years, against all odds -- sequels have to work extremely hard to impress me. Dune Messiah is about half the length of Dune, presents little new in the way of speculation, and even goes to great lengths to bring back a character who died in the first book. So why do I go out on a limb and say that I prefer it to Dune? That the implications are deeper and the thematic richness more rewarding? My arguments are based on the way Herbert takes everything that bothered me about Dune and balances out those flaws brilliantly in the course of Dune Messiah's narrative. Of course, Dune Messiah could not exist without the first book, making it the perfect companion piece to Dune.

Dune Messiah begins more than a dozen years after the close of Dune. Paul Atreides is the Emperor, and the Fremen Jihad has subdued most dissent. Chani, his concubine, has not yet borne any children, so there are worries about the lineage. And a collection of enemies are conspiring to destroy House Atreides, in the name of their own aspirations to power. As a part of this conspiracy, Paul receives a gift -- the cloned body (a ghola) of Duncan Idaho, who has been trained as a Mentat as well. Why would this destroy Paul? The answer is subtle and satisfying. In another tactic of the conspirators, Paul is lured into the city with the bait of information about Fremen traitors. Something goes wrong, and a giant explosion leaves Paul blind. If all of these stratagems and maneuverings feel somehow familiar, that is because they are similar to the mechanics of the plot of Dune -- feudal power struggles, powerful beings, and so on. Paul's internal life is what makes the plot of Dune Messiah ultimately so much more rewarding.

Why? Herbert has the luxury of starting the book with a well-known, maybe even famous, character, Paul, whose life supported the main story arc of Dune. But in that book, Paul falls into line -- he follows his vision, he goes through his rite of passage and conquers everybody else in the universe. Here, Paul rebels against his prescience, and against the implications of his visions (which are only mentioned in Dune and never demonstrated as they are here). All of the choices in Dune, like taking the Water of Life, like sparking the Fremen Jihad, have come to haunt Paul, and he is a beast trapped in the cage of his own transcendent awareness. That the conspirators are unaware of Paul's attempts to deconstruct his own role completes the beautiful irony. Paul's plight here generates much more sympathy from me than the typical ploys of Dune (see the teenager become master of the universe!). And Paul's isolation becomes more and more extreme. The conspirators, his friends, the ruling elite, the Fremen... none of these could understand his yearning for freedom. For liberation from knowing every move and word beforehand.

But even Paul's motives that subvert the main narrative are not simplistic. As he moves towards a confrontation near the middle of the book, he is thinking back on his life: "He could not say he had acted at any point in his life for one specific reason. The motives and impinging forces had been complex -- more complex possibly than any other set of goads in human history" (180). And Paul's attitude towards the power that torments him is also ambiguous -- witness the way he acts in the next book of the series, Children of Dune. Herbert uses the apparent lull (that is, Dune Messiah and Paul deconstructing his position) in the over-arching story of the series to good effect, and the opening two books are mirrored and refined by the rising and falling action of Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune.

But I would also maintain that Dune Messiah can stand on its own merits, apart from its function in the series. The story of the Duncan Idaho ghola is quite fascinating, Duncan the true servant of the Atreides. Here we also find out how extensively each prescient person affects the prescience of others (which was a throwaway bit part in Dune with Count Fenring). Herbert demonstrates the ramifications of this through the actions of the conspirators and the small details that Paul has missed. I liked Herbert's more varied use of chapter headings in this book. The climactic scenes of this book are very gratifying. And to close, I'll say that Dune Messiah would make a much better movie than Dune -- simpler in story, richer in meaning. But to do it right would be even more difficult.

Children of Dune, Frank Herbert, Berkley, 1986, 408 pp. (originally published in 1976)

Children of Dune follows Dune and Dune Messiah in a series that seems (up to this point at least) immune to the normal decrease in interest and importance that curse most sequels. Children of Dune has all of the same trademarks as the first two books -- cryptic chapter headings, mentally superior beings in a feudal society, and so on. But Herbert adds enough new twists and turns to the ongoing saga that familiarity with the recurring elements brings pleasure not contempt. And the eponymous children also keep the reader's attention past the first impression -- yet another set of super intelligences that spout typical Herbert rhetoric. The children of Dune are Leto and Ghanima, the twins borne by Chani, Paul's concubine, at the close of Dune Messiah, nine years old now, and at the centre of the swirl of scheming and conniving that keep the excitement level high.

The unkind critic might call this book a rehash of Dune. In Dune, Paul rises to power, and in Children of Dune, Paul's son Leto rises to power. But the plot is lifted past such thematic simplicity by the presence of The Preacher, a blind Fremen. This character may or may not be Paul himself, and the interaction between The Preacher and Leto gives the story of Children of Dune some extra resonance that was not present in Dune. The parallel story of Farad'n, the grandson of Emperor Shaddam (who was defeated by Paul), also deepens the meaning of the story and its consideration of power. Farad'n is partly responsible for a plot to assassinate the twins, which Leto uses as a way of stepping into a certain future foreseen by Paul. The Golden Path, as he thinks of it, but we get only sketchy details of that future, and have to rely on the next book in the series, God Emperor of Dune, for more information (much as Paul's dread of certain visions in Dune had to wait for Dune Messiah to be demonstrated to us). We get one clue as to how the Golden Path sets Leto apart from Paul later in the book. Leto is talking to a Fremen named Namri about how the Jihad has given government incredible arrogance:

'Tell me, Namri, are you content?'

'No.' The words came out flat, spontaneous rejection.

'Then do you blaspheme?'

'Of course not!' (270).

Many familiar characters return. Lady Jessica is more important here than in Dune Messiah, and I liked her changing, non-passive role. Gurney Halleck and Stilgar are back, as is the ghola of Duncan Idaho, and of the three, Duncan is probably still the most interesting. In a passage that reflects humorously on the Fremen, he uses the three most deadly insults known to Fremen. My favourite: "'You wear a collar!'" (355). Although new, Farad'n is also a well-drawn character, one that I cheered for in some of his struggles, and I appreciated the twist at the end where Herbert forces us to look back and re-evaluate his role in the story. But the bulk of the character development in Children of Dune is given to the pre-born. The Abomination as the Bene Gesserit call them. The twins have the memories of all their ancestors, just as does their aunt, the Regent, Alia. Because Alia has lost the battle and become Possessed, she is the villain of the piece right from the beginning (and the identity of the possessor draws another parallel from this book to Dune). Ghanima and Leto use different strategies to deal with these near-infinite inner lives, and each approach is appropriate to their own personality.

I was a bit non-plussed by the closing line of the book. Of the twins, Leto has become the ruler of the galactic empire, in a new kind of body that is not quite human. Here is how Children of Dune ends: "Ghanima once more took Farad'n's hand, but her gaze looked beyond the far end of the hall long after Leto had left it. 'One of us had to accept the agony,' she said, 'and he was always the stronger'" (408). Put this together with a disturbing section earlier in the book, from Ghanima's thoughts: "The inner lives had grown increasingly clamorous of late. There was something about female conditioning in a Fremen society -- perhaps it was a real sexual difference, but whatever -- the female was more susceptible to that inner tide" (284). Herbert, usually an acute observer of culture and religion, seems to have a strange attitude towards women here -- by saying "but whatever," he seems to be damning himself by avoiding the argument. Considering that Ghanima has thousands of past lives to draw on, both male and female, she should be able to transcend the sexist limitations of Fremen society. For whatever reason Herbert chose to do this, it ends the book on a note that was tough to take.

To find out why I would recommend God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune to readers with stamina, please see my reviews on the Challenging Destiny website.

James Schellenberg would like to live on Dune, as soon as the Fremen surrender their weapons and swear to non-violence. In the meantime, he lives in the Niagara Peninsula, reads Herbert, and wishes his brother would mutate into a Third Stage Guild Navigator.

Last modified: September 22, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #4 | Reviews | Columns | Dune

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