Thoughts on Dune by Frank Herbert – Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1966
Books have always played an enormous role in my life, something that was true at a very early age. There’s no practical way now to even estimate how much I read as a boy, but my appetite for books gave me a certain reputation as a youngster, and not always a comfortable one, so it was surely a significant number to have drawn such notice. If I didn’t “have my nose stuck in a book,” as my mother was fond of saying, I was carrying a book with me on the off chance that I’d have a few minutes to read somewhere along the way. It was one of several habits and interests that made it difficult for me to fit in with kids my age, and at the same time made my misfit status easier to bear.
A lot of books, then, and too many to count after the fact. And yet, for all that the number is likely to be large, there are books from those distant years that I remember. They loom large in memory because they came to me at just the right time to have just the right impact on an impressionable and imaginative youth. I can recall clearly being rocked at various times by such books as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Nightfall and Other Stories, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, to name a few. Of them all, two works stand out clearest, and have best withstood the passing of years, the test of time: Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, and Frank Herbert’s Dune.
I first read Dune in high school, and came to own a copy almost by accident. I was enrolled in some sort of school-oriented book club in which you earned bonus points with the purchase of books. In the spring of 1970 I had enough points for a couple of free books, and of the books available only two sounded even remotely interesting. Rather than have the points expire at the end of the school year I took a chance, and soon owned copies of The Fellowship of the Ring and Dune. Both books rocked my world. My early relationship with science fiction had been rooted in Tom Swift Jr. adventures, comic books, and B-movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s that I watched while housebound by messy winters in north central Illinois. As I edged into high school the early impressions of the genre were leavened by Heinlein “juveniles” (we’d say YA these days), classics works by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and an early introduction to Asimov’s robot stories. It was science fiction in which the hard science idea was the point of the story, often a single idea presented in a “what if” frame of reference. Plot and characters existed only to serve this central “what if,” often with the result that plots were simple and characterization rather shallow or even two-dimensional. The sci-fi I’d experienced to that point didn’t explore multiple themes or sociological ideas (“soft” science), and was rarely character-driven to the point that I could find myself identifying with the characters as real people. Or their world as a place complete unto itself.
So Dune was a shock to the system. I’d never before read a book that held that many layers of complexity. Dune presented me with fallible characters that carried very human contradiction between the roles they knew they should play and what they ended up doing. There was Dr. Yueh, who so deeply loved those he betrayed; Paul Atreides, who avenged his father’s death by becoming something very different from that father; and his mother Jessica, member of an ancient Order seeking to control the fate of humanity through selective breeding, who chose to follow her heart in the end and defy that Order. Dune is a tale of interstellar intrigue and adventure that is wrapped around political conspiracies and a deliberately contrived mysticism that on Arrakis takes on an unexpected life of its own. There were characters with super-normal abilities that were the result of training and discipline, not magic, who yet seem otherworldly at times. And there was the world Arrakis, the desert world with its giant worms, and a warrior race living for a deliberately planted prophecy that was meant to control them, but did something altogether different. There was a drug from the sands, the product of a complicated alien ecology, one that allowed very special individuals to see into the future. Listed this way, it seems a hodge-podge of plot elements, but when you read this novel what you find is a complicated and skillfully twisted braid of plots and subplots that include all these things and more.
Dune is also a product of its times. When written, the social turmoil of the Sixties was heating up. Eastern traditions were becoming popular in the Western world. An awareness of our impact on the world’s ecological systems was growing rapidly, with revelations that alarmed many. You see elements of these issues, among others, reflected in the novel, revealing the author’s awareness of the change unfolding around him. This reflection of what were then current events is one of the things that made the book stand out for me, though I may not have been fully aware of it at the time. I read Dune almost five years after it won the Hugo Award and much of what would have been fresh and raw in American society and politics when the book was written had played out by then. The so-called “drug culture” had lost some of its shock value, and the novelty of those Eastern traditions had faded somewhat. (Americans are so often quick to become complacent even about things they dislike. Especially when it’s happening in the News to someone else.) I was aware, even in my small home town, of these social undercurrents, even though I didn’t truly understand them, and so the book resonated in ways I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and would not recognize until later readings.
I didn’t look at science fiction in the same way after reading Dune. I didn’t know it at the time, but the so-called New Wave in science fiction had just swept over me. Where I had in the past enjoyed the escapism, now I found myself thinking about a story I’d read. Ideas from the tale lingered long after the closing lines. I didn’t just go on to the next book in the stack and plow through it. Somehow, I just couldn’t do that. I’d been too involved with this fictional world to let it go so easily. To be affected by a work of fiction in such a way was a new thing for me. That fiction could do such a thing was a mind-altering revelation.
Eventually, that summer, I caught my breath and picked up the next book in the summer reading pile. Of course, the next book in the stack was The Fellowship of the Ring. That was quite a summer.