Frank Herbert
Dune Cover

Sand opera, not space opera


Arguably the most famous science fiction novel ever published, Dune captured the hearts and minds of the SF community and sowed the seeds for the future of SF, including the even more influential Star Warsfilms (1977 and on, and on, and on). With its vivid desert world, rich cultural patterns, and corrupt courtly intrigue, jaws dropped when the first of this novel was published in 1963, after years of one-plot pulp serials converted to 200-page novels, populated by one main character and a few supporting roles. Dune shook the SF world.

And, yet... I did not like it.

Paul, noble son of the House of Atreides, is relocated with his family to Arrakis, a desert planet well-known for its production of the spice known as mélange, a critical component in the delicate balance of economic power between the Padishah Empire, the CHOAM Corporation, and the Spacing Guild Navigators. Court politics between competing noble houses vying for power result in the assassination of Paul's father, Duke Leto. Paul and his mother, the royal concubine Jessica, hide in the desert among a clan of Fremen, desert dwellers adapted to the harsh, yet protective, environment of the deep Arrakis desert. When Paul's Bene Geserit training from his mother results in the unfolding of certain Freman prophecies, Paul's status as a refugee noble brat changes, and the Fremen pledge to support to this strange, powerful teenager.

It's a classic tale: boy has nobility, boy loses nobility, boy gets nobility back through pseudo-zenisms and aggressive posturing amid the backward native folk. And people don't find this offensive?

They call it a space opera, but it's more like a sand opera. A very soapy sand opera.

My first encounter with this novel, as a teen reader unprepared for my (probably) first real space opera, left me scrunching my nose. Unaware of Herbert's intent to subvert a genre long inclined to foist the good hero into a moral victory against insurmountable odds (an unfair generalization in itself), I abandoned the book with a bad taste in my mouth. The nobility are petty, the Fremen are superstitiously blind, the mom is a manipulative tart, and the boy is a spoiled prick.

Okay, maybe it's not the best space opera to cut your teeth on.

As an adult, during my second encounter with this novel, aware of Herbert's message against charismatic leadership, and armed with a stronger understanding of cold, calculating SF protags, I still could not enjoy this novel. But, this time, for new reasons. Characterization is no longer the problem— these people live in a world with limited opportunities for advancement, hence their calculating behaviors. Keeping that in mind, the nobility are practical, the Fremen are hardy, the mom is just doing the best she can, and the boy... well, that's the point, you know.

...he really is a spoiled prick.

Herbert's own protagonist has him backed into a corner. If Dune really is a treatise of caution against hero worship (to which I would argue that ecology is the primary inspiration for this tale), Herbert must create a cold, yet infallible protagonist—death to the tension of any story. If he's cold, the reader doesn't care what happens to him. If he's infallible, he'll survive every conflict. Wrap him up in a nice blanket of spiritual powers and preordained destiny, with a powerful clan to serve him, and you've got the makings of a demigod whose story is predetermined. Dune is worthy warning against allegiance to charismatic personalities, but it's D.O.A.

Will they be angry if I say it's boring?

Unfortunately, I suspect that many Dune fans actually admire the unearned arrogance of our rich noble-born leader. I worry that Paul's behavior toward his women and his clansmen actually appeals to many males in the SF community. Paul is in control of everything—his emotions, his actions, his thoughts... even his followers. Even Paul's mother recognizes his calculating moves as manipulative and unfair. "You deliberately cultivate this air, this bravura," she charged. "You never cease indoctrinating" (p. 620).

How incredibly appealing to a young male...

But my greatest concern lies with the characterization of the Fremen people. "Paul slipped out his nose plugs, swung the mouth baffle aside. The odor of the place assailed him: unwashed bodies, distillate esthers of reclaimed wastes, everywhere the sour effluvia of humanity with, over it all, a turbulence of spice and spicelike harmonics" (p. 553).

That's a mighty negative portrayal for a group of people who seem to be modeled after the Arabic culture.

While reading this, I couldn't help but feel that discomfort I get when I'm around someone at work who I suspect is a racist and could drop a Bigot Bomb at any moment. 21,000 years in the future and the Arabic race is characterized as desert dwelling tribal nomads, motivated only by religious zeal and control of a major resource. Is this not even a little bit bigoted? Unimaginative? Uninspired? Sure, Herbert's Fremen signify honor in this treacherous world, but that's not enough to overshadow their brutish, ignorant characterization as they burrow in the sand, inhaling their own filth in sweaty stillsuits, and willing to embrace the rule of a snotty rich teenager due to a superstitious prophecy that is well known and easily co-opted.

And yet, the characterizations of female characters don't bother me as much... does that mean I've been... conditioned?

But overall, my biggest complaint is the incessant, italicized internal monologue, which often switches characters mid-dialogue. I can't help but think some of the tension would be restored if Herbert had dumped this device to allow for some mystery in his characters' thoughts, particularly in a tale where gray morality rules and ethics is completely absent. But instead, it's all splayed out for me, like a gutted sandworm drying on the hot sand. No mystery.

Oh, but the sandworms are cool!

They are cool. They are very cool.

As boring, bigoted, and passive as this story is, it's a classic that is still inspiring legions of SF geeks. In terms of world-building,Dune is spectacular. It's a must-read for anyone who claims to love SF.

But that doesn't mean I have to like it.