Thursday, June 02, 2011

Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

So here's the plot of Dune: there's this kid, Paul, who is the son of a duke and his concubine. He's way awesomer than everyone else, 'cause that's just the way it is. In the beginning, he has to take a super-hardcore test (the "gom jabbar") where he puts his hand in this thing that simulates huge amounts of pain, and if he takes it out, the test taker uses super-deadly poison to KILL HIM DEAD, and the absurdity of this is never acknowledged nor, quite obviously, recognized by the author. Anyway, for reasons that remain murky, pa's being transferred to this here desert planet that produces a rare condiment/drug that is super-duper hard to farm and important (but which seemingly everyone always pours all over their food), replacing the comically evil baron who is currently running things, and in addition to engaging in general killing-people-and-being-mean-type evil, is also fat and gay, so you just KNOW he's up to no good. But alas, the duke is betrayed and killed, and Paul and his ma are abandoned on the planet to die, on the ever-popular "we won't kill them ourselves--we'll just leave them where they're SURE to die bwahaha!" gambit. It will shock you to learn that their death does not occur (due, again, to Paul's just-'cause awesomeness). Instead, they team up with the nomadic desert natives, of whom Paul quickly becomes leader, 'cause what have I been TELLING you about him? There's also a LOT of politics, both from good and bad guys, none of which has the remotest relationship to the thrust of the action, such as it is. Oh, and speaking of pointless things, it is revealed to us, just as a sort of casual aside, that the evil baron is in fact Paul's grandfather. This has no effect on anything; I suppose Herbert just thought it would be kinda dramatic to stick it in there and just let it kind of dangle. Spoiler: it isn't. At any rate, the good guys beat the bad guys in a mostly-off-stage coup. The baron is killed via the same poison as in the aforementioned test, and the previously-asserted idea that the poison works absolutely instantaneously is contradicted, as he clearly lasts a good five-ten seconds. And then the good guys engage in a somewhat appalling bit of realpolitik that apparently isn't meant to make us hate them. THE END.

I'm afraid the above description doesn't do the book justice, however--it's terrible in many ways that aren't directly plot-related. What it comes down to is this: Herbert is not a good writer. He has one good idea that would be really neat if he were a better writer (the desert planet itself and its ecosystems), and one idea that's potent enough that even HE can't screw it up TOO badly ("stillsuits," which preserve and reprocess all of one's water for reuse, really driving home how waterless the planet is), but he is simply incapable of presenting this world in an evocative or compelling way. He can't write action, either: you will note that the big upheavals in the book (the baron's coup, the baron's defeat) take place almost entirely off-page. "Tell don't show, and don't even TELL if you can possibly avoid it" appears to be Herbert's motto. Everything is incredibly vague and murky. We have these here desert nomads, but aside from them, there's no way to tell what life is even like on the planet ("Arrakis"). Are there towns? How do they work? How do the desert animals to which the book alludes function in a near-waterless environment? If Herbert knows, he ain't sayin.' But I'm pretty sure he doesn't know. And forget about the larger setting in which the book allegedly takes place: if the central planet is hazy, the universe might as well not exist for all that it's fleshed out. Oh, and also forget about the characters. Herbert appears to take great pride in depicting all this machiavellian scheming, but he sure doesn't show much interest in depicting characters who behave even slightly like real people or to whom the reader can relate in any way.

There's one scene in the novel that I thought was effective: it's when the ecologist has been left in the desert to die, and while doing so, he hallucinates a conversation with his father. Not that it wouldn't have been MORE effective in the hands of a better writer, but you really have to take what you can get with a book like this.

If this were just any bad, hacky fantasy novel (it's about as much "science fiction" as Star Wars is), then none of this would be here or there. But, as the cover notes, it is "the bestselling SF [sic] adventure of all time!" The inside cover copy confidently declares it "undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction." As you may have guessed, I have my doubts.

(It also won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, incidentally--just in case you were inclined to believe that those awards were indicators of quality).

It's just one of those things: how can you possibly rationalize the fact that jillions of otherwise intelligent people are so taken with a book that is quite clearly fucking terrible? It's a question that was hashed out--to no clear conclusion--in comments to Adam Roberts' reading of the Wheel of Time. But I'm gonna go the easy route, and just categorically state--and a dear friend of mine is a fan, so I say this with love in my heart--y'all are out of your frackin' minds.

In all seriousness, I'm pretty sure I know at least one (misguided) reason that people have for liking the book, and that is summed up by Arthur C. Clarke's comment on the back to the effect that he "know[s] of nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings." Now, I'm no big LotR fan, but I know a grotesque injustice to Tolkien when I see one. I know why people make the comparison: it's because Herbert makes a big show of having all this supplementary information about his universe, as though it's something super spectacularly deep with years and years and years of accreted history and culture. There are appendices. But the thing is: none of this ever builds to anything meaningful. To give Tolkien his due, Middle Earth feels like a real place because he spent endless years obsessively building an organic world grounded in European mythology and folklore (and because, as enamored of his work as I'm not, he's a far better stylist than Herbert could ever hope to be, and thus is capable of actually depicting this world). Whereas while Herbert may have made a substantial time investment, his universe never feels like anything other than a bunch of crap inelegantly thrown together. It has a vaguely Middle Eastern theme (except when it doesn't), but it never feels real or comes to life in any meaningful way.

Take, for instance, the names that Herbert gives his characters. Tolkien's work was rooted in real linguistics, so his names generally feel plausible and well-situated within the world. There's a post or five to be written about the principles by which fantasy authors come up with names, but one that you should probably avoid is the "ungainly mixture of real names, vaguely plausible made-up names, and output from the random syllable generator" strategy. Otherwise, there is a very real danger that you might end up with names like "Paul Muad'Dib," "Thufir Hawat," "Gurney Halleck," "Duncan Idaho," "Wellington Yueh," "Gaius Helen Mohiam," and "Feyd-Rautha Rabban;" things that sound like the random gibberish that appears in the "from" fields of spam emails. The arbitrary nature of these names is not a purely aesthetic problem; it's hard enough to visualize--let alone feel anything about--these characters in the first place; when you're constantly stumbling over their ridiculous, opaque names, it becomes all the harder.

Or, hey, take this list of alleged syncretic religions:

The so-called ancient teachings--including those preserved by the Zensunni Wanderers from the first, second, and third Islamic movements; the Navachristianity of Chusuk, the Buddislamic Variants of the types dominant at Lankiveil and Sikun, the Blend Books of the Mahayana Lankavatara, the Zen Hekiganshu of III Delta Pavonis, the Tawrah and Talmudic Zabur surviving on Salusa Secundus, the pervasive Obeah Ritual, the Muadh Quran with its pure Ilm and Fiqh preserved among the pundi rice farmers of Caladan, the Hindu outcroppings found all through the universe in little pockets of insulated pyons, and finally, the Butlerian Jihad.

Gosh…can I write the bestselling SF adventure of all time if I mash together religious signifiers in absurd ways and toss in some alleged names of planets? I guess we're supposed to imagine that all this is the result of painstaking world-building, and that Herbert actually has very detailed ideas of what all these things are, but in fact it reads like what it quite obviously is: a bunch of thrown-together crap signifying nothing.

And it's not as if Herbert spent any more time than that thinking about things that are more central to the novel. Take the aforementioned "gom jabbar" (does it make SENSE to be constantly murdering people 'cause they failed this dopey test? And doesn't the death penalty actually provide a much greater incentive not to fail, thus making it a less accurate measure of one's real-world pain-withstanding abilities?). Or take that there "Butlerian Jihad." It may not be Herbert's fault that the name these days conjures up images of Judith Butler beheading fools who refuse to accept the instability of gender, but it certainly wouldn't be a felicitous name in any case. According to the "helpful" appendix, it is "the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C.* Bible as 'Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.'" No, there's no explanation for why this event should have occurred; this lack is apparently, once again, meant to convey depth: Herbert could explain it if he wanted to! But he DOESN'T want to! But yeah: there are indeed no computers used in the novel, so presumably this "jihad" was entirely successful. Meaning that we have an entire spacefaring empire…without computers of any sort. Uh…yeah. There's some talk of pilots using the drug ("spice") to see slightly into the future and therefore (I infer) not NEEDING computers, but something this dubious probably wouldn't be convincing in any case, and certainly not when presented only in a few tossed-off remarks.

*"Orange Catholic." Don't even get me started. I keep wanting to read the 'C' as a 'G,' making it the "Original Gangsta Bible," which you have to admit would be way better.

And how 'bout the planet Arrakis itself? Since the spice comes from nowhere else, and it's necessary for space-flight, this is THE planet to control if you want political power. And yet…for, apparently, thousands of years, nobody was able to figure this out; hence, its fluctuating rule by a loose assortment of random nobles. Given the obsessive, tedious way that Herbert harps on political machinations that have nothing to do with the plot, you would think this would have occurred to him. But…not so much, as it turns out. Just in case you thought this was all a measure of, you know, authorial intelligence.

The first fifty or so pages I was thinking: huh. I really don't like this book. At page one-fifty or so, I was thinking: well, it may not be GOOD, but I'm sorta engaged; defeat and exile are always compelling, regardless of authorial skill, and I want to see what happens. At page two hundred or slightly further: huh--nothing interesting's gonna happen, is it? Soon after: WOW is this novel breathtakingly bad. Then: But I am still going to fucking well FINISH it, so I can write an excessively long and vicious blog post on the subject. Mission accomplished!

Let me conclude by quoting this bit from a funeral ceremony, which, as far as I can tell, is meant entirely to be taken straight:

"Jamis carried thirty-three liters and seven and three-thirty-seconds drachms of the tribe's water," Chani said. "I bless it now in the presence of a Sayyadina. Ekkeri-akairi, this is the water, fillissin-follasy of Paul-Muad'Dib! Kivi a-kavi, never the more, nakalas! Nakelas! to be measured and counted, ukair-an! by the heartbeats jan-jan-jan of our friend…Jamis.

Am I on Candid Camera here, or what? How can you people possibly take this remotely seriously?


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Yeah, I agree with pretty much every line. You ought to post this on amazon and watch the flood of enraged, illiterate comments pour in!

But it could be worse -- you could have picked up Neuromancer!


9:21 AM  
Blogger theorist pontificated to the effect that...

You maketh me to smile.
Which is good, since it would be a crime if you made me waste any water over this.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

And, giving additional credence to your review, most of the 'invented words' from the quote at the end of your post seem to come from here:

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I don't see, what you find on gomjabbar absurd. This is a test which proves that you are some kind of übermensch. If you fail it, it means that your genetic legacy is not good enough. Which in turn means that you are not worthy for life in a sect which exists only for producing übermensch.

It is funny to see that the previous commenter showed off where some of this source comes from. I think one good point of dune is that it leads from current sociological status to an age where things blend together, and he makes it believable.

The other thing I liked in the book is balance. How he created a reasonable universe by creating limitations. Limitations on space travel, warfare and power makes this book feel real in comparison to your aforementioned Star Wars.

Like where you mention, that nobody notices that the key to rule is to rule Arrakis: everyone knows that. But the limitations described by the author provide a fading balance preventing absolute control of planet Arrakis.
Like the roman res publica. It had its flaws from the beginning, but It took almost 5 hundred years to turn it into a dictatorship.
A blogpost could make more justice on this though, but I want to point it out, that there are certain things which just not hold there positions in all what you have written.
ps.: sorry for my bad english :)

3:08 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

I don't see, what you find on gomjabbar absurd. This is a test which proves that you are some kind of übermensch. If you fail it, it means that your genetic legacy is not good enough.

I dunno, man: I'm pretty sure that if I were told "hey, we're going to fucking kill you if you fail this test," I'd be pretty substantially more likely to pass than if they just said "hey, we're kicking you out in disgrace if you fail." In other words: not a meaningful test for the purpose of determining awesomeness.

3:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Yes, but the point of the test is to act against your instincts. There is a woman in my girlfriend's village. This woman caused herself serious injuries by turning a bowl full of hot water, when she removed the cover and the hot steam frightened her. When I remove something from the oven, I know that if it burns me It can cause an accident. I know I should not act, but accept the pain, but my instincts would do otherwise.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

There are plot holes in this book but it is enjoyable and interesting. The other books in the series are as
terrible as you described this book.

The idea of prescience was interesting and well developed. The analogy of spice and gasoline was well done. But the most impressive thing about the book is that it accurately describes the way the upper classes act and think. The people in this book dont act like normal people at all because neither do the upper classes.

1:04 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

The point regarding the gom jabbar is, if you know failure is going to result in instant death, you're gonna be thinking shit shit shit shit shit I can't fail no matter what. Whereas if it's just being kicked out of the club or whatever, you might well decide, fuck it, this is way above my pay-grade. I'll just become a farmer or something. So the guy who makes it through the second version is actually way more impressive. Clearly, he had something to prove.

The point regarding "the rich are very different from you and me" is "yes, they have more money." Seriously, the idea that upper-class people are weird aliens who can't be expected to behave like actual humans isn't gonna fly. Read your Balzac, Tolstoy, Trollope, whoever--they're just people. If they weren't, I'm pretty sure someone would've made the point before Herbert came along.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I found Dune a bit of a slog. The problem is, it's a great story, and you really want to know what happens, but Herbert is a bad writer. You find yourself chewing through 40 pages waiting for the next scene.

As it is I read the book in 3 days straight, mostly cos of how absorbing the story was. But I haven't read it since. I'll stick with the film, which isn't something I say often.

A lot of the stuff that's left unexplained, including history, appears in later books. Jehanne Butler had a pregnancy terminated against her will because a robot doctor advised it. It turned out the baby would have been healthy, the doctor was mistaken. So naturally, in a fit of hormonal rage, she went mental and smashed every computer in the Universe. Women, eh?

12:11 PM  
Blogger Clint the Cool Guy pontificated to the effect that...

Your review is spot on. I have read the entire series. And I've read Dune itself several times, just to see what I missed. Parts of the story are interesting. Some of the ideas are interesting. But Frank Herbert is just a flat-out terrible writer. His "genius" is underwhelming to say the least. Dune is such a slog to get through. I have read so many books, including lots of sci-fi books. Why this one is hailed as an epic - other than the fact that it is epically boring - is beyond me.

10:09 AM  

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