Dune: A Classic That Belongs in the Past

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More than half a century ago, in the twitchy weeks after the Kennedy assassination, the first installment of a serialized novel called Dune World appeared in the December 1963 issue of the science fiction magazine, Analog. Over the two years that followed, as the Beatles swept the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Selma, and the lives of Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and thousands of Vietnamese civilians were lost to the world, the pages of Analog ran a total of eight installments of the novel that would eventually become Dune.

When the full novel was first published in 1965 Dune became an instant classic, winning the first ever Hugo Award—science fiction’s Pulitzer Prize. Its rapid fame opened a particular vein of culturally-immersive, environmentally conscious science fiction that has been assiduously mined by several generations of Herbert’s devotees ever since.

In terms of influence in a genre Dune’s closest analog is probably J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Just as Tolkien’s fantasy epic inspired legions of writers, ranging in aesthetic from cheap factory-style extrusion artists to creative wunderkinder like Robert Holdstock and China Mieville, the distinct stamp of Herbert’s masterpiece can be found on hundreds of subsequent science fiction novels, some of which have become classics in their own right. Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks, and Alastair Reynolds are among those whose works would likely read quite differently in a world without Dune.

But Dune shares another, less impressive, trait with Lord of the Rings: the story, its themes, characters, politics, milieu, and plot, are nearly a complete anachronism by 21st century standards. On just about every level of the narrative Dune is a novel that has barely made it out of the nineteen sixties, let alone the 20th century, with anything worthwhile to say. Unlike the Lord of the Rings, where defenders can point to its mythological and allegorical conceits, or at least claim that it is just cracking good entertainment, Dune belongs to a genre where the expectations, for better or worse, are set a few notches above “mere” entertainment.

A large contingent of authors, critics, and fans have always made grand claims about science fiction’s importance to humanity pretty much since the genre came about. Arthur C. Clarke, in a 1970 book, is quoted as saying:

One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind. Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.

Another golden age luminary, Isaac Asimov, went even further. In the introductory essay to the 1978 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Asimov wrote:

Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today — but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all. [Emphasis mine]

This belief in science fiction’s unique ability to save the world is not limited to the Golden Age genre giants. Here in the 21st century, when the accomplishments of real science have confounded the predictions of all but the most gonzo and far-seeing Golden Age science fiction, the idea that science fiction is unique among all literary genres in its world-changing abilities is alive and well. “If there is one single message we should take from science fiction,” writes Damien Walter, a science fiction advocate and columnist for the Guardian newspaper, “it is that the imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.”

There is some truth in all these claims. One way to effect change in society is to show people what another world could look like only if. This is a job science fiction was built to do. At the most basic level, you paint a convincing picture of the future, wonderful, horrifying, or otherwise, throw in some appealing characters, a bad guy or two, an exciting MacGuffin that illustrates a morale of variable moral ambiguity, mold it into something vaguely resembling Freytag’s triangle and—BAM! —you may very well have taken the first step in changing the world. In its own fringey way, science fiction of a certain type can be a powerful vehicle for instilling both goal-oriented thinking and cautionary admonitions in its readers.

(Not all of it does this, of course, or even most of it. The genre is full of works that aspire to nothing more than escapist wet dream material for gearheads, Trekkies, and code monkeys, and many do this quite well. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, science fiction does not have to change the world to be entertaining. Entertainment itself is a worthy goal, even if the Arthur C. Clarke’s of the world would prefer to keep mere entertainments out of the hands of politicians).

But half a century after Dune jolted the tectonic plates of science fiction, it is worth evaluating just how it fares when judged against the criteria the genre has set for itself. What, if any, lessons does Dune have for those 21st century readers who take the heroic claims of science fiction seriously? Does it suggest ways to improve our world or enlighten human society? Is it a cautionary tale portraying the destructive consequences of certain insalubrious human endeavors? Can it contribute in some way to the salvation of human kind?

In a word: no.

Don’t get me wrong—Dune is sci-fi entertainment par excellence, but by the standards that the genre has set for itself, it fails. Imagine a politician of sufficient intelligence taking Arthur C. Clarke’s advice, throwing her mysteries and westerns into long-term storage and reading science fiction instead so as to better prepare herself for the future. What lessons would she come away with?

The three features of the Dune universe that might immediately jump out at her are that: (1) women can fight well in the future, but traditional gender roles are still alive and well, and (2) people who are gay and (3) fat are, very likely, evil. Of the half dozen or so female characters who rise to the level of having actual names, the most important to the story are Chani, Paul’s Fremen concubine (yes, they still have those in the future, too), and Paul’s mother, Jessica, who was herself the concubine of Paul’s father.

Right away, our reader may get the feeling that equal partnerships between men and women are not a thing in the future. Although the novel goes to some length to demonstrate that both Jessica and Chani are every bit their mates’ intellectual equal, neither can exercise power in society the same way as their male partners. And everyone is totally fine with this. Despite possessing space-faring technology, advanced genetic sciences, and a pan-galactic human culture, the society of Dune—both the Fremen society in which Paul comes of age, and that of the Empire in which Jessica has spent most of her life—is still deeply and anachronistically patrilineal.

And then there is the bad guy, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. A generic cut-out from the same ruthless, power-hungry, cold-blooded bad guy mold that has birthed so many sci-fi baddies, Harkonnen is different only in that he is (a) so fat that he needs anti-gravity suspensors just to move around, and (b) homosexual. References to Harkonnen’s obesity and attraction to men (including Paul) are given equal weight in the text alongside other evidence of the Baron’s evil nature, such as rape and murder. If you’re not heterosexual and thin, the future as envisioned by Dune is not looking good for you.

But so far Dune is not guilty of anything new. Sexism, fat-shaming, andhomophobia, are sadly nothing new for science fiction. There is, however, a more pernicious (if equally anachronistic) assumption embedded in theDune narrative. It sounds boring, but it is, for me, the thing that all but kills the novel as any kind of blue-print for the future. It has to do with the society’s governance structure.

Bear with me.

The universe of Dune is controlled by an autocratic Emperor, and its various planets are divvied up as fiefdoms among a number of “great houses” which constitute the aristocratic class. The great houses employ a servant class and a military class which, as far as the novel is concerned, are positions of lifelong indentured servitude. As the novel opens, the young Paul Atreides, the novel’s hero and heir to one of the House Atreides, is preparing to move to the desert planet of Arrakis, a new and extremely valuable feifdom that the Emperor has just granted them. Arrakis is rich in a very valuable resource—the drug spice. Regardless of which family controls the planet, the spice is extracted from the ground by a proletariat class of freelance machinists and manual laborers.

So right out of the gate we get an economic system that would have looked pretty normal to someone like Henry VIII. For that matter, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, and Sargon of Akkad would probably not have had to squint too hard to recognize some familiar elements in Dune’s society. The obvious modern-day parallel to the Arrakis system is Saudi Arabia, where a large, monarchical ruling family controls vast deposits of a resource that is hugely important to the rest of the world, and which employs a class of foreign workers to extract it from the ground.

But then we get an interesting wrinkle. An indigenous people called Fremen inhabit the vast desert of Arrakis. The Fremen have adapted to the planet’s harsh environment, living nocturnally to avoid the intense daytime heat and using a technology called a stillsuit to collect and recycle moisture from their bodies.They are an egalitarian society where the group’s leader can be challenged at any time, and where individuals are trained to be conscious of their actions on the collective.

The Fremen are also a society of near unbelievable thrift. On a planet where water is so scarce, they have slowly, over the course of generations, collected oceans of water in subterranean vaults. This water never serves any immediate need. Rather, they are slowly accumulating it with the idea that once they have a critical mass of water they will, at some point in the distant future, be able to terraform the planet. A Fremen could be dying of thirst and they would never touch this vast reserve for fear of jeopardizing this far-future goal.

The Fremen harbor an deep hatred of the Harkonnens, the great house that ruled Arrakis prior to the Atreides and which attempted to exterminate the Fremen. When an assault launched by the Harkonnens against the Atreides casts Paul and his mother out into Arakis’s harsh desert, they find a home among the Fremen and learn their ways.

At this point our reader might be assuming that the Fremen’s communalist discipline and focus on long-term sustainability is being set up as an alternative, more effective model for society, one that will win out over the archaic space-faring feudalism that dominates the Dune universe. Our reader might be starting to think that this is the future science fiction is preparing her for. After all, whether it’s oil, water, phosphorus, or justmoney, resource scarcity is set to loom larger in the future than it has in the past century. Surely the Fremen are being held up as some sort of model, right?

Wrong.

If anything, Dune ends up vindicating the feudal, autocratic system that is the antithesis to and antagonist of the Fremen system.

Just when frictions between Paul and Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen, are about to bring the two into mortal combat, Stilgar relents and declares fealty to Paul. Paul actually makes him a knight, dubbing him in with a sword just like medieval European knights. Paul, then, leads the Fremen to victory against the Harkonnen and the Emperor. But instead of using his victory to usher in a new model of society, Paul becomes Emperor, relegating the Fremen to the role of a vassal society.

The larger society doesn’t change, it only gets an autocrat with greater power. A benign autocrat, but an autocrat nonetheless.

This is where Dune utterly fails to live up to the world-saving hype of science fiction. A reader looking to draw lessons for the future of human society from this novel would come away thinking that the Fremen’s intense collectivism is impotent in the absence of a benign dictator, and that a communalist, ruthlessly frugal society is fine for a harsh, empty, backwater of a planet, but it’s no way run a universe.

In the early 21st century, where autocratic governments are less stable than ever, where looming resource scarcity is prompting various creativetechnological hacks, and where a long-term focus on societal sustainability is arguable more important than at any other time in human history, Dune’smessage is less than useless—it is downright counterproductive.

Which is not to say that the novel should not be read. Dune is excellent entertainment, on par with the best westerns and detective stories. Fifty years on it is still one of the most exciting stories in the genre. Just don’t go into it looking for the future. It will only tell you about the past.

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