I’m now about halfway through reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. I do find it quite impressive, but I have something of a difficulty with it. I’m sure this has been hashed over in a variety of blogs and articles that I frankly can’t be bothered researching, so certain am I that someone has raised this critique before and my conclusion is more a tired old theme than any original interpretation.
I am sick to death of the Hero’s Journey trope, and I don’t find it interesting anymore. A detailed analysis of the Hero’s Journey can be found on TV Tropes, Wikipedia, and Phil Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum discussion of the influence of Star Wars on science fiction. Dune is an obvious example of this plot shape. The book first came out in 1965, so it doesn’t have the excuse of being swept up in the mania of unintelligent media executives shamelessly copying the basic outline of the first Star Wars films. In short form the Hero’s Journey is the story of a figure (usually a boy, but occasionally a girl) who appears unremarkable, but is of some noble lineage or possesses some hidden talent. A tragedy happens to him which sets him on a path of hardship that helps him develop his peculiar talent, and culminates in restoring the order that the initial tragedy disrupted.
Dune is one of the most obvious examples of the Hero’s Journey trope that I’ve read in an incredibly long time. Paul Atreides is the son of a powerful duke in a royalist interstellar society, who has been bred to have special mental and physical powers of perception, prediction, and bodily control. The murder of his father as a result of political machinations makes him a fugitive and puts him on a path to develop his powers at a rapid pace. He becomes the prophesied messiah of the natives of the planet Arrakis, beats the bad guys, and brings peace and ecological prosperity to the world.
It’s not that this is a bad trope inherently; it’s a gripping plot and a fascinating world. But it’s been done so often that my natural inclinations to do something new and creative lead me away from it. I came to Dune after a long delay because I knew Herbert achieved a very difficult task: building a science-fiction world of immense historical and technical detail without infodumps that drew energy and focus away from the actual story and characters. He achieved this remarkably well, and I’ve learned a lot already for when I start working on my own epic sci-fi project, the tentatively titled Lost in Space taken seriously. But it’s frustrating to see this skill used to prop up yet another Hero’s Journey story.
|This shot certainly isn't composed to make Paul Atreides look like some kind |
of uniquely remarkable messianic figure, is it? (I hope my readers can tell
when I'm being sarcastic.)
The funny part is that Herbert seemed to have had just as much doubt in the Hero’s Journey archetype and the political movements articulating the same underlying ideas. In the interview I linked last Monday, which I’ll link here again, Herbert expresses deep doubt in the human tendency to trust charismatic leaders to coordinate and spearhead a mass movement for radical political and social change. He said his aim was to build a story where an ordinary person ends up in this role as messiah (and he never even says ‘messiah’ in this context, only ‘charismatic leader,’ a voice typical of the tendency in mid-1960s science-fiction for deflationary atheism). The goal was to destabilize and critique the social tendency to elevate messiahs and look for leaders instead of working on your own to improve your community.
Then he writes a story that is explicitly about a central character who becomes a messiah because he’s been engineered to have special powers in the first place! Maybe this is part of the subversion. Maybe Herbert thought of the messiah figure having been engineered and trained to be a messiah as a critique of the idea itself: messiahs aren’t born and forged by supernatural forces, but by the planning and machinations of people. In 1965, when Dune was first released, perhaps this idea alone was radical enough to constitute a critique. Herbert’s language in the interview to describe Paul was distinctly atheistic, which makes me believe his goal was to subvert messiah narratives by building one without a god. But this makes the same mistake that atheism in the 20th century did: it kept the narrative of a messiah while simply putting humans in the roles that god would traditionally play. Despite its apparent atheism, Dune is still a religious book precisely because it’s still a messiah narrative. Telling a truly atheist story would require a far more radical transformation of the structure of your narrative.
Aside from this critique, Dune does impress me. I particularly enjoy how the book toys with the spoiler-averse among its readers. The book has appendices that explain various parts of the history and technology of the novel’s world. But it also has an index of notable figures from their noble houses, including one of the central characters: it includes her date of death. In other words, it guarantees that some of the central characters will survive the novel.
I described this more complex kind of suspense in earlier posts about Herbert. It’s another way he shifts the suspense from matters of what happens to matters of how events happen. We know from the ‘history book’ quotations at the top of each chapter that Paul Atreides will survive and live a long career as Arrakis prophet. We know from the appendices that his mother will survive the events of the book and give birth to her daughter, Paul’s sister. The question now becomes how it’s going to happen.