Welcome to the first in an occasional series where I examine what makes some of the best science fiction novels such groundbreaking, excellent reads. I’ll be posting these occasionally as I finish the various books, both as an exercise to improve my own writing and also to try and show the craft that goes into writing for the casual reader. I hope you enjoy!
Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the most iconic science fiction novels of the 20th century, a unique world inhabited by memorable characters that have seen themselves regularly reborn in film and screen (and quite a few sequel novels). The full list of the Dune franchise is here.
So what gives Dune it’s staying power? Let’s take a look at a few of the tools Herbert was able to employ to keep readers captivated by his desert adventure all these years later.
Immediate Empathy and Curiosity
We begin with a mysterious woman peeking in on young Paul Atreides, who feigns sleep to try and understand what is happening around him. He hears strange words used about him, recognizes his mother’s fear, and is left with only questions on which he ruminates as any child would. Worse, he is quickly subjected to a life or death test without knowing why.
This scene immediately puts the reader on Paul’s side. We see a fearful child doing his best to act as an adult in trying circumstances, and we instinctively empathize with him. What’s more, we’re quickly swept up in the mystery of the novel’s world and what’s happening to Paul as he navigates a strange new reality full of prophecy and portentous terms like Gom Jabbar and Kwisatz Haderach. Paul becomes our guide to this new sci-fi world set thousands of years in the future, and we are tuned to his emotional resonance by the simple act of putting our perspective along side of his. By putting the reader in place to observe the trial of such a child, and the reaction of Reverend Mother Mohiam, we understand his significance but also feel his essential humanity.
The Rise of the Prophesized Hero
She stared at him. He senses truth! Could he truly be the one?
– Reverend Mother Mohiam
The Kwisatz Haderach is foretold. The Bene Gesserit have been working toward their genetic weapon for millennia. And from the moment he survives the trial of the Gom Jabbar, we know that Paul is special. But we don’t yet know what the Kwisatz Haderach is or will do, which further stokes our curiosity. The story then becomes a great tease: showing Paul wrestling with the fact that he is different but not understanding what the prophesy means. At each step on his path – taking the spice, choosing his Fremen name, he makes choices that are in character yet also represent puzzle pieces of his greater destiny falling into place.
Then Paul’s father is betrayed, and Paul is cast out into the desert. But the prophesy exists, and tension builds as we watch Paul try to realize his ultimate power as he leads his revenge against the Harkonnens. The prophesy is the mechanic that drives our tension above and beyond Paul’s struggle for survival and justice, and keeps us turning each page.
Good vs. Evil
Part of Dune’s resonance comes from a classic battle of good versus evil. Dune’s second chapter introduces the scheming, murderous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen as the main antagonist to the Atreides family. In his discussions of machinations and murders, there is little doubt that he exists only to serve his own vices, and he is an inherently unlikable character.
Contrast Baron Harkonnen’s insults and talk of awarding the spoils of his conquests with a scene soon after the Atreides’ arrival on Arrakis where Paul’s father, Duke Leto, rescues a spice mining crew that were close to being lost to sandworms. We feel the Duke’s righteous anger at how the Harkonnens’ sabotage used people’s lives as pawns, and we see how the other characters, including the miners and the unseen monitors, respond. This scene is a critical one to show readers the world and morals that Paul is so worried about preserving, and sets up the struggle against the Harkonnens’ great evil.
The sense of impending doom leading up to the Harkonnens’ attack is palpable. Duke Leto’s temper is short and he is losing sleep. When the assault finally begins, the Atreides stand little chance and Paul barely manages to escape with his mother thanks to the sacrifice of many of his friends. While their nominal Fremen allies put up some resistance, the Atreides have little resources left with which to fight, and the situation of the small boy who we’ve been following since he was stirred from his bed grows more dire by the hour.
The novel now becomes a classic underdog story of a smaller force taking on a much larger foe. And while Paul becomes Muad’Dib, we are still left desperately turning pages to know how he will possibly be able to retake his planet and avenge his father. Scenes of Baron Harkonnen and his family slowly losing control of Dune become teasers as we build toward the final, climactic battle.
Third Person Limited Omniscient Narration, With a Twist
We’ll finish off with a more technical discussion of Frank Herbert’s unique style. Dune is rightly praised for its massively detailed, incredibly inventive universe, and Herbert is trying to convey all of that dense world-building on every page. Strange new social classes, faction loyalty, technological details of his far future world, and motivations for characters that we’ve only just met are all thrown quickly at the reader, and the novel would falter if not for the unusual switches in perspective from sentence to sentence in each paragraph:
Paul looked down at his right hand clenched into a fist beneath the table. Slowly, he willed the muscles to relax. She put some kind of hold on me, he thought. How?
“She asked me to tell her what it is to rule,” Paul said. “And I said that one commands. And she said I had some unlearning to do.”
She hit a mark there right enough, Hawat thought.
Here, we are learning a number of things at once:
- That the Bene Gesserit have some kind of power they can place on others
- That Paul is struggling to understand his role and how he should approach problems
- That Thufir Hawat, the Atreides family’s master of assassins, agrees that Paul has a lot to learn about leadership
And it all happens in a few short lines due to the narrative style.
I hope that you found this review helpful. And if you haven’t read Dune lately, it might be time to pick up a copy before the next movie spoils all the fun!