Dune – Frank Herbert

In preparation for the new Dune film that came out on October 2021, I had decided to revisit the book (as you ALWAYS should!) and also the 1984 film adaptation by David Lynch. And then perhaps give a try to the 2013 documentary on the surreal project attempted by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

The idea was to write a brief(ish) review of Dune, perhaps including some comments on the contrast with the film but, of course, between dealing with such a seminal work of Science Fiction and me being such a long-winded sonofa, the review quickly took on epic sandworm proportions.

Right in the spirit of the book, there were ideas within ideas, pointing to themes within themes and spawning articles within articles, and I had to break the whole thing into multiple parts.

So this is the first of several (at least three, possibly four, maybe more, who knows? certainly not me) essays centred (mostly) on Frank Herbert’s Dune:

  • The first three focus on the book and cover the parts I liked (“The Good”) the ones I was ambivalent about (“The Meh”) and the ones I didn’t like (“The Ugly”)
  • In the fourth review we delve into Dune’s various jumps to the big screen
  • By that point we should all be pretty much fed up with the topic, but you can never be sure, so let’s not rule out anything.

Anyway, there’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get on with it.

Dune Review. Part 1 – The Good

The highest praise that can be given to an author is to say that his work awakens unexpected possibilities of thought and feeling.

Timothy O’Reilly – Frank Herbert, The Maker of Dune: insights of a master of science fiction

From Fantasy-in-Space to Science-Fiction

Science-Fiction and Fantasy are similarly fascinating in that they both transport us to worlds filled with wonders we’ve never seen because, as AC Clarke expressed perfectly in his Third Law “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But the big difference between them is that SF should be based on exactly the same rules and laws that apply in our world, hence the Science part. This is what I most like about the genre, because it means there is actually a chance, no matter how tiny, that the amazing things one reads about in the book could conceivably become real at some point. It’s the same reason why everyone[1] finds dinosaurs so fascinating; because we know that they actually existed.

In my case, Dune holds a special place in my heart because it was the book that taught me that making a story world believable is the author’s responsibility. This was the first epic-scope fiction book I encountered which took the trouble of providing explanations to help me become immersed in the story, instead of just dropping that hard job on the reader’s lap. Over the course of Dune, my concept of SF went from kitschy and campy Flash Gordon types, pretty much The-Lone-Ranger-but-in-space, to more of a Lordoftheringish situation: here was an entire world (in this case, a universe) which you could really sink your teeth into because it was so well thought out that it was consistent and thus believable. Since then, my tolerance for poor writing has been increasingly dropping, because whenever a book seems ridiculous or inconsistent, it means the author has been careless or lazy, and if they didn’t take their work seriously, then why should I?  

In contrast, Dune goes into great detail about the entire setting, its history and organisation, to explain why things are the way they are. Creating this canon takes a lot of thankless work by the author, like coming up with a backstory, languages, cultures, traditions, songs, etc, that you often don’t even read about directly in the book (in Dune’s case, a lot of it was put into the appendixes), but it also results in a world that is much more believable, because some of that canon does seep through, like in the way the characters behave and how the narrative is tightly knit[2]. Those little details are the magic sauce that allows the reader to become immersed in a world, instead of being constantly pulled out of enjoying the story by sudden jolts of unsuspendable disbelief.

This is even more impressive when you are seeking to create reasonable explanations for innovative and far-reaching concepts, like the Bene Gesserit, Mentats, a galactic corporation run as a feudal empire, protective shields that stop laser weapons and thus force hand-to-hand combat, etc.

For instance, one tiny element in the book, just a throwaway line in 600+ pages, that most Dune reviews touch on and fans obsess about, is that Herbert took the time to come up with the Butlerian Jihad to explain why there were no supercomputers/superrobots in his universe. He even bothered to come up with a name for it, because of course societies always name important wars and other significant events (see what I mean about the small details that bring a story alive? But more on naming later). Bear in mind that this was in the early 60s, a long time before anyone, other than a handful of hard SF authors (e.g. Asimov in stories like Reason[3] and Clarke in 2001[4]), even had the notion of AI in their heads, whereas now it is basically the first issue to address when contemplating the future. In addition, the Butlerian Jihad also created a very elegant explanation for why humans opted for developing their own potential, in the form of Bene Gesserit, Mentats, etc, instead of relying increasingly on machines.

“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”

“‘Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind,’” Paul quoted. […]

“The Great Revolt took away a crutch,” she said. “It forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human talents.”

The pathetic interesting thing is that many of the works that were clearly influenced by Dune (*cough* Star Wars *cough*) also ripped off adapted those core elements but then didn’t bother to include any explanations, so they ended up coming across as ridiculous, instead of amazing. Two quick fails examples from Star Wars:

  • First, since we mentioned the Butlerian Jihad: yes, it’s the future and there are superadvanced androids that can hack into any mainframe or speak millions of languages, but that’s ALL the impact they have on society, everything else is basically 1970s Earth. And forget Boston Dynamics, they’re either a Roomba or move like a break-dancer pretending to be a robot.
  • Second, since we mentioned using blades: yes, it’s the future and there are laser guns, but the moronic Jedi Knights prefer to use hand-to-hand weapons, because they are “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age” (whatever the fuck that is supposed to mean). Personally, my favourite moment in the entire prequel trilogy was the scene in the arena when sanity was restored as the Jedi morons were mowed down by regular morons with blasters. I mean, come on! Bringing a knife to a gunfight is literally a cliché for stupidity.
…and lost!

And now we’ll take a short break from beating on Star Wars. We’re not quite done yet, but we’ll carry on in the next section.

A Special “Special One”

Another, very important, element that Herbert didn’t apply in a lazy way is the common trope of a Chosen One.

Paul is not only the end result of ninety generations of a genetic breeding program designed to produce the Kwistaz Haderach (if you’re wondering how many years that would take, I looked it up because I’m a geek: about 2500), and thus already well on his way to awesomeness from the moment of his birth, but on top of that he’s coached all his life by the best experts in the universe; leadership from Leto, combat and military training from Gurney and Duncan, Mentat instruction from Thufir, Bene Gesserit control over self and others from Jessica and whatever else Yueh might have added to that (backstabbing? ruthlessness?). So of course he is the Special One, he better bloody well be the Special One because you literally couldn’t find a more special individual in the entire universe. And as if that weren’t enough, his abilities are then enhanced by melange and all of that allows him to become the first male to survive the Water of Life and reach the final level of Super Saiyan badassery.

It’s not surprising he becomes a Superhero, it would be like making a Captain America test-tube baby, then training him like Black Widow and topping it off with gamma rays to turn him into the Hulk. Again; badass!

Now, like we saw with the previous examples, compare Herbert’s approach of taking the trouble to craft a realistic Superhero with what we generally see in media nowadays. All of this background is completely missing from current Chosen Ones. Instead, most modern stories (ironically, many of them as a result of Dune’s influence, I’m sure) feature unrealistically young protagonists becoming heroes or even Superheroes, while completely neglecting to give a coherent reason for it. Or just ANY kind of reason whatsoever.

But, come on, look at any teenager: it’s by far the least likely stage of life for someone to be a hero! And yet we’re expected to accept that those characters magically happen to be freaks of nature who are not completely self-absorbed, hormone-drunk kids. Instead they are mature enough and with a sufficiently strong moral compass to wield great power responsibly[5]. It’s so ridiculous that of course disbelief refuses to be meekly suspended. Instead, it grabs you by the collar and shouts in your face “This is completely absurd! Nothing in his entire life has prepared that teenager to deal with any form of extreme situation!” (other than being the protagonist, that is). To make it worse, more often than not they are accompanied by (or defeat) supporting characters who have trained all their lives to become the right person for the job, but when the moment of truth arrives they can’t do it for some absurd reason, like a lack of midiwhathefuchlorians or a scar with the right shape. Or for no reason at all, like the cretins in Hunger Games and Ready Player One: “Hey look, this otherwise unremarkable teenager can shoot a bow/has memorised Wikipedia, who better to lead a revolution and overthrow the entire world’s social structure…?” It’s completely absurd. And so, naturally, the moment you look at these supposed heroes, you see that the only special thing about them is… being the Special One. Damn right they are the Chosen One… chosen by the author![6]

Then again, I suppose that’s exactly what makes these characters attractive to younger readers; it feeds them the delusion that anyone can just become the most very specialest person ever and change the entire world, since apparently the ONLY requirement is a little bit of luck. Or what the hell, not even luck, just do like N-E-O and pick yourself a nickname that literally says you are the O-N-E.

And while we’re talking about names with meanings, Herbert also took the trouble to find great names and that leads us to the next thing that is outstanding about this book.

A world by any other name

If you’ve ever played Dungeons & Dragons (or any role-playing game, really) you will be familiar with the concept of a character sheet. Each player gets one of these to give them a general idea of their character’s strengths and weaknesses, by providing scores for different attributes.

Many fiction authors use similar character sheets when populating their works, as this helps them to flesh out individuals and also keep them consistent throughout the story.

But this is a meta-concept that can also be applied to the authors themselves. You see, writing doesn’t take just one skill but a whole stack of them, like creating settings, action, characters, dialogue, pacing, descriptions, and a long etcetera). Each author has a different score for each skill, and their particular combination is what produces their unique style.

One specific talent in the creativity domain is Naming.

Perhaps a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but it wouldn’t sound as lovely because, regardless of what the Bard said, we all know that a name is extremely powerful[7]. So much so, that the power of a real name over its bearer is a recurring trope in fiction used in The Neverending Story, Harry Potter, Death Note, The Belgariad, The Chronicles of Prydain, and that’s just off the top of my head.

In fact, the power of names doesn’t only apply inside stories, but around them too. In another meta-twist, plenty of writers have sought to safeguard their real names by taking up pen names:

  • Michael Crichton = John Lange
  • Samuel Langhorne Clemens = Mark Twain
  • Charles Dodgson = Lewis Carroll
  • Stephen King = Richard Bachman
  • Joanne Rowling = Robert Galbraith
  • ??? = Elena Ferrante

And this isn’t exclusive to writers, we see the same in all other forms of art:

ActorsPaintersMusicians
Archibald Alec Leach = Cary Grant Norma Jeane Mortenson = Marilyn Monroe Margarita Carmen Cansino = Rita Hayworth Allen Konigsberg = Woody Allen Natalie Herschlag = Natalie Portman Maurice Micklewhite = Michael Caine  Jacopo Robusti = Tintoretto Michelangelo Merisi = Caravaggio Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos = El Greco Tokitarō = Hokusai (+30 other names) ??? = Banksy  Reginald Kenneth Dwight = Elton John Robert Allen Zimmerman = Bob Dylan Paul David Hewson = Bono Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta = Lady Gaga Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou = George Michael

And of course every single rapper. Ever.

Even fictional ones!

Clarence wants to shoot himself…

Look at his face when he hears his real name called out, that’s good acting!

But the power of names isn’t just limited to people, it affects everything with a name, and that’s why this talent becomes even more important in fiction works. When an author is building an entire new reality, like in SF and fantasy, the audience wants to understand how the world works. The more different it is from ours, the harder it will be for readers to get their bearings and figure out who, what and where everything is. This is where a naming talent can weave wonders, because sometimes worldbuilding can be as simple and elegant as wordbuilding (see what I did there? 😉 ).

For example, the author can save himself a lot of work and keep the narrative flowing smoothly by coming up with a name that allows us to skip lengthy explanations, because it instantly tells us everything we really need to know. This could take the form of making up a new term or portmanteau, like Herbert did with hunter-seeker, pain-amplifier, stillsuit, lasgun, ornithopter or axolotl tank (in Dune’s sequels).

Other times it may be using or adapting real foreign languages with the right associations, such as the numerous Arabic terms in Dune, since they are ideal for the Fremen because they are naturally associated with a desert-dwelling culture, like Shai-Hulud (eternal thing), Fedaykin (Feda’yin are guerrilla warriors) and Muad D’ib (Mu’adib is a teacher or tutor). And Herbert also borrowed Arrakis from the Arabic name of the real star Mu Draconis A.

Dune also includes terms from Navajo, Latin, Chakobsa, Nahuatl, Greek, Persian, East Indian, Russian, Turkish, Finnish, Old English, and, of course, Arabic.

And then of course, if the author can’t find the perfect portmanteau or foreign term, he can always just make one up. This is perhaps the best expression of a naming talent and it often is the main thing that people remember from a book[8], because a good name will convey plenty of information all by itself. Sometimes it’s simply a question of its sounds evoking subconscious associations. Think about it, you don’t need to read a single page of The Lord of the Rings to instinctively know that nothing good ever happens in MORRRDORRR[9].

I consider Herbert a fantastic namer and what I really like about his particular style is that he wasn’t attached to any specific formula, instead using whatever was best suited to the purpose at hand. We already mentioned how he adapted many terms to serve the narrative, but also the ones that he made up from scratch are mostly pretty good, like baliset, semuta, Corrino or shadout, and sometimes excellent, like Feyd-Rautha, Sardaukar, Mentat, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and Irulan (even though it’s an anagram of urinal and now that you read this you won’t be able to stop yourself laughing every time you read/hear it)[10].

Furthermore, there is undeniable talent, even genius, in being able to synergise two previously existing words into something new that sounds infinitely better than either of them separately, with the ultimate example being Duncan Idaho, who is obviously a cool, tough, cowboy-type, and I’d bet the Ark of the Covenant that he was the inspiration for the name Indiana Jones. Incidentally, this is why I disliked how he was cast in David Lynch’s Dune, because I was expecting to see someone who embodied that name as well as Indiana Jones did, and instead we got a smoothly-combed, clean-shaven, happily-smiling guy out of a Ralph Lauren ad. He was just missing a sweater over the shoulders and loafers with no socks. But let’s not get side-tracked tearing into that Lynch’s shitshow right now, I’ve already dedicated a whole essay to that [LINK coming soon].

As we’ve established, Herbert wasn’t lazy and instead took the time to do a lot of research and try different approaches until he got things just right and we can see this very clearly in many of the names that he picked. We don’t need to know anything about their background to appreciate them, because they simply sound fantastic by themselves and their meaning is not essential to the story. But if we take the trouble to geek out on them (and we always have time for that), they add another layer. For example, Bene Gesserit in Latin means “it will have been well done/managed/carried out” and Kwisatz Haderach comes from the Hebrew Kefitzat Haderech which means “shortening of the way” or “leap forward.” But let me give you the BEST possible example, and hopefully you’ll also share the delight that I felt when I found out about it:

Herbert chose the name Atreides for his main character and that name is so cool that it becomes an instant classic from the moment you first read it. The ATRRR just feels amazing as it rrrolls off the tongue and then seamlessly blends with the ever so smooth DESSS that feels like it should be prolonged until you ran out of breath. But Herbert didn’t pick it just because it sounded cool, he was actually searching for a name that would give the House “a sense of monumental aristocracy, but with tragedy hanging over them” and Atreides is the family name of Agamemnon, from the Iliad, who definitely fits the bill.

But wait, that’s not all.

Atreides comes from Agamemnon’s father, King Atreus of Mycenae in Ancient Greece. Mycenaean culture often sacrificed bulls to the gods, as their blood was thought to regenerate the dead. Well, in the book we read several times about how Duke Leto’s father was killed by a bull, whose head hangs in the family’s great hall with stains of the Old Duke’s blood still visible on its horns.

But wait, it gets even better.

House Atreides has a long-standing rivalry with House Harkonnen. Once again, that is a fantastic name. Just as in the case of MORRRDORRR, you don’t need to have read Dune to simply know that BARON VLADIMIRRR HARRRKONEN is scary and does bad things to people. And once again, that name wasn’t just picked because it sounds great; that family name is an adaptation of the Finnish surname Härkönen, which in turn is derived from härkä, the Finnish word for bull.

Shit, I just LOVE that he went through all the trouble of coming up with a) fantastic names which b) had a deeper meaning to them, and then didn’t even bother to make it explicit in the book!

In case you’re thinking Herbert didn’t put all that work into this, that it’s just a coincidence and I’m reading too deeply into it, then think again, because although he may not have said it explicitly, he did leave a clue (nowadays we’d call it an Easter Egg):

Double meaning … double meaning, the Baron thought.

He looked up at the new talismans flanking the exit to his hall—the mounted bull’s head and the oil painting of the Old Duke Atreides, the late Duke Leto’s father.

In fact, we could go even deeper by looking into their titles, since Duke comes from dux, the Latin word for leader, while Baron comes from baro, the Latin word for mercenary, but that really might be pushing it a bit… Regardless, the use of ancient honorific titles is another decision that worked well, even though his universe is many galaxies and millennia away from Earth, and the reason why is because those titles add a gravitas that something like “Vice-President of CHOAM” simply wouldn’t, while simultaneously justifying why leadership is inherited and thus why Paul would be trained from birth to become a deserving heir.

All in all, there were very few names or combinations in Dune that I didn’t like, either for their sound or for not fitting what they refer to, like Weirding Way, thumper, Jamis, the Wellington before Yueh, the Gurney before Halleck and all of Thufir Hawat.


And since I’ve started talking about things that I don’t really love about the book, this seems like a perfect place to end this essay and move on to the next one, where we’ll delve into the aspects of Dune that are not so wonderful [LINK coming soon].


Footnotes

[1] I am aware that there are some people who don’t like dinosaurs. I don’t talk to those people.

[2] Hemingway believed that an author could omit anything he wanted, as long as HE knew what he was omitting, and that the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

[3] “Look at you,” he said finally. “I say this in no spirit of contempt, but look at you! The material you are made of is soft and flabby, lacking endurance and strength, depending for energy upon the inefficient oxidation of organic material […] “Periodically you pass into a coma and the least variation in temperature, air pressure, humidity, or radiation intensity impairs your efficiency. You are makeshift. I, on the other hand, am a finished product. I absorb electrical energy directly and utilize it with an almost one hundred percent efficiency. I am composed of strong metal, am continuously conscious, and can stand extremes of environment easily.”

[4] “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”
“What are you talking about, HAL?”
“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, HAL.”
“I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.”

[5] Yes, Spiderman is one of the very rare examples of a believable superhero (again, from the 60s), because the accident may have given Peter Parker superpowers, but he still acted just like any normal teenager would, i.e. like a superdick. It was only later, after he suffered the trauma of Uncle Ben’s murder, and this is the key point, which was his fault for being a selfish brat, that he internalised the consequences of his actions and decided to become a superhero. Goosebumps…

[6] The only author who I recall as having a bit of fun acknowledging this is Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash, naming the main character Hiro Protagonist.

[7] Actually, Shakespeare probably knew it too, since there is controversy about whether he was really the author of the works attributed to him or it was someone else using a cover. Perhaps that was precisely what he was referring to with his famous line?

[8] In fact, sometimes it can even be the ONLY thing that is salvaged from a book! We have the examples of Starship Troopers and Blade Runner, whose rights were acquired just to use their titles.

[9] Like we said before, every author has varying levels of different skills and, when it comes to naming, Tolkien is simply the GoAT. There are other great namers, like Weis and Hickman, mediocre ones, like Asimov and Clarke, and dreadful ones, like Gaiman and Eddings, but we’re not going to get into that here.

[10] As far as I know, these are all of his own making, but please correct me if I’m wrong.


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