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May 8, 2009

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Walk Without Rhythm

Every few years I re-read Frank Herbert's Dune. This month I started thinking about futurism and novels--how we frame events using fiction, like the crazy people "going Galt" based on Atlas Shrugged--and that reminded me that it had been a few years since I'd picked up Herbert's masterpiece. So I grabbed an old digital copy and burned through it once again.

It's hard to believe that Dune is more than forty years old. It won the Hugo in 1966, but it could have been written yesterday. Much of this is just luck: the setting manages to skirt the kinds of details that date sci-fi (computers with a massive 4K of memory, food pills, landline telephones). But mostly it's just that Dune is really weird--in fact, I always forget how strange it really is between readings. And for all its reputed influence, it still stands apart from the science fiction that followed.

There are certainly parts of the novel that have not aged well. The Baron Harkonnen, as the book's only gay character, is a sinister and possibly-pedophilic rapist. The mysticism comes across as hokey, particularly its strange gender stereotypes. Women are both well-drawn--Jessica is a fascinating protagonist that anticipates Sarah Connor--and yet also trapped in a pseudo-medieval society that makes them either bargaining chips or machiavellian manipulators. And sometimes the writing crosses over from gothic into pulp: must all the villains be physically repulsive?

That said, the rest of the book retains its power to predict and surprise. In today's light, of course, it's a little disturbing: essentially, Dune tells the story of a charismatic leader who, after consuming a large amount of psychotropic drugs, launches a fanatical religious purge across a declining empire, based on his control of scarce natural resources. And he's the hero! Indeed, Herbert himself seemed deeply ambivalent about whether Paul Maud'Dib should be considered admirable, or even sane. Originally conceived during a time when OPEC was first entering the scene and the environmentalist movement was gaining momentum, Dune's become relevant again.

Which is why I thought of it in the first place: while people keep mentioning Rand or Vinge when daydreaming about the future, I tend to think more about Dune. That's not to say that I think we should be modeling policy on it, any more than we should be encouraging rich geniuses to withdraw from society or hoping that the robots will save us all. But as a kind of fable, the themes of Arrakis--corruption, terrorism, geoforming, preoccupation with peak resources--are probably a better framework for considering problems in the real world. Still not a very good framework, I'd say. But better.

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