I have been re-reading Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune in the past month. And while the books hold up quite well, more than 50 years after publication, I think Herbert kind of failed in achieving what he had in mind with this series.
Brian Herbert (from the foreword of “Dune Messiah”):
“[Frank Herbert] felt that heroic leaders often made mistakes . . . mistakes that were amplified by the number of followers who were held in thrall by charisma. […] Dad had worked in Washington, D.C., and had seen the megalomania of leadership and the pitfalls of following magnetic, charming politicians. […] There was yet another layer, even larger, in which Frank Herbert was warning that entire societies could be led to ruination by heroes. In Dune and Dune Messiah, he was cautioning against pride and overconfidence, that form of narcissism described in Greek tragedies that invariably led to the great fall.”
Frank Herbert deliberately turns the concept of the (benevolent) Hero-Savior inside out by the focus on the destruction created by a blind belief in godlike, absolute heroes (Paul Artreidis, and after him Leto II). In a way, it can be considered a satire of sorts on the kind of stories John W. Campbell requested, and an exposure of the fascist undertones underneath Cambells request for these type of stories.
Dune offers many things. Among one: a reflection of ideas posed by Anton Korzybsky in the mid 1930’s in “Science and Sanity”, which also inspired “Null-A” by Alfred A van Vogt. In a way, Herberts Bene Gesserit are analog to the Null-A practicioners in Null-A. As in Null-A, the goal of the Bene Gesserit training is to master ones own mind and body to reach a higher level of human awareness; to master ones own fears and impulses; to get rid of preconceptions and to examine and percieve the world and the universe as truthfully as possible. Among another thing: “Dune” is a SF-retelling of “Lawrence of Arabia” in similar fashion as “The stars my destination” by Alfred Bester is a retelling of “The Count of Monte Christo”.
Sexism is there. In the end, none of the female heroes play more than a secondary role in the first three books that I re-read. While their roles can be considered “progressive”, men win and dominate. The tope of homosexuality, linked to perversion and the role of the villain (Vladimir Harkonnen) is there in the first book. Exceptionalism of the elite is reflected in the breeding program of the Bene Gesserit. While there are billions of people over thousands of worlds, only a select group of people are deemed interesting enough for the ultimate program. And all males in this selected group are kings, dukes and semi-royalty in roles of power. This exeptionalism of the elite is never challenged in the first three books and goes so far that incest and inbreeding within this elite is a viable option to get better results. Which is complete bullshit from an objective position. Even in 1965.
Contemplating on that last aspect, and after reading “Why it is important to consider whether Dune is a white savior narrative” I realized something several other things. First: the visible part of the Bene Gesserit breeding program does not involve people from Asian or African descent. Second: the entire narrative of
Dune 1 to 4 (at least) is a series revolving around absolute reign. That of Paul, that of Leto II. And this is one of the points where Herbert — in my personal reading of the series — fails to deliver most. But more on that later.
As you read the first book in the series (“Dune”), you learn about young Paul Artreidis, and his ascension to leadership: overthrowing the emperor of his time in absolute victory. You learn about his visions of the Jihad, the “inevitable” bloody war, that will flood over the human universe once Paul is in power.
In “Dune Messiah”, the second in the series, Paul Artreidis, now emperor of the known universe, reflects on himself in the following way, using Adilf Hitler and Ghengis Khan as example:
“There’s another emperor I want you to note in passing—a Hitler. He killed more than six million. Pretty good for those days.”
“Not very impressive statistics, m’Lord.”
“At a conservative estimate, I’ve killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others. I’ve wiped out the followers of forty religions which had existed since—”
“No,” Paul said. “Believers.”
Remember Vladimir Harkonnon? The evil guy in “Dune”? Compared to Paul Artreidis, Harkonnon is a mere fly: nothing and nobody in levels of cruelty, monstrosity or deathcount.
And Herbert is clear about this. The quote above is not shrouded in vagueties. “Pretty good” and “Not very impressive” are used deliberately in relationship to the mass-murders his armies committed in Pauls name and in the name of the Jihad in his name. The lure, painting Paul Artreidis as the good guy, is deliberate. It is not because Frank Herbert thinks Paul is a or the good guy (he gives several indications he thinks not) but because Herbert intends to hold up a mirror to the reader: “if you beleive the main characters in ‘Dune’ are the good guys, you are part of the reason why people like Hitler can rise to power”.
Tim O’Reilly, in “Frank Herbert, a biography” quotes Herbert:
It began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies. I had this idea that superheros were disastrous for humans.
So where does Herbert sadly fail?
Mainly: a lack of reflection and deeper exploration of the different sides of this concept.
It starts with the absoluteness of Pauls way. There is no other option offered by Herbert in the first three books of his series I re-read. “Either this, or there extermination of humanity.” We never learn why. In the narrative no alternative options are discussed or considered, as a possible way out. Not by Paul, nor by his son Leto II, not via commentaries by other characgters. And this is not because there are not other options. This is because Frank Herbert chooses not to explore those options, as the writer of this series.
And without those considerations, Herbert offers no specific commentary or sidenotes on fascism or absolute rulers or hero worship, or the fallacy of submission to delusional people who place themselves above others. (You — as the reader, might even consider Paul Artreides to be “the good guy”, “doing what is neccesary”, instead of the self-serving, fictional mass murdering fascist that he is and was. Feeling sad over his tragic lot and feeling sad over his death, once he really choses to die.)
Take the following in consideration:
To wage war, is costly and consuming. You need to invest in the machinery. You need to activily create, condition, train, feed and maintain your army. As Paul is absolute ruler, able to see both future and past, able to be on many places, it is his decistion to do so and his deliberate decision to wage a (religious) war on people who never did him any harm. It is his government and his religious leaders amplifying those ideas, abusing the fremen for their ferocity as warriors. It is his wealth to be invested.
In this, Paul is not the victim, but the one making these decisions.
To change the future of impending doom, one of his options is to introduce the Non-Aristotelian / Bene Gesserit training to all worlds, as a mandatory training. So that the billions of people living on thousands of worlds will be able to lift themselves on a higher level of perception. Becoming “human” (in the line of the Bene Gesserit) and (in the line of Korzybsky) “sane”.
On this option and this way out of monstrosity, to show another way and to show the fallacy of the path Paul choses, Herbert exposes exactly zero words. Nothing in this line is mentioned in the story line of “Dune”. Nothing in this line is mentioned in the story line of “Dune Messiah”. Nothing is mentioned in the story line of “Children of Dune”. Paul, human computer, incredibly perceptive and highly intelligent; trained by Bene Gesserit; all seeing and close to all-knowing; the ultimate result of human breeding by the Bene Gesserit, simply decides to become a “victim” as “that is the only way”.
If you fell for Herberts lure that “Paul and Leto II are the good guys” and “their actions are justified”, no worries. It’s part of the joke. What Herbert forgot is the punchline, the twist at the end, where all your own bullshit hero-worhipping is thrown right in your face. Because in the end, you sympathised for disgusting people much, much worse than all the mass-murderers of recent history. Simply because the narrative was such that you were willing to overlook the real nature of the “hero”.
In a Facebook-thread this week, I made a remark on the similarities in the patterns of the dark and narrow narrative in the Dune series, “High-Rise” (J.G. Ballard) and “Lord of the Flies” (William Golding).
This is how:
In the Dune-series, as in “High-Rise” and “Lord of the Flies”, the writer only offers one visible path, without any escape: “all roads will end in perversion, murder and violence”. Where “High-Rise” and “Lord of the Flies” are explicit in this depressing world-view, the “Dune” series is more subtle. But it still echoes that same kind of absolute and narrow Hobbesian concept of “the human condition”. In my words: “Any society will inevitably regress to violence of man against man, unless ruled by a higher master” (more on that later).
And with this in mind, I posted in that same Facebook-thread: “What if Philip Dick would have been the author of ‘Dune’?”
Just consider that for a moment. Follwing the same plotlines, with all the same elements, but from a different point of view.
While all of Dicks books play in rotting, depressing worlds, suffering under oppressive forces; consistantly exploring similar themes (totalitarian states, religion, drugs, expanded awareness of reality, the questionability of ‘saviors’ and godlike humans), Dick’s worldview is much, much more humane. The oppression itself is not posed as a force of nature, but due to the work of humans. It is challenged, ridiculed, explored, dissected. Those humans are flawed. And those human flaws create the suffering. Not some baked-in force of evil.
Additional to that, Philip Dick recognizes- and focuses on the caring part of human nature as “another force of nature”. The evil that is presented in his work, is something that invades, part of a process of decay. That invesion is in most cases both someting from inside (in the shape of delusions that warp the perception of reality), and outside (in the shape of delusions of a universe in decay).
Regardless how broken and shit his worlds and his people are, the people in those stories are still willing to do good, willing to accept their own imperfections and willing to acknowledge, dissect, challenge, recognize and accept the shittyness of the imperfect solutions that rise from their own actions and (limited) agency.
Instead of challenging the absolute rulership of both Paul and Leto II, by examening several alternatives as Philip Dick does, Herbert offers nothing. And by offering nothing, Dune becomes a series of books where no other option is offered to the reader but the “inescapability” of one specific path and the “neccessity” for total donimination and mass murder “to bring peace” and “to allow humankind to survive”.
This is the same narrative despots have used over time to justify the abuse of millions, to justify mass murder, to justify racism, to justify slavery, to justify oppression under countless religions, and to justify their own active role in all of that. Without much further reflection than self justification, Paul and Leto repeat the same message “benevolent” sociopaths and narcissists use while oppressing, condemning and murdering others: “you need me. You need my leadership. You need someone else to tell you how to think. You are not capable of chosing your own path properly. You need me to do so. I am superior. I am superior to you. I am smarter than you. I see things you are not aware of. I am better educated than you. Without me you will fail. Without me, you will suffer more. And while I am aware that I cause you pain I need you to understand that all my wrongdoings are for your own good. In the end, my cruelty is love.”
I do beleive that Herbert genuinely wanted to deconstruct the dangers of blindly following a messianic despot, presented as a hero, and that he wanted to deconstruct the very concept of “why we continue to fall in the same trap of this same bullshit, over and over again”. I also have the feeling that he was not able to crack the code. Not in Dune and not in the later “The Jesus incident”.
Getting back on the Hobbesian concept of “human condition”: “if and when people are left to their own will, without any governing force(s) above them, they will fall back to violence” (my words). “Proof” of that was delivered to Hobbes in the Spanish war, where human atrocities shocked him to the deepest of his soul. “Proof” of this same principle was probably delivered to J.G. Ballard while growing up in Japanese camps. And reflections of that specific view on human nature are given in both “High-Rise” (Ballard) and “Lord of the Flies” (Golding) where — as said before — the disappearence of a higher force leads to a collective spiral down into tribalism, murder and depravity. (In both cases, the story might reflect cultural supremicist views on more ‘primitive’ cultures, using warped images on African tribes as a reflection of different stages along a pathway of cultural and moral downfall.)
This governing, higher force can be (the fear of) “God”. It can be (the fear of) a central government. It can be (the fear of) local police.
The problem with this world view is twofold:
1: The proposition and promotion of the idea that human kindness, and the impuls to care for others are noting more than a thin layer of veneer. “Because underneath we are all savages and sociopaths”: selfish and willing to murder and ready to rape and steal and maim once this outside, controlling force is no longer there.
2: The idea that without one or more forces of oppression, people will not be civilized.
A note: once you break through the bullshit, the “logic” behind this worldview starts to crumble, Yes: violence is part of human nature. But in general, it takes a thourough conditioning for a vast majority of people to become anti-social to the point Ballard and Golding describe. While your beliefs might tell you otherwise, reality is quite simple in this. If we would all be self centric, sociopat savages underneath a thin layer of (fake) civility, this world would already be the total and dark shithole depicted by writers as Ballard and Golding. Because that “savior” (in the shape of a benevolent leader and an benevolent government) will be just as abusive as the people they govern, if not more due to that unlimited power. (And I do believe Herbert addresses this point explicitly. Paul Artreides, like Leto II is exactly that: abusive “savior”, using all that he has to rise to immense power.)
While the universe of Dune offers many options to break and challenge this specific, narrow, dark world, where everything revolves around “saviors”, Frank Herbert does not even touch them. Instead he simply repeats the tropes with a slight little twist and a massive mindfuck.
I stopped reading Frank Herbert with “The Jesus Incident” for the same reason I find Ballard and Golding (and any other writer getting stuck on this limited view on humanity) unbearable. Whether this is what Herbert eventually got stuck on, and if there is a reason why he could not reach further than that in the books I read, I don’t know.
Whatever it is, I think it is the point where Frank Herbert stopped to dig deeper, where he stopped to search for more (and more interesting) viewpoints to expand and enrich his own criticism on corruption brought by absolute power. While exploring a part of the mental prison we might all be living, Herbert (like Ballard and Golding) is not willing or able to think of a possible way out.
Is “Dune” worth (re)reading?
I think so. Especially with the idea in mind that his series are a mindfuck, related to hero-worshipping.
Is it a masterpiece?
In some ways: yes. But not on the aspects I addressed.