Posts From Overshare Planet: Dune by Frank Herbert

When my grandfather died, he had a paperback of Dune sitting on his bedside table. Finding it there was like a revelation to me, like the sort of experience only Taoists and Catholic philosophers have a name. He was nearly 70 years older than me, a teetotaler, a hymn singer and dramatist in the Celtic vein, a schoolteacher, a ham. We didn’t have a lot in common, as you may might imagine, two generations removed and a gender divided. But I loved him, and he was gone, and here was this book that was intimate to my adolescence, a shared experience revealed. Ah. Damn.

I sat on the edge of his bed and paged through the book. On the front page, in his spidery hand, he wrote page numbers with notes. I checked the page numbers and correlated passages, and found that many of the sections he marked dealt with fathers and sons: Mu’ad Dib and the Letos, the Old Duke. This shook me, shakes me still. A man, a man in his nineties, on the edge of his own death, whose father is long, long dead, noting the expectation, education, and disappointment that characterizes the relationship between father and son. Ah, and damn, again.

My relationship with Dune began with the Lynch film. As a young teenager, I watched it many times at slumber parties and the like. (I can be forgiven; I was young, and who didn’t want to see Sting in rubber underpants in the late 80s? This is before he became embarrassing, smooth jazz Sting.) The movie was trippy and cool, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense, and eventually lead to me reading the book. I wolfed Dunedown, several times, and the following books.

Most science fiction occurs 10 years in the future, 25, 100. This all happens 10,000 years from now, in a future constrained by a past that is fully realized. At some point humanity develops AI. It goes badly, cylon-style. There is an event, a war called the Butlerian Jihad, that renders computers taboo. People are trained to become computers: the Mentats. Women start their own secret political guild, complete with a breeding program, much like you’ve always suspected they have: the Bene Gesserit. There is a drug/resource that makes instantaneous interstellar travel possible: the spice melange. Without the spice, travel between worlds becomes impossible, and commerce, communication, and the Empire end. The spice has mind-changing, anti-aging qualities, but like any drug is still addictive. The spice comes from one place, and one place only: Arrakis. Into this milieu, add a messianic figure: Paul Mu’ad Dib. He galvanizes a native, marginalized culture to reorder society, government and the environment through the control of a finite, indispensable resource.

Reading this time, again, using my grandfather’s paperback, I noticed different things. I’ve been hanging out in Herbert’s universe for so long that I forget that it doesn’t, you know, exist as a kind of history that he just channeled into novels. It had to start somewhere, and that somewhere is here. Stray thoughts: There’s a lot of world building to do, and while Herbert refrains from the most blatant info-dumps, the beginning is slow. Duncan Idaho, despite his almost constant presence in the later books, is almost a cameo role. Herbert has a tin ear for dialogue, sometimes. I’d forgotten/misplaced all the bull-fighting and its attendant metaphors. Grandpa may have noted the relationship between fathers and sons, but there’s a lot about mothers and sons that he didn’t note. Okay, that’s enough of that.

I’d always taken home the society-is-shaped-by-ecology message in Dune. It’s a good one, and one SFF writers would do well to remember more often. Herbert more or less proposes that harsh environments create cultures comprised entirely of bad motherfuckers. As an inevitable consequence of environmental constraint, a culture will develop the following attributes: ritualized violence without guilt, honor-bound individualism that translates to rigid adherence to a local clan-like leader and individual responsibility for collective failure. I personally think this theory may be bullshit, but it makes for a ripping story. (Go read Manny’s review about having the revelation, as an adult reader, that Herbert is using Arabic words, for crying out loud, and that he’s talking about the Middle East and nomadic, desert cultures. Fremen = Arabs, spice = oil, House Corrino = decadent West. Seriously, go read it.)

This is not the message Grandpa was taking home, insofar as I can divine his mind from a collection of page numbers and almost illegible notes. (I can barely read them now, and it makes me sad. There are many things you lose with the passage of time: the sharpness of grief, the presence of absence. You also lose the sense of an antique hand, I’ve found.) Each section of Dune starts with a quote from a mysterious source in a sort of long-form aphorism style: this is the future of the tale imposed on the events occurring in the “now” of the story. In later books, this gets painfully lame, but I think here it’s done pretty well. Here’s a few Grandpa noted:

p 41? “How do we approach the study of Mu’ad Dib’s father? …Still, one must ask, what is the son but an extension of the father?” (Why did he put a question mark on the page number? Damn again.)

p 102 “There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man – with human flesh.” Grandpa was raised in a steel town by a father who was a steelworker, and worked in the mills to get his education and get the fuck out out of the mills. Grandpa had no sons; this quote can only be about his own father.

p 172 “Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying, ‘Now, it’s complete because it’s ended here.’” Judging by the notes, Grandpa never finished reading this book. This is the last one. The thing that blows my fucking mind is that this is the last thing he noted, before his life was chopped off and completed. (I have a tendency to drop f-bombs when I’m upset, and I’m sorry, gentle reader, just to pay homage to my Midwestern need to apologize for everything.) This was the end, or one of the ends, for him. Damn. Fuck.

This is where that difficult to describe emotion comes in. It kills me that he didn’t finish it, that we didn’t get a chance to talk about a book that has been near and dear to me for forever. I can see from the notes he took that he was reading an entirely different story, taking home an entirely different message. We were divided in life by age and gender, personality and distance. We were united by some things too: a tendency toward the maudlin, a love of Dylan Thomas and associated Welshiness, a chin. We read the same book. But, just because we both read the same book, doesn’t mean we read the same book. Reading Dune again, with his notes, is like reading his diary, conjuring his mind. A novel written by another man, with a collection of notes in the margins, gives me a strangely intimate picture of my Grandpa, even if it’s shimmery and insubstantial.

This is profoundly strange. Reading is profoundly strange. We sit, quiet and alone, and hear the words of other people in no ear, in the voice of the mind. Some books are comforting, something we return to again and again. I’ve read Dune a hundred times. A couple times, my husband and I have plowed through the series in tandem, making conversation out of the personal experience of reading. Each reading is a layer of experience, each experience of reading another layer. I love this book. It’s bound up in my life, and each reading causes me to remember the bonds that readers share with other readers, not the least of whom is my grandfather, in the last days of his life. I miss him. The book brings him back.

5 thoughts on “Posts From Overshare Planet: Dune by Frank Herbert

  1. I read your first 4 paragraphs and then stopped to guard against spoilers. I have had Dune on my to-read shelf for far too long; I think because I know that it will be an experience. Your post, at least the beginning, is another reason to move it to the top of the pile.

    1. It’s a pretty great book, even with all my emotional stuff stripped out. I don’t think there are any spoilers in the review – I barely talk about the plot – but I know sensitivities run different on that subject.

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