Bags of Bran


Dune: a dismal place teeming with weirdos
July 21, 2014, 10:37 pm
Filed under: Bibliophilia, Biography

I read Frank Herbert’s Dune because I heard that it was full of Biblical allusions, and therefore shared some of the intellectual architecture of the West. Well, sort of. Herbert seems to have borrowed some phrases here and there, and some ideas here and there, whether from the Old Testament or from the Koran. After all, much of the book is about a nomadic desert tribe, and both Judaism and Islam went through formative stages in the wilderness. But that bit of borrowing aside, I found little by way of reason to recommend it to the people I love. There is more of Islam in this book probably than I was able to discern. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a well-conceived and well-written book, but it’s really a work of the idyllic imagination more than something that challenges you in this life. It is more or less escapist, not that that is all bad. I’m glad I finally read it for all that.

Herbert writes in an immersive manner, making Arrakis into a real place with real tensions. He delves minutely into the ecology of his world, and has thought well on how that ecology would affect people living in that world–if one assumes naturalism. Since I don’t assume naturalism, I naturally was less interested in this aspect of the book and more interested in the protagonist’s ambitions to be a messiah. This is where the book gets weird: Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib/Usul never really came across as human to me. Few of the characters came across as human to me: this perhaps is because their own conversations would have been weird to us, they being infused with the Spice, which gives them heightened insight into people’s motives and what not. I only wish that the richness of their insights would have led to clarity of dialogue, and in this, I was somewhat disappointed.

But back to the whole messiah thing for a moment. This aspect of the book was uncomfortable to me for the obvious reason that I am rather familiar with the archetype of all literary messiahs, and the one to whom I refer happens to be real. But Muad’Dib is a messiah of human machinations: prophecies devised to play upon the superstitions of superstitious people all of the sudden came true, by means of….fate? more human machinations? I’m not sure. But it is strange to see prophecies being fulfilled that were, in this story, cooked up by superiors to keep inferiors in a manageable complacency.

I have to admit that I would have liked to have explored Arrakis more than the story allowed. Though it was a page-turning story with real drama, and its foreignness was even a welcome respite in my literary diet, the story itself was rather far-fetched. I can see why it is popular among literate folks, as well as why it did not become the franchise that Star Wars and Star Trek became. It is much grayer than either of those: more layered and atmospheric, but with characters who seemed to be often at a loss to express themselves effectively. In a world this complex, simple resolutions are simply too much to ask, and this is, in a way, a credit to Herbert’s writing.  If only Paul had been a more compelling and believable character, I could perhaps motivate myself to nose into the five (!) sequels that Herbert wrote, not to mention the several that his son Brian wrote.

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