“The convoluted wording of legalisms grew up around the necessity to hide from ourselves the violence we intend toward each other. Between depriving a man of one hour from his life and depriving him of his life there exists only a difference of degree. You have done violence to him, consumed his energy. Elaborate euphemisms may conceal your intent to kill, but behind any use of power over another the ultimate assumption remains: ‘I feed on your energy.'”
-Addenda to Orders in Council. The Emperor Paul Muad’dib. Dune Messiah
Dune and Dune Messiah were lent to me by a friend recently, and as I turned the pages of Dune, I was increasingly aware of a feeling of familiarity. I did not feel like I had read it before as much as I felt like I should have read it before, although I have never read much science fiction. But this story, like its offspring Star Wars, is only barely science fiction. The differences between science fiction and fantasy are controversial, but my own personal delineator is in subject matter. Fantasy deals with the exploration of an author-created world via a central good/evil conflict, while science fiction concerns the relationship of humans with technology, and/or provides social commentary on political and economic systems. One reason I’ve always shied away from sci-fi is its tendency to get preachy with regard to extremist versions of present-day habits and ideas. By this definition, Star Wars is firmly in the fantasy camp. Dune straddles the line, featuring classical markings of fantasy epics like a messiah figure, a mystic cult, a sword-fighting hero, and questions about the meaning of fate that are reminiscent of classical myth or Arthurian romance. On the other hand, there is a strong sub-theme that examines our relationship with our ecological surroundings and explores why we need leaders and what kind of leaders they should be. Paul, the lead character, is a philosopher as much as he is a man of action, and his constant internal assessment of events alternately strengthens him and cripples him. That internal assessment, on the part of Paul and his mother Jessica in particular, is one of the most remarkable traits of these books. Mental processes are slowed down to minutiae, and nonverbal communication (a structural weak point of verbal narrative) is given intense attention. Sometimes an entire paragraph is devoted to speculation about the meaning of a character’s posture, and pages list the possible motivations behind one brief action. And yet the book is not without action. Like Ender’s Game, Dune features a boy genius who is forced to apply his gift for logic to the unpredictable alliances and hierarchies of humans, and he struggles with morality on a higher level because of his insight and power. And like Ender’s Game, Dune is nevertheless a page-turner.
I read Dune Messiah in one sitting and Dune in two. The desert world of Dune is fascinating, and the characters are strong and interesting–even the women, though the societies of Dune are heavily patriarchal. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel where a young man and his mother are the two main characters. Although I recognize that incorporating pseudo-religion and pseudo-philosophy are a tactic to make genre fiction feel more intellectual (a la Da Vinci Code), I am still a sucker for mysterious orders and Zen mantras, and I very much enjoyed these two books. I plan to look for copies next time I’m at the used bookstore. I’ve heard the rest of the series get worse and worse, and I definitely want to avoid another situation like the one where I read all of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books and regretted it (there is one good book in there if you combined all 4,250 pages of all eight novels in the series. Goodbye, 24th year of my life). So I won’t be reading any more unless someone talks me into it. If you want to just read the first two as well, I will tell you that I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to stop, but I had pretty good closure at the end of Messiah.