Of Worms and Messiahs: Reading the Dune Saga

Ugh, Dune.

This is my default response whenever I hear anyone mention the Dune books or Dune Saga as it’s known by science fiction aficionados on Tumblr. As previously discussed, the Dune Saga by Frank Herbert is a sci-fi series set in the distant future that broadly follows the Kwisatz Haderach (think Space Messiah) Paul Atreides save the galaxy. The series, or at least the first three books, are largely considered to have the same influence The Lord of the Rings had on fantasy but for the sci-fi genre. Elements of the series can be traced to Star Wars, The Matrix, and pretty much every popular sci-fi franchise of the last 50 years.

Many sci-fi fans, casual and hardcore, are mostly familiar with first book, simply titled Dune. Those fans that go on to say they’ve read Dune, mean they’ve read the first book. But the series goes on. And on and on and on.

Having enjoyed the dated but brilliant series opener, I endeavored to continue to the other books and summarily purchased each subsequent book written by Herbert along with one or two written by his son and colleague, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. (Herbert died before he could finish the series, but more on that later.) Of the Harry Potter what-do-you-mean-you-did-not-read-every-book-in-the-series-are-you-crazy generation, it seemed obvious that I should read all the canonical Dune offerings that are available. I now understand why people stop at the first book. Mild Dune Saga spoilers ahead!

After acclimating to the worlds, politics, and cultures of Dune (my edition has a handy dictionary in the back pages), I embraced this vision of Middle Eastern and Islamic-tinged science fiction. Despite its initial publication in the 1960s, Dune still feels fresh and current. It presents the universe as strange but familiar with a multitude of social orders, plenty of political intrigue, and, most importantly for me, a plethora of diverse faces.

Paul and his family are decidedly white but with a distinctly Spanish/Greek-inspired look and feel. They are the bull-fighting House Atreides, after all. The Fremen, however, Paul’s adopted family and clan are Middle Eastern-esque nomads. Imagine! People of color in sci-fi! For that alone, I love the Dune saga.

Side Note: In a similar vein, here’s Edward James Olmos speaking on the subject of representation in a more eloquent way than I can without degenerating into a series of exclamation points:

Despite the great colorful characterization and epic world-building, the Dune saga has a big thematic problem. Troubling homophobia and misogyny run rampant throughout the saga despite vivid and wonderful female characters and subtle but still evident portrayals of poignant same sex relationships. Who does that?!

Frank Herbert does. Living under the false assumption that all (or at least 99.9%) of creative types are invariably liberal in their socio-poltical views, Frank Herbert is among those who are decidedly not. Hi, HP Lovecraft and Orson Scott Card!

In terms of plot, the first three books work together as an uneasy trilogy; however, all bets are off after these three. The God Emperor of Dune jumps 3,500 years into the future. 3,500 years! It’s hard to empathize not just with a millennia-years old worm/human hybrid but also one who has manipulated all of humanity into an intense (and inherently homophobic) eugenics program.

Heretics of Dune re-introduces compelling characters yet it takes place another 1,500 years from the events of the fourth book. That means the first Dune novel takes place over 5,000 years before the last two Herbert-written novels. That’s as long as human recorded history!

The fifth novel builds to a stunning climax, in which all of the players scheming throughout the book finally converge into an epic desert planet battle. Too bad we don’t actually “see” the battle but merely here about it during post-battle events. Who does that?!

Frank Herbert does.

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have endeavored to continue the elder Herbert’s frustrating legacy armed with his notes, finishing the original series in Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. That doesn’t include the 10+ other novels they’ve written within the Dune universe. Just thinking about those tomes and their inevitable continuity errors and stylistic differences gives me anxiety.

For now, I’ve taken an extended breather from the Dune Saga. The last officially canon book awaits my attention. Whether or not I read the semi-canon books will depend on my experience with Chapterhouse: Dune. I may be avoiding it now, but soon the swan song of the thumper will be too enticing for me to ignore. Like a worm drawn to a Fremen ambush, I’ll be taken for a ride once more into the depths of Dune. Er, Arrakis. No, Rakis. Ugh, whatever.

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