Genre straddling

The model for Dune? The Red Planet: Mars image from NASA

Frank Herbert Dune
Gollancz 2001 (1965)

Foretold one gets dumped
in desert, then goes native.
Returns, beats baddies!

Dune is one of those thoughtful novels that successfully straddles the genres of fantasy and speculative fiction. SF often deals with philosophical ideas and scientific concepts in a fictional setting where exploration of the conundrum frequently takes precedence over the plot. Fantasy, on the other hand, often shows less interest in mechanisms and tends to go for a variation on a familiar narrative.

Dune presents itself as a fantasy (Chosen One has to restore or improve on the previously obtaining status quo using quasi-magical means) with a large dollop of scientific speculation (planetary ecology, resource exploitation, human behaviour and ethics). A cursory reading will pick up on the essential Good versus Evil theme, while a closer reading will consider the dilemmas that the main characters have to confront within the harsh environment they find themselves in. Paul Atreides, the central figure in the story, has to come to terms with his own growing psychic abilities, with political intrigue, assassination plots, treachery and the demands of the arid planet of Arrakis; the fantasy aspect centres on what happens to him and the SF aspect on how it happens.

Does it work? I think it largely does, and the fact that Dune has been chosen as one of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series is an indication that this is certainly not an idiosyncratic judgement. A crucial part of the plot machinery is the use of Fate or Destiny, a characteristic Fantasy trope but, I think, rarer in SF: past generations have seeded the idea of a Chosen One on the planet Dune, founded on selective genetic manipulations made by a secretive cabal, but all doesn’t go entirely to plan when a male, not a female, and from the wrong generation, gets recognised on Dune as the person who was prophesied and proceeds to act accordingly. This idea of Fate subverted is reinforced by the family name Atreides (which harks back to legendary Greece and their belief in gods ruling human destiny) but is also further developed by linking up with scientific speculation, current in the 60s, on the possible existence of parallel futures based on whether different choices are made or different accidents come about. I think many rationalists would fight shy of predestination, but Herbert makes an interesting attempt to consider how self-fulfilling prophecies can come about but doesn’t go as far as Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation stories in suggesting that the future can be fairly accurately predicted.

Another way of thinking that emerged in the 60s was concerned with holism linked with the idea of self-sustaining planetary ecosystems. While current scientific thinking disputes whether this theory of ecosystems was not largely down to wishful thinking, holistic concepts still remain very powerful and influential in many individuals’ beliefs. Dune‘s terraforming ideas were a reflection of the zeitgeist of that post-war period, an era of optimism for change for the better.

Ultimately, however, Dune is a fantasy, tapping into our needs for good storytelling, strong characters (many of whom are shown to have familial relationships) and unexpected cliffhangers. I’m not sure that Arthur C Clarke’s assessment of the novel as comparable with Tolkien stands up to scrutiny, but in terms of worldbuilding Herbert comes close. Certainly there is a similar apparatus of appendices, map and glossaries; use the glossary as you read the novel, by all means, and try to relate the action to the map, but leave the appendices to after a first reading.

And if you enjoyed Dune there are several prequels and sequels, not all authored or co-authored by Frank Herbert. The first sequel was 1969’s Dune Messiah with Children of Dune following in 1976.

Reviewed May 2012, revised June 2014

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4 thoughts on “Genre straddling

  1. I’ve always loved Dune. It is one of the best examples of from the ground up world building in speculative fiction, and was way ahead of its years in introducing factional politicking of the type now so popular with the fans of Game of Thrones. I wasn’t such a fan of the sequels but there is no doubting Herbert’s impact on speculative fiction of today. Great review.

    1. Thanks, Dylan. I perhaps should have brought out its groundbreaking worldbuilding (a bit contradictory, that!) more than I did, as well as its historical context, but your perspicacious comments have certainly redressed the balance!

      I’ve got Children of Dune still to read, but my assessment of Dune Messiah certainly tallies with yours.

  2. Interesting to revisit it through this review. When I read it originally I was not that impressed with it, and grew even less so with the next ones in the series. I wonder if I would look at them in a fresh light now?

    1. Funny how some novels rise while others fall in our estimation when reread many years later. Not only is the past ‘a different country’ but we are now intellectually and culturally in a different place compared to our younger selves. (Certainly, speaking personally, more likely to pontificate about it…)

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