If I Made the List – Book One: Dune (1965)

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books / if I made the list / resolution project detours

Video Accompaniment: 

So throughout my 1.5 years (and counting) adventure on The Resolution Project, I’ve encountered quite a few books that I thought were absolutely awful. Some of them, Blood Meridian being perhaps the best example, I was able to recognize the genius in, even though it may not have been something I particularly wanted to read in my off hours. Others, like An American Tragedy or The Man Who Loved Children, I didn’t really see why they deserved to be on this list; the social issues, stylistic choices and time periods they represent have been filled elsewhere, and in my mind to greater effect.

Dune cover

So, in an ongoing effort to encourage literacy among the peoples of the world, I give you a new segment, “If I Made the List”, which seeks to rectify what I feel is the Time 100 List’s lack of certain genres and writers, and what book I’d remove to give it a spot. If you’ve been following along with the site so far, you’ll most likely have a pretty good idea as to what sorts of books I’m going to recommend. So here’s Book One: Frank Herbert’s Dune.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

  • Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

The Elevator Pitch: This is always a tough book to try and summarize, but here goes. Paul Atreides is the scion of his noble family, one of many great houses which battle for position and pride in the far-flung future. Travel between worlds in the human imperium is controlled by a group called the Spacing Guild, whose Navigators ply the starways under the influence of the spice Melange, a substance which allows one’s consciousness to extend to such a point that  amazing distances can be understood and traversed.

In a bid to rid himself of the goody two-shoes Atreides clan, Emperor Shaddam IV bequeaths them control of the planet Dune, aka. Arrakis, home of spice production but also of the nomadic Fremen, a group that are engaged in guerrilla warfare against the planet’s current caretakers, the malevolent Harkonnens. Once the Emperor’s trap is set, and Paul’s father Leto is killed by base Harkonnen trickery, the young man must find his destiny on the deadly desert planet. He does this by riding on the back of Arrakis’ coolest native fauna, the sandworm, or “Shai’Hulud”.

Yes, it can be read as a penis substitute, get over it.

Thoughts: There are quite a few reasons why I think Dune is worthy of the List. For one, it’s commonly been referred to as the world’s best selling science fiction novel. While commercial success is not always a great indicator of literary strength, see 50 Shades, Twilight, etc., I feel as if the longevity that the book has possessed, in addition to the effects it has had on pop culture since its publication in 1965 mark it out as a true literary classic that just had the fortune to also be a best-seller. It’s definitely struck a chord among readers for the last 50 years or so.

Dune has an unorthodox literary structure from “typical” science fiction fare. While the events of the novel are relayed to us in real-time, the quotations that mark every chapter are from works that have been published long after the story’s end. The Princess Irulan, daughter of Emperor Shaddam, is usually the author of these passages, which are culled from such works as Manual of Muad’Dib and A Child’s History of Muad’Dib (Muad’Dib being the name that Paul Atreides takes upon becoming a member of the Fremen; it means “kangaroo mouse”, and is also associated with a constellation as viewed from Arrakis, as well as a shape seen upon its moon). This structure lends the tale the feeling of myth, of state propaganda, of secret history. While we know that Paul’s jihad against the corrupt imperium is to be a successful one, the human cost of the war and his subsequent deification is explored within the narrative.

Dune touches on a multitude of other issues as well: the divide between Islam and Christianity; ecological change; the decline of empire; cults of personality; the dangers of heroism, and I could go on. If none of these things feel important to you in this day and age, you must not watch a lot of news programs, or maybe just FOX/Sun News I guess. The book has become ever more relevant as time has passed, and that’s a rare achievement for any work of literature, especially that found in the “ghetto” of science fiction.

The approach that Dune takes to sci-fi’s biggest hobby horse, technology, is particularly fascinating to me. While things like spaceships, portable force fields and atomic weaponry are commonplace in this future, something called the Butlerian Jihad abolished the use of computers long before the start of the narrative. This is the reason that the Guild Navigators have a stranglehold on galactic trade, and why special people named “mentats” serve the role of advisor/knowledge base to large houses; the universe of Dune has already dealt with an idea that’s starting to take hold in our society, that of the Singularity, the point at which computers become smarter than people. Sometimes even now I feel as if computers and technology are becoming too prevalent in the modern day world (he said, while blogging). The Atlantic had a decent piece four years ago entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?, bemoaning the fact that people don’t feel the need to remember facts anymore as every bit of human knowledge thus accumulated is easily accessed with a touch of the finger to screen. Dune presents us with a deeply disturbing, yet entirely plausible way that this societal shift could end up playing out, with the destruction of “thinking” technology and the inauguration of human castes to fill this role.

Dune means a lot to people. Passages like the Bene Gesserit “Litany Against Fear” (as seen above) have entered into the popular culture due to the book’s popularity, as well as by means of David Lynch’s film adaptation and the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in the 2000s. I enjoyed both of these filmic versions of the book, but I’d recommend against watching the Lynch version until you’ve read it first. In researching for Metro Cinema’s presentation of Dune a few months ago, I learned just how important this adaptation was to modern Hollywood: long story short is that Alejandro Jorodowsky, auteur director of such films as El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre, was attached to direct the film in the ’70s. He assembled an all star cast which included Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Alain Delon, it was to have music by Pink Floyd, it was written by Dan O’Bannion and had designs from H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud.

Dune Poster metro

While this project fell through, those involved went on to create the Alien franchise, which has culminated in Prometheus, which we talked about on the Spoiler Show this week. Doing Dune was what allowed eventual director David Lynch to make Blue Velvet, which kickstarted his career as a beloved cultivator of the strange and wonderful. There’s a documentary coming out about Jorodowsky’s grand plans, I desperately want to see it. Here’s the trailer.

In closing, the effect that Dune and its associated projects has had on the world is pretty substantial, and by any definition of a list of 100 Greatest English Language Novels should take that into account. I realize that the amount of sci-fi we have on the list already is most likely due to the influence of Lev Grossman, but I feel as if there’s room for one more in the pantheon. As for who goes, I’d have to say An American Tragedy is the most likely one gone. It does not introduce us to its milieu to the same extent as Gatsby, or The Blind Assassin, or something like The Grapes of Wrath does. It does not delve into the psychology and horror of murder and death with the skill and refinement of Blood Meridian, The Confessions of Nat Turner or A Death in the Family. Its language is workmanlike at best, and does not come close to the poetry and beauty of Death Comes For the Archbishop, or Pale Fire. It is in short, not worthy in my opinion.

Long live the fighters, I say.

The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Late to the Party: Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks (1987) | this nerding life

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