By Frank Herbert.
I recently read Dune by Frank Herbert. Dune is a classic science fiction novel that builds a highly intricate world, filled with history and politics and religion, as well as having a story about specific people in a particular place. It’s set on the desert planet Dune where they make spice, an expensive drug sought after by everyone in the universe.
It fascinated me.
I am not into science fiction or fantasy. I’ve read some here and there and enjoyed it, but for fiction I tend to stick to that section called literary, or the part of the bookstore that doesn’t give any extra adjectives to the novel genre. These stories are about people, not me yet I can see a ‘me’ in them, not in my world yet in a world I could theoretically know. I have read fiction with intricate plots set in places I do not know; by the nature of being real places they have a complex history and set of politics and religion and this can even play into the characters and plot. But they are not the same. Dune strikes me as fundamentally different that these other stories. I’m not sure why.
Dune’s characters struck me as alien. It’s not that they are not relatable but that the emotional layer of the story is one or two deep. To pick up on it I had to understand the plot points, which were complicated and subtle. There were few emotional scenes, instead the emotional nature of the characters had to be inferred from the actions. But that first layer, of complex and subtle plot points, was so deep as to be practically impenetrable from my single reading. This is echoed by people who have read it multiple times: it takes many readings to reach a level of understanding such that you stop finding new, relevant details.
Perhaps, then, I loved Dune as puzzle. It evokes the best kind of learning experience: putting the understanding of the world just out my reach, fascinating enough that I keep coming back but not so clear that I fully get it. I must reach further, think harder, ask questions, re-read. Yet it is the ‘fascinating enough’ part that is key to that theory. What makes Dune so fascinating that I’m willing to work for it?
Dune touches on everything. It delves into political organization, religious groups, the power of leaders, ecological concerns, drugs, the place of love in politics and leadership, the potential of humans to evolve, guerrilla warfare, human survival in terrible living conditions. The list goes on, depending on how you want to slice it. Frank Herbert took all these ideas he wanted to explore, wrapped them up into a novel, and tied it with a bow of a plot that comes to a natural end. It’s not that he resolves everything (he doesn’t, there are five sequels,) but rather that almost everything can slot into place, even if as the reader I don’t exactly know how.
Real life is not so wonderfully clean. The way complex concepts are explored through the progression of the real world probably can never be so succinctly threaded together and understood. In the real world there are loose ends, or if you do believe that all ends are tied, it is at least well-acknowledged that we rarely get to see them tied ourselves. Literary fiction often hinges on this very fundamental aspect of being human: not everything is understood. Characters are not understood by others or do not understand their own actions. Trajectories of events, communities, and movements are haphazard and we often see only a small sliver of it. In comparison, a bird’s eye view of Dune is, if not attainable, then not far off.
The lack of clarity in the real world doesn’t simply imply lack of facts. There is also no unbiased view through which to understand the facts we do have. For all of its complexity, Dune is crystal clear. Herbert’s narration is omniscient but also detached and because he created this world he gets to define the neutral point. If Herbert attempts to teach us things, and I think he does, it is by the consequences of the actions of the characters, not by the way in which the characters or actions are described.
To dive into a world as complex as our own but so well understood is thrilling. Humans have evolved to seek understanding; building mental models that enable us to interact well with the world is how we thrive. The real world doesn’t allow us to have any kind of “true” working model, at least I don’t think so, but reading a book about an alternate world gets us to a pseudo-complete state.
I think it tickles a very basic part of my brain. I strive to understand the details in a way that no literary novel has ever enticed me. Which is not to say I have not been knee-deep in thoughts about literary novels. They are simply radically different kinds of thoughts, more often than not they are overwhelming emotions. As I said earlier Dune was not, for me, an emotional book at all. It continues to be a puzzle that populates me. I plan to read more.