On the harsh desert planet Arrakis, a boy faces off against Destiny with a capital D, in Frank Herbert's 1966 Hugo winner Dune. The reason it's a classic is that Destiny doesn't quite win.
Now that I've read both Hugo winners from 1966*, I can say with some authority that the most amazing thing about that year is that Roger Zelazny's This Immortal won at all — and I really liked This Immortal. But the cover of my copy of Dune — which, besides winning the Hugo, also took home the first Nebula Award — bears the tagline "Science Fiction's Supreme Masterpiece," and off the top of my head, I can't think of another novel worthy of the appellation. Yeah, Dune has its minor flaws, but they're so minor; the book is basically untouchable.
Have you read it? If not, go, read it now. I'm not going to recap much for you; if you're willing to risk the spoilers, Wikipedia has already done that. (And if you've only seen the David Lynch movie, that won't really help; whatever one's feelings about the film's quality, too much of the plot is left out or changed.) I'll just say it's the story of a teenage boy prepared by nature and nurture to become a prophet and messiah and god-king, and how he takes the first steps toward messiah-hood on the desert planet Arrakis. What makes it remarkable is that with the book, we have — for the first time, as best I can tell — a story that combines all the following:
Epic scale: If This Immortal is an attempt to take the ancient elements of myth and recast them with a more plainspoken, contemporary tone, then Dune is something like its opposite: an attempt to take some of the mainstays of modern science fiction and work them into a brand-new myth. At some point in (I think) his Expanded Universe collection, Robert Heinlein suggests that would-be fiction writers choose ordinary joes as their protagonists — instead of writing about a king, that is, write about a plumber. And the advice has a great deal of merit, but the truth is, there's something gloriously, irresistibly attractive about a story about a Hero with a capital H, as Frank Herbert refers to his main character, Paul Atreides. Dune throws down the gauntlet early, too: With the first of the inscriptions by the Princess Irulan that lead off every chapter, it's clear that this is the story of a legend being made. From the outset, Dune tells readers it is meant to be An Important Book.
Page-turning-ness: This is essential. Just as, I would argue, there's no point in starting an arena-rock band if you can't write hooks that get people on their feet and lighters in the air, there's no point in writing an epic adventure novel if it plods, and no point in making a myth if it's not captivating enough to attract a following.
Real science: And OK, yes, lots of authors can compel you to keep reading, but Herbert's achievement is significant because, although he uses a wealth of neato futuristic technologies and quasi-magical powers to sweeten the pot, authentic, workable science is necessary to Dune's plot. For all the mysticism in the book, you can't dismiss it as space fantasy purporting to be science fiction. Even a lot of the mysticism, actually, is grounded in science: Paul Atreides is special because of his sex. The first male successfully trained in the ways of the psychic, omnicognitive Bene Gesserit sisterhood, he can see parts of humanity's fate that the women can't because they lack a Y chromosome.
Gravity: Maybe this goes hand in hand with epic scale, but I don't think so — I think you can write a story about a Hero whose choices decide the fate of billions, and it can still be a pretty light affair. (They're fantasy and not SF, but David Eddings's books are a good example.) I think, too, that gravity is a blend of tone and content, and that to achieve it, you have to instill a sense of urgent immediacy into the story, a sense that what you are saying is relevant not just to your fictional universe but to the real world. For instance, for all its scope, I'm not sure Isaac Asimov's Foundation series has much gravity to it; the problems it addresses are too abstracted.** Dune, written just as the environmental movement was starting to take hold in the U.S., feels absolutely timely with its focus on planetary ecology. And even more to the point, though the ecology is sort of where the Paramount Themes are concentrated, the book's handling of religion, politics, and business lend it a very contemporary pressure.
And even more than that, the book outlines the only appropriate response to those pressures — although it does so in such an overarching way that it might be easy to take for granted.
A couple years ago, Jason Heller at the A.V. Club mentioned his growing disillusionment, as he got older, with the "chosen one" genre of fantasy fiction — you know, the fact that basically, Star Wars and Harry Potter and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (not to mention David Eddings) were riffing on the same damn story over and over again, and even though, yeah, the specifics differed, the basic structure started to wear thin. Oh, an ordinary boy — a lowly boy, even; usually a farm boy — turns out to be destined to save the world? HOW WILL THAT WORK OUT, I WONDER?
Now, the reason the chosen-one variety of story is so popular is of course that it plays right in to a fantasy nearly everyone has (even women, though most chosen ones are male). We all feel ordinary much of the time, even lowly; and we all sometimes wish we weren't. Most of us know how good it feels to be called special, even just for a fleeting moment.
We tend to grow out of chosen-one stories (even if we can still enjoy them) because after a while, we figure out that our wanting to be special — well, it isn't that special. That makes the feelings of ordinariness much easier to bear. Plus, we figure out that it's much easier to take action on our own and do something special, if we want to be acknowledged for it, rather than wait for Destiny to come along and tap us on the head.
What's interesting about Dune is that Paul Atreides is literally a chosen one in the fullest sense, his bloodlines carefully mingled to create a superbeing, his male sex the deliberate decision of his mother (the Bene Gesserit exercise such perfect control over their bodies that pregnant ones can pick whether they'll have a boy or a girl). And yet his story, though it mirrors the standard chosen-one myth in some ways, is not so much about his struggle to become who he is meant to be, as it is about his struggle not to let his doom carry him away.
Now, I haven't read any of the other Dune books, so whether that remains true in Paul's future, I can't say; indeed, at the end of this one, he seems to acquiesce in a way to the pull of the "terrible purpose" he senses within him. (He still does it on his own terms, though, refusing near the story's end to exploit an enemy's secret weakness to seal his position.) But mostly, Paul is pushing back against the pressures from his enemies and his allies, and seemingly Nature itself, determined not to be the instrument of injustices he sees lying ahead in myriad possible futures.
When he enters into the society of Arrakis's Fremen — the fierce, independent nomads who roam the planet — Paul must take a new name. Instead of calling himself simply Muad'Dib — the first name he thinks of, and one he realizes (immediately after thinking of it) is his name in the terrible futures he's seen — he appends his original name to it, becoming Paul-Muad'Dib. It's a small thing, but hugely important, and symbolically, it's him putting his own brand on his destiny.
Why I think it's important is that in the years since Dune was published, we here on Earth have seen oppression become increasingly apparent. Even as many people's standard of living has improved, the ways our institutions — religion, politics, business — press upon our lives are easier and easier to see. And it's very tempting to dream of something like the Fremen jihad Paul is so desperate to prevent, where harsh and speedy order are enforced with machine-like rigor, so that the world can be shaped into someplace better.
But the fact is that, like the standard chosen-one story, Dune works because we all relate to Paul. Because we don't just want to be chosen — we also want to make ourselves special; and we instinctively understand that the most difficult part of being an individual is simply being an individual — knowing how to work with a group, but when it's essential that you stand your ground.
As fiction, Dune is about a boy who becomes a man who becomes a god to save a world and change a universe. Metaphorically, though, I'm pretty sure it's about how the best shot every one of us has of saving the world is not so much through fighting for freedom or through signing on with the right movement, but by taking the risks that make us fully who we are, and never letting who we are be completely determined by some outside force, while still not resenting the interdependence that's an inescapable part of existence. I guess that's not too far off from what I said in the last review, about how to become a god, a being who transcends time and space. And I guess it's pretty basic stuff, but I can't help but wonder if most of us haven't quite mastered the basics yet.
"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein, from 1967.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.
*I had read Dune before this, but it was awhile ago.
**Please note that saying the Foundation books don't have much gravity is not a criticism of the series, just a descriptive assessment.