Spoilers for much of the Dune series to follow
Reading this take-down of David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune has got me thinking about Dune as a whole again, and… urg.
There’s a lot I like about Dune and most of that stuff is contained in the first book of the series, and small parts of Lynch’s movie version. Then again, there’s a lot I don’t like about it, which comprises all the rest of the book series and the larger part of the aforementioned film. My overall opinion? Um… I don’t think I have one.
But let’s start with the positives.
I thought the first book was amazing. Not stylistically or aesthetically, but in terms of world-building and imagination. On a basic level it’s medieval Europe in space: Emperors, vassals, church/state collusion, arranged marriages and breeding, handing down trade monopolies to favored families, and I grant you that doesn’t sound especially innovative. But there really hadn’t been a popular exploration of what all that shit would be like in space, man! It’s I dunno more interesting, somehow.
It’s also one of the few popular sci-fi universes without aliens, certainly one of the very few that survived into the 80’s (which is when I first got into Dune). To me, that’s a mark in its favor, that difference.
But what really drew me to the franchise was it’s treatment of human progress. Lots of other sci-fi worlds are filled with technology. Better computers, deadlier (or safer) weapons, faster spacecraft, and so on. The progress of civilization is measured by the fabulous objects created by hundreds of years of continued human ingenuity. And it’s all stuff any mook could use, given enough training.
What made Dune‘s universe interesting to me is that it imagines a human-centric space empire that doesn’t rely on consumer-grade technological geegaws. Computers? Against the law — but there’s a planet full of dudes who have been taught to think like computers. Ray guns? Yeah, they’re around, but the most effective fighting methods are hand-to-hand, and require one to have superhuman control over one’s own body. Hyperdrive? Well yes, there’s hyperdrive, but you need some overbred mutant to get high as fuck in order to use it.
And in the midst of all this, you’ve got a bad ass religious order of ladies who serve as the shepherds of human evolution, who are capable of out-thinking, out-scheming, and outfighting any other living person, playing a long game over thousands of years. They plant myths and legends on backwater planets going back centuries just in case they might prove useful at some point in the future. Oh yeah, they also have an unbroken chain of all the memories and wisdom of every single previous reverend mother that came before them going back thousands of years.
At any rate, the point is this: Dune is a universe that accomplishes the business of being all sci-fi futurey by pushing beyond the reasonable limits of human biological and physical potential via a tremendously long period of artificial selection. Do I think that approach is better or in some way more desirable than how other franchises rely on magic blinking machines to do everything, while leaving humanity to develop naturally as a species?
Hell no, I don’t.
I mean, it’s a fucking nightmare. The Dune universe is no place to be, if you can avoid it. Human beings bred for specialized functions and used like machines or cattle? Only a monster would look at that scenario and nod in agreement. But that’s okay, because the Dune setting makes for a fascinating story. It doesn’t flinch from examining what that sort of society would look like and how it would act. It’s not a nice place, but it is an interesting one.
My problem with the movie is that is loses all that. How could it not? What do I like about the movie? It, um, looks nice, in parts. And Sting always makes me laugh. Also, Toto?
My problem with the later Herbert books is… grist for another post, I think. The quick version is simply that they didn’t grab me. Also, dead people keep coming back for no real great reason, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not saying the books are bad, really. It’s just that we’re introduced to an interesting universe the day before it changes forever. All the rest of the original novels takes place in different environment, one I’m not that excited to explore I guess.