Fiction’s power to explain the world, using Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example

by jbloodwell

Not a new or penetrating insight here, but I recently came across a striking and somewhat unexpected example of the power that good fiction has to show us something of the world we live in.

I recently read Frank Herbert’s Dune. I couldn’t tell you why. I’m not a huge science fiction fan. I just saw it in a bookstore while traveling last month, and thought, “Yes. I am going to read that right now.”

I knew the basics of the story from having seen David Lynch’s film version, and more recently from having seen the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I’d recommend far more than the Lynch film. I knew about sandworms, the spice melange, and a villain so disgustingly fat he had to use little rocket-powered suspensors to keep from smothering in his own girth.

The novel surprised me in a couple ways. First was a massive amount of heavy ecological stuff, featuring a lot of well-developed explanations of the desert landscape and how certain groups were working to cultivate it with the long-term goal of creating a lush, liveable planet, plus lots of great details about the lengths people go to to conserve water (including, most fascinatingly/disgustingly, suits that capture sweat, urine, and feces and wring all the moisture out of them and essentially dumping that moisture into a kind of Camelbak reservoir that allows the wearer to drink it). Second was the heavy, heavy attention to intrapersonal and non-verbal communications in the book.

Item #2 really surprised me because I figured most of the book’s 800 or so pages would be filled with descriptions of sandworm battles, palace intrigues, and so on. That stuff is there, but on nearly every page there is an incisive description of a character using a certain kind of special training—I’ll just call it witchcraft, which is how it’s sometimes referred to in the novel, though it’s (often) less magical than that and more a situation of recognizing intonations of voice, body language, and so on, to read people deeply and accurately—to see through hidden motivations and anticipate another character’s next move.

Here’s a case in point, and the example I wanted so share. It’s a scene where Baron Harkonnen, the fat villain mentioned above, speaks with the Count, an extremely devious court hanger-on, and the Baron’s nephew, Feyd-Rautha, whom the Baron is grooming to eventually take over the desert planet, Dune. The Count has just said something insincere and kind of belittling to the Baron. Feyd-Rautha is standing by, watching and learning. (Note: the weird “mm-m-m” seen below is a quirk of Herbert’s, a verbal filler that a number of characters use for reasons that don’t seem worth the weird typographical experience of reading this stuff.)

“You are too kind,” the Baron said. He bowed, but Feyd-Rautha noted that his uncle’s eyes did not agree with the courtesy.

“When you’re mm-m-m ironic, that ah-h-h suggests you’re hm-mm-m thinking deep thoughts,” the Count said.

There he goes again, Feyd-Rautha thought. It sounds like he’s being insulting, but there’s nothing you can call out for satisfaction.

You can see all this non-verbal communication: Feyd-Rautha reading his uncle’s eyes, and the Count also reading the discrepancy between the Baron’s words and expression, and then responding by saying something kind of catty and ironic about the Baron “thinking deep thoughts.”

But what I really want to point out here is that what Feyd-Rautha notes is basically the very definition of “micro-aggression.” I was immediately struck by a sense of recognition upon first reading this passage. (From looking around for a quick definition, I see that “micro-aggression” is often linked to race and to white privilege, but I’m using it here more broadly, the way Feyd-Rautha defines it: This guy is being passive aggressive, going right up to the line but holding back enough so that if I said something, I’d be the crazy one, and he’d be able to back up and say, “Whoa, buddy, you’re putting words in my mouth.”)

The idea of micro-aggression, so far as I can tell, is relatively recent. Here, Herbert is using Feyd-Rautha to call out something that simply didn’t have a name back in 1965, when Dune was first published. In some ways it’s an incredible insight, and it suggests a remarkable depth of character that Herbert accomplishes in Dune.

I love finding stuff like this, recognizing the real world in fiction and, in doing so, seeing the world a bit more clearly. That’s a trite observation, I know, but it’s such a difficult thing to achieve in fiction that I find these instances worth recording and sharing.