Is Dune the perfect novel?
Of course, perfection is what every piece of art—be it a painting, a sculpture, a poem, a song, a film, or a novel—strives to be. But what does it mean to say something is perfect? I consider some things perfect. Michelangelo’s David is a perfect statue. I remember standing in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and looking up at it. I felt awed. Just the memory of it still awes me. In poetry, I think of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot—a poem I read several times a year—a perfect poem. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is the perfect song. But are these works perfect? Can man ever create something as perfect as the sun? No doubt, there are imperfections in all of them—a chip in the stone too small to see, a misplaced common, a metaphor that doesn’t quite work—but these mistakes are so subtle that we are oblivious of them. Our eyes see perfection in the statue; our ears hear perfection in the music; our intellect experiences perfection in the poem.
Does Dune rise to that level of near-perfection that we can call perfect? Is it the perfect novel?
It’s a complex novel whose complex protagonist struggles against a complex problem to explore complex themes. It’s a layered novel that strives for the truth about the world we live in by creating a mythical world to serve as an extended metaphor. Politics, religions, war, business, and family—all the constructs of human life—fall under Frank Herbert’s examination, and none of them come out looking clean or pure or uncorrupted by the others.
We tend to compartmentalize. If you’re a corporate executive, you focus on running the business. You might go to church or synagogue or mosque, no doubt you have a family you love and enjoy spending time with, and you pay attention to politics and world affairs, but you spend most of your time and energy in the quest for profits. Or you’re a priest, a minister, a rabbi, or an Imam, but you might own investments and care about the economy, but your faith is the center of your life and monopolizes your thoughts and feelings. Maybe you’re a stay-at-home parent and spend most of your time caring for your children and keeping house, but that doesn’t preclude you from reading the newspaper to find out what’s happening in the world. Nor does it prevent you from investing money in the stock market or reciting your daily prayer.
Paul Atreides does not have the luxury to compartmentalize. Those activities we try to keep separate from each other blend together in his awareness and become his omni-crisis. When Baron Harkonnen plotted war and betrayal against House Atreides—dooming Paul’s father in the process—it destabilized Paul’s world so much that he had to abandon everything he ever trusted and took for granted, and he needed to recreate them anew. From his religion to his family, from his politics to his war strategy. He reexamines everything and reorganizes it into a whole new way of life—at least for him. Allies join with him—his mother Lady Jessica, his mistress Chani, and his friend Stilgar. He changes from a naive boy to become a military and political strategist, as well as a messiah.
Paul nodded, fighting an abrupt reluctance to move. He knew its cause, but found no help in the knowledge. Somewhere this night he had passed a decision-nexus into the deep unknown. He knew the time-area surrounding them, but the here-and-now existed as a place of mystery. It was as though he had seen himself from a distance go out of sight down into a valley. Of the countless paths up out of that valley, some might carry a Paul Atreides back into sight, but many would not.
It is this journey from defeat to victory that makes Dune a compelling novel. It is an easy book to read—that is, its prose is commonplace—but it’s an impossible novel to grasp. Though it roots the action in a physical world that—though unlike our own—feels familiar and realistic. It grounds the action in the secular conflicts that we all know—war, family strife, political crises, religious differences, and the class struggle. It deals with these major themes, but it never ignores more personal themes like drug addiction, jealousy, and blood lust.
While it roots the action in the physical world, it explores the abstract realm, the realm of mystics and prophets, of visions and sacrifices. This is what I mean when I said the novel is impossible to grasp. It’s subject to interpretation and infinite nuances. No two readers will experience this novel the same. Indeed, each time I read it, I pull something new out of it, hence why I’ve read it three times.
Because of these interpretations, I find it a difficult novel to write about. It reminds me of Alien: Covenant. Many viewers left the theater disappointed, even angry, but I left the theater knowing I’ve seen something that will puzzle and amaze me for the rest of my life. This is part of my perfection in art—the recognition that it’s presenting me with something that will forever be beyond my grasp.
Dune was published in 1961. After a lukewarm reception, its reputation grew, until it became the worldwide bestseller you know it to be. Herbert wrote five sequels, including Dune Messiah (1969)and Children of Dune (1976). Chapterhouse: Dune, published in 1985, not long before Herbert’s death, was the final novel in the series. I read Dune Messiah back in 1990—shortly after my first reading of Dune—but I didn’t enjoy it as much, and I decided not to read the rest of the series. Maybe one day I will, but at this time, I like the way that Dune ended. It feels complete and needed no sequel.