by Frank Herbert
What does it mean when you don’t understand a book?
This is something that has bothered me for a long time, now. Because back in grad school, I signed up for a class that was going to focus on James Joyce’s Ulysses; each student in the seminar was going to annotate one chapter of the thing. I had never read Joyce, and so I got Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man out of the library, and read it, to give myself some idea of what I was in for.
Couldn’t understand it at all.
Two weeks later, I dropped the class and dropped out of grad school.
Joyce wasn’t the only reason I did that, and that wasn’t the only book I couldn’t understand. But it’s bothered me ever since, both looking back on that period in my life, and also whenever I read books now that, like Portrait of the Artist, I just can’t really grasp. There’s a spectrum, of course: some books I get almost all of it, except for a certain section, or just a few paragraphs; some I can’t break into at all. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of the latter; Wuthering Heights, one of the former.
And Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, the sequel to the legendary classic Dune, is another one that, like Wuthering Heights, I couldn’t quite get all of it. And I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not as smart as I think I am, or if Frank Herbert thought I (and the rest of his audience) was even smarter than I am, or if Frank Herbert wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought he was. All I know is, though I could follow most of the plot, and there are parts of this book that I actually really enjoyed, there were a number of sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters that I had to read over and over, and at some point, I said “Screw it,” and just skimmed those parts, thinking, “Yup, don’t get this. Don’t get this at all.”
So the general idea of the book: Dune is a story of intergalactic intrigue. There is a noble family, many millennia in the future, called the Atreides; they are put in charge of the most valuable planet in the galactic Empire, the planet Arrakis: known as Dune, because the entire planet is one huge desert. Dune is the most important planet in the galaxy because it is the sole source of melange, the spice; the spice is a drug that allows people to see into the future, which is the only way that spaceship pilots can steer through hyperspace. The spice has various other effects, too, not the least of which is that it extends human life (Unless you stop taking it, in which case, you die.). So the Atreides family gets to take over Dune, but unfortunately, they have enemies, and their enemies invade Dune and wipe the Atreides out. The wife of Duke Atreides escapes with her son Paul, and they find refuge among a group of desert nomads called the Fremen, who are, because of the incredibly harsh conditions of their life on Dune, the baddest-assed badasses in the whole galaxy. Paul and his mother are adopted by the Fremen, and over time, Paul comes to be their leader; he leads the Fremen back out of the deep desert and reconquers Dune, and from there, the entire galactic empire, because as soon as he controls Dune, he controls every powerful person who uses the spice, because if he cuts off their supply, they will all die. He threatens to do that, and he also blackmails the emperor, and hey presto, Emperor Paul Atreides. End Book One.
Now, that’s not the whole story. There is a crapton more, because Frank Herbert liked him some complicated universes, and there are various factions and issues wrapped up in the whole thing – the Landsraad and CHOAM, the Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, the Sardaukar, on and on it goes. There are also prophecies and religious ideas, and Paul becomes Muad’dib, and the Mahdi, and also Usul, and he’s the kwisatz haderach – it’s a lot. You wouldn’t want this guy’s life. But that’s the main plot: family gets destroyed, son comes back and takes revenge and seizes power for himself. Combination of Macbeth and Hamlet. No problem.
But then there’s Dune Messiah.
I would like to note here that my father, in discussing this series with me some years ago (This is my second time through the series; the first time I made it to Book 4, God-Emperor of Dune, before I gave up.), expressed his opinion that the first book was a fluke, that the other five books were the ones Herbert wanted to write, and the first book had somehow gone astray — and was, he said, the only book Herbert wrote that is worth reading. Just something to keep in mind.
In Dune Messiah, Paul Muad’dib has been Emperor for twelve years, and his legions of Fremen have been waging a successful jihad against the rest of the galaxy – there’s a point when Paul talks about Genghis Khan and Hitler, and the millions of people they killed; then he says that a conservative estimate would put his death toll at 90 billion humans. Paul and his sister, St. Alia of the Knife (If I ever had a daughter, that would be her name. St. Alia of the Knife Humphrey. And I wouldn’t let her shorten it, either.), have been turning themselves into religious idols, mainly because both of them are prescient: they can see the future. It doesn’t seem like this is a good idea, though, because neither of them want to be gods, and they have grown to distrust their own theocracy. Paul is also having trouble in his personal life because he has a sort of unofficial marriage with the Fremen woman he loves, Chani, but in order to become Emperor he had to officially marry the daughter of the former emperor, a woman named Irulan, whom he doesn’t care about but has to placate in order to keep his throne secure. Both of these women want to have Paul’s children. Paul only wants to have children with Chani, but he can’t cast aside Irulan; but for some reason (it isn’t an accident) he and Chani can’t conceive. Meanwhile he’s dealing with this whole issue of the Fremen turning on him, partly because they think he’s become corrupt, partly because they’ve become corrupt – it’s not clear. And then there are the Bene Tleilax, (Want to know how to pronounce all of these names? So do I. Guess. It’s what I do.) who resurrected one of Paul’s old friends and teachers, who was killed in the first book when the enemies overtook Dune, and have now sent that guy to — maybe kill Paul? Maybe help him maintain power? We don’t know. And then there’s a guy floating in a tank of orange gas, because he’s so addicted to the spice that he breathes the shit; and that makes him prescient, though not as prescient as Paul – because of the kwisatz haderach thing, in addition to the fact that Paul’s horking down spice by the bucketful; but the kwisatz haderach thing is why the Bene Gesserit are so obsessed with him, because the Bene Gesserit are a quasi-religious order who are basically eugenicists, who have been trying to breed the perfect human for like ten thousand years, and they finally did it, and it’s Paul. And now they want him to have kids and pass on his perfect genes – but Irulan, who is a Bene Gesserit, is their choice, while Paul only wants kids with Chani, but if he binds himself more closely to the Fremen then they will take the whole Messiah-Jihad thing waaay too far, and will kill Paul’s whole family and probably the universe, too. And Paul can pretty much see all of the possible futures, except for where another prescient person is involved because then they muddy up the timestream because they can see what’s coming and therefore can react to it, which changes Paul’s ability to see what comes next, and so he’s trying to pick the best future but he can’t really see which one it is, and every future kinda sucks.
And that’s not even what I couldn’t understand. Other than the Bene Tleilax, who literally make no fucking sense but are really cool anyway because they have these people called Face Dancers who can change their appearance at will and I love that name, I could follow all the political stuff. And most of the time stuff. The last ninety pages or so are the best part of the book, largely because the motivations become simple; also at one point Paul gets blinded – but it doesn’t matter because at that point he can see the future so completely clearly that he can see where everything around him is, in his visions; so he can point to people and describe their appearance, even though he has no eyes in his head, and it’s both cool and interesting.
No: the problem with this book is the way people talk. Herbert expects us to pick up on their subtleties, to understand not only what they say but what they really mean, so clearly that he never explains what the characters mean when they talk. It’s worst with two specific characters, both related to the Bene Tleilax: a Face Dancer named Scytale, and the resurrected friend of Paul’s, who was originally named Duncan Idaho and now goes by the unfortunate name of Hayt, which is much too much like a bad screamo band name. When these two guys talk, it just – it makes no sense at all. In the first chapter, Scytale is having a meeting with his other anti-Paul conspirators, and he says, “You wish to draw me into this fools’ fight? Very well. We’re dealing with a potential messiah. You don’t launch a frontal attack upon such a one. Martyrdom would defeat us.” I mean, okay, but you know what he left out? What their goal is. Kill Paul? Replace him? Take down his self-made religion, and his jihad? Bring back the old ways? We have no idea. They just – can’t have a martyr. And then one of his partners says “You think that’s the only danger?” And when Scytale doesn’t respond, and she says, “Well?” Scytale says, “I was enjoying the silence. Our hostilities are better left unvoiced.” And again: what hostilities? It’s never explained. You don’t like each other, sure, I don’t like you either, but – why not? If you don’t like each other, why are you working together? And why is it better if the hostilities are left unvoiced?
I guess we’re supposed to either figure these people and their goals out from subtle clues, or else just – know. Somehow. Herbert never explains what the Bene Tleilax want. He says that they create tools, but by the end of the book I don’t know if Paul is the tool, or if Hayt/Idaho is. Or both. Maybe neither. And it’s not just these people, though Scytale is the worst: we’re not clear what Paul wants, or what St. Alia of the Knife wants, or what the Fremen want, or anyone, really. Which made this book terribly annoying when it wasn’t talking about very simple things: by the end, Paul wants his wife Chani to live. We get that. St. Alia of the Knife wants to be loved. Sure, yes, good. Hayt wants to be Duncan Idaho again, and remember what that meant. I get that, and I approve. And if that had been what the whole book was about, I would probably like it; as I said, there were parts that I liked, and I did really like Dune.
But then there’s this kind of shit: (Note: Hayt is a ghola, a reanimated zombie, basically, who used to be Duncan Idaho; he is also a mentat, which is a human computer, like a Vulcan, pure logic, no emotion, super fast thoughts. There is no reason to think he would know the future, and yet somehow they all seem cool with him making predictions. Your guess is as good as mine. Oh – and he has steel eyeballs instead of normal ones.)
“Hayt,” Paul said, “are you the tool of my undoing?”
“If the substance of here and now is changed, the future is changed,” the ghola said.
“That is no answer!” Chani objected.
Paul raised his voice. “How will I die, Hayt?”
Light glinted from the artificial eyes. “It is said, m’lord, that you will die of money and power.”
Chani stiffened. “How dare he speak thus to you?”
“The mentat is truthful,” Paul said.
“Was Duncan Idaho a real friend?” she asked.
“He gave his life for me.”
“It is sad,” Chani whispered, “that a ghola cannot be restored to his original being.”
“Would you convert me?” the ghola asked, directing his gaze to Chani.
“What does he mean?” Chani asked.
“To be converted is to be turned around,” Paul said. “But there’s no going back.”
“Every man carries his own past with him,” Hayt said.
“And every ghola?” Paul asked.
“In a way, m’lord.”
“Then what of that past in your secret flesh?” Paul asked.
So. Dunno why Paul asked that first question when he’s the one who can see the future. Dunno what Hayt’s answer means. Dunno why Paul asks the second question, either; Chani wants to know what the hell he’s doing with this zombie thing that can’t be trusted, and Paul doesn’t fucking help at all, he just makes it more confusing – and he completely ignores Chani when she voices the same confusion that I’m feeling. Which I assume is why she changes the topic entirely in the middle of the conversation – maybe she’s offended by the money and power comment, though I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s offensive – but then Paul is the one whose answer makes no sense, but they slip right past that into this last exchange, ending with the “secret flesh” thing, which – huh? He’s no secret, you’ve known all along that he’s the reanimated zombie of your friend. Everybody knows it. What fucking secret flesh, Paul? WHY DON’T YOU MAKE SENSE, PAUL?!?
Anyway. Maybe it does all make sense, and I’m too dim to understand it. All I know is, I probably should have stopped after the first book. I don’t think I’ll read the third.
One last thing: I have a new theory why this book was so confusing for me. Here is the cover of my book (finger added for emphasis):
And here is the title page, also with emphatic finger. See the problem?