Let’s Read! Dune, Part Three

I’m starting to worry that finishing Dune is going to be more of a chore than I originally anticipated, to be honest. It’s a novel that I think would be fine if I could sit and just devour it in a single sitting, but taking the time to do a close(ish) reading of it only highlights its flaws, the greatest of which, so far, is that very little has actually happened yet. I’m now over a quarter of the way through the book, and I still feel as if the story hasn’t quite begun. Instead, the whole thing is still rather hopelessly bogged down in exposition and world building. And it’s a lovely world that Frank Herbert created, but without any actual events occurring it feels empty and dull.

In the twelfth chapter of Dune, Paul attends a staff conference with his father, and we’re treated to even more details about just how difficult a situation House Atreides is in on Arrakis. In addition to the recent attempt on Paul’s life and the exodus of the spice miners who are essential to the economic operation of the planet, there’s also a smuggling problem, various environmental and geographic challenges, aging and broken mining equipment, and discontented Fremen to deal with. We also gain a better understanding of Duke Leto’s goals for his House and for Arrakis. Mostly, it seems that he wants to build a healthy, sustainable home for his House that will keep most of the people of Arrakis happy and allow him to stick it to his political and economic rivals, the Harkonnens.

The one thing that isn’t delved into much in chapter twelve is the identity of the traitor in Duke Leto’s household, but the next couple of chapters deal heavily with that. Thufir Hawat finds a scrap of a note that seems to implicate Jessica as the traitor in chapter thirteen, but Leto doesn’t believe it and even calls it out as a trick intended to sow strife in the household—which the reader, of course, knows to actually be the case. Nonetheless, chapter fourteen finds Duke Leto informing his son that he plans to publicly disavow Jessica in some way in order to try and flush out the real traitor. Schemes like this almost never end well in fiction, but we’ll see about this one—just not in today’s reading.

From a literary analysis standpoint, the most interesting thing about the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters is the symmetry of how they explore Duke Leto’s hopes and fears, the things that he finds beautiful and ugly about the world, and the internal conflict of his own optimism and cynicism. Leto is a man of many dualities and contradictions, and Herbert paints a picture of him here in deft strokes. Leto can trust his lover, but still be willing to hurt her. He hates Arrakis but can’t help but notice its beauty. He is “morally exhausted” and yet able to carry on with his plans. He is deeply concerned with the rightness and goodness of things, and he doesn’t seem to be a superstitious man, but he also isn’t above advising his son to capitalize on the superstitious beliefs of others if necessary.

The final chapter of today’s reading, the book’s fifteenth, is fully half of the material I read this morning and perhaps the longest chapter yet in the novel. It starts off promisingly, with an epigraph that finally reveals the identity of the Princess Irulan from whose works all of the epigraphs have been extracted. It’s also another epigraph that seems to heavily foreshadow the death of Duke Leto (so did the epigraph for chapter fourteen, and that one fairly explicitly), but the Duke is still in the land of the living at the end of the section. Instead of finally getting around to depicting Leto’s inevitable demise, this chapter splits its focus three ways, focusing in turn on:

  1. How awesome Paul is and how he totally fits the words of a local prophecy.
  2. What a great man Duke Leto is (and, by implication, how sad we’ll all be when he finally dies).
  3. How rad sandworms are.

Tying all these things together in chapter fifteen is the point of view of the Imperial planetologist (a sort of ecologist) Dr. Kynes, who is a guide of sorts—albeit an unreliable on—for Leto and Paul (and the reader) as they (we) tour the deserts of Arrakis by ornithopter in order to survey the land and better understand the production of spice. This is neat, but ultimately unfruitful. The undeniable highlight of the chapter is that we finally get to see a sandworm in action, but the lowlight has to be that nothing much comes of it. When some miners are endangered by the appearance of one of the enormous sandworms and Duke Leto insists on rescuing the workers even at the expense of the spice, I thought for sure that this was how he was going to die—heroically and tragically, leaving Paul to fend for himself with a very uncertain future.

Not so.

I’m not sure when the last time was that I read something where so much foreshadowing and buildup of dramatic necessity had so little payoff. When it finally comes, Duke Leto’s death had better be fucking epic.

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