Category Archives: Let’s Read

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 1-3

“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its Outer Walls.”

Having once read it, there’s no way one could mistake the opening sentence of Titus Groan for that of any other book. For one thing, it begins with the name, “Gormenghast,” simply and instantaneously establishing a setting and setting a tone before continuing in a tumble of words that feel as meticulously chosen as they are off-kilter. “Off-kilter,” of course, may be the best one-word description of these first three chapters. From sentence and paragraph structure to word choice, everything about these chapters feels at least slightly askew and unbalanced from the very first words of the book.

The homes of the common people “swarm” and “sprawl.” The earth is sloping and the roofs are uneven. These buildings are “held back by the castle ramparts” as if they’re assaulting the castle—the poor imposing upon the wealthy, titled and powerful by simply existing—and they’re tenacious, “…like limpets on a rock.” The castle itself complements the ramshackle town around it with its “time-eaten buttresses” and “broken and lofty turrets.” Gormenghast is ancient and enormous, but it’s also crumbling and in disrepair. Worse, there’s something obscene about it; it’s most distinguishing feature the Tower of Flints, which “arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.” To round out the picture, the tower is full of owls, noisy at night and quiet during the day.

And that’s all just the first paragraph.

Chapter 1, “The Hall of the Bright Carvings,” continues to establish the setting. Gormenghast is an ancient but decaying seat of power, and every description of it is reflective of its decline. The place is gloomy and dingy, collapsing under the weight of time, and there’s a profound disconnectedness between the denizens of the town and those of the castle. The annual carving contest, through which three sculptures are added to the eponymous Hall, is a tradition without meaning. The townspeople, we’re told, spend all year working on their submitted pieces, only to have the majority of them burned after the Earl of Groan judges them and chooses the winners. The chosen pieces are relegated to an enormous gallery kept up by a Curator, Rottcodd, who obsessively, but joylessly keeps them dust-free. They are otherwise seen by no one, as no one except Rottcodd seems to go to the Hall, and he lives there as well as works there. It’s not only those in the castle and those without who are disconnected from each other.

Within the castle, too, there are sharp divides between the gentry and the staff and within the staff as well. This is shown in Flay’s interactions with Rottcodd, but it’s further highlighted in the next chapters, “The Great Kitchen” and “Swelter.” While the workers in the Great Kitchen may be more in the loop of major events inside the castle than Rottcodd was, at least enough so that they know to get wildly drunk in celebration of the new Lord Groan’s birth, they’re no more emotionally connected to the Earl and his family than the Curator. Their bacchanalian revels are just as empty a tradition as the sculpture contest, and the kitchen staff may work for the Earl, but they worship the Chef, Swelter. Like the description of the Tower of Flints, the descriptions of the Great Kitchen and its Chef have a feeling of the profane about them. The Kitchen—hot, stifling, crowded, smelly, cacophonous—is a Hell, and Swelter is its ruler.

To the degree that these first three chapters have a plot (which is debatable), it is this: a new heir to the Earldom has been born, and Lord Sepulchrave’s personal servant, Mr. Flay, is spreading the news. Mr. Flay is so excited about the birth that he is in search of someone to share it with who won’t have heard of it yet, and this sends him to Rottcodd in the Hall of the Bright Carvings. When Rottcodd’s reaction is disappointing, Flay then heads to the Great Kitchen, where he knows that there will be, if not surprise at the novelty of the birth, at least some appropriate amount of celebratory reaction. It’s not much, as plots go, and 33 pages of story with only, essentially, a single event is an unfashionably (by today’s standards) slow start to any novel. However, there’s so much emotive and atmospheric worldbuilding detail and sly characterization of the first few characters we meet that it’s hard to resent the lack of actual story.

Notable Motifs:

  • Birds – There are owls in the Tower of Flints; Rottcodd uses a feather duster; there are birds (ravens, starlings, a white rook) in the Lady’s chamber; Rottcodd’s head moves back and forth “like a bird’s”; Flay has a “scarecrow frame”; Steerpike is Swelter’s “impatient lovebird.”
  • Pathology/Illness – The buildings in the first sentence “swarmed like an epidemic”; the Tower of Flints is “like a mutilated finger”; the sculpture competition is “rabid”; the afternoon that Flay visits Rottcodd is “unhealthy”; the kitchen has a “sickening atmosphere”; Swelter was at the back of Flay’s mind “like a tumor”; Swelter’s first word is to call the kitchen boys, “Gallstones!”
  • Humidity – It’s a hot, humid day when Flay goes to see Rottcodd; the Great Kitchen is oppressively humid.

Some Notes on Names:

I suspect Mervyn Peake’s naming conventions in this series will provoke either love or hate reactions in readers. I am firmly in the love camp, myself, and I appreciate the wryly ironic comedic absurdity of it all.

  • Gormenghast – An ugly word that suggests both “gorge” and “ghastly” and that seems designed to cram as much information as possible about the place into its name.
  • Flay – A single syllable, but a full, real word. Whether you understand it as “to skin,” “to beat,” or “to brutally criticize,” it seems appropriate for our Mr. Flay.
  • Rottcodd – Suggests both death and the smell of something vile. I’m curious to see if Rottcodd appears later in the novel, as this seems like it could be a foreshadowingly symbolic name.
  • Sepulchrave – From “sepulcher,” obviously, so another death name, with a suffix that could lay equal claim to origins in “craven” or “raving.” Or even “raven,” I suppose, which would fit in with the bird motif.
  • Groan – The family name of the Earl. Like “Flay,” it’s a single syllable real word that seems intended to be understood for any or all of its various connotations.
  • Swelter – A name that implies heat and wetness, size—especially in contrast to the simply named Flay—and a certain grossness. Swelter’s first name is Abiatha, perhaps from the Biblical Abiathar, which means “excellent father.” This would make sense in light of Swelter’s affectionately abusive paternal-ish relationship with the kitchen boys, and it would also jive with their seemingly religious devotion to him.
  • Steerpike – Suggests agency with “steer” and sharpness (like a weapon) with “pike.”

Introducing: Let’s Read! Gormenghast

2016 was not a great year for me, and this was reflected nowhere more strongly than in my failure to finish my Let’s Read! coverage of Dune. It turns out that a summer full of travel and an autumn and winter full of one personal and financial crisis after another, combined with a book that I just didn’t care for that much isn’t a winning recipe for productivity. I got derailed early in last year’s project, and never quite managed to get back on track, so by the time the end of the year rolled around I decided to just call it quits and start planning my next project.

I knew early on that it was going to be Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. I’d watched the BBC miniseries based on the books back in 2000, partly because I had a huge crush on Jonathan Rhys Meyers at the time and partly because I was deep into epic fantasy at the time and Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring was still a year away. I remember that Gormenghast miniseries being dark and weird, suffused with gloom and a pervasive sense of irony that borders on visual sarcasm; I loved it, even when I didn’t “get” it because I was a teenager, and teenagers rarely get anything that’s worth really getting. In any case, gotten or not, Gormenghast has stuck with me all these years, so when I was brainstorming classic SFF works to read and blog in 2017 it was at the top of my list. After spending a couple of years reading some classics of science fiction (Dune, Childhood’s End, and others), it felt natural to go with fantasy this time around.

I actually tried to read Gormenghast back in the early aughts, but the enormous annotated version of the trilogy I bought back then was impossible to enjoy—too-small print, too-thin pages, too heavy to hold comfortably and too large to fit in any purse I owned—so it went the way of my old copy of Ulysses, which I also never got more than a couple dozen pages into. This time around, I knew I needed to look for some more manageable copies of the books if I was going to spend some months reading and writing about them.

In the end, I settled on the Ballantine mass markets first printed in the late 1960s (though mine are later printings ranging from 1974 to 1977—Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, if you’d like to copy my exact reading experience. These editions have some gorgeously strange cover art Bob Pepper, whose work you might recognize from numerous other Ballantine covers from the 60s and 70s (including works by Asimov, Ellison, Moorcock, Dick and others). They also include the author’s original illustrations inside the books, a reasonable print size, and the pleasant weight of paper and nice glued bindings that characterize older mass markets. These things, if you take care of them, will last practically forever. Plus, old books smell amazing (if you’re into that sort of thing, and I am).

That said, all three books in the trilogy are conveniently broken up into chapters, which is how I’ve split them up into bite-sized sections—fifteen sections around 34 pages each in the first two books and ten sections around 28 pages or so each in the third one, which is a good deal shorter than the first two. I’ll be covering three sections per week starting on Monday, June 5. I’m also planning on, perhaps after the first book, perhaps at the end of the project, rewatching the 2000 mini-series to see how it holds up after all these years and examine how it works as an adaptation of the books.

The first three posts will cover:

  • Part One: Chapters 1-3
  • Part Two: Chapters 4-9
  • Part Three: Chapters 10-13

After this, I will include further section information as part of my weekly State of the Blog post as well as at the end of the last post in the series each week. Additionally, each post will be tagged “Let’s Read! Gormenghast” and there will be a link straight to the project on the navigation bar at the top of the blog.

Readers, I am so excited about this project. While the US might be going to hell in a handbasket, I have no expectation of any barriers on my end to staying on task and finishing this project as planned, and having started the reading, I can already tell I’m going to love these books. It’s going to be a fun summer here at SF Bluestocking.

Let’s Read! Dune, Part Five

13249366These last few chapters of Book One are a welcome payoff after the first third of the book was spent so much on occasionally-interminable-feeling exposition and set-up. When the Harkonnen coup—apparently backed by the Emperor as well, who even lends some of his own men to the Baron for the event—against House Atreides finally comes, it’s swift and brutal, though we’re spared any particularly gory details. It’s a restraint that dates the novel a little, as modern trends in SFF have skewed heavily towards more graphic depictions of violence, but Frank Herbert manages to convey the horror of the Harkonnen invasion just fine and without being coy, either. It’s actually a superbly imagined sequence, with clear thought being put into the language used, exemplified in the recurring food metaphors and descriptions of the rapacious Baron’s conquest of Arrakis in terms of eating and consumption.

If it feels slightly anticlimactic, it’s only because most of the death and suffering belongs to unnamed characters—guards, servants, and the like—who are largely unmourned (or only mourned en masse and in brief passing) in the narrative. Instead, like many genre works that feature Chosen Ones and prophesied leaders, the focus here is squarely on the troubles and experiences of the nobility. This narrowness of scope is more generally associated with epic fantasy novels, but it’s not necessarily at odds with the science fictional elements of Dune, either. Instead, it simply marks it as belonging to the same essentially conservative and sometimes regressive school of thought that a lot of epic fantasy belongs to. Which is fine. A little boring, with so much storytelling energy being spent on debating the qualities of a good dictatorial ruler rather than imagining a world free of dictators and kings altogether, but fine. Sometimes it’s nice to read something so familiar, and I’ve been enjoying Dune so far, for the most part. Anticlimactic and expected as it is, this section of the book does contain as much that is interesting as the first 160 pages or so did.

Yueh’s guilt and shame over his betrayal of the Atreides family leads him to make arrangements for Jessica and Paul to survive the Harkonnen attack, a redemption which allows Yueh’s death to be tragic rather than otherwise. Duke Leto’s death is likewise sad, though even more expected than Dr. Yueh’s. I was surprised that Leto didn’t manage to take the Baron with him, as I thought the rest of the story would be a conflict between the heirs of the two men, and I thought Piter would be a more important character considering how significant he seemed when he was introduced, so I suppose it’s not fair to say that this first climax was entirely dull. Still, these are ultimately minor deviations from a common story type. Even the revelation near the end of the section that Jessica is the Baron’s daughter—and Paul his grandson—doesn’t do much to break the mold. It’s certainly an aggravating circumstance, and I expect this to figure largely in Paul’s internal conflict going forward (oh, god, I hope he has some internal conflict), but it’s not enough to elevate the story much above the pedestrian. The revelation that Paul and Jessica are likely trapped on Arrakis for life is interesting, and there is some poignancy in the realization, but, again, this isn’t a detail that is particularly out of the ordinary for these kinds of tales.

From a critical feminist perspective, however, perhaps the most interesting (and frustrating) part of these chapters comes in the last one before the break between Book One and Book Two. While Paul has been much talked about in this first third of the book, Jessica has been far more a main character than he has, and there has been much more written from her point of view. I complained in my last post that I felt that she was kept too subservient to Leto and Paul, and that continues here. With Leto’s death, Jessica seems almost broken; she’s pregnant with his daughter, but now is without any social standing or apparent means of survival so she turns to her teenage son, whose mystical-seeming abilities have already surpassed her own. Paul, for his part, is angry with his mother for making him into, well, whatever he is, and Book One ends with Jessica quite cowed in the face of her son’s anger as well as a little in awe of his burgeoning power. While Paul may see several possible paths for their future, my only big prediction is that the rest of the book is going to further marginalize Jessica and continue to keep her subordinate to her son.

Also, how gross is the Baron’s sexual obsession with Paul? I basically hate everything about this, especially since there’s no positive depictions of queerness in the book so far to balance it out. It’s no coincidence, I think, that both the Baron’s relationship with Feyd-Rautha and his fixation on Paul are incestuous. With no other representation, this stands out sharply in contrast to the highly conventional heterosexuality of the Atreides family and sets up a clear dichotomy in which the Baron’s queerness is depicted as evidence of his evil and depravity rather than incidental to it. It’s like it wasn’t enough for the Baron to be wickedly gluttonous; Herbert wanted to make certain that his readers knew the guy was a real fucking deviant, and queer-coding villains—or, here, just making them explicitly homosexual—is a classic move.

Let’s Read! Dune, Part Four

13249366I feel as if I could just title all of these posts so far “Duke Leto Deathwatch 2016” considering the amount of time I spend speculating on the time and manner and necessity of the Duke’s demise. I’m sad to report that after 162 pages, a full third of the way through this book, Duke Leto remains in the land of the living. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, however, as Dr. Yueh finally makes his move and attacks the Duke in chapter eighteen. Before we get to that, however, there’s a good deal more set-up for the imminent tragedy.

The sixteenth chapter opens with an epigraph on greatness and myth-making from “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib,” and the chapter sticks fairly closely to these themes as it continues to explore Duke Leto’s character and touches on Paul’s precociousness and the likelihood that Paul is this mythical Kwisatz Haderach figure. I still feel as if this is an enormous amount of ground-laying for a plot that is so highly conventional that surely people knew it by heart even in 1965. Most of the chapter is taken up with a long dinner, in which the Duke discusses his progressive goals for Arrakis and some of the recent problems on the planet with several locally important men. The thing that is most interesting here, however, is the dynamic between Duke Leto and Jessica. He doesn’t publicly disavow her like I thought he might, but he’s certainly cool and mistrustful towards her, and Jessica definitely notices.

It’s not until the next chapter, however, that Jessica takes action, and this is only when she’s directly confronted by a very drunk Duncan Idaho (literally the worst character name so far in the book; what was Frank Herbert thinking?) who accuses her to her face of being a Harkonnen spy. This finally helps her understand the Duke’s weird behavior, and Jessica is livid. She goes to discuss this garbage with Thufir Hawat, who is a massive dick to her because he doesn’t understand or trust the Bene Gesserit. A couple of major pieces of information come out of this interview, though. First, neither Jessica nor Hawat suspect who the actual spy/traitor is. Second, Jessica is pregnant with the Duke’s daughter. Third, Jessica is a woman of considerable intelligence and power in her own right.

Here’s the thing, though: If Jessica is so intelligent and powerful, why must she be so meek and subservient to Duke Leto? Serious question. It’s not that I don’t understand politics or the long-game scheming the Bene Gesserit seem to be engaged in. Sure, I buy it. They’re shaping the future of the galaxy, one eugenically planned Chosen One and one meticulously orchestrated and seeded “prophecy” at a time for some reason. Ethics or something, I guess, since Jessica seems to be somewhat unwilling to just straight up mind control dudes in order to get her way, although she’s not above terrifying poor old Hawat. And so, Jessica is a devoted concubine and attentive mother, demonstrably powerful but with no apparently ego or ambitions of her own. Instead, she’s focused almost entirely on securing her husband’s legacy and her son’s future, and her entire identity is wrapped up in these concerns.

I just find this stuff tiresome and sadly characteristic of many of the male-penned, progressive-for-their-time novels that make up so much of the SFF canon. Frank Herbert, like many authors of his age (and our age, if we’re being honest), can imagine a woman who is beautiful, strong, intelligent, brave, principled, and powerful, but only insofar as she’s appropriately in thrall to a Great Man™, busy nurturing a future Great Man™, or otherwise safely ensconced in some version of a 1950s gender role while the real protagonists (all men) do all the truly important stuff.

Jessica is too tamed by heteronormative not-marriage and by doting motherhood to be truly powerful, and she’s never treated as an equal to Leto or Paul in the narrative. When she does show her considerable power, it’s framed as irrational—she’s goaded into it by Hawat’s suspicions about her motives—and her connection to the Bene Gesserit, who are actually powerful, is portrayed as legitimately questionable. Certainly the Revered Mother is treated as a somewhat sinister figure, even as she’s also treated like an irrational old hag who isn’t to be taken seriously. It’s a treatment of women that is condescending in its magnanimity—because, you see, women can be powerful—but also sadly limiting of women’s opportunities and stories—because powerful women are frightening and emasculating, so they must be controlled in the narrative, preferably by men, at all times.

Maybe I’m wrong, but with the Duke’s demise imminent, I can’t help but feel that Jessica is going to spend the rest of the book subservient to her own son. And that’s if she’s not fridged for Paul’s character development, which seems like a distinct possibility at this point.

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.

Let’s Read! Dune, Part Two

13249366I was certain that this section of the book would have a lot more going on than the first few chapters, but that isn’t actually the case. Instead, though the Atreides family does finally make it to Arrakis, most of these pages are still dedicated to set up and exposition. The book continues to be highly readable and mostly enjoyable, but the final chapter in this section did finally manage to be truly disappointing when I thought—was certain—something was going to happen and then nothing of consequence did.

The first chapter of this section starts off well enough, giving the reader a little more insight to Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides. There’s a good amount of Leto thinking about how awesome Paul is at everything, but most of the chapter is about getting deeper into the economic and political situation that they find themselves in on Arrakis. Paul has a lot of questions for his father, mostly about the Reverend Mother’s warnings and pronouncements of doom, but Leto downplays the prophecy as being just “a woman’s [Jessica’s] fears” and advises Paul to treat it simply as evidence of Jessica’s great love for them. It’s an interesting moment that skirts the edges of the depiction vs. endorsement debate, to be honest. Certainly, this sexism belongs to the character of Leto Atreides, but is it also Frank Herbert’s sexism? With so little actually happening in the book so far, most of what we have at this point is still just narrative setup, and it’s hard to judge the overall treatment of women in the book until we see how the actual story unfolds.

The next chapter sees Leto interacting, for the first time in the novel, directly with Jessica, and it clarifies a lot of questions I had about Jessica’s relationship to the Duke and what her status in the household is. It turns out that, while she is Paul’s mother, she’s not the Duke’s wife, which puts her in a somewhat complicated position. The way it sounds here is that being just a concubine gives her somewhat more freedom than if she were married, at least when it comes to not having to participate in normal public wifely duties, but it also makes her standing and authority someone ambiguous. She does work as the Duke’s secretary, but it’s not exactly clear what work she does, and most of what we’re actually shown so far in the book is Jessica being responsible for fairly ordinary household duties rather than doing work related to the Duke’s business or politics. The most significant thing that I noticed about Jessica and Leto’s relationship, though, is how incredibly patronizing and condescending Leto is towards Jessica, both in the way he talks about her to Paul as I mentioned above, but also just straight to her face in a way that is infuriating to read about.

It’s good, I suppose, to get this window into their relationship, but it’s not a partnership that I find romantic, and it doesn’t go very far to make me care about Leto’s almost certainly impending death. Rather, I can’t help but feel as if Jessica and Paul would be better off without his toxic influence. The Duke is deeply chauvinistic, but the way he considers race is also pretty messed up. Duke Leto is described in racially coded terms and in a negatively connoted fashion as olive-skinned and dark-haired, but Jessica is described as fair, blonde, light-eyed and beautiful, something the Duke takes pride in. What he takes even more pride in, however, is the fact that Paul, though dark-haired, has inherited his mother’s lighter skin and eyes and generally favors her more in looks. With the Bene Gesserit, of which Jessica is a part, being so concerned with eugenics and breeding, it’s hard not to perceive Duke Leto’s reflections here as at least indicative of the character’s internalized racism but also quite possibly a sign of the author’s own unexamined racial prejudices.

Speaking of toxic influence, the Harkonnen stewards have certainly left Arrakis in a messed up state for the Atreides family to deal with, and most of this second section of the book is detailing just how hostile things are for the Duke, Paul, and Jessica. The land itself is unreceptive to life, with most of the planet taken up by vast deserts and devoid of water, which is precious and highly controlled. The people are suspicious, and many of the workers responsible for harvesting the spice that the Duke is supposed to be in charge of are planning to abandon the planet altogether. However, the most significant actual event in these chapters comes in chapter nine, in which Paul wakes up from his nap and only just manages to escape an attempt on his life, and with the help of the mysterious housekeeper, Shadout Mapes. It’s a brief moment of real danger and slight excitement in a story so far mostly made up of long pieces of exposition, but even that doesn’t do much to liven things up. Paul is so clearly a Chosen One and so obviously going to be the main character that it’s hard to believe that he’s actually in any real peril.

Finally, and speaking of real peril, the last chapter of this section begins with an epigraph that I was certain was foreshadowing that Leto’s abovementioned impending death was actually imminent. After the foiled attempt on Paul’s life and this chapter’s ominous introduction, I felt sure that Duke Leto was not long for this world. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and instead we’re treated to what mostly amounts to even more exposition, though it’s all mixed together with some examination of Duke Leto’s toxic masculinity. Throughout the chapter, Leto is upset that he feels out of control, ashamed of his feelings of fear, and terrified for his son. He repeats, over and over again, “They have tried to take the life of my son!” and this mantra also contributes to the sense that Leto himself could be in danger as well, so it’s disappointing that he’s still living at the end of the chapter.

It’s obvious that Leto has to die in order for the story to progress, and I fully expect his death (likely murder) to be a major instigating event that sets Paul on whatever his path will be for the rest of the book. There’s a reason that many similar Chosen One and Hero’s Journey narratives just cut all this stuff out and start after the death of the parents, though, and that reason is that too much of this stuff can be very boring. That said, this pacing, excruciatingly slow and approaching dull as it is, still feels very deliberate, and Dune is a book that’s so well-loved and enduringly popular and influential that I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that there will be some payoff. I just hope it comes soon.

Let’s Read! Dune, Part One

Good news: I think I’m going to love this book, which is good since I’m going to be writing quite a lot about it over the next month. Bad news: I have to figure out how to keep my posts on it to a reasonable length; Dune is a pretty dense book, with a lot to analyze and talk about.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m breaking the book up into twelve sections of approximately forty pages each, and I’m treating each section that is headed up by an epigraph as a chapter, which is probably how I’ll refer to them even though they aren’t actually called chapters in the book. Today’s reading was pages one through forty-one in my edition of the book, which is broken up into five of these epigraph-headed chapters.

Each epigraph—seemingly all from the works of a fictional historian, Princess Irulan—introduces an idea, event, or point of view that is central to the following chapter, which is pleasant so far, though I’m somewhat concerned that the epigraphs will get tiresome as the book goes on. I’m not a huge fan of using epigraphs in this fashion in general, and I’m similarly not a fan of including lots of excerpts from fictional literature in fantasy and sci-fi. I know it’s a part of worldbuilding for some writers, and I’m sure some people love that crap, but I would be just as happy with simple chapter headings or short, evocative chapter titles instead. I’m perfectly capable of figuring out themes and stuff on my own, and these kinds of epigraphs always feel a little too much like authorial hand-holding to me. Still, it’s been a long while since I’ve read anything that uses this particular stylistic flourish, so it hasn’t worn out its welcome quite yet.

One thing that’s already notable about Dune is how dense with information Frank Herbert’s prose is. It’s really surprisingly lovely, and every page is full of wonderful descriptive language and whole treasure troves of metaphor and symbolism. It’s a science fiction novel written in the language of fantasy, with a tendency towards an almost mystical aesthetic, in spite of the book’s world being very high technology. My only complaint about the writing so far is that Herbert does seem to repeat phrases in ways that don’t seem particularly deliberate. It’s as if he just really likes certain imagery—such as the Reverend Mother’s “bird-bright eyes” which appear several times in the passages she’s part of. That said, I might not have noticed it if I wasn’t doing a sort of close reading of the text.

While there’s a ton of information packed into these first forty pages of the book, there’s actually not a lot of things actually happening. In fact, there’s essentially only a single actual event in the first five chapters: the boy Paul Atreides’s test with the Reverend Mother. The rest is character introductions, worldbuilding, and set up for the Atreides family’s imminent travel to Arrakis, which still hasn’t actually occurred yet. In a less well-written novel, this could make for a slow start, but Herbert’s style is engaging enough that he pulls off this exposition heavy beginning. I kind of wish already that I had broken the book into smaller sections to write about, but at the same time I didn’t want to stop reading when I got to the end of today’s section. I can already tell that it’s going to be hard to keep from rushing through the whole book in a single sitting.

The sheer lack of women in most of the seminal genre works by men is a major factor in my not reading much of that stuff at this point in my life. Often, if women do appear in these older works, they’re treated poorly in the narrative and written to conform to various sexist (and often downright misogynistic) ideals. It can make for boring (in the absence of women) and/or infuriating (with the presence of sexism) reading. So far, Dune looks as if it may fall into the latter category, though it’s not nearly so bad as some other books of its time period.

To start with, at least, women figure largely in Paul Atreides’s early life, though I have a sneaking suspicion that they won’t continue to appear so prominently in the story. His mother, Jessica, is a sort of nun or priestess, part of the Bene Gesserit, a school of politics and eugenics that I guess plays a large part in the administration of order in the Dune universe. Jessica was actually supposed to have a daughter who could have been married to the heir of the Atreides’s rivals, the Harkonnens, but she instead chose to give birth to a son, Paul, who she believes could be the “Kwisatz Haderach,” a sort of prophesied Chosen One. She’s raised Paul and provided him with special training in order to prepare him for the test he faces in the opening chapter. So far, Jessica is also a staunch advocate for her son, to the point where it’s even suggested that if he failed the test she might have killed herself, which about made my eyes roll right out of my head, but that’s not the most groan-worthy part of what I’ve read so far.

The second woman of importance so far is the Reverend Mother who administers a test to Paul in order to determine if he’s human or not, because apparently in the far future of Dune not all people are human. The Reverend Mother is elderly and wise, but also faintly cruel and rather sinister. Her interactions with Paul Atreides are mostly about establishing his status in the narrative (though not in the Reverend Mother’s eyes) as a Chosen One sort of character, and it also sets up what seems like a potentially adversarial relationship between Paul and the Bene Gesserit, or perhaps even between Paul and powerful women depending on how you choose to interpret all this set-up. Essentially, while the Reverend Mother is doubtful, Paul obviously totally is this Kwisatz Haderach figure of prophecy who is supposed to be the only man who can survive a Truthsayer drug, which will grant him powers that set him above all the women who currently hold some portion of similar powers as part of their Bene Gesserit training. I’m not sure how much the book is going to get into all this stuff at this rate, but gender definitely figures largely in the narrative Herbert is crafting here.

So far, Dune feels like a fairly straightforward Chosen One story, albeit heavy on politics so far. Paul Atreides isn’t a simple farm boy, but he does seem to have a grand destiny ahead of him and he’s introduced in much the same fashion as most other Gary Stu characters. He’s only fifteen, but he’s got a prophecy about him and he’s remarkably good at literally everything he’s done so far, which is a pretty good start for this sort of character. Still, it’s hard to mock Paul. So much of this early part of the book isn’t about him at all, and we spend most of our time with other characters and just learning about the Dune universe. I’d hate to pick on the protagonist this early in the book when there’s so much else going on that’s fascinating. While I’m not entirely sold on the whole prophesy thing, where Paul is supposed to be this great man who is marked, at least in part, by being better than a bunch of women at everything those women have been doing for I guess centuries, there’s a ton of other cool stuff in Dune so far.

The Harkonnen family, who I guess are supposed to be the Atreides family’s biggest social, political and business rivals, are introduced in the second chapter of the book, and they are so far much more interesting than anything Paul is up to. The Baron is a legitimately creepy dude, and the Mentat assassin Piter is sinister as hell. Even Feyd-Rautha, the Baron’s nephew/heir/lover, is an interesting sort of tertiary villain, though he isn’t particularly well-described, at least in comparison the Baron and Piter, who are both introduced at some length and have such distinct personalities that Feyd-Rautha’s relative taciturnity makes him more part of the background than anything else. The repeated descriptions of Baron Harkonnen’s fatness, greed and gluttony are perhaps very heavy-handed especially in light of modern trends towards less overtly and stereotypically negative portrayals of fatness, but the imagery of a man so fat that he uses an apparatus to prevent his having to carry his own weight is still a powerful symbol that sheds a good deal of light on what kind of man the Baron is.

The fifth chapter of Dune finally introduces us to the planet of Arrakis itself, although Paul and his family still haven’t started their journey to their new home. Instead of showing Arrakis to us right away, Herbert prepares the reader the same way Paul Atreides is prepared by his teacher, Dr. Yueh. It might seem like a bit too much telling rather than showing for modern readers, but Herbert’s descriptions of the planet’s environment, people, and GIANT FUCKING SAND WORMS are so vivid that you still kind of feel like you’re there. This type of exposition may be somewhat out of fashion, but it still gets the job done, and Dune isn’t old enough to feel truly archaic. Instead, it’s a novel that, at least in the first five chapters, feels distinctly ahead of its time.

That said, I’m ready to get to Arrakis already. I understand this is a politics-heavy novel, but there is some adventure, right?