These 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.