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My 37 Years of Dune, and Other Observations

posted Oct 8, 2015, 2:51 AM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Nov 5, 2015, 1:29 AM ]

Unfortunately, I arrived a bit late and didn’t hear all of Kevin J. Anderson’s keynote that officially opened the Dune 50th Anniversary exhibit at Cal State Fullerton (further blogging on that subject here). But I did sit in on enough of his remarks. which focused on his own relationship to the Dune novels, first as a fan and then as a writer entrusted with filling out the Dune universe, to spin off a couple of observations.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the depth and breadth of the Dune universe, but the apparent quantity of Dune-related material that Frank Herbert left behind is staggering. There are the manuscripts and other documents that he bequeathed to Cal State Fullerton, and the troves that his son Brian catalogued, and that Brian and Kevin pored over before they began writing their own Dune novels. But those aren’t the all of it. Kevin mentioned a safe deposit box that Frank Herbert’s executors turned up 10 years after his death with an extended treatment for a seventh Dune novel in it; and a previously overlooked  box full of notes that Brian discovered while cleaning out his garage — and those just by example. Again, this mass of material isn’t really surprising — just as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings only constitutes a fraction of what Tolkien set to paper about Middle Earth — but it’s still staggering.

Listening to Kevin tell these stories, I began to realize something else that is probably pretty obvious, but hadn’t quite crystallized in my mind until then: that Dune us really two separate phenomena. There are the six novels that Frank Herbert published during his lifetime, that are self-contained artifacts that you can appreciate for their formal and stylistic qualities. And then there is the Dune universe, this astounding accumulation of characters, settings, ideas and storylines of which the novels are only a part, and which actually exist independently of Frank Herbert’s stylistic and formal skills as a writer. I’m sure that the vast majority of Dune fans appreciate both of these aspects, but nonetheless, one can separate them and consider them apart.

This in turn provides a way of understanding why Kevin and Brian undertook this great labor of writing their own fictions set in one of the most admired settings in all of science fiction and fantasy, even though they are both very different writers from Frank Herbert. They’re both smart and savvy enough to have realized that there would be some pushback from fans who would accept no new Dune fiction that wasn’t Frank Herbert redux. But Kevin remarked at one point that there are gaps in the overall timeline, where Herbert jumped from one point to another without explaining in detail what happened between Point A and Point C. This left Kevin and Brian room in which to flesh out the timeline through writing their own fiction, based on Frank Herbert’s notes, but in a different voice and style.

In other words, they are treating Dune as a universe, of which Frank Herbert’s six novels provide only partial coverage. Dune, a thing and a proper noun, as opposed to Dune, the title of a novel. It’s not the formal, literary Dune — which cannot be replicated in any event because, as Kevin said, Frank Herbert was such a singular talent.

It also occurred to me that this is what you do when you adapt an existing intellectual property into a roleplaying game. The original IP’s formal qualities as a novel, or a movie, or a TV show cease to matter. What matters most is how to describe the universe, and in such a way as to allow the players to create their own niche within it. My first break in writing for roleplaying games came when Owen Seyler of Last Unicorn Games assigned me a couple of chapters of Federated Houses of the Landsdraad, which was to be the first supplement for Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium. My job was to profile the other Houses Major of the Landsdraad, and also to describe Kaitan, the Corrino Imperial capital, including the layout of the Imperial City and important locations. I didn’t have any of Frank Herbert’s notes for reference — my goodness, how exciting it would have been if I had! I simply inferred and extrapolated what I could from the published novels. I recall that Brian Herbert, as his father’s literary executor, approved what I had written as sufficiently kosher, even though the book was never published.

Despite the fact that it did not end well, working on Chronicles of the Imperium will always be one of the high points of my career as a roleplaying game writer. Because it was Dune, and I got to stick my hands in that universe and knead it, and work it, and ponder it, like a can of divinely inspired Play Doh. I don’t go back the full 50 years with Dune, but I first read the original trilogy when I was a sophomore in high school and loved it as an epic full of action and adventure and memorable heroes and villains, set in a rich and exotic world that you couldn’t get out of your mind even if you wanted to do so. For years, I kept it handy on my shelf because I kept going back to it whenever a scene or line would pop back into my head.

I re-read the trilogy in full 20 years later, preparing to write my contribution to Federated Houses of the Landsdraad. As great works of art are supposed to do, it revealed different aspects of itself to me the second time around. With a decade of academic study of literature at my back, I marveled at Frank Herbert’s ear for dialogue and keen sense of drama. In particular, I noticed the skillful stage management of the last chapter of Dune, as Paul Muad’dib deals with liberated friends and defeated foes each in their turn..When I came to that moment when Thufir Hawat rebukes the Corrino with his dying breath for thinking that he would ever betray the Atreides, it occurred to me that Shakespeare could scarcely have done it any better.

More importantly, I realized that the Dune trilogy — or at least. Dune and Dune Messiah — is, in one of its most salient aspects, a tragedy that reaches back into the viscera of the Western literary tradition, not only to the revenge tragedies that were so popular in Shakespeare’s time, but also back to its origins in Classical Greece. Paul Atreides drinks the Water of Life to give himself the power to avenge his father’s death and restore his family’s honor — both of them laudable goals. But doing so literally costs him his humanity, for once he is the Kwisatz Haderach, he is no longer a human being. He ends Dune on a high note, but by the end of Dune Messiah, it is clear that power (in all senses of the word) has cost him the one thing that would have made him happy — a normal married life with Chani. At the last (and let’s set aside his return in Children of Dune as a separate narrative arc), Paul goes into exile, blind and guided into the desert by a boy — surely a deliberate echo of Oedipus and the birth of a definition of tragedy that has rung true for 2500 years.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that I will be able to go to the Columbus Day screening of Jodorowsky’s Dune, so this may be it for me checking out the festivities. They’re also screening the two Sci-Fi Channel Dune miniseries, but I have already seen both (I can kind of recommend the second, have no desire to see the first ever again). So I am glad that I took the time to head down there on Day 1, to see the exhibit at Pollak Library and hear Kevin speak — and to chat briefly with him afterward and share his frustration that Apple hadn’t yet released our Veiled Alliances app into the iOS App Store. But that is another matter for another post.