October 29, 2021

Dune: a pitiless, arid expanse that stretches out endlessly in every direction. But enough about Frank Herbert’s writing style. Let’s consider the world he built. Whatever you think of the author’s prose — and it can be a slog — you have to admire the sheer depth and detail of the fictional setting.

As Arthur C. Clarke put it:“I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.” It’s a justified parallel. Dune is as central to science-fiction as JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece is to fantasy.

With Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) on general release we finally have a decent film adaptation. Villeneuve has done for Herbert what Peter Jackson did for Tolkien in the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). But dig a bit deeper into the comparisons, and I fear that team Tolkien comes off worse.

Let’s start with the central character in each story: Frodo Baggins in Tolkien’s epic and Paul Atreides in Herbert’s. Both embody the archetype of the reluctant hero. On screen, they’re portrayed by similar actors — Elijah Wood as Frodo and Timothée Chalamet as Paul. These are very much of a type: one part leading man, two parts haunted Victorian doll. Chalamet, though, oozes charisma, while Wood merely gains our sympathy. Score one to Dune. 

Then there’s the rest of the cast — which in the case of Dune meets the multi-ethnic criteria of contemporary film making. The Rings trilogy, almost 20 years older, does not. This is hardly Jackson’s fault — nor Tolkien’s for that matter. There’s an obvious difference in context between a fantasy world inspired by Nordic legend and the galactic melting pot of the far future. 

As for gender balance, it must be admitted that Tolkien’s tale is a bit of a Boy’s Own adventure. Nevertheless, Jackson did his best to push female characters to the forefront. It hasn’t been so difficult for Villeneuve. For a start, the source material provides more to work with — for instance the “Bene Gesserit”, an order of terrifying space-nuns. Also Villeneuve was able to change the sex of one of the originally male characters, the scientist Liet Kynes, without it making much difference to the plot. I’m not sure Jackson could have done the same to, say, Gandalf. 

Still, such excuses won’t cut much ice with today’s progressives. We can expect their tutting disapproval to be layered on top of previous attacks on Tolkien and everything he supposedly represents. 

Dune is a progressive view of the future — it features a revolution against the established order. Tolkien’s fiction, on the other hand, is portrayed as nostalgic and reactionary — a yearning for a golden age that never existed. After all, what are the Hobbits except idealised Little Englanders who’d have definitely voted for Brexit?

The irony is that Lord of the Rings was once at the cutting edge. Though first published in the mid-1950s, it didn’t become a publishing sensation until a decade later — around the same time as Dune in fact. Both novels achieved cult status with the counterculture of the late 1960s. This was a more comfortable fit for Herbert, the free-thinking Californian, than for Tolkien, the tweedy, Catholic Englishman. Yet the latter did once observe that his political opinions “lean more and more towards Anarchy”.

The narcotic obsessions of the Sixties are lavishly catered for in Dune — whose entire plot (spoilers ahead!) revolves around a perception-altering substance called “Spice”. There is rather less druggery in Tolkien’s fiction, but some have interpreted the “pipeweed” of the Hobbits as consisting of more than tobacco. Certainly, one can see why the hippies were so entranced by the bucolic, laid-back lifestyle of the Shire. 

A strong current of environmentalism runs through both books. However, while Herbert was a self-taught ecologist, Tolkien’s obvious distaste for industrialisation strikes his critics as sentimental and unsophisticated. Herbert’s ideas appear to be more astute because they’re informed by scientific and technological speculation. Though the events of his novel take place 20,000 years into the future, they clearly relate to the concerns of our own time. 

Let’s start with the desert world of Dune itself, also known as Arrakis. The planet is the only source of the aforementioned Spice — a drug that enables humanity to navigate between the stars. Without it, space travel would be impossible. Wars are therefore fought to control access to this indispensable resource. 

One only has to substitute crude oil for Spice to see what Herbert was getting at. For a book written in the early 1960s — years before oil shocks of the 1970s — he was well ahead of the curve. To drive the point home, his description of Dune and the culture of its native inhabitants is saturated with words and concepts adapted from Arabic and from Islam. 

Herbert tackles some other contemporary concerns — for instance the risks posed by artificial intelligence. In the future he imagines, AI has been forbidden: the most solemn of religious commands is “thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind”.

A technology that hasn’t been banned is the “Axlotl Tank” — an organic machine used by a branch of humanity called the “Bene Tleilax” to give birth to clones. The horrible suggestion is that because the Bene Tleilax are exclusively male, the Axlotl Tanks are all that remain of their females. This is the bio-politics of surrogacy taken to its ultimate, ghastly conclusion. 

You won’t find biting social commentary like that in the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s story was more expansive; it was about something that will never change, which is the corrupting effect of power. Yet this is where Tolkien is superior to Herbert. His heroes — and heroines — pass the test because they refuse to accept the world-changing power that the Ring would confer upon them.

My favourite passage in all of Tolkien is where Frodo freely offers the Ring to Galadriel. For a heart-stopping moment, the elven queen is tempted. It would, after all, be better for her to wear the Ring than the evil Sauron. Yet she understands that she too would be made monstrous by it: “All shall love me and despair!” And so she refuses Frodo’s gift. 

Frank Herbert’s hero, however, does not refuse. There is no actual Ring in Dune, but there is ultimate power. Paul Atreides takes it. Later he has second thoughts, but not before his galactic Jihad has killed sixty billion people and sterilised ninety planets. Bit late to turn pacifist after that. 

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Herbert did say that the “power attracts pathological personalities” and that his stories were meant as a warning that “superheroes are disastrous for mankind”.

And yet in the sequels to Dune, Paul’s son, Leto, takes up where his dad left off. In fact, he turns himself into a giant worm (don’t ask) and imposes an absolute dictatorship on the known universe for next three thousand years. Crucially, Herbert provides him with an excuse — the “Golden Path” — meaning a super-human vision of the best possible future for all mankind. Any unpleasantness along the way is justified by the greater good. 

I think we’ve heard that one before. 

In 1965 Tolkien was sent a copy of Dune. The next year, he was sent another one. Writing back he confessed that he was familiar with the book — and disliked it “with some intensity”. As usual, the old man was right.