What happens when you revisit the woefully misremembered science fiction of your youth? Joe Howley (Latin teacher) and Johannah King-Slutzky (internet wraith) asked adults to re-read their genre favorites from childhood. For the second in our series, we talked to bona fide adult Dave Klion, a foreign policy analyst and editor at World Politics Review, about Frank Herbert’s 1965 epic, Dune. We spoke with Dave via Gchat about how Dune affected his foreign policy analyst career choice, how Dune’s cultural values have held up over time, and how it relates to the only other books we’ve read– other science fiction novels and Greek tragedies. The following conversation has been gently massaged for clarity.
Also: Dune spoilers throughout. Sequel spoilers are sectioned off with **[SPOILERS]** and **[END SPOILERS]**
JOHANNAH KING-SLUTZKY: Hello Dave!
DAVE KLION: Hi!
JOE HOWLEY: Hi guys! Dave Our Guest: can you briefly introduce yourself?
DAVE: Yes. I’m an editor at World Politics Review, a subscription-based foreign affairs website based in Dumbo. I’ve held that job for about six months, and it’s great. Before that I was a full-time editor at Bloggingheads.tv and an occasional freelancer, and I’ve also variously been a defense contractor, a DC intern, an English teacher in Russia, and a PhDropout from the Soviet history program at the University of Chicago (I have an M.A. from there). I grew up in and around DC, which is how I know Joe, and my deep interest in sci-fi was probably from ages 11-15 and significantly influenced by Joe during that period.
JOE: I didn’t realize that! That’s nice to hear but also makes me feel guilty.
DAVE: Well not just you, but you were among my good friends who were also sci-fi nerds at the time.
JOE: Dune is definitely one of the earliest book experiences I remember sharing with a friend. The only book I remember you enjoying more was Foundation.
DAVE: I was definitely into Asimov, Ender’s Game, Larry Niven (your influence there), Star Wars, Star Trek (you especially, again). I first read Dune when I was 11, but didn’t really get into it until I reread it at 12 or 13. In early high school, it was my favorite book, but I’m not sure when the last time I read it was before this year.
JOE: So your background in history and your work in geopolitics, which always seems influenced by a lot of historical perspective, is why I thought Dune would be so interesting. When you were 11, 12, 13, why did the book appeal to you so much? How did you relate to it at that age?
DAVE: I’m sure like a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, the perspective of an intelligent, angry young man who’s actually a messianic figure (of sorts; more on that later) and who’s constantly manipulated by adults has a natural appeal… this accounts for the enduring popularity of Ender’s Game, no doubt. But that wasn’t the main thing. The main thing was how expansive and deep and thoroughly imagined the Dune universe is. Nothing else I’d read in classic sci-fi came close. You mentioned Foundation, which has plenty of Big Ideas but is very unimaginative in the details. Everyone is smoking a cigar or using some basic technology that is “nuclear-powered” for some reason.
JOE: Wait—I want to ask something about my great Dune shame. Although on rereading it this time, I totally clocked that the Fremen were meant to be descended from some sort of Muslim people, I completely failed to connect it in any way to the Middle East. Johannah had to hold my hand and point to “Arrakis” and “Shaddam” and also the fact that the planet’s main resource is the fuel of international trade and war. But, like, we were growing up in Gulf War Times. I never noticed any of this, ever.
DAVE: Right. You can sketch a very broad geopolitical critique knowing the book was written in the 60s and knowing a bit about Herbert. I got a bit of it when I first read Dune, but it’s more obvious now
The Atreides are Greek, hence democratic and Western and noble. “Vladimir Harkonnen” is Russian-ish. (Also gay, that’s another thing we’ll have to discuss)
JOHANNAH: He is also described as having a Roman nose, maybe related to the gay thing.
DAVE: Right. So you’ve got a sort of Cold War over the desert, populated by Arabic(ish) people who control the precious commodity that makes transportation possible. Plus you’ve got a Lawrence of Arabia-esque Mighty Whitey story. Dune is firmly in the tradition of Avatar, Dances with Wolves, etc. It’s much deeper, but still.
JOHANNAH: How much of this did you pick up when you were reading it for the first time?
DAVE: I was vaguely aware of the concept of the Cold War and the Mideast having a lot of oil in middle school, but not like I am now. I got that it was supposed to be Middle Eastern, I caught “Shaddam” and lots of Arabic-sounding words. But I think I saw it as original, like it sprung from Herbert’s brilliant mind and wasn’t an allegory for anything.
JOE: I’m not even sure I was prepared to read for allegory at that age. I loved Star Wars, which is full of randomly borrowed language mish-mash, and I think I just took it as that.
DAVE: I often think Dune was the link between sci-fi nerdery and history nerdery for me. It helped me transition from one to the other. Because real politics and warfare and religion and civilizational clash is endlessly fascinating in the same way these imagined universes were for me.
JOHANNAH: Were there any particular details in the book that really grabbed your attention that way?
DAVE: Certainly the Bene Gesserit and the Guild, these institutions that arise from a major shift in technology. In Star Wars, you have a fantasy universe “a long time ago” with space trappings, and you just accept that. In Dune, there’s an elaborate reason why you have this hybrid sci-fi/fantasy setting, why we’ve returned to the middle ages.
JOE: As an adult, I’ve come to respect that kind of deep-history fantasy and SF (Tolkien being the prime exemplar), but I think in our tween years, Dave was already clocking to that as a driving force of this book.
DAVE: Yes, and recently I’ve gotten into Game of Thrones, which is very big on history as a component of world-building. To an incredible extent for a show with such mainstream appeal, I think. Also, I was always struck by how hard it was to pin down what Dune is “about” compared to most sci-fi. You can imagine a sci-fi novel that is simply about a desert planet: a bunch of stock heroes fly their rocket ship to the desert planet and there are worms, cool. Or maybe a dystopian quasi-medieval future where witches control all breeding. Sure.
JOHANNAH: Actually, the “what is it about” is one of the big issues Joe and I struggled with: “What is the point of this conflict?” And: “What is Paul’s motive?” What would you say the book is about?
DAVE: So it seems to be “about” a few big themes, which are interwoven. One is the danger of anointing a messiah figure. The sequels, especially the first two, flesh this out more, but it’s all there in the original.
JOHANNAH: I sort of wanted one to be the primary theme and have others stem off from that. Herbert does a great job of showing how they causally relate, but I wanted the plot to have a single motor or source of anxiety.
DAVE: It makes a bit more sense through the real-world allegory. It’s not just that the most precious resource all the great powers fight over comes from the harsh desert; it comes from a harsh desert where an oppressed, fanatically religious people live. What if this situation explodes? And sure enough, that’s still a concern 50 years later. We keep invading oil-rich Iraq and installing new thuggish rulers, but we can’t keep the violent radicals down. Do I feel satisfied? Yes, but I remember being frustrated by all the loose ends, but then I came to see that as a good thing. That’s how history works. Nothing is ever tied up neatly.
JOE: Oh man, I like that! Like Johannah, I felt this desire for the book to be about something clear and discrete. And then I thought, maybe that’s wrong, maybe it is also a virtue for a book to be about the exposition of a world.
DAVE: It’s still conventional in many ways. Our young prince develops all his powers, avenges his father, and conquers everything. The oppressed natives revolt. The bad guys are defeated. And the spice, which we keep hearing is so awesome, we finally grasp its full potential.
JOE: Some of that tidiness felt like the weakest parts of the book to me. You get your “Return of the Jedi” final showdown, but why is the emperor there at all? You get the big native revolt, but it’s all offstage, and kind of a foregone conclusion.
DAVE: I remember comparing the Emperor in Dune to ROTJ as well, but it’s very different. Palpatine is the actual devil, the ultimate expression of the Dark Side, the purest villain. Shaddam is like many emperors in real history, an overdressed farce much more vulnerable than he realizes.
JOE: Johannah and I also felt like Paul was a much more troubling hero. She never really liked him, I felt like he was supposed to be sympathetic early on but wasn’t, and then wasn’t at all by the end.
DAVE: I think Paul is supposed to be relatable to angsty teenage boys, but his inhuman stature by the end is meant to trouble you. We’re supposed to understand his victory contains great tragedy, and this is made more explicit in the sequel.
JOHANNAH: Ahh, I thought that might be the case. I haven’t read the sequels but I thought Alia would become the hero and Paul, the antagonist.
DAVE: Paul is more of a tragic figure. He ends up kind of pathetic. The really admirable characters are in the supporting cast: Jessica, Gurney, Stilgar…
JOE: Gurney <3
DAVE: In the sequels, Duncan Idaho is continually cloned and becomes a more conventional audience proxy. Over millennia, he observes Paul and his descendants critically while engaged in typical heroics. If you read the whole series, which you should feel no urgent need to do, Duncan feels like the real protagonist.
JOHANNAH: One of the issues Joe and I discussed is that—I’m borrowing Joe’s diction here—”the nature of Paul’s excellence” is muddied, but that Jessica has a pretty clear moment of tragic heroism: it’s when she disobeys the Bene Gesserit order to produce a daughter.
DAVE: Yes, and that’s not even the only example. She takes the Water of Life and becomes a Reverend Mother, at great risk. She attempts to guide Paul but increasingly finds she can’t. We get a surprising amount from her perspective, though, her innermost thoughts. That’s one way it’s different from conventional genre fiction. The angsty young hero’s mother is the most fully realized character, more than him, and we get her perspective on him. And she’s a badass, too.
JOHANNAH: Joe, by the way, as an actual expert feel free to jump in here about tragedies and heroism.
JOE: Yeah, I feel professionally obligated to point out that it’s easy to misunderstand the nature of tragedies and their protagonists. Many of the Greek tragedies are about choices, but just as many are about things that happen in spite of choices. My favorite example is Oedipus, who actually does not do anything wrong to end up in the state he’s in. I mean, you could argue that he goes a little overboard killing a stranger he meets on the road. But he doesn’t choose his fate. Many of the Greek tragedies point out that the whole situation is screwed to begin with. And it’s about how people deal with the circumstances they are in more than it is about them creating those circumstances.
As Dave pointed out, the name “Atreides” for the main character’s family in Dune is a pretty blunt instrument to put on this mantle of classicism. On the one hand, it’s just the family that Agamemnon and Menelaus, the main generals of the Trojan War on the Greek side, come from. So it could just be Western nobility and heroism in the old mythic sense. Great Men Who Excel. But the house of Atreides has this famous curse on it, which is what Aeschylus’s Oresteia is about. Basically, a family doomed to kill its own members. I’m not sure how that maps onto the Dune characters, to be honest, except there is that thing about who Paul’s grandfather really is.
DAVE: Well, in Paul, we have a guy who’s fulfilling his genetic birthright and deep training (the Kwisatz Haderach, taught by his mom and the best mentats and swordsman), and who’s avenging his father/family and reclaiming his title. He’s self-actualizing and restoring justice. And rescuing an oppressed people too, and toppling a corrupt empire! All great things to do. Except whoops, he’s unleashed jihad in the process. So that’s the tragedy, and with his prescience, he sees it coming but keeps taking individually justified steps toward it anyway. You’re right, the evil grandfather is a pretty blunt indicator as well.
JOE: This is a point I got really stuck on: Why’s Paul so great? Has he inherited ethical nobility from his dad?
DAVE: Duke Leto is a bit of a Ned Stark figure, of course, brought down because he’s too trusting, too honorable. But there’s that scene where Jessica and Thufir stare each other down and you remember these are violent, cold-blooded people.
Even Leto’s ethics are undermined a bit. They use propaganda to promote the idea to the populace that the Atreides are especially good. Clearly they’re charismatic and lead by example and aren’t just blatant thugs like the Harkonnens. Clearly they inspire fierce passion. But still, they operate by spies and assassins and feudal marriages like everyone else.
JOHANNAH: This reminds me of the decadent Atreides garden at the beginning of the novel. It’s the same thing as Dave is pointing out—their nobility has been meticulously constructed and on inspection isn’t so great.
JOE: I wanted to talk about Paul and adolescence, because I think that’s part of what propels him as a character. In some ways the book is very knowing about this. He learns about the prophecy he fulfills, but then there is a lot of angst and uncertainty. The one thing you might call his superpower, aside from the training, is this ability to see all possible futures and his terror of acting or not acting, futures closing down or opening up.
JOHANNAH: Yes, I love how this works allegorically on both political and personal levels, that this is the dramatization of adolescence. This must have been what so much of the 60s felt like, too: a terrifying blooming of possibilities that scares not just you but—and you are aware of it—your own parents.
DAVE: There are interesting philosophical questions, some of which could draw comparisons with Ender’s Game. The two are fundamentally similar in this respect: the heroes, who are bred and trained from birth to be The One, both commit genocide but in both cases we’re meant to understand they had no choice, but they still carry the guilt. So in Dune, one question is whether Paul actually could make choices to prevent the jihad. Does the jihad occur because his desire for revenge overcomes his prescience? I think that’s the tragedy… Paul is only able to fulfill his goals by committing to an even worse outcome.
JOE: Johannah, you had something to say before about how this uncontrollable power surging through Paul is a very adolescent thing. Not just, oh, I’m special, but also, oh, if unchecked I will destroy the galaxy.
DAVE: I can see that. Every adolescent feels simultaneously powerless in their circumstances, and like the feelings inside of them are so big they could destroy the universe.
JOE: Something that I definitely one hundred percent didn’t pick up on when I read Dune as a tween, but that I think your adult rereading primed me to see, is the glaring, weird… call it homophobia?
DAVE: It’s absolutely homophobia.
JOE: So maybe just to be clear what we are talking about: basically every chapter about the villainous, grotesquely fat, psychopathic Baron Harkonnen ends with a reminder that he is a gay pedophile. You’ve just seen him do something wicked, and then also he looks at a boy’s butt or thinks about raping a child.
DAVE: I don’t think I fully grasped this when I was 11. I mean, pedophilia and rape are gross, and as an adolescent who wasn’t anti-gay I didn’t assume this reflected the author’s homophobia, but it clearly does.
JOHANNAH: Another Ender’s Game parallel.
DAVE: So Brian, Frank Herbert’s son, he also wrote a memoir, and I’ve only read a few excerpts. But apparently his brother, in his words, “had become a homosexual” at some point. This was too much for Herbert, a devout Catholic, and the brother was disowned. Herbert believed homosexuality brought down all the great empires.
JOE: You know, the more I thought about this book, the more I started to read Herbert as generically 60s leftist, but this is clearly a problem.
DAVE: I’m not sure how well he maps onto our modern culture wars.
JOE: Maybe that’s part of why I had so much trouble pinning down any kind of obvious heroism for Paul, or why I wanted to so badly—because the villains are so obviously gross villains.
DAVE: My best justification for it is that it’s misdirection. The Harkonnens are unambiguously terrible, so we root against them, but in the end it’s not about them, it’s about what Paul is becoming and what the Fremen jihad will be.
JOE: Johannah, you didn’t seem as shocked as I was about this part of the book—I think you felt like it’s de rigueur for genre fiction from that period.
JOHANNAH: Oh, definitely. I am queer and this stuff weighed very heavily on me when I was younger—not just in this book but in almost all sci-fi from the 60s.
JOE: You cited Stranger In A Strange Land, right?
JOHANNAH: Yes. It seems to come up often in books about fantasies of togetherness where sex between men is the one thing that cannot take place. And the fantasy of telekinesis, especially, seems very prominent in 60s genre fiction, which makes sense when you think about what was going on politically at the time.
There’s an argument to be made that homophobia is characteristic of science fiction because sci-fi is a haven for nerds, and queerness and nerdiness share a basic sense of exclusion. I also don’t think that these homophobic moments are particularly different from what I see as Dune’s misogyny, although there’s a lot of good feminist stuff in there too and I think that is how the book is primarily remembered. But this is a story about a man who has special powers because he can enter the women’s realm (this is explicit in Bene Gesserit lore). Women are never given the symmetrical access to power, which is a classic patriarchal structure delineated by queer theorists like Eve Sedgwick and others.
DAVE: It’s kind of the mighty whitey model again, but for gender.
JOHANNAH: Right. You see it over and over again, it’s a basic characteristic of most kinds of discrimination. Not only is it exclusionary, it also builds solidarity between members of the in-group. Applying the same thinking to homophobia in Dune, the Harkonnens’ queerness makes them look bad to contemporary readers and the Atreides, but it is also a sign of the Atreides’ goodness.
DAVE: And there’s this persistent anxiety throughout the book, literally to the last line, about Jessica’s concubine status.
JOHANNAH: Yes! Joe and I were puzzled by that—it seemed like one of those extraneous threads.
DAVE: Jessica is in some ways the audience proxy, because we get her viewpoint throughout the book and she doesn’t transform into a superhuman to the extent Paul does. We witness Paul’s transformation through her.
JOHANNAH: Yes, and many of her powers are actually quite boring. There is a moment in the beginning of the book where Yueh has a waver in his voice when discussing his dead wife, and Jessica, supposedly using superhuman intuition, is like, “Oh he must be upset.”
JOHANNAH: Ughhh I warmed to her after she drinks of the Water of Life, but mostly she was just this mom. I wanted her to be more badass. (Is that terrible to moms?) I would have loved for her to have definition outside the context of wife and mother. Also she is IMMEDIATELY upstaged by her 15 year old son, which sucks.
JOE: I was affected by the growing distance between her and Paul as he became more super-powered.
DAVE: Yes, that’s key. But also by the sense in the early chapters that she’s the most powerful Atreides but is obligated to downplay that. As with Game of Thrones, this is a portrayal of a male-dominated society where women are treated as second-class. But in fact, the women are often more powerful and smarter than the men. Almost every woman referred to in the book has some Bene Gesserit training.
JOHANNAH: Yes, but in GoT Cersei at least is a BAD mother, which is to me, much more interesting.
DAVE: Fair. In general, GoT is a more fully realized universe with more interesting characters, but it also came later.
JOE: So to get back to the sort of starting point of “books we loved as #teens,” do you think you read this book at the right time?
DAVE: I definitely do. For me, it helped me understand that dark side/light side dynamics aren’t really what drive history.
JOE: I told Johannah this is like the band Nirvana—I had no idea teens are still into it, but God bless them.