Dune is on a lot of minds right now thanks to the new movie finally releasing in the US,* which is great as there’s a lot to talk about. From marveling at the desert ecology and mighty sandworms to critiques over the book’s racist and classist themes, there’s plenty to keep us occupied until Villeneuve gets his sequel finished.
Unfortunately, critiquing Dune can be something of a headache, as there are a subset of fans who’re convinced that any problem with the book can be explained away as clever commentary or scathing subversion. Did you find it sexist that the Bene Gesserit, a mystical order of all women, exists primarily to breed a super strong magic man? Obviously you don’t realize that the Kwisatz Haderach is a balance of both masculine and feminine, but also a dude who’s very manly. Are you uncomfortable with a white-coded hero becoming the leader of an Arab-coded people? If only you had the clarity to see that by reveling in white savior and chosen one tropes, Paul is somehow doing the opposite of those tropes. For reasons.
I won’t try to change the minds of people who think that way, as any such attempt would be little more than a circular argument of obscure Dune quotations from now until the rains fall on Arrakis. Instead, it’s time to go over the main reasons Dune doesn’t actually work as a subversion, commentary, or critique. That way, the rest of us will know how to avoid similar problems.
The Later Books Aren’t Required
If you post any critique of Dune anywhere online, it is a universal law that you’ll quickly receive a reply that’s some variant of “I guess someone hasn’t read the second book.” The italics are optional, but the dripping smugness is universal.
The idea is that you can’t critique the first book until you’ve read the other books in the series. How far you’re supposed to read will change depending on who you’re arguing with, but it usually stops before Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson enter the picture. An especially common variant of this argument is that the first book may appear to be playing its tropes straight, but the second book brilliantly subverts them.
This doesn’t hold up because stories don’t work that way. If a story is released on its own, then it has to stand on its own, even if it’s part of a larger series. The practical reason for this is that there’s no guarantee that readers will pick up a second book that’s published years* later. Indeed, most novel series suffer a sharp decline in readership after the first book. It’s difficult to get exact numbers, but the best estimate I could find is that of Dune’s 20 million copies sold, about 12 million are the first book, and the remaining 8 million are spread across the rest of the franchise. Unless several million readers were all sharing one copy of Dune Messiah, that’s quite a drop-off.
Another practical obstacle is that if readers think you’re genuinely adhering to bad tropes in the first book, why should they read the second one? Most of the time, they’ll just find more of the same, so it’s not realistic to expect them to take a chance on you. Alternatively, they might take the tropes to heart and then reject the sequel’s subversion. I have a sneaking suspicion that Dune’s sequels are generally held in lower esteem for precisely this reason, but that’s not something I can prove unless someone wants to lend me a research team and a Mentat advisor to crunch the numbers.
More philosophically, almost no one actually thinks of stories this way. The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is great, but that doesn’t retroactively make the first and second seasons less terrible. Trek fans might be more willing to slog through beardless Riker and Dr. “I Hate Androids” Pulaski if they know there’s something better on the other side, but the episodes themselves are still bad.
Likewise, we all know that a sequel being bad doesn’t retroactively make the earlier installments worse. That’s why we can still enjoy the original Star Wars trilogy, despite Jar Jar Binks and “somehow Palpatine returned.” For that matter, it’s why we can still enjoy Dune, despite the absolute mess that later books eventually became.
But easily the most damning evidence is that if you push back on anyone making this claim, you’ll immediately discover that they also think the first book is actually a brilliant subversion as well. The argument about reading later books is only ever deployed in an attempt to silence critics.
Justification Isn’t Commentary
Dune’s most obvious problem is that Paul is a white savior chosen one: a white-coded hero* joining an Arab-coded* culture and saving it from whatever danger it faces, just as the prophecy said he would. This is also Dune’s most hotly contested problem, and it usually comes back to the idea that Paul can’t be a white savior or chosen one, because everything about him is artificially constructed.
If you’re not up on Dune lore, what we’re told is that the Bene Gesserit have a special division called the Missionaria Protectiva, which is sent to worlds all over the galaxy to plant beliefs and legends favorable to the Bene Gesserit. Hundreds of years later, a Bene Gesserit sister can use those beliefs to ensure she’ll be treated well in case of trouble. Jessica decides to take advantage of this after the Harkonnens destroy most of House Atreides, and it works, but the Fremen also think Jessica’s son is their prophesied savior for some reason.* It’s not clear if the Missionaria Protectiva also planted the savior idea, or if the Fremen came up with that part themselves, but it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the Fremen’s beliefs have been influenced by outside forces.
Similarly, Paul’s status as the Kwisatz Haderach is also due to the Bene Gesserit. They’ve spent 10,000 years running a eugenics project to produce a man with special powers who will… do something, presumably. Look, Frank Herbert really didn’t feel like explaining what the Bene Gesserit were trying to accomplish here. The important part is that Paul was deliberately created by humans* rather than an unknown god or mysterious fate.
The problem is that nothing I’ve told you is commentary, it’s justification. It doesn’t fundamentally change anything about Paul, it just explains why he’s like that. In the first book, Paul is still an outsider who saves the Fremen from a problem they couldn’t overcome themselves: Harkonnen oppression. Likewise, Paul has all the special powers a Kwisatz Haderach is supposed to have, and he really is an incredibly capable ruler. He goes against the Bene Gesserit’s plan, but chosen ones do that all the time.
If we’re supposed to take Dune as a subversion of the chosen one trope, then Buffy and Harry Potter are also subversions of that trope. Buffy has her powers because a bunch of weird old dudes decided to create the Slayer line, and Harry is chosen thanks to a self-fulfilling prophecy. While there are hardcore fans who genuinely argue those points, most of us can see that simply introducing an outside force into your chosen one plot doesn’t make it stop being a chosen one plot. We could also say that Jake Sully is subverting the white savior trope in Blue-People Avatar, as he’s deliberately sent by the government to make friends with the Na’vi before he becomes their savior. Heck, we’d have to accept that midi-chlorians are a subversion of the Force rather than a desperately unneeded explanation.
A true subversion is defined by changing what happens in the story, not in how you justify what happens. For example: Madoka Magica is a subversion of several magical girl tropes. When the heroes find out that their entire existence is in service of being mined for energy before they turn into the very monsters they fight, they do something different than what happens in a standard magical anime. If we were following Dune rules, Madoka and the gang would have kept fighting monsters like nothing happened.
Paul’s Jihad Fears Are Racist Angst
Continuing on Paul, by far the most common argument against him being a white savior is that when he becomes leader of the Fremen, it unleashes a “jihad” on the rest of the galaxy. The new movie says “crusade” or “holy war” instead, but I’m gonna stick with the original because if there’s one thing I know about Herbert, it’s that he wouldn’t want anything to blunt his racism.
The jihad doesn’t happen in book one, but there is a lot of talk about how it might happen later. Sometimes, this is in the form of Paul directly seeing the future, and sometimes it’s just the characters speculating. Such speculation tends to come up a lot whenever the Fremen demonstrate their loyalty to Paul. Is this finally the subversion we’ve been waiting for?
No. It’s actually a very common writing tactic: when nothing immediately dangerous is happening, authors try to keep the tension up by talking about something bad that could happen in the future. Dune’s second half in particular is full of long stretches where either nothing happens, or the heroes just steamroll over any opposition they face. This isn’t exactly gripping, so Herbert tries to keep tension up by making the reader worry about a jihad.
The problem is that there’s literally no reason to think a jihad will happen. By the end of the book, Paul has successfully destroyed House Harkonnen, ending foreign power on Arrakis forever,* which is exactly what the Fremen wanted. He’s also just secured a political marriage to make himself emperor of all known space, and he controls spice production, the most valuable commodity in the galaxy. There’s literally no one around to oppose Paul, and Paul explicitly doesn’t want a jihad. Meanwhile, the Fremen are fanatically loyal to Paul, and they have no reason to launch a jihad on their own.
The only leg Herbert’s jihad has to stand on is the implication that the Fremen will jihad anyway because they’re just like that. They’re so Muslim and Arab, isn’t that what they do? This is when we get an ugly mixing of the noble savage and white savior tropes. Yes, the Fremen are the most badass desert boys ever, but they’re also dangerously foreign and inherently violent. That’s still just an implication though; even Herbert can’t bring himself to say it out loud.
Incidentally, this is why Dune Messiah starts 12 years later, after the jihad has already happened. Herbert couldn’t find a credible reason for Paul and the Fremen to go to war with the rest of the galaxy, so he had it happen offscreen and hoped we wouldn’t notice.
Paul Is Still Heroic
Coming in at a close second to the jihad argument is the idea that Paul is actually the villain of Dune, so his actions don’t have authorial endorsement. This is often accompanied by a lot of high-minded talk on how Dune isn’t a “traditional heroic narrative.” We can debate whether that’s true of the series as a whole, but it’s certainly not true in the first book, which is one of the most traditionally heroic narratives ever put to page.
In Dune, we have the cartoonishly evil Harkonnens opposing both the spotlessly noble Atreides and the nobly savage Fremen. After House Atreides is mostly destroyed, Paul rallies the Fremen against their common enemy: House Harkonnen. This has a big logical hole, as the Fremen are easily strong enough to defeat the Harkonnens on their own, but it’s clearly something a hero would do.
From there, Paul conducts his war with the utmost heroism. His battles are fought with honor, always against enemy soldiers or critical infrastructure rather than the civilian population. He uses nuclear weapons in the final battle, but only to destroy a terrain obstacle. He avoids violence when possible and spends a lot of effort finding loopholes in Fremen customs so he doesn’t have to kill people on his own side. He treats his prisoners with dignity, and he only duels the last Harkonnen after being challenged first. Everything about Paul is textbook hero.
The closest we get to deviation from the heroic norm is when Paul and his allies occasionally disagree over what course to take. In particular, Paul sometimes argues with Jessica and Gurney, his two most prominent non-Fremen advisors. But that’s just a bit of drama to keep the good guys’ scenes from being total snoozefests. There’s nothing to indicate Paul is on a downward arc, and often he’s the one arguing for moral behavior when his advisors want to be more pragmatic.
If Paul were meant to be villainous, we might see him manipulate the Fremen into joining a fight that otherwise didn’t involve them. Or we might see the Fremen betrayed by House Atreides once the war is over, to bring Paul more in line with his inspiration, T. E. Lawrence. Nothing like that happens, and we’re left with a book in which Paul is a morally uncomplicated hero doing good deeds for good purposes.
Evil Harkonnens Don’t Critique Authority
Parallel to defenses of Paul, another common argument about Dune is that it’s a cutting critique of feudalism, or possibly of authority in general. Paul can’t be a white savior chosen one if he comes from an inherently unjust power structure, right? Unfortunately, while the first book certainly has a lot of political rambling, none of it amounts to any kind of coherent critique.
In Dune, we see three major examples of the ruling class. We have the Harkonnens, who are evil, ugly, queer-coded, and incompetent. Then we have House Atreides, which is such a shining beacon of competent goodness that it makes the Starks blush. Finally, there’s the Padishah Emperor, who is somewhere in between. He doesn’t twirl his mustache like the Harkonnens, but he is portrayed as somewhat ineffectual. If only there was a chosen one around to replace him!
None of this critiques feudalism, not even the Harkonnens. In fact, their over-the-top evilness actually works against any critique. If you’re trying to show how a system is flawed, then the flaws need to be obvious even when the people involved aren’t especially bad. Otherwise, it’s a problem with the people, not the system.
In a fantasy setting, the book wouldn’t come across as glorifying feudalism either, because most fantasy stories are at least inspired by historical periods when feudalism was the norm. But Dune is in a scifi setting, so it portrays a world where feudalism has been reestablished after falling from favor. That means Dune is held to a higher standard than something like Game of Thrones. Plus, the Bene Gesserit exclusively use aristocratic bloodlines in their breeding program to create the Kwisatz Haderach, and there’s no reason to do that if aristocrats aren’t inherently superior in some way.
There are also a few scenes that get repeatedly cited as evidence that Paul is supposed to come from an unjust system. One is a sequence between Paul and his father, Duke Leto, where the duke explains the importance of propaganda. It’s a short exchange, so let’s take a look:
“You lead well,” Paul protested. “You govern well. Men follow you willingly and love you.”
“My propaganda corps is one of the finest,” the Duke said. Again, he turned to stare out at the basin. “There’s greater possibility for us here on Arrakis than the Imperium could ever suspect. Yet sometimes I think it’d have been better if we’d run for it, gone renegade. Sometimes I wish we could sink back into anonymity among the people, become less exposed to….”
“Yes, I am tired,” the Duke said. “Did you know we’re using spice residue as raw material and already have our own factory to manufacture filmbase?”
“We mustn’t run short of filmbase,” the Duke said. “Else, how could we flood village and city with our information? The people must learn how well I govern them. How would they know if we didn’t tell them?”
A duke using propaganda? That’s gotta be a critique, except that Leto actually is a wise and just ruler. He really does have the people’s best interests at heart, whether they’re his own subjects or his Fremen allies. He’s also a successful ruler, failing only when the odds are hopelessly stacked against him. This isn’t a tinpot dictator being propped up by good PR; it’s a benevolent monarch communicating with those he governs. At best, it’s a bit of realpolitik. At worst, it’s a cautionary tale about how the masses can’t be trusted.
The second most commonly cited passage is when Liet Kynes has a hallucinatory argument with his dead father. Kynes himself is dying in the desert, so we can forgive him for monologuing a bit. His ghostly father even says a few things that could be seen as critical of authority:
“Arrakis is a one-crop planet,” his father said. “One crop. It supports a ruling class that lives as ruling classes have lived in all times while, beneath them, a semihuman mass of semislaves exists on the leavings. It’s the masses and the leavings that occupy our attention. These are far more valuable than has ever been suspected.”[…]
“No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero,” his father said.
Perhaps in one of those paragraphs, we can find Dune’s supposed critique of authority. The first certainly sounds promising, like something an anarchist would say while tripping on Spice Melange. Except Dune isn’t an anarchist story. There’s nothing else in the book to suggest that getting rid of the ruling class is possible or desirable, and this comes off as exactly what it is: the delirious internal monologue of a man about to die of exposure. Or you could read it as meaning that Arrakis’s lower classes could be made more productive, which isn’t exactly anti-authority either. The second quote is even less of a critique, as it’s just wrong: the Fremen do great under Paul’s leadership, giving their long-time oppressors the boot in just a few years.
To actually critique feudalism or authority in general, Dune would have to be more like John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire. In that scifi story, the newly minted emperox* discovers a recording about how her entire dynasty started as a business scam and is primarily used to enrich the noble houses in the name of stability. There’s no waffling or unclear language, and more importantly, the protagonist actually sets out to dismantle the current system.
The Author Is Dead
When textual arguments fail, Dune Subversionists* fall back on quoting Herbert in other contexts. Usually, these quotes come from interviews or appendices, and they include some fairly powerful statements. In one famous quote, Herbert says that people should always be wary of charismatic leaders, and in another, he condemns Christian missionaries as agents of imperialism.
Surely that settles it, right? No one who talks like that could ever intend to write anything but a scathing critique of power and bigotry. The only sticking point is that Herbert’s intent doesn’t matter. In fact, no author’s intent matters! What actually matters is what they wrote, not what they say outside the story.
Philosophically, this way of looking at storytelling is known as the death of the author, and it’s really the only one that works. Literary analysis would be impossible if you had to check with an author to see what they meant. What if the author is simply a private person, or what if they actually are dead and none of their recorded thoughts have survived? Any study of the stories older than a few centuries would be impossible.
More viscerally, who died and made authors the boss of us? If they can’t make what they mean clear in the story, it’s not our responsibility to go digging through the historical record for an explanation. We don’t need an author’s permission to have an opinion about their story. Plus, a lot of authors have extremely questionable views on their own work. You might remember a certain transphobe declaring that one of her wizards was secretly gay the whole time, or the way Tolkien insisted there were no allegories in The Lord of the Rings.
The final nail in this argument’s coffin is the way people deploy authorial quotes: as support for an opinion they already hold from the story itself. No one reads Dune and then checks out Herbert’s commentary to decide what they should think. They form opinions based on the text, then look for Herbert quotes to support that opinion as a way of arguing from authority.
The lesson for those of us who also write is that we need to be clear in our stories. We can’t expect readers to check with us before deciding what the story means, nor can we explain mistakes away once they’ve been published. We have to get things right the first time, because that’s what readers will judge us on.
Oh, and one more thing: even if I didn’t firmly believe that the author was dead, Frank Herbert is not a guy I would go to for political commentary. His famous quote about charismatic leaders is part of a longer rant where he complains about “big government,” then slams John F. Kennedy for being dangerously charismatic, but praises Richard Nixon for getting caught doing something bad. That’s actually some revisionist history on Herbert’s part, as Nixon was also very charismatic.
Then there’s the missionary interview, in which Herbert also claims that if T. E. Lawrence had died during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, he’d have been such a martyr that Arab fighters would have swept European influence out of the Middle East in no time. Given the general apathy toward Lawrence in Arab majority countries, this suggests that Herbert didn’t actually know much about the region or its history.
Honestly, I could keep going. There are as many fan theories about Dune as there are grains of sand on Arrakis. But we’ve covered the big ones, and since I’ve just spent over 3,000 words harshing on Dune, let me make something clear: none of this means you’re a bad person if you like the book. I myself get pretty emotional during the fall of House Atreides.* We all like problematic stuff; the important thing is recognizing those problems for what they are.
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