Dune Discussion: The Writing and Words of Dune

In part one of Jackie’s and my discussion of Frank Herbert’s Dune, we talked about Herbert’s influences, their effects on the story of Dune, and the characters. In part two, we talk about the writing– down to how certain word choices affect the story. We also talk about the Denis Villeneuve film, due out in October 2021, and our impressions of certain choices that show up in the trailer.

I was so happy to watch Jackie fall in love with the strange and complex world of Dune. I’ve watched several BookTubers approach it for the first time and go on to dislike it. I often wonder if they’re expecting a book full of space battles and less subtle political intrigues, because Dune isn’t like that. I’ve heard it described as ‘social science fiction’, as it is intensely concerned with the effects of upbringing, training, education, economics, and politics on people of different cultures. It is also heavily concerned with ecology and the effects that humans can have on entire planets.


Jackie: Well, I’ve only read one chapter and I already see so much! It was really exciting for me as the first chapter includes two quotes (perhaps the only two?) that I know from Dune. Obviously, the Litany of Fear. But also the quote, “Once, men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.” I am curious to see how both of these concepts return later in the novel. After all, how would I know these quotes if I’ve never read this book unless they were critical to the plot? 

Kim: Have the italicized thoughts been troublesome at all? I seem to recall it being weird for me the first couple of times I read Dune (although it’s been…26 years [yikes!] since I first read it, so I could be misremembering), but presumably, you’ll get used to it. I don’t mind the perspective shifts anymore, if I ever did to begin with. I’m always curious to know what the characters are thinking and what their opinions of this or that are. With Dune, we usually seem to get all of it. At least, we do from the POV of House Atreides.

Jackie: The italicized thoughts don’t bother me, but I think I’m used to it after so many Valdemar books. The perspective shifts are easier if there are a few sentences or paragraphs between them. It’s when they are rapid-fire I’m struggling, due to the 3rd person omniscient perspective. But, I’m about 15% done with the book now, so I should get used to it soon.

I am very intrigued by the quotations from the various collected works of Princess Irulan on the Maud’dib at the beginning of each chapter. They provide heavy-handed foreshadowing. But I love it! I find myself searching for both the overt and covert meanings in why this particular quotation was selected to open the chapter and my anticipation grows. It’s a marvelous hook to keep me reading!

Kim: So glad you’re digging the quotations ahead of each chapter! I always wonder if people like them, or if they think that they spoil what’s going on in the chapter. I like them, and I think they add to the suspense since you’re seeing things like, “ Person X’s name was bright with knowledge, but dark with treachery”. I see things like that (or, honestly, if I get spoilers), and it adds to the tension– I’m always wondering when the thing is going to happen or how the person is going to die or whatever. 

And since I’m looking back after many readings, I can look at the quotations and wonder where Irulan was in her life when she was writing the particular books. 

Jackie: Can we talk about that dinner? That was amazing. As soon as I finished reading the dinner party chapter I wanted to go back and read it again. I didn’t, because I wanted to see what would happen even more, but wow. There’s so much to unpack there. Herbert’s understanding of politics and court drama is masterful. What struck me immediately is how this couldn’t have been done without the third person omniscient perspective he chose. It’s only from this unique angle that we can even begin to understand the layers of manipulation and intrigue being shared across this table.

Kim: Definitely. It takes multiple readings to really dig into what’s going on in that scene– all the nuance and the politics and the underlying meanings. One of my favorite things about it is just what you mentioned: the third-person omniscient perspective we get. We see things from Paul’s perspective and how he’s handling things perfectly well in spite of his youth, and seeing the political machinations, but we also see it from Jessica’s point of view and with her greater experience, as well as with her mother’s eye. She’s trying to look out for Paul and perhaps not seeing that he is more mature than she thinks he is. 

Jackie: I’m a bit surprised where Herbert chose to name characters in the dinner scene and where he left characters nameless. Typically, nameless characters do not interact with the protagonists as often as these characters at dinner did with the Atreides. That caught my attention and made me curious. Yet, when I read the text, I paid closer attention to what the named characters were saying and how they interacted with the other named characters. Do you think Herbert was intentional with this decision- to have both named and unnamed attendees at dinner?

Kim:  I think it must have been a deliberate decision, but also a practical one. Having written (much shorter) dinner scenes and whatnot myself, I’ve found that if you’re going to have a whole lot of characters in a single scene, you have to give at least some of them names or else the scene will devolve into a muddled mess of ‘the blonde woman’ and ‘the tall merchant’, and it becomes impossible for both writer and reader to tell who’s who. 

But I wonder, too, how much of this was a product of the time and the fact that I don’t think Herbert was a professional writer at the time and the “rules” of worldbuilding and characters weren’t so established. The “rules” we expect of SFF books these days have been developed over the course of decades and have become so ingrained that a lot of times, people will read older books and come to them expecting to have something that feels very modern, when that’s probably not at all what they’re going to get. 

Jackie: I am on the side of Herbert as a professional writer when Dune was published. Sure, this was his first published novel, but he was writing news articles and speeches and had quite a few short stories plus a sci-fi serial published before Dune. This was definitely his first major work, though! But you’re right that the “rules” of science fiction writing were different in the 1960s. Heck, the rules of all fiction were very different. 

That’s actually one of the things I appreciate about Dune. It’s not trying to be something it isn’t. Dune is its own world and its own space. While I can see some influence from the science fiction authors who were big in the 1950s (Asimov and Heinlein come to mind), this doesn’t read anything like their stories. I can see Herbert’s newspaper background in his writing style. He is succinct and yet gives us the full perspective of the characters. While I wish there was more in Dune, more detail and nuance, this is my modern reading expectation being placed on this classic story. I don’t believe adding more would have made this book any stronger.

Kim:  You are more up on your Frank Herbert research than I am! I’ve never bothered to look into his biography, so I didn’t know about his writing outside of Dune!

His efficiency of language and storytelling is something I appreciate. I don’t mind big books, but it irritates me when an author just drones on and on about some aspect of their world they’re fascinated by, but I couldn’t care less about. It’s why I hesitate to embark on sprawling series like Malazan Book of the Fallen or the rest of the Stormlight Archive books. There is so very much that happens in Dune and so many little details, but they’re written effectively, with cultural nuance given in conversation and character thoughts, rather than a lengthy exposition about, say, Fremen pairbonding rites.

Jackie: And yet we both skimmed the appendices. 😉 That’s what appendices should be for, however — this is where we can learn about and respect the time and research the author put into their worldbuilding. It’s so obvious to a reader when an author knows their world inside and out. Tolkien, for example. Nothing is out of place. He even figured out where the sun would be at different times of day based on the DATE it was in Middle-earth when the Hobbits were wandering. That is amazing. Herbert has crafted an exceptionally detailed world in his head but he only shared with us what mattered to tell Paul’s story. 

Kim: It’s been a point of contention for some that in the Dune movie trailer, it’s said that there will be a crusade, while in the book it’s said there will be a jihad. I haven’t looked much into that particular point, but I can understand why Denis Villeneuve changed the word. ‘Jihad’ is a far more loaded term in today’s society than it was in the 1960s.

Jackie: I’m disappointed by the use of Crusade over Jihad for the trailer, personally. Dune is highly influenced by Arabic culture, religions, and languages. By inserting the Christian term for holy war, as opposed to the Arabic one, I feel like there is an intentional undermining of the Arabic influences. Something strange considering how PC the media seems to be today. There aren’t even Middle Eastern actors cast in the film as the Fremen. It makes me a bit sad.

To completely argue against that point, though,  I understand that Jihad is certainly more loaded in today’s post-9/11 America than it was in the 1960s. In an excerpt from Frank Herbert by Timothy O’Reilly, I learned that Herbert wanted to use the Arabic influences to “key his readers into their own associations with desert”. Perhaps Villeneuve felt with all the visual opportunities he didn’t need to make as strong a connection to an existing desert people, culture and religion? Film is such a different medium than the written word, after all.

Kim: I do wonder if Villeneuve was trying to edge away from the Islamic references with his film, again, given the charged nature of terms like ‘jihad’. I wonder if they’ll use ‘Mahdi’, given its Islamic roots. I know they hired a con-lang expert to develop the language of Chakobsa, so I’m curious to find out if Arabic will be a strong influence or not. 

But even if they edge away from the Arabic terminology, there are a few narratives present in Dune that some will find problematic. There could be charges of cultural appropriation of Islamic or Arabic cultures, and there could definitely be a sense of the ‘white savior’ narrative (though Paul and Jessica are more than a little ambivalent about their roles in Fremen society). So I’ll be interested to see how Villeneuve handles these things that are central to the story of Dune, but are also a little… iffy to us in 2020.

Jackie: Well, it would be difficult for Villeneuve to avoid the word Muad’dib. While a sort of mouse in the Fremen language, it derives from mu’adibs, the Arabic for teacher. (A parallel I love in Dune, as Paul is trying to avoid becoming a teacher or prophet-type character, and yet he cannot escape this destiny) It will be impossible to wipe out the cultural influences of Islamic and Arabic cultures from this film. Inevitably, this film will receive criticism of cultural appropriation no matter what they do, but I want to believe this comes from a well-intentioned place of ignorance. The influences Herbert had and included were all intended as respectful, I believe. And more often than not, I find those who shout into the internet void about cultural appropriation often don’t seek to understand the origins of how this work might (or might not) be appropriating. …How does one even decide if something is just influenced by or appropriating, anyway?

Kim: You do so much research into the books you read! I rarely bother…

That’s so interesting about the word mu’adibs meaning ‘teacher’. I never knew that, but it adds a new layer for me, in addition to being in the text of Dune, as they say that the little mouse, the “muad’dib” is a teacher for them, as many great religious figures are referred to as ‘teacher’. And that’s the name that Paul chose for himself. Interesting! And part of the reason why I reread books like this- because there are always new layers of meaning you add whenever you learn something about the text and the things around it. 

I agree about the cries of appropriation we’ll probably end up hearing when the movie eventually comes out. I don’t think Herbert meant for his use of Islamic and/or Arabic terminology was meant in a disrespectful fashion, and I think one just has to read the book to see that he had a great deal of respect for the Fremen themselves. It’s easy for people on the internet to shout “appropriation!” when they’re looking at a work that’s working with a culture not their own and not bother to think about the use and meaning of it, and whether it’s appropriation at all. It’s harder to stop and think and figure out what the underlying meaning and purpose might be. 

Jackie: I like to understand the history of what I’m reading – but always after the fact. Otherwise, there will be spoilers! Particularly when something is highly influential. In the case of Dune, I knew nothing, read it, loved it, and now I wanted to understand EVERYTHING about it. 

…But my knowledge of mu’adibs is actually from my Middle Eastern language studies. 

Kim: Yay for earlier education coming in handy when you’re reading!

I’m kind of giddy that you ended up loving Dune so much! Every time I see a BookTuber or blogger read it for the first (or even second) time, they tend to be, at most, “meh” about it. I think they’re looking for a contemporary science fiction novel, and that’s not what Dune is. It’s weird and outlandish and isn’t all about battles and spaceships and has all sorts of politics and words that aren’t explained– you just have to figure it out. And while it’s a sprawling narrative, the basic story of Dune is contained in one book. It doesn’t go on and on and on until you’re tired of it. Given that it’s more than 600 pages, it reads so quickly and is complete in itself. Sure, there are several more books in the original series, but you don’t have to read those if you want to. Dune stands alone. 

6 thoughts on “Dune Discussion: The Writing and Words of Dune

  1. Pingback: Dune in Discussion: The Writing and Words of Dune – Death by Tsundoku

  2. Pingback: Would you Rather Book Tag – A Couple of B's

  3. Another great discussion. You two were pulling out details and nuances from the text that I’d overlooked, so this was great to get me thinking deeper about the work. I’m not that well versed in politics and court intrigue so I often get less enjoyment out of stories that focus on that. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed Dune, and I don’t think it was in spite of the politics and intrigue. I was drawn to it, even if I migth not have caught on to all its subtlety.

  4. Thanks! Isn’t it great how much more you can find in books you’ve already read? That’s half the reason I keep reading Dune. I never know what new thing I’m going to learn. Jackie’s perspective really shined new light into certain corners of the book I’d overlooked ’til this time. Makes me look forward to my next reread, whenever that might happen.

  5. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the people who find Dune “meh”. If you aren’t into science fiction, okay, I get it. If you aren’t into court intrigue or politics, I guess I understand. But beyond that… I just don’t get it. This is a well-crafted book with solid writing and very few wasted moments. It’s concise, to the point, and yet allows the reader freedom to think deeply about the content. I almost want to hunt down some of these “meh” reviews to pick a fight. XD

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