Aliya Whiteley was born in Ilfracombe, North Devon, in 1974 and now lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband and young daughter. She writes black comedy and is the author of Three Things About Me and Light Reading. Aliya keeps a blog with fellow writer Neil Ayres at Veggiebox. In this post she writes about Frank Herbert's Dune.
Aliya Whitely on Dune by Frank Herbert
This is a dangerous book. It made a strange person out of a child who might have gone on to become a valuable member of society in other circumstances. I blame it entirely for my downfall into the sordid world of social elitism and publishing.
Yes, I am talking about a fantasy novel. But we're not dealing with elves and oversized talking animals and pointy hats (although I do love those characters), but a universe in which the wielding of political power is everything. I read Dune and saw the merits of being totally in control of my own planet. It gave me a Kwisatz-Haderach complex, and I'm not yet over the belief that some day I'll make a fine Bene Gesserit. I still have a penchant for wearing black and making cryptic utterances at parties. If by now you are utterly bemused, let me explain.
It is the 72nd year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, who rules the known universe. He has nominal control over the Houses, who run the political, social and economic affairs of many thousands of planets. Arrakis, a harsh desert planet upon which it never rains, is about to be unwillingly passed from the nasty House Harkonnen to the lovely House Atreides. For those who know the book, yes I am simplifying quite a lot here. The Atreides will therefore control the production of the Spice - a substance found only on Arrakis, and the one material in the universe that allows space to be folded. In other words, the Spice controls space travel.
Paul, the son of Duke Leto Atreides, is going to become a key player in this battle for control of Arrakis. His mother is a Bene Gesserit (part of a matriarchal clan that train the body and mind for incredible speed and perception), and there is a possibility that Paul is the culmination of their breeding programme to produce the ultimate being: the Kwisatz-Haderach.
To be honest, I think it was all too much for a ten-year-old. I don't think I followed it on my first reading. But I was entranced by this court of intrigue, and the process of negotiation that could so easily slip into violence on a planetary scale. In particular, it was the manipulation of myth and religion to further political ends that mesmerized me; it seemed to me to be the next step up from The Wizard of Oz – who exactly was behind the curtain, pulling the levers? Could the same level of disguise pertain to the world I lived in? I began to examine why people said and did things. What were they hoping to gain? And then, later, the motivations of the selfish and selfless became a key theme in my own writing. My first novella, Mean Mode Median, fused the structure of King Lear with the themes of Dune. Yes, it was an extremely weird piece of work. But what do you expect from a Bene Gesserit wannabe?
Later still, I began to understand that not only fantasy novels address the questions raised in Dune. I found other authors who also tackle the complications within relationships and the ever-fascinating subject of motivation that leads to action. I discovered Middlemarch, and wanted to capture a town in such affectionate detail. Iris Murdoch introduced me to the blackest kind of comedy that springs from missed opportunities, and Graham Greene made me see how politics and character are not always aligned. Do writers tackle the same issues in different ways and genres? I do believe that to be the case, which is why I feel that I've not slipped too far away from my love of Dune when I write a black comedy or a mystery. For me, it's all about the delicate balance of power, whether that's interplanetary or familial.
Thanks, Frank Herbert, for getting me obsessed with a subject that can never be exhausted, not even in a series of books that span an unknown universe. It's no wonder I sometimes have problems keeping my narrative strands in one place. I really should work harder on my Prana-Bindu exercises.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]