Dune does neither

Monday, February 11th, 2019

T. Greer recently mentioned Professor Brian Smith’s syllabus for POLS 334-01, The Politics of Science Fiction, which lists these books as required reading:

Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games, Orbit Books, ISBN: 0316005401
Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550706
J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), ISBN: 0803270763
F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume I: Rules and Order, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0226320863
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Orb Books, ISBN: 0312863551
Frank Herbert, Dune, Ace Books, ISBN: 0441172717
Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed, Harper Classics, ISBN: 006051275X
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Harper Collins, ISBN: 0060652942
James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, ISBN: 0300078153

Smith also requires students to read the prologue to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and sections 125-169 in The Gay Science (or The Joyful Wisdom).

Smith’s discussion questions often pit one text against another:

  • What hope does Nietzsche place in the coming of the Overman? What obstacles does Nietzsche suggest stand in the way of the change the Overman might bring to the world?
  • Consider the links between the Bene Gesserit plan to create the Kwisatz Haderach described in the Appendix and Nietzsche’s ideal of the Overman.
  • How do the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit appear to differ in their quest for human perfection? Why does the emergence of hierarchies based on the cultivation of extreme human talent lead back to the sort of aristocracy this novel depicts?
  • Why does it matter to Lewis that the authors of The Green Book undermine the idea that moral judgments reflect reason and emotion? What political importance does he think this has? Is Thufir Hawat an example of the sort of “chestless” person Lewis describes in the chapter?
  • How might someone following the literary and moral sensibility that Lewis fears might take root read the events of the novel to this point? The Harkonnen plot relies on the exploitation of the Atreides’ characters as much or more than it does on brute force. In what ways does their understanding rely on an understanding of the virtues Lewis suggests we need?
  • Consider Lewis’ arguments about what leads human beings to sacrifice themselves for a cause. How does this relate to the Fremen? To what degree have the Bene Gesserit and others in the novel embraced the quest for mastery Lewis describes near the end of the chapter?
  • What are the major moral features of Fremen society?
  • How does the Bene Gesserit plot to manipulate religion explain the Fremen response to Paul and Jessica?
  • What does it suggest to you that the Bene Gesserit never really articulated a reason they wanted to create the Kwisatz Haderach?
  • Lewis argues that efforts to “see through” first principles actually result in less understanding of our world than analyses that presuppose the existence of a natural law. Does this help us understand the Harkonnen’s myriad failures throughout the book in any way?
  • To what degree does Paul Muad’dib transcend the efforts of others to control him? In what significant ways do Lewis’ warnings about danger of scientific control over human life resonate in the novel? How does this seemingly differ from Herbert’s intent in writing?

I didn’t take to Dune initially, but it really stuck with me. T. Greer is not a fan:

Just don’t think Dune is that interesting in the questions it poses or deep in the answers it hints at. Really good science fiction tends to excel in the 1st; enduring literature excels in the last. Dune does neither.


  1. Kirk says:

    Dune was one of the more memorable books of my youth, along with The Lord of the Rings, the two T.J. Bass books (The Godwhale & Half-Past Human), and another one whose details I don’t remember. The plot and characters, however, remain with me still.

    Re-reading Dune as an adult, the thing that struck me was the facile surface appearance of depth; somehow, you felt like you were reading a chronicle of a reality, and the suspension of disbelief was so thorough that you didn’t observe the missing bits until you thought to go looking for them.

    Herbert did a hell of a sales job, with that book… You thought it was deeper than it really was, and he carried you along with him like that used car salesman who convinced you that the car you were looking at was the ultimate vehicle for you, capable of satisfying every want and need… It was only in the considered aftermath that things appeared to be different.

    I like the book, but the rest of the series? [sound of retching...]

    I do have to say, though, that anyone who goes looking for deep philosophy in a work of fiction is probably not all that smart to begin with. Like Starship Troopers>, one should not confuse the author with the work. Heinlein was throwing up an idea, and following it out to its logical conclusion, not espousing for a philosophy of government. But, everyone thinks that was what he was doing…

    Someone once said something to the effect that there was a specialized technical term for those who mistook the author for the work — and, that word is “idiot”.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Lawrence of Arabia… in outer space!

    Dune is just fine if you don’t expect too much. If your expectations are high, you may be disappointed. If your expectations are low, you will be pleasantly surprised.

    Worth reading once. Maybe not worth repeated readings.

  3. Harper’s Notes says:

    Greer seems Confucian. Frank Herbert ended up converting to Zen Buddhism (but always seemed to me closer to Taoism.) Worldviews apart. Blind to the issues covered in Dune (which O’Reilly spells out in detail in his first book on Frank Herbert.)

  4. Wan Wei Lin says:

    How the heck do you read 9 books, several of them massive tomes, in a semester and still manage your other classes? I’ve read some of these, but 9 in a relative few weeks? I must be several SDs below this level of education.

  5. Kirk says:

    Wan Wei Lin,

    You’d be surprised at what you can do, when you start reading at an early enough age, and can chew through a thick book pretty quickly.

  6. Bruce says:

    I thought Glenn Gray’s The Warriors just quietly disappeared after Paul Fussell tore it apart.

  7. Kirk says:

    I don’t remember reading a formal critique by Fussell of The Warriors. I remember he mentioned it in passing in one book of his, but… If you could point to where he’s got a fuller treatment, I’d appreciate it.

    Fussell is one of those guys whose cynicism and disappointment with humanity turned him into a curmudgeon at an early age. Which is what usually happens when you buy into the bullshit wholeheartedly, and then find out that it’s bullshit through sad life experience. I’m not sure that makes him any less worth listening to, but it is worth keeping in mind as you read him.

    If I remember rightly, because it’s been a long time since reading Gray, I think Gray was perhaps fortunate enough not to get enough of a dose of combat to become what Fussell turned into, perhaps as a function of not being in the same sorts of places Fussell was. In other words, Gray managed to retain a lot of his illusions/delusions about the nature of things…

  8. Graham says:


    Searching for Fussell on Gray just led me to reread the New Republic article “Thank God for the atom bomb” by Fussell, 1981. Perhaps that was the reference Bruce had in mind. His comments on Gray are brief in that, and part of his wider comments on what he considered the vast gap in experience between front line and even near-rear, and that Gray had been far-rear. He takes issue with Gray’s assertion that many an American soldier felt shocked and “ashamed” when they heard about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    If nothing else, Fussell’s comments certainly bring again home to this civilian just how little anything in ordinary life compares to combat. It’s a powerful little 14 page polemic.

  9. Graham says:

    On a tangent, your comments make me conclude that one of my weaknesses will likely always be that I’ve bought into some kind of bullshit.

    I’m not sure which kind, and it’s not the kind that most of my friends, colleagues and neighbours have bought into, but if I were to call them out I’d have to be aware that I’ve got some bullshit too. I’m grateful not to have had the covering fully pulled away from my eyes, though. I would surely miss it.

  10. Bruce says:

    Yes, I was thinking of ‘Thank God for the Atom Bomb’. Not a formal critique, but not much left of Gray’s book afterwards.

    Fussell’s powers of invective and general rhetoric were so strong that he could have been a cute fluffy bunny underneath for all I can tell.

  11. Kirk says:


    On a tangent, your comments make me conclude that one of my weaknesses will likely always be that I’ve bought into some kind of bullshit.”

    I’m a seriously weird person, in that I’ve managed to maintain sanity and motivation despite having the clarity of vision to recognize when bullshit is going on around me… I’m that guy who spent most of his initial entry training in the military going “Oh, OK… We’ve done that; they’re about to do this, and they’re gonna do that, next…” in terms of observing the psychological conditioning techniques they were using, and how it would affect us as trainees. “Oh, they’re breaking us down… Now, they’re building us up…” kind of thing, you know?

    I recognized it, observed it clinically, and participated wholeheartedly while also recognizing that it was a lot of bullshit, with the false bravado and the “We’re better than those losers over in Charlie Company…” sort of thing going on. Being able to do that is probably indicative of some deeply rooted mental deficiency on my part, but there it is.

    What was really disorienting for me, though? Running into one of my drill sergeants in later year, when I was an NCO myself, and discussing the whole thing with him–Mine had been a somewhat memorable training cycle for him, because it was his first one as a Staff Sergeant, and he remembered me (always something to avoid–You really do not want to stand out in the mind of your drill sergeants…). The disorienting bit was me telling him what a wonderful job they’d done of psychologically manipulating us all, back during training, and having him tell me I was completely nuts–None of the things I’d thought were carefully planned had been, they’d just been flying by the seat of their pants. The things I recognized still happened, and had the same effect I’d surmised was intended, but my thinking that it had all been carefully calculated for effect? Delusional…

    Funniest thing was him admitting to me that the seminal late-night road march that we’d thought was a punishment/rite-of-passage test of manhood had actually happened because the lead drill sergeant had gotten lost in the woods around Fort Leonard Wood in the snowstorm that came up that night, and what was supposed to have been an 8-mile conditioning road march they’d squeezed in because inclement weather had cancelled another one…? Yeah, that turned into a 16-mile death march in a blizzard and damn near killed a couple of trainees due to exposure. We all thought it was deliberately planned; the drills had actually come about this close (visualize me holding thumb and forefinger about a hairsbreadth apart…) to all going down for losing trainees to weather conditions when they weren’t supposed to even be out in it… They’d had to conceal the whole thing from anyone in authority on Fort Leonard Wood, because if the commanders had gotten word of what was going on that night, heads would have rolled. As it was, we got back into the barracks, and had to run a bunch of guys through the showers with hot water turned all the way up, in order to get their body temps back up to where they weren’t doing the involuntary shivers that indicate hypothermia…

    Self-awareness is good, but sometimes you can go a bit too far with it.

  12. Sam J. says:

    Dune was great for at least the first three books; then it ran out of gas. I read the first three in three days. Kirk is right though that it seemed deep but was not so deep if you looked further, but for a sci-fi book it was top notch. I ended up reading all of Herbert’s books eventually, that I know of. They’re all fairly good.

    I also liked the known space series of Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven. I’m rereading War World 2: Death’s Head Rebellion (2011) right now.

    None of these hold my attention as well as when I was a kid, but they’re still entertaining.

    I wish when I was younger I had thought about getting a spiral notebook and writing down all the books I read with a brief paragraph on what they are about. I’ve churned through a vast amount of them. I couldn’t begin to guess how many and on what subjects. All kinds of stuff.

    I think about kids now and how they have such a massive amount they can read. How do they even begin to pick where to start if they’re a bookworm?

  13. Graham says:


    Your story sounds pretty grim especially to a couch potato such as myself. I still laughed. I hope that’s what you were going for. That was funny as hell, especially with your conclusion added. [Fortunately, it's quiet here at the end of the day at the office. We had a medium-large snowstorm in town today and Canadians aren't as robust as we used to be- it takes less to shut a lot down and keep folks at home. I cheat by living walking distance to work, by which I mean 10 minutes...]

  14. T. Greer says:

    Kirk said:

    Re-reading Dune as an adult, the thing that struck me was the facile surface appearance of depth; somehow, you felt like you were reading a chronicle of a reality, and the suspension of disbelief was so thorough that you didn’t observe the missing bits until you thought to go looking for them.

    That is exactly my feeling.

    But my perspective is colored by the fact that I encountered as adult who was already familiar with more in depth treatment of its themes. Peter Turchin likes it because it is a fictional representation of Asabiyah style political conquest. But I had already read both Turchin and Ibn Khaldun before I came to Dune.

    Not that it is a bad book mind you. It is an engrossing book. I stayed up late into the night to finish it. But I stay up late to finish marvel films as well. I don’t think I would put Dune too much higher than them. Good, entertaining, historically important to the genre–but not something I would know how to teach if I had to put it on a syllabus!

  15. Aretae says:

    Seeing Like a State is wonderful. I only recently read. Best book of my last couple years.

Leave a Reply