THE HERO AS A SYMPTOM: a thematic refresher on Frank Herbert’s Dune

***SPOILERS AHEAD for Frank Herbert’s DUNE***

THIS MAY BE OBVIOUS to anyone already captivated by Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction classic, but in light of fresh public interest (*cough* new mega-budget movie *cough*), I think it is worth reiterating: 

Dune is not a Hero’s Journey. Understanding this is essential to a fuller appreciation of this wild modern mythology Herbert has created.

Kicking things off, I’m going to dispense with the obligatory book summary and get to the heart of it. This is my TED Talk, after all, and it’s aimed at those with at least a passing knowledge of the first book in the Dune Chronicles; maybe those still wrestling with its idiosyncrasies as a work of epic fiction. If you want the Cliff Notes, I direct you to any number of all-you-can-eat wiki-buffets dotting the information superhighway. They’re everywhere. Like Denny’s. And they’ve got big, sticky menus running down Dune’s timeless plot, unique world-building, Machiavellian political allegory, and mythic and religious underpinnings.

This essay is focused not on the What, but the Why. Why Dune’s unconventional take on dramaturgy, theology, sociology, race relations, and politics (both power- and gender-based)—why basically everything which makes Dune DUNE cannot be taken at face value when it comes to common mythic structure, because the book is anything but a straightforward exemplum, much less a ringing endorsement, of Joseph Campbell’s touted Monomyth (or ‘Hero’s Journey’ as everybody and their demibrother knows it).

In Herbert’s universe, the cozy old ways are turned topsy-turvy. And good riddance.

Ill tidings on the horizon…

I. The Infliction of a Hero

It’s for lack of better description that Dune is so often lumped in with the bloated ranks of ‘Heroes’ Journeys.’ The reasoning is pretty obvious: to market and categorize a not-quite-categorizable work to a world still very hungry for familiar heroic archetypes (I’m looking at you, Beowulf, Odysseus, Bilbo, Neo, Luke-o, and every Avenger who’s ever avenged).

Not even the official synopsis of 2021’s much-hyped film adaptation by the talented Denis Villeneuve can help but label Dune “an emotionally charged hero’s journey”. Which is all well and good for marketing, but for the uninitiated, this tack is not only reductive, I’d call it deeply misleading. Those expecting a battle between good and evil on the order of The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars may find themselves baffled by the inversion of mythic tropes in Herbert’s ruminative epic. 

“I wasn’t going to do the Jesus story,” Herbert said of Paul’s tale. “I went to the Arthurian legend, and I was trying to create a mythology that would give people a different view of how we give over our lives to leaders. Not just to messiahs, but to people who pose as our leaders, or who make themselves our leaders, or who entice us into following them.”

Let em have it, Frank. 

As a result, Dune‘s ‘hero’ is not your typical ‘bumpkin drawn to adventure by supernatural forces.’ Paul Atreides is a rich boy, a withdrawn weirdo “stamped with strangeness”; scion of a noble house in vassalage to a corrupt and musty empire; and, as he soon learns, one more stud horse in an ages-long eugenics breeding program. His prescient powers awaken not because of his own agency, or even magical intervention, but because of unwitting addiction to an ‘awareness-spectrum narcotic’ called melange—or ‘spice’ as the kids call it these days—a commodity driving (and stymying) all of human progress. 

Notably, as these powers of his flourish, Paul does not grow more gallant or righteous. On the contrary, his warmth, his relationships, and his common humanity strain and diminish as prophetic awareness overwhelms his sense of identity. He comes to see himself less as an individual than a freakish new ’seed’ sprouting from the human veggie garden:

“I don’t understand you, Paul,” his mother said.

He remained silent, thinking like the seed he was, thinking with the race consciousness he had first experienced as terrible purpose. He found he could no longer hate the Bene Gesserit or the Emperor or even the Harkonnens. They were all caught up in the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance […] And the race knew only one sure way for this—the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path: jihad.

Yeesh. Imagine Peter Parker laying that shit on Aunt May.

If Dune has a place in comparative mythology, it is as pure disruption; an upheaval of that pesky Hero’s Journey. And it is here that the book either clicks with the reader on a deeper level, or abandons them in the drum sand. Because, while any good story is open to interpretation, you simply cannot ignore this novel’s iconoclastic elements without misreading the text as a despotic power fantasy, or—oof—some kinda racist, sexist, ‘White Man’s Burden’ treatise.

Beneath its pulp sci-fi cover, Dune reveals itself to be quite the subversive piece of literature. A philosophical anti-epic well-versed in the failures and atrocities of colonialist history, the ideologically incestuous limitations of rote mythic structure, and the deadly peril that the longing for a hero is emblematic of in human development.

“I think people are responding to leadership overtures out of a very deep-seated, instinctual process that goes back to our tribal roots,” says Herbert of our human tendency toward leader-seeking and hero-worship. “And it’s a very dangerous thing in this day and age, because technology has given us the tools of self-destruction. And if you put those tools in the hands of sick leaders, then we’re really in trouble.”

To Herbert, a hero is rarely a savior. A hero is a symptom—of a malady deep in our collective unconscious. A warning sign of dependency; our addictive habit of relinquishing our own agency to those who would win it for sport. Our most useful leaders, argues Herbert, are not those who charm and enthrall us, but those whose misdeeds are so naked and egregious they shake us out of the spell of hero-worship. Serving as a cruel reminder that leaders are not divinely ordained, but fallible human beings. 

“And when they make mistakes,” Herbert explains, “their mistakes are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.”

A true hero, then, would be a kind of chimera. A tragic monster, deeply self-aware and conscious that he or she is playing host to something at once higher and lower than mere morality. A ’terrible purpose’; a panhuman racial awareness of the evolutionary demands which must, under pressure of extinction, eclipse our cultural mores and individual desires. This is the kind of hero Paul Atreides is. And he is a truly terrifying thing to be inflicted upon an idle people.

The city of Arakeen

II. Society, Addiction & Stagnation

Mythology is, of course, rooted in society. An elucidation of values and a reinforcement of established customs. One of mythology’s primary goals, says Joseph Campbell, myth-guru extraordinaire, is to prepare youth for adulthood and social integration. To teach them to venture out into the world with an openness to growth and change, so that they may later return with a newfound mastery to contribute productively to their host society.

But what if said youth returns with the conviction that his society—in fact, the entire human condition—is fundamentally FUCKED? Faulty, backsliding, stagnant. Dying. This is the stinging question Herbert poses. And if we are to wrestle with it, we must first consider what we can glean about human nature from Dune’s various societal depictions. 

Take the Imperium (take her, please *ba-dum tss*). The Imperium is a sweeping interstellar civilization whose upper crust live long, comfy lives thanks to the geriatric qualities of the spice they regularly consume. Certainly an impressive feat. But beneath the facade of splendor and stability lies a corrupt, retrogressive, patrimonial, drug-addled, medieval feudal society under the heel of an autarch propped up by a vapid, scheming aristocratic class. A long outmoded and defective social system haphazardly transplanted into humanity’s future. The Imperium isn’t a beacon of human progress. It is a vision of utter human stagnation.

Threading together the planets of the Imperium is the Spacing Guild. A technological cabal imbued with the rare prescient talent of navigating ships between the stars without aid of computers (thinking machines having been outlawed after an ancient AI uprising). This gifted faction is vital to interstellar commerce, travel and stability. They are also underhanded opportunists monopolizing all dealings of imperial citizens across the Known Universe—nobility and vassals alike—essentially extorting the human race for greater shares of the spice, on which they depend to maintain their vital prescient talent. Kinda like that screwy older brother who won’t give you a ride to the mall unless you swipe him some of Grandma’s Percocet. Addiction. Stagnation.

Weaving their own galactic web is the mysterious Bene Gesserit: a mystic sisterhood, masters of mental and physical control practically superhuman by our standards. This secret order puts up a front of submission to the Imperium’s leadership (providing arranged marriages, concubines, Truthsayer advisers, all the desires of a patriarchic power structure) all the while secretly spying on and manipulating these little lords in hopes of steering the human race toward a more enlightened future. Sounds fairly noble, actually. Except the Bene Gesserit treat human beings like livestock (not the good grass-fed, non-GMO shit). And their eugenics program absolutely reeks of old Nazi ‘racial hygiene.’ And their end goal is to produce a genetic demigod, or Kwisatz Haderach, a pinnacle of human evolution whom they intend to condition and wield for their own dubious gain. And—like college kids on adderall—they just gotta have a hit of that sweet, sweet spice to maintain their talents. 

Addiction. Regression. Stagnation.

Is there any facet of this society that sounds admirable or worthy of contribution?

Maybe we’ll find our true-blue heroes on the flip side of the Imperial coin: the Fremen. Those exile inhabitants of the desert world Arrakis, home of the coveted spice. At first glance, definitely a badass bunch. Highly skilled, fearless, long-suffering, ecologically literate, master survivalist warrior-craftsmen-and-women. And freedom fighters, baby. Ah! These are our dudes, right? The brave Rebellion to the Imperium’s evil Galactic Empire! Well…except they don’t give a shit about freeing the universe. Their singular dream is terraforming their barren homeworld into a private Eden. Very exclusive—no water-fatties. Speaking of water-fatties, Fremen are merciless killers who exsanguinate all interlopers for their precious moisture. Basically H2O vampires. And they are religious fanatics who worship a death worm-god called Shai-Hulud. And their life-and-death existence has crippled them with superstitions easily manipulated by religious engineers; ripening them for indoctrination by a cunning champion. Oh and they’re spice-junkies like everyone else. Hell with it—


The ‘Shortening of the Way’

III. Terrible Purpose 

I’m laying it on pretty thick, but only to make clear: the human universe as depicted in Dune is the furthest thing from an ideal future. Though exotic and morbidly fascinating, almost nothing about it is exemplary—not its politics, race relations, gender biases, religions, etc. And entirely by design. What Herbert is presenting us with is a humanity in decline. A pastiche of our most self-seeking and self-defeating paradigms which crop up time and again throughout human history like whack-a-mole defects. At best: this is a society acclimatized to pernicious patterns, and merely going through the motions of life. At worst: it’s a veritable breeding ground for sociopaths, megalomaniacs, manipulators, zealots, murderers. All the crumb-bums.

It begs the question: are we actually intended to root for any one of them? Even the noblest and most sympathetic of characters—the honorable Duke Leto, the wise tribal leader Stilgar, the dauntless Lady Jessica—cannot extricate themselves from the patterns, prejudices, and toxic rites of their heritage. They’re flies caught in a thrumming web of human degeneracy. None emerge unscathed, if at all.

For his part, Duke Leto’s honor demands he all but shun the love of his life for expedience and political appearances, only to be devoured by the very system he hopes to mollify and elevate. The measured Stilgar loses first his Fremen tribe, and then himself, to blind fanaticism for a charismatic personality. And Lady Jessica, who boldly weathers grief and brute survival for her children’s sake—stripped of love, and excommunicated by the only sisterhood she ever knew—is left coarsened and world-weary by the time her son ascends the throne. Feeling “suddenly old and tired.” A stranger, even, to her freakish progeny.

Speaking of freakish progeny, to bring things full circle: just what are we to make of Paul? (I’ll leave poor Alia out of this for now.) If this is his hero’s journey, it is certainly the strangest, murkiest one ever written. Paul does not embark on adventure for any power, knowledge or ‘Ultimate Boon’ to contribute to his society. In fact, he is born with entirely too much knowledge and power; talents he initially seeks to repress because they are eroding his sense of self. His humanity. Devolving his friends, family, and mentors into unquestioning worshipers in a cult of personality.

Herbert writes: “All governments suffer from a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.”

Paul, then, serves as a ‘corruption of the corruptible.’ A byproduct of his society’s sins. His ‘hero’s journey’ (if you still insist on calling it that) teaches him only that he and his fellow humans are, through their own vicious cycles of habits and vices, winding themselves down to extinction. His purpose becomes a terrible, inhuman one. And the only ‘gifts’ he has to bestow on his society are a bloody crusade, and a hydraulic despotism on the spice which will send the universe into agonizing fits of withdrawal; leaving the human race with two options: true metamorphosis or death.

Not terribly heroic by modern standards. Then again, Paul ‘Muad’Dib’ is no savior. He is a symptom of those gangrenous trends in human affairs. Addiction. Stagnation. Idolatry. Entropy. He is not here to deliver a penitent humanity. He is here to put an unholy squeeze on a stalling, dysfunctional species. I hate to break it to all the Timmy Chalamet ‘stans’ out there…but Paul is a freak, a monster whose all-seeing oppression will teach humankind to never again place its future in the hands of a fucking ‘Hero.’ He (and by extension his children) is to be our final exam. A living, breathing ‘gom jabbar’ here to test humanity’s own humanity. Our ingenuity, our staying power, in a cold and inhospitable universe.

I’ll let the Man himself have the last word: 

“Messiahs should come with a warning label: ‘May be dangerous to your health.’ “

Of Malice & Mercy: A Book Review of Peter Hackshaw’s EVER WINTER

A fairly common presumption exists within the realm of fiction (notably much maligned indie or self-published fiction) that a book must either be a highfalutin work of literature or crowd-pleasing fast-food genre fare—and never the twain shall meet. An ugly and rigid bit of dogma that stymies the imaginative potential of our collective storytelling.

It was with great pleasure, then, that I devoured Peter Hackshaw’s debut novel, Ever Winter—a veritable mélange of inspirations and genres carefully blended into one rousing adventure of villainy and vengeance across a far future world beset by a mysterious new Ice Age. Part post-apocalyptic thriller, part pulp- vigilante revenge tale, part Verhoevian military science fiction, part fairy tale parable—all rendered in surprisingly artful prose which invokes, in turn, the poetic flair of Ballard, the pulpy energy of King, and the romanticism of Dumas.

Such clashing styles and influences ought not have come together into something cohesive. But they did. Because rather than wearing his inspirations on his sleeve, Hackshaw discovers their common thematic thread and weaves his seemingly disparate elements into one distinctive whole. Not every element is completely successful—a few supporting characters and their side plots feel somewhat incidental; even dispensable. But these do little to detract from what Hackshaw does right:

This is a dark and engrossing journey, fueled by flesh-and-blood characters, bolstered by smart and subtle world-building, and anchored by ever relevant and perennial themes—a keen meditation on the roots of human malice and the phenomenon of human mercy.

[Note: this review is based solely upon a reading of the paperback edition. But having listened to its audiobook version, I feel it is worth special mention; it being not a straightforward narration, but a spirited and evocative one-man performance by actor Dan Stevens. Highly entertaining, highly recommended.]

Failure To Communicate: A deeper look at the critically-maligned ‘Mute’


WARNING: Full spoilers for MUTE (2018), partial spoilers for CHINATOWN (1974)

[Note: I don’t usually write film/tv criticism. If I’m honest, my interest in cinematic mediums has been slipping in this age of content-rich/ imagination-deficient programming, but I digress. As it is, there’s so much already written, consistently written, immediately written; within nanoseconds of any new release. Reviews, podcasts, opinion panels, aftershows and ‘Explaining the Ending of’ videos vivisecting every visual, theme, character, plot beat and twist. Splaying it all out like a lab experiment.

 I won’t get into the critical merit of spoon-feeding the audience (I guess I just did) but I couldn’t help seeing irony in the brief burst of contempt followed by damning silence for MUTE, director Duncan Jones’ long-gestating companion piece to his beloved 2009 one-man sci-fi pageant MOON. No benefit of the doubt, no deeper read. No attempts to treat this most unusual film or its cast of oddballs and misfits as anything other than the “Latest Netflix Dud” (Variety).

 I won’t waste time trying to change opinions or list and rebut the criticisms bouncing around the internet echo chamber. Instead I’d like to take a stab at what I’d hoped to find in the first place—a deeper look at MUTE’s characters, structure and theme. Because it’s honestly the first program of 2018 that’s lingered in my mind longer than the time it takes to turn off the TV. Long enough to compel me toward a second viewing (a rare honor!) and ultimately to write this rambling essay.]

MUTE is marketed as a sci-fi action thriller, which may be its biggest mistake. The film is unabashedly neo-noir. What’s the difference? For starters, noir is not really about its mystery. Derived from hardboiled fiction of the Great Depression when confidence in American institutions was fast eroding, film noir commandeered a prototype of parasitic crooks feeding off crooked systems and drove it deeper. A noir mystery is not so much a riddle to be solved as an existential labyrinth blinding its characters to a truth—usually primal and human, and all the more unsettling for it. (What’s the real shocker in CHINATOWN: the land grab scam Jake Gittes uncovers…or the perverted sanctity of family embodied by predatory patriarch Noah Cross?) The world of noir is not black and white, but holistic. Man is held accountable for the environment he’s trapped in. The defects in one are firmly rooted in the defects of the other.

I don’t mean to harp on NOIR 101, but it’s so often conflated with plain old mystery, and understanding the difference is essential to an appreciation of a film like MUTE. Because MUTE is not what it appears to be on the surface: a man’s knightly quest for a damsel in distress. This may frustrate some viewers, but misconception is the driving force of the film and its mute hero, lapsed Amish man Leo, permanently waylaid in neo-Berlin (presumably amid a mass exodus back to the Rhineland).

We learn in the film’s opening moments that it was a boating accident in his youth that rendered him voiceless. There is much to be gleaned from the image of an Amish boy separated from his tight-knit and isolated community, adrift and gravely wounded by a leisure boat from the outside world. Leo yearns to swim in unfamiliar waters, even at his own peril. The aquatic metaphor is not only convenient for this little essay, it’s an ongoing motif. Water, marine life, the color blue all become symbols for a desire to connect with a larger world, to delve into the beautiful and frightening unknown.

30 years later, enter Naadirah: blue-haired mystery woman who waitresses at the night club our hero bartends. Leo is besotted. He swoons over her, fights for her, carpenters ornate (aquatic-themed) beds for her, and embarks on a city-wide quest for her when she goes inexplicably missing…all without really knowing a thing about her. Some critics say this makes him a dull white knight of a character, but they’re overlooking the obvious. And this is what elevates him from a seemingly one-note sap to a nuanced and flawed hero:

However decent his intentions, Leo who so yearns to connect has failed to do so. With Naadirah, with the world at large. He lives among them, but is stuck in self-inflicted stasis. In fact, when Naadirah shows up in tears on his doorstep the night before her ultimate disappearance, Leo halts her from recounting her troubles. As long as she’s not leaving him, Leo lets her know, “then nothing else is important.” It’s innocent enough and couched as a romantic gesture. But we later reconsider the implications…

If Leo had been truly open to this woman, to her issues, her pain, her flaws and her baggage; open to the idea of her being more than the embodiment of his Beautiful Unknown…might he have stopped the horror that transpires?

The failure of human communication. It lies not only at the heart of Leo’s quest and ultimate transformation, but as a guiding principle for the trajectory of every character in the story. What MUTE is really about is the ongoing human struggle to break beyond the confines of ties, traditions and presumptions and to forge true interrelationships in a world where everyone is blabbering but no one is listening.

Which brings us to the “antagonists” of the piece (for lack of a better word). Cactus Bill and Duck, best buds and defected US military medics running a blackmarket clinic for the local Berlin mob. The former striving to smuggle himself and his “liberated” daughter back to the US; the latter a seemingly easy-going loafer content to spend life taking it easy as “the big fish” in Berlin’s cybernetic pediatrics pond. Did I mention appearances can be deceiving?

Much has been criticized about these two: their eccentricities, their “tonally-jarring” but scene-stealing performances, even their overall significance (or lack thereof) to the story. But I’ve not seen too much said about their inherent and clearly intentional contradictions. Two boisterous, bullishly outmoded Americans haunting a foreign, neon-soaked city. Two men of healing betraying their Hippocratic oath. Two partners in crime who secretly despise what the other has become (one a fiercely devoted father, the other an unabashed pedophile). Two scarred psyches burying their demons beneath a sardonic, superficial tête-à-tête.

But the truth is in their eyes. This is where they become indispensible to the story. Leo may be physically disabled and unable to speak, but if we’re paying attention we realize these two are spiritually disabled, barely able to maintain the front of civility. They are dangerous, short-circuiting human hearts in a state of meltdown.

It is a compliment to actors Rudd and Theroux that as ugly as Cactus and Duck get, you can’t take eyes off them. It’s hard not to pity them. So severed from the lifeblood of humanity, the only companionship they find is that which they pay for, or steal, or leech off one another. Confiding in, but sabotaging each other at every turn. It’s a bizarre and unpredicatable dynamic that ultimately shifts the conflict away from Good vs. Evil and toward Outward- vs. Inward-looking human perspectives.

This conflict comes to a head in a series of reveals which I won’t spoil save to say it is the turning point both for the story and for the viewer. Because it’s a reveal that’s prosaic and tragic in equal measures. And here we separate those interested in an honest-to-god noir film about human characters and the simple defects in their hearts from those who demand a lot of world-shaking whiz-bang whodunnit.

For my money, I’ll take the first. Because it’s the simple truth that shocks us out of our stupor in a loud and distracting world. And it’s the simple truth that shocks Leo into real action. Not to reclaim what belongs to him, but to speak out for that which doesn’t. Establishing that deeper human connection which might be stronger in all our hearts if we’d be quiet a moment and listen. Making the unknown known.

MUTE is currently streaming on Netflix. Try tuning out the vitriolic white noise out there, give it another watch, come to your own conclusions.