I have about a hundred pages left on my Dune re-read, and I keep thinking about the writing itself. Herbert knew how to imbue his prose with density.
Reading Dune, one is introduced to an entire universe which seems wholly unfamiliar at first blush. Something to the tune of at least twenty thousand years separates the reader from this incredibly detailed world. And yet, by novel’s end, you are well acquainted with it.
The novel’s plot unwinds over the course of a few years, yet depicts the end-state of more than ten millennia of politics, religious doctrine, breeding schemes, and trade monopolism. Herbert never asks you to understand these things, he simply plants them in your brain over the course of 180,000-odd words.
One method Herbert employed is generally advised against: point-of-view hopping. In a single scene, the reader may be privy to the internal monologues of two or three or more characters. This is typically frowned upon for its tendency to yank one out of a story, ruining immersion. Even in third-omniscient, it’s a very difficult trick to employ. Yet Herbert managed to hop back and forth, often from one paragraph to the next and back again by the third.
That alone is an impressive feat, but it feeds into a far greater one. There is an early scene between the Lady Jessica and the traitor Doctor Yueh. It is a typical Herbert scene in which two characters converse and each leaves with a wholly different view of the exchange from the other. This particular scene shows us Yueh’s motivations, much of his personal history, and his effort to hide his betrayal from Lady Jessica. Jessica leaves the exchange pitying the Suk doctor, wholly taken in by his dissemination.
Through each of their inner thoughts during the conversation, we learn about the water requirements of palm trees and the mentality of the common man of Arrakis. We are given hints to the Bene Gesserit scheme, further hints to the sandworm-spice cycle of Dune. We gain insight into the relationship between Duke Leto and his concubine, its history, the strength of its love, the reasons they never married, and the doubts Jessica allows herself regarding it. We see a bit of the management of a Great House of the Imperium, and the ways in which those Houses compete, and the genealogical relationship of the Atreides to the imperial family is mentioned in relation to the Harkonnen title having been bought through CHOAM profits… Oh, yes, by now you should have a pretty good idea of what all that means. We also discover more about the spice itself, learn what it tastes like, how it smells, its addictive qualities, its life-extending properties. I haven’t even gotten to what the scene is ostensibly about, which is Jessica exploring their new home’s residential wing in preparation to assign the family quarters, meanwhile looking in on her sleeping son Paul.
All this in a handful of pages (less than ten in the old paperback on my shelf, 14 in the Kindle edition) less than a sixth of the way into the novel.
In another scene, we are presented with the 10,000 year history of the Fremen while learning what makes a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother while learning about Fremen ritual and the origin of their ritual drug, while a major character is being introduced, while Jessica is worrying about her son’s future, while Paul is worrying about his mother becoming his enemy.
Yet another gives us a gladiator battle in the Harkonnen arena while describing the sweeping interstellar politics of the Imperium, the internal politics of a single House, detailing the schemes of two members of that House as well as two outsiders representing the Emperor, and also hints about the origins of the Sardaukar and the implications Salusa Secundus has for Arrakis and the Fremen.
The scenes are dense.
It’s something Herbert’s son and writing partner Kevin Anderson completely failed to replicate. They seemed to equate this density of prose with a density of events. As a result, their prequel and sequel novels are sprawling epics that read like children’s books. A single one of their novels could not be adapted faithfully in less than a dozen hours, but there is no density such as I’ve described – which doubles the apparent effect of their stories’ ridiculously jam-packed plots. Each one is just a never-ending string of disjointed scenes coming at you rapid fire, with no overriding sense of connection.
That sounds harsh, but look: I can’t write like Frank Herbert either.
I do still try to take lessons from his work. That desnity of prose is one of these. I like to put as much information into each scene as possible – until I reach the climax of a story, and then I peel that density away to frame the action in the most spare and economical of prose.
It has been said that parts of my writing are “overloaded.” Its a criticism I can easily understand. The desired effect is not easy to accomplish.
However – and especially when dealing with science fiction or fantasy, works that require solid and intricate world-building – I believe it is an important skill for the author to master. This density of prose lets you construct your world before the reader’s eyes, slipping in the infinitesimal detail here, the suggestive implication there, the cultural reference just so.
There’s another writer who comes to mind, though his prose was never elevated to the level of Frank Herert’s. Nevertheless, having read the entirety of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, the attentive reader finds they could be dropped without warning or explanation to practically any corner of Randland … and soon know exactly where they were by observing the people, their attire, their buildings, their speech…
Yes, Jordan (and Sanderson at the end) had over four million words to work with. You could subtract the word count of Dune and WoT would still surpass 4 million. Jordan’s style was more about a density of repetition. Extensive descriptions are reinforced by little moments and asides throughout subsequent scenes.
Another similarity: Jordan was perhaps even more skilled at depicting how an apparently straightforward conversation might be perceived in wholly different ways by its participants, using this as a springboard to develop his characters in contrasting detail.
These methods of craft help bring the imagined world into reality, solidifying the world-building in addition to the characters themselves. They are valuable tools, and any writer – not just the SFF scrivener – would do well to learn from these examples.