A Modest Series of Edits: Dune. Part One
Introduction/Full Spoiler Summary
(feel free to skip if you already know the story & its problems):
Dune(1965) is an American Sci-fi classic written by Frank Herbert that follows the story of scion Paul Atreides and the destruction of his noble family and their holdings. Initially published by a printing house better known for its auto-repair manuals, Herbert’s work initially sold very poorly. However, over time, it has gained critical acclaim and has become the highest-selling sci-fi book of all time. Its unique world-building vision and unmatched standing in the genre have caused some to call it the ‘Lord of the Rings of science fiction’.
Obviously, it’s a good book. And I recommend you read it (twice, if you want to get the full experience). But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think there are things that it could’ve done better. Quite a lot better in some places. And with the movie coming out with editing choices of it’s own, I thought it would be quite fun to see what I would do in the position of an editor for this book.
But before we get into that, let’s talk about what I’m not going to touch.
- The world-building. Dune’s best quality. The barren world of Arrakis, the Bedouin/early human society paralleling Fremen, the future-sight spice and the Guild of drug-addicted spacefarers, the genetically and religiously indoctrinating Bene-Gesserit witch women, even the computerless era of high technology… all of these aspects are composed with such thought and detail that the ignites my imagination with every other sentence. It makes other stories look meek and unimaginative in comparison, and it is of a brand and style that has not been replicated since. My personal favorite facet of worldbuilding in Dune is how water is treated by the Fremen. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that has ever made a group of humans feel so alien and human at the same time.
- The prose. Although old-school sci-fi prose isn’t the style I prefer to read, Herbert’s writing immerses me in the world of Dune. The heat of the desert, the strange oblique shapes of the technology, and the unstoppable religious fervor behind Paul’s rise; Herbert’s information-dense delivery is not without power or punch. And on top of his evocative delivery, there are a lot of killer lines in this book. ‘Fear is the mindkiller’ is an easy one to quote.
- The characters. While I wouldn’t call any of Dune’s characters a personal favorite, not a single one is written without accuracy or realism to human behavior. Even the women of the story -who are treated as second-class citizens in the world of Dune with terrible accuracy to human history- have great scenes of agency and characterization. I especially like how Herbert simultaneously uses thoughts, dialogue, and body language to express the intelligence & duplicity of his characters. I also think Paul is an interesting take on the Chosen One trope (which I usually dislike) as he is both fearful of and powerless to resist, his role as the Kwisatz Haderach/Lisan Al’Gaib.
So if all that stuff is great, what problem do I have with Dune?
Well, I could say ‘the plot’, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
At a glance, the story structure of Dune appears to be a fairly by-the-book execution of the Hero’s Journey. The fall of House Atreides, Paul escaping and finding his place with the Fremen, his eventual rise to power… all the major beats of Dune line up well with the classic monomyth. In combination with quality worldbuilding, prose, and character work, it ought to have been an instant classic.
Yet despite all that it has going for it, it took a long, long time for Dune to reach the success it now enjoys. Initial sales were so lackluster that the editor that pushed for Dune’s publication got fired, and it spent years as an underrated cult classic before it finally gained enough momentum to break out of niche readership. Even to this day, it doesn’t hold the same kind of influence LotR does, despite them holding similar standings in their respective genres as well as similar strengths and weaknesses as pieces of storytelling.
What’s holding Dune back? My answer is that it’s a hard book to get into. But not for the usual reasons.
When a book is described as ‘hard to get into’, people often take that to mean the book has really difficult prose. And rightly so; there are many books out there with unintuitive writing styles and archaic language. But that’s not Dune’s problem. Dune is plenty readable, especially when compared to other sci-fi stories from its era (Like Asimov; prose as dry as cardboard), or even LotR.
Another common reason people describe a novel as ‘hard to get into’ is because it has a terrible hook. A lot of old books have some really, really, slow starts. But that’s not Dune’s problem either. There are a ton of exciting questions set up within the first few pages and the story starts with the deadly Gom Jabbar ritual. That’s no soft start!
But if those two usual suspects aren’t the cause, why exactly is Dune hard to get into?
The first reason is information overload. Herbert loves namedropping a boatload of people, factions, and places, that by the time you’re done with the first chapter, your head is spinning from all the details you’ve read. For me, it took until halfway through my second reading before all the terms really clicked. But that’s Dune, and I would never suggest changing that since it’s all part of the immaculate worldbuilding it’s known for. Some readers will look at all the capital letters on the first page and give up. That’s ok. It’s okay to lose some readers so you can capture other readers more deeply. All great works do this, and it’s not something to fix.
The second reason -and what I’ll be focusing on editing in this essay- is plot delivery. I think anyone who has read the books can attest that the scene-to-scene progression of Dune is not its greatest strength. And this weakness is no more apparent than in the first act of the story. Sure, all the scenes in the fall of House Atreides are causally connected, but there is no build-up, no tension, no drama. The betrayal by Doctor Yueh just… happens. It kinda feels like a comedian that knows all the words to a joke but doesn’t know how to time the punchline. And unlike the information overload ‘problem’ i previously mentioned, it doesn’t have an upside to it. It just makes the readers that were willing to stick through all the heavy CHOAM directorship, melange, Lisan Al’Gaib worldbuilding stuff wait and wait and wait for a ride that never comes. This is why I think so many readers bounce off the book after Act One. Even though Act Two -which I think is the best part of the book- is right around the corner, they can’t stomach the idea of being forced to learn a whole new series of worldbuilding terms without getting to ride the wave of a story, again. It’s one of the crucial differences between Dune and LotR on a writerly level, I think. LotR may drop just as many names and even add poetry into the mix, but it never once doesn’t feel like a story. Like an adventure.
So that’s what I’m intending on editing with this essay. A plot progression issue masquerading as an accessibility issue. And I think if you keep reading, you will see that all of this can be done without hurting any of what made Dune great in the first place.
Modest Edit: Book One
A few goals to identify before we begin.
- First, keep the third-person omniscient style, including the chapter headings from a future perspective.
- Second, the Duke must die.
- Third, Doctor Yueh must betray them.
- Fourth, generally the same plotlines, worldbuilding, etc.
With that in mind, let’s begin.
Dune starts off with Paul eavesdropping on a conversation between his mother and a Bene Gesserit witch. Here we learn about their upcoming move to Arrakis, his mother teaching him the use of the Voice, the potential existence of the Kwisatz Haderach, the first inkling of his ‘terrible purpose’, then ending with the Gom Jabbar ritual. I think the scene could be tighter for an introduction, but all of this information is good because it sets up a lot of questions and promises for the trilogy to come. No changes yet.
The next scene is that of the Baron discussing with his mentat about how Arrakis is a trap. Followed quickly by a succession of interactions between Paul and various retainers of House Atreides as they all imply great worry over their move to Arrakis. It ends with the introduction of Dr. Yueh the traitor. This is a great sequence that quickly establishes the main conflict of Book One as well as the central cast of characters. Nothing needs to be changed here as well.
Then the Duke arrives, and this is where I suggest a fairly radical change.
Personally, I think the Duke is a massively underserved character that ought to have played a much more active and central role in Book One. So much so that the reader would be deceived into thinking that he is actually the main character, even as they know he is eventually going to be betrayed.
Not convinced? Well, there is another character we can look to for example. Ned Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire.
Just like the Duke, Ned is the virtuous patriarch of a noble household who is sent away from their home to foreign lands on order of their king and dies due to betrayal and treachery. In fact, their stories are so similar in conception that I assume G.R.R.M. was inspired by Dune. And I think G.R.R.M. did it better too, because he managed to convince the readers that Ned Stark was going to be an ongoing main character despite surrounding him with a mountain of foreshadowing otherwise. This meant when Ned died, the shock of his death really drove home the loss of childhood and safety for the Stark children in an excellent ‘crossing of the threshold’ moment for the series as a whole. Dune, while having the same plotline, fails to have a quarter of the same impact. And that’s simply a missed opportunity.
Now at this point, I’m sure some of you will point out the fundamental differences between Dune and ASOIAF. Mainly that the former story reveals the identity of the traitor long before the betrayal even happens, and the latter doesn’t. But that doesn’t matter, really. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet shows us that knowing the ending beforehand doesn’t remove tension. It simply heightens dramatic irony -the tension we feel from knowing information that the characters do not. Also, there is always the allure of finding out exactly how things play out. That Dune’s first act lacks tension is a failure in execution, not an issue with setup.
This is also a good time to talk about the third-person omniscient POV, I suppose, as one of the main reasons ASOIAF could sell Ned as an ongoing main character was because he received his own perspective chapters. But Dune doesn’t have to give up its omniscient style to put Duke Leto in the driver’s seat for the first book. It just needs to put him center stage a greater percentage of the time as they do with Paul in later parts of the book.
The next question is how Duke Leto’s role should expand in the story. Looking back to Ned Stark again, the reason he successfully played a main character for so long was because he had a plotline that he was pursuing; his investigation into Jon Arryn’s death and the lineage of Cersei’s children. Though he was only around for one book, Ned made so much progress during that time that he forced the hands of other characters into killing him. In comparison, Duke Leto does have the goal of ensuring that his house survives and thrives on Arrakis, but that’s rather vague and his scenes don’t indicate much progress. He saves some spice harvesters, suspects some traitors, has a dinner, then dies. In fact, the true reason for his death (the subversion of Doctor Yueh) occurred before the start of the book. He barely affects the world around him while he’s on the page.
But the setup is there, right? As he works to rebuild Arrakis after the Harkonnen’s leave, Leto finds evidence of a sabotage plot and investigates to find the collaborators. This would combine with the two other major plotlines for Book One -which I will also be adjusting- making one for each of the main characters. Leto, Jessica, and Paul.
- Leto working to rebuild Arrakis by day and investigating the source of sabotages by night.
- Jessica figuring out that the Fremen view her and her family as a prophesied religious figures, and attempting to figure out which one of the retainers is a traitor.
- Paul piecing together the Fremen terraforming secret, as well as dealing with prophetic dreams of Jamis and Chani.
As these plotlines progress, so will the dramatic tension of the doom we know is coming:
Leto is struggling to finance all the repairs and his investigation into the accidents reveals evidence of saboteurs on the planet. All evidence points to Harkonnen interference, but he senses something more is going on. The locals appear hesitant to speak to him and the few agents they caught all fought savagely until they killed themselves. He keeps spotting strange faces amongst the crowds, too. Eventually, he finds out that there are Sardaukar on the planet (perhaps repurposing the hunter-seeker assassin scene to reveal this as opposed to being a simple assassination attempt). This immediately raises the stakes for Leto as he originally thought that he was simply dealing with the Harkonnens. Though he suspected that the Emperor wanted to weaken House Atreides with this move to Arrakis, he never imagined direct action on his part like this. A Sardaukar agent on Arrakis is grounds for war between the nobles and the Emperor. But for now, he holds his tongue, in case he is wrong. A decision he will come to regret.
In the meantime, Jessica is learning how the Fremen people view her and her family; as religious figures. She decides to take upon that role to better protect her family, and is promptly rewarded with a tip from Shadout Mapes of the existence of a traitor early on. (This differs from the original which presents that information to Paul who does nothing with it anyways). The threat is all but confirmed when the Bene Gesserit send her a message warning her to keep her son’s bloodline alive at all costs. Using these two warnings as ample evidence, she pursues her investigations on House Atreides retainers. But that backfires and makes them suspect her as an agent of the Emperor instead. Importantly, for the sake of heightening dramatic irony, she will actually find a reason to suspect Yueh, but will decide to go against her instincts. Which she will come to regret.
Compared to the other two, Paul’s story will be the most ‘lighthearted’ storyline. At least as much as Dune can be. He will be the one most curious about Arrakis and the Fremen (potentially spending time with his father amongst the people), learning their culture, and the mysteries of how many might be hidden in the desert. He will also be the one to find the conservatory (as Jessica does nothing with the place anyways) and as he is trying to figure out where these plants come from, how they fit into the world of Arrakis, he will be attacked by the hunter-seeker there. After surviving, he will begin to have more vivid dreams of Chani and Jamis (which is a choice that I copied from the movie). Chani won’t say much, but Jamis will appear to him as a friend, hinting at the Fremen dream of transforming their world. He is also plagued by ominous feelings of disaster on the horizon, but dismisses them. Which he will come to regret.
As you can see, these are simply expanded versions of what already happens in the book, with a little bit of swapping here or there. They will converge during the dinner scene, which was also the penultimate scene before the fall in the book.
Now, the original dinner scene was interesting, artistically speaking. There’s a lot of subterfuge, double meanings, and internal dialogue that we get from a wide cast of factions. But in terms of plot, nothing of importance happens except for Kynes revealing the potential for a water-filled Arrakis. The scene also completely failed to arouse a sense of dramatic tension, no worry about Dr. Yueh’s betrayal, no calm before the story, nothing. This is the scene right before everything goes to shit, and it doesn’t feel any different from any other scene.
For an edit, I would up the ante to three reveals, each acting as the end of a multi-sequence plotline.
First, Paul finding out from Kynes that Arrakis has enough water to cover its lands like the conservatory and that there are actually millions of Fremen living in the desert. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. They may just have allies.
Second, Leto figures out from the Guild representative that they had recently arrived in one of their huge freighters, which is large enough to ship a massive invasion fleet. Who could afford such an expense but the Harkonnens and the Emperor? Their enemies are at their door.
Third, as Jessica scans the table looking for subterfuge, she finds evidence hidden agendas all around. The girl is trying to seduce Paul. The Guild rep is afraid of Kynes. But when people begin collapsing, she realizes it all too late. The enemy is already in the house.
It was Dr. Yueh all along. He had poisoned the water they all drank with a sedative. (bonus points for the implication of poisoned water on Arrakis, and the heart attack Yueh must’ve had when Leto makes everyone pour out some water onto the floor)
Right as they receive the information they need to face their problems, Yueh betrays them. Not once they’ve all gone to bed, which is anticlimactic as hell, but right in front of their eyes. And what follows is similar to what happened in the book, except I shifted some scenes from Book Two into Book One (again, like it was done in the movies).
The Harkonnens and the Sardaukar invade, and House Atreides is slaughtered. Kynes and Duncan Idaho die helping Jessica and Paul escape (this part was originally in Book Two) while Yueh takes the Duke to the Harkonnens. Jessica and Paul are chased as they flee into the desert in their ornithoper, until they realize that they have to dive into a deadly storm to evade their pursuers. As Paul hesitates, the Duke breaks the poisoned tooth that Yueh gave him in an attempt to kill the Harkonnen Baron, and dies. Paul senses this, that he no longer has a home to return to, and flies into the storm. (bonus points for bringing things full circle by having Paul quote ‘Fear is the Mindkiller’)
End of Book One.
My brain is fried. So this edit ends with Book One for now.
I hope you can see that I’m mostly shifting scenes and building plotlines so the story has momentum and timing, heightening the sense of tragedy because our main characters were so close to survival. Otherwise, the broad strokes of the story are completely unchanged. Certainly, none of Dune’s iconic style needs to be lost with these changes.
However, here’s when things get complicated. Act One, I had a clear vision of what edits were needed. But Act Two is my favorite part of Dune, and when I read it, I don’t really get a sense that much needs to be changed. And Act Three is a complete mess -in my opinion- and needs some heavy rewrites. I don’t know exactly what, but I’m certain that having a toddler kill Baron Harkonnen (the main antagonist for the series and Pauls target for revenge) is not the way to go. I’m gonna need some time to mull over it.
Anyway, thanks for reading! Keep an eye out for Part Two!