Friday, September 16, 2011

Josh's list of his favorite characters in the Dune Series

I haven't written a post in a while, so here's a list of my favorite characters from the Dune series in order to prevent that interval from growing any longer.

I've been listening to Dune again while I'm deciding which audio book should be next (I'm open to suggestions) and, in preparing to blog about it, I went back and read my old posts on the subject to find that my observations about it are pretty unchanged from the last two times I blogged about it. To summarize: Thufir is a shitty mentat, Frank Herbert could hardly been unaware of author Peter De Vries when he came up with the character Piter De Vries, "Damn him, he's strangling all the best kittens himself!", the Sardaukar sure are feared for an elite force that loses every single battle it enters, a 33 year old Sting does not play a convincing 16 year old boy, man that David Lynch movie sure is long, man the prequels sure are terrible aaaaand...done! 

The Sardaukar deserve special mention. They're presented the elite troops of the Dune universe, but really they're just stormtroopers with better press. As best I could recall, they only managed to kill two people over the course of the entire series, Duncan Idaho and Leto II the Elder, Paul and Chani's firstborn son. I looked into it and it turns out that I was overestimating their prowess, though, and it was actually Beast Rabban who got the latter. And Duncan, well, everybody beats up Duncan sooner or later. See accompanying list. (And sure they capture Thufir, but if they were serious about doing that, they could have just scattered a bunch of rakes around his hideout and waited until he stepped on one.)

I like Dune, but I'm surprised that other people do. I think it's a very, very good book, but not something that would have broad appeal. It's dry, it's difficult and though it's been consistently ranked as one of the best science fiction novels ever, I don't know that many people who actually like it. I guess they're out there (somebody must be buying those dreadful prequels), but it doesn't seem to have the same following as other SF classics. 

To continue what's already a monstrously self-indulgent post of interest to no one but me,  here's a top ten list of my favorite characters in the series.

10: Murbella: I first read Chapterhouse:Dune one summer in Florida when I was in high school. If you're not familiar with the series (If you're not familiar with the series, I can't imagine that you're reading this far into the note), books 1,2 and 3 (Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune) are set a couple years apart, then there's a big jump of thousands of years for book 4 (God Emperor of Dune), and then another jump for 5 and 6. (Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune) Chapterhouse is the direct sequel to the book preceding it, so I was kind of jumping into the middle of things, but I thought it was absolutely awesome. Murbella was a big part of the awesome. She was one of the Honored Matres, super hot kung fu badasses who use an adrenaline based drug to move faster than the eye can follow. I cannot begin to tell you how appealing that combination was to fourteen-year old Josh.

But she's more than that. She's already in custody of the Bene Gesserit by the time the book begins. They captured her previously and didn't know exactly what to do with her, so they just kind of held on to her. She started training as a Bene Gesserit as a way to mock them, but that was just the start of a slow transformation where she discovered that they just might have something to offer her. At the end of her journey, it's not about what they can offer her, but what the person she has become can offer them. Plus she slaps around Duncan Idaho! 

9: The Lady Jessica: It was either Paul or Jessica in this slot, but since Jessica smacks Duncan around and Paul does not, Jessica gets the nod. She also never goes native in quite the same way.(I don't really like the Fremen, because they don't make any sense. Living in the desert makes you good at surviving in the desert. I'll accept that it makes you tough and the best fighters in a desert. It doesn't make you the greatest fighters in the whole universe.) She's the closest thing the first book has to a viewpoint character. Plus she slaps around Duncan Idaho!

8: Nayla: Fresh from the Lion King, it's Nayla in the number eight spot! Nayla is the world's worst double agent. She's a fanatical worshiper of Leto and believes him a god. He orders her to join the rebellion and obey them unquestioningly. When ordered to kill Leto by the rebellion, she does it, despite her fanaticism, believing that the instructions are another test of her loyalty. That's what I find the most interesting recurring theme in Dune, where characters slowly become what they most hate. Plus she slaps around Duncan Idaho! 

7: Moneo: Another God Emperor character. Per the Dune wiki: "Moneo" is Latin for "I advise", quite befitting Leto II's chief aide. I always liked Moneo. Like Nayla in the same book, he has undergone an interesting transformation in his life, becoming the majordomo to the tyrant he sought to overthrow. Plus he slaps around Duncan Idaho!

6: Count Fenring: "The killer with the manners of a rabbit." "Fenring was one of the might-have-beens, an almost Kwisatz Haderach, crippled by a flaw in the genetic pattern — a eunuch, his talent concentrated into furtiveness and inner seclusion." He's intriguing because we only really see him twice, once on Feyd's birthday and again at the climax of the novel, where he refuses to kill Paul because of the kinship he feels there. He's a monster, like, frankly, almost every character in the series, but it's hard not to feel sorry for him.

5: Dr. Wellington Yueh: I don't know why I like him as much as I do. Yueh hated the Harkonnens, but he committed hideous betrayals on their behalf. There is something profoundly pitiable in seeing your destruction and being too weak to turn away from it. His calm awareness of his own futile and self-destructive behaviors - even as he engages in them, and knowingly lies to himself about the consequences is just so profoundly sad. 

4: Darwi Odrade: She never slapped around Duncan, but I bet she could have. Both mother and daughter to the Bashar. My favorite Odrade moment was on Rakis, where the Tleilaxu Master Waff tries to repeat the poison dart trick that worked flawlessly against the Honored Matres, whom he considered far more dangerous. Grandmotherly Dar sees it coming from parsecs away and breaks both his arms when he tries it.

3: Leto II: I forget the first time I read Dune. I think I had read it by the time I first saw the cover to God Emperor of Dune, the one with a bunch of plebes worshiping a sand worm with a human face. I thought that the image must have been metaphorical or simply one of those sci-fi book covers that don't reflect the contents of the book. It never actually occured to me that the God Emperor might actually be a sandworm with a human face. 

Leto is complex. Leto is alien. To borrow a line from Whitman, he is large, he contains multitudes. To ensure that humanity will survive, Leto has spent millennia enforcing quiescence on humanity: people really don't do anything under his reign. They just exist. This repression has created in humanity a deep and urgent need to explode upon the universe, scattering itself beyond the reach of any single tyrant. In Dune Messiah, the Face Dancer Scytale reveals to a Reverend Mother that the Bene Tleilax created their own Kwisatz Haderachs, and discovered that Kwisatz Haderachs will die before becoming their opposites (and so can be killed by manipulating them into betraying themselves). The Ixians create an artificial human called Malky in order to manipulate Leto into turning on his holy creation, but he fails because the Ixians don't realize that Leto, more than anyone, knows the blasphemy he has created.

He's by far the worst monster in the books, his acts accounting for thousands of years of atrocities, and yet it is through his Golden Path that humanity survives. Leto more than anyone, has no illusions about what he is or the evil he does. Hey, this reminds me of a Zelazny quote: "In the mirrors of the many judgments, my hands are the color of blood. I am a part of the evil that exists in the world and in Shadow. I sometime fancy myself an evil which exists to oppose other evils...and on that Great Day of which prophets speak but in which they do not truly believe, on that day when the world is completely cleansed of evil, then I, too, will go down into darkness, swallowing curses. Perhaps even sooner than that, I now judge. But whatever . . . Until that time, I shall not wash my hands nor let them hang useless."

Plus he opens his book by flattening a Duncan Idaho.

2: Baron Harkonnen: "I, myself, your uncle, the Baron, which is to say, me." He's really one of the great villains. He outmaneuvers two Mentats (but one of them is Thufir Halfwit, so let's say one and a half). He twists a Suk doctor to his will. He possesses his killer from beyond the grave. The thing I like about him is that his machinations never seem forced. I occasionally (which is to say, constantly) bitch about Batman orchestrating these elaborate Xanatos Roulettes where he anticipates the arrival of time travelers at 11:47 PM in Times Square and has already placed silly putty there because that's the only substance that nullifies their powers. The Baron plans "feints within feints within feints" to use a Dune-ism, but he's not omniscient and he even has his failures and setbacks, but he always rebounds.

1: Miles Teg: The Bashar! Man, what don't I like about Miles Teg? The Mentat Bashar, so feared by the Honored Matres that they burned an entire planet to kill him. (He also slaps around Duncan Idaho, but that's just gilding the lily.) When I came up with this list, I knew he'd be in the number one spot, but when the time came to articulate why he was my favorite, I couldn't come up with a reason. I think it's because he's a decent man, probably the only decent man in the entire series, save for perhaps Leto I. I like the Dune universe, but the characters in it are not nice people. Most of the heroes are so ruthless that they would not be out of place as villains in other works. But Miles manages to avoid this somehow. He's just a quiet man, his wife gone for many years, content to tend to his garden in his retirement. 

(I don't actually dislike Duncan. He's just kind of there and not very interesting.) 

1 comment:

  1. Read the first two Dune books as a teenager, but I never made it through the third one -- I remember it was serialized in Analog (around 1976, maybe?). Should take another crack at it, one of these days.

    --Chris DeVito