Many of us have made simple decisions which changed our lives. It could be as simple as turning right instead of left at an intersection, or saying ‘Yes’ rather than ‘No’ to an invitation. Things weren’t quite the same after. We saw things differently, we found ourselves wondering different thoughts, we made decisions for different reasons. We were imbued with a sense of wonder.
One of my decision points was when I decided to read Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’.
I was fourteen years old when Herbert shone a strange and penetrating light into my world, and it was in that light that I first came to know many things.
About the many kinds of love — the selfish versus the unselfish, the romantic versus the passionate versus the pragmatic versus the loyal, the love of people versus the love of power, and how none of these can exists by itself but instead twine and tangle until the heart of any average sentient human being aches from the weight of love laid upon it.
About the many ways to hate, and the even more ways to be damaged by that hate — and how the hater is no less damaged than the hated. About agendas and how they could be hidden, thwarted and pursued. About how it is possible, if you have a certain bent, to find other people’s suffering beautiful, even necessary — or to step in front of something monstrous and take upon yourself, freely, the whole weight of suffering meant for another human being, a nation, a world.
About how Messiahs can be human.
About how Messiahs can only ever be human, no matter how much divinity they carry.
The themes of this work were enormous and wide-ranging — from Machiavellian politics to ecological change and its consequence, to mystical religious transformation.
Many of these ideas took me years to fully take in — fourteen or fifteen is far too young for some of the ramifications, unless you’re one of Paul Muad’dib’s children — but they have percolated through my own visions, since.
When I wrote the desert sequences of The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days, for instance, they may have owed much to what I knew of places such as Morocco, which are firmly in our own world — but the roots of my own world, without the spice or the great worms or the sheer breadth of Herbert’s vision, are sunk deep into the mystic sands of Arrakis.
Before I took on Dune, I had been reading such science fiction as Isaac Asimov’s robot stories. With all the credit due to Asimov, the difference was vast — turning to Dune after the robot stories felt rather like climbing into the captain’s chair of the Enterprise after gaining your wings in the cockpit of a two-seater Cessna.
Herbert’s ideas were huge, the worlds involved were immeasurably complex, and it was a revelation to me that it was possible to weave such disparate threads as a lush and almost pure high-fantasy background of a feudal imperial government together with concepts like the Bene Gesserit, the Tleilaxu, the Fremen, and spice. I fell into the Fremen culture and sank into it with something approaching awe — every detail was pertinent, beautifully thought out, necessary. Frank Herbert was teaching me world building by immersion.
Dune opened up the possibility of other worlds for me in a way that no other book had done before it — or since. It was impossible to have this moment of awakening twice in a lifetime. Dune changed the way I looked at words, at history and at the future, at life, at the stars. I was young enough to be changed by it, old enough to understand that I was being changed by it, aware enough to realize that what I had been handed was a cup of pure spice essence which would reveal all manner of things to me.
I will always carry its gifts deep within me.