Monday, May 17, 2021

Frank Herbert by William F. Touponce

Lit crit of Dune
The 1988 book entitled Frank Herbert, a monograph of literary criticism on the science fiction author’s work, is part of the Twayne’s Authors Series from Twayne Publishers of Boston. It was written by William F. Touponce, a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. This is not the first book of literary criticism on Herbert’s work, but, having been published shortly after Herbert’s novel Chapterhouse: Dune, it is the first to cover all six novels in the Dune series.

Touponce opens his book with a brief biographical chapter on Herbert. This life summary has since been surpassed by Brian Herbert’s 2003 biography of his father, Dreamer of Dune, which naturally goes into far more detail. Those just looking for the basic facts of Herbert’s life, however, will find what they need to know here without having to put up with Brian’s numerous digressions. Next, Touponce discusses the first Dune novel. This is the book’s meatiest chapter, containing most of Touponce’s critical analysis. From there, he devotes chapters to each of the remaining Dune books, then ends with a brief overview of Herbert’s non-Dune career, in which about a dozen other Herbert novels are briefly summarized, spoilers included.

Touponce taught university courses on science fiction and has written other books of lit crit on the genre. This book on Herbert is not intended for the casual fan but for an audience of PhDs. In his analysis of the Dune novels, Touponce focuses mostly on Herbert’s use of language and narrative voice. He stresses that Herbert is not a dialectical writer but a dialogical writer. He doesn’t preach messages to his reader, but rather uses dialogue and multiple viewpoints to raise open-ended questions and discussions. Rarely does Herbert provide conclusive resolutions to these dialogues but rather leaves it to the reader to form his or her interpretation of the events and ideas presented in the Dune novels. Touponce also emphasizes the multiple levels of narrative voice through which Herbert tells these stories—the third person authorial narrative, first person interior monologues, the faux excerpts from the writings of fictional characters, historians, and archivists—and how all contribute to what Touponce calls a “polyphonic novel.” Naturally, given the plot of Dune, there is some discussion of Herbert’s views on religion, ecology, heroes, and messiahs, but most of Touponce’s textual analysis focuses on these issues of language and dialogue.

The main problem with Touponce’s book is that it’s at least 90 percent plot summaries. Granted, these are likely the most complete and in-depth plot summaries you are likely to find on the Dune novels, but if you’ve already read Herbert’s books then Touponce isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know. It makes for a nice stroll down memory lane, but there isn’t a whole lot of additional commentary and analysis above and beyond the extensive plot synopses. As a fan of Herbert’s work, I am glad that he was given the full-length scholarly monograph that his novels deserve, but I’m not sure if this is a particularly valuable work of scholarship in its field.

This is a short book, only about 125 pages, so not a major investment in time for the reader. Outside of literary academia, however, it will really only appeal to the most diehard Dune fans, like those who have already read through Willis McNelly’s Dune Encyclopedia.

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