Historically, mainstream science fiction blockbusters don’t qualify as Grimdark. They’re marketed at kids, they’re brightly coloured, have jokes that don’t qualify as ‘dark humour’ and the power of hope is a recurring theme. Dune might just be different and here’s why. Spoilers will follow if you’ve not read the books, so be warned.
On the surface, Dune has all the hallmarks of a traditional fantasy setting. Our prophesied hero leads a persecuted people against the ancient enemies of his house to avenge his father and brings low a corrupt empire.
However, the Dune universe is not one with neat lines of good and bad. Indeed, it’s a significant influence on the archetypal grimdark setting – Warhammer 40k. It’s got mutants who facilitate space travel and can see the future, a tendency towards feudal & commercial institutions and a prohibition against AI because of a past war against robots.
Dune goes to great lengths to emphasise the way in which the Emperor, Great Houses and CHOAM corporation are corrupt, the insidious way in which the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood influence the galaxy and the awesome influence of the abhuman Navigators.
This is not a universe with a sense of justice.
The depiction of a detached and manipulative political class is solid grimdark fare. The Harkonnens are almost comically villainous. Baron Harkonnen is a gross paedophile, Feyd-Rautha is a manipulative psychopath and Glossu Rabban is a brute.
It does have to be said that having your main villain be fat, physically disabled, diseased and an abusive pervert is probably overkill and doesn’t carry through all that well in the modern age.
All of this would be ruined if our hero – Paul Atreides – was exactly as noblebright as he seems at first glance. However, Paul isn’t as benficent as he appears, the machinations and prophecy that led to his ascension are far from divine and what seems like a straight ‘you killed my father’ desire for justice is more complex.
For a start, Paul’s genesis is the result of a horrifically manipulative genetic conspiracy going back thousands of years, and worse – he was NOT the intended result. The prophecy that aids his ascension on Arrakis is not divine, but implanted by the Bene Gesserit to benefit any of their number who found themselves abandoned amongst the Fremen.
It’s arguable that Paul’s father, Duke Leto is the most overtly noblebright character in the story – a loving father and a caring feudal lord (insofar as such a thing is possible). However, he still makes political decisions over loving ones and his decision to create an elite fighting force is what brings about his fall. There are hints of Leto’s troubling relationship with his overly martial father and I’d like to have seen more of that.
The Atreides retainers can be seen as uncomplicated good guys, but Duncan Idaho gets drunk when he believes Lady Jessica is a traitor, Thufir Hawat turns willingly when he believes the same, Gurney Halleck is motivated by revenge and Dr Yueh is a traitor. Not so shiny after all.
In avenging his father, Paul lays low the house of his genetic grandfather – who is killed by his infant sister, who was brought to sentience in the womb as a result of a psychedelic trance. This is not the fluffy sort of narrative you’d see from Disney or directed by Steven Spielberg.
Ultimately, Paul makes many compromised decisions – he keeps his beloved as a concubine for political reasons, he fails to stop the crusade that his influence unleashes among the Fremen and ultimately he cannot face the inhuman necessity of the Golden Path eventually taken by his son Leto II.
What is entailed in that Golden Path is truly horrific in itself but that topic takes us far past the initial book.
The one thing Dune lacks to qualify as the truest grimdark is the dark humour that populates the archetypes of the genre. Paul is not one for sarcastic quips or making light of his body count and that straight-laced quality does drop the story a few points on the grimdark meter.
Finally, it bears mentioning that Dune is a problematic story, with its depiction of a ‘savage’, refugee semitic people, ripe with the potential to unleash a jihad on the galaxy who are brought literally out of the desert by a prophesied white savior who cannot restrain them.
That was a problematic narrative in 1965 and in 2020 it’s actively dangerous. You can argue that the best grimdark directly confronts such issues and Dune definitely has things to say about colonialism but only as an aside and I can wholly understand why the story doesn’t have a lot of fans of Middle Eastern heritage.
The new Dune movie is likely to be the science fiction event of the year and while it’s certainly going to be beautiful, it deserves credit as a work of grimdark fiction as well, set in an unjust universe, with compromised heroes and little in the way of happy endings.