All rights reserved.

by Frank Herbert

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

At first blush, writing a novel that takes place on another planet
seems like an easier proposition than, say, creating a historical
fiction set during the Victorian era. The author of the historical
novel must get the costumes and settings
right, avoid anachronisms, make sure the
language is idiomatic, and never violate
our understanding of how things really
were during the period in question. And
we haven’t even begun to consider mat-
ters of plot, character development, etc.

The sci-fi writer, in contrast, can just
make it all up. Mermaids, flying
buildings, the proverbial bottomless
cup of coffee . . . anything goes, as Cole
Porter once said. What could be easier
than that?

Yet when we encounter a book such as
Dune, it becomes clear
that imagining a whole new world is, in fact, a project on a
grand scale. Anthropologists sometimes talk about “thin” and
“thick” descriptions of cultures—a terminology originated by
Clifford Geertz, but now borrowed by other fields. The “thin
description” may describe a certain aspect of a social situation,
but lacks the rich contextual information that only the “thick”
account can convey. Frank Herbert’s
Dune is the novelistic
equivalent of the “thick” ethnography—indeed, almost a
textbook case of what such a "thick" narrative looks like.

And what Herbert achieves is all the more striking, given that
so much sci-fi is woefully thin. It is one thing to postulate the
existence of intelligent life in another part of the universe, it is
a much different (and more challenging) task to situate this
alien culture in a rich world, fully equipped with distinctive
flora, fauna, ecology, traditions, institutions, religious beliefs,
ancestral conflicts, technologies, myths and other cultural bric-
a-brac. The richness of this contextual framework is what
typically sets the finer works of speculative fiction apart from
the rest.

Only a few authors have achieved this at a very high degree.
Herbert belongs in that select group that includes J.R.R.
Tolkien (and his Middle-earth), C.S. Lewis (and Narnia) and J.
K. Rowling (and her magical variant of modern-day Britain). It
should come to no surprise that each of these authors ranks
among the most popular writers of the last century, and has
attracted a notoriously loyal group of fans. Even if “serious”
literary critics fail to recognize the achievement of creating the
“thick” description of an alternative world from scratch,
millions of readers clearly appreciate the “degree of difficulty”
involved. If fiction were diving, creating a realistic
Dune would
be the equivalent of a backward double somersault with two-
and-a-half twists.

I realize full well that I am fighting against the literary
establishment here. For them, a work such as
they have read it or not (mostly the latter, let’s be honest)—
exists simply to be derided and dismissed. Its popularity and
ardent fan base, far from adding to the book’s credibility, only
serve to make it all the more suspect. I probably fell,
unthinkingly, into this same camp, until my strange mid-life
crisis as a reader set in, which led me to immerse myself in the
disdained classics of conceptual fiction—books, let me assure
you, I had
not read as a teenager. Nostalgia for my youth, a
sentiment that sometimes flares up when I listen to the oldies
station on the radio, plays no part in my championing of these
works. Yes, I admit it, I didn't read Herbert, Asimov, Heinlein,
Dick, etc. until I had a few gray hairs.

The plot of
Dune is your typical jumble of stock situations and
narrative archetypes. The novel is set primarily on the desert
planet Arrakis, a barren wasteland which would be worthless
except that it is the source of the valuable spice mélange,
known for its ability to prolong life, as well as enhance vitality
and alertness. Duke Leto Atreides I has brought his family to
Arrakis, where he will take over the valuable spice trade. But
this gift is actually a trap hatched by his enemies, Baron
Vladimir Harkonnen and Emperor Shaddam IV. Although the
Duke has a powerful and loyal entourage, the battle for
survival on this inhospitable planet will ultimately depend on
his concubine Lady Jessica and especially his son Paul.

The plot, as summarized here, is straightforward and little
different from what we might find in hundreds of pulp fiction
novels. Yet what distinguishes
Dune from your run of the mill
adventure story is the rich tapestry that Herbert weaves
around his plot, and his ability to address big themes—ranging
from ecology to religion—without being heavy-handed. In fact,
those who believe that books set on distant planets are mere
escapism, without serious thematic content and the "deep inner
meaning" of more serious novels, might be surprised by what
they find inside the covers of

To some extent, Herbert never really extricated himself from
this story—although he wrote books about other subjects, he
kept coming back to the scene of his greatest triumph. Sequels
are a curse of the creative mind. We often find that the very
imaginative souls best capable of forging a richly conceived
fictional world are least able to leave it behind and move on to
other projects. One is again reminded inevitably of Narnia,
Middle-earth and Hogwarts. In the cases of Tolkien and
Herbert, their sons even stepped in to keep the wheels turning
in the imaginative universes left behind by their illustrious

Dune has become an acknowledged classic within the
sci-fi world, this thick-description novel was slow in finding an
audience. Close to twenty publishers rejected the novel
(although one reportedly noted that this might be the “mistake
of the decade”), and Herbert was eventually forced to cut a
deal with Chilton, an imprint best known for its auto manuals.
Sales were slow at first—even though the book won both the
Hugo and Nebula awards. Many readers were no doubt put off
by the sheer size of the work, and by the fact that they needed
to consult a lengthy glossary at the back of the book if they
hoped to understand the fictive landscape that Herbert had
created for their delectation. In short,
Dune hovered on the
brink of becoming one of those heinous “two bookmark
novels,” such as David Foster Wallace’s
Infinite Jest and
Vladimir Nabokov’s
Pale Fire, in which the reader must dance
back and forth in the text.

Yet the enthusiasm of those who made the plunge into
eventually overcame all of these obstacles. Again like Rowling
(turned down by nine publishers), Herbert demonstrated that
his grandiosity of vision was only a flaw in the minds of those
who proved unable to rise to the occasion. For the readers who
gave themselves up to the world of
Dune—and this is
unmistakably one of those books that you must give yourself
up to, or you might as well not read it at all—the supposedly
extraneous trappings of the author’s “thick” description were
the best part of the story.

This book continues to find a receptive audience, and reward
those who make the effort to master its intricacies. It has even
survived a poorly received David Lynch film and a lackluster
TV movie—and, needless to say, the scorn of the literati. Yet
the high culture snobs who look down on this book would
perhaps do well to spend some time immersed in its pages.
They might just learn something about the possibilities of
“thick” descriptions in literature that they won’t find in the
other books on their nightstand.

Conceptual Fiction
A work-in-progress
of literary criticism
as a web site
Notes on Conceptual Fiction

by Ted Gioia


Is it possible that the idea of "realism" as a guiding
principle for fiction is itself unrealistic?  After all,
there are no Newtonian laws in stories—an apple
can just as easily fly upward from a tree as drop
to the ground.   Characters can ride a magic
carpet as easily as walk.   Any restrictions are
imposed by the author, not by any external
"reality," however defined.

The first storytellers understood this intuitively.  
That is why myths, legends, folk tales and other
traditional stories recognize no Newtonian (or
other) limitations on their narrative accounts.  
These were the first examples of what I call
"conceptual fiction"—in other words stories that
delight in the freedom from "reality" that
storytelling allows.   Conceptual fiction plays
with our conception of reality, rather than defers
to it.  

In the past, conceptual fiction existed at the
center of our literary (and even pre-literary)
culture. Nowadays it is dismissed by critics and
typically shuffled off into "genre" categories such
as science fiction and fantasy.   Realism gained
preeminence as a supposedly rock hard
foundation for fiction.  From that moment on,
Newton's laws (and a million other laws)  gave
orders to the imagination, with the stamp of
approval of the literary establishment.  

But here is the more interesting question.  Is it
possible that this trend is reversing, and that
conceptual fiction is now moving back from the
periphery into the center of our literary


How important is realism in storytelling today?
If one judges by the comments (and, even more
importantly, the unstated assumptions) of critics
as diverse as James Wood and Michiko Kakutani,
then realism is the foundation of our literary
culture, and storytellers ignore it at their own

But take a look at the most formative and
influential stories of our age, namely the best-
known motion pictures.  (We will return to the
novel in a second.)  Of the 50 top grossing films of
all time, only 7 reveal even the slightest
tendency toward realism.  (And I need to
Forrest Gump, The Titanic, Raider of the
Lost Ark
, and Jaws as realistic to even get to
seven.)   You can denounce Hollywood as much as
you like, and ridicule the uneducated tastes of
moviegoers.  Yet we see what
they think of
realism every time we go the local multiplex.  

But I can sense your scorn of Hollywood even
from where I am sitting across the great world
wide web.   And I am confident that you have
never debased yourself to the point of seeing and
enjoying any of these megahits.  So let's turn to
the novel.  Is it possible that even the novel—the
serious novel--is now falling out of the
gravitational pull of realism?  (Ah, I love that
adjective:  whenever I hear "serious" used by a
literary critic, I am reminded of John McEnroe
taunting the umpire at Wimbledon in his whiny
voice: "You can

Let's look more deeply into this matter.


During the middle decades of the 20th century,
literary works that
experimented with language
were seen as harbingers of the future.   These
Joycean and Poundian and Faulknerian
creations were singled out for praise and held as
models for emulation. These works won awards,
were taught in universities, and gained
acceptance (at least in highbrow circles) as
contemporary classics.

During these same years, another group of
writers, universally scorned by academics and
critics, were working on different ways of
conceptualizing reality.  Unlike the highbrow
writers, they did
not experiment with sentences,
but rather with the possible worlds that these
sentences described.  These authors often worked
in so-called “genre styles” of fiction (science
fiction, fantasy), publishing in pulp fiction
periodicals and cheap paperbacks.  Despite the
futuristic tenor of their writing, these authors
were not seen as portents of the future.  And
though these books sold in huge quantities and
developed a zealous following among readers,
these signs of commercial success only served to
increase the suspicion and scorn with which
these books were dealt with in highbrow circles.


In a strange quirk of history, literature in the
late 20th and early 21st century failed to follow
in the footsteps of Joyce and Pound.  Instead,
conceptual fiction came to the fore, and a wide
range of writers—highbrow and lowbrow—
focused on literary metaphysics, a scenario in
which sentences stayed the same as they always
were, but the “reality” they described was
subject to modification, distortion and

This was seen in the magical realism of Gabriel
Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie; the
alternative histories of
Michael Chabon and
Philip Roth;  the modernist allegories of
Saramago; the political dystopias of Margaret
Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro;  the quasi-sci-fi
scenarios of
Jonathan Lethem and David Foster
Wallace;  the reality-stretching narratives of
David Mitchell and Audrey Niffenegger;  the
urban mysticism of
Haruki Murakami and Mark
Z. Danielewski;  the meta-reality musings of Paul
Auster and Italo Calvino;  the edgy futurism of J.
G. Ballard and Iain Banks; and the works of hosts
of other writers.   


Of course, very few critics or academics linked
these works to their pulp fiction predecessors.   
Cormac McCarthy might win a Pulitzer Prize for
his novel
The Road, a book whose apocalyptic
theme was straight out of the science fiction
playbook.  But no bookstore would dare to put this
novel in the sci-fi section.  No respectable critic
would dare compare it to, say,
I Am Legend (a
novel very similar to McCarthy’s in many
respects).   Arbitrary divisions between “serious
fiction” and “genre fiction” were enforced, even
when no legitimate dividing line existed.  

Only commercial considerations dictated the
separation.  Literary critics, who should have
been the first to sniff out the phoniness of this
state of affairs, seemed blissfully ignorant that
anything was amiss.

José Saramago’s
Blindness might have a plot that
follows in the footsteps of Michael Crichton’s
Andromeda Strain
or Greg Bear’s Blood Music, but
no academic would ever mention these books in
the same breath.  Toni Morrison’s
Beloved might
have as its title character a ghost and build its
action around a haunting, but no one would dare
compare it to a horror novel—even though it has
all of the key ingredients.   

It almost seemed as if the book industry (and
critics and academics) had reached a tacit
agreement.  “If you don’t tell people that these
works follow in the footsteps of genre fiction
books, we won’t either."  Yet this was merely a
commercial decision.  After all, what serious
reader would buy these books if they had the
taint of sci-fi or fantasy?  When would any
Pulitzer or Nobel panel give an award to a book
that was
explicitly linked to genre fiction?  They
wouldn't.  So a charade needed to be played, in
which some works of conceptual fiction were
allowed to sit on the same shelf as the
books (ah, that McEnroe voice again), while
others were ghetto-ized in a different location,
whether it be in a library or a bookstore or
something more intangible like your mind.


This state of affairs pointed to the fundamental
flaw in viewing works of science fiction and
fantasy as similar to other genre books.   

Other genre categories—mysteries, romances, etc.
—have very strict limitations on their plots,
characters, narrative structures, etc.  A mystery
book must have a crime and a solution to the
crime.  A romance book must have a love story
that proceeds along more or less familiar lines.  
These formulas must be followed at all costs.  

But the science fiction and fantasy categories
were far more freeform.  Almost anything could
happen in these books, provided they played
some game with our concept of reality.  The only
promises these works made were to
astound and
delight us.   This was not a formula—indeed it
was the exact opposite of a formula.

Just look at the names of the early sci-fi
magazines:  they were called
Amazing or
or Fantastic or tagged with some
equally ambitious title. . . (my favorite:
).  Ah, what could be grander than
magazines that forged such extravagant
covenants with their readers?  Not even
The New
promises that every issue will be

In essence, sci-fi and fantasy never fit nicely into
the genre pigeonhole.  And given their focus on
surprising and delighting readers—rather than
following strict formulas of plot development and
resolution—it was inevitable that “serious
writers” would begin borrowing from these
scorned writers who existed at the fringes of the
literary world.   


Critics and academics and even readers have
largely missed the implications of this.   They
prefer to live in denial.  A critic as astute as
James Wood—who ranks, for better or worse,
among the most influential writers on literature
of our time—can continue to pretend that the
“realist” tradition in fiction somehow reigns
supreme.   Yet any perspicacious reader should be
able to see that
tinkering with reality is the
real driving force in contemporary fiction, and
has been for a long time.  


Anthropologist Clifford Geertz differentiated
between “thin” and “thick” ways of describing
cultures—labels that have since been borrowed
by other disciplines.  The “thin” approach focuses
on a specific aspect of a social situation, whereas
the “thick” perspective also tries to capture the
context as well.  

Fiction can also adopt “thick” or “thin”
perspectives.   And it should come as little
surprise that many of the most notable examples
of “thick” storytelling reside in the world of
conceptual fiction.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth,
Frank Herbert’s
Dune, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, J.K.
Hogwarts, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's
magical-realist landscapes
. . . these all stand out
as marvelously thick, ethnographies of the
imagination.   And why the connection between
thick descriptions and fantasy / magical / sci-fi
stories?  Because these genres cannot take context
for granted, as do so many so-called “serious”
novels.  The meticulous
creation of a vivid and
inspired context is usually essential to the overall
effect in any extended work of conceptual fiction.  

In contrast, when a literary writer attempts a
thick description in the context of a traditional
narrative—for example, in writing a novel set
during the time of the French Revolution or the
Civil War—the many telling details that
establish the context are typically drawn from
research rather than from the grand leaps of the
imagination that created Middle-earth or
Rowling’s magically-charged variant on
contemporary Britain.   And when a literary
novel is set in the current day, the approach
taken by the writer is, more often than not, a
one, since the context is largely familiar to all
readers.   The writer working in conceptual
fiction genres has no such support.   One might
even decide to rename conceptual fiction as
“contextual fiction,” since so much of the power
of these works depend on the author’s ability to
create a powerful context within which the story
is situated.  

We should not make light of the difficulty—or,
indeed, the artistry—involved in creating a
successful work of “thick” fiction out of pure
imagination.  Yet how many literary critics will
even deign to notice a book such as Frank Herbert’
Dune, let alone praise it?  The invisibility of this
“thick account” masterpiece in literary
discussions is hardly a sign of any failing on the
part of Herbert.  Rather it reveals that the
literary world, for all its espousal of open-minded,
egalitarian attitudes, has its own unexamined
areas of snobbery and intolerance.  

Of course, readers pay little attention to these
things.  The “thick” works of conceptual fiction
mentioned above by Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling and
Herbert are among the most widely read books of
the last century.   According to many in the
literary establishment, this must simply be a
sign of the stupidity of the masses.  And they
must be especially stupid to read thousands of
pages (since these are usually long books or parts
of series) of such poorly written books.  

Then again, this glib dismissal from highbrow
critics might itself be suspect and worthy of


The term "science fiction" as it is applied to many
of these works is especially unfortunate, since the
inclusion of science is not the decisive factor in
setting these books apart.  Otherwise a book such
as Richard Powers'
The Gold Bug Variations
which rhapsodizes about science on almost every
page—would be a work of conceptual fiction.  It is
not.  At no point is the reader's sense of reality
challenged by the straightforward narrative
style of  Powers' novel, which is a fine book
indeed, but with little in common with the stories
discussed here.

By the same token, it is easy to see how mistaken
those fans are who proclaim the superiority of so-
called "hard" science fiction—in other words
stories with a large dose of "real" science in them.  
Even a quick survey of science fiction books
shows that the science is almost always bogus,
and simply serves as a gateway for bringing
imaginative elements into the narrative.  The
greatness of these books does not derive from
their chemistry or physics or genetic engineering
(which almost always prove to laughably wrong-
headed a few years after the book is published, if
not sooner), but in the writer's visionary
reconfiguration of our conceptions of the real.


Given this situation, we need to return to the
many masterworks of conceptual fiction from
earlier decades, and reassess their importance.   
Authors such as Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein,
Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, J. R. R. Tolkien,
Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis,
Frank Herbert, Robert Silverberg, Alfred Bester,
Stanislaw Lem, and many others deserve a new
reading and a sensitive re-evaluation of their role
in the evolution of modern fiction.

It will not be possible in every instance to
“rehabilitate” these authors.  The pulp fiction
environment in which they worked encouraged
sloppy writing and perhaps made it difficult for
these writers to develop to their full potential.  
Yet there is more substance to this body of work
than is usually acknowledged, and a sensitive
study of the history of conceptual fiction (which,
in any account of the history of the novel, would
link back to
Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels and
Tristram Shandy, among other classic works) is an
undertaking both fruitful and necessary if we
hope to understand our current literary