We’ve all been there. You read “Well, I’m back,” and you cry that The Lord of the Rings is over. You slog through the Silmarillian, only to discover the same feeling on its last page.
Somewhere around the lost tales and Letters from J.R.R. Tolkien, you realize that you’re just getting desperate. You curse the ineffable philologist of Oxford for not writing more.
After years of psychotherapy, I’ve finally moved beyond my Post Tolkien Stress Disorder. But I’ve always wondered if there were other books written in similar style, something that might be close enough to Tolkien to scratch the same itch. A few months ago, I found such in a surprising place.
In various writing workshops and books and podcasts, I kept hearing about and old series called Dune. I’d heard of it. I knew it had a dessert and giant sandworms. But I didn’t realize until recently that it’s the LoTR of science fiction.
What have Arrakis and Mordor to do with one another?
Dune? Really? Dune scratches the same itch as LoTR?
First, if you know nothing about Dune, here’s Wikipedia’s summary of it:
Set in the distant future amidst a feudal interstellar society in which noble houses, in control of individual planets, owe allegiance to the Padishah Emperor, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides, whose noble family accepts the stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis. As this planet is the only source of the “spice” melange, the most important and valuable substance in the universe, control of Arrakis is a coveted — and dangerous — undertaking.
Dune was published in 1965 (about 10 years after LoTR). It’s written in that similar old style: lengthy descriptions of scenery, omniscient point of view, and rambling passages of dubious relevancy. Basically, everything that all the writing coaches in the world tell you absolutely not to do in your own stories.
Some characters are a bit cliché—the destined kwisatz haderech (don’t ask me what that means, and I’m on the second book of the series), the purely evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the emotional mother figure. You get the idea.
But there’s good stuff, too!
Those are some of the negative similarities, but I loved Dune because it gave me that same sense of wonder and mystery as LoTR. Not much is clearly explained. The power of the melange spice (the currency the whole world of Dune runs on) is left somewhat a mystery through most of this book. As is the magic system, religious taboos, space travel, and half a dozen other details.
The villain is absolutely evil and purely hateable. I mean, he uses anti-gravity suspenders to hold up his obesity. Seriously, what a touch. And unlike Sauron, we actually get some scenes from his perspective.
The core of the similarity: milieu
Dune is most famous for its brilliant worldbuilding. And that is where it comes closest to satisfying my urge for lost Middle Earth. The world of Arrakis is beautifully built. You get physically thirsty reading this book. It has the same detail yet the same mystery as Middle Earth. And that’s one of the key components of LoTR that you can’t find in modern fiction.
See, modern fiction dives into the perspective of a character and keeps you there through a roller coaster of action and events. Think Hunger Games: we become Katniss and kill a bunch of people. Most modern stories are character-based. No major publisher would pick up something like Dune nowadays. It’s just too painful for the short attention spans of modern readers.
I saw these similarities between the series and questioned whether I was the only person who felt this way. But just recently, I read the book Elements of Fiction Writing – Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. And low and behold, he agrees! Orson Scott Card, legendary author of Ender’s Game, pointed these exact two stories out as examples of a “milieu story.”
A milieu story is about setting, not characters. LoTR isn’t about the fall of Sauron, it’s about Middle Earth passing from the third to the fourth age. Thus, the book doesn’t end until the elves pass beyond Middle Earth. Dune isn’t about Paul Atreides beating the Harkonnens; it’s about the planet Arrakis and the changes Paul will soon bring to the galactic order.
And that’s why these books are brothers.
Anyways, if you’re looking for a rip-roaring good time surfing through the galaxy, you shouldn’t read Dune.
But if you’re looking for a book filled with mystery, beauty, longing, awesome revenge, and a despicable bad guy—not to mention the most interesting, terrifying world you’ve ever imagined—grab a huge glass of water and read Dune.