Tuomas Kuusniemi

University of Oulu, English Philology, Finland


The Time of Tale: Time as Fractal Metaphor in Frank Herbert’s Dune

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Frank Herbert’s Dune and time is the number of people who have reacted poorly to the rhythm of the novel’s narrative. The story unfolds in glimpses of events separated by months or years (and between the books of the entire series, by decades and millennia), and this seems to disorient some people. But on closer inspection, this unorthodox manner of handling time has a function integral to the nature of the novel’s fictional world and to the structure of the narrative. Herbert based Dune, both in story and structure, on the principles of ecology – everything affects everything else. This dynamic systems approach, as elaborated on by Donald Palumbo, allowed Herbert to craft a science fiction epic with fractal self-similarity both across the same scale and on descending scales. By considering the use and nature of time in this fractal structure through Paul Ricoeur’s theory of time as metaphor, some very interesting phenomena emerge. Dune tracks time on three different scales: events, time units (days, years, etc.), and generations. Each chapter of the novel depicts particular events in high detail – thing, thought and deed. Virtually each chapter is an unbroken third-person account of the protagonist(s) of the moment, but rarely does one chapter flow into the next. Instead, there are significant jumps in time even when the focus stays on the same characters, and as the chapter unfolds, it provides a description of, firstly, the present, and secondly, how the previous chapter in that character’s thread has led to the present, usually through flashbacks. These flashbacks often refer to visions of the future that in turn often refer to the ‘present’ of the narrative, leading to an intricate fractal web of stories-withinstories. The end result is a collection of separate yet mutually dependent scenes interwoven by strands of thought and causality – much like the ecological systems Herbert emulates. The various salient events are, in spite of their focus on who did what, where and why, placed clearly on a timeline marked in hours, days, weeks, months and years, and the chronology of events is never long in doubt. In addition to serving as a solid frame of reference for the reader, it is also an indication of the importance of time-keeping in the Imperium: for example, the third sentence in the book emphasises the year. It can also be argued that this reflects the great value the culture places on precision. It is also very significant, both to characterisation and world-building, that generations are carefully kept track of. Not only is the Imperium full of ancient blood-feuds, but the central story of Dune – Paul’s journey from ducal heir to guerrilla duke to prophesied messiah to emperor – is strongly motivated by who he is descended from. The web of metaphorical references in Dune is exceedingly complex, yet at heart based on the simple premises of dynamical systems. Nothing stands in isolation, everything is connected – the characters, the setting, the plot, the narrative technique, the conception of time, and even, in a sense, the reader.

Keywords: Dune, Frank Herbert, metaphor, dynamical systems, time, Paul Atreides, Muad’Dib,
narrative, science fiction, self-similarity, fractal aesthetics
Contact information:
Tuomas Kuusniemi
Kimmontie 3 A 13
FIN- 90570
Phone: +358505651979
Email: muadmouse@gmail.com
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  1. Pingback: Time and Space in Speculative Fiction | BEM's Blog

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