Why Chapter 1 of Dune is A Masterclass in How to Construct a Scene
First edition of Dune by Frank Herbert
?A beginning is the time to take the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows.? ? From the inscription to Chapter 1 of Dune.
The opening chapter of Frank Herbert?s Dune is the setting for one of the most famous passages in the history of science fiction, and one of the most compelling scenes I?ve ever read in any genre.
Here?s the scene:
A family of aristocrats is about to depart from their home planet to go to the harsh, untamed world where the most precious commodity in the galaxy is mined, but before they go, the Reverend Mother of a mystical sisterhood must test their teenage son.
That test, in many ways a play on the trope of the test of manhood from adventure literature, is a test of the boy?s humanity. As she begins the test, the Reverend Mother tells the boy that she is going to determine if he is human or animal.
In this video I do a deep dive into the magic that is Chapter 1 of Dune.
The scene works because it quickly becomes apparent that the test is one of life or death itself, a test so central to the culture of the sci-fi civilization Herbert is creating here that a mother is willing to leave her son in the hands of a woman who might well kill him. It?s a crucial world-building scene in the ultimate world-building novel, but in the moment it?s happening, it feels like a horror movie.
The Reverend Mother sits before the boy, a teenager named Paul, and pulls out a box. She tells Paul to put his hand in the box.
?What?s in the box?? Paul asks.
?Pain,? she says.
The tension in the scene quickly ramps up from there. Before we know it, the Reverend Mother is holding a poison needle to the boy?s neck. He is frozen in place, his life in the balance, commanded to put his hand in a box of pain.
To bring forward his courage, he recites a mantra to himself, a mantra of such power that many millions of us who have read this novel, the bestselling science fiction novel of all-time, remember it, think about it, talk about, and even recite its truths to ourselves when we need to hear them.
?I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer.?
The mantra has a name: The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear.
I must not fear.Fear is the mind-killer.Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.I will face my fear.I will permit it to pass over me and through me.And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.Only I will remain.
Reciting the Litany, Paul puts his hand in the box.
And the pain begins.
Burning. He feels fire in the box. Searing heat. In his mind?s eye he can see the tongues of flame licking his skin. The flesh of his hand is burning, charring, melting.
But if he removes his hand from the box he gets the poison needle.
So he continues to recite the mantra. And we recite it with him.
Holy hell it?s quite a way to start a novel.
In the end, Paul passes the test. The Reverend Mother declares that he resisted the animal urge to remove his hand long enough to prove he is human. Paul did so well on the test, in fact, that the chapter ends in foreshadowing of the sci-fi superman story yet to come. Talk of the ?Water of Life? and the ?Kwisatz Haderach,? concepts crucial to the sci-fi story yet to be told, begin here, and at this point, we?re more than interested in what Herbert is trying to sell us.
Because we?ve seen that he is an author in full control of his creation, having just presented us one of the most compelling scenes we?ve ever read.
This piece is part of a series about the chapters from literature that impress me most. The next piece in the series, about Chapter 10 from For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, is here.
Spencer Baum is the author of 7 novels. He is releasing the audiobook of his latest novel as a free podcast. See the video below to learn more.
The audiobook for my new sci-fi thriller, The Tetradome Run, is being released as a free podcast with a full movie-quality score of music and sound.