I just got finished a reread of Dune. The ecology, philosophical and religious aspects of the novel, of the universe he built, are incredible. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels, of which there are many. Even if you didn’t know a lot about the author, even a casual reading of Frank Herbert’s most famous novel would tell you that he did an incredible amount of research on life cycles, planetary ecology, Middle Eastern culture, the nature of aristocracy, and how science and religion can clash. Herbert was a brilliant man.
But he didn’t know a single thing about knife fighting, and it shows.
Part of my problem with how personal combat was portrayed in the novel was the strange hierarchy of fighters in the Dune universe. To briefly sketch out the background, personal shield technology had been developed so that most fighting men had force fields around them that they could turn on and off. A fast-moving object like a bullet would be deflected by a shield, but a slightly slower object, like a hand holding a knife, could slip through. So for personal combat, you had to go fast on defense and slow on attack. Also, if someone shot you with a laser weapon (called a lasgun) while your shield was activated, both you and the person holding the laser would be obliterated in a massive nuclear explosion, known as the Holtzman effect. In essence, Herbert wanted to eliminate guns of all kinds in his science fiction universe.
The best individual fighters in the known universe were both attached to the main character Paul: Duncan Idaho, a “swordmaster,” and Gurney Halleck, a former prisoner of Paul’s enemies. They developed a form of fighting that was so good, it rivaled and maybe even beat the most feared armies known. What didn’t work in the novel was that all of this had to be told to the reader, and not shown. Herbert went into great detail about how the gigantic sandworms of Dune created the spice melange, but when it came to fighting, he fell back on what he knew, which was fencing. It was unconvincing.
Fencing isn’t anything like fighting with knives. It’s a long-range form of fighting (or, well, sport). A knife fight is, by its very nature, an extreme close-quarters encounter. Blades don’t touch in a knife fight. You can’t elevate it into a fencing duel; it’s too quick.
The winner in a knife fight is almost always going to be the one with more will, more speed, more strength, and more reach. He’ll get that all-important first hit in. Let’s also keep in mind that the idea of a knife duel is an entirely constructed fantasy, not unlike West Side Story. The vast, vast majority of us don’t get into knife duels. Someone looking to cut you isn’t going to give you a chance to defend yourself: he’ll wait until your back is turned and shank you.
There aren’t a lot of places that teach knife dueling. Filipino martial artists do flow drills that approximate it like sumbrada and hubud-lubud, but they’re intended to ingrain fighting reflexes, not draw out a fight into a duel. So the lack of resources available to Herbert isn’t surprising.
Nevertheless, the fight scenes lacked authenticity. An awesome book despite that.