Monday, July 23, 2007

Review of Dune -- Frank Herbert

Dune is a celebrated classic of science fiction, winner of numerous awards, and part of the greater cultural fabric of a wide segment of our culture. It is an ambitious novel chronicling the rise of Paul Atreides, a messiah-figure who brings about a titanic shift in the establishment of an interstellar empire.

The story is set against a political backdrop part feudal Europe, part cyberpunk megacorporation. The Atreides family has just been granted control of an economically important planet over against their sworn enemies, the Harkonnens. This planet, called Arrakis or Dune, is a barely-habitable desert planet from which the empire harvests an important resource called spice.

The Harkonnens do not quietly accede to the Atreides' takeover; a covert war begins not only to wrest control of Dune from the Atreides, but to strike a blow to destroy their royal line forever. Treacheries multiply, armed conflict erupts, and the young Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica flee into the dangerous desert to escape the Harkonnens. In the deep desert they find themselves among the Fremen, Dune's mysterious and canny native population. Hardened by their harsh environment into masters of their world and a formidable fighting force, the Fremen teach Paul and Jessica to thrive in their midst:

Stilgar flicked a testing glance across the group, motioned two men out. "Larus and Farrukh, you are to hide our tracks. See that we leave no trace. Extra care--we have two with us [Jessica and Paul] who've not been trained." He turned, hand upheld and aimed across the basin. "In squad line with flankers--move out. We must be at Cave of the Ridges before dawn."

Jessica fell into step beside Stilgar, counting heads. There were forty Fremen--she and Paul made it forty-two. And she thought: They travel as a military company--even the girl, Chani....

..."Watch where you go," Chani hissed. "Do not brush against a bush lest you leave a thread to show our passage."

Paul swallowed, nodded.

Jessica listened to the sounds of the troop, hearing her own footsteps and Paul's, marveling at the way the Fremen moved. They were forty people crossing the basin with only the sounds natural to the place--ghostly feluccas, their robes flitting through the shadows. Their destination was Sietch Tabr--Stilgar's sietch.

She turned the word over in her mind: sietch. It was a Chakobsa word, unchanged from the old hunting language out of countless centuries. Sietch: a meeting place in time of danger. The profound implications of the word and the language were just beginning to register with her after the tension of their encounter.

"We move well," Stilgar said. "With Shai-Hulud's favor, we'll reach Cave of Ridges before dawn."

Jessica nodded....Her mind focused on the value of this troop, seeing what was revealed here about the Fremen culture.

All of them, she thought, an entire culture trained to military order. What a priceless thing is here for an outcast Duke!

At the same time, the Fremen come to believe that Paul and Jessica are fulfillment of a religious prophecy sacred to their people. Paul and Jessica both become more Fremen than Atreides, and eventually lead their new people to victory against the oppressive and wicked Harkonnens.

Fictional Cultural Anthropology

One of the reasons Dune is so effective and engrossing of a story is because of Herbert's skill at the illuminating detail. In a world utterly swallowed by desert, one might think the scenery could becoming boring: sand, dunes, rocks, sky, heat. But Herbert writes with the hand of an ecologist who loves his imaginary land. The desert comes alive in his narrative, a force to be reckoned with but never despised or resented. Here the desert lives and breathes, cradling a people of its own who love her. But here also are a people not afraid to upset the ecology: the Fremen dream of a transformed Dune which flows with water and blooms green with the seasons.

The Fremen too are much of the beauty of the book. Herbert has done an impressive job in rendering them as a believable culture attuned to the water-hungry world of the desert. "His body is his own, but his water belongs to the tribe." When any Fremen or foe dies, others distill the water from his body and reclaim it for the tribe. All wealth is measured out in carefully decanted water. Rich people are described as water-fat. Spilling water on the ground and allowing beggars to sop it up with towels is seen as a magnanimous act on the part of the nobility.

Best of all, Herbert's love for his setting does not overwhelm the story. Too often, other authors write in order to describe the world which has captivated their imagination. Here, Herbert tells a story which grips the reader, the setting only adding to and magnifying the story rather than overshadowing it.

Timeless Archaisms

Dune is a rare book within the science fiction genre in that its technology does not seem dated more than thirty years after its publication. There are no computers at all (for reasons which are elegantly and provocatively explained in the text) and magic-like interstellar space travel abounds but remains remote and mysterious, the methods of which are far beyond the purview of ordinary mortals.

Since Dune is a novel set in the midst of violent conflict, military technology is a staple of the narrative. Everything from high-tech lasguns and force-field-like body shields through nuclear weapons, shoulder-fired rockets, and artillery barrages come to bear in its pages. But Herbert has contrived to artfully cast the high technology of his setting in a way that comes across as decadently archaic. The core of his strategy is to pit the most fanciful of technologies against each other: the lasguns and shields. If a lasgun beam should ever intersect an operating shield, the result is a thermonuclear explosion. This understandably limits the appearance of lasguns, and since personal, vehicle, and fortification shields are everywhere, the most commonly employed weapon in Dune is the knife. One-on-one duels appear frequently and very many of the great conflicts between large forces employ this simple but effective weapon. The overall effect is one of fragmented archaism in which the focus is on setting and conflict rather than technology. A beautiful touch by an insightful author.

Poisons and Drugs

Poisons are everywhere in this book. Blades are coated with them, several people die at the hands of poisoned needles, it finds its way in food, torture, threats, it is even used as a breath weapon by a hapless prisoner. References to poison snoopers crop up whenever food is discussed. Villains are described as having an interest in rare and interesting poisons.

And while poisons seem as much a part of the desert landscape as sand, the center of the plot revolves around the use and effects of mind-altering drugs. Far from the cyberpunk celebration of recreational drugs, the ones that make their appearance here are more utilitarian: they keep fatigue at bay, they render to astrogators the ability to chart pathways across the stars, and they grant prescient powers to Paul, the messiah figure, enabling him to see into the past and future, as if time were a picture of possibilities. From the vividness of the descriptions, one wonders how much mind-altering drugs played into the background of Herbert's own experiences.

Humanism Ascendant

The human machine is a wondrous, rational construct in Herbert's imagination. Here is not a creature full of mystery, but rather a rational being with faculties to be trained, martialled, and brought to bear on the problems facing him. These themes are played out in numerous ways, most vividly in Herbert's special types and guilds of humans which make their appearance in the pages.

First there are the Bene Gesserit, a society of women tracing their history back thousands of years. These women have a single purpose: to guide the genetic proliferation of the human race, ensuring that genes do not stagnate or fail before their time. They achieve this by marrying into and producing children in families with genetic lines they consider important, mixing them according to some plan of their own divising. They are a secretive and feared people, most of those beyond their order referring to them as "Bene Gesserit witches." The Bene Gesserit are trained in observation, able to discern the subtlest motive in a glance, a touch, the tone of speech. They are trained in control, able to contain and compartmentalize fear, love, hate, anger, jealousy, and other emotions even under extreme duress. And they are trained to use the Voice, placing subtle tenors and vibrations in their vocal sounds which force listeners to obey stated imperatives. This at no time is considered to be psionic, telepathic, or magical (except by the ignorant and superstitious), but rather a faculty of all humans, most of whom lack the proper training.

There are the Mentats, special humans which can process complex data like a computer. Discovered and trained without their knowledge to a certain age, these people are employed or enslaved by those around them to perform the functions of a computer: predicting outcomes, storing detailed data, calling up records, calculating algorithms. The Mentats do not have personalities much different than anyone else (unlike the Star Trek vision of the walking computer: the Vulcan), merely additional and specialized training to bring out latent potential.

There are the Guild steersmen, members of a company guild which maintains a monopoly on space travel. These guildsmen use a powerful mind-altering drug which allows them to see into the future and thus navigate the rigors of interstellar faster-than-light travel. These guildsmen are also ordinary people who have simply used a natural technology to gain access to a broader perception of time.

Herbert's vision of mankind is coolly humanist. Here are all the motivations and machinations of ancient nobility: treachery, maneuvering, murder, betrayal, bribery, emotional and economic manipulation in pursuit of power. Nothing here suggests that humanity is anything other than what we know today, but time and technology has opened up new possibilities for us to bring to bear as weapons against one another.

Chaos as Rational Tool

The ultimate resolution of Dune's plot rests on the need to destroy a calcified, stagnated human order so that the refreshing chaos of randomness can re-invigorate humanity's gene pool. In Herbert's novel, the human race is driven by a kind of fate experienced as a racial drive, an animal need to enrich its gene pool (its highest expression seen in the Bene Gesserit plans to organize and rationally extend the best of man's genetic features).

This theme is played out powerfully by Paul's transformation from a skilled and gifted youth into the messiah-figure of the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen. Even though Herbert employs religious terms, rhetoric, and symbols, there is nothing like a religion of the transcendant to be found in the book. Religions abound, but are either accretions of ancient wisdom meant to sooth the hurting or foolish superstitions or strange ethical taboos local to a culture. Paul-as-messiah is no figure come to guide mankind, but rather the unwitting agent of the animal need of the human race to mix its bloodlines. This messiah is a hammer come to smash a stagnant human civilization (stagnated tellingly by corporate monopoly and corrupt political power).

Here, strangely enough, is chaos pursued as a rational tool in the hands of the humanist mind.


Dune is a must-read for any fan of science fiction or fantasy. This is a book to own in hardback and to re-read every few years. It's philosophical themes are effectively balanced on the one hand by a vivid interest in an endlessly captivating desert culture and on the other by action-laden conflict. Herbert has been endlessly imitated and has deeply influenced successors as wide ranging as George Lucas and Robert Jordan.

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