Dune: A Review

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Warning! Spoilers.

This is intended as an analysis of ‘Dune’, noting many of the choices I found interesting, and also presenting my personal opinion on the book, when pertinent.

Summary

House Atreidies and House Harkonnen are bitter enemies. The former now controls the worlds most valuable resource, melange. But it comes at a price. They are betrayed, and Paul, the ducal heir, must navigate the harsh ways of the desert planet (Dune), fulfilling an ancient prophecy to unite the deadly native tribes under his banner, and guide a universal jihad to fruition.

Central message

This book is full of hidden meanings. This is simply the one that was most apparent to me:

Melange, or spice, is a potent drug. Half the universe is addicted to it, and would die without it. Not only that, it is required for interstellar travel.

Spice is a metaphor for literal drugs, but also oil, and any resource we are overly dependent on. Herbert highlights how these can be monopolised and exploited, in this case ushering in the death of billions.

Beyond this, Herbert also warns us to treat nature carefully, for it is our provider, and can easily destroy what we have come to rely on.

Themes

This book contains many admonishments to our burgeoning society, as pertinent now as they were 57 years ago.

Climate change. The Fremen (natives of Arrakis) are trying to transform the harsh desert planet into a lush paradise, reverse climate-change. But it comes at a price. Our tampering with the environment is dangerous…

Artificial intelligence. In this universe all forms of artificial intelligence are banned “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind”, because of a revolution that took place thousands of years ago, and because such powerful technology facilitates exploitation and great suffering. We must not become dependent on machines.  

Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.

Inner turmoil. Paul becomes an all-powerful god king, able to crush any resistance at a whim. But his great battle is internal, not external. He has changed from the young, naïve, ducal heir, and the two aspects of his personality conflict. Likewise his gift of prophecy is a great boon, but also a curse, that causes him much grief. This conflict is something that we can see in most major characters: Jessica in her personality as both a mother and Bene Gesserit, Duke Leto as a husband and a leader. Humans are complex, and don’t have one aspect. Often, the different facets of ourselves war against each other.

Man vs. nature. Dune, despite frequent attempts, resists colonization and conquering of its natural elements. The most successful are the Fremen, who, rather than opposing nature, live in harmony with it; even in their abrupt, stilted walk which imitates the sounds of the desert.

Herbert also examines the reciprocal relationship between man and nature. We are inter-dependent, and both influence each other. The environment is central to the unfolding plot of Dune, and the actions of humans essential to it.

Daoism. There are many cryptic, pseudo-philosophical nuggets buried within this book, which add to the sense of depth. A key message is this idea of living in harmony with nature, and with fate, that the Fremen fully embrace. They live in tune with the “language of the rocks and growing things, the language you don’t hear just with your ears.”

The power of religion. Paul harnesses religion as a weapon for his government, twisting and wielding it to bend the people to his will. It is his most powerful tool, even greater than his prophetic visions. But it brings untold suffering, the death of millions, in its wake. We must be wary of religion and false prophets, proclaims Herbert, especially when they mingle with government.

When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.

Prophecy. The prophecy about Paul is contrived, planted centuries ago by an organization known as the Bene Gesserit. Prophecy is false, and religion a myth (a very dangerous one at that), says Herbert.

Free will versus fate. Paul concludes that everything is fated, that he is powerless to stop this universal jihad that conquers in his name. Often things are beyond our control. Herbert examines this in a very interesting way, through the medium of Paul’s visions, which branch out from the current moment like threads, the fabric of the future somersaulting at the slightest movement. We may choose which path we walk; but our choices are ultimately inconsequential.

Eugenics. In this universe, intelligent machines have been replaced by Mentats; human computers. The Bene Gesserit cross noble bloodlines in an attempt to breed the Kwitz Haderach, the chosen one. Eugenics is a potent tool, says Herbert.

The original Bene Gesserit school was directed by those who saw the need of a thread of continuity in human affairs. They saw there could be no such continuity without separating human stock from animal stock—for breeding purposes.”

But it is also a dangerous and unpredictable one. These Mentats can be twisted and manipulated into abhorrent creatures. The Kwitz Haderach, when he is realized in the figure of Paul, is far from the submissive, benevolent ruler the Bene Gesserit imagined…

The corrupting influence of power. Paul’s rise to power, and his fall from grace, is a major arc and theme of the book.

Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.

His “greatness” is a result of “myth-making imagination”, which Paul is at first aware of (knowing that the prophecies on Arrakis are a fabrication), but a myth that he eventually gets caught up in.

Plot

Politics

This books plot is masterful.

Political scheming and maneuvering abound. The battle for Dune is (at firsts) primarily political, the Harkonnens and Atreidies pulling strings and creating backup plans, enlisting allies.

Every word is calculated, and conceals simultaneously a threat and a hint of respect, and behind it all an elaborate plan to gain power.

The fruition of these plans, the final, shocking realization of what has been brewing under the surface, is thrilling.

The plot advances in a truly intelligent manner, with different factions being forced into positions where every choice is a wrong one.

Tension

Pauls visions of the future, of this terrible Jihad, and his premonition of a “terrible purpose” contribute to this slow-boil approach to plot.

You read with trepidation, fearing what is to come, knowing that the delicate equilibrium maintained will collapse at the slightest provocation, and chaos will spill forth.

The book is quite slow, brooding being the most apt word, hidden schemes constantly bubbling under the surface, only vaguely hinted at, giving the plot depth. What really strikes you is this sense of impending doom, of a slowly building wave that teeters on edge, a feeling created effectively by visions and the perception of the narrators.

Setting and mood

The primary setting, Arrakis, is absolutely integral to the plot, because it harbours the Fremen and melange (spice). The setting is skillfully woven into the book, becoming inseparable from it, rather than feeling external, a mere decoration, as it does in many novels.

The mood, once again, is one of brooding. It is very serious, can drag on just a tad too much for my taste. It starts to weigh down on you.

Prose

Herberts writing is very economical, austere sometimes, with as much meaning packed into each word as possible. Every line is important, each action revealing something about the characters. His writing, like his plot, proceeds inexorably and steadily forward.

What I really liked are the interspersed glimmers of beauty, which serve to alleviate the mood, and insert hope, the idea that just maybe this won’t all be a disaster. Of course, it does end up being. But it is important that the reader doubts the conclusion.

These usually come in the form of descriptions of Dune, the shy beauty that reveals itself in brief moments, hidden usually by a harsh mask of death and danger.

A predawn hush had come over the desert basin. He looked up. Straight overhead, the stars were a sequin shawl flung over blue-black. Low on the southern horizon, the night’s second moon peered through a thin dust haze—an unbelieving moon that looked at him with a cynical light.

As the Duke watched, the moon dipped beneath the Shield Wall cliffs, frosting them, and in the sudden intensity of darkness, he experienced a chill. He shivered.

Anger shot through him.

The Harkonnens have hindered and hounded and hunted me for the last time, he thought. They are dung heaps with village provost minds! Here I make my stand! And he thought with a touch of sadness: I must rule with eye and claw—as the hawk among lesser birds. Unconsciously, his hand brushed the hawk emblem on his tunic.

To the east, the night grew a faggot of luminous gray, then seashell opalescence that dimmed the stars. There came the long, bell-tolling movement of dawn striking across a broken horizon.

It was a scene of such beauty it caught all his attention. Some things beggar likeness, he thought. He had never imagined anything here could be as beautiful as that shattered red horizon and the purple and ochre cliffs. Beyond the landing field where the night’s faint dew had touched life into the hurried seeds of Arrakis, he saw great puddles of red blooms and, running through them, an articulate tread of violet … like giant footsteps.

“It’s a beautiful morning, Sire,” the guard said.

“Yes, it is.”

The Duke nodded, thinking: Perhaps this planet could grow on one. Perhaps it could become a good home for my son.

Favourite scenes

I have two scenes I want to highlight:

One is the dinner hosted by Duke Leto. It really is the epitome of what I like about this book’s plot. It is magnificently laden with tension, each word strung together as if by an invisible binding force, revealing a hidden significance.

You second-guess your assumptions, begin to question motivations, reconsider evaluations of characters, and guess at sources of tension and underlying schemes. It really throws you into this complex world of greedy and grasping politicians and businessmen.

Another is Paul’s duel with Jamis. The fighting styles match both characters perfectly. The Fremen fight with abrupt, darting movements, dancing with tension, like a dangerous animal waiting to pounce, while Paul is more graceful, his movements flowing into each other. It really is just an example of great writing.

Narrator

Paul and Jessica are the primary narrators. They both have special training, that allows them to notice everything, and extrapolate from this information.

This is a very apt choice, because it gives the reader insight into the world and complex political situation, in a very natural way.

All this detail allows you to be immersed in the world, in it, rather than simply observing it.

Characters

Paul. He is more of an archetype (at first), and only begins to accrue a semblance of character later on. He is this divine figure, and must therefore lack personality to some extent.

His character arc is a central focus of the book, from this reluctant duke, with leadership thrust upon him, to a passionate warlord, who wields his forces with impunity.

The dialogue is used expertly to advance the plot, and to characterize the people of the world. You find yourself pondering every phrase, every action, because everything in this book is deliberate.

Favourite quotes

There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man—with human flesh.

A world is supported by four things. …” She held up four big-knuckled fingers. “… the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave. But all of these are as nothing. …” She closed her fingers into a fist. “… without a ruler who knows the art of ruling. Make that the science of your tradition!”

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear.

Closing thoughts

Let me start with what I didn’t like, so that we do not have to end on a bad note: I thought the book was too pretentious and pompous at times. It really started to irk me.

It can also seem a bit ridiculous, paradoxically, because it is so serious and dour all the time. I think it could have benefitted from some more alleviation.

However, it must be said that even the book’s flaws are deliberately chosen, if overdone. The pretentious writing reflects Paul’s growing egotism, and his increasing ‘holiness’, and the ridiculous nature of this farce he has embraced.  

This is a book that touches on many pertinent issues, despite being written almost 60 years ago: the dangers of religion of as an instrument of control (observed in churches and many terrorist organizations); our dependence on technology and commodities (especially oil) that invites exploitation; the dangers of artificial intelligence; climate change, and our relationship with nature.

It is also an often profound examination of human nature; greed, corruption, hope, emotions and logic.

In fact, it might be even more relevant than it was all those years ago.

And, beyond this, it is simply a delight to read, filled with tension and intrigue.

This really is a timeless book, a classic that we will still marvel at one hundred years from now, when perhaps many of these issues have reached their conclusion.



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