Frank Herbert’s Dune

Posted: October 8, 2013 in Archive posts, Features and opinion, Journalism
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From Death Ray 17‘s Time Trap regular feature.

Spice, sand, realpolitik, pseudo-Bedouin and frickin’ massive worms in SF’s first true feudal future.

Frank Herbert’s book Dune is one of the touchstones of SF, a monolithic tome that spawned five further monolithic tomes. They stand on the landscape of the genre, a Stonehenge fashioned of woodpulp and idea, casting a long shadow on all that came after them.

Dune is to science fiction what The Lord of The Rings is to fantasy. Herbert worked on his creation for years and years, like Tolkien. He hinted at vast histories pasts that led to the present time of the Dune books. He provided cryptic hints about long-forgotten eras. He revelled in cyclical patterns of history, he toyed with lingusitics. All like Tolkien. Released initially as two serialised parts in Analog, the book form of the novel was rejected twenty times before being taken on finally by a minor publisher. It went on to become the best selling-SF novel of all time. It won the Hugo, and the very first Nebula Award.

Set thousands of years in the future, Dune is a complex book that sees the culmination of eons-old conspiracies against a rich feudal backdrop. The universe of Dune is unlike anything that had come before it, for Herbert chose to emphasise the development of human society over that of technology, inventing a dimly remembered war in the distant past where, it is hinted, humans were nearly overcome by sentient machines. In the aftermath of the conflict came the stricture “Thou shalt not fashion a machine in the likeness of a human mind”. So, in the future of Dune the lowly calculator is a forbidden instrument. This lack of technological aids has led humanity down different paths; eugenics, mental conditioning, forced evolution and shamanistic rapture have opened up the capabilities of the mind. Mankind has not diverged far, but there is a touch of post-humanism to Herbert’s more extreme creations: the Guild Navigators, or the gene-tinkered creations of the Tleilaxu.

Despite the amazing feats humans are capable of – some of Dune‘s characters make Shaolin monks look like jessies – society has ossified into a feudal Imperium where progress is an irrelevant anachronism. Power is held by the noble House Corrino, whose head Shaddam IV is emperor. His power in turn is held in check by the remaining houses, who together make up the Landsraad. Both are powerless without the Spacing Guild, who possess the only means of effective interstellar travel. All are in thrall to the massive CHOAM corporation, which dominates the Imperial economy, determining the income of each house.

These components of the state endlessly intrigue against one another – only Melange holds it all together. This “spice” grants increased longevity and limited prescience to those that take it. Furthermore, it is the only means by which the Spacing Guild’s Navigators, mutated by exposure to massive amounts of the stuff, can safely navigate “Foldspace”. It is addictive, and withdrawal from it leads to death. Virtually everyone with any money at all takes it. In short, without Melange, life in Dune’s future would be impossible. Arrakis, the actual name of the eponymous planet, is the only source of Melange. Whoever controls Arrakis, then, controls the universe.

The story concerns the scions of House Atreides, whose popular and powerful leader Leto is feared by Emperor Shaddam. However, Shaddam cannot move directly against any one house in case the rest will turn on him. Instead, he conspires with House Harkonnen, Atreides’ sworn enemy. Shaddam traps Leto into accepting Arrakis as his new fief – it is, after all, the most valuable planet in the known universe. Arrakis was previously in the hands of the Harkonnens, so Shaddam provides the Harkonnens with some of his infamous Sardaukar guard so they may retake the planet by force, while a traitor within the ranks of House Atreides ensures the invasion’s success. Leto is killed, but his son Paul and wife Jessica flee into the desert where they are taken in by the native Fremen. The Fremen become convinced that Paul is their prophesied messiah, and Paul forges them into an unstoppable army to take back Arrakis and bring the Imperium to its knees. All that said, it’s indicative of the story’s complexity that this whole paragraph of text, usually more than sufficient to precis the plot of your average SF novel, barely scratches the surface of Herbert’s. Plots, counter-plots and ancient schemes litter the narrative like apples do an orchard floor.

Astoundingly, there is even more to the book. The planet of Dune itself is a masterful creation, the complexity of its ecology rivaling the byzantine nature of the book’s politics. Dune is, in this regard, the first real work of ecological SF. Mankind, though inheritors of a star-spanning empire, is totally beholden to a world that is inimical to human life – one of the novel’s many ironies. There is so little water on Arrakis that the Fremen who inhabit its deserts are forced to live by stringent rules of water conservation. Even their sweat is collected by their “stillsuits”. It’s a reflection of the Empire’s hydraulic despotism through the spice, and this duality encapsulates the complex web of political and environmental systems that make up Dune’s setting. Though there is no direct eco-message to Dune, it draws a metaphorical comparison with the ecology of our own world, a subject Herbert lectured on. Herbert’s exploration of the soft sciences runs in other directions in the book, mingling with metaphysics at their furthest edge. For example, the Bene Gesserit, the sisterhood attempting to direct the future of the human race, use a form of mental conditioning called prana-bindu training. Herbert’s inspirations for this are an equal mix of Jungian psychology, specifically their opening up of the subconscious and racial memory, and transcendental meditative techniques.

Paradoxically for a genre previously obsessed with the technical, it was Herbert’s understanding of human nature that makes Dune the ultimate SF novel. Herbert extrapolated a convincing future, the fundamental foundation of which is that human society is massively mutable. He tells us, quite rightly, that the future will not be like now, only different, not unimaginable but is instead like the past – conceivable, but alien. However, he also understood that human nature itself does not change, and that love, loyalty, and other emotions will rule us forever. It is these that truly underpin the action of Dune, for without them, why would the human race be worth preserving? Finally, Herbert turns away from SF’s relentless modification of the environment around man and postulated another form of development: that of the internal human world, . Perhaps this is a result of the era Dune sprang from – the hippy movement, with its interest in eastern mysticism, was taking off when the book was written, but taken from its time, it remains convincing. Herbert’s heroes are capable of many things those in other books can do only with technological upgrades.

There are criticisms of Dune. There’s a whiff to misogyny to his depiction of women, who though powerful, are frequently undone by their emotions, and seem often to exist only as adjuncts to the male characters, even their endless schemes are aimed at enhancing male power. Herbert’s writing is sometimes dodgy; portentous, and massively reliant on lengthy internal monologues, though again in common with Tolkein the sheer power and complexity of his creation overwhelms his limitations as a wordsmith. These are genuine flaws, but even so, Dune is a towering achievement. Few novels match it, though many have tried.

The Sands of Time

Frank Herbert’s sequels to Dune.

Herbert wrote five sequels, with a sixth planned out at the time of his death in 1986. These have in turn been built upon by his son Brian Herbert and his collaborator Kevin J. Anderson. Some readers stumble and give up with the Herbert Senior sequels as they became increasingly cryptic, others enjoy their embroidering of the original story. Herbert junior’s books, especially his prequels, are regarded as an inferior extension, having fallen into the franchise trap of attempting to detail every event. For all Frank Herbert’s staid prose, he was a subtle storyteller who rightfully shrouded much of his mythos in mystery.

Dune Messiah (1969)

The Bene Gesserit and Tleilaxu conspire to unseat Paul from his throne. The questionable loyalty of a “ghola” clone of Paul’s teacher Duncan Idaho and problems with prescient visions inform most of the plot. Paul is blinded by an atomic weapon. He is able to appear sighted by following his prior visions, but cannot change his destiny, as he will then reveal his masquerade and will have to walk into the desert, as is the Fremen custom for the blind. He does this eventually, ending his life as a man, not a god, and securing the future for his twin children, Leto and Ghanima.

Children of Dune (1976)

Paul’s sister Alia, who was “pre-born” – exposed to ancestral memories in the womb – is overwhelmed by the ego of Baron Harkonnen, her forebear, and attempts to bring House Atreides down. Paul re-emerges from the desert as a mysterious holy man, preaching against Alia and the religion that has risen up around himself. Paul is finally stabbed to death at the behest of his possessed sister.

God-Emperor of Dune (1981)

Paul’s son Leto II has embraced the role his father rejected – saviour of mankind. He has ruled the Imperium for 3500 years, slowly merging with sandtrout, part of the sandworm’s life cycle, to become a powerful hybrid. Through careful breeding he creates humans shielded from prescient vision, thus ensuring humanity can never be fully dominated, while his considered tyranny causes much hardship, forcing mankind to spread throughout the universe in a migration known as “The Scattering”. The Golden Path, however, demands Leto’s own death.

Heretics of Dune (1984)

1500 years after Leto’s demise, and his plan appears to be going well. Arrakis (now Rakis) has been re-desertified by the resurgence of the sandworms, mankind is spread across space. But the Honored Matres, an offshoot of the Bene Gesserit, have returned from the Scattering, intent on war.

Chapterhouse of Dune (1985)

All the sandworms bar one were killed at the end of Heretics, so the Bene Gesserit are trying to create a new Dune on their homeworld of Chapterhouse. A ghola of Duncan Idaho, a character who has played an increasingly important part in the books, becomes a kind of superman. Meanwhile, it is revealed that the Jews have survived 26,000 years of history, and have a key role to play, and the Bene Gesserit merge with the Honored Matres after a bitter struggle. The book ends on a cliffhanger, which Frank Herbert’s son Brian picked up on in 2006, finishing the saga with Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune.

Did you know?

A Dune movie was mooted in 1971, and passed through many hands before being made by David Lynch in 1984. It was panned, and Lynch said he would never again work on a movie that on which he did not have final cut approval. Numerous versions exist, though Lynch appends his name only to the original theatrical version – there is no four-hour director’s cut as is often rumoured. From 2000, the SciFi Channel made an adaptated the first three books into two miniseries. Both were widely acclaimed. There is a new film version under development, with Peter Berg at the helm and the untested screenwriter, Joshua Zetumer. It is slated for release in 2010, and promises a “faithful adaptation” of the book. [NB, this is one that got lost in Development Hell – Guy, 2013]

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Comments
  1. AJ says:

    Great review, Guy!

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