BOOK REPORTS FOR ADULTS: “Dune” by Frank Herbert
Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Dune by Frank Herbert
Book size: Long and dense. You’re going to need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the characters and another one to keep track of all their devious plots. Hopefully, that sounds as much like heaven to you as it does to me.
Why you should read Dune: Because it’s been a lonely dry spell between Game of Thrones novels, and we may not get another until the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. Sure, we can try to make do with the Game of Thrones TV show, but the kind of complexity the books are famous for just does not translate onscreen. So: if you’re a snotty book reader like me who thinks the TV show eliminates too many interesting subplots, Dune is the book for you. In sci-fi, Dune is the number one place to get your fix of wheels within plans within plots, cryptic prophecies, and shaky moral motivations; to the point where you’ll wonder how anyone managed to read it before wikis were invented.
On a more serious note: I love genre fiction as much as the next nerd, but even I have to admit that a lot of it is super derivative. Fantasy writers like Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks borrow from Tolkien, sci fi shows like Stargate and Firefly borrow from Star Trek and Star Wars, and when it comes to vampire mythology, it’s hard to draw any sort of line between Anne Rice, Stephanie Mayer and Bram Stoker.
Dune is one of the glorious exceptions: a whole new, original universe to explore, one different from anything you’ve seen and so real that you can taste the spice dust.
The Book Report, and What I Learned:
The Plot, Mostly Spoiler-Free:
It’s been ten thousand years since the robot uprising, and humanity has moved on.
Ever since the Butlerian Jihad wiped out the last of our murderous mechanical creations, all forms of artificial intelligence have been outlawed. From interstellar navigation software to graphing calculators, all fall under the Jihad’s supreme commandment: Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind.
However, in place of computers, human beings have learned to train their own minds to do incredible things. Some (the Bene Gesserit) spend their lives memorizing genetic records to track humanity’s growth. Others (the Mentats) study the science of prediction and calculation. Others (the Guild Navigators) memorize the ever-changing star charts of the universe to travel safely across the vast reaches of space.
Without computers to rely on, humanity has flowered and flourished.
There’s just one catch.
All of these incredible feats of computation and calculation, extrasensory perception and collective memory — well, they’re only possible because of spice.
Its scientific name is melange, really, but everyone calls it spice. It’s a harmless-looking powder, brown and sweet-smelling. If you had spice and cinnamon in your kitchen, it might be hard to tell the difference between the two.
But despite its humble appearance, spice is the key to everything humanity has achieved in the past ten millennia. It has the power to supercharge the brain.
Spice is the reason the Mentats are able to make their calculations, the Navigators to travel the stars, and the Bene Gesserit to commune psychically with their ancestors. Without spice, humanity would be blind, deaf, and trapped on a thousand worlds, each out of reach of the others. Spice is also profoundly addictive: withdraw it too quickly, and all of its imbibers would die.
That’s a real problem because spice is mined in only one place in the whole wide universe: the deserts of the planet Arrakis, which the locals call Dune.
If something bad were to happen on Arrakis — if the spice couldn’t flow — it would not just be the end of the world, but the end of a thousand worlds scattered across the galaxy. The knowledge that one little planet holds the key for the continued existence of life in the universe is keeping a lot of people up at night, because Arrakis is far from secure.
As Dune begins, the powerful Harkonnen family is in the process of handing Arrakis over to its deadliest rival, the Atreides family, each ready to make the sands run red with blood at the first sign of treachery. At the same time, powerful forces are preparing to use that handover as a cover for a high-profile assassination. And out in the desert, the natives of Arrakis have plans of their own: plans that might bring about the end of the spice cycle once and for all.
Into the middle of this mess steps Paul Atreides, fifteen-year-old heir to the family about to take control of Arrakis.
Intelligent and highly trained, but still barely more than a teenager, he’s the one who will have to grasp all the threads of conspiracy, murder, and cult worship that surround him in order to keep his family, Arrakis, and the universe that depends on both alive.
At least some of them anyway…
The Great Houses. Now that the enormous span of the galaxy has made centralized government impossible, humanity has fallen back into a feudal system in which long-descended noble families rule planets as their personal fiefdoms, under the direction of the Emperor.
The two Great Houses who play important roles in Dune are House Harkonnen, a family of cartoon villains who have ruled Arrakis as a slave colony for generations, and House Atreides, who actually seem as decent as rulers under this system can be. Like most feudal families, both of these Great Houses are more concerned with interfamilial vendettas and power plays than with anything resembling the greater good.
At the start of Dune, the Emperor has made a sudden and mysterious decision to take Arrakis away from the Harkonnens and give it to the Atreides. As far as anyone can tell, the Emperor is hoping the troublesome planet he’s given the Atreides will get them killed.
The Bene Gesserit. This order of sisters and Reverend Mothers has taken it upon itself to watch over humanity’s biological future. The keepers of all genetic records, the Bene Gesserit arrange the most important marriages in the universe, serving the unknown goals of a classified breeding program. In their spare time, they practice total body control and invent fake religions to bend the populations of backwater planets to their will.
As we meet them in Dune, the Bene Gesserit are within a generation of bringing forth whatever superhuman their breeding program is meant to create — but Paul Atreides’ Bene Gesserit mother may have ruined one of its its final, crucial steps by using her perfect body control to conceive the son her lover wanted rather than the daughter the Order commanded her to bear.
The Fremen. The Fremen are natives of Arrakis and the only ones capable of surviving its deep deserts for long. Dismissed by the Harkonnen as disposable slave labor, barely more than rats, they understand the planet on a profound level and hold the key to most of its secrets. Their harsh lives have forced them into a brutal warrior culture with no margin for error, but they have long-term plans that would make the Emperor tremble if he knew.
If their plan succeeds, they will make their home planet fit for human life within a few millennia, even if they make it unfit for spice in the process…
The Themes and Ideas:
Human potential and human dependency. In Dune, Herbert stresses again and again just what humanity is capable of under the dual pressures of time and survival.
Some of humanity’s enormous achievements in Dune fall into the realm of sci-fi and fantasy — prophecy, racial memory, and interstellar calculations powered by huge vats of spice.
Just as many, though, fall within the realm of the possible. The Fremen’s homegrown terraforming project is a prime example. It doesn’t depend on chemicals, computers, or psychic powers: just a bit of simple calculation, a few millenia’s worth of patient, careful work, and the will to die of thirst beside an underground lake if the planet needs the water more than they do. It’s the kind of miracle that real human beings perform every day, which makes it all the more glorious.
At the same time, though, Dune shows how humanity’s ambitions make us fragile. Determined to dream their impossible dreams, human beings nearly destroyed themselves ten thousand years before the novel began through their over-reliance on artificial intelligence. Now, their new dependence on spice to stretch human capability past its natural limits is just as dangerous, and will just as surely result in their demise.
In Dune, humanity’s dreams of achieving great things prove to be both a wonder and a curse, but an inevitable part of our makeup either way.
Destiny, destiny, no escaping that for me. One of Paul’s mental powers is the ability to see the future, born half from his place in the Bene Gesserit superhuman breeding program and half from his sudden immersion in a planet where every rug, cup of coffee, drop of water, and speck of dust is imbued with spice.
Predicting the future is cool…right up until Paul realizes that his future is rushing like a river along two possible paths: one where he’s dead, and one where hordes of knife-wielding fanatics flood every planet in the universe, waving his flag and cutting throats in his name. He has a hard time deciding which possible future is worse — and he knows the two are not mutually exclusive.
Paul spends the rest of the book trying to divert the river of his future onto a new path: one where he gets to live and also doesn’t accidentally trigger the biggest galactic holy war since the Butlerian Jihad.
Every move he makes from that point on is undercut with crippling anxiety: has he changed things enough? Is the scene or battle he’s living through in real life different enough from the one he’s foreseen to alter the future? Which details matter, and which will get swept up in the tide of history no matter what he does? It’s impossible for teenage Paul to know.
He’s also growing curious: what will that holy war he’s foreseen be about, anyway? What will those soldiers screaming under his banner in the far-off future be fighting for? Will it be something worth fighting for? Isn’t it possible that when he tries to change his future, Paul is actually trying to prevent the very thing that destiny has put him on this planet to do?
And even if he wants to change his future, can he? Is that something that human beings are capable of doing?
The future is a slippery thing, and Herbert uses Dune to explore its complexities: its deep roots, its enormous scope, and our inability to fully understand it even as we bring it to pass.
Human beings wrestle every day with the vastness of space and the enormous span of history. Compared to that, riding a giant worm through the desert is child’s play.
Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:
There is in all things a pattern that is part of our universe. It has symmetry, elegance, and grace – these qualities you find always in that the true artist captures. You can find it in the turning of the seasons, the way sand trails along a ridge, in the branch clusters of the creosote bush of the pattern of its leaves. We try to copy these patterns in our lives and in our society, seeking the rhythms, the dances, the forms that comfort. Yet, it is possible to see peril in the finding of ultimate perfection. It is clear that the ultimate pattern contains its own fixity. In such perfection, all things move towards death.
Side Effects of Reading Dune May Include:
A hodgepodge vocabulary born of a dozen dead languages, an urge to practice twitching your fingers, and a new appreciation for what a weird phenomenon drowning is.
If you liked…
The universe of Dune, try its two immediate sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. They are fantastic and help to finish the story of the original in a way that one book really couldn’t, even a long one with small print. The three Frank Herbert sequels that follow, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune, are also good, but become a bit of a psychedelic fever dream, so you may need a stiff drink before you tackle them. You can also try the dozen or so expanded universe novels cowritten by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The few I have read aren’t terribly Dune-like in terms of content or style, but they do help to flesh out and explain the wider universe Herbert created, and draw on many of his unused notes.
Classic sci fi that asks hard questions about the shape of history, try Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (which starts chronologically with Prelude to Foundation and publication-wise with Foundation). The series takes a much harder sci fi approach to the study of history and change than Dune does— heavier on the scholarly conferences, lighter on the prescience-inducing drugs — but it ponders many of the same questions and ideas. Plus, if you read both the Dune and Foundation books, you’ll have completed the official “my Dad’s favorite books” reading series. Doubly so if you throw in a Star Trek novelization or two.
Books about the difficulties (and maybe impossibilities) of building a galactic civilization, try Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which tells the story of a man attempting to integrate an alien planet into a wider universal brotherhood despite the fact that it has a totally different biological system and core values from his own. Like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness is meditative, enormous in scope, and full of deep questions. Unlike Dune, you could call it feminist with a straight face.
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