Though Dune won the Nebula and Hugo awards, the two most prestigious science fiction prizes, it was not an overnight commercial success. Its fanbase built through the 60s and 70s, circulating in squats, communes, labs and studios, anywhere where the idea of global transformation seemed attractive. Fifty years later it is considered by many to be the greatest novel in the SF canon, and has sold in millions around the world.
Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.
Dune is set in a far future, where warring noble houses are kept in line by a ruthless galactic emperor. As part of a Byzantine political intrigue, the noble duke Leto, head of the Homerically named House Atreides, is forced to move his household from their paradisiacal home planet of Caladan to the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially known as Dune.
“Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now, it’s complete because it’s ended here.’– from “Collected Sayings of Maud’Dib” by the Princess Irulan”
The climate on Dune is hostile and torrid. If you’re thinking Sahara, think deepest, most remote areas. Water is so scarce that whenever its inhabitants go outside, they must wear stillsuits – close-fitting garments – that capture body moisture and recycle it for drinking.
And if you’re wondering why would anyone go to this remote planet with harsh living conditions, the answer is mine Spice.
“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”
The great enemy of House Atreides is House Harkonnen, ruled with an iron fist by Baron Vladimir, a monster of a man who has been portrayed beautifully in the last movie. He is so obese that he has to use little anti-gravity “suspensors” as he moves around.
The Harkonnens used to control Dune, which despite its awful climate and grubby desert nomad people, has incalculable strategic significance: its great southern desert is the only place in the galaxy where a fantastically valuable commodity called “melange” or “spice” is mined. Spice is a drug whose many useful properties include the induction of a kind of enhanced space-time perception in pilots of interstellar spacecraft. Without it, the entire communication and transport system of the Imperium will collapse. It is highly addictive, and has the side effect of turning the eye of the user a deep blue. Spice mining is dangerous, not just because of sandstorms and nomad attacks, but because the noise attracts giant sandworms, behemoths many hundreds of metres in length that travel through the dunes like whales through the ocean.
Have the Harkonnens really given up Dune, this source of fabulous riches? Of course not. Treachery and tragedy duly ensue, and young Paul survives a general bloodbath to go on the run in the hostile open desert, accompanied, unusually for an adventure story, by his mum. Paul is already showing signs of a kind of cosmic precociousness, and people suspect that he may even be the messiah figure foretold in ancient prophecies. His mother, Jessica, is an initiate of the great female powerbase in an otherwise patriarchal galactic order, a religious sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit. Witchy and psychically powerful, the sisters have engaged in millennia of eugenic programming, of which Paul may be the end result.
This setup owes something to the Mars stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, as well as the tales written by Idaho-born food chemist Elmer Edward “Doc” Smith, creator of the popular Lensman space operas of the 1940s and 50s, in which eugenically bred heroes are initiated into a “galactic patrol” of psychically enhanced supercops. For Smith, altered states of consciousness were mainly tools for the whiteous and righteous to vaporise whole solar systems of subversives, aliens and others with undesirable traits. Herbert, by contrast, was no friend of big government.
Dune glosses this word as “in the Fremen messianic legend, The One Who Will Lead Us into Paradise”. In Islamic eschatology, the honorific Mahdi has a long and complex history. Various leaders have claimed or been given it.
Most Shia identify the Mahdi with the 12th or Hidden Imam, who will imminently reveal himself and redeem the world. To the British, it will always be the name of the warrior prophet who swept through the Sudan in the 1880s, killing General Gordon on the steps of the palace in Khartoum and inspiring a thousand patriotic newspaper etchings.
As Paul’s destiny becomes clear to him, he begins to have visions “of fanatic legions following the green and black banner of the Atreides, pillaging and burning across the universe in the name of their prophet Muad’Dib”. If Paul accepts this future, he will be responsible for “the jihad’s bloody swords”, unleashing a nomad war machine that will up-end the corrupt and oppressive rule of the emperor Shaddam IV (good) but will kill untold billions (not so good) in the process. In 2015, the story of a white prophet leading a blue-eyed brown-skinned horde of jihadis against a ruler called Shaddam produces a weird funhouse mirror effect, as if someone has jumbled up recent history and stuck the pieces back together in a different order.
After Dune was published, Herbert, the consummate freelancer, kept a lot of irons in the fire. He wrote about education for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and lectured at the University of Washington. As the cult of Dune took off during the 1970s, he wrote a series of increasingly convoluted sequels, following Paul’s descendants as they fulfilled the cosmic destiny of the Atreides line. Since his death in 1986, his son and another writer have produced a further 13 books.
“Proper teaching is recognized with ease. You can know it without fail because it awakens within you that sensation which tells you this is something you have always known.”
My opinion so far as I’m slowly approaching Book 2:
Dune largely inspires two points of view. One marvels at its historical importance and world-building (unique, fascinating, complex, rich), the political manipulation and the construct of “Houses” and class-society and the other dislikes the stilted writing but does so apologetically because Frank Herbert couldn’t help the fact that he wrote science fiction in the 1960s . It’s boring af in areas and I had to keep going through some passages. The stuffy dialogue is inserted into even stuffier narrative, until it feels like nothing is organic about Herbert’s prose.
Then there’s Princess Irulan, oblivious to the concept of spoiler alerts, summarizes all major plot points in her historical vignettes which introduce every single chapter. We can’t wonder about whether and how
Jesus Christ Paul will become the messiah of the people because the princess has already told us before we’ve begun the book. We can’t wonder about who the traitor in the Atreides house is because Princess Irulan’s vignette is all like “Yueh! Yueh! A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!”
Given the history of the U.S., I think it’s hilarious that a book full of racism, imperialism, and misogyny was considered groundbreaking in the 1960s.
The other thing that makes this book unreadable is Frank Herbert’s I-Tarzan-You-Jane approach to gender:
“There is in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives. A man finds little difficulty facing that place within himself where the taking force dwells, but it’s almost impossible for him to see into the giving force without changing into something other than man. For a woman, the situation is reversed … The greatest peril to the Giver is the force that takes. The greatest peril to the Taker is the force that gives.”
Man has the mighty penis. Mighty penis does the thrusting action. Woman has the sacred hole. Sacred hole is warm and open for mighty penis penetration. Thanks for clearing that up, Frank.
Male and female characters in this book align nicely with Frank’s pole-in-hole view of the world. The men do the war because the penis. The women do the manipulation and mind control because the vagina. They are either wives or concubines, and having children is of utmost important. Man and his woman sometimes have tender conversations about all of this. Observe:
“[Paul] began tightening his still suit. “You told me once the words of Kitab al-Ibar,” he said. “You told me: ‘Woman is thy field; go then to thy field and till it.'”
“I am the mother of thy firstborn,” she agreed.”
Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.