When I saw that the 2021 film adaptation, Dune, was coming out, I saw it as the impetus for me to finally read the famous 1965 novel of the same name by Frank Herbert. So, that impetus turned out a bit impotent, but I finished Dune today! Jumping into Dune manifest one of my favorite aspects of reading or engaging with any art for that matter: Within the first 50 pages, I had the sense that this was going to be epic. Not all books, even ones I love, hit me like that. Sometimes it takes longer to feel that way, if at all. But this one, which I admittedly was nervous about given how much Herbert immerses you in this world he built with its own language (so much so, there is even an entire glossary at the end of the book! Imagine creating such an immersive world back before computers to help track it all, which, is in its own way, an ode to the book’s ethos itself, whereby humans have rid themselves of machines, holding to the commandment “thou shall not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind”), gave me that sense. Epic in scope, but intimate in character, what particularly made me feel its epicness was how often I found myself ruminating on the tidbits from Princess Irulan that opened each chapter, or even the philosophical interludes throughout the chapters. This is a smart book. It has something to say without it being something overtly hitting you over the head.
I also have something to say, although I’m not sure what I can bring new to the table that hasn’t already been said about Dune, but if you want to read my words anyhow, continue on!
The general premise, if one can find a way to distill such an epic book into a short premise, is that about 8,000-ish years from now, Paul Atreides, the son of a Duke, is destined to be a great leader known as Muad’Dib, and he is thrust into that role quicker than he expected soon after his family moves to the desert planet Arrakis, which if not for stillsuits and seemingly keeping to specific parts of the planet, the place would be uninhabitable for humans. The planet is so bereft of water, that its inhabits, the Fremen, conserve every bit of moisture they expend, and if one of their own dies, they are sure to preserve the water from their body; their water becomes the tribe’s water. Allowing tears to be “wasted” in grief is seen as a sign of respect, if bewildering. Another sign of respect is to spit! Because you’re “wasting” your moisture, but in service to respect of some kind.
Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, the concubine of the Duke Leto, is a Bene Gesserit. That is the ancient school of mental and physical training, primarily for women, that came after the “thinking machines” and robots were destroyed. In this way, Herbert is also introducing mysticism and something more than merely interesting projections into the future via science fiction writing. Since Paul is her son, he also seems to have some of this prescience and mentalism, and eventually, to an even greater degree than Lady Jessica to where she fears her own son. One of Herbert’s most interesting images of time is that Paul can see it all at once: the present, the future, the past, and how disorienting it is trying to figure out, at times, which is which.
I think the reason Duke Leto moved with his family to Arrakis is to oversee the production and procurement of melange, the very profitable and prized spice, the “prolonger of life,” within the sands of Arrakis. Eventually, after arriving on the dune-like planet for that purpose, House Atreides — the different planets seem to have different Houses with Dukes who control the planets, and then there is an overall Emperor, the Shaddam IV, the 81st Padishah Emperor, who has the most feared fighting men, the Sardaukar (they are bred as warriors on the prison planet, Salusa Secundus) and then there are two entities who seem to exist outside those realms, the Spacing Guild who monopolizes and controls space travel, and the Landsraad, which represents all of the Houses — is betrayed by one of their own men, and destroyed by a collaboration of the Emperor and his Sardaukar, and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen of House Harkonnen. The Atreides and Harkonnen have been squabbling for a while.
And caught between them are the Fremen with their own customs and ways of doing things. What the Baron, and initially, Paul, didn’t realize is that the Fremen not only have mastery of the worms that dominate the wild sands — the worms reminded me of Tremors! — but are preparing the planet 350 years-ish down the line to be habitable and plentiful with water. What a novel concept, right? A people willing to risk it all for generations that will benefit far in the time distance.
The story of Paul becoming the leader he was meant to be, both of House Atreides, and of the Fremen, is told quite well. At one point, St. Augustine is referenced in Paul’s training to command his emotions, “The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance.” I loved that. I was rooting for Paul, although sprinkled throughout, is Herbert’s warning to not take heroes, to not get sucked into a cult of personality, even of someone like Paul who seems willing to be different, to oppose violent customs and chart a different path. I mean, he stood up to the Emperor without fear. Hard not to root for him! But Herbert’s point is well-taken. The previous leader, who normally would have been killed by Paul in the Fremen custom, Stilgar, was one of my favorite characters of the book as well because he seemed so capable. For his part, he was also willing to stop doing things in the old way.
But my favorite characters were probably the women throughout! What a treat to see strong women, who seem to be commanding much of the events taking place in the plot, especially when you consider Herbert was writing this in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Women, such as Lady Jessica, who was so feared by others because of her “weird way,” wherein she could control people by using the Voice; Chani, one of the Fremen Paul has a son with (unfortunately, the son is later killed); and Paul’s younger sister, Alia, who is known as the “Accursed One.” She can’t be more than a typical toddler in stature or age, but is far beyond her years due to her genetics and the Bene Gesserit ways. She also defies the Emperor to his face in one of my favorite scenes in the whole book. The Bene Gesserit aspect of the book was quite fascinating, and helpful to our protagonists surviving the desert planet and the human forces aligned against them.
This book is rich in its own spice of political intrigue, philosophical, religious and mystical profundity, action, coming-of-age character development and growth, the meaning of leadership, and of course, environmentalism before there was an Earth Day, that made it compelling and worth devouring. What is interesting is how much of the book is dialogue, and yet through that dialogue, not only are all of the aforementioned conveyed without feeling like “telling” vs. “showing,” but Herbert builds this authentic world of three-dimensional characters with their own thoughts and motives and actions, all interacting with each other, and the story is buttressed by a rich history. World-building doesn’t get much more impressive than this. With one in-depth book, Herbert created something that could be mined for years to come. Just expanding upon the religious squabbles he briefly outlines in the Appendices at the end of the novel would be fascinating.
Perhaps nothing quite captures the ethos of the book, or perhaps better thought of as Herbert’s clarion call to the astute reader, better than one of the, “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib,” which goes, “The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.”
It would be human folly, I think Herbert is suggesting, to believe because we have progressed this far, means we will always progress, and it is worth morally thinking, progressing to what? He already put down a red flag about computers and robots, but what else? The folly is also perhaps in the human hubris to think “progress” can be a bulwark against any of those terrors in the future. That we will figure it out. When I’m optimistic, I like to think we will! But like the Fremen, Herbert believes you have to put the work in today, even if you will not reap its benefits. Progress is in actuality then, a present activity.
That is the grandiose clarion call, but just as important is the more intimate one, which feels hugely relevant to the men of today, and the crisis of masculinity we are facing. Also from the, “Collecting Sayings of Muad’Dib,” it goes, “How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.”
The angry man prefers to rage against the denial rather than confront and engage with those deeper feelings of embarrassment, shame, and other pain. We see in the novel how that raging denial befalls many a powerful men, including the Baron and the Emperor.
If you also haven’t read Dune before, or even if science fiction isn’t quite your wheelhouse, I think you will find this far more accessible than it might first seem. I know its accessibility surprised me. Before you realize it, you will be enamored with the world built by Herbert, and gladly want to be a witness to what goes on within it, as I was.
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