Dune – A Tour De Force in Science Fiction

So my previous post was meant to go very differently, it was meant to go very differently, but I decided to focus on the conversion of stories across different mediums. So now we’re back again, and I’m going to see if I can say something intelligent and worthwhile about Dune. I honestly don’t think I can do it justice, but good news it’s my blog, and JL has thoughts to share in spades.

Be warned, spoilers ahead – I’ll make sure there’s a cut in before we get to anything too spoilery.

So…. Dune, the book series by Hugo and Nebula award winning Frank Herbert (Franklin Patrick Herbert Jr.), and it’s easily one of my favourites – I dare say the first book Dune is probably my favourite piece of fiction of all time,.

I still remember my dad giving me the book, I’d been ill, again I think (my memory isn’t always as reliable as I’d like it to be, unlike the Kwisatz Haderach in the story itself), I must have been eleven at the time. At eleven how much of it I could follow is probably debatable, but it’s such a rich story and world that as I grew my understanding and appreciation of it grew with me.

Without going into spoilers, Dune is a series book about the distant future of humanity as it’s spread among the stars. It features themes of survival, power, religion, ecology, economy and evolution, and collectively is a treatise on the human condition as interfaces with the world.

It’s probably the daddy of the epic science fiction, the first book being one of George Lucas’ inspirations for Star Wars. Before it, the idea of so deep a sci-fi story was  rarity. It’s scope is so massive, dealing with from tens of thousands of years into humanity’s future, and the series covers thousands of years from that point onward. The series covers a span of time nearly as great as recorded history today, and the time before the series begins isn’t just dead time, it has a whole back story that you learn as you read through, with many of the functions of future humanity coming about in the thousands of years preceding the books.

Unlike Star Wars, they’re not action orientated – there is some satisfying action in them, but it’s very tactical based, and fleeting, just to support the movement of the story. In fact, overall they’re some of the most dialogue laden stories out there.

So, in short if you like a detailed grand epic science fiction… there’s an awful lot to love. And if you want to go further than the original series Frank Herbert’s son Brian and Kevin J Anderson (who is a major contributor to the Star Wars universe), they’re a lot cleaner writing so easier to read, and some elements maybe didn’t need an explanation, but they do bring the whole thing together at the end and finish of the story in a way Frank Herbert wasn’t able to do before his death, and they do add to the grand richness of the universe created in Dune.

So much to love, the books can be hard to read at times, and you find yourself trying to hold on to factoids, stories,  and ideas as you’ll need them later for reference when something else happens. They’re not a casual reads, but well worth your time.

So that’s a general look at Dune… from here there may be spoilers – somethings I have in my mind to say just can’t avoid it. If you’ve not read the books  go check them out, Frank Herbert’s original series are also all available on Audible if you want an easier time (well read by Simon Vance, Euan Morton,  Orlaigh Cassidy and several others bring the books to life, and they’re unabridged.

Characters

Let me just say, as much as I love the whole series, the best characters and characterisation is found in the first book Dune, but it’s the smallest of the stories, and follows the cast of characters closely. Also, the motivations of each of the factions is very clear, and it’s hammered home what they each stand for.

Paul Atreides, the Fremen, (desert survivalists on the desert planet Dune/Arrakis), is by far my most favourite character, it’s a coming of age story for him, on his home planet he’s a boy, a very mature boy being the well trained and educated son of a Duke, but on Dune through his trials and tribulations he matures into his power, and an understanding of the universe. He’s also a tragic character, his trials are at the whims of others, forcing him down path after path he doesn’t want to follow, even as he awakens to the power of prescience.

That’s all well and good, but over the years I’ve learnt to have more respect for the Baron Harkonnen,  he is presented as the villain, he wants to not just kill the Atreides, but destroy them utterly. I would argue that the emperor is by far the greater bad guy, he’s a terrible ruler who clings to power by setting people against each other, and looking for profit. Baron Harkonnen for all his perversity and cruelty is whip smart, masterfully tactful, patient and a survivor. Even though you know you’re reading a heroes journey,  you find yourself fearing he might succeed, he seems to have succeeded in so many ways, and if it wasn’t for underestimating the Fremen, he’d possibly have ended up Emperor himself, or at least one of his nephews might.

The cast of Atreides characters is equally as interesting, the two best fighters and lieutenants of the Atreides armed forces are deeply loyal, yet neither is born on the Atreides home-world of Kaladan, instead they both from Geidi Prime, the Harkonnen homeworld, and have similar stories as to how they ended up in the employ of Duke Leto Atreides. Gurney Hallack is a warrior and baliset player, a man who inspires loyalty in his troops and always a song in his heart. Duncan Idaho went on to become a sword master, he’s the least interesting of the Atreides faction, in the first book, but his character goes on to grow and grow. In fact Duke Leto seems through his philosophy of strength through encouragement has attracted the greatest warriors and minds of his generation, he also has the master assassin Mentat Thufir Hawat, a man so deadly even the Emperor fears him. And then there’s Jessica, Duke Leto’s concert and Paul’s mother she’s is smart, and deadly, but is also the emotional heart of the novels.

Then there’s the guilds, orders and institutions that operate almost like characters in the books, the Bene Gesserit are an order of women who own their lives, from the deepest levels of their biology to the way the people of the universe see and revere, but also fear them. The spacing guild with it’s navigators that are exclusively the only ones that can see through fold space to travel millions of light years and in doing so see glimpses of the future, and there’s CHOAM, an organisation that represents the market economy of the empire, it’s a business through which all business is done, it’s shareholders are the Duke’s, Baron’s and Emperors of the universe.  The Empire itself, mostly we see this through the machinations of the empire, but it’s a bureaucracy that administers thousands upon thousands of worlds.

Going into the further series, Leto II, Paul Muadib’s son is a fascinating study in benevolent evil, or malignant good, he’s a tyrant who’s tyranny is meant to be for the greater good of human kind and lives for centuries turning into a creature over that time. He’s probably the most philosophical of characters when he’s a few thousand years old,  and he does a good job of making you think about the motifs in the Dune series.

Themes and Motifs

I’ve touched on some of the themes and motifs, but there’s a much deeper well. The books cover the impact of language on culture and society, how religion can be used to motivate those around you to the whole universe, and the dreadful cost that implies.  Every power seems to have it’s own coded language, in fact they have multiple which characters used to talk to each other with hidden conversations while holding very public conversations, spies and enemies are everywhere in the Dune universe. The languages though are also way of shaping thought, and action, which language is used, how it is used, where message and what messages are placed or sent become integral to the plots and characters.

Dune is a savage world for much of the series it’s people are hard and dangerous, but it’s the planet itself that is the most deadly, hot and dry, with creatures called Sand Trout that find and remove any sign of water, sandworms, giant beasts, that roam the deserts hunt by sound and are immediately attracted to most technology. Every waking moment on the planet you’re aware of water, and the struggle to maintain the body’s water. A vital component of the story are Still-suits, Fremen clothing that traps all the moisture of the body, and recycles back to the wearer, extending life in the desert.

Yet the planet, for it’s harshness creates the hardest, strongest, most passionate warriors the universe has known for thousands upon thousands of years. Desert power. Not a force in the universe can stand against the Fremen warriors when unleashed, and no one expects them because until they’re unleashed they’re hidden, and little known.

There are the obvious economical themes, desert power, it forged unstoppable waters, but it also generated the most important and vital commodity in the universe, the Geriatric Spice, or Spice Melange, or more commonly just Spice. It’s analogous for oil, it’s the only substance that can give the navigators the ability to fold space, the Bene Gesserit to access their well of genetic histories, the rich and powerful to live extended lives, and myriad of other uses and value. The books are a warning about dependency on a single substance, because if someone gains a strangle hold on what you depend on, you are at their mercy.

There’s also the economy of myths, the Atreides from Paul onward buy and sell myths wholesale, the stories they spin define the lives of their subjects. I’ll admit this is a theme I’m particularly enamoured with, the power and value of story telling, the ability for stories to define and direct human nature.

There’s an obvious heading in the books towards the ultimate destiny of humankind, under the Empire at the start of the books, humankind is heading for stagnation and extinction, our very nature our desire to have everything at the last cost would lead us to damnation. The prophet emperors both see this, and see the only path to prevent it is their rule, but where the cost of such absolute thinking wears on Paul Muadib, he was after-all one of the humans he needs to rule before he becomes a prophet and seer, he feels the cost to his humanity. His son Leto II on the other hand was born with memories of all his previous generations, his humanity was more distant, and he didn’t have the same problem making the choice and following through on it.

Thing is, I see the point – every generation has it easier than the last seemingly, I think that’s why there always seems to be so much dislike between authorities within each generation. Strange thing is, it’s the efforts of the preceding generation that make things easy for the current. Where does it end? Seaquest DSV had a fascinating story line where the Seaquest (a large futuristic submarine) is sent into the future, by some kind of black-hole, they’re brought there to save the last two remaining humans, who are so isolated from each other and any other human they fear human touch. A computer provides them everything they need, and fortunately it’s a benevolent machine and causes the SeaQuest to come to the future and help the last two humans come into contact with each other. I mention it because that could be a path for the future, I’m hopeful that we’d see things getting that bad and change course… but it’s certainly on trend for the way things are going. In the Dune universe, Paul and Leto, and ultimately the Kwisatz Haderach are there to be that change in course. It comes with such a terrible cost, lives lost beyond measure, cultures are destroyed and for a long time free will is lost. All of it is possible through the control of the spice, to even risk standing up to the prophets risks deprivation of that most valued commodity, and invasion and possible destruction by blood thirsty fanatics of the prophet emperors.

Jealousy

One thing that is distinct in my mind about Dune and it’s sequels, and that is I’m jealous. I’ve had ideas that are epic in scope, but I have neither the talent nor dedication to bring it to life the way I wish I could, the way Frank Herbert did.

The six books Frank Herbert wrote in the series were written over twenty-one years, spells of no books in between. The idea for the Dune universe seems to have come five years before they were published though, after Frank Herbert saw engineers planting anchoring grass to stabilise dunes in in the Oregon Dunes, to prevent the sand moving and covering towns. After seeing this, he began researching ecology, and he was researching for six years leading up to writing short stories set on Dune that would go on to form the basis for novels. That’s dedication to an idea.

Ultimately what Frank Herbert created was a rich and varied universe, with vast casts of characters each driven by their own motivations and desires. The heavy work of reading through complex ideas aren’t just in there to dress up some sci-fi adventure with some deeper meaning so you read more into it, there is more in it. So much so, there’s always some new thing to learn or to understand, some new perspective brought on by understanding you could never quite reach in the past attempts to read it.

My Conclusion

It’s not perfect though, the language Frank Herbert uses can be a difficult prose, plots can become incredibly complex to guide the moving parts back together at the conclusion. It’s always worth it though. The Tour de Force of science fiction is a great challenge to read, but filled with amazing rewards for the lover of stories.

Genuinely, I can’t have done the complex nature of Dune justice, and no doubt if I read this later after another run through of the series, I’ll probably have an entirely different set of thoughts, feelings and examples, (I didn’t even get on to the movies that been made or attempted, but that’s a story for another time, I’m sure). This is just where I am right now. Where I evolve, is up to me… for now, until some tyrant prophet comes along and dictates what we become. I’m keeping my eye out.

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