Author: Frank Herbert
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A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.
In college, Dune was my gateway away from media franchise science fiction novels (like Star Trek). I was in 6th grade when the David Lynch Dune film was released. For some reason, Weekly Reader or some similar student magazine covered it with an excerpt from the novel. I thought it was awesome and received the novel as a Christmas gift that year. It was way over my head—not a huge surprise, even though I was a pretty advanced reader. I have a hunch there was an attitude along the lines of “it’s science fiction, it’s for kids.”
Jumping ahead some eight years, I’m now a sophomore in college. My reading has improved quite a bit. In high school, I’d read a lot of Star Trek, Dragonlance, and Stephen King novels. I saw lots of Dune novels at the school co-op. Flipped through them and kept reflecting on my previous effort at reading Dune. The next time I went home, I dug up my old copy of Dune. I was amazed at the worlds it opened up to me. Over the next months, I worked my way through all the Frank Herbert Dune novels and soon began working my way through Asimov, Le Guin, and many others. But Dune was the spark.
Dune stepped away from the usual idea of advanced technology in science fiction. Humanity in this setting had actually stepped away from advanced technology, having had a major jihad against “thinking machines.”
“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”
“‘Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind,’” Paul quoted.
Deliberately taking a step away from such advanced technologies, human civilization shifted its focus to advancing humanity. There are various schools, guilds, and noble houses dominating life in the Imperium, ruling over the known universe. At the top is the emperor. However, he is a feudal lord with countless noble houses under him. While his individual forces are a match for any house, the greatest of the noble houses are part of the Landsraad, a council that serves as a check on the emperor. The members of the noble houses and imperial family live long lives, their aging slowed by the use of the Spice Melange found only on the planet Arrakis.
The Bene Gesserit are a powerful sisterhood dedicated to “serving”—they are masters of politics, detecting truth, controlling the smallest functions of their own bodies, and can tap into the ancestral memories of their foremothers. They also have their own secret and sinister agenda that drives much of the plot. Their abilities are dependent on the Spice Melange.
The Spacing Guild is responsible for interstellar travel. Without computers, they are able to see into the future to find the proper paths to traverse Fold Space. Their ability to make these predictions is dependent on the Spice Melange.
The order of Mentats is a form of human-computer, having been trained since childhood to be able to commit data to memory and make calculations and projections with that data. They serve as advisors, spymasters, and masters of assassins. As it turns out, while they make use of a drug to help focus their abilities, it is not the Spice Melange but Sapho Juice (and for once not dependent on Arrakis).
You’ll have noticed a lot of folks are dependent on the Spice Melange, found only on the planet Arrakis. This clearly makes Arrkais of prime importance to the Imperium — “he who controls the Spice controls the universe.” Arrakis is a vast desert wasteland. Giant sandworms can be found under the desert, often attracted to Spice mining—or just someone walking across the desert in any regular rhythm. The action in the novel Dune is triggered by control of Arrakis being transferred away from House Harkonnen to their enemies, the Atreides.
The protagonist of Dune is Paul Atreides, heir to Duke Leto Atreides. He is the possible product of thousands of years of Bene Gesserit selective breeding in hopes of producing a superhuman. Over the course of the novel, he will find himself in close association with the “natives” of Arrakis, the Fremen. Like all other civilizations, the Fremen are human in origin—while there are extraterrestrial species, none are sapient. Viewed as little more than savages by the Harkonnen, the Fremen are able to prosper in the desert of Arrakis, wearing stillsuits that recycle the body’s water. With the deserts Arrakis being the only source of a vital resource, the Fremen quite deliberately evoke feelings of Middle Eastern civilizations.
There’s not much of the plot I can describe without giving away details far better discovered by reading. I will say that Dune is a book that thinks big. A vast desert. Giant sandworms in the sands of that desert. An Imperium that has endured for over ten thousand years, with organizations working on projects that predate even the founding of the Imperium. Technology is quite different from most science fiction settings. While a lot of older science fiction didn’t anticipate the impact of computers, Dune speculates a humanity that rejected computers.
There are some criticisms of Dune. The Bene Gesserit breeding program clearly brings to mind eugenics. Paul gives off definite Lawrence of Arabia vibes and has sometimes been criticized as a “white savior.” The setting makes definite assumptions about gender roles.
That said, Dune is one of my favorite novels. It never feels out of date technologically and covers ideas like free will, destiny, messianic religion, tyranny, and ecology.
While Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, has collaborated with Kevin Anderson for several sequel and prequel books, I’d strongly recommend starting with the original. While it becomes a universe of several books, the first book is very readable as a standalone story (as it was designed to be).
~ Daniel Stack
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