I read Dune quickly, imprudently, and ferociously, sometimes even skipping ahead and doubling back with childish impatience. It’s a haphazard and thrill-seeking attitude I haven’t taken to reading in a while—and it was liberating, much like the way I used to read as a child.
The book feels impossible to sum up. It’s set more than ten thousand years into the future, a time when the political converges with the intensely spiritual, the mental can bend the material, and rulers boast not only traditional military prowess, but also powerful advisors with the gift of prescience. And of course, the concept of the nation-state has expanded into House-planets—each great House rules its own planet. The Houses, in turn, are under the directive of an Emperor. Naturally, the Emperor and the great Houses also do a bit of space exploration of their own, a bit of space colonialization to exploit and gather additional resources from far-off planets.
Then there is the Spacing Guild, a seemingly neutral group of strange beings who have the unique ability to fold space-time, which allows for instantaneous space travel. They hold a tight monopoly on the business of space trade and travel. Even wars cannot be fought without purchasing passage from the Spacing Guild.
The Bene Gesserits are members of an ancient school of mental and physical training established for female students. Skilled at fighting, adept at mental manipulation, seductive and deadly, they are an elite sisterhood dispersed all over the universe. The longterm goal of the Bene Gesserit school is to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, a male superperson who can achieve things that are inaccessible to females. He is to bring his male energy into the female lineage, a union that is sure to bring everyone closer to actually divining the future, changing the past, and doing other mysterious, powerful things. In preparation, Bene Gesserits are rigorously trained. Some are plucked from infancy, never to know their own parents, and raised to mate with a certain royal person, in order to produce an offspring that will bring them one small step closer to the birth of the Kwisatz Haderach.
Lady Jessica, concubine of Duke Leto of House Atreides, is one such Bene Gesserit. But she defied orders to produce a daughter and instead bore a son, Paul. The book kicks off with House Atreides moving onto Planet Arrakis. They are to oversee the mining of spice on behalf of the Emperor. Arrakis, a barren desertland, is uninhabitable at first glance; not only does it never rain on Arrakis, its deep deserts are also roamed by terrifying sand worms, gigantic and deadly creatures that will eat anything that crosses its path. Arrakis’s sole redeeming feature is its spice, which seems to bubble right out of the desert sands. It’s the only planet known in the universe to produce the spice melange, a valuable and mildly addictive ingredient that is used for everything from cooking to prolonging aging to enabling prescience and space-time exploration.
The Space Guild pays a high price for the spice (they are dependent on it for their space navigation), as does everyone else in the universe who are addicted to it. Its very existence creates wars, and the very threat of its extinction sends the universe into chaos. It’s pretty much the sci-fi equivalent of oil on earth (perhaps added with a bit of psychedelic properties).
We quickly discover that what you see is not what you get on Arrakis. The Fremens, native to Arrakis, have remained largely invisible to the imperial powers. They are the lowly sand rats, the unworthy, uncivilized natives (familiar story, huh?). Yet, unbeknownst to the rulers, these Fremens have toiled quietly over generations, and have mounted a formidable army of highly-trained resisters ready drive out the rulers and reclaim Arrakis.
The book is laden with a palpable feeling of destiny running its course, of things just teetering on the brink of change. And this paralyzing terror is what captures my interest the most. The pain of fate and the thrill of cheating fate is as gripping as can be. As Paul Atreides grows up to become Paul-Muad’Dib, he gradually gains an ability to literally see the events of the future. Yet the paradox remains: the more he sees, the more he fears that he’d be powerless to change a single thing.
Muad’Dib could, indeed, see the Future, but you must understand the limits of this power. Think of sight. You have eyes, yet cannot see the light. If you’re on the floor of a valley, you cannot see beyond your valley. Just so, Muad’Dib could not always choose to look across the mysterious terrain. He tells us, that a single obscure decision of prophecy, perhaps the choice of one word over another, could change the entire aspect of the future. He tells us “the vision of time is broad, but when you pass through it, time becomes a narrow door.” And always he fought the temptation to choose a clear, safe course, warning “That path leads ever down into stagnation.”
In other words, he is ever filled with the feeling that he should do something, but he has no way of knowing what it is that he should do. In his helplessness, he has to remain in this life and live out the unknowable absurdities that come with it. Herbert called this pain a sense of terrible purpose. (Which reeks of the existentialists.) And often, Paul’s powers do not so much allow him to “see the future” as just allowing him to disentangle himself from the flows of space and time—he is merely suspended, trapped, almost, in a no-man’s land that’s again, terrifying.
He knew fear at the thought of such a place, [that metaphysical realm where all physical limitations were removed,] because removal of all limitations meant removal of all points of reference.
What good is such an ability?
As Paul Muad’Dib struggles with his own personal destiny, events around him veer dangerously into a kind of religious fanaticism—Muad’Dib’s people are fiercely loyal to him not so much as a person, but as a figurehead that symbolizes everything that they had been waiting for, fighting for, dying for. He is a holy symbol that had arisen out of a folklore artificially disseminated aeons ago. (This part feels deliciously blasphemous.)
Herbert is a genius in the way he injects authority and urgency into so many of his characters. The pursuit of spice is a high-stakes game, and those who are addicted to it live to covet spice. The Fremens on Arrakis are unyieldingly shaped by ecology—as the saying goes, the harshest terrains also create the most upstanding, ruthless, and single-minded fighters, loyal only to the strong. They live to see a better future for their planet and people. Paul’s ever-maturing character benefits from his growth—nothing he does or says is incredulous, because every revelation, however unbelievable to the reader, takes him by surprise too. He lives to change.
It was interesting to read on the front page that Herbert had served in the Navy, worked as a photographer, oyster diver, and lay analyst. He lived in the northwest and sustained a project of “turning his six wooded acres into an ecological demonstration project to show how a high quality of life can be maintained with a minimum drain on the total energy system.”
Now it all clicks together! Many readers have interpreted Dune as a cautionary tale against greed and imperialism, and younger readers even drew parallels between the wars in Dune and the wars the west has waged against the middle east (it was what came to my mind too), but I suspect Herbert also had a simpler, more universal point: Regardless of the advancements we have made as a human race, or the feuds that divide us, our destinies cannot be separated from the environment we live in.
Everyone on dry Arrakis lives a life obsessed with water and the lack thereof. Newcomers who take a callous attitude towards Arrakis fail to thrive. Even The strong Fremens couldn’t possibly have emerged without adapting to the harsh desert ecology. They are religious and dedicated, but their reverence for the ecosystem is not even close to any sort of blind pantheism. It’s a reverence bore simply out of a calm, patient attitude towards the world around them, and a dedication to a dream that Arrakis will one day—hundreds and thousands of years later—flourish with life.
It’s all pretty simple, really. Don’t fuck with mother nature.
“What senses do we lack that we cannot see or hear another world all around us?”
PS – This guy right here tattooed his eyes to look like a Fremen! (They have blue eyes.) Click through the image for more.