Monday, June 8, 2015
Thoughts on Frank Herbert's Dune
Dune has long been considered *the* science fiction novel, and with good reason. It has everything science fiction fans typically expect in a good novel - an intelligent plot, plenty of action, social commentary, mind expanding ideas, and a fully realized universe.
At some point in the unimaginably distant future, humanity is spread across the galaxy in a vaguely midi eval galactic civilization ruled over by the Corinno emperor - or so it would seem. In fact the emperor is but one of dozens (hundreds?) of lords, guild masters, merchants, and technocrats who are constantly vying for power beneath the scenes. The equilibrium is fragile, and could shatter at any moment.
One of the most powerful of these aristocrats is the noble duke Leto Atreides. In fact, he's gotten so powerful that the emperor has decided he has to be crushed before he can launch a bid to unseat him and set himself up as the founder of a new line of galactic emperors. With the help of the loathsome Harkonens, who have their own reasons for wanting to get rid of the over-mighty duke, he lays a trap for him on the strategically vital (and eponymous) planet of Dune.
Briefly, the plan is to install the duke as the planet's new feudal overlord, and then, before he can get settled in, send in the emperors elite army of storm troopers to take him out. Leto has a big and well-trained army, but the emperor's storm troopers are in another league. Once they hit the planets surface Duke Leto's as good as dead.
However, the plan isn't completely successful. Although Leto and all his retainers are massacred, Leto's son, Paul, escapes to the desert along with his mother, Jessica, who is for all intents and purposes a powerful psychic. There they take refuge with the savage but upright fremen ("free men"), learn their ways, and receive their protection. Paul and Jessica quickly realize that, with a few parlor tricks and some creative myth making, the fremen can be turned into a powerful anti-Corinno army, with Paul as their divinely chosen warrior-prophet. Paul can play this role better than anyone else in the galaxy, as it turns out, because he has many of the same psychic abilities as his mother. In fact, he might not be quite human...
I left a lot out of that summary of the opening - there's an unusual number of moving parts in this book, which is part of what makes it so good - but that's the gist of it.
The universe frank Herbert depicts is realized in impressive detail, from the complex and wholly believable politics of his civilization down to the food these people eat and the instruments they play. Much of this veracity is attributable to frank Herbert's apparent fascination with midi eval and early Islamic history. Paul Atreides' life clearly parallels that of Muhammad, who, like Paul, fled powerful enemies in order to live in exile in the desert, only to return at the head of a savage and unstoppable army. Like Paul, Mohammed encouraged his followers to venerate him as a prophet in order to buttress his political power. And, like Paul, Mohammed looked ultimately to a confrontation with a seemingly eternal and unbeatable infidel empire, that of the Byzantines. The comparison breaks down if it's pushed too far, but he clearly had the early history of Islam in mind when he wrote this story (and children of dune, for that matter.) there are plenty of other midi eval parallels as well.
Critically, Paul does not actually believe that he's a prophet. He's certainly a person of incredible gifts (in fact the culmination of a centuries long breeding program and essentially the most powerful psychic in the galaxy), but he's not religious, and he doesn't see himself as anything other than an aggrieved aristocrat exacting well-deserved revenge on his enemies. However, he can't get that revenge without lying to the simple-minded but incredibly fierce fremen, so lie he does.
This situation sets up the major ideological issue that dune wants to address - the impulse to worship heroes, which Frank Herbert regarded as a major mental disease. To understand this perspective, one need only reflect that he was in his twenties when Hitler shot himself in Berlin, after starting a war that killed something like forty-million people. Maybe if people had been just a little more cynical about their leaders, the world could have been spared this tidal wave of blood, death and misery. In fact, maybe if people didn't get worked up over ideals at all, and just concentrated on developing themselves as human beings and living lives of freedom, it need never happen again. That's the basic moral outlook of dune. There are no heroes to worship or ideals to believe in - it's all a sham. Only fools believe, and there's nothing more dangerous than a pack of believing fools.
I won't give away how Frank Herbert goes on to develop this theme - I'll just say that, even as we cheer Paul Atreides on in his quest for vengeance, we ought to be more than a little disturbed at the choices he's willing to make to get it. Like a true aristocrat, he regards power as an end unto itself, all other aristocrats as threats, and everyone else as just so much dirt beneath his boots. Despite his power, he's a hollow man in the truest sense, and his outlook is one of pure viciousness. The thrill of following his adventure is largely the fantasy of being someone like him - a colossus before whom all others must scrape and bow. n point of fact, when we have to deal with people like him in our own personal lives, we usually hate their guts.
There's so much more that could be said about this exciting and challenging book, but this review is already quite long. It's not a book without faults, but to my way of thinking they hardly deserve to be mentioned along side its accomplishments. The only thing I will say is that this is a book that's deeply rooted in a particular place in time. Its a weird mash of space opera, post war exhaustion, radical skepticism, 60's drug culture, midi eval intrigue, oil and environmental politics, Victorian imperialism, and probably a dozen other things I forgot to mention.