I originally read Frank Herberts Dune as a response to the 1984 movie by David Lynch and looking back this seems a travesty of sorts that I would be ashamed if it werent for the fact that I was only thirteen at the time and I knew no better.
Believe it or not I didn’t like the film when I saw it the first time, though I do now, but I did like the book. The film seemed clumsy to me and it was only when I read the book that I began to understand the problems Lynch took on board when he agreed to make this book into a commercial film. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words; well not when those words are from Dune they aren’t.
Fast forward thirty-five years to 2018, when I decided to read the novel again.
The main reason for this is so that I could work my way through all of Herberts Dune books, which I’ve never read, and I didn’t expect to get any great insights out of it that I didn’t see as a teenager. But of course this wasn’t the case; and I feel pretty foolish that I thought it would be.
Dune is first and foremost a book about politics, politics that take place on a galactic scale. In the far future groups have formed that have gained almost unimaginable power, but despite this each group has also developed a weakness and finds itself at the whims of those who are collectively more powerful than themselves.
The Bene Gesserit are an all-female group who have developed mastery of thier own bodies. They can metabolize poisons and make them inert in their own bloodstreams and reorder the cells within them with little more than the power of their formdable wills.
The Mentats are in many ways their counter, all-male they have developed the skills associated with modern day computers. In the society of Dune computers are outlawed and human computers, Mentats, have taken their place.
The Spacing Guild are a group of once-humans who have been mutated over years to perform the task of folding space. They completely control space travel and as they charge heavy fees they can hold even the most powerful to thier wishes.
Then we have the families of the Laanstrad, the houses of the Great Families who are essentially just pawns in the games of these powerful groups; even though they don’t consider themselves anything such.
And finally we have the Freman, the only idiginous inhabitants of the planet Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune. Wheels within wheels, within wheels; thats the story of Dune.
Our hero – if there is such a thing in Dune – is fifteen year old Paul Atreides the only son of the House Atreides, whose father has gained power by an unusual sourse in this galaxy of plans within plans. He has gained power through the influence of his good deeds. Pauls mother is a Bene Gesserit who has defied her order by bringing a son into the world instead of a daughter; and its with a visit from the head of the Bene Gesserit order that the story begins.
Over the next 450 pages the reader is drawn into worlds, plural, of intrigue and culture where the Atreides fight against the Harkonens, their immediate villains, and discover that Arrakis, Dune, holds a sleeping power that might shift the balance of the entire galaxy if used right.
The political intrigue is wonderfully set, with each group participating hatching thier own plans and counterplans as the story unfolds but this is no dry tale of secret machinations; this is ultimately a story about a young boy and the gifts he has been given that he fears will turn to curses. There are greater powers at work than the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit, there are even larger powers than even the Spacing Guild and it sits under the sand of the desolate planet Dune.
Its a spice called Malange, the secret of how it comes into existence and a small boy called Paul who befriends the only people who know the secret; the Freman.
With this a take of galactic proportions suddenly becomes a story of a fifteen year old boy with very large boots to fill and it illustrates in realistic detail the kind of change possible when those who want change knows the steps necessary; and arent afraid to take them.
In many ways the main groups that dominate the story are all symbolic of an aspect of humanity. The Bene Gesserit remain dominated by emotion, they use fear to control and have come to see love as their enemy. The Mentats are emotionless and rely on pure logic and the Spacing Guild have foregone both to become alien creatures who control space through turning themselves into the utility of machines.
Pauls greatest strength is that he embodies all those aspects as a human should, but he also understands the strengths inherent in the control of each of them and the correct balance of these elements.
Control is a major theme of the book, the control of the planet Arrakis, the control of the spice and the control of space all boiling down to the only control that truly matters; the control of people and ultimately Paul’s control of himself.
Throughout the book the Harkonnens are presented as the traditional enemies of the Atreides, they once controlled Arrakis and intend to once again and its they who commit the bulk of the villiany. But they are being controlled by the Emperor of the Known Universe, who in turn is being controlled, or at least influenced, by the Bene Gesserit.
Paul is aware of all this and understands something basic about the food chain; the fact that theres always a bigger predator, and in this he shruggs off the control of such forces and crafts his own power.
Amid all this Frank Herbert takes some surprising angles with his story. Control comes in many guises and theres something Arthurian about how Pauls control of himself is mirrored in his understanding of the planet of Arrakis and the ecological control that is being exacted over it.
Through this understanding he comes to understand the Freman themselves, like in the Arthurian legend the people and the land are one and to truly understand one you must understand the other.
Theres a capital-t truth to this that seems self evident; after all we are all products of our enviroments and controlling one would certainly have an effect on the other. This added angle raises the book Dune to a new state within science-fiction that few books have achieved; with it Paul becomes more than just a boy manipulating others he becomes the things they all believe him to be… The Kwisatz Haderach, the messiah, and everything that goes before this gets turned on its head.
As I turned the last page to the first book in the Dune series I realised how little I understood of the book the first time I read it all those years ago. It isnt surprising at all, I was only thirteen at the time, but it occured to me that my main reason for not understanding the story as I should have was the fierce antagonism I had against religion when I was a teenager and a kind of arrogance this had instilled in me at the time.
Not that I think belief in a religion is all that important, I personally dont think it is, but having the ability to understand religion and how this influences and comforts those who follow it – I think – is very important; and this is one of the many things Dune illustrates. Paul’s greatest power isnt the Bene Gesserit teachings or Mentat training, its not even the spice Melange, its his ability to understand and sympathise in something without necessarily believing in it.
With this Frank Herbert’s Dune has aged incredibly well, and might even be a timely book for a modern age where understanding those you find yourself against is not often held in very high regard.