When George Lucas sold the rights to his Star Wars franchise to Disney for $4 billion, it is to be hoped that he donated a significant portion of that to the estate of Dune author Frank Herbert. Dune is neither pure fantasy novel nor strictly sci-fi, but rather a clever mix of the two: courtly intrigues taking place on far-away planets. There are spaceships, lasers and nuclear weapons (‘atomics’), yet also mysticism, ancient prophecies and esoteric schools. It’s the formula that Star Wars would use to great success.
‘Plans within plans within plans within plans.’
The plot centres around the desert planet Arrakis, and its precious natural resource of ‘spice’, a cinnamon-like drug. Battling over Arrakis are two royal houses, the regal House Atreides (the good guys) and the monstrous and psychopathic House Harkonnen (the bad guys, surreptitiously backed by the all-powerful Emperor), as well as the indigenous nomadic peoples, the Fremen (motives and loyalties unclear).
The Emperor has gifted the Atreides control of Arrakis from the incumbent Harkonnens, but it’s a trap. Originating from a water-rich planet, the Atreides must rapidly adjust to their new alien environment, physically, mentally and politically.
‘Survival is the ability to swim in strange water…we must find the patterns in these strange currents and patterns in these strange waters.’
The planet of Arrakis itself is a major character. Huge sand storms (unlike other planets, it has no satellite weather control: a significant plot-point later on) with 700-kilometre winds that ‘eat the flesh off bones’ rage across endless dunes and pockets of rocky outcroppings. The depths of the desert contain the precious spice – but also the subterranean menace of gigantic sandworms, some hundreds of metres long, which are attracted from miles around not only by the spice sands, but also by the slightest footsteps. To mine the spice, large ‘harvester factories’ are dropped into the desert by helicopters, and retrieved at the last minute from an approaching worm. And the worms always come.
Accompanying the Duke Atreides is Lady Jessica, the Duke’s concubine, and member of the Bene Gesserit, a female-only sect with the ability to manipulate minds, equally feared and derided by others as ‘witches’. They use the ‘truthsayer’ drug to see into the past, but only into feminine pasts; it is prophesised that a male, with the ability to see into both male and female pasts – “the one who can be many places at once”, or ‘Kwisatz Hederach’ - will emerge. Enter fifteen-year old Paul, heir to the Atreides throne, sharing equally his father’s natural air of authority, and his mother’s Zen-like Bene Gesserit training.
‘Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.’
In Greek mythology, the House of Atreides is descended from the god Tantalus (from whose mythology we derive our word ‘tantalise’). Tantalus was punished by Zeus by being made to stand in a pool of water underneath a tree with low hanging fruit: the fruit was just out of reach, and the water would recede whenever he bent down to drink it. In a Greek proverb, a ‘Tantalean punishment’ is when someone has good things available to them, but cannot enjoy them. So, what is the Tantalean punishment of the Atreides clan on Arrakis? What precious reward is just out of reach? Is it water, spice or power? Perhaps all three.
‘Polish comes from the cities, wisdom from the desert.’
Inevitably the Harkonnen trap is sprung, and young Paul must flee to the desert. It is here that he encounters the mysterious Fremen, who are able to survive in the desert through secret desert knowledge and the wearing of all-encompassing ‘stillsuits’, which filter and reclaim all precious bodily moisture. There are obvious ecological overtones in the conservation of precious water, and sympathies with the wisdom of indigenous cultures in their management of the land and custodianship of natural resources. The appeal of this to the hippy generation of the 1960s is clear.
On their first foray into the desert their Fremen guide explains the dangers of worms and how not to attract them; it is obvious that Paul will use this information later to attract (and even control) them. That’s not really a spoiler, because this worm-riding imagery is used on the cover of almost every edition of the novel. However, Herbert treats the whole process ingeniously.
The spiritual beliefs of the Fremen – the prophesised emergence of a saviour to lead their people out of the desert – drives the rest of plot. The religious analogy is none too subtle, and it’s obvious that Paul is to be that saviour:
‘And again he remembered the vision of fanatic legions following the green and black banner of the Atreides, pillaging and burning across the universe in the name of their prophet Maud’Dib.’
The emphasis on the inseparable religious and revolutionary beliefs of the Fremen – clearly based on Islam – must have seemed exotic in the 1960s. Unfortunately, it has different connotations in a post-9/11 (Western) world. But perhaps that makes us question our definitions of ‘terrorists’?
Herbert uses an omnipotent narrator, which is able to detail the thoughts of all characters. Almost every exchange between characters is accompanied by an internal dialogue from each. It’s not an uncommon literary device. However, what is unique is that much of this internal dialogue is in the form of questions. It’s in keeping with a major theme of the book, which is the uncertainty of one’s fate: though this is a novel built on prophecy, the future is nonetheless clouded and not precisely known. And though at times it can be tiring and seem unnecessary, it adds to the tension between characters, in a plot driven by intrigues and uncertain allegiances, But more than that, it reflects the training and methodology of the Bene Gesserit: Herbert is in essence ‘training’ the reader in the subtle questioning ways of the ‘B.G.’
Dune is an intriguing and original mixture of politics, ecology and religion that perhaps wasn’t attempted again until the cyberpunk genre of the mid-1980s. However, the plot is somewhat predictable to modern readers raised on decades of ‘space operas’, such as Star Wars, and to a more politically and environmentally aware audience. For this reason, it’s probably best appreciated by readers in their twenties (as I did myself). But there are still some great action scenes, particularly the hand-to-hand fighting and the use of personal force fields.
‘Paul snapped the force button at his waist, felt the crinkled-skin tingling of the defensive field…heard external sounds take on characteristic shield-filtered flatness…In shield fighting one moves fast on defence, slow on attack…The shield turns the fast blow, admits the slow kindjal.’
And in the end, it’s a story of revenge, and who doesn’t love them?
You can’t really discuss the novel without referencing the 1984 movie adaptation by Twin Peaks director David Lynch. Critics hate this movie. No, they despise it. Even the director disowned it. Personally, I like it: the casting is great (including the musician Sting as a psychopathic assassin), and the production design is spot on, and influenced the aesthetics of many later sci-fi movies. And there’s a Dune movie reboot due at the end of 2020, so get on board that worm now.