I’ve read Dune for the first time 7 years ago. A year later, I finished Chapterhouse on the day Iain Banks died. I loved the series so much, I tried some of Herbert’s other books too – they all proved to be duds, except for Soul Catcher. I even read what Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson concocted as what was supposed to be the finale, Dune 7 – the so-so Hunters of Dune and the god-awful Sandworms of Dune.
Rereading is always a risk, and I hardly do so. Taste evolves. The thing is: when I first read Dune, I wasn’t that well versed in science fiction. I’d read about 5 Culture novels, Anathem by Stephenson, maybe the Foundation trilogy. I might have been easily impressed. 7 years later, I’ve read a whole lot more of speculative fiction: about 240 titles says my Worlds Without End database. I’ve tried to be broad in my approach, reading older stuff and newer stuff alike. Today, I’m a different judge.
This time, I read the fantastic Folio Society edition, which has an excellent essay by Michael Dirda, and an interesting afterword by Brian Herbert. It’s good to see confirmed that Dune indeed was revolutionary. A book much longer than most other novels of its day – other titles were only a quarter to a third of Dune‘s 215,000 words. That meant an expensive book – “in excess of 5 dollars”, the highest retail price yet for any science fiction novel. And it was not only revolutionary because of its size – it was also an untold commercial succes. While initial sales were slow, it got the Nebula and Hugo awards, and by 1970 the book began to sell well. The sequels became bestsellers too, with sales running into the millions. By 1979 it sold over 10 million copies, and when David Lynch’s 1985 movie adaptation was released, Dune reached no. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, 20 years after its first publication. Frank Herbert was “the first [science fiction] writer to obtain such high level of readership.”
So, what has this reread told me? What to write about the most lauded science fiction book of all time? Well, easy! That it is within rights and reason to call this one of the greatest books ever – if it falls into your taste range.
My guess is that it will still be read a century from now. Dune has a timeless quality: ditching computers was a genius move by Herbert. In Destination: Void – which was first published in Galaxy Magazine around the same time as Dune – Herbert took the opposite route, embedding a great thriller in pages and pages of computer babble. Even though that babble was realistic at the time, it utterly fails today. Not so with Dune.
There’s hardly anything that can age in this book. Some have argued that the feudal structure of the galactic empire is unrealistic for a far future human world – and as such dated in the 21st century – but that is an utterly naive, Western centrist thought. If the last decade has taught us something, is that we should not take democracy for granted – especially not as global turmoil has only just began at the dawn of disruptive climate change. Who’s so arrogant to claim they have a clear grasp on the arrow of time? Hegel fans? Hari Seldon?
Before I’ll try to shed some more light on why this book remains such a joy to read in 2019 – brace yourselves for a 5444 words analysis of both form and content – let me tackle a bit of critique first. I’d rather have that out of the way, and let the rest of my text be an unapologetic celebration of Herbert’s creation.
(There will be some spoilers throughout, including minor ones about the next 3 books in the series.)
Not everybody likes Dune. Blogger Megan AM, in her 2014 review on From Couch To Moon, worded her problem with the protagonist, Paul, as follows:
If he’s cold, the reader doesn’t care what happens to him. If he’s infallible, he’ll survive every conflict. Wrap him up in a nice blanket of spiritual powers and preordained destiny, with a powerful clan to serve him, and you’ve got the makings of a demigod whose story is predetermined. Dune is worthy warning against allegiance to charismatic personalities, but it’s D.O.A.
Gender pops up a bit further in her review:
Unfortunately, I suspect that many Dune fans actually admire the unearned arrogance of our rich noble-born leader. I worry that Paul’s behavior toward his women and his clansmen actually appeals to many males in the SF community. Paul is in control of everything—his emotions, his actions, his thoughts… even his followers. Even Paul’s mother recognizes his calculating moves as manipulative and unfair. “You deliberately cultivate this air, this bravura,” she charged. “You never cease indoctrinating” (p. 620). How incredibly appealing to a young male…
I think both issues are partly the result of a biased reading – admittedly, something we are all prone too. Yes, older fiction is up to “contemporary dissection” – but the text itself has its rights.
I fully agree that the hero in Dune appeals to readers because of his control, among other things. But there are two problems in Megan’s gendered reading. First are some facts residing in Dune itself. Also Jessica – and to a lesser extent Chani – are in control. They too are heroes of the book. There are other characters who are just as calculating and manipulative, and some of them – all of the Bene Gesserit – are female. Focusing on Paul’s male biological sex seems strange in that light. Moreover, when Paul becomes the Kwisatz Haderach, Herbert explicitly frames this as a fusion of 2 genders, Paul becoming both taker and giver, male and female. Sure, one could debate the problematic dichotomy of that – but either way these facts show the analysis of Megan is a bit superficial.
A second problem is Megan’s own portrayal of “young males” and “many males in the SF community”. I’m sure there are quite a lot of women too who want control over their emotions, thoughts, actions. I think Megan too easily frames Paul’s behavior as a problematic masculine ideal.
To end this first part of my review, let me get back to Megan’s first quote. Paul is “cold” and “infallible”, a “predetermined” “demigod”, and all that could make readers not care for him. Megan is fully right about the predetermined part, but I think exactly that is one of the crucial strengths of the book – I’ll get to that in more detail after the jump.
Yet cold and infallible? One could maybe argue about cold – it is partly in the eye of the beholder – but again, the text itself has its rights. Paul gives moisture to the dead! He does mourn his father – he only has to postpone it, due to the situation he is in. That doesn’t make him cold. It makes him tragic. He has intense friendships with Stilgar and Gurney Halleck. Near the end, he is upset by his mother’s cold shoulder. He struggles emotionally with his own role. And maybe most importantly: he loves & respects Chani deeply, in an explicitly tender way – the ending pages are proof of that. I agree Herbert doesn’t devote lots of page time to these aspects, but they are there. Clearly.
A reader is well within his or her right to think Herbert should have devoted more time to the characters’ emotions – and granted, characterization is not the book’s main focus – but the claim that Paul is cold is not how I experienced it.
One cannot argue about infallible though. Paul fails. He fails spectacularly. Yes, he dethrones the emperor, he marries the princess. But all that is just superficial pomp, not at the heart of this story. It strikes me as odd that Megan AM didn’t mention this. Paul’s failure is even double.
One: his own son is killed. It is one of the pivotal moments of the book – even without taking into account the strong emphasis Herbert puts on the importance of genes and bloodlines. More so, the death of his firstborn is one of the pivotal moments of the entire series, with possibly galactic repercussions. “He felt emptied, a shell without emotions. Everything he touched brought death and grief. And it was like a disease that could spread across the universe.” Two: Paul’s main drive in the book is to prevent the jihad, yet he fails to do so. That only becomes fully clear in the sequels, but still, it is spelled out explicitly multiple times.
Herbert didn’t write Paul as a true masculine infallible hero. He is noble-born, strong and superbly trained, yes, but he is more than that, and morally ambiguous. It is when his firstborn son dies that – maybe? – Paul embraces jihad as cosmic revenge for all the suffering he had to endure. “Something seemed to chuckle and rub its hands within him. And Paul thought: How little the universe knows about the nature of real cruelty!” Herbert doesn’t spoon-feed it to the reader. It is unclear how to interpret that italic sentence, but either way, it is one of many that makes Paul human – somebody this reader could connect to.
Before I’ll dive into a more substantial analysis, the following needs emphasis: reading Dune was even better the second time around. One part of that is that I was familiar with its world – the first half can be tough on new readers that don’t know what’s going on. Another part is that I have become more experienced as reader, seeing both the book’s literary mechanics and its philosophical implications much clearer – and because of that I appreciate it all the more.
Books that can be reread don’t hinge on novelty & surprise alone. There is no better testament to what Herbert achieved artistically. Please join me in celebrating the how & what of Dune some more!
I’ll first highlight a few technical issues: Herbert’s prose, his plotting power – including a detailed case study of the first knife fight, between Paul and Jamis. After that, I’ll zoom in on Dune‘s tragic philosophical content.
Herbert wrote in a pretty stark style, and his efficient prose never gets in the way of the story. That is not to say Herbert doesn’t use language to enhance the story. Like Tolkien, Herbert made a serious, well researched effort to enhance realism, paradoxically by twisting his English, and adding fictional or borrowed words – either way steeped in real world linguistic traditions. I won’t delve any deeper, as lots has been written about that already.
I want to highlight something else, less talked about. Dune‘s prose is – another paradox – efficient and made difficult by all those items in the 20-page glossary, but there are also flashes of poetry that pop up here and there, like cactus flowers in an arid landscape. I’ll leave it at one quote.
To the east, the night grew a faggot of luminous gray, then seashell opalescence that dimmed the stars. There came the long, bell-tolling movement of dawn striking across a broken horizon.
It never occurred to me, but Michael Dirda points it out in his introduction: Herbert followed what Carl Gustav Jung and Lord Raglan established as a recurring sequence in the hero’s life cycle: “a birth surrounded by mystery, evidence of special gifts, exile in the wilderness, conquest of monstrous beast, a near-death experience followed by the assumption of a new identity, and finally a triumphant victory over old enemies before an enigmatic disappearance and subsequent apotheosis.”
Herbert’s decision to ground Dune in archetype makes that he cannot rely on the general plot to hook the reader. We feel more or less what will happen, generally speaking. This is not necessarily bad – Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet were also well know stories in Shakespeare’s time. So how does he keep the reader engaged to a story that is utmost unoriginal when presented schematically?
A big part of the answer is obviously Herbert’s tremendous imagination: yes, he uses a typical Jungian outline in a messianic melodrama space opera setting, but his imagination – both qua overall world building that tends to the Fantastic, as in numerous Hard SF details – colors the framework in such a way that it transcends itself.
But much has been written on Herbert’s imagination already, so let me focus on another important piece of the puzzle: the way Herbert structures Dune‘s plot.
For starters, Herbert keeps it tight. The story is straight forward & linear, the pacing brisk. There’s not too many characters. There’s none of the bloated impression lots of contemporary speculative fiction makes – and yet it is hardly surpassed in its detailed world building. This is not the final paradox I will point at.
He also pays close attention to structure. The book is written as a crescendo. In itself, that isn’t special. Yet Dune‘s narrative crescendo is not limited to the overall plot, saving the typical epic battle for the ending. Also in the way he discloses information, Herbert takes care to keep the reader engaged. Only very gradually the true power and size of the Fremen become clear, to the extent that we are just as surprised as Baron Harkonnen when we learn of their true size only near the end of the book – even though we have lived with them for hundreds of pages. A lesser writer would have showed off the scope of his or her fictional world much earlier. Similarly, while we learn the Sardauker to be feared early on, Herbert dropping significant details of their gear evokes awe just at the moment we thought we had them figured out – again, near the end of the book. Most other writers would have started their stories with this kind of stuff.
Herbert shows restraint, and puts his imagination in the service of the reading experience, while other authors put their imagination in the very center of what they write.
In the grey paragraph below, I’ll try to show how the knife fight between Paul and the Fremen Jamis is a good example of how structural composition saves this scene from what is – superficially – predictable. We know Paul will win, obviously. In that respect Megan AM is right. But if you look closely to the scene, it still is an unexpected thriller, always shifting and changing, in favor of Paul and in favor of Jamis, and ending both in an expected and unexpected way. Take it as a case study that can stand for the entire novel.
At first Jessica tries to prevent the fight. Her water is accepted, but that doesn’t succeed in buying off Jamis. Jamis invokes a law, making the fight unavoidable. Stilgar ups the ante by threatening to kill Jamis afterwards, should he win. On that moment, Herbert starts introducing Paul’s weaknesses. A first counter-indication of Paul winning is Jessica’s fear – Paul is only a boy. At the same time Jessica ups the ante for Jamis, threatening him just like Stilgar did. After that, Herbert focuses on something positive: Paul doesn’t fear Jamis, and thinks he moves clumsily, as he bested him already the night before. Again a negative follows: Paul has seen a vision of himself dead under a knife. Jessica makes a final attempt to stop it, using the Voice, but this attempt is cut short and she is forbidden to speak. Then positives: Paul is trained in prana and bindu, by legendary teachers like Idaho & Halleck. He is also trained as a devious Bene Gesserit, and “looks supple and confident.” Again negatives: he is only 15, and he has no shield. Positives: Jessica did manage to plant some fear in Jamis mind, which “perhaps” might slow him. A negative: Paul is unsure about the fighting ring’s surface. A positive: Chani tells him how Jamis parries, and reveals two of Jamis’ fighting tricks. Another positive: Paul’s supreme training resulting in instinctual reactions. Herbert then describes possible ways to win a knife fight: with point, and blade, and shearing-guard – opening things up some more. Another negative: Paul realizes the crysknife has no shearing-guard, and that he doesn’t know the breaking tension of the blade, “did not even know if it could be broken.” Another – very important – negative: Paul realizes he is disadvantaged as his instinctive reflexes are tuned to the mechanics of fighting with a shield. Jamis reveals the crysknives can be shattered. Herbert has built tension expertly, and only at now the fight really begins. A negative for Paul: Herbert describes Jamis as Death – with a body like “knotted whipcord on a dried skeleton.” “Fear coursed through Paul.” He feels alone and naked. Herbert points at the possibility of countless things influencing the outcome: some coughing, etc – again opening up the scene. A positive: Paul repeats the litany against fear, and feels his “muscles untie themselves”. The fight breaks loose, and Herbert reminds us – via Jessica – of Paul’s disadvantage being trained as a shield fighter. Paul’s counterblow – “blindingly fast” comes an instant too late, numerous times. The spectators start to think Paul is playing with Jamis. Some more fighting, and Paul can take advantage of Chani’s advice. Jamis is wounded. It only now becomes clear to Paul that this fight is to the death – he did not know this before he started, and the fight is paused for a moment. Another negative: Paul has never killed a man. Jessica is not sure he can do that. And another negative: Paul’s prescient knowledge starts plaguing him now. A positive: Jamis realizes Paul is no easy prey. A negative: Jamis becomes desperate and because of that most dangerous. A positive and a negative: Jessica starts feeling pitty for him, yet is aware at “the immediate peril” her son is in. Negative: Herbert stresses Jamis’ unpredictability. Herbert then focuses on Jamis’ fear, and Paul tries to turn it into terror – a gamble, as terror is dangerous too. Jamis tries his last trick, but Paul sees it, not only because of Chani’s warning, but because of his training. Jamis makes a mistake and Paul kills him. The fight ends, but the result is not what the reader expected: yes, Paul wins, but he isn’t heralded as a hero – no, the Fremen are very negative about the way he won. After some conversation, this misunderstanding is overcome, and the scene’s climax is Paul’s Fremen naming and acceptance in the tribe.
Another of Herbert’s methods to keep the reader engaged is simply the right dose of pulp at the right time. He doesn’t shy away from it. I think this keeps the story flexible, and provides some light and air in a book that is otherwise oppressive. Some of these things are fairly superficial – like Leto & Paul’s first encounter with a worm when the carryall coincidentally is down: spectacular and convenient, but not really important to the story. But other things – like Vladimir Harkonnen’s cartoonish evil nature, or the sandworms that are attracted by shields, or the entire part Dr. Yueh and his Suk conditioning plays – are crucial for the book.
I’ll take that last one as an example of how this mechanism works: the Duke needed to die, and devising a more believable – less pulpy – way, might have taken up more page time, bogging things down.
(On a side note: one has to wonder if the behavior of the Baron could not be considered to be at least possible, and as such realistic, given the nature & possibilities of absolutist rule, and insights like the high level of psychopathy among CEOs? Maybe there is truth to the cartoon archetype?)
Similarly, there is the spice itself. Call it an unobtainium or something akin to the philosophers’ stone, but as a plot device it is both extremely pulpy and a genius stroke by Herbert. Spice melange controls all the factions in the book, but for different reasons. The Fremen need it (for bribes, to enhance vitality, and as a staple material to make plastic, cloth, food seasoning, …) The Bene Gesserit need it (to unlock genetic memory). Baron Harkonnen needs it (for money & power). Paul Muad’Dib needs it (to see the future). The Spacing Guild – and by extension everybody else – needs it (for space travel).
In a way, it’s more powerful than Tolkien’s One Ring to rule them all, at least as addictive, and its origin – in essence the excrement of embryonic sandworms – is so outrageous, that it takes real guts to use something like it in a serious book.
Herbert’s use of pulp again shows he knows what needs to be done to tell this story well, not restrained by the seriousness of serious literature. So yes, Dune is a typical Jungian hero story, but it is expertly composed, written in a style that suits it. It’s enduring powers are structural, not superficial. The content seems odd – giant sandworms on a desert planet in a feudal far future – but again, that’s only surface level. When we dig deeper, we again find something essentially real: one of humanity’s basic, timeless conundrums.
ILLUSIONS OF CONTROL: THE HUMAN MIND IN A MECHANIC WORLD
I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined.
At a basic level, everybody understands that reality is deterministic: if an egg falls, it breaks. If you drink alcohol, your behavior changes. If our heads are chopped off, we die. Physical and chemical laws – via evolution – give rise to biology, behavior and society. That knowledge is a problem for our consciousness, for we feel in control.
As freedom is inherent in so many human claims, our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves. It is humanity’s most basic problem – already acknowledged centuries ago by numerous strands of religious Predestination.
Recurrent readers of this blog know that I tend to find examples of this in many of the books I read. I believe the problem is the very bleeding heart of tragedy. It will not surprise you it is the core of Dune.
Recurrent readers of other Dune reviews will have found the usual references to other themes: environmentalism, ecology, oil, “critique of the myth of the hero” and religious fanaticism. It’s what keeps this book fresh, they claim. It’s about the Middle East! It’s about climate change! Etc. And while such claims definitely have merit, they miss an essential thing. I think the central theme is Paul’s prescience – and how this is tied to determinism. It is that what keeps the book fresh forever: it grounds Dune firmly in a reality we will never escape.
Dune is an ecological book, indeed, but not only in the Greenpeace way. Dune stresses the importance of ecology: the environment, conditions, surroundings, milieu, external factors, what have you. Factors that determine the way organisms succeed or not, that restrain their evolution, and that – ultimately – guide their internal make up.
The imperial planetary ecologist Liet-Kynes – arguably the most wise of all of Dune‘s characters, and the grandfather of the later God-Emperor – knows this: “When God hath ordained a creature to die in a particular place, He causeth that creature’s wants to direct him to that place.”
In his essay, Michael Dirda writes that Dune is “a serious moral fable about the foreseen and unforeseen consequences of the choices we make”. He stresses the choice element, but misses the trap Paul is in. When we talk about a hero discovering his or her destiny, what do we actually mean? What is ‘destiny’ else than another word for ‘determined’? It is not because we make choices that these choices are made in freedom.
And Paul, walking behind Chani, felt that a vital moment had passed him, that he had missed an essential decision and was now caught up in his own myth. (…) He felt a new sense of wonder at the limits of his gift. It was as though he rode within the wave of time, sometimes in its trough, sometimes on a crest – and all around him the other waves lifted and fell revealing and then hiding what they bore on their surface.
Let’s not forget that Paul is the result of a breeding program – a deterministic process par excellence. Other key elements of Bene Gesserit praxis rely on the same idea: the principle of the Missionaria Protectiva is deterministic in outlook. So is their weirding Voice: certain soundwaves trigger deterministic responses.
Let’s also remember that Paul doesn’t want jihad, but understands the necessity: “the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes. And the race knew only one sure way for this – the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path: jihad.”
As such, Paul – paradoxically in control over every nerve in his body – is just a helpless pawn in a biological proces: ‘race’ (i.e. the human race) becoming a blind, subconscious determining factor. “All humans were alive as an unconscious single organism in this moment (…)”. “And Paul saw how futile were any efforts of his to change any smallest bit of this. He had thought to oppose the jihad within himself, but jihad would be.”
Early in the novel, Paul reads a part of the Orange Catholic Bible out loud:
‘Think you of the fact that a deaf person cannot hear. Then, what deafness may we not all possess? What senses do we lack that we cannot see and cannot hear another world all around us? (…)’
This foreshadowing to Paul’s later sixth sense, so to say, doesn’t need to be interpreted as religious or metaphysical. For what is Paul’s prescience, all things considered?
In essence it is his ability to instinctively feel – or unconsciously calculate, don’t forget that Paul has mentat powers too – possible deterministic pathways. His prescience doesn’t always work conclusively – not because reality doesn’t work in a deterministic way, but simply because of the complexity of countless factors and feedback loops.
The prescience, he realized, was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed – at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. A kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy intervened: the expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw.
For the first time, he was caught up in the thought that he might be part of a pattern more involuted and complicated than his mind could grasp.
The paradox of determinism is uncertainty: reality is too complex. Kynes knows this too:
‘You never talk of likelihoods on Arrakis. You speak only of possibilities.’
It slows Paul down in certain moments, but it also gives him naive hope. Paul is a tragic hero: he takes the imperial throne to prevent jihad, but he already knows it is impossible.
Terence Blake – in a comment to an article of his on French philosopher François Laruelle and science fiction – describes Paul’s struggle, and points at a (preposterous) fix to determinism Herbert envisions in the later novels:
For me the quantum aspect of Dune is Paul’s vision of time (shared partially by many others) as composed of a huge network of branching possibilities, to the point of making this quantum time part of the very framework of the novel. Paul is constantly trying to break the prophetic vision by bifurcating, but finally gives in to it. He does not choose Leto’s Golden Path. A second point comes out in later novels, with Leto’s breeding programme to produce human beings whose actions are unpredictable both to prophetic vision and to artificial intelligences (quantum computers?) waiting on the outskirts.
Two final thoughts on the mechanic worldview in Dune.
The Fremen are clearly idolized by Herbert. In appendix II on the religion of Dune, it becomes clear that they have no concept of guilt. Generally, the concept of moral guilt stems from the idea that one could chosen to act differently – it is why determinism is frowned upon in an judicial context.
And it’s well to note that Fremen ritual gives almost complete freedom from guilt feelings. This isn’t necessarily because their law and religion were identical, making disobedience a sin. It’s likely closer to the mark to say they cleansed themselves of guilt easily because their everyday existence required brutal judgments (often deadly) which in a softer land would burden men with unbearable guilt.
This is a great passage, uniting ecology (“hostile landscapes”) and ethics (judgments as necessary behavior). The lesson of the Fremen applies not only to Arrakis: all life always acts trapped inside a context.
Brain Herbert writes of his father that he “recalled reading somewhere that ecology was the science of understanding consequences. (…) With a worldview similar to that of an American Indian, Dad saw Western man inflicting himself on the environment, not living in harmony with it.” It is clear that consequences have causes. As such, Dune was a warning against Western man’s error in underestimating the way we are part of the fabric. Pardot Kynes, father of Liet-Kynes spelled it out loud and clear:
‘A planet’s life is a vast, tightly interwoven fabric. Vegetation and animal changes will be determined at first by the raw physical forces we manipulate. As they establish themselves, though, our changes will become controlling influences in their own right – and we will have to deal with them too. (…)’
The fact that Liet-Kynes – in his dying, delirious moments – thinks “accident and error” are “the most persistent principles of the universe” doesn’t take away one bit of all that: also accident and error are the result of causes.
Let me get back to Megan AM one more time:
But overall, my biggest complaint is the incessant, italicized internal monologue, which often switches characters mid-dialogue. I can’t help but think some of the tension would be restored if Herbert had dumped this device to allow for some mystery in his characters’ thoughts, particularly in a tale where gray morality rules and ethics is completely absent. But instead, it’s all splayed out for me, like a gutted sandworm drying on the hot sand. No mystery.
I can’t argue with this, as it is a matter of taste. But to me, the mystery of Dune is not what characters think, nor is it the plot. The mystery of Dune is the mystery of ourselves: that giant blind spot that makes us feel free in a reality governed by laws – on all possible levels.
HOW TO COPE? THE SARDONIC?
Is this blind spot the “frequent hollowness at the heart of all our lives” that Dirda writes about in his essay? He might not realize it, but I guess so. There is indeed no humor in the novel – except that small part where the Baron wonders if Alia is a midget. Dune indeed is steeped in a “tragic sense of life”.
Vladimir Harkonnen sees himself as a bringer of truth. In the later novels, Leto 2 – his great-grandson – might very well be seen as similar.
He saw himself suddenly as a surgeon exercising endless supple scissor dissections – cutting away the masks from fools, exposing the hell beneath.
So what is left? Princess Irulan wrote down the following, in the Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib.
The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself.
Maybe bitterness, scorn and mockery is all that is left to someone who lost his firstborn son, someone who sees how things really are.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE KNIFE
If Arrakis is a metaphor for reality, reality is a paradoxical thing. Early in the novel Thufir Hawat sees “this planet as an enemey”. At the end of the book, Paul realizes Arrakis is an ally too, as he unleashes the sandstorm upon his enemies.
There are numerous tidbits of wisdom in the book – Herbert maybe tried to cram in too much, too overtly. Let’s be mild in our judgement here – the guy wrote all 544 pages on a typewriter.
The Guild navigators, gifted with limited prescience, had made the fatal decision: they’d chosen always the clear, safe course that leads ever downward to stagnation.
Their choice is not a free choice, as their limited prescience made them do so. A few pages later, the same taught is formulated in another way.
‘The eye that looks ahead to the safe course is closed forever,’ Paul said.
This is the hope of Dune‘s lesson. Even though everything is ecology – everything is embedded, the result of causes – this does not mean the way is always clear.
This mitigates our lives: we are determined, but we are not prescient.
To continue my analysis of the Dune series, please read my text on Dune Messiah – also over 4500 words: tackling its ties to Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence, Paul’s tragedy & determinism; my text on Children of Dune, which is over 10,000 words and deals with the tragedy of Alia and Amor Fati, among other things; my analysis of God Emperor of Dune, 8,700 words with a focus on Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot, an examination of the Golden Path and a critical look at various inconsistencies in that novel; and my 11,600 word analysis of Heretics of Dune, that, among other things, looks at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examines the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It also discusses love, heresy and variation as themes in the novel, and looks at how the book’s characters are permutations of those of Dune. I explain why I liked this book the most of the sequels, even with all its shortcomings, and try to shed light on a major shift in the series, as in Heretics, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically. I also look at an underlying principle Herbert uses: perception shaping reality. The final text on Chapterhouse: Dune has 10,700 words. It has an assessment of the book’s shortcomings, plus a further examination of the Bene Gesserit, a section on free will and shorter sections on change & creativity, on Nietzschean morality, on the obscure & conflicted nature of Mentats and on Herbert’s obsession with bureaucracy. It ends with an reflection on the Dune series in general.
Click for my other Herbert reviews:
Dune Messiah (1969) – Children of Dune (1976) – God Emperor of Dune (1981) – Heretics of Dune (1984) – Chapterhouse: Dune (1985) // Destination: Void (1965) – The Santaroga Barrier (1968) – Whipping Star (1970) – Soul Catcher (1972) – The Dosadi Experiment (1977)