Howdy there, folks, and welcome once again to the Book Club Discussion.
Today, we look at Dune by Frank Herbert. As always, this will be a SPOILERIFIC look at the novel, so if you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read this!!! If you have read the novel, feel free to add your thoughts by commenting at the bottom. Now, prepare yourselves…
In the far distant future, humanity has spread throughout the universe. Planets are ruled by various Houses, held together under the ruler of an Emperor.
Among the Houses are the Harkonnens (a despicable group that rule by deception, oppression, and force) under Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, and the Atreides (a group of true nobility and just ways) led by Duke Leto. As you might guess, there is no love lost between the two Houses.
Unfortunately for Leto and his people, the Emperor sees Leto as a threat to his power, and he hatches a plan with the Harkonnens.
Leto is instructed by the Emperor to leave his planet and take control of Arrakis, a desert planet that is nearly unlivable. Arrakis has one resource, though, that is precious – Spice Melange. The Spice is mined in the sands of the desert. Ingesting the spice allows one the ability to see possible paths into the future. And, it is very addictive. As such, it is highly valuable and much sought after.
By taking Leto from his home planet and moving him to the unfamiliar and inhospitable wasteland that is Arrakis, his enemies hope to make an opportunity to destroy him and his house. The Emperor eliminates a threat to his power, and the Harkonnens eliminate a rival House.
Though Leto senses the trap, he is obligated to follow through. Along with his military force, he is joined by his concubine, Jessica, a Bene Gesserit (an religious order of women who serve as advisers, being somewhat prescient and able to control the actions of others verbally), and their son, Paul.
Unbeknownst to anyone save the Bene Gesserit, breeding has been manipulated to bring forth a prophesied leader, the Kwisatz Haderach, a male trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit. Jessica believes that Paul is that leader.
The Atreides move to Arrakis and take control of the planet. On arriving, Leto is introduced to the “natives” of the planet, a group called the Fremen. Through constant exposure to the Spice, the Fremen’s eyes are blue on blue, with no whites. While the Harkonnens saw the Fremen as merely uncivilized desert dwellers, Leto sees them as the key to Arrakis – a force of people that have learned the ways of the desert planet and adapted.
Before long, the House of Atreides is attacked from within. The action ignites accusations of betrayal, causing an atmosphere of mistrust to form. Unknown to any is that the betrayer is actually Dr. Yueh, a trusted confidant to the family. His betrayal, though, is not so simple – he loves the Atreides and hates the Harkonnen. As we learn later, his reasoning for the betrayal is actually an attempt to destroy the Baron Vladimir.
Essentially, Yueh delivers the Duke into the hands of the Baron, while the forces of the Harkonnen (along with the disguised forces of the Emperor, the Sardaukar) attack and scatter the Atreides forces.
Paul and his mother manage to escape, thanks to Dr. Yueh, and eventually take refuge with the Fremen, thanks in no small part to their fighting abilities, which the Fremen refer to as the “weirding”.
Paul thrives in the new environment, to the point that the Fremen begin to wonder if he is actually the Lisan al–Gaib (or Voice from the Outer World), the Mahdi (Messiah) that will transform Arrakis into a paradise. Paul takes on his Fremen name of Paul Muad’Dib (a mouse native to Arrakis) and quickly is seen as a great leader. His mother, Jessica, takes on the role of the Reverend Mother to the Fremen.
Years pass and under the leadership of Paul Muad’Dib, the Fremen grow stronger, until the moment comes when Paul Muad’Dib decides the time has come to retake his rightful position of Duke of the House of Atriedes, ruler of the planet of Arrakis.
An all encompassing, well planned out attack is made and Paul Muad’Dib and the Fremen are victorious. In a final blow to the Emperor, Paul threatens to destroy all of the Spice on the planet, a move that not only secures his position as Duke and ruler, but also leads to a marriage to the Emporer’s daughter, making him next in line to ascend to the throne.
OG: Well, this one’s a whopper; and, not just because it’s a big book with lots of them pesky words to read, but more so because of all of the even peskier ideas Herbert packs into it. Huge, important ideas and themes piled on top of the already massive amounts of plot, intrigue, character development and world, nay, universe building he shoves between the covers.
EG: It is quite the layered novel.
OG: Indeed. So, where to begin discussing this thing? I had a lot of trouble deciding until I remembered reading this 1979 quote by Frank Herbert in which he said:
“The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”
I read this quote directly after finishing the book and it really opened up my understanding of what I had just been through. After some more digging around, I then located where Herbert expanded on this thought in his essay “Dune Genesis” (found here: http://www.dunenovels.com/news/genesis.html) in which he basically lays out the short story of how and why he came to write this series in the first place. Here’s a couple more choice quotes from there that give you the flavor, but I’d recommend anyone who read this book to read the whole essay when they have the time…
“…superheroes are disastrous for humankind. Even if we find a real hero (whatever-or whoever-that may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that always comes into being around such a leader.”
“Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero’s facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero.”
I think the reason I want to start off here and why this idea resonates with me so much is that as I read “Dune” I read it under the penumbra of all the other stories out there about heroes rising to their rightful place as savior of their people/land/world/universe. I mean, you can’t get through this book without thinking that Herbert is riffing on the thousands year old tradition of the “heroes journey.” Even if one hasn’t read any Joseph Campbell, they’ve at least seen “Star Wars” and can probably fill in the major beats the story hits along the way. (Heck, EG, didn’t you, like me, think at many point, “Man, George Lucas totally read Dune before he wrote a word of Star Wars and just ripped it off all over the place!” I can just hear his thoughts, “Hmm, two moons, huh? I’ll just make it two suns and nobody’ll notice.”)
EG: Um… actually, Star Wars didn’t come to MY mind… but the different view of the heroic journey did. But, please, go on.
OG: I suppose my hatred of the prequels (and Indy IV, to boot) have got me looking for other things to accuse George Lucas of. Maybe plagiarism isn’t one of them. Anyway, that said, reading the above quotes and getting into Herbert’s motivations here, made me realize that though he was using the basic skeleton or formula of the heroes journey, unlike Star Wars, he was using it as a means of, if not tearing it down (at least not in the first book), then definitely scrutinizing it and calling it into question.
On the one hand, you read about the horrors of the Harkonnen rule over Arakkis and the scheming of the Emperor within that, and you recognize that the Fremen and the rest of the universe absolutely need a savior to come. A Kwisatz Haderach or Lisan al–Gaib has to rise to stop this great evil and bring peace and tranquility to the world. But, while that’s true, rarely in these types of stories do we reckon with the flip side of that. And, Dune magnificently explores that side of things. This person is a human being. This man (well, child really), Paul Muad’Dib has loves and hates and flaws and all those things that great power and authority can only eventually tarnish and inflate.
And, as he journey’s along to find his place of power, the inner struggle that he goes through, the conflict with his mother over her place in that journey, and the feeling of inescapable doom and anxiety that outlines his prescience is what separates this story from the rest.
So, I’ve just kicked us off with a big, fat mouthful. What do you think about this EG? Did you finish this book thinking that the day had been saved and all was right with the world, which is how I initially put it down before more thought and more insight from the author. Or, did you, ever wiser than I, flip the last page and say, “Yeah, things are okay now, but there’s a dark moon on the rise?”
EG: Actually, the flashing visions of the future that Paul could see did clue me in. You said the word “inescapable.” That is what really turns the heroic journey on its ear. Paul, through his own prescience, quite literally “sees” the problems with him assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach and the Lisan al–Gaib, and yet, despite that knowledge, he finds himself locked into that path. He was bred for it, he was trained for it, and even with his own misgivings, at each turn he finds himself falling into or even embracing those positions. His reluctance in thought helps give us a nice reminder that despite outward appearances, things are probably not going to be coming up roses later on down the path. It is really quite a contradiction, because through Paul’s eyes, we see that what he’s doing is leading up to, among other things, a holy war, and Paul, in thought, is desperate to prevent that, yet instead of avoiding the decisions that will lead to that, he runs toward them. In theory, Paul could have joined the Fremen and then merely lived out his life among them, with his wife, Chani, and their children. In actuality, though, the person we come to know as Paul really would not, possibly could not, take that passive route.
OG: Okay, so putting all that high-falutin‘ talk about heroes journeys and the greater themes of Dune aside, what did you think of the book just as a reader? Were you entertained? Did it make you want to read more?
EG: I enjoyed the book, overall. It was very slow going at first, but after a time, I was able to really get into the story. Knowing that the book was set up from the outset to be a trilogy, I knew that there was going to be a lot of groundwork laid that would only really come into play in later books… which is something I found that I had to remind myself of on several occasions. What I mean is, toward the end of the book, I’d think, “Nothing was done with _____? Why did they bring it in at all? Oh. Yeah. Trilogy.”
OG: Well, as you already know, I already read the second book, “Dune Messiah” immediately after finishing this one. So, I guess that’s as good an indication as any about how much I enjoyed “Dune” purely as a reader. And, I must say, it’s quite a contrast to how I was feeling early in the book. I am often quite disoriented when thrown head-first into a universe with no warning. I appreciate the author’s intention in doing that and admire it from a storytelling standpoint, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I often want to be talked down to at the start of a book. It’s sad, but true. I’m often too lazy to do the work that’s required for keeping up with this kind of writing. The text from Princess Irulan’s writings and the usage of words, alien languages, and concepts that aren’t immediately explained made me a bit foggy in the first chapters and I struggled to find my footing.
EG: Oh, let me interject here! I ABSOLUTELY understand what you are saying! The start of this book reminded me a lot of something my father said after he read Frank E. Peretti’s This Present Darkness. I had read and enjoyed the book, so I loaned it to him, lo those many years ago. After he read it, I asked what he thought, and he said, “Well, it was okay. I don’t know why the angels had to have bizarre names, though. Tal? Guilo? Armoth? Why couldn’t they just have normal names? In the Bible, the angels had names like Michael and Gabrielle.” I don’t think I fully appreciated that statement until Dune. Slogging through those first pages… my mind kept searching for anything familiar, which was a bit of a distraction. It was a huge relief once I got to “Paul” and “Jessica.”
OG: Amen to that, brother. So, once I did find that footing and had a sense of this universe and it’s history, then I was off to the races and ripping the pages aside as fast as I could. Though it was definitely a challenging read and one where I wasn’t always clear on what was happening, I still would call this book a page-turner.
EG: I don’t know that I’d go quite that far. I probably didn’t get that feeling until maybe the last 100 pages of the book or so – once Paul was prepping to ride the maker. At that point, the action seemed to shift gears for me. You asked, earlier, if I would be interested in reading more of the Dune novels in the future, and, yeah, I will, but not right away. Some time away will do me good.
I did find what I consider to be two glaring shortcomings in the book, aspects that I don’t see being resolved to my satisfaction in future books. You, having read the second book though, can correct me if I’m wrong.
First, the death of Paul’s son, Leto. For me, it registered almost zero impact. Leto was an entirely off camera character – we, as readers, never met him, never saw any interaction between him and his father, and then his death was something we only heard about. Mind you, not that I wanted a gripping tale of how the Harkonnens came in and killed a child, but I did need something to give the character a little substance. Especially since Paul is so in control of his emotions, saving his grief for another time on repeated occasions. The whole thing was dealt with in a way that completely disconnected me, and so I didn’t “feel” the death.
OG: I’m with you there. Come to think of it, I can’t imagine what kept Herbert from including more of Paul’s family life. It’s not like he was afraid of making the book too long. It’s down right strange, now that you mention it. The final showdown is what so much of the book builds towards and since nothing short of the fate of the universe is hanging in the balance, the added weight that that death brought to it and Paul’s decisions couldn’t have been overdone. Definitely a missed opportunity.
EG: The second shortcoming I’d note is the upstaging of Thufir Hawat. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen came up with the plan to enlist Thufir Hawat as his own Mentat, despite the fact that Thufir was loyal to the House of Atreides. The Baron cultivated the deception in Thufir’s mind that the betrayer of the House of Atreides was none other than Jessica, Concubine to Leto, Mother to Paul, and Bene Gesserit witch. Thufir accepts the position of Mentat for Vladimir, with the idea that one day he could finally gain his vengeance on her. For what seemed like hundreds of pages, I waited, wondering, is he going to kill her, forcing Paul to kill him? Is he going to find out too late that it was all a Harkonnen trick and be driven mad by his actions? I waited and waited, anticipating this moment…
…and when the moment came, Thufir Hawat wasn’t even in the room. Come to think of it, I’m not sure he was even on the planet, yet. What happens instead of the confrontation I was looking forward to is the reintroduction of Gurney Halleck, who has taken a position aboard a smuggler’s ship, and felt the same way about Jessica that Thufir Hawat did. The scene comes where Gurney takes Jessica and threatens her life in front of Paul, who explains the truth to him, and Gurney is so grieved at his own actions that he offers his life to both of them. They forgive him, and the story moves forward. At that point, I thought, “That whole scene should have been with Thufir Hawat instead.” At the very least, I thought that having that scene occur really took the wind out of the sails of a forthcoming scene of confrontation that did include Thufir Hawat. But, then, it didn’t matter, because at the end of the book, again, off screen, someone had explained the truth to Thufir Hawat and that was that. It was very anticlimactic to me.
OG: Well, just as I’m starting to think of this book as this perfect, smooth block of marbled cheese, aged to perfection, you blast a couple significant holes through it and suddenly I’m dealing with plain ole’ Swiss! Well, I shouldn’t overdo it. I still adore Dune, but this second shortcoming you’ve noted is a pretty big stumble plot-wise. I think I did have the thought in the back of my head that Hawat would be a bigger player at the end. I think that’s a seed that Herbert planted early on and sort of lost track of as he lost the plot. Then, when it became more expedient to bring Gurney back into things in the last act, I think he transferred that motivation to him. Ultimately, while a misstep, I think it doesn’t undo the drama completely. I mean, what that plot development led to, for me, was the most emotionally satisfying moment in the book – where Jessica fully realizes the damage that the Bene Gesserit meddling has done to Paulas and her part in it. It was the closest that Jessica and Paul came to healing between them and I really felt the impact of that, despite the fact that it should have been Hawat holding a knife to her throat.
Regardless, I’m quite willing to forgive those two incidents of narrative sloppiness. Dune has greatness to burn in it’s pages which, for me, cover a multitude of sins. So, I’m gonna do it. I’m giving this book a full 5 Running Steves, EG. How about you?
EG: Wow, you sure do like to throw around those Running Steves, don’t ya?
OG: Sure do! As long as Steve Austin has nothing to do with the book, that is.
EG: Well, for me, Dune really does land somewhere between 3 1/2 Running Steves and 4 Running Steves. The two major shortcomings are gonna cost this one. I’m giving it 3 1/2 Running Steves.
OG: Well, that’s just something you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life!!!! Well, I guess that about does it. Honestly, there’s a lot more I thought I’d get to in this discussion, but it being mid-July already and my fingers being tired, I think we should cut this puppy down. If I get the energy up, I might bring up a couple more points in the comments section. That is, unless that section is so flooded by our many readers that I can’t get a word in edge-wise. Tee-hee.
Oh, and speaking of July, we’ve made no announcement of the book of the month because there isn’t one. This is turning out to be a pretty busy Summer in anticipation of EG and OG’s great hajj to the San Diego International Comic Con!
So, look forward to the next book in August. Max Brooks’ “WORLD WAR Z.”