happyponyland.net / Is "Dune" really that good?

Spoilers follow; if you haven't read Dune but plan to, you probably shouldn't read this.

Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) is undoubtedly a scifi classic. There is a whole bunch of sequels and spin-offs, film adaptations and computer games (of which Dune II is notable for defining the real-time strategy format). Even if you haven't read it, you have probably encountered references to it without knowing. Crysknives, sandworms, we even had an IRC bot called DuncanIdaho - it's all from Dune. One can hardly deny its significance to the genre, but is it really that good?

(Note: I've only read the first book. Many of the things brought up here are probably explained later in the series, but for now I would just consider it as an isolated story.)

The story is set in an age of space-faring and centers around teenage boy Paul of the House Atreides. Atreides are set to govern the desert planet Arrakis, but through political scheming Atreides are attacked and nearly obliterated by the rival House Harkonnen. The Duke, Pauls father, is killed (technically kills himself), leaving Paul as his successor, Pauls mother and a few other surviving members of court to fight a guerilla war in the desert.

Finding himself in need of an army to reclaim power, Paul capitalizes on the superstitions of a desert tribe, the Fremen, to lead them into a religious war (here the author uses the term jihad which I find somewhat sloppy, as jihad primarily means a personal struggle, not simply taking up arms). Paul sets himself up to be accepted as the prophet of a legend sown long ago by the Bene Gesserit, which are essentially the Illuminati of the story; an organisation secretly influencing the power balance of the universe through breeding programs and mind control.

Along the way Paul develops prescience, the (partial) ability to see the future. This also seeps heavily into the narration, as there is no real mystery or twist to the plotline and we are told pretty much from the outset how it will unfold. I find this a bit of a risky move from an author, since there's a danger of painting the story into a corner.

The planet itself plays a central role. Arrakis is the only known source of the substance "spice", a drug/food with life-enhancing and addictive qualities (details are left deliberately vague) which is mined in the desert under constant danger of being swallowed by giant sandworms. The harsh environment is ever present. Water is the most scarce resource on the planet and the Fremen have many rituals concerning it. For example, shedding tears in mourning is considered an expression of genuine, deep love since it wastes precious moisture. Likewise, spitting at someone is seen as a sign of respect. This is what I like about science fiction; it's not at all about technology, but how people react and adapt to different conditions.

By introducing Paul in his teens, it hardly comes as a surprise that this would be a "coming of age" story - though in this case it ends up being more of a "young man finds out he has superhuman abilities, ends up acting like a cynical asshole" story (in this sense it is very similar to another scifi classic, namely Ender's Game).

There are plenty of religious themes; bastardized adaptions of present-day religions, but also the overarching symbolism of wandering the desert in search of salvation. I guess this scratches an itch a lot of people have, the wish to be chosen for some higher reason. It is simply chock-full of messiah complex.

Paul keeps going on with his mystical bullshit ("but you don't understand, mom, I have a terrible purpose!") and I wondered if at some point he would question the whole thing and say, "nah, I'm good here, I'll just live my life out among the Fremen because that's what makes me happy" - but he just keeps taking advantage of people for his personal gain. He does have some doubts about the justification of the jihad, but believes that the ensuing chaos will avert some supposed genetic stagnation. And that's reason enough, I guess?

The problem I have with Paul is that I'm not sure why I should like him. He's a brat and his only real motivations are his sense of entitlement and some convoluted vendetta against the Harkonnen. It's never proven that he actually has any extraordinary abilites; he might as well just be suffering from psychosis and delusions of grandeur. What kind of rational person would argue that their personal feud justifies the deaths of millions in an intergalactic all-out war? Because that's what it is really all about; an aristocratic squabble. Pauls relationship to the late Duke was superficial, the troops lost were just pawns. Even those closest to Paul notices his personality taking a turn for the worse; he becomes calculating, losing track of what the good name Atreides used to stand for as he struggles to regain his stature.

There is no questioning the legitimacy of the setting. Pauls position is one of inherited power, enforced by some kind of feudal capitalism. Paul has no interest in overturning the system. Instead, he goes on to conquer the entire universe! The end result - Paul effectively succeeding the emperor - probably doesn't change much for the average person toiling for survival. The back-cover blurb (of the "50th Anniversary Edition") states "his journey will change everything" - but does it, really? At the end of the day, it's still just another day on Planet Shit.

There are some attempts to justify the Atreides rule. Although a bit rough on the edges, they are overall portrayed as noble; benevolent dictators who genuinely care for their subjects. After killing a Fremen tribesman in a duel, Paul wins the servitude of his widow. Of course, Paul is the perfect gentleman and does not take sexual advantage of her. This is put in contrast to the Harkonnens, which are vilified in every way. They are decadent and malicious, torturing people or killing them for fun in staged fights. The Baron himself is excessively fat and his favorite pastime is raping young boys. Isn't this storytelling a bit cheap? Perhaps with a protagonist that is morally ambivalent at best, it takes an antagonist that is completely reprehensible to motivate rooting for the "good" guy?

Pauls mother, Jessica, is an instrument of the Bene Gesserit and alternates between blindly following orders or disregarding them for selfish reasons. When Paul starts growing powerful she steps down from "first lady of the house" to "concerned mother in the back seat" and lets Paul take the wheel (yeah, that is not at all a stereotype of middle-eastern culture).

It is never quite explained what the Bene Gesserit are really after, why they want to place this "Kwisatz Haderach" on the throne - especially when they already have so much indirect power through their agents tied into various courts. I suppose this is one of the things explained in the sequels, but I would rather not pursue another 2500 pages just to make sense of it.

The Fremen are obviously modeled after the authors idea of the Middle East; they are even hinted to be descended from present-day muslims. The culture is regarded as primitive, violent and superstitious. I would not go as far as to accuse it of "racist overtones", but there is a certain distanced perspective with a hint of "white mans burden", the obligation to bring civilization to lower developed cultures. However, I haven't studied this topic in enough detail to make any meaningful analysis of it.

So, in summary, I had a lot of mixed feelings about this book. It has a setting out of the ordinary and filled out some geek-pop-cultural blanks for me personally, but it is also plagued by somewhat dull writing, unlikeable characters and the overall depressing notion that even in the far future people will still be slaves to whatever asshole happens to be born with power and resources. It's not bad, but I'm not sure it really deserves to be hailed as a masterpiece like it often is.