Social media does not exist in the future created by Frank Herbert in his legendary science-fiction novel ‘Dune.’ There are no algorithms, either. No smart phones. No computers. No robots. No artificial intelligence whatsoever. All technology that would seek to replicate the human mind has been overthrown and forbidden. But there are spaceships. And atomic weapons. Laser guns. Coffee. And above all there, is spice melange, a drug more important than anything else in the universe. It extends life, opens minds and makes space travel possible. Spice is found only on the desert planet Arrakis, which is also known as:
‘Dune’ and I go way back, so much so that I don’t remember where or when I bought this beat-up copy. But it has to be close to 20 years ago, because I probably bought it after I saw the TV miniseries adaptation on the SyFy channel back in 2000. I remember trying to read it then and thinking the book was overly dense, and gave it up. But when I saw Denis Villeneuve was directing a new film adaptation, I got excited to try it again. I had a much different experience this time.
Here’s the cover:
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Nearly 10,000 years in the future humans have spread throughout space and are ruled by an intergalactic emperor. Individual planets are governed by noble houses like House Atreides where we find our protagonist, Paul Atreides. He is the 15-year-old son and heir of Duke Leto Atreides, who oversees a lush planet called Caladan. Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, is a member of a mysterious and powerful quasi-religious order called the Bene Gesserit. The group is composed entirely of women who have special fighting abilities and magical powers that allow them to perform Jedi mind tricks (George Lucas was influenced by ‘Dune’ when he created ‘Star Wars’). In the opening sequence of the book, the Bene Gesserit’s reverend mother comes to Caladan to test Paul, who has prophetic visions, to see whether he is the Kwisatz Haderach, a messiah figure foretold of by the Bene Gesserit. Paul must put his hand inside a box while the reverend mother puts a poisoned needle called a gom jabbar to his neck. The box will cause him tremendous pain, but if he recoils his hand, she will stab him with the needle and kill him. Lady Jessica wants her son to be the Kwisatz Haderach, and trained him in the Bene Gesserit ways (which are usually off limits to men) of fighting, controlled breathing and mind control. Timothée Chalamet portrays Paul in the new movie, and here he is facing the gom jabbar:
Paul’s father, the duke, has been assigned by the emperor to take over the fiefdom on Arrakis from the Atreides’ mortal enemies: House Harkonnen. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen has ruled Arrakis with depravity and cruelty, and Duke Leto is meant to go there and correct this. But it’s a trap, and shortly after the Atreides arrive on Arrakis, Baron Harkonnen brutally overthrows them, forcing Paul and Lady Jessica to flee into the desert wasteland. Two things loom out there: Giant worms that attack people and machines, and fierce warriors called Fremen. The Fremen have solid blue eyes with whites because of their spice-infused diet and are clad in special outfits called stillsuits that capture and recycle the body’s excretions for drinking water needed to survive on arid Arrakis. During Paul’s time with the Fremen, his strength, leadership and knife-fighting abilities grow. He becomes known as Muad’Dib, a Fremen word for a desert mouse, and becomes a legendary guerrilla fighter leading Fremen warriors to attack the Harkonnen and disrupt spice production. Here’s a look at Paul in the desert:
Though we follow Paul’s transition from boy to messianic figure, this isn’t the standard hero’s journey. I think Frank Herbert, a World War II veteran and former journalist, was dubious of heroes. ‘Dune’ shows how they can distract people from what’s really important, like living simply and tending to the planet, and lead them to destruction and death. For example, prior to Paul’s linkage with the Fremen, they were working to foster plant life and to create open water on Arrakis to make it more hospitable. They were turned from this project when Paul showed up—or as an appendix on the ecology of Arrakis notes, when the planet was ‘afflicted by a Hero’—and led them to his revenge war. Perhaps their constant diet of mind-altering drugs made the Fremen more open to following a so-called superman foretold in a religious prophesy. After all, spice is literally an ‘opium of the people.’ I have no GIF for this, so here’s Paul getting chased by a giant worm.
I had a much different experience reading ‘Dune’ this time. I loved it. So much so that I found it hard to put down and was inspired to watch as much ‘Dune’ content as I could find, starting with David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation. It is atrocious and borderline unwatchable, and probably set Herbert’s story back nearly 40 years in popular culture. The only good thing about it is this shot where Patrick Stewart, playing an Atreides loyalist, leads men into battle against Harkonnen forces with a pug clutched to his chest:
I also watched ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune,’ a fascinating documentary you can rent on Amazon about avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowksy’s attempt to adapt Herbert’s story to the screen in the mid-1970s. Without this project, and it’s subsequent failure, we probably wouldn’t have had such films as ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner.’ Jodorowksy’s interpretation seems much more interesting that what Lynch came up with, and he even reworked the ending to be better than Herbert’s. I’m excited to see how Villeneuve tackles this book. It’s a complicated story, but highly entertaining and insightful. Whether you’re planning to see ‘Dune’ in theaters later this month or not, you should check out the book.
How it begins:
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.
— from “Manual of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan
In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.
The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul’s room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed.
By the half-light of a suspensor lamp, dimmed and hanging near the floor, the awakened boy could see a bulky female shape at his door, standing one step ahead of his mother. The old woman was a witch shadow—hair like matted spiderwebs, hooded ’round darkness of features, eyes like glittering jewels.
‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert was originally published by Chilton Book Company in 1965. This Berkley Books edition, the 28th printing, was published in 1983. 537 pages, including appendices, glossary and map. $10.11 at Bookshop.org.
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Until next time,
PS: I forgot to mention that the two sci-fi books I've reviewed thus far are both 'Star Wars' related:
* 'Ahsoka' by E.K. Johnston: https://booksongif.substack.com/p/books-on-gif-75-ahsoka-by-e-k-johnston
* 'Splinter of the Mind's Eye' by Alan Dean Foster: https://booksongif.substack.com/p/books-on-gif-65-splinter-of-the-minds-eye-by-alan-dean-foster
I was thinking of tackling Robert Jordan's 'The Eye of the World' now that an Amazon show is set to come out. Let me know if you'd like a review of that book. Cheers!
Nice write-up on Dune. I liked it when I first read it about 23-24 yrs ago, but I also found it dense, at times, like reading Tolkien's appendices . I've heard the sequels are really good, but I havent forayed there yet. I'd love to hear your review on any of Ursula K Leguin's work, specifically The Dispossessed.