DUNE is ostensibly a science fiction novel. But like most good genre fiction, the trappings of its genre are little more than a container large enough to hold the story. Dune is not about spaceships or lasers, though both of those make brief appearances from time to time. Dune is not about aliens, though there are some of those too, later on.
Dune is about systems and forces. The most obvious are the systems of peoples within the book: political systems, sociological systems, religious systems. But underlying all of these are ecological systems–remember that the book itself is named “Dune,” the ersatz name of the planet the story takes place on, and from which a bizarredly convoluted epic spins out over the successive books in the series. Don’t worry, we can ignore those for the purposes of our might DUNE BOOK CLUB, but it’s important to point out.
Dune deals mainly with systems and the introduction of forces into those systems. Throughout the novel, the phrase “plans within plans,” and different permutations thereof, is repeated over and over. All things are interconnected, and force exerted on one thing will necessarily impact all other things within that system. If you look at the book in this way, it takes on a whole new life as a rich treatise on politics and ecology, wrapped up inside an epic adventure story. Ooh I’m getting excited just talking about it!\
above, by Pen Ward
I’m not really good at this sort of writing/thinking/discussion-leading, so I’m just going to wing it. I’ll point out a couple of interesting things I noticed and ask a couple of questions–but I’d love to hear what YOU noticed, what YOU are thinking. This is a book with a near-bottomless subtext, so there is plenty to pull out for examination. I just talk a lot, so I don’t want to be all like blah-blah-blah, y’know.
OKAY, I NOTICED:
1) In the first little chapterish thing, Frank Herbert introduces his protagonist (SPOILER ALERT, PAUL IS THE PROTAGONIST, SORRY) and immediately throws him into a seemingly life-or-death struggle. The book begins with a double-dose of mortality and mysticism, a strange beginning for a sci-fi novel written in the 60′s. It makes me think of this excerpt, just after Paul removes his non-charred hand from the black box:
“Ever sift sand through a screen?” she asked.
The tangential slash of her question shocked his mind into a higher awareness: Sand through a screen. He nodded.”
There’s a lot of this verbal/philosophical play in the book, especially in the later, more philosophical sequels. Sometimes it can get kind of cloying, everyone talking to each other with four meanings in their mouths, but it makes dissecting the dialogue more interesting.
above, by Peter Lazarski
2) The second chapter is all politics, another of the important systems in the book. Jeez, it’s super boring too, isn’t it?–after all that secret black box and shadowy Bene Gesserit hoodoo of the first chapter? I don’t mind all the politics stuff, but I think Herbert tried to cram a bunch of exposition in these early chapters, which sometimes works (I love the conversations between Paul and Thufir Hawat and Gurney Halleck in the fourth chapter), but sometimes is just a bunch of jerks giggling to each other about their Important Secret Plan.
3) I think it’s important to point out the quasi-feudal structure of the world of Dune, as laid out in the fourth chapter. Not so much that the politics itself is important, but more what CREATED that structure: something called The Holtzmann Effect. Which, basically, means that you can’t shoot lasers at people or their little shield-thingies will create a quasi-atomic explosion incinerating shooter and shootee and a few miles in all directions. That sounds pretty sci-fi, right? But in one of the few blatant sci-fi moments in the book–remember, it was published in 1965–Herbert effectively removes a lot of that super-science from the rest of his story. Because these shield protect from projectile weapons (guns, et al), and lasers are no good, everyone has to revert to fencing if they want to kill each other. In some ways, Dune is almost a “steampunk” story, anachronisms like swords next to science bits like spaceships.
Ditto the lack of computers in the story, which is just nuts for 60′s sci-fi. Not only are there no “thinking machines” in the story, but there are religious proscriptions against them! They have been replaced by highly trained “Mentats”, basically computer people. Super crazy, making a sci-fi story about a bunch of people who mainly depend on their own wits and abilities.
Who can say what the real purpose of this is, but to me it creates a framework that makes the story somewhat more believable than if people were raygunning each other all the time. It’s interesting to see how Herbert juggles this stuff throughout the book, because it’s not like there isn’t a ton of weird stuff later.
above, by Pat Keck
4) In the first few chapters, we’re introduced to three of the major forces at work in the book: the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and the Atreides and Harkonnen clans. I was struck at how archetypical these descriptions were; while the Baron Harkonnen is “grossly and immensely fat,” the Duke is “hawk-faced”. Similarly, the Reverend Mother, one of the Bene Gesserit, is described as an old crone, wizened and wrinkled. I’m not sure what my point is, but I guess I’m thinking more on rereading on the tension in the story between how things appear and how they actually are.
5) The idea of eugenics in the book is huge, and Herbert immediately casts a dim eye on it through his main character Paul–”..he felt an offense against… his instinct for rightness.” But having said that, we know from the first chapter that Paul is part of a long chain of breeding for a specific purpose, and at the end of the first chapter he’s revealed to also have “Mentat potential,” meaning he has other advanced abilities at his disposal.
Is Paul supposed to be like a Superman? I don’t necessarily mean OUR idea of Superman, but more Nietzsche’s superman, the ubermensch. Just an idea.
Okay dudes, that’s enough from me, sorry I tend to run on. What did YOU guys think? I’m especially interested in hearing from people who are reading it for the first time–remember, if you’ve already read the whole thing, try not to spill any beans for these guys. It’s not like the book hinges on suspense, but I think it will be interesting to look at things with new eyes and old eyes at the same time.
AND ALSO: remember no swearing or jerkery in the comments please. It’s just how I like things.
AND ALSO ALSO: you artists who have mentioned sketches and stuff, send me those badboys or post links! I’d love to include the images in the actual blog post as we go through the week! My email should be in the sidebar at right.
EXTRA ALSO UPDATE ALSO: For this Monday’s discussion, read up to (roughly, depending on your edition) around page 88-90, to the end of the chapter that ends with “They have tried to take the life of my son!”