Sunday, December 1st, 2013

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I read Dune, Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic — and it didn’t really work for me. If you haven’t read it, it could be described as Star Wars meets Game of Thrones. In fact, it was one of the major influences on Star Wars — it features a desert planet, smugglers, a quasi-religious order with limited mind-control powers, etc. — but the tone is so very, very different. And it lacks Wookiees. Like Game of Thrones, it features treacherous feudal “houses” vying for power. Sounds wonderful.  So, why didn’t it work for me? Well, any speculative fiction treads the fine line between credible and fantastic, and too many of the elements struck me as not-so-credible and weird.

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows.

First and foremost, the plot revolves around the most valuable planet in the Empire, the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis, known as Dune, that is the source of the spice, melange, which is an addictive drug that extends life and — wait for it — grants its users enough prescience to see safe paths through space-time, allowing Navigators of the Spacing Guild to guide their craft between the stars.  That didn’t work for me. Then I found it too on the nose that the scarce substance needed for all transportation and commerce comes from under the ground of the desert inhabited by primitive nomads speaking Arabic.  Literally.  In that respect, Orson Scott Card finds the 1965 book eerily prescient, as the quasi-Muslim Fremen of Arrakis launch a jihad to drive out foreign powers and use their control of the spice as their strongest weapon.

Science fiction often invokes the rule of cool to mix atavistic weapons with high-tech — usually with some explanation. For instance, the Jedi knights of Star Wars can plausibly use glowing, buzzing swords because their magical Force powers allow them to use their lightsabers to parry incoming blaster bolts. In Herbert’s Dune universe, the Holtzman shield stops any fast-moving object, rendering guns ineffective and bringing blades back into fashion.

In shield fighting, one moves fast on defense, slow on attack. Attack has the sole purpose of tricking the opponent into a misstep, setting him up for the attack sinister. The shield turns the fast blow, admits the slow kindjal!

So far, so good, but then Herbert introduces lasguns, which produce a nuclear explosion if they hit a shield. Everyone uses shields, and no one uses lasguns, because of this. I don’t think that’s how things would play out. On Arrakis, shields go unused because they attract the planet’s giant sandworms, which will swallow spice-mining vehicles whole. Not a bad image, but wouldn’t anyone immediately conclude that they should use small shield generators as decoys? (And how does a skyscraper-sized “worm” travel through sand, anyway?) Further, I found it… odd that the jet-powered flying craft of the Dune universe are described as ornithopters. More central to the setting though is that it takes place long after the Butlerian Jihad, the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots.

Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.

This allows Herbert’s story to be about people, but, when I first read it, it struck me as preposterous: “You can have my Sega Genesis and my Mac SE/30 when you pry them from my cold, dead hands, Skynet!”  Now, as an adult, seeing what modern technology does to kids — and adults — I’m not so smugly technophilic.  There are tradeoffs. When Herbert wrote the book, jihad was a relatively esoteric term — but what I didn’t realize when I first read the book was that Butlerian referred to a real person, Samuel Butler, author of Erewhon, an early warning of the dangers of new technologies advancing faster than their masters:

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

I had assumed Butler was fictional — even though his wasn’t the third name in a list. One consequence of this computer-free setting is that humans have been trained to perform in a computer-like manner. These are the Mentats. Now, the closest thing we currently have to a human trained to perform in a computer-like manner is a computer programmer — ideally one who has also mastered the method of loci and mental arithmetic — but the Mentats of Dune don’t seem the least bit geeky, just very, very good at all kinds of analysis. They’re not Asperger-y; they’re supermen. They’re not without flaws, but their flaws are human flaws.

The other hyper-trained humans are the Bene Gesserit “witches” — members of a quasi-religious order loosely modeled on the Jesuits — who have mastered other, softer skills. Most famous of these skills is the voice — that is, the Jedi mind trick — followed by their skills in acute observation and truthsaying — which are extremely useful skills to master to manipulate political affairs. And that’s just what they do, operating slowly and surely on an almost geological time-scale. Over generations they steer aristocratic bloodlines toward producing the Kwisatz Haderach, and they seed primitive planets with useful superstitions. (Useful to the Bene Gesserit, that is.) That all worked for me.

The Bene Gesserit also master prana bindu, a kind of yoga or t’ai-chi, with even more martial applications. It’s one thing when 15-year-old Paul Atreides, trained by the greatest fighters of his homeworld, can beat a grown Fremen warrior in a knife-fight. It’s another when his mother, unarmed, can disarm the tribe’s greatest warrior with her weirding way of fighting and leave him feeling impotent. It seems neither plausible nor fitting that the Bene Gesserit would master hand-to-hand combat — even if an important element of mastering the enemy is mastering yourself:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Things get far weirder than the weirding way, though. We find that the Bene Gesserit can consciously control not only their nervous and muscular systems, but they can metabolize poisons into safe compounds. Further, they can access the Other Memory — the combined racial memories of all her female ancestors.

The last hyper-trained humans are the aforementioned spice-eating Navigators of the Spacing Guild. The original novel doesn’t reveal much about their abilities.

So, now that I’ve laid out all the elements that rubbed me the wrong way, go read the book. It’s otherwise excellent. And it will teach you how to overthrow an empire and launch a new religion.

Calvin and Muad'Dib - Justice


  1. Anomaly UK says:

    Yes, Herbert’s big-picture vision has a lot of value, even though the details are often unconvincing.

    Other “sword-and-sorcery SF” for comparison is Ian M Banks’ Inversions and CJ Cherryh’s Gate of Ivrel (and its sequels). Banks needs no introduction, but Cherryh is better known for her later space opera, and I think Gate of Ivrel is enormously underrated.

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    Speaking of, the 5 hours long Dune tv mini-series from 2000 is on YouTube:

    Dune (part 1 of 2) 2h47min
    Dune (part 2 of 2) 1h57min

  3. Slovenian Guest says:

    And so is the sequel, also a miniseries from 2003: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

    “As of 2004, this miniseries and its predecessor were two of the three highest-rated and most programs ever to be broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel. The critically acclaimed miniseries won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Visual Effects.”

    At least something to watch until the return of Game of Thrones (30/Mar/14).

  4. Bruce says:

    Reading Dune is like watching a poker player with five aces play them as two pairs. He invokes Maynard Keynes, then never steals from Keynes’s Collected Works, the best numerate polemic of the twentieth century. File off the “economics” serial numbers, write in “ecology”, what’s holding you back? He uses Samuel Butler’s name without stealing from Butler’s Notebooks, or even his Odyssey. He writes about interstellar wars without blowing up so much as one planet! Even his swordfights can be dull. Bah. The Orange Catholic Bible was good.

    Try Destiny’s Forge. Larry Niven, Paul Chase. Like the good parts in Dune done right.

  5. Isegoria says:

    I actually haven’t read any Banks or Cherryh. Do Inversions and Gate of Ivrel each have a Herbert-style big-picture vision with more convincing details?

  6. Isegoria says:

    Speaking of The Orange Catholic Bible, I suspect that’s an element that turned me off in my “enlightened” youth, but which seems rather more plausible now.

  7. Buckethead says:

    How dare you criticize Dune? It is the best novel that Chiltons ever published.

  8. Isegoria says:

    Cute, Buckethead. For the audience at home, the Chilton Company was a publisher of trade magazines and manuals that somehow ended up publishing Dune after no other publisher would pick it up — even after it did well in serial form.

    I just learned that Chilton also published The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz, which was also nominated for a Hugo — so maybe Dune isn’t the best novel they ever published!

  9. Anomaly UK says:

    Re Banks & Cherryh: No, in both cases they’re more focused works. There can be a big universe in the background — in Banks’s case described in the Culture books, but it is background, not part of the story.

    What they have in common with Dune is not its scope, but the cross-over of heroic fantasy with space travel. In both of them, though, it’s high-tech visitors to low-tech environments.

  10. Guy says:

    In the U.S., the name “Chilton” is synonymous with “car repair” — at least in the Northern Wisconsin branches.

  11. Spandrell says:

    Come on, the point of Dune is more fantasy than sci-fi, but that’s the beauty of it. Leto’s grandson becomes a worm. How awesome is that.

    And didn’t someone $#@! his sister?

  12. Candide III says:

    To necropost in answer to Bruce’s recommendation of Destiny’s Forge, I tried it and thought it was fairly generic with various pozzed twists: obligatory Black and military female leads (plus the female is white so miscegenation), Kzin feminism, explicit sex scenes and so on. Too many details are obviously ripped off from Dune, but the depth is not there. On top of that, the book is too big by half at least. Niven’s old stories were much better.

  13. Bruce says:

    Candide III Dread Necroposter: “Niven’s old stories were much better.”

    Well, yes. But Kzinti feminists aren’t retards who caterwaul about Kzintispreading and the odd dongle joke. You can respect them, like Dean Ing’s Cathouse only better. And I don’t think the “Dinosaurs vs. Kzinti” fight scenes were ripped off from Dune. The black man isn’t an Affirmative Action hire blazing his saddle over “Where de White Womens At?” either. Lot more fight scenes than sex scenes, and more explicit.

    Niven’s old stuff was wonderful. Of his new stuff I liked Shipstar‘s second half and The Goliath Stone better, but Destiny’s Forge is still pretty good.

  14. Harper's Notes says:

    Dune didn’t really come alive for me until I read Timothy P. O’Reilly’s book on Frank Herbert. The combination of those two books together is a whole different read. As I recall, Tim was cum laude Harvard in Classics, knew Frank Herbert through the linguistics work of Senator Hayakawa (Hawaii), and wrote the book as something of a side project before getting into software manual publishing. The book is written in the style of criticism of classical literature, which is vastly different (and much preferred by me) from what has come to be the style in other academic departments. It’s free online. http://www.oreilly.com/tim/herbert/ ..

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