Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a phenomenal classic of literature.
It's not just science fiction. It transcends science fiction, as a fascinating discussion of free-will versus inevitability. Can the Jihad be denied? Can Paul ever really avoid his own death, despite seeing every time-line play out with him as the butt of every cosmic joke? Can even cruelty or mercy even remain comprehensible after such knowledge?
Yes, I think this work outdoes Nietzsche. It certainly does a great job of making us care about the question.
Is this all? Is this just a work that pays great justice to philosophy of action and inaction?
Or is the novel merely a clever play at turning the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle into the physical embodiment of a man? It is that, of course. The Kwisatz Haderach can be many places at once, and he can be both alive and dead at the same time just like that certain cat.
Is the novel a coming of age tale, first set as a mirror against his father Leto, only then to mirror the whole universe that had just turned against him? Yes, of course. He was, after all, both the product of all his upbringing and his genes, embodying the question of nature versus nurture. He was taught within many schools of martial arts and assassins, as well as training the mind in both the schools of the Mentats with their pure logic and that of the mystics, the Bene Gesserit, that allows complete control over the body down to the cellular level. And if this training wasn't enough, he was deeply schooled in politics, leadership, and the meaning of loyalty. The boy was raised right. Of course, that is nothing without ninety generations of genetic bloodline tampering from the Bene Gesserit, right? To become the fulcrum between cellular memory, tapping the minds and lives of all your genetic ancestors as well as tapping the ability to fold time and space, to become the eye of a storm of time.
What a damn brilliant setup for one tiny character, no? His training links to the unlocking of his genes and to the life-extending and enveloping spice, Melange, to make him not merely aware of time in a theoretical sense, but eventually to be unable to discern what was in the past, the present, or the future. Here's a true Super-Man, well beyond Nietzsche.
And don't believe for one second that this serious discussion about what would make a superior man makes for dull reading. No. We've got PLOT that's probably some of the most exciting and visceral in all of literature, driving us right into the web of intrigue, vengeance, treachery, and galactic politics.
To quote the text, we've got "Plans within Plans," and it hardly stops there. We know the House Atreides is falling into a trap laid by the Emperor and House Harkonnen, and yet free-will and pride prevents any chance to avoid it. The setup is brilliant and extremely political, giving us character sketches of some of the most brilliant and memorable characters of all time.
Duke Leto, the Red Duke, the most honorable and beloved leader.
Duncan Idaho, the emotional and intuitive hero.
Gurney Halleck, archetypal loyalist and troubadour.
Lady Jessica, the woman who ought to have had all honor in life, but was unjustly reviled and set aside for political necessity. (Chani being both her mirror and her eventual glory.)
And of course, my favorite character of all time, Paul Muad'dib Atreides, the one that would prevent the greater evils he foresaw, and went to enormous lengths and sacrifice to achieve, but who eventually failed in his task because even a god cannot overcome destiny. (Or the will of so many minds set as one.)
So damn brilliant.
Frank Herbert spent five years writing this treasure, working and reworking it until he published it at age 25. None of his other works come close to this masterpiece, and there's little wonder. It was birthed, fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus's head, with enormous forethought and care.
The worldbuilding was just as carefully formed, from the ecology of Arrakis and the life-cycles of the sandworms, to the history and the creation of the Fremen from their mild beginnings as Zensunni Wanderers, adherents to the Orange Catholic Bible, to their history of oppression so like those of those who are Jewish, to their settling and hardening of their bodies and souls in the wastes of Arrakis, also just like the Jewish who carved out a place for themselves in Israel. (Current politics aside, this was a very potent idea before 1965 when Herbert wrote this, and indeed, the core is still just as powerful when you turn it back to Muslims.)
The Galactic culture is rich and detailed. The CHOAM economic consortium, with their monopoly on space travel and their need for the Spice to allow them to see a short period into the future to plot a safe course before folding space. The Empire is caught on a knife's edge between a single power and every other House who sit in the possibility of putting aside all their squabbles for the sole purpose of checking the Emperor, if they so desired. (And Duke Atreides was such a possible popular leader among all the Great Houses, which was the primary reason the Emperor wanted him dead.)
And of course, we have our Villains.
The Baron Harkonnen has always been a crowd pleaser. Brilliant in his own right, devious and able to corrupt anyone with just the right sorts of pressure, including a certain absolutely trustworthy doctor we might mention.
"The Tooth! The Tooth!" -- You can't handle the Tooth!
Feyd Rautha Harkonnen is especially interesting for the question of nature versus nurture.
The Bene Gesserit had intended him to mate with Paul, who should have been Leto and Jessica's daughter, and that offspring should have been the cumulation of ninety years of a breeding experiment to recreate the Kwisatz Haderach which had come about almost by accident during the Butlerian Jihad in the deep past, to overthrow the AI overlords.
He was practically Paul's genetic twin, or at least, his potential to be the "One who can be many places at once" was on par with Paul. But instead of fulfilling the kind of destiny that we get with Paul, we see him grow up under the auspices of his Uncle the Baron, becoming as cruel and devious as he was deadly. He was the argument of nurture in the conversation, of course, and having so very little of it eventually cost him his life.
I often wonder about the directions that Dune could have taken, all those little paths in time and circumstance that could have been. What if Feyd had been brought to Arrakis earlier and overwhelmed with Spice the way that Paul had? Sure, he wouldn't have been able to convert the unconscious changes into conscious manipulation, but he might have had enough glimpses of the future, the way that the Fremen did, to have given him the edge he would have needed to kill Paul.
And then there's a relatively minor character, Hasimir Fenring, the Emperor's personal assassin, who was nearly the Kwisatz Haderach, himself. Unable to breed true, he was still potent enough to be completely hidden to Paul's time-sight in the same way that Paul was hidden from the Spacing Guild's weaker time-sight. His training as a skilled killer was also superior to Paul. He was, by all the hints and tricks in the tale, Paul's perfect downfall. It always gives me shivers to think about, and it was only in a single instant of both recognition and pity from Paul that stayed Fenring from killing our hero. It was just a moment of whim.
The setup was gorgeous. Paul's pity, had it been missing at his moment of greatest triumph over the Emperor, would have meant Paul's assured death. I still wonder, to this day, what stayed Frank Herbert's hand from killing his most wonderful darling. We knew the pressure of religion and politics was going to have its way upon all the oppressed peoples of Dune. The return of a monstrous religious Jihad was going to happen one way or another, sweeping across the galaxy and toppling the Empire, regardless of Paul's frantic plans and desires. Paul's own death would only mean a higher level of fanaticism, and Frank Herbert's warning against unreasoning devotion would have been made even clearer with Paul's death.
Perhaps it was pity that stayed his hand. Who are we to say who lives and who dies?
If you really think this review is overlong, then I apologize, but please understand that I could absolutely go on and on much longer than this. It is a symptom of my devotion to this most brilliant of all tales.
And yes, it still holds up very, very well after twelve reads. I am quite shocked and amazed.
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