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Monday, January 30, 2017

Frank Herbert's Dune: review and analysis

Rating: 5/5

The best thing about science fiction as a genre is the freedom to set the imagination flying and at the same time creating a world that mimics our real world in some ways. Science fiction is also about looking at alternative long term possibilities. Dune is a sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert written in 1963. The basic theme is of a duke’s son avenging his father who was killed in a conspiracy set up by his rival Baron and the emperor of an inter-galactic empire itself. The book is filled with wonderful quotes that touch upon the theme of how religion is closely linked to the survival needs of a civilisation. It is more than just a story as it also highlights the viewpoints of the author and the agenda he wants to promote through subtle suggestions. Being a complex combination of philosophy, science and politics, some very interesting concepts are detailed in the novel which have parallels in the real world. Here I touch upon some of these aspects.

Ecology and sanctity: The planet Arrakees is a rich source of a spice called Melange (oil?). It is mostly a desert region (the middle east?). The guild and other houses (the west?) seek to maximise profit from the melange present on this planet with no concern for their welfare. Even though, to an outsider, the Melange is the most precious commodity, but the inhabitants’ pressing concern is the scarcity of water. Due to the scarcity induced value, these inhabitants base their sacred customs around water. For example, when someone cries over the dead, it is said that the person who is crying is honouring the dead with his body’s water. The custom is a reminder of value of the scarce commodity. It also emphasises how ecological balance was an important issue for Herbert. Dune arose out of the notes for a magazine article Frank Herbert planned to write about sand dunes. He also worked as an ecological consultant in Vietnam and Pakistan later.

Conflict and development: The inhabitants have a credible threat of destroying the spice if they are attacked by the other houses. However, if they didn’t have this ability it would have meant that they would probably have been better off if the planet didn’t have spice at all (resource curse versus the ability to destroy a resource in an organised manner). Therefore, a weak civilisation loses out from having resources, while a strong one gains from them. Since the landscape of the Fremen was difficult, it made them biologically strong, disciplined and infused a military culture within them. Moreover, they had a huge advantage in their home due to better acclimatisation to local conditions.

Animal domestication: Sandworms perhaps open our eyes to the possibility of the potential advantage aboriginal Australians and other civilizations would have had over Europeans, if humans had not killed off large mammal species in far off lands after their initial spread from Africa.

Religion: Selfish interests are the most important theme in the book. The role of religion is that it creates a diversion from selfish interests to interests of the community. Following of the Prophet has the same role in the novel. The life of the main protagonist is in many ways similar to the story of Prophet Mohammed. An interesting aspect of the origin of a new religion is the planting of myths within the native community (Fremens) over several generations by a specific cult (Bene Gesserit). There is also looming threat of the Jihad in the name of the Prophet after a few generations. This Jihad is projected to be a specific need of the gene to manage its declining variety within a civilisation by mingling with outside populations, often forcefully. There is also an idea in the recent scientific literature that people are more altruistic toward people with more similar genes, ceterus paribus. Terms such as Ramadhan, Hajj, Sunni, Sharia and Islamic names clearly show the direct relation with Islam. The book also demonstrates people’s psychological need for an idol to revere and the author's distaste for that. Herbert borrows concepts related to meditation, importance of an accomplished teacher from Zen Buddhism which he adopted as a religion. In the religion section of the appendix, he explains how Islam originated from Christianity and partly altered by Prophet's own beliefs. It can be visualised how Islam was used to unite unorganised clans and using such unification, Prophet took over a city.

Condition of women and politics: A little mention needs to be made of the role of women who are used for diplomatic alliances with politically or economically strong houses. However, in the tribal Fremen communities, the women are projected as reasonably independent, owing perhaps to equal economic power in working at the factories that are not very strength intensive as well as the nomadic culture of the tribe. The theme of human breeding has also been taken up by the author and displays the author’s contempt for it. The privilege and the insecurities of those in power are adequately portrayed.

Homosexuality: The main villain Harkonnen was homosexual. Fenring, a eunuch was also portrayed as an evil character highlighting perhaps Herbert’s own bias at the time of writing the novel. It is noteworthy considering that his own son Bruce Calvin Herbert was a gay rights activist.

Character naming: The choice of name is specifically interesting. The main protagonist’s name is changed from a Christian name (Paul) to an arabic name (Muad’dib). The main villain is Vladimir - a slavic name. This is an interesting choice given that U.S.A. was in a situation of cold war with Russia at the time of writing this novel. Thus, author uses and perpetuates the image of Soviet Union as villain. There are italian sounding names (missionaria), native south american houses. Atreides is a greek name. These houses represent different cultures.

Character idealisation- In some of their works, fiction authors put an idealised version of themselves as a character who does what they wanted to do. In Orwell’s 1984, it was Winston Smith who tries to break out of the shackles of the society he is living in. Much like Winston Smith, Orwell himself wrote propaganda pieces for the government for a couple of years and had a terrible distaste for his work which he later left. I feel in Dune that character is the planetologist Pardot Kynes, father of Liet-Kynes who takes a long term view and believes in gradual ecological change through conscious human action.

Note: Some details from the analysis have been skipped in order to avoid spoilers.