Dune is a work of such staggering depth and complexity that it’s necessary for this review to have numerous sections focusing on different aspects of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. I won’t cover everything that is in this novel, but I will try to hit all the major points. Anyway, here we go:
I. The Politics
The book is set in the year 10,191 (though this year itself is delineated from an event called the Butlerian Jihad –which is an event that happens millennia from our time and which I will discuss later), and the universe is ruled from the Golden Lion Throne by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. This emperor has political power over the entire Known Universe, but obviously it would be ridiculous for him to try and govern each individual planet. So, there is a class system in place (called “faufreluches”) in which the patriarchs of Great Houses govern the planets on which they live. For example, the main character, Paul Atreides, is the son of Duke Leto Atreides and thus is heir to the ducal fiefdom. The Atreides start the novel out by ruling a planet called Caladan, but they end up wresting the government of another planet (Arrakis, or “Dune”) from their arch-rivals House Harkonnen. In short, each planet is ruled by a planetary governor in the name of the Padishah Emperor – and each of these governors belongs to a certain Great House.
In order to protect themselves from absolute power by the Emperor, the Great Houses are all a part of a political group called the Landsraad. Note that this includes House Corrino, which is Shaddam IV’s House. Basically, this group serves as a way to make inter-House laws. For example, the Landsraad has banned the use of atomics against humans. Also, the Landsraad itself could combine its power to (theoretically) depose the Emperor. So the inter-galactic political system has its checks and balances.
One of the most important things to mention here, even though it is not technically a “political” power, is a company called CHOAM. This stands for Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles, and it is basically the economic arm of the Landsraad. It’s a universal development initiative in which the Emperor and other Houses of the Landsraad have stakes. Even in this unimaginably distant future, power is ultimately derived from wealth, and the CHOAM company is the source of that wealth. When a House gets in trouble or does particularly clever maneuvering, its CHOAM holdings can be revoked or expanded, respectively. This in turn keeps the Houses from becoming stagnant, in that they always must be on the lookout for ways to reap higher profits from CHOAM. This economic aspect of the novel is a little complicated, but an in-depth understanding of CHOAM is not really needed to enjoy the novel. All you really need to know is that the company is controlled by the Emperor and the Landsraad, and that it is the chief economic power.
II. The Miscellaneous Powers
Aside from the political system of Imperium and Landsraad, there are also a few ancient groups that wield a certain amount of power in the universe of Dune. The Bene Gesserit is a school of women that focusses on control of mental and physical faculties. This school was established after the Butlerian Jihad (which I will talk about shortly… quit rushing me). Ostensibly, the Bene Gesserit are women who have learned complete control over their bodies, and who have been trained in the way of observation of minutiae. For an example of this complete control, pregnant Bene Gesserit can reportedly ensure the sex of their babies. They are able to use a faculty called “the Voice” as well – which is a way of conforming the tones and undertones of their voices to manipulate others. However, the Bene Gesserit have been secretly perfecting a human breeding program involving many of the Great Houses over millennia, and this is their chief function. The goal of this breeding program is to produce what they call the “Kwisatz Haderach” – the man who will one day be born who will possess the faculties and abilities of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother.
The second not-necessarily-political- power is the Spacing Guild. This group has a complete monopoly on inter-stellar space travel. Their Navigators have the ability to fold space so as to make almost infinitely long trips take a vastly shorter time. They are extraordinarily secretive about their process of space travel, and most people are not allowed in the presence of a Guild Navigator. It is reported that this is because the use of the spice (I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it) transforms their bodies into something not quite human anymore. Anyway, their monopoly on space travel makes the Guild a force to be reckoned with, as anyone who opposes them can have their shipping privileges revoked, and will thus end up stranded on their planet.
Okay, so THE SPICE. It is the all important element of the universe in Dune. It is called mélange, and it is the source of the Guild Navigator’s space-folding powers; it’s the source of the Bene Gesserit’s powers; and it’s the main source of economic stability. It is literally the most important product in the history of the universe. And it can be found on only one planet in the Imperium: Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune). The import of this is that the Atreides have just been given governorship over Arrakis at the start of the novel, so basically they are in control of the production of the most important thing in the universe.
III. The Religious Aspects
Herbert was apparently very interested in religion. The amount of research this man must have done in order to envision the religious history of a future millennia upon millennia from our own present must have been just incredible. But basically, the fulcrum of all religious thought in the Imperium is something called the Butlerian Jihad. This was the war that occurred after man had created thinking machines and then had to destroy them. After this war, all the major religions of the universe banded together to create the Orange Catholic Bible – essentially a collection of the religious ideals that all religions had in common. The chief commandments are “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul” and “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” This O.C. Bible is accepted and used all over the Imperium.
When talking about religion on Arrakis, though, it is necessary to discuss the Fremen. These are the natives of Arrakis – the desert people. Descendants of the Zensunni Wanderers, they hold law and religion as the same thing, and much of their language and religious ideas are similar to Islam. They worship Shai-Hulud (the “Old Man of the Desert”), which is basically a deity that consists of all of the giant sandworms on Arrakis. This is difficult to explain unless you read the book, but somehow Herbert makes it very understandable. Anyway, the Fremen await their Mahdi (“Messiah”), their Lisan al-Gaib (“Voice from the Outer World”). Such legends are thought to be the work of the Missionaria Protectiva – the arm of the Bene Gesserit school that is charged with implanting such superstitions in order to create cultures amenable to the Bene Gesserit. In any case, the Fremen are supposed by Duke Leto Atreides to be the key to controlling Arrakis.
IV. The Ecology
Each planet in the Imperium has its own ecology, obviously. But I’ll just focus on Arrakis, since that is the main setting for the book. Arrakis is literally a giant desert. There are qanats, or small canals of water, but basically there is very little water on the planet. The Fremen survive by wearing stillsuits that replenish the body’s water and protect against the loss of water through things like breathing, sweating, and getting rid of waste. Yes, in these stillsuits you re-drink the water that your body releases. It is a necessity in the deep desert where the Fremen live.
In this desert, the main predator is the giant sandworm. These things are HUGE. They live mainly below the sand, and they are attracted to rhythmic vibrations. You know, like the sound of humans walking naturally. Therefore, when walking in the desert one has to adopt an odd arrhythmic walking pattern so as not to attract the gigantic deathworms. These animals are worshipped by the Fremen as Shai-Hulud, and it is noted that the sandworms always come to the spice mining facilities (which facilities must be promptly air-lifted out so as not to be eaten).
Speaking of spice mining, Arrakis’ only real importance to the Imperium is that it is the only known source of the spice mélange. Without the spice, the Guild can’t navigate and the Bene Gesserit can’t do their crazy mind-and-body stuff. Also, the spice has exceptional geriatric properties, extending one’s age for long after the natural life expectancy. However, the spice is very addictive and thus most of the universe (or at least, those rich enough to buy the spice) are now dependent on spice production. Despite its importance to the Imperium, little is known about its origins.
V. The Philosophy
I won’t go into too much detail here, but Herbert pumps his novel to the max with philosophical musings. He has a very specific view of time, and how free will and determinism interact. He seems to see time as lots of nexuses of decisions. Basically, I think Herbert was trying to imagine a universe where we could possess prescience but also have a sort of free will. It is interesting and difficult, but it helps the story along. There are also numerous musings about the interplay between politics and religion, and Herbert insists (probably rightly) that the key to ultimate power is to be both the center of politics and the center of religion. A deified dictator takes a while to depose – just look at North Korea. Or think back to the days of a Japanese Emperor. But probably central to Herbert’s philosophy is the dignity of humankind. He seems very concerned with morality and purity of soul, to the extent that he imagines a future in which all religions realize their common commandment is to not disfigure the soul. What I am trying to say is that Dune is not just science fiction: it is science fiction with a purpose.
VI. The Writing Style
Herbert writes in the third-person omniscient perspective. He sort of jumps around between different characters’ viewpoints, even in a single scene. I like this a lot, and it really works for the story, but I’ve been finding it difficult to figure out exactly why. I think it’s because Herbert, by jumping around like this, is able to fully reveal and develop his world. It would not make sense for one character to tell us all about the universe – because which one of us could explain every aspect of the governments and economic systems just on our own planet? But by switching viewpoints between people involved in very different aspects of the universe, Herbert can show the reader the depth and complexity that his imagination has spawned. Anyway, the writing’s point of view works.
The style of the writing is also really interesting. Herbert writes with a certain amount of spirituality or philosophical authority. I sense that this is probably because the man did a lot of research for the novel, and thus he can write with knowledge and believability. But as I hinted at in the Philosophy section, Herbert’s writing is imbued with moral and ethical undertones throughout the entire novel. And he shows that he is a master of dialogue. The book is just simply well written. End of story.
Finally, Herbert includes a glossary in the back of his novel, which is an interesting and useful item to have, since many of the words and names used in the book are not familiar to us (after all, this is set ridiculously far into the future). But don’t let the fact that a glossary is necessary deter you from reading this book. It’s really easy to flip back and check the definition of a word like “Fremen” or “Shai-Hulud,” and if you can’t find the definition back there it probably means the term is not that important. This novel is perhaps unrivaled in its depth, but that should not scare the reader from the story. Herbert handles the complexity of an entire universe with amazing aplomb, all the while crafting a compelling story around the world he built.
OVERALL RATING: 9.9999/10*
*(there were some typos, so I can’t really give it a 10/10)