Dune

I have now read all six books of the original Dune series by Frank Herbert. I won’t bother to give a summary of the books here, those can be found on the internet, rather I will present here my impressions of these classic works of science fiction.

Before I continue I have to admit that I had been reluctant to start reading Dune for years. Primary reasons here for is my interest in mundane science fiction (i.e. sf set in our own Solar System). It is only after I had finished the Wheel of Time fantasy series, I got interested to delve into Dune. This because the comparisons between both series made by several people.

The similarities between both series are indeed numerous and everyone mentions the following: Paul Atreides/Rand Al’Thor, Bene Gesserit/Aes Sedai, Fremen/Aiel, Arakis/Aiel Waste and so on. But there are many more subtle similarities as well. I will mention one: Artur Hawkwing.

The emblem of the House Atreides is a hawk and members are described as having a hawk-shaped nose. Though there is no direct Hawkwing-like character in Dune (though one could argue that Leto II is akin to Hawkwing, I would argue their similarities is not as strong as others), it is nevertheless an important detail in my opinion.

Another, less subtle but very important similarity, is the one between melange (a.k.a. the spice) and the One Power. Though melange and the One Power are different things, in that they accomplish other things, their importance in the story is of the same level.

It is interesting to note that the effects both Melange and the One Power have upon their users is very similar. Both prolong live and both are highly addictive to people. And in both cases withdrawal is often lethal. Despite these similarities, it is good to look at the differences between both.

In WoT the One Power is the driving force in the universe and those who can channel this force are able to manipulate reality. And being an inherent part of nature, the One Power cannot be depleted nor could its supply be monopolized (how much Tar Valon would desire to do so). Consequently non-channelers are unable to exert control on channelers and generally such attempts are futile.

The melange, however, is a chemical substance which is the by-product of the Sandworm metabolism. Since the spice has to be consumed, it is what economist would call a private good, this means consumption is both rivalrous and exclusionary. Hence who control the supply of the spice, has an enormous power.

Though melange is not as fundamental to the universe as the One Power is, it is no less important in Dune than the OP in WoT. Space travel would be impossible without the spice as the Guild Navigators need melange in order to do their job. Also mentats, human with tremendous computational abilities who have replaced computers, need the spice. Without Guild Navigators and mentat the Dune Galactic Empire cannot exists.

No surprise that much of books in the series deals with the struggle for control of Arakis, the single-known source of the Melange. Who controls Arakis, controls the Empire, politics plain and simple. In books 1 to 3 the main plot is about conspiracies to take over Arakis from the Atreides. From book 4 onwards the main theme of the series changes.

Are book 1 and 2 mostly action-driven adventures, book 4 is very indulged in discussion of matters of philosophy and theology. I believe this explains why a member of the Dragon’s Mount forum stated he found the first two books okay, but could not get into the latter books.

In God-Emperor Leto II has become a philosopher-king whose policies are based on philosophical considerations too alien to the general public to comprehend. Because of their ignorance many see Leto II as a tyrant who abuse his control of the spice supply to pursue his own ends. Much of this book consists of monologues by Leto in which he explains his plans. Duncan Idaho the zillionth is quite annoyed, as he is more concerned with the conspiracies to kill his emperor.

Readers who are not that interested in philosophy and theology are likewise annoyed by those lectures of Leto II.  Those will have a hard to get through endless discourses on concepts varying from free will to foundations of morality. And some people simply do not like stuff like this, which is in my opinion not a disqualification of that part of the public. I would advise them to look for other books which suits their tastes better.

However, I believe this gives the series a certain intellectual depth and is the reason why Dune exceeds the genre of planetary romances. Because Herbert manages to incorporate philosophic concepts in his story, it becomes interesting to read his works – yes, some do not like this.

I will conclude this review with a discussion of Melange. Dune is clearly science fiction rather than fantasy as its plot centers around ecology and the social  dependence on a single substance (a parallel to our oil dependency). What triggers my curiosity is the fact that the series do not explain the mechanics behind the spice. For instance, how is it possible that the Bene Gesserit are able to remember their ancestors through the use of melange?

My personal theory is that Dune relies upon some kind of panpsychism, i.e. the conscious is an inherent and primordial feature of the universe. According to this view melange makes the “universal mind” accesible to human beings and hence enables them to see the past, or in Paul’s and Leto’s case also the future.

Another issue, for which I have no satisfactory answer, is how we can be sure that the memories melange-user receive are actually reliable. In the series it is simply taken for granted that spices enables people to access their ancestor’s memories, not only by the greater public but also by the Bene Gesserit themselves.

As far as I am concerned, Dune is a great work of science fiction and I have greatly enjoyed reading this series.

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9 responses

  1. I only recently re-read Dune. Awesome storytelling.

    1. I fully agree. On the other hand I can easily understand why some people would not like it.

    2. Anyway, do you agree with me that there’s some implicite panpsychism in Dune?

      1. An enabled one, sure. Spice!

      2. I don’t think spice itself is concious but somehow allows one’s brain to connect with the universe’s mind.

      3. Enabled by the spice, which, in one respect, makes the spice the material bridge, and therefore a part of that mind. A manifestation of it.

      4. Yes, something like that is probably the way it works.

  2. Michelangelo Landgrave | Reply

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read the Dune series, but I think the spice works by allowing the minds of individuals to travel across time-space. That is why the prescience works. If you listen to any podcasts, “Stuff to blow your mind” has a few good ones focused on Dune.

    1. That could indeed be a possibility.

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