Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune

The Sleeper Has Awakened: Welcome to the Reread of Frank Herbert’s Dune!

Over half a century ago, a little publishing house called Chilton Books (primarily known for their auto manuals) put out a novel called Dune by Frank Herbert. It was not an immediate success—despite the fact that Herbert had sold an earlier version of the tale to Analog magazine—and the editor who obtained the book was let go following his mistaken gamble.

Dune went on to win the inaugural Nebula Award and tie for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. It is frequently name-checked as one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.

I couldn’t actually tell you when I became a fan of Dune—I’m sure it happened at some point in my preteen years, but I can’t remember being introduced to it, or what I thought of it at first blush. (Other than ‘wow that’s weird and I love weird things!’) Safe to say, it’s been part of my internal makeup for a while, and I am constantly shoving it off onto strangers, regardless of what they might think of genre fiction. I find it’s an excellent series for rereading because it slips away from me all too easily, like the sand of Arrakis shifting beneath my feet.

With regard to format: this is gonna be tricky, as Frank Herbert didn’t really do chapters. My current plan (at least for the first three novels) is to divide the reread sections by his “historical” quotes and asides, which makes it easier than attempting to gauge page numbers for books that have been reissued and repackaged countless times. So I will begin each reread section with the quote block and continue from there with summary and commentary. I will likely break down the latter three novels into bigger chunks—we’ll see how we’re doing when we get there. (This is a reread of all of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, up through Chapterhouse: Dune.)

Because Herbert had very specific inspirations that fed Dune, this reread will have a few specific focal points that I intend to revisit frequently. Among them are the ecology of Arrakis, the mistaken idolatry of “heroes”, gendered forms of power, and the tale’s base-level similarities to the real life career of T.E. Lawrence (more commonly known as “Lawrence of Arabia”). Extra research might go into the examination of these themes, and if I read any other good books that serve as useful companions to the material, I will make note of them.

This is a reread, which means that spoilers might come up for what occurs later in the series. If you have never read Dune before and want to go in without any spoilers, you have been warned!

Before we begin, let’s start with a little—

Background

In the late 1950s, Frank Herbert traveled to the Oregon Dunes to write an article about the US Department of Agriculture’s tactic of using poverty grass to stabilize the area, preventing the shifting dunes from swallowing the land surrounding them. While the article itself (titled “They Stopped the Moving Sands”) was never finished, Herbert was struck by the concept, and developed an enduring interest in ecology. After much research, Herbert had an outline for a story called “Spice Planet,” but abandoned that project as well when his concept continued to expand. Eventually he sold a two-part story to Analog, titled “Dune World” and “The Prophet of Dune.” From there, he expanded those ideas into the novel that would eventually be known simply as Dune.

He submitted it to over twenty publishers only to have it rejected until Chilton Books came along with a desire to break into the fiction market. The rest of Herbert’s Dune novels were published by Putnam in the two decades that followed.

Dune is often praised for being a science fiction novel that fantasy fans are sure to adore, and that’s not surprising—the scope of the universe that Herbert created is on par with the worldbuilding done by Tolkien, and predates the works of many masters of fantasy. The book is prefaced with a glossary in place of a prologue, and Herbert takes great pains to root the world he has created in rich history and complex power systems. There is a large cast of characters, political sniping, long journeys for every character involved. In short, Dune is an excellent gateway drug for big idea SF.

With that in mind, let’s begin….

BOOK ONE: Dune

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.

–from “Manual of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan

Summary

dune-coverShortly before departing his home planet of Caladan, Paul Atreides is visited by a Reverend Mother of Bene Gesserit named Gaius Helen Mohaim. He is lying awake in his room when the old woman checks in on him with his mother present. She is not impressed with his small stature and wonders if he is something called the “Kwisatz Haderach.” She mentions that tomorrow he will meet her “gom jabbar,” but Paul doesn’t know what that means. He also doesn’t understand why this old woman is allowed to refer to his mother like a commoner when she is a Bene Gesserit and duke’s concubine.

Paul thinks about their upcoming journey to Arrakis, a planet often referred to as Dune. He was given some information about the place from Thufir Hawat, his father’s Master of Assassins; the planet had been a quasi-fief of the Harkonnen family, the enemies of the Atriedes, for nearly a century. Paul’s father Duke Leto had now been given this fief, but with it was sure to come danger—his father had grown in popularity among the Great Houses, and it was sure to create jealousy. Arrakis was the only place in the universe where spice could be mined.

That night Paul has premonitory dream of being in a cave on Arrakis, surrounded by the people there. When he wakes, he thinks of the Fremen, the desert people who reside on Dune. Feeling tense, he falls into a mind-body meditation that his mother taught him. His mother comes in and picks clothes for him to wear to meet the Reverend Mother, telling him that the old woman was her teacher at the Bene Gesserit school and now holds the role of the Emperor’s Truthsayer. She tells Paul to tell the woman about his dreams. Paul asks about the gom jabbar and notes the fear in her voice, though she won’t tell him what it is.

The Reverend Mother awaits Paul in the morning room, aggravated at needing to attend to this particular issue at all. He arrives with the Lady Jessica, who tells him that the test he’s about to undergo is important to her. Paul notes the fear still radiating from his mother as she is rudely dismissed by her old teacher and can’t help but say something. The Reverend Mother dismisses his concern and uses “the Voice” on him, a Bene Gesserit ability that asserts the power of suggestion in speech. She proffers a box with one open side and orders him to insert his hand. Once he does, she lifts something metal to his neck. This is the gom jabbar—a needle with a poison tip, one that she will use on him if he moves.

Paul first assumes that she has come to assassinate him, but she assures him that this is a test that his mother underwent as well, one that they rarely give to boys. It piques Paul’s curiosity, and he internally recites the Litany against Fear that his mother taught him. The Reverend Mother tells him that there is pain in the box, that this is a test to suss out the animals from the humans. The pain spreads and worsens until Paul is certain that his skin has crisped and fallen off. Finally it stops—the Reverend Mother admits that no woman child has ever withstood that much pain, that she must have wanted him to fail the test to force him to endure it. She allows Paul to take his hand from the box, where he sees that it is undamaged. The box only created pain by “nerve induction.”

The Reverend Mother tells Paul that the Bene Gesserit sift through the “people” to find the “humans.” Observing people in pain allows her to see them clearly. Paul realizes that the test reveals truth, and the Reverend Mother wonders if he might truly be “the one” to have figured that out. She tells him to sit at her feet and he refuses; she notes that he hates them, then allows Jessica back into the room and asks if she ever stopped hating her old teacher either. Jessica admits to hating and loving the woman at the same time. Paul recognizes that there is terrible purpose in that test, and wonders what truths were gleaned from him. He asks why they look for humans, and the Reverend Mother tells him that it is to set them free. That once men made machines that they hoped would set them free, but that they only allowed men to be enslaved. Once the “Great Revolt” took place, schools that taught human minds were developed. Those schools have two primary descendants: the Spacing Guild, which focuses on pure mathematics, and the Bene Gesserit, which focuses on politics.

The Reverend Mother explains that the Bene Gesserit focused on separating “human” stock from “animal” stock for the purpose of breeding, but something in Paul rejects that idea—he knows she believes in what she says, but something about it rings false to him. Most Bene Gesserit do not know their parentage for this reason; they’re not permitted in case they are to be bred with a close relative, or something of that nature. Paul asks what a Kwisatz Haderach is, and the Reverend Mother tells him the Bene Gesserit Truthsayers use a special drug to see into their memory, but they can only ever access the female memory, as the thought of looking into the male memory repulses them. The Kwisatz Haderach—the one who can be in many places at once—is said to be a man who will be able to look into both feminine and masculine pasts, to see what the other Truthsayers cannot. The problem is, all men who have tried it before have died.

Commentary

These bits of commentary that begin each section, framed as historical texts, are honestly genius as a device. They give away key items of information under the guise of teaching material, so the reader gets bits and pieces without the aggravation on an info dump. For example, here we learn a few things: we can assume that Paul will eventually become this figure known as Muad’Dib, and we know that he is fifteen years old at the start of this story. We also learn of a Princess Irulan, who has taken it upon herself to be something of a chronicler of Muad’Dib’s life for reasons that we are not yet privy to.

Paul’s development in this narrative makes it real easy to forget that he’s fifteen years old when it starts. I pretty much always forget it until I read the book again.

Plenty of fantasy and science fiction stories take place during our past or future, but authors make this work with varying degrees of success. In Herbert’s case, he’s helped by pushing his story very far into the future—about 21,000 years give or take. He combines familiar terms with unfamiliar ones to remind the reader of that and keep them curious about what’s happened between now and then: terms like “Buterlian Jihad” and “Orange Catholic Bible” can offer hints of how this future was shaped, but refuses to give us anything entirely concrete.

Here are the things that we do know. We know that the Atreides family has been living in the castle on Caladan for at least several centuries (longer if a generation is lengthier to the people living in this era, which seems likely). We know that the Bene Gesserit have been running a selective breeding program for thousands of years to engage in political manipulation. We know that this current system of power has an Emperor and ruling houses, and that these houses are in competition with each other. We know that the Atreides family is in direct competition with the Harkonnen family. We can glean that spice is an important commodity and that Arrakis is politically significant to that end. We can see heavy influences from both Middle Eastern cultures and Judaism, as plenty of the terms and names we encounter are lifted from Arabic and Hebrew.

We also know that there was a period in the past when the Singularity (or something like it) occurred, and the results were so disastrous that there is no form of artificial intelligence in this future. It is a fascinating choice that removes the possibility of androids and artificial life while creating a vacuum for the various organizations we find in their place, such as the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit.

One thing that always intrigues me about Herbert’s writing is the ability to deftly switch character perspectives in a single scene. Normally, this sort of thing bugs me as a reader, but he writes these exchanges with a sort of script-like deftness that keeps my interest and prevents confusion. It’s great to be in heads of multiple characters in a scene when the machinations are this involved.

We only come to know a few things about Paul Atreides when we first encounter him. He has the haughtiness one might expect of someone with a privileged upbringing, but he defers almost entirely to his mother, who was clearly responsible for the majority of his education. He also has certain prescient abilities that are only just barely beginning to surface. Power play is everything in this tale, right from the start—we see it in Paul’s refusal to kowtow to the Reverend Mother, and in the knowledge that Jessica has already betrayed her training as a Bene Gesserit by choosing to have a son rather than a daughter, though we don’t yet know why that’s relevant.

A word on terminology here. The term kwisatz haderach was likely lifted by Herbert from the Kabbala. Its originating term is “K’fitzat ha-Derekh” which literally translates to “The Leap of the Way,” meaning someone who is capable of traveling a distance instantaneously… thus appearing to be in “two places at once” as the Reverend Mother says.

The term Bene Gesserit might have more than one meaning. Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son, has stated that Gesserit might be a derivative of the word “Jesuit.” It is also possible that Bene Gesserit is a play of the Hebrew terms “B’nei” and “Jesherun,” which would roughly translate to “children of the just.” Then there’s the possibility that it could be a Latin-based name, which would roughly translate to “[he/she/it] shall have born it well/behaved well.” It’s possible that Herbert intended the name to be difficult to peg in translation.

But perhaps the most important aspect of this opening chapter is that it teases the long arc of the series. Paul might be billed as the hero in this book, but that was never the endgame that Herbert intended. Following his encounter with the test, these are the thoughts running through our young hero’s head:

Paul felt that he had been infected with terrible purpose. He did not know yet what the terrible purpose was.

Paul Atreides knows he is destined for something awful. Only time stands in the way now.

Emily Asher-Perrin originally typed the title of this reread as “the Sleepy has Awaken,” so make of that what you will. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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