The Dune Reread is hoping to achieve precognitive abilities by the time this is done, because if it doesn’t, what is the point of anything?
This week we’re going to meet the Harkonnens and find out why the Bene Gesserit are displeased with Jessica Atreides for giving the Duke a male heir. (I apologize, these are short sections. I meant to do three for this week, but that’s what pre-holiday madness will do to you.)
Index to the reread can be located here! And don’t forget this is a reread, which means that any and all of these posts will contain spoilers for all of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. If you’re not caught up, keep that in mind.
To attempt an understanding of Muad’Dib without understanding his mortal enemy, the Harkonnens, is to attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing the Darkness. It cannot be.
—from ‘Manual of Muad’Dib’ by the Princess Irulan
The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is talking to his nephew Feyd-Rautha and Piter de Vries, a Mentat in his employ. He is excited about a plan that they are enacting against the Atreides family, one that he’s aggravated to concede came from Piter and not himself. They receive a letter from Duke Leto Atreides, who refuses their peace-offering as they knew he would. It would seem that the choice to hand over the the fief of Arrakis was their idea in the first place, and that someone named Dr. Yueh will soon act against the Atreides family, resulting in their demise.
The Baron is intent that this plan go slowly so that the Duke knows it is the Harkonnens who are responsible for their end. Piter thinks that the Baron is being too bold, as the Emperor is already keeping an eye on them, but the Baron knows that if the other Houses get wind of his involvement they will be frightened and he will have wiggle room for future plans. He thinks that the Mentat enjoys pain and bloodshed too much for one in his position, and threatens to deny him his payment in this scheme—the Lady Jessica. He points out that the Mentat was wrong about Paul Atreides, that he had said that Lady Jessica would have a daughter rather than a son. Piter is still baffled by the fact that he was wrong on that account.
Feyd is getting impatient and wants to leave, so the Baron implores him to take note of the various bits of wisdom he hopes to impart on the young man, the first being that Piter has bright blue eyes because he is addicted to spice. He has been trained to function as a Mentat, but he occupies a human body, and human bodies are flawed. Then he asks Piter to explain their plan to Feyd despite the Mentat’s displeasure at giving the boy access to all their information. (Feyd is excited because he assumes that this means his uncle truly intends to make him the Harkonnen heir.)
The plan, with all accounts taken in for the family’s movements goes as follows: the House Atreides will go to Arrakis and set up in the city of Arrakeen because it is easier to defend than the Harkonnen city Carthag. They will occupy the household of Count and Lady Fenrig (who are responsible for smuggler dealings on Arrakis, as the Spacing Guild is outside Imperial control). There is to be an attempt on Paul’s life, which is not meant to succeed. Thufir Hawat, the Mentat to the Atreides family, will know that the Atreides have a traitor in their midst and will undoubtedly suspect their true agent, Dr. Yueh. Their ace in the hole is that Yueh has undergone Imperial Conditioning, which is thought to be unbreakable. That allows them to manipulate the situation until Hawat suspects that Lady Jessica is the traitor. Further uprisings will destabilize the Duke before they move in with two legions of the Emperor’s fighting elite—the Sardaukar—dressed as Harkonnens. Because they are doing this dirty work for the Emperor, they will gain wealth and power beyond imagining, specifically a directorship in the CHOAM company.
It is possible that the Duke or his family will try to flee out to where the Fremen live, but the planetary ecologist Kynes is in position to prevent that. Then House Harkonnen will control Arrakis and all the wealth that comes with it. With their plan laid out, the Baron insists that they eat before retiring.
And now we are introduced to our villains in no uncertain terms. The opening section from Irulan’s texts makes it quite clear how we are meant to view the Harkonnens: as sheer opposites to everything that Paul and his family stand for. They are the falsehood stacked against truth, the dark in play against the light. In addition, we are given a window into the terrible scheme that Piter de Vries has cooked up in league with the Baron, down to every last twist. Now, on first glance, that would seem like an infodump of epic proportions, the standard “villain monologue” that we’re so constantly bemoaning. But in this case, it actually serves as a hint as to how the plot will unfold—if we are going to learn of this plan at the outset, that means by narrative rights that it cannot go according to plan. At least, not precisely.
So the question becomes: where is the plan going to deviate from Piter de Vries’s careful considerations?
More interesting mashups with language here: we have Piter de Vries, which is a Dutch last name, if I’m not mistaken. But the Mentat himself seems to have a certain fondness for inserting French into conversation—noting the Duke’s rudeness to the Baron Harkonnen by saying that he didn’t begin the letter with words such as “Sire et cher cousin” for example. It’s a great device for incorporation in this universe of vague references, giving different cultures the chance to shine through in different ways, and those little tells only get more numerous as the book continues. I’m curious as to whether the interest and common use of French is something that he learned from his Mentat studies or elsewhere; after all, we know that Piter de Vries is not an average Mentat by any means.
In fact, with Piter de Vries we have a man who is both sadist and masochist at once. He take great joy in the pain of others, but seems barely concerned with his own, noting that the Baron Harkonnen will surely do away with him at some point and hardly seeming to care. We only know that the payment he has demanded is the Lady Jessica herself. So we have a concept of slavery in this universe, and one that the Baron knows will not be challenged in their victory.
The Baron is intending to teach his nephew Feyd about how to employ careful manipulation to the most odious of ends. He points out Piter’s spice addiction in that lesson, to make it known that even someone with a mind as clever as a Mentat can still be twisted to a purpose due to his addiction. For that reason, the Baron actually suggests that maybe those machines of old were a better solution, which is funny mostly because that is the precise the reason why people create technology to do human jobs today; the machine can’t get tired, it can’t be injured, it can’t be distracted by the wants and needs and addictions that every human falls prey to.
This is also the first time that we learn of spice addiction properly, though we still haven’t been told how it relates to Arrakis and its supply of “melange.” It is also the first time that he hear about the ubiquitous blue eyes that will become a hallmark of the series. We begin to get a clearer picture of how the current system functions for those with influence, with the Emperor and Great Houses operating within the CHOAM company if they have any legitimate power. And of course, we find out that the Emperor himself has sanctioned the Baron Harkonnen’s plan, equally pleased at the idea of bringing House Atreides down… though we’re still not sure why. It was suggested even in the first chapter that the Emperor’s “gift” of Arrakis might have been no gift at all, but these plans within plans within many other plans is only just starting to come clear.
So the rapidly unfolding picture we are getting here is an empire that functions by playing people against one another. There are economics and politics and power at work, all of it determined by the ways that the powerful engineer those around them. This universe is a very dangerous place, and the philosophies of the ruling elite are to amass nothing but more power and wealth, and to sustain that power and wealth. Not so different from any other period in history (present day included), but perhaps a little less sneaky about it.
And now we have to discuss something discomfiting where this series is concerned. Because these people we’ve just been introduced to are all clearly despicable, power-mad, and odious in every possible way. They want terrible things and they do terrible things in no uncertain terms. You can’t get around that. What you also cannot get around are the ways that Herbert chooses to communicate that to us—the Baron is fat, so fat that he is incapable of supporting his own weight and must be carted around by hanging suspenders. Piter de Vries is described as “effeminate” when we first hear of him. (Because the “easiest” way to quickly belittle a male character is to suggest that he either seems queer or womanly.)
Coding fat people as evil is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and it certainly hasn’t let up in fiction even to this day. What’s distressing about Herbert’s choices in this matter are the lengths that he takes it to—the Baron is grotesque in the extreme because that is how we’re meant to know the depths of his decay. He’s barely a person by this description; he’s a thing, a monster out of a horror movie. While that visual is pointed in its own way, it is rare that people can be so easily discerned by their appearances, yet that is what the narrative wants us to do. This actually gets worse as the story continues, so we will come back to this, back to how the audience is meant to view the Baron and his cohort due to a set of deeply offensive cues.
Thus spoke St. Alia-of-the-Knife: “The reverend Mother must combine the seductive wiles of a courtesan with the untouchable majesty of a virgin goddess, holding these attributes in tension so long as the powers of her youth endure. For when youth and beauty have gone, she will find the place-between, once occupied by tension, has become a wellspring of cunning and resourcefulness.”
—from “Muad’Dib, Family Commentaries” by the Princess Irulan
The Reverend Mother is scolding Jessica for having a son instead of a daughter. Jessica does not regret her decision, especially as it mattered so much to the Duke to have a son and she sensed the possibility that she could produce the Kwisatz Haderach. It turns out that the Bene Gesserit had commanded her to have a daughter so that she could be wed to the Harkonnen heir, combining the bloodlines and sealing the breach between the houses. The Reverend Mother tells Jessica that she may come to regret her decision when there is a price on her head and she is begging for the life of herself and her son. The political climate is precarious this point in time with the Emperor and his cohort having nearly 60 percent of the CHOAM directorship votes. There are three prongs to this political situation: the Imperial Household, the Federated Great Houses of the Landsraad, and the Guild, which holds a monopoly on interstellar travel. The Reverend Mother worries that Jessica’s choice will cause unrest or worse.
She also tells Jessica that there is very little chance that Paul is the Bene Gesserit Totality, and her decision was likely for naught. Jessica is emotional in that moment, saying that she has been so lonely… the Reverend Mother says that should be one of their tests, as humans always are. She asks that Paul be called in so that she can ask him questions bout his dreams.
Paul comes in and she asks whether he dreams every night. Paul says that not all of his dreams are worth remembering, and when he she asks how he knows that, he replies that he simply does. Last night he had a dream worth remembering: he was talking to a girl with all-blue eyes and telling her about meting the Reverend Mother, that she put a “stamp of strangeness” on him. The Reverend Mother asks if he often dreams things that come true, whether he knows this girl. Paul explains that his dreams are often prophetic and that he will know this girl. He says that he will be sitting with her, about to meet some people that he’s excited to meet, and she will say “Tell me about the waters of your homeworld, Usul.” He had thought that was strange, since Usul is not his homeworld, then realizes that she may be calling him Usul. He says he will tell the girl a poem that he learned from Gurney Halleck, which Jessica recites for them.
The Reverend Mother tells him that they seek the Kwisatz Haderach, and that it might be Paul. She gives him a hint: “That which submits rules.” Paul grows upset, noting that while she has come to talk about his potential in this, she has said nothing about helping his father, that she speaks of him as though he’s already dead. The Reverend Mother tells him that if there were anything to be done for the Duke, they would have done it. She will help Paul, but not his father—once he accepts that, he will have learned a real Bene Gesserit lesson. The Reverend Mother then tells Jessica that she cannot pay attention to the regular rules of training, that she was right to teach Paul their ways without permission, and that she needs to move his training forward much faster now. The she wishes Paul luck, and as she makes her leave, Jessica sees tears on the old woman’s cheeks and knows that is far more worrying than anything.
This opening section from Alia (a character whose relevance is lost on us during a first read) is fascinating to me. It starts off with what sounds like a typical lament on the fleeting nature of female youth and beauty, but ends on a very different note—the suggestion that once these distractions have left us, women become more powerful than ever. And I’ve seen women, middle-aged and older, make similar assertions in writing and conversation; that while people are so concerned with no longer being young and hot, there is real power in no longer being beholden to those attributes. That letting them go offers a clarity and freedom that you’re not expecting.
We finally learn precisely why the Bene Gesserit are angry that Jessica chose to have boy instead of a girl—her daughter was meant to be married to the Harkonnen male heir. By this we can easily discern that Feyd is a bit older than Paul–the previous section said that he was about sixteen, which is a very slight difference indeed–and can also collectively feel grossed out that Jessica’s daughter would have likely had no choice in this matter had things unfolded the way the Bene Gesserit wanted. We have to assume that this marriage would have taken place relatively soon, too, and that this heightened animosity between Houses Harkonnen and Atreides would have been smoothed over in the interim. So the suggestion that Jessica has shaken up all that hard work by choosing to have the son her Duke wanted is a fair point, as far as the Bene Gesserit are concerned. (If we want to get into how fate operates in this universe, and whether or not events are unfolding as they are truly “meant to,” we’d be here forever in an endless philosophical discussion. Not that we can’t do that at some point, but we’re only a few pages in.)
My favorite thing about this section is seeing the Reverend Mother show emotion, even tenderness, toward Jessica. While the Bene Gesserit are masters of manipulation, there’s clearly some truth to the pity that she feels for her old pupil, and even for Paul. So while these women expertly train and mold their students, it doesn’t mean that they have no love for them. And even saying that, it doesn’t mean that we should forgive them for what they put these girls through all their lives—the Bene Gesserit way is largely cruel and vicious and demands all from its initiates.
One of the quotes that always sticks with me is when Jessica bemoans feeling as though she’s back in lessons with the Reverend Mother, reciting one of their pieces of wisdom: “Humans must never submit to animals.” Now we know that the Bene Gesserit consider all people who do not pass their tests to be merely animals, and the majority of the population is considered as such despite never undergoing them at all. To my mind, this line is about the Duke—Jessica submitted to an “animal” by agreeing to have a son for him. It makes you wonder what it must be like to spend your life being told that you are elevated, but still being made to marry someone who is considered to be beneath you for the sake of politics. And of course, Jessica follows this up by talking of how lonely she is, which makes me wonder if giving Leto the son he wanted helped them grow closer and eased that loneliness somewhat.
We don’t know explicitly why the Duke asked for a son, but the Dune universe seems to set a lot of store by male heirs. It’s one of the few things that strikes me as odd—so far into the future and women are bartering chips and items to be married off? We have the Bene Gesserit, but they use their students to the same ends, so their pupils are acting for the sake of an order instead of families. While I understand the desire to formulate things this way from a storytelling perspective, it’s one of the few areas where I wonder if being a little more creative with the power dynamics wouldn’t have yielded more intriguing results.
The fact that the Reverend Mother suggests that loneliness should be another of their tests because “human are always lonely” is one of those punch-in-the-gut lines. Sure, we’d probably all be “animals” according to the Bene Gesserit line of thinking, but there is some deep truth in there. It stings.
Paul gets the chance to tell the Reverend Mother about one of his relevant dreams, featuring a girl we will later come to know as Chani. She calls him by the name Usul, which is a Fremen word that means “the strength at the base of the pillar.” It is also an Arabic term that means “fundamental principles.” So we have an interesting similiarity here where you could almost see the meaning of the term “usul” shifting throughout time until we arrive at the Fremen meaning. (Also, I saw all the great alternate translations for various terms in the comments last week and I am so excited, we are going to have so much fun with language, peoples.)
The Reverend Mother’s departure is unsettling both for her tears, which Jessica makes note of with some trepidation, and for the fact that we have now seen multiple people have very strong opinions on a character we have never met—Duke Leto Atreides. The choice to put off his introduction is an excellent one, to my mind. While he is not the main character of this story, he is the person that all the current plot threads revolve around, and it’s a smart dramatic choice to keep us in suspense about him. We know literally nothing about him as a person, and what we suspect may not bear out by the time he is introduced. I’m curious if anyone had formed a solid opinion of him based on the early pages when you first read? I definitely thought he was going to be less likable on my first pass; noble yes, but not quite so shrewd and reasonable.
Oh, and I have a fun treat for everyone! Some of our rereaders mentioned the full-cast audio version of Dune and how much they enjoyed it, so Tor.com is partnering up with Macmillan Audio to give you little excerpts of the book! Here is this week’s scene, featuring the Baron himself: