Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune

Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune: Dune, Part Nineteen

This week we’re going to wake up from a three week coma and let the Emperor know we’re alive and kicking! Also, we’re the Kwisatz Haderach. You know, the super special person.

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.

* * *

And it came to pass in the third year of the Desert War that Paul Muad’Dib lay alone in the Cave of Bird beneath the kiss hanging of an inner cell. And he lay as one dead, caught up in the revelation of the Water of Life, his being translated beyond the boundaries of time by the poison that gives life. Thus was the prophecy made true that the Lisan al-Gaib might be both dead and alive.

—“Collected Legends of Arrakis” by the Princess Irulan

Summary

Chani takes a moment to walk alone near the Cave of Birds, having just been sent for and brought back after she’d gone to the south on Paul’s insistence. A Fedaykin lieutenant named Otheym finds her and insists that she leave the open—Harkonnen patrols are desperate and some of them are entering the region. She is brought to Jessica who tries to make niceties, not sure how to broach the news of what Paul has done. They exchange these formalities for some time before Jessica finally admits that she was the one who sent for her under Paul’s name, and that she needs help in reviving Paul. Jessica believes he has been poisoned by a Harkonnen agent somehow, and does not know why she decided to send for Chani, only that she had to. Jessica also thinks to herself that Chani would have made a good Bene Gesserit.

She brings Chani to see Paul, laid out on a storeroom floor, looking dead. Jessica informs her that he appears dead, but he is not, and this appearance has led some of the Fremen to believe that she is allowing her bond as his mother to cloud her judgement, that they should take his water. Only a few know what has happened, but he has been that way for three weeks now. The Fedaykin believe that he is in a sacred trance to marshal his power for battle. Chani can smell spice on Paul and wonders if it is an allergy, but Jessica says those tests were negative. Chani asks if they have makers with them, and Jessica confirms it, saying that each battle needs a blessing. Chani knows that Paul does not partake of the spice drug, and asks for the unchanged Water from a maker.

Jessica returns with the poison water, and Chani holds it before Paul, who finally moves. When she touches some of the water to his lip, he takes a long breath. Chani tells Jessica to change a small amount of the water, but before she can, Paul awakens. Jessica realizes that he drank the poison water, and he admits that he did, just a drop. He thinks that he has only been out for seconds and has to be told it is weeks. Then he drinks more of the water, sense shares with Jessica and demands that he show her the place where the Reverend Mothers cannot look. Jessica doesn’t want to, but Paul is too powerful and she finds that place and shows him. Paul goes to that place but Jessica’s mind rebels against and blanks it out. When they break their connection, Jessica is suddenly tired. And she knows for certain that Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach.

Paul insists that each person is made up of ancient forces that give and take. For each gender, one of these forces is more innate, and observing the other alters them completely, makes them something different than human. But Paul is the fulcrum, unable to give without taking or take without giving. Otheym is listening behind a curtain and rushes away to tell others, spreading the word of the unquestionable Lisan al-Gaib. In his vision, Paul saw the now: the Emperor, Baron Harkonnen, Thufir Hawat, and all the Houses are there waiting for permission to land, to raid the planet. The only thing that stops them is the Guild, who will strand anyone who lands without their go-ahead. The Guild looks for Paul because they know he has their secret—they are nothing without spice.

Paul tells his mother to change some Water into the Water of Life and plant it above a pre-spice mass. If these two things collide, it will begin a chain reaction that will destroy makers and spice permanently. They have control of the spice because they have the means to destroy it. Now they must play this thing out.

Commentary

The book very rapidly has to shore up this relationship between Jessica and Chani, and while I love that it’s present, I really wish that more attention had been paid to it. In fact, I’m coming to realize that the third part of this book (for how long it is as a novel) is far too short. The story is succinct and smartly told, but there are so many things that deserve attention, and deeper consideration. I might even argue that Children of Dune and Dune Messiah are necessary continuations to complete so many thoughts and relationships that we miss out on here.

Nowhere is this more glaring to me than where Jessica and Chani are concerned. While we get glimpses of it here with Jessica noting their many similarities in situation, and recognizing that Chani has the makings of a Bene Gesserit, both of these women are interesting and intricate enough as people that they deserve more time and attention in the narrative. And unfortunately Paul’s awakening only throws that into sharp relief.

So, this is the explanation he gives as a framing device for this power:

“There is in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives. A man finds little difficulty facing that place within himself where the taking force dwells, but it’s almost impossible for him to see into the giving force without changing into something other than man. For a woman, the situation is reversed.”

Man, I had forgotten that that’s how it was put.

And the whole point is supposed to be that Paul can look into both of those sides, both of those forces, and that’s where his power comes from. And I have two very explicit problems with this breakdown: first, women are “givers” and men are “takers.” Yeah, f*ck that noise. This plays heavily into that insistence that women are naturally nurturing and men are not, which is insulting to both genders and also just plain untrue. There are plenty of women who are not nurturing or giving. There are plenty of men who are. Also, the concept of a “taking” force is less simple in a breakdown, so what precisely does it mean? How are men “taking”? The concept of taking is active rather than passive, which is the easiest distinction to make, but it’s still poorly explained and has worrisome connotations, to say the least.

My second problem comes from a gendered issue with Paul. The fact that only a man can adequately balance these male and female aspects is rubbish, and I believe that Jessica or Chani could be the sort of person who could do that as well, for that matter. But that’s not how the Bene Gesserit breakdown of the Kwisatz Haderach legend works! everyone says. Yeah, I don’t care. That’s bad worldbuilding, as far as I’m concerned. So this power is wielded by women overall with “race memory” and what-have-you, but there’s one place they cannot look, and that has to be a place only a guy can reach. Why? Why couldn’t it just be a very special woman? If Bene Gesserit breeding programs are a part of this to begin with, you could literally just decide that they had to combine genetic lines to create the right woman for the job. (Of course, this isn’t even getting into the breeding aspect of this, which is equally unsavory no matter how you cut it, and could easily be approached in a creepy eugenics kind of mind set.)

But on top of it—if your hero is this necessary combination of the masculine and feminine, you could have had a very interesting interplay where Paul is or somehow becomes genderfluid or agender as a result of this awakening, and that would be fascinating. I’m so sad that the narrative never thinks to go there because it would create such a unique aspect to Paul’s journey and his role in this mythic overturn. And no, saying that this was written in a different time makes no difference to me as an excuse whatsoever: science fiction and fantasy are genres about making things up. If you can have a story about a special class of guys who are human computers and a special class of women who have precognitive abilities and a breeding program that weaves into the fabric of their society at every level, you can have a genderfluid protagonist—it’s not even a leap. During New Wave SF in the 70s, we had a proverbial deluge of authors who played with ideas around gender and gender roles, so this wasn’t decades from cultural consciousness either.

And I just wish Dune had done it.

Outside of this quibble, we get a lot of very important information that leads us into the final act. We learn that everyone is essentially poised over Arrakis and ready to get this battle rolling. And we learn what Paul meant by being able to control the spice by being able to destroy it: turns out, the changed Water of Life coming into contact with the makers will result in a chain react and kills the worms and destroys the spice. Which is kinda deus ex machina-y, but at least sounds plausible? So we continue.

* * *

And that day dawned when Arrakis lay at the hub of the universe with the wheel poised to spin.

—from “Arrakis Awakening” by the Princess Irulan

Summary

Stilgar and Paul observe the starship lighter and temporary residence of the Emperor and his legions of Sardaukar next to Arrakeen. Only the city remained in the enemy’s hands, the rest of the planet cut off from the Harkonnens by the Fremen forces. The Harkonnens and CHOAM frigates where permitted to land also, but no one else. There is a great storm coming, and everything has been tied down for the time being. Gurney is grumpy as he always is before a battle, and he banters with Stilgar. Gurney is still concerned over the use of atomics Paul plans, but he’s certain that using it against the Shield Wall will be safe, since it won’t be used against people.

Stilgar is reticent about the city men they’re using for shock troops, not given to trusting them, but Paul points out that these people have been recently abused by the Sardaukar and are looking for excuses to act against them. Paul knows that they are remembering that they are part of a community, and he intends to use that. Their Sardaukar prisoners finally arrive to tell news that Paul is alive and a great commotion starts. Paul waits to see what flag the Emperor will raise in response: if he will attempt to make peace by raising the Atreides flag. The Emperor is more subtle than that and raises the CHOAM Company flag instead. Paul has his people prep to attack once the storm comes, finding their targets before visibility drops so that they can attack even during the storm.

They prep for the attack, and then the storm is on them and they blow the Shield Wall. Paul tells them to leave their equipment behind as they make their way, knowing that men are more important that equipment. They receive a message as the battle begins, but there’s too much static. They give Paul what they received of the message, and Paul knows as he reads it that his son is dead and his sister is captured. He is numb with grief, knowing that everything he touches only seems to bring death.

Commentary

This is primarily an intro section that leads into the final battle, and it contains a fair share of politics that are fun to carefully meander through. Paul releases the Sardaukar to the Emperor and when he finds out that Paul is alive, he decides to raise the CHOAM Company flag. The Emperor as a figure throughout this book has been fairly mysterious, but we have a basic picture that this ties into: someone shrewd, calculating, and with no compunction for throwing any else under the bus provided he maintains power. On the other hand, it would be nice to understand more about how this mindset works; people with power and wealth always wish to maintain it, but there’s no question of what’s at stake if they do not.

For people who do not know battle tactic stuffs and terms: this section makes mention of “a sortie,” which means “an attack made by troops coming out from a position of defense.” I remember looking that one up as a kid, and being a bit muddled because I already knew the word as a French verb, so that’s a fun one.

There’s another interesting interplay of gendered terms that I noticed in this particular section. In most narratives we have a standard “ships and vessels are women” thing, which can be iffy, but tells you a lot about the perceptions or cultures of certain characters. From the Fremen we can see the the sandworms are considered male—“Bless the maker, bless his coming and his going.” But the storm that is approaching Arrakeen is “a great-great-great grandmother of a storm.” So the god, the maker is male, but nature and its forces are female it would seem. An interesting delineation.

While the death of little Leto is an uncommon blow because he’s an infant, it’s strange to have a character death mean so much when it’s a character that we’ve had no contact with at all. We are meant to feel for Paul because he’s in the central figure of this story, and it’s odd to know that we’re meant to feel that way while never having been shown any interaction between father and son, or even mother and son. Leto’s death is there for Paul, but not really for the reader. It is more there to contextualize his upcoming actions, and to create a strange question about Chani’s place in this upcoming order that Paul is about to create. It’s there for tension, not because we are meant to think of baby Leto as a loss.

The use of atomics here confuses me, and I think we’re meant to assume that they are far more targeted weapons in the future; Paul uses it to blow the shield wall, but that shockwave and radiation should still kill many people. Presumably, the weapons of the future somehow target the blast more effectively and prevent a great deal of background radiation from lingering forever. And then there are the city folk they are planing to use as shock troops, people who have not been trained like the Fedaykin or even the Fremen… and here we see precisely how cold Paul is willing to be to achieve his ends. He knows that many of these people will die, but is not overly concerned because he knows they are newly committed to the cause. This isn’t about Paul being “good” or “bad” in this context because Dune isn’t about what a sweet guy Paul Atreides is. It’s about what leaders with “terrible purpose” are willing to do to see their causes through.

Next week we will finish the book! Whoa.

* * *

And here is your weekly audio clip:

Emily Asher-Perrin is going to be thinking about the possibility of genderfluid Paul Atreides maybe forever? You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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