This week I picked up a used copy of Frank Herbert’s classic novel DUNE for 50 cents at a library sale. I hadn’t read the book – first in an epic science fiction trilogy – since Junior High, and it quickly sucked me in. It’s set in the far future, when humans have scattered across the universe and are ruled by a new aristocracy. Great Houses govern billions across numerous worlds, war amongst themselves, and live in fear of the Emperor’s cruel army of Sardaukar.
The story centers on a boy named Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides, whose noble family has ruled on the paradise world of Caladan, but is now forced to move to a desert world called Arrakis, or Dune. Arrakis is a brutal and seemingly desolate planet, but it is vital to the empire as the only source of the mind-altering “spice” melange. Consumption of this spice can grant a person extended perception, even glimpses of the future. Such prescience is valued for many reasons, but especially because it enables faster than light space travel (how it does so is never explained, but such is tangential to the story anyway).
DUNE is an engaging science fiction adventure filled with political intrigue, betrayal, murder and war as the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen seeks to destroy the Atreides, and nearly succeeds. Vastly outnumbered by Harkonnen troops backed by disguised Sardaukar, the Duke and most of his people are killed, while only Paul and a handful of others escape into the desert. Taking up with the natives of Arrakis (a fierce people known as Fremen), Paul and his mother plot to restore their House and, if possible, revenge themselves on the Harkonnens, but quickly find themselves in the midst of a religious crusade.
The story is imaginative and richly detailed – Arthur C. Clark considered the depth of its world and characters as comparable only to Lord of the Rings – but what truly sets it apart is its religious component. DUNE is, at heart, an exploration of the nature of religion. Jessica is a member of the secretive Bene Gesserit Order whose power extends all the way to the Emperor himself. For thousands of years, this religious enclave has been sending missionaries to plant “prophecies” amongst the populations of human worlds, preparing the way for a Messiah, a Kwisatz Haderach who would bridge both time and space, and through whom they might control the universe. In pursuit of this goal, the Bene Gesserit have pursued an aggressive breeding program, carefully guiding specific genetic lines – Atreides and Harkonnen included – to produce their Savior.
The Fremen too have been touched by these missionaries, inculcated with prophecies of a Messiah who would transform their desert into paradise. But not even the Bene Gesserit could anticipate how closely Paul’s coming would match their prophecies, yet how thoroughly he could upend their hopes. Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, but he will not be controlled by the Bene Gesserit; indeed, he’s not even sure he can control his own destiny. As he rises to prominence amongst the Fremen, he is tormented by visions of wild jihad, and seems unable to avoid such a future. In the end, DUNE becomes a story not so much of betrayal and restoration, but of the potential and danger of mounting religious fervor.
I find it interesting comparing my reactions to the book now with those when I read it as a teenager. Back in my fundamentalist days, Paul was the clear hero – a true Christ figure facing and defeating the wicked Harkonens. The only thing I recall disliking about the book was the fact that polygamy was considered acceptable by the central characters. In fact, I was so put off by this that I never bothered reading the rest of the trilogy. Reading the book now, I find the Harkonnens just as evil as I remember, but Paul appears a much more ambiguous figure. Noble at heart, he steadily succumbs to his “terrible purpose,” regaining his former position (and more) only at great cost. He may be the Fremen Messiah, but he seems to have lost an important part of his humanity in becoming so.
Thus, DUNE is a tale of fulfilled prophecy, with echoes of the Christian story, but it also explores the dark side of faith – religious extremism and violence, and the way these things can both unite and divide a community. I have often written about hope and sacrifice, but DUNE presents a new side of those realities. Here we see what can happen when hope for a better future becomes a justification for evil in the present, and how a would-be savior can sacrifice more than just himself for a dubious cause. Perhaps its time I finally finish Herbert’s trilogy.