The next book for my Readings in the Genre: Science Fiction Classics for my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University was Dune (Science Fiction 511 pages) by Frank Herbert.
This book is so massive that it’s really hard to find just one thing to talk about at any length. I think one of the things that struck me the very first time I read through any of the Dune books was the combined use of philosophy, religion, and technology.
The majority of the deeply philosophical points, for me, usually started with the sayings at the beginning of each chapter. Just for the sake of clarity, here is the dictionary.com definition of philosophy: “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.” Many of the concepts discussed throughout this book involve looking at humanity as something greater than each individual’s experiences and a lot of those passages really made me stop and think about the world in which we currently live. For example, on page 337 the opening of this chapter is listed as coming from the “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan. The passage reads like something taken straight out of a philosophy text: “The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.” Another example of this can be found on page 428, which is listed as coming from “Muad’Dib: The Ninety-Nine Wonders of the Universe” by Princess Irulan. That passage says: “When law and duty are one, united by religion, you never become fully conscious, fully aware of yourself. You are always a little less than an individual.” These two passages clearly demonstrates deep philosophical thought processes evident throughout this book; passages designed to make you sit down and look at your perception of the world around you.
Religion is another aspect of this book, and the entire Dune series, that really can’t be ignored. From the Atreides family arrival on Arrakis, they are given glimpses of a religious structure so encompassing and so powerful that it takes up the entire planet. The customs of that religion are so bound up in the culture of the Fremen that it’s impossible to separate the two into different aspects. Even though the readers are lead to believe that the Fremen way of life was initiated by the Bene Gesserit, as referenced when Jessica and Paul first encounter the Fremen in the desert on page 290, the seeds that were planted perhaps centuries ago were changed and morphed into something the Bene Gesserit may not have intended. Jessica reflects on this throughout the story and even though she becomes the Reverend Mother of the Fremen, she still seemed to me as though she didn’t really fit with the Fremen and that she didn’t really have natural Fremen tendencies like Paul. She felt more like an outsider and not like a true member of the community, even as their Reverend Mother, whereas Paul, the genetic culmination of a variety of different Bene Gesserit plans, blended with the Fremen as though he was born and raised as one of them.
Another of the things that really stuck out with me was the use of technology throughout this book. The book starts out with space travel and personal shields and then moves to a world where technology doesn’t function or will create situations that will potentially cause you personal harm. The world is a desert planet, wherein the power lies in who controls the water, while the controller of the spice are those who control space travel. So it just happens that whoever controls the water also controls the spice, which makes one “backward” desert planet very, very powerful, for all that it has very little in the realms of usable technology. It’s really hard for the characters in the book to depend on their technology when they’re given so many reasons why they can’t use it, it’s completely ineffective, or the environment destroys it. The Harkonnens are reduced to using artillery instead of the lasguns because the lasguns wouldn’t work. Everyone had to stop using their shields because the shields would attract the worms. Their ‘thopters have a variety of technical issues with flying in the desert conditions of Arrakis and their machines either draw the attention of the worms or malfunction because of the sand.
The Atreides family arrives on Arrakis completely dependent on their technology and unprepared to face a lot of the really deep issues that life with the Fremen forces them to face. There’s a lot going on in this book and a lot of philosophical ideas that are seeded throughout the story, as well as a strong religious undertones, and the beginning dependencies on technology. It was a really deep book and one that I actually enjoyed.
I think the big issue I had with the italicized thoughts stemmed more from the fact that those thoughts were all head-hopping. For example, on page 331, the first series of italicized thoughts is from Jessica’s point of view and then five paragraphs later, it’s from Paul’s point of view. I think that maybe the reason that bothered is because it threw me out of the story because I would read as though I was an outside observer and then I would get internal thoughts from a character that I may or may not have thought of as being the main point of view for that particular scene or chapter.
One of the things I kept thinking about as I read this book was how annoyed I am with our own culture and society right now for spending so many of our resources developing inconsequential things when we could be developing technology to help ourselves survive in arid deserts, which our own planet has plenty of. We could use this part of technological science fiction to create science fact and provide ourselves with ways to live in less-than-friendly environments. I read some biologist reports about climate change and the most recent estimates say that the world’s supply of fresh water will reduce by 40% in the next 15 years. If that doesn’t motivate us to start developing more water-saving technology now while we can, I’m not sure what will. Anyway.
I really like the connections between high fantasy and Dune. It’s really easy to forget about the technology because, in a lot of ways, the story takes place in humanity’s distant past. The story focuses on the one critical element that no human life, or really life as we understand it at all, can survive without, and it’s something we can’t artificially create. The technology takes a back seat to water. And when water becomes so desperately important that it’s the survival of the entire planet at stake and not just the survival of an individual or family, of course religion would factor heavily into things. Religion, especially as used throughout this book on Arrakis, is used to bring the Fremen together and to unite them under a series of guiding principles and to give them hope.
This book brings up a really good point about status and how having the luxury to waste something that is a precious resource is a symbol of wealth and status. On Arrakis, that status is water and how those who have the wealth to waste water in such ridiculous ways. Like dropped bowls on the floor and letting beggars fight over who gets the towels. It’s interesting to me that water is portrayed in this way because I see a lot of similarities with some of the wealth distribution in our own world today.
Religious indoctrination definitely seems to be the main base for the population of Arrakis’ pyramid on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While the basic “need for water, safety, love, and self-actualization are all met through the bond of the Fremen”, none of those things can be found independent of each other. People left on their own most often die in the desert, as everyone needs to help and support everyone else in order to survive in such an austere environment. Water really is the life of everything
Arrakis isn’t just a setting or a familiar place – it’s a completely foreign, alien world with cultures, sub-cultures, economic class and standing, and a complex ecological system. Paul’s ride on the giant sandworm is such a vivid portrayal of life on Arrakis. That was one of the memorable parts of the book for me. It was a scene of adventure, triumph, learning, camaraderie, and freedom, all wrapped up in one place. He’d been their leader for so long already and yet he still hadn’t mastered a talent that twelve year-old Fremen could accomplish with ease. It was the final test of his purpose as the Muad’Dib and it was triumphant, but he didn’t accomplish the task flawlessly. He also learned valuable lessons from his success and the sense of camaraderie and freedom made me almost feel the wind and sand in my face. I could almost picture myself right there with them on the back of that sandworm.
The “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” conveyed a sense of something bigger than just this book. I felt as though they sometimes related to the content of the chapter and sometimes not. But I definitely felt as though there were a lot of those sections that could have parallels drawn between our world now and the world of Arrakis in Dune. I’ve read some of the books later in the series and I definitely remember feeling a fairly strong philosophical strand throughout the rest of the books.
The societies, politics, and landscapes created in Dune were so absolutely immense and immersive that I can’t even fathom writing this kind of novel in a world without technology. My copy of just the novel, not including any appendixes, was over 500 pages long. So it’s not just a matter of keeping all that information stored in your head, but also a matter of typing up the entire thing on a type-writer and going over every correction *by hand*. Can you even imagine the mailing fees associated with sending that much *paper* through the snail mail system to get to the publisher?
Everything about the world-building and greater human conceptualities is definitely high on my own list of reasons this book was a solid read. Overall, I would rate this book as a three on my rating scale. While a very good and very deep book, it wasn’t something I could or would read again for fun.