Frank Herbert’s Dune is a behemoth. A behemoth of philosophy, politics and religion. You would guess giant spaceships should be at the center of a SciFi classic. Yes, most modern fantasy and science fiction worlds do counter the big questions in morality and contain a lot of political intrigue. Dune is probably the one book that gave rise to this phenomenon. It is not so much about the magic or the lore. It is about the economics of two simple things, Melange, a geriatric spice that prolongs life, and water.
The Stuttering Start
The depth of Dune is insurmountable in the first reading. I have to admit that the prose is dry. As dry as the world Dune is based in. You could argue that it is a narrative choice and has deeper meaning. But it certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable start to the book.
We plunge into the world head on, with names being thrown at us left, right and center. The first few paragraphs took a long time to go through, with complicated proper nouns in abundance.
However, after finishing the book I get it why the start had to have to much information. Every book starts as close as possible to the start of the interesting things in the story. For example, Harry Potter started a couple of months before he had joined Hogwarts. (Spoiler alert?) But in Harry’s case, the first book only contained the first year of his story. The world that was revealed was a microcosm within the parallel magical realm. The first few chapters of Harry with Hagrid, and then Ron and Hermoine gave us enough details on what it to come. It didn’t feel rushed whatsoever because the details were minimal.
For Dune, things had to the different. We had to learn a lot about the trade, economics and politics of the spice Melange. We also had to learn about the various stakeholders of this new world that keep the trade running. This takes up a lot of mental resources in the first few chapters. Especially with the dry dialogue and prose. Secondly, the politics, economics, science and religion revolving around water is a whole different world altogether.
The start is indeed arduous, but it does set up a great story ahead. You can anticipate the various moral dilemmas the people in the world face. The push and pulls of the political system when the most valuable resource in the galaxy is involved.
She brushed the tears coursing down her cheeks, thought: What a stupid waste of the body’s water! But she knew this thought for what it was – the attempt to retreat from grief into anger. Leto, my Leto, she thought. What terrible things we do to those we love! With a violent motion, she extinguished the little manual’s glowtab.
Prose ain’t Rosy
Like I mentioned earlier, the prose is dry. But so is the world. Every sentence about the lack of water or the technology used to preserve water makes your mouth goes dry, literally.
“Those are date palms,” [Yueh] said. “One date palm requires forty liters of water a day. A man requires but eight liters. A palm, then, equals five men. There are twenty palms out there—one hundred men.”
The above dialogue needs no descriptions to feel the thirst of a person staring at the twenty palm trees.
Although, it is not all bad. Dune has an omnipresent narrator who jumps back and forth from person to person, sometimes during a dialogue. So, in the same scene, you get the inner thoughts of both the protagonist who trusts a particular person and the antagonist who will be betraying the other. It is a strange feeling when you know what is about to happen but is still excited about whether or not they succeed.
These inner thoughts also play a massive role in elaborating the motives behind the goodwill, betrayal, or a rash decision. In most books, you only get the version of the protagonist. Here, we almost empathize with the villains sometimes.
I saw realistic, not because it has been done already, but more because no physical laws have to be broken to make the technology of Dune work. Herbert used a lot of the existing technology (at the time) like radio, laser guns, flying machines, and space crafts. In addition, he really thought out how would the human race survive in an arid world with minimal water. He explored the idea of conversation of the inherent water in the human body, creating not just technology that works, but also embedding social and religious customs of the people.
I don’t want to give too many details here as it may ruin the exploration of these ideas. But I can tell you that it makes your throat go dry and you become more thankful to have running water at home.
Herbert did dabble into the discussions of Artificial Intelligence but the story didn’t explore it in as much detail as I had anticipated.
It was the custom, the housekeeper had explained, for guests as they entered to dip their hands ceremoniously into a basin, slop several cups of water onto the floor, dry their hands on a towel and fling the towel into the growing puddle at the door. After the dinner, beggars gathered outside to get the water squeezing from the towels.
We can go as far into the future and build the most amazing life-saving technologies, but we somehow never seem to conquer the class conflict in human society. The exploration class and the tribal nature of humans, for good or bad become the main talking point of Dune.
Regardless of where humans go, we create customs, orders, and structures in our societies. Some do it through religion, some through aristocracy, and some through the government. We pass a set of mutually beneficial rules and laws that help us survive our world, however big or small.
Herbert’s grasp of the human condition and the species’ will to create narratives for their own survival makes this book a masterclass in worldbuilding. I want to share more about this world here but that would ruin the gut-wrenching feeling of a few scenes.
Dune doesn’t end at a good note. Dune is life. There are no real happy endings. This fact alone may be enough for people to not read this book. But if you don’t mind books with minimal poetic justice, then this is the right book for you.
I don’t think I will be reading anymore of the books from this series; at least not anytime soon. I have heard that the later books anyway do not stand up to the ridiculously high levels of the first book. But I will not forget this world anytime soon. There are barely any worlds that spill into my real life. I am not constantly thinking about the flying car from Harry Potter every time I see a car, or the Lord of the Rings invisibility power every time I see a wedding ring. But there is a switch in a back of my mind that flips every time I see water being wasted; and, “Dune!” someone whisper in my ear.booksdunescience fiction