Thursday, February 06, 2014

281. Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune (Berkley Books, 1965; 537) by Frank Herbert is a great science fiction that merges religion with science so that the point where one ends and the other begins is lost. Though it is a science fiction, and there is a complete creation of planets, its ecology, language and more, it is not too rigour so as to disturb those with no affinity for that genre. The extent of Herbert's creation is comparable to J.R.R. Tolkien's creation of the Hobbit's tales - in most of his books especially the three-part Lord of the Rings. The story shows the development of a leader with absolute control over the people. Since this is just the first book of the trilogy, the eventual end of the leader is not known. In Dune the extent to which man will go to destroy nature just to serve his excessive luxury, even if it is at the expense of his fellow beings, was, if anything, emphasised. But it also shows the patience of man to build what he has destroyed, not at separate time periods; destruction and construction exist within the same space and time. Of course, they are antagonists.

Another idea that flows through Dune is man's zeal for a messiah, someone to lead them, to direct them, to force them, to mobilise them for a cause; someone they can worship. So that when they identify one whose abilities surpasses them they quickly make heroes and gods out of them.

Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine Lady Jessica and their son Paul Atreides, an aristocratic nuclear-controlled ruling family of Caladan, had been given an Imperial order to take over Arrakis from the Harkonnen family. They had travelled from Caladan  for such a purpose but the Harkonnens were not going to leave quietly. Though Arrakis is dry and harsh (Arrakeens wear special suits to harvest their perspiration, and any mositure they emit; the dry and taxing climate and the deserts are what gave its name Dune), it had spice - a mineral that is responsible for the luxurious lives on most of the planets. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen wanted directorship of the CHOAM (Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles - which controls intergalactic trade, mostly of spice), a position that would increase the wealth and worth of the Harkonnens among the Great Families. And he had the silent support of the Emperor who, for his own reasons, wanted the Atreides family out of the way.

Paul, on the other hand, had a lot of prophecies about his birth and his life. His mother was a carefully selected Bene Gesserit witch who, in the breeding programme of the Bene Gesserits, must give birth to a daughter who would marry Feyd-Rautha, nephew of Vladimir Harkonnen, and whose offsprings would likely have the Kwisatz Haderach. The Bene Gesserit tribe had been waiting for the one destined to raise the tribe back to its glory - the Kwisatz Haderach - and the leaders had been working towards this through careful breeding and selection but had achieved nothing after several generations. However, Lady Jessica unilaterally decided to have a son and so with all the training she had received she bore the Duke a son, Paul. All potential Kwisatz Haderachs had failed one test or another. Paul, before moving to Arrakis with his father, had passed the last test - the test of will over pain - and was being monitored for other traits the Kwisatz Haderach must have.

The appearance of Paul and his Bene Gesserit mother revived an old prophecy among the Fremens of Arrakis, a prophecy that the son of a Bene Gesserit witch, a Mahdi, would come from the outerworld to lead them from their current bondage and oppression under rulers of Arrakis to paradise. Though this prophecy was implanted by the Bene Gesserits many years ago to be taken advantage of by any one of them who would find herself among the Fremen, the people were staunch in their belief. Hearing that Paul is the son of the Bene Gesserit Jessica, whispers of the prophecy of the messiah soon began to spread among the Fremen communities, with people lining up to see him. The Fremen were a secret tribe whose true numbers and secrets were unknown even to the ruling Houses. They managed to keep the Harknonnens looking left whilst they acted on the right. Their true strength and their abilities were beyond imagination. For instance, they were the only ones who were able to ride the wild giant spice-producing sandworms indigenous to the Arrakis, worms huge enough to swallow mining ships and unafraid of shields, a nuclear protector.

The prophecies that told of the birth and life of Paul, or the people Paul became, also told of the death of Duke Leto Atreides. And nothing was done to prevent it when all decisions he took, upon arrival on Arrakis, opened him up to the enemy. When the prophecy was fulfilled, the traitor - with the little means available to him, for he was himself tricked and manipulated before he was transformed into a traitor - set out to save Paul and his mother Jessica. Paul and Jessica fled into the deepest Fremen communities, which was unknown to the rulers. 

Paul with his fast-growing intelligence, perception, strength and preternatural senses, was considered to be Lisan al-Gaib 'the Voice from the Outerworld'. Paul could see the several paths to the future, the several threads that join, conjoin, separate, that made up the future. His abilities freaked him; they were beyond his conceptualisation. As a man-child, Paul had as many names as there were expectations: to the Bene Gesserit, he was the Kwisatz Haderach; as heir to this father's position, he was Duke Paul Atreides; among the Fremen he was the Lisan al-Gaib (the Voice from the Outerworld), the Mahdi - the prophet to lead them to paradise, Usul - the base pillar among the Fremen of Stilgar's sietch (the Sietch Tabr). He was Paul to her mother, Jessica; and to everyone of the Fremen, when he was in exile, he chose to be called Muad'Dib - the pop-hopping mouse. Thus Paul, in essence, was both a physical and spiritual essence. Before becoming the Prophet, the prophecy talked of a rite that he would pass: drinking the water of the sandworms, a poison that killed instantaneously. Jessica was to drink of it if she were to become the Reverend Mother of the Fremen. With her Bene Gesserit training she was able to change the chemical structure of the 'Water of Life, the water that is greater than water - Kan, the water that frees the soul', the water that 'opens the universe' to a Reverend Mother, into a non-lethal drink. But Jessica was pregnant at the time of her transformation, the transfer of power from the dying Reverend Mother to her, and this would bestow extraordinary powers on the foetus and the resulting daughter, Alia, would be feared amongst all the people both young and old and some would agitate that she be killed. For her manners and way of speech were those of an adult even at age three. Paul, having not undergone that training, was more susceptible but then again he was a freak and so he passed, after days of absolute unconsciousness.

Paul sees in the many futures the tendency of the people to embark on a jihad in his name. He sees a crowd of people with flags and weapons killing in the name of their prophet. This he sought to avoid by making different choices that would lead to futures. His abilities and charisma saw him, in the end, merge seamlessly into a religious and a political leader. To realise his aim and inherit his father and avenge his death and release the Fremen from their bondage, Paul organised a military attack against the House of Harkonnen and the Sardaukar troops of the Padishah Emperor. The Emperor, Shaddam IV, had helped the Harkonnens to defeat the House of Atreides, quietly. Using his sandworm-riding Fremen army further trained in the art of war taught him by the masters, Paul and the Fremen attacked and totally defeated the Harkonnen army and their fanatic Sardaukar troops.

This is a magnificent book. The best science fiction novel I have read, not that I have read many. However, Hebert's creation was so believable that one would have wished to be in that period of time, witnessing or participating in the rapid changes on Arrakis and on the other planets. It was also a period of chaos and creation. This novel had received much praises and there is no need to say it is recommended. I end with this question: will intergalactic travel ever become a trivial matter?

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