December 14th, 2006

I'm generally not a big fan of science fiction, and I first heard of Dune through the excellent game Dune 2000. The real advantage that game had over the Command & Conquer series was a proper story, not something cooked up in 20 minutes.

Dune is the novel by Frank Herbert, from 1965. It is known as one of the finest works of science fiction, and the first novel spawned a whole series, upon which movies and tv-series were based, and several computer games. And while the book is now quite old, it doesn't seem outdated.

I find the story very compelling, it is "my" kind of science fiction. That is a fictitious world, yes, but with a significant element of realistic technology. In a word, it makes sense. It is internally coherent, there are no strange, unexplained loose ends. The world of Dune is very complicated, the mark of a good sci fi story. There are lots of angles and aspects to this world. Although the account is driven by one thread, by one set of people, there are lots of entities with different motives and interests, so the interplay between them is interesting.

It is a futuristic inter-plantery world. There are several noble Houses, which are feudal societies. Each has a leader, a blood line, and its own home planet. The two protagonist Houses in Dune are House Atreides and House Harkonnen. The Houses are in a sense united (but fierce rivals) under the imperial House Corrino, ruled by the Emperor of the Known Universe. The Emperor is supposed to be the neutral moderator/arbitrator between the Houses, but he has his own motives. Every house has its own army, where the Emperor's elite army are the Sardaukar, the finest in the universe. The Spacing Guild is an independent entity, which has the monopoly on space travel. Then there is the secret female order of the Bene Gesserit, with members all through the different Houses and their motives are completely different from everyone else's. Their ultimate goal is careful inbreeding between the Houses, so as to produce the perfect genes to create their perfect being, the Kwisatz Haderach. The Bene Gesserit allow themselves to be exploited by the various Houses for their abilities of premonition, while pursuing their own goals. All of the Houses (and the Guild) depend upon the precious commodity, the spice melange (the monetary unit in Dune). This is found only on the wild planet of Arrakis. Arrakis is a desert planet, plagued by a complete lack of rain, by giant sand worms marauding the desert and incredible sandstorms. Most of the planet is uninhabitable. The Houses take turns in controlling this planet. Arrakis has a native population - the Fremen, a desert peoples who are born in this climate and brave the elements to the point where they are part of the desert. They also consume the spice and depend on it to live. Finally, the strong leaders often have mentats, a human trained to think like a machine, fed as much data as possible and performs computations to reach conclusions. Mentats, like a machine, cannot lie, but has a full set of human emotions (so while they cannot conceal a fact if asked about it, they can still be scheming and devious).

All of these people are humans, just with different cultures and gene histories. All of these groups generally have a hierarchy of power, so there is often struggle between the layers in this hierarchy, and of course struggle between the different groups. The Houses are bound by the Great Convention, whose breach is a very serious transgression, and always covert. There is much political ambition, diplomacy, deception, treachery, bribery. The key characters are very intelligent, and there is a fine play between what is happening and what is being said. So the politics are very complex, and that makes it interesting.

The most interesting single character is perhaps the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. This leader is more or less the symbol of evil, and most of the plot unfolds through his actions, direct or indirect. Highly astute and educated politically, a brilliant schemer.

But what is probably the most interesting aspect of Dune, is the mental/physical powers of these people. Most of the people are just humans as we know them, but those trained in the school of the Bene Gesserit (and certain children of nobility) have powers of awareness and senses developed far beyond what we know. Their awareness of their own body is very extensive, they can examine themselves for disease and injury, control their muscles with incredible precision, "hibernate" under extreme conditions into a mode where only the core functions of the body operate (by controlling the breathing and heart rates), they have techniques to handle any emotional situation (like death of kin) and push it away to retain full control over their mind, methods of relaxation under extreme stress and so on. They also have wide ranging outward abilities, like being able to read a person's emotional state through the tones of their voice (for instance to determine whether he's lying), to twist their voice so as to induce an emotional state upon a person, to decipher a new language based on a short conversation. Venturing into the more fantastic, the Bene Gesserit have the ability to be in more than one consciousness at the same time, to convey their awareness to another Bene Gesserit (basically a transfer of all knowledge and memories from one person to another), to foresee the future in certain limited ways.

Another fascinating idea in Dune is the Missionaria Protectiva, a bit of "religious engineering" on part of the Bene Gesserit. On Arrakis, they spread myths and legends about the future, about a leader who is to come and realize certain prophecies. This religion is later realized by that leader, who is able to exploit the religion to become leader of the tribe and lead to whatever political goals he has, without any kind of dissent among the population.

I mentioned technology, and there are some ingenious technological concepts in Dune. The Fremen, the desert people, have a very powerful culture of preserving water (obviously in the desert water is precious). To this end, they carry stillsuits, a body suit which covers the whole body, collects all the moisture radiating from the body and recycles it. So essentially, a Fremen loses no water at all, and drinks the recycled water through a tube (which is a pretty good justification by the author for creating a peoples who live in the desert, something we consider impossible). Other technologies in Dune include laser guns, electro magnetic shields, spice harvesters (which harvest the spice in the desert), atomics (nuclear-like weapons), various kinds of air transport, but also domestic items. Close combat, however, is chiefly with the use of blades.

In such a magnificent world, the story is really quite secondary. Even a poor plot (which it isn't) would make an interesting story. The story is told through fragments of days or weeks of time. Fragments which tell of much more than just what is told in its space. From chapter to chapter, we join different groups of characters in what they are currently doing, which describes not only the present situation local to them, but also the world at large (the relevant world at least) and prospects of the future. So although the total amount of real time covered isn't great, through it the story conveys much greater bits of time. This has the elegant feature of always being in the present, but without having to give background or comments.

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5 Responses to "Dune"

  1. erik says:

    Sounds very much like this trilogy:


    I looooooved those books.

  2. ash says:

    I read Dune before I played the game (the one before Dune 2000). I can't remember what the first game was like, except that it was strange. Dune 2000 was great though (and I'm pretty sure it was made by the same people who went on to do Command and Conquer).

    I really liked the book, although I can remember very little of it...this post obviously refreshed a lot of memories.
    A word of warning though - don't watch the Dune film. Just don't.

  3. numerodix says:

    Too late, ash. It's indescribably bad. Wikipedia says they had a budget of $45M, that really gives "flushing money down the toilet" a whole new meaning. But there's also a tv series about Dune, from 2000. That one might be a lot better.

    The movie makes me think the director was pissing all over Dune fans, saying "this is what you people like so much? it's pathetic".

  4. tante says:

    the series from 2k is not as bad as the movie but still has the problem that the lack of budget is very visible.
    When Paul stands in the desert (which is supposed to cover the whole planet) and you can actually see that he's standing 50cm in front of a painted desert it just hurts the impression a lot.
    The 2000 movies are something for a rainy sunday afternoon: Nothing cool going on anyways so you can watch something without sacrificing anything really neat.

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