It was a drought. Not a real one – a literary one. The year was 2014, I worked a horrible job that was really five jobs, and I hadn’t read a book since I’d been hired. Complaining, as I do, of this to friends, I was handed a paperback copy of Dune, by my then once-and-future boyfriend. I didn’t end up reading Dune, back then. I let stress swallow me, and then climbed out of it with young adult literature and comic books; falling then into my previously whined about format-swap to graphic novels. Dune retired to my bookshelf, where it lived through nearly five years and three different homes. But with all the fuss lately, my friends and coworkers moved Dune up my to-read list by force.
I will say that I fell in love with the book in the beginning. The writing is unbelievably dense with information, yet poetic and non-expository. The story moves and teaches you about the world it takes place in at the same time. At the forefront of the book are seemingly very powerful people, introduced and focused on like many protagonists in literature. Duke Leto, his concubine-mate Jessica, and their son Paul. We are otherwise inundated with other characters who feel weighty and indestructible as well – the Shadout Mapes, and Duncan Idaho, Kynes, and Halleck. The book lulled me into a false sense of security. I made the mistake of believing it would follow other sci-fi conventions where the beginning of the book introduces vital people and their setting. Instead, it was like I’d walked blindly onto a series of treadmills, lurching rapidly forward in time and being painfully stopped short periodically by a loss of momentum. The betrayals and deaths come faster than I could have expected. Like The Strid, the surface had looked so calm and beautiful that I waded in and got ripped away by the rapids.
Another mistake I made heading into Dune was that I solicited friends’ opinions before reading it. Like watching movie trailers, that’s something I typically try to avoid. I tie my memories of those people, my affection for them, to my reading experience in a way that changes my expectations of the story. A calm suburban dad, for instance, I had assumed would recommend a cool, laser-fight filled coming of age tale. That is indeed the mask that this story wears – “Science Fiction’s Supreme Masterpiece.” Frankly, that should have tipped me off that I was wrong all along. But admittedly, going in believing Paul was the Harry Potter of Arrakis made the experience all the better, as if I’d read the book when it came out and was as fooled by “Book I: Dune’s Paul Atreides” as original readers might have been. But science fiction novels have always existed as social criticism. As a genre invented in the 2nd century A.D., this speculative fiction is a vehicle to reveal mankind’s weaknesses by creating alternatives to compare it to, or holding up a mirror and forcing people to examine their own behaviors. It’s for this reason that I think that every person should read this book. If you haven’t, and you don’t want to spoil it, stop reading right now.
Now. Stop. Go read Dune instead. Come back after.
Dune is a beautiful, strange tale of a noble family moving from an ocean planet to a desert planet, to take political control over it. The Duke Leto Atreides, his concubine-mate the Lady Jessica, and their son, Paul Atreides, come to the desert planet Arrakis (sometimes known as Dune) and begin to rearrange traditions and political factions, to help align the planet’s values with their own. Unfortunately, they are doomed to failure before they begin by wider political mechanisms beyond their control. Leto is quickly overthrown and turned over to his enemy, the Baron Harkonnen, by a traitor within his household who tries to dampen his treason by smuggling Jessica and Paul into the desert with ample supplies to reach help from Kynes, a planetologist involved with the “Fremen” people; desert dwelling nomads whose numbers are unknown. Jessica is a Bene Gesserit – a member of a highly trained order of female “witches” whose higher-ups have spread propaganda throughout the universe in order to more easily control populations. Luckily for Paul and Jessica, this propaganda has penetrated the Fremen society, and Paul is able to fill the role of their messiah legend. He falls in love with the daughter of Kynes, Chani, and undergoes several ritual conversions which expand his already-heightened and highly trained senses to a point where he obtains a sort of retrospective foresight, which brings him visions of a horrible jihad in his name across the planet Arrakis by the Fremen, and he sets out to avoid it at all costs. Except:
Duke Paul-Muad’Dib Atreides is a c r a z y p e r s o n. He “Barry Lyndon’s” his way through an innocent nomadic society that’s poised to heal their planet entirely in secret and then he ruins everything for power. He’s a straight up madman who thinks he’s a god, when really he’s merely coincidentally superhuman. He’s basically addicted to peyote (spice), and his entire society is also addicted to it, and their entire planetary economy is based on it, and also it’s a universally valued and religiously necessary resource only found on his planet, and his entire foreign policy strategy is “I will destroy ALL the spice.” What is his actual problem?! The withdrawal from spice is deadly!? It’s the literal only reason his planet isn’t being nuked from orbit?! Shut the ACTUAL fuck up PAUL.
Now that that’s out of my system. It’s not entirely Paul’s fault. The entire universe conspired for centuries to create Paul and then drive him insane. He starts out very aware that the path he was on lead to a global jihad that he did not want. And the book skips forward a few times and where do we land? Global jihad. And blue-eyes Muad’dib is hovering his thumb over the “destroy everything” button to get a wife he does not want and an emperorship he cannot handle due to the aforementioned HE IS CRAZY.
Dune is a book about how when someone declares themselves the protagonist, they will inevitably become the villain. It is also a book about how large systems that control trade, religion, and warfare manipulate things in a way that makes the average person utterly helpless, and about how unjust that is.
(“Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega-Crises and Mega-Messes” by Can M. Alpaslan and Ian I. Mitroff)
So. The Bene Gesserit set up Jessica’s mom with The Baron. The Baron has no idea, Jessica has no idea, Duke Leto has no idea. The Baron makes his nephew Feyd Rautha his heir. Jessica is supposed to have a daughter (which she can apparently control) but instead has a son, on purpose, which holds the risk of making him the “Kwisatz Haderach,” a legendary sort of male Bene Gesserit. This is Paul, who will later be known as Muad’Dib. The Emperor sends Duke Leto to Arrakis, after the Harkonnens fail to lead it effectively, and Leto is like, the absolute nicest dude ever. Too nice. His niceness messes stuff up politically and interplanetarily. Paul trains as a mentat (human computer), as a Bene Gesserit, as a future Duke, and as a soldier.
His brain is full for a young man. It makes him pretentious. Unfortunately it also makes him regularly right, which is infuriating, and also, is his downfall. (Well, not his downfall. He wins. But he’s crazy.) But Paul’s potential is hidden from him until the rapid downfall of his father’s house. The killing of Duke Leto by the aforementioned Baron is the single most un-forgivable moment in this book until Paul says he’s not sad about it. (Again to be fair, he was basically woken from a cold sleep, dragged into a helicopter, and dropped in the desert with a single pack of supplies.) But almost through luck, everyone Paul stumbles upon in the desert either knows him and wants to help, or doesn’t know him, but knows the legend he might later embody. Or is a giant worm.
Paul convinces the nomadic Fremen people of the desert that he is the foretold. His mother, Jessica, goes through a series of trials to prove that she is worthy of being a Reverend Mother within the Fremen society. These trials have a weird effect on the pregnancy she didn’t tell anyone about – the late Duke Leto’s daughter. Essentially, the growing fetus absorbs the full lifetime memories of everyone in the Reverend Mother line Jessica joined, so she comes into the world in full knowledge of it. Paul hooks up with the daughter of the late planetologist Kynes (who was Liet in the Fremen society), they do some spice together, and foresee their son, so they get busy fulfilling that prophecy. Paul’s spice trip, combined with his enhanced Bene Gesserit awareness, his mentat computational abilities, political training, and bizarre genetic capabilities enable him to see into the future – the many futures – and he foretells a jihad in his and his father’s name, to make him emperor. He begins undertaking to avoid this jihad.
Here the book begins to skip forward in time a bit quicker than it had been. Ultimately, it skips ahead to Paul’s war on the Emperor. Somewhere along the line, he forgot the ultimate goal was to increase the moisture in the Arrakeen atmosphere and instead went after the Baron of the Harkonnens, the Emperor, and young Feyd Rautha, in pursuit of marrying the Emperor’s daughter Irulan, and being declared successor. He forgot that he didn’t believe he was the kwisatz haderach, and that his father taught him more than “he who can destroy a thing, controls it.” He hacks and slashes his way into the capitol riding giant worms and threatens to destroy all of the spice and the means to produce it if the Emperor doesn’t give him his daughter, the Princess Irulan, as a bride, and then immediately abdicate the throne, making Paul the Emperor. Everyone laughs in his face and Feyd Rautha challenges Paul to a knife fight, planning to poison him. He doesn’t know that Paul has the ability to neutralize poisons by manipulating their molecular structure in frozen time on a micro scale the moment they enter his body (…) and Paul totally kills Rautha, making the buildup of his character and the repeatedly stated desire by the Bene Gesserit to preserve his bloodline totally moot. I don’t even know why Grimes named a song after him. But then again, I don’t know why she dated Elon Musk. (Hint: it’s literally because they both skimmed Dune and use Twitter) Paul assumes the throne, reassures the mother of his child that she’s not just a concubine and that he’s not going to sleep with Irulan, just let her read and write sadly for the rest of her life and leave the empire without an heir, and realizes that the wild Fremen jihad in his name is going to go wild and wipe out a lot of people and there’s nothing he can do about it because he started it.
I wasn’t positive I was right about Paul until I started the sequel, which is called Dune Messiah. When I did, I literally laughed out loud. It opens on a historian jailed for his critique of the Emperor Paul Muad’Dib, recording his final words, on how Paul lost sight of what the people needed when he learned what people could be used for. When he began to expect service, instead of to serve. It reminded me of an article I read a while back titled “We Need To Confront That Dune is a White Savior Story” and, at the time being halfway through the book, couldn’t argue with it, but felt it wasn’t exactly true. Now, it’s clear to me that whoever wrote that article did not read “Dune.”
Paul is not the hero of the Fremen, of Arrakis, he isn’t even the hero of the book “Dune.” He’s not even the protagonist. I’m not certain there is one. Dune is the anti-white-savior story. It’s the white-conqueror-fucks-shit-up tale we all know well, from the point of view of the conqueror. What’s more, it seduces you the same way Paul seduces the Fremen. He seems smart, well-raised and mannered, willing to adopt some traditions but steadfast in rejecting others, giving sound reason in those cases, and more than that, he fits an age old legend brought to them by the same “witches “ that founded many other aspects of their local religion. Similarly, Dune is a well reported and much beloved book following many tropes in a well established format. We’re fooled, as Paul is, that he is the hero, until the very end. It is utterly fascinating and I recommend it to anyone with a lot of patience, who is struggling with their own helplessness in the face of geopolitics, or has absolutely no faith in humanity. It will try your patience, mirror your helplessness, and reinforce your disturbing lack of faith.
But wait, there’s more! Stay tuned for part 2.