Dune – Frank Herbert (1965)
A novel which broke the mould, reinvented the concept of Space Opera and begot a minor cult, as groundbreaking novels are wont to do.
It’s rather spooky to look at Dune again in the light of the events of September 11, since we have in this book a situation where a desert people are militarily outclassed and dominated by a Superpower which wishes to retain control over the desert’s vital resource.
It’s not a realistic comparison, since in no way can I compare the revolt of Herbert’s Fremen with the cowardly actions of certain terrorists, but there are no doubt conspiracy theorists who will find the comparisons attractive. In this case it isn’t oil which is being fought over, but the melange spice of Arrakis, just as vital to transportation between stars as oil is for transportation between cities.
One could possibly compare the USA with the Evil Empire of Shaddam (even that name has a spooky resonance, but with the wrong side) and the planet Arrakis with the Middle East, but one would have to examine Arab-American relations in the Nineteen Sixties to get much mileage from that.
Undeniably, the Fremen are essentially Arabic in flavour, but the rest of Galactic Society is based around a feudal aristocratic system of powerful Houses, presided over by the Emperor Shaddam. It is an aggressive and brutal system in which assassination and treachery are rife.
Interlacing this network of families is the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, an organisation which has its own reasons for an intense interest in the melange spice, a strange organic substance which can endow its users with a form of prescience and telepathy.
Another major player in the politics of the galaxy is the Spacer’s Guild, a professional group of mutated humans who use the properties of the spice to sense changes in space and steer ships through hyperspace across the galaxy. They are also bound into the political web which is battling for control of Arrakis, since without the spice, which can only be found on Arrakis, the guildsmen would be useless, and traffic throughout the galaxy would come to a halt.
Herbert skilfully stage-manages the political manoeuvring and chicanery which may or may not be being controlled from behind the scenes by the Sisterhood. Thus it seems as though politics itself conspires to set in motion the events leading to the fulfilment of a Bene Gesserit prophesy.
Ironically, the religion which is integral to Fremen life contains elements implanted centuries before by the Bene Gesserit in order that the Sisterhood would be welcomed by their society. Thus, the Fremen, like the Sisterhood themselves, also know of the prophecy of the Kwisatz Hadderach.
It’s a clever trick on Herbert’s part, as the coming of the Superior Being can be seen simultaneously as the unexpected culmination of a long term Bene Gesserit plan and the true fulfilment of a long religious expectation on the part of the Fremen.
It’s not by any means an anti-religious book, although it is realistic about the nature of organised religion. It shows that religious systems are, by their very nature, political systems, or at least are tied into the political structures within which they exist.
Herbert’s universe of techno-feudalism is so well realised the reader feels quite at ease with the absurd and anachronistic ideas of Dukes and Barons wielding power over dominions of planets. There is a pervasive atmosphere of decadence and unhealthy opulence (particularly with regard to the House Harkonnen whose Baron is a corpulent gay monster who revels in the sexual gratification derived from the dying throes of his young victims) which is contrasted with the simple yet disciplined lives of the Fremen.
Gorgeous, complex, multi-layered. It’s a work of genius.