by Faba Calculo
There are two major awards in Science Fiction literature: the Hugo and the Nebula awards. Sixty-two novels have won the former (plus three who have retroactively given the award), and 49 have won the latter. These could be considered the giants of the field. But 22 of them won both awards, and to my way of thinking, the finest science fiction novel ever written in the English language may well be the one that, appropriately enough, was the first to achieve this feat.
The book is the story of Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke Leto Atreides and his sworn concubine, the lady Jessica. In the future where the story takes place, one more than 10,000 years from now, humanity has returned to feudalism, with overt political power balanced between the imperial house, House Corrino, and the greater and lesser houses of the Landsraad. However, between these two lie the parties that hold more covert power: the all-female order of the Bene Gesserit (think of the most hard-nosed nuns you ever met and add in limited telepathic abilities); the Spacing Guild, whose navigators alone can safely find their way through the dangers of hyperspace; the living computers, the Mentats; and the mysterious, shape-shifting Tleilaxu.
Interestingly enough, even some tens of millennia in the future, no extraterrestrial intelligence has been found. All of the above are merely altered humans. And one of the things that has most altered humanity is the spice mélange. This substance is found on only a single planet in the known universe, the eponymous planet Dune.[pullquote]Interestingly enough, even some tens of millennia in the future, no extraterrestrial intelligence has been found. All of the above are merely altered humans. And one of the things that has most altered humanity is the spice mélange. [/pullquote]With the opening of the book, Paul and his family have been ordered by the emperor to replace the Atreides’ hated rivals, the Harkonnens, as controllers of this desert planet. However, all realize that this is a ruse to lure them into a position where they can be destroyed. Nevertheless, Duke Leto makes the move, believing that the desert nomads of Dune, the Fremen, may hold the true balance of power there, and that, with them as allies, their place on the planet could be secured. But the joint imperial-Harkonnen attack comes sooner than expected, and with the aid of a key traitor, Duke Leto is killed, while Paul and Jessica fake their own deaths and flee into the dessert, in search of the Fremen.
It’s here that the story really begins to open up, for prior to coming to Dune, Paul had discovered that his birth was a result of a breeding program run by the Bene Gesserit, of whom his mother is member. However, for love of the Duke, Jessica has disobeyed her order and given birth to a son, rather than a daughter, thereby advancing by one generation the birth of their planned super-being, the Kwisatz Haderach. Furthermore, throughout the universe, the Bene Gesserit have created myths of coming saviors that they exploit as the need arises. By coincidence, Paul fits some of the key details of the “prophecy” left on Dune. Thus, both in terms of religion and genetics, he’s viewed as the promised one.
Paul wastes no time in making use of these facts, seeking to avenge his father’s death. But this plunges him both in the moral ambiguities of Fremen religion and the existential ambiguities of the ability he, as the Kwisatz Haderach, now has to see all possible futures. And what his prescience most clearly shows him is a jihad that he himself will unleash on the universe, smashing the imperial house itself with his armies of Fremen fanatics. This he wishes to avoid with every ounce of his virtuous Atreides soul, but this, the future tells him, grows less and less avoidable with each passing moment.
And if Herbert’s characters and plot weren’t enough, there’s also the books setting. Next to the mysteries of Dune, other dessert planets from science fiction such as Tatooine are colorless sandboxes. The absolute lack of free-standing water shapes, almost defines the culture of the Fremen, who walk about in their still-suits, in which urine, feces, and perspiration are captured and then filter them back into potable water. In one memorable scene in which Paul is forced to kill one of the newly met nomads, the Fremen are all but overcome in awe when Paul weeps for the dead man, noting that Paul “gave water for the dead.” Then, in an almost religious experience, each seeks to touch the tears as they roll down his face. With this encounter, we begin to see the way in which the Fremen goal of bringing water to Dune has turned ecology and environmentalism almost into religions.
But, far more than what doesn’t lie on the surface of the planet is what does lie and move about beneath its dunes: the sandworms. Hundreds or even thousands of meters long, these enormous, nearly immortal worms figure into Fremen existence as everything from riding beasts to the visible incarnations of God. And what a mixed-up god He must be! For in this future, the religions we know have been strangely mixed, giving us hybrids of Christianity and Buddhism, of Buddhism and Islam, plus something called Third Islam.
However, while they are descendants of the Zen-Sunni Wanderers in fact, in outlook, the Fremen are all Islam, from their aggrieved relationship with the past, to their longing for jihad in the future. In fact, with House Corrino’s growing decadence and the rise of the Fremen, Dune looks like nothing so much as an answer to the question, what would have happened if the declining Roman Empire had had Islam to deal with rather than Christianity. And the answer ain’t pretty.
But House Corrino and, indeed, all of mankind having bigger fish to fry. For as the Bene Gesserit suspect, with their political machinations, and as Paul knows via his prescience, humanity is going to destroy itself. Despite the intricate rules of war that have carefully been laid down in the Great Convention (whose bottom line is clear enough: use of atomics against humans shall be cause for planetary obliteration), it’s just a matter of time. Even if Paul can succeed in resurrecting House Atreides, placing it as the imperial house, and ruling the universe with his armies of religious fanatics and his prescience, is even that enough to allow him to rescue mankind from itself?
But don’t make the mistake of seeing this as a hero story when almost the opposite it true. While Paul may start off as a pureblooded, virtuous Atreides, it won’t be his father’s morality that will be there to guide him as he grows up but rather his Bene Gesserit mother’s talent for political machinations, (though, in time, even she will become distraught over the degree to which he uses religion to manipulate the Fremen). As Herbert himself put it, “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.” • (2626 views)