Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Scifi for beginners: Dune by Frank Herbert

Posted by Simcha 4:42 PM, under | 7 comments



When Duke Leto is ordered by the emperor to transfer to the planet of Arrakis, both he and Lady Jessica are aware that the Harkonnens won’t easily relinquish their hold on the desert planet, which until recently was in their control. For, whoever rules Arrakis controls the production of the valuable spice that is harvested there. And so Leo and Jessica arrive at their new home on-guard and prepared for an attack.

But when the attack does come, it is geared at their son Paul, and it appears to have been set up by someone within the household. Both Leto and Jessica recognize that there is a traitor amongst them, and various clues point to Jessica as the culprit, a possibility that many of Leto’s supporters are quick to accept due to her background as a Bene Gesserit “witch”.

Meanwhile, Paul, who has the talent for sensing the truth in other’s words and for dreaming about future events, finds himself strangely familiar with Arrakis and it’s ways. And the people of Arrakis begin to suspect that Paul and his mother may be the figures from prophecy that they have been awaiting to lead them into a future of freedom and hope.


Duke Leto and Lady Jessica must navigate within the web of deceit and treachery, as they try to discover who their real enemies are and how to overcome them and Paul finds himself setting off on a path which will forever change him, bringing him closer to the future that he had once dreamed about.


I had started reading Dune with very low expectation of enjoying it, largely due to the fact that I’m not much of a scifi reader and neither the plot summery or the rather dull book cover interested me much. And so I was pleasantly surprised when I was immediately drawn into the story by the interesting characters and engaging narrative style.

The world of Dune is inventive and convincing; particularly in it’s emphasis on the conservation of water. On Dune, water is so precious and scarce that life revolves around it, particularly for the Fremen, who dwell in the harshest areas of the desert. The Fremen even invented garments that recycle all of the body’s liquid, so that not a single drop of sweat would go to waste. I was so consumed by the ideas presented in Dune that I couldn’t help but reconsider the elaborate use of water all around me in my every day life.

And the monstrous man-eating worms, which at first I had thought sounded rather cheesy, were actually a very creative touch.


The characters are well developed and memorable, particularly Paul, who transforms from a playful child to a hardened adult, trying to avoid the dangerous future that he sees himself heading towards. Though I was saddened by the changes this wrought in his relationship with his mother, and the new distance that developed between the two of them as Paul left his childhood behind.

And while Dune is a science fiction book, I didn’t feel myself overwhelmed by complicated futuristic inventions and scientific terminology, which usually throws me off in books of this genre. The characters here have actually reverted back to the use of swords as weapons, due to the danger of using firearms against shields. I have to admit though, that I didn’t get what the shields were. I don’t remember there being any mention of what they are made of or how they work exactly so I just couldn’t picture them in my mind, which irritated me a bit. There were actually a few other things like this, ideas or statement that I never quite understood, but they were infrequent enough that they didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the book.

I think Dune is an excellent book that anyone can enjoy. While the science fiction elements are present, they don’t overwhelm the story, making it a book that can be enjoyed by readers of any genre.

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Looking for Answers:

As I mentioned above, there were a few matters that I still remained unclear about after finishing the book and I thought some of you who have already read it might have some answers for me.

First of all, a few times references were made to "being human," such as, in the beginning of the book, when the Reverend Mother tells Paul that she is testing him to see if he is human. Well, what were the alternatives?

Second, I thought it was strange that Hawat was so easily tricked when he was supposed to be of such superior intelligence, as one of the top mentats. Anyone else think that is was odd?

Third, I was unclear about how the rest of the residents on
Arrakis received water and water their situation was. And if water was so scarce for the Fremens that they had to recycle it all, how could they be drinking coffee?

So if you have any answers for me, I'd love to hear them!

7 comments:

It's been a while since I read it but I can give it a go...

The alternative is being an animal. The Bene Gesserit are an order that tries to develop humanity to it's full potential by means of a complicated breeding program. Paul is an (unexpected) product of that. He has come a generation to soon so they test him to see what his potential is. If he had failed the test he would have been killed.

The fall of the Artreides is successful because the Harkonen manage to do something nobody has managed before. They have corrupted a Suk doctor to go against his conditioning. They are supposed to be incapable of harming anyone. Hawat did not see that coming. It was arguably one of the more brilliant moves of the Harkonens in the book. Even if it had some unintended consequences. Not that I would recommend reading them but on of the prequels offers more detail on how exactly the doctor was forced to cooperate.

Water.. you have to think in cycles here. The trick the Fremen use is not letting it escape to the wider Arakis environment. The human body needs a minimum amount of water to be able to function, regulate body temperature, excrete waste etc. As long as you recycle it through a stillsuits or the seals they use to close of tent and houses and such you don't actually loose it by drinking.

Also keep in mind that the Fremen set aside a lot of their water to one day realize Keynes' dream of a green Arakis. If they didn't they could probably have been more wasteful and still survive.

LOW expectations of enjoying it?!? Dune is SO amazing - I hope no one had previously told you differently!
I think the cover's cool.
Anyhow, I would have answered your questions, but it seems like Val has done a fantastic job. And since I also haven't read the book in a while, I'm just going to leave it to Val. :-)
I'm glad you liked the book in the end, thoguh!

I'm not a SciFi fan at all excpet for these books, they are brilliant.

Val: But what does being an animal mean? I thought the being human refrence might mean that some of the people might really be computers, which is now illegal, but I didn't see anything to back this up.

The Harkonen's use of the doctor's wife as a way of getting around his conditioning doesn't seem particularly creative. Doesn't it seem that the Suk conditioning should have taken these kind of threats into account?

Regarding the water, I was confused because I don't remember there being any mention of the Fremen drinking liquid until the end when Jessica is offered a cup of coffee, which made me wonder where they got their water from. And other basic uses for water were never mentioned such as for bathing or laundry. And what methods did the rest of society on Arrakis use for conserving water?
Perhaps I'm being nitpicky, but I just felt like I so many unanswered questions when the book was finished about some basic details that were never addressed, unless I missed them somehow (which is possible)

Brizmus: Just no one ever recommended Dune to me before and it wasn't until I started reading that everyone started telling me how great it was. And my copy of the book is all dusty and old looking from sitting on the shelf for 10 years, or so, so it didn't really grab my interest.

Ryan: I'm not much of a scifi reader either but I'm trying to become more of one. I was really happy that I actually liked Dune as it shows I have some potential.

I must admit the finer points of Bene Gesserit philosophy escape me at the moment. They are more important to the last two Dune books Herbert wrote anyway. I guess I need a reread sometime soon ;)

Suk conditioning isn't really described in any detail anywhere in the series although other mental techniques are. Most of them depend on extreme discipline in some fashion. Once acquired, it is considered very hard to break this kind of discipline down (and an outrage to even try, there is still a sense of honour in many of the noble houses). One of the points of the Dune series as a whole is that if you use the right lever you can make the human mind do just about anything however. Dune Messiah includes a fine example of this. Dune does not really describe what they put Yueh through but I always assumed we wouldn't really want to know the details. I guess you have a point in saying this part of the story is not that well developed.

If I remember correctly the Fremen use a device called a windfall to collect the minute traces of water vapour in the air. They create condensation by lowering the temperature of the air. In places on earth where it rarely rains some techniques to collect condensation are used but I don't think the method Herbert describes is used in the real world. I don't think washing of any kind is high on the list of priorities of a Fremen. The specific odour of a Sietch is mentioned a couple of times in the book (or at least the series, I really need a reread).

The rest of Arakis gets their water from the small ice cap on the southern pole. Their methods of conserving it are sloppy by Fremen standards and the Harkonnens' wasteful ways are something of a status symbol when the Artreides arrive. As I understand it they use pretty much the same way of sealing homes but stillsuits are less common. It's one of the ways in which the Fremen are far better adapted to their environment than the outsiders.

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, even more so because this is not your favorite genre. I have seen the film versions several times and am really fond of the story because of them but have not yet read the novel. It is on my list to get to this year and I have no doubt that I will thoroughly enjoy it. Wonderful review.

Val: I am thoroughly impressed by how well you remember all these details about Dune when you admit to not having read it in a while. I'm usually hard pressed to remember anything about a book if I haven't read it in the past week.
Thanks for the clarification on the water issue. I guess the information was there but I just didn't grasp it at the time.

Carl: I'm happy to hear that you liked the movie since I've been intending to watch it. I look forward to seeing what you think about the book, when you get around to reading it.

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