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Dune: A Socio-Political Critique

I just finished re-reading Frank Herbert's most famous work, Dune. A bit of a guilty pleasure that, since I am supposed to be working on a case for my International Accounting class, having to due with currency exchange translation causing a profitable enterprise to become a losing one, but I tell myself that the diversion makes my mind fresh for the academic work. Which I will do ... later.

Anyway, I am a bit more of a critical reader now than I was in years past, which is to say that when an author does something I think is a mistake I am far more likely to say something about it. In the case of Dune, it became obvious to me the first time I read Dune and its sequels that Mr. Herbert figured to make his name as a "great" writer, by that meaning that he wants his stories to be not just popular but "important". This is why the man stuck what in these post-Rathergate days I may call "fake but accurate" documents, fictional accounts meant to support the underlying structure of Dune's plot and social community. The thing is, even a cursory examination proves the façade to be thin indeed.

Dune is most famous as a political novel concerning ecology, politics, religion, and human emotion. Maybe it's because of the Chrichton novels since then, but it seems to me that Dune is essentially barren of real technology in its plot, even the ecological lessons it tries to teach. Rhetoric, yes, but no real science behind it. Similar contradictions showed up everywhere throughout the novel. The rulers of the so-called Great Houses are supposed to be politically brilliant, yet they constantly blunder into huge mistakes, errors they do not notice and which they make no effective attempt to correct. The same mistakes were apparent with regard to religion. The Fremen of Dune are loosely identified as some sort of Muslim, a variant of Shiites obsessed with finding the Kwitzach Haderach, also known as their Mahdi. Yet these Fremen are never seen in practice of Islam; in the whole book there is only one reference to the muzzein, and while the word 'sharia' is used, there is no reference to it in practice. Most of all, the prophet Mohammed is never once mentioned, nor does any of the Fremen quote the Quran! Christianity fares no better with Herbert. The reader is introduced to the "Orange Catholic" Bible, a nonsense word for anyone familiar with William of Orange and the causes of the Reformation. No one claims to be Christian in the story, nor are their any ministers or priests, although the mystic 'Bene Gesserits' call their leaders 'Reverend Mother' in a way suggestive of nunnery's Mother Superior. Characters throw out quotes from time to time which suggest badly recalled (or deliberately misquoted) Bible and Quranic verses, apparently suggesting that this world of the future did not care enough of Scripture to keep it true - a common lie we hear today from people who find their own opinion better than the Word from God. Various characters exhibit zenlike meditation and philosophical contemplation, but again there is no mention of the boddhavista. Herbert was clearly atheist in his preferred worldview, or should I say he was more a Humanist-Gnostic with pagan leanings. Just something to keep in mind, that Herbert had not one of his heroes call on a higher power or person; they worshipped themselves unless they were - quite literally - praying to another human as their lord.

-- continued --

Returning to politics, though, it struck as bizarre that a future social structure should be based on the assumption of a monarchy. Paul Atreides, the hero of the story, is scion of the "Great House" Atreides, and he is the son of the "Duke", Leto. The Atreides are in constant war against the House Harkonnen, which is led by a Baron. The known universe is controlled by a triumvirate of powers consisting of a Guild of space pilots and shippers, a "Landsraad" of essentially feudal noble houses, and the Emporer. One would think that 15-century machinations would be out of place in, say, the 30th century Common Era, but there is not even the pretense of democracy or populism. Even the Fremen in the book defer to Paul Atreides simply because he waves around a ring showing he is the Duke. I could say this comes from too much devotion to tokenism by Herbert, but in actual fact I think Herbert just could not resist trying to work some Macchivellianism into his plot, and herbert fell into the medeival worldview without thinking it through. To see why this is a critical flaw in the story, imagine the many professional positions which held no status at all in Herbert's world, how little a meritocracy fared with him. Even ancient China and Egypt were marked by a class of professionals, especially in government and the military, where a person's worth was marked by his work and skill. Herbert made a big mistake there.

And then there is the military scope. Herbert makes it clear that the most feared military force in the known universe is the Emporer's "Sardaukar", which are trained on his prison planet at Salusa Secondus. Yet even the Sardaukar are no match for the Fremen, especially Paul Atreides' "Fedaykin" (a vulgarization of 'fedayeen'). The explanation given by Herbert, is the notion that extreme deprivation and hardship are effective tools at building a high-performance military force. For the purpose of Herbert's story, he gets away with it as long as no one thinks that one through, but in the real world the concept is laughable on its face. For example, if you want, say, your pet dog to be fast and strong, would you give him a poor diet and beat him regularly? That would actually be about the worst thing you could do, actually. If you want a strong, agile, fast, devoted dog, you have to make sure of the opposite - feed him well, be clear in your instruction and praise him for success, never abusing him or mistreating him. Discipline must exist, but it must be constructive, not punitive. Look at human military units; the best do not come, frankly, from remote and desolate areas, where the food is poor and the water meager, where merely surviving is difficult. No, the most elite units are well-fed and carefully trained, their medical needs are immediately tended to, and they are constantly made aware of not only standards, but rewards for success. If a people existed like the Fremen on Arrakis, they would be weak, disorganized, chaotic, and ill-equipped. Herbert got that part of his story very, very wrong.

I will be the first to say that Frank Herbert's story was an enjoyable read, but I have to say that taking it as anything but fiction (as various groups have done over the years) would be a very bad mistake. The image of a thing, the delivery of it and the style of it, does not create one iota of real substance, yet this is a caution some people allow themselves to ignore.


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Comments (27)

I think you're misreading H... (Below threshold)

I think you're misreading Herbert slightly. The "Orange Catholic Bible", for instance, is probably a deliberate reference; if you look in the appendixes it turns out to be a product of a ecumenical movement trying to combine all scriptures into one. (One can blame Herbert for not explaining how this was able to work at all, but given the strong underlying theme in the novel that all religions are fakes anyway -- the whole Fremen prophetic kit was essentially implanted by the Bene Gesserit as an emergency escape route in case one of them got stranded on the planet -- there are other things to deal with first. The underlying joke of the novel is that the Fremen, by taking the false religion seriously, end up ruling the universe.)

As far as the deprivation thing goes, we might note a long-standing tradition (at least up until the days of rampant high tech) that peasant kids make the best soldiers (or consider American backwoods heroes like Audie Murphy). This _is_ a long-standing theme in some of Herbert's other books, though: stress calls forth greater abilities in response. I think he pushes it to extremes (notably in _The Dosadi Experiment_), not realizing that while _some_ stress is good for development, it's not a linear relationship: too much stress will break the person altogether.

Herbert's nearest thing to the professional class is the Spacing Guild and the mentats, but his essential argument here is that, focusing narrowmindedly on _how_ to do something, they have forgotten the larger art of picking _what they should be doing_, which is not entirely an unjustified critique. The mentats give themselves over to their masters; the Guild has prescience just like Paul but keeps trying to choose the safe sure route, instead of risking big to win big, and therefore decays into powerlessness.

I don't always agree with Herbert's answers, but he is at least aware that the questions exist.

I disagree, Tony. Herbert ... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

I disagree, Tony. Herbert makes some sweeping assumptions, never supports how they are supposed to have come about, and then builds his infrastructure on them. The end result is that his constructs fail on their own internal contradictions.

It's a common mistake, and if you think about it, you may see modern situations where the same mindset is causing similar errors of judgment.

I am thinking you are missi... (Below threshold)

I am thinking you are missing a big point.

Dune takes place THOUSANDS of years in the future. (been a while since I read it, but I think it is around 10,000AD, so eight thousand years in the future).

All the religions have morphed, changed, combined in some cases (Zensunni) as to be unrecognizable to what they are today. Same goes for language, and so on.

And that is one of the points of the book - religion is as much a function of history and culture as anything else, and is going to change as the human race changes.

These aren't "mistakes", they are attempted extrapolations to what would happen to our religions today over thousands of years, mass migrations off the planet, and the near extermination by the human race by the "thinking machines"

I am actually a little sad that you didn't get all these points since when I first read the book at 13 I thought it was rather obvious.

I've only seen the movie an... (Below threshold)

I've only seen the movie and TV shows, but I think Herbert summoned up just enough Middle East/Arab culture to support a parrallel to the 70's oil crisis.

And also I believe in the 70's the perception would be of Middle East Culture which includes Islam but not necessarily always centers on Islam. Much of the 70's was pre-fundamentalist.

One thing that Herbert fortells is the consequence of the inhabitants of Dune uniting to control the 'spice' (aka oil) on which the entire Dune universe relies on to exist. I believe he was fortelling an eventuality of the Middle East. Eventually they may be united under one leader and if you think oil is expensive now, watch out.

The reference to 'he who can destroy a thing, controls a thing' is possible a reference to assymetrical warfare and terrorist tactics capable of shutting down oil exports to the West regardless of the superior military of the West.

We'll see.

I "get" the points, Mitch. ... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

I "get" the points, Mitch. I simply do not agree with them, and I find errors in herbert's assumptions which make his work untenable.

Religion, for example. Did you know that some of the earliest written religious texts have been passed on without error by oral tradition? The assumption that all scriptures would be hashed together, misquoted, and ignored except for philosophical import, displays a staggering contempt for the known historical record, for the character of human history and psychology, and an appalling lack of comprehension on Herbert's part. It's like the backwoods minister who would reject the Quran as a pack of lies, but in Herbert's case all religions are simlarly dismissed by all people. It's a stunning piece of arrogance by Herbert, and while you may not find religion useful or significant, the evidence of all of human history goes the other way. What is truly flawed in Herbert's work, is how he wants religion to exist yet give it no credence or authority. The argument might work one way or another, in a universe utterly without religion or one with thriving religion, but not both. You simply cannot call that anything but a functional contradiction.

You might want to read the book again, Mitch. Your post displays what I got at age 11, but not what I caught when reading it as an adult.

That's a good point jpm, an... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

That's a good point jpm, and one of the salient lessons from Dune. In 1965, when the book was first published, the West held a lot more power in the Middle East than people today might realize. The dominant companies were European and American, the dominant military force in the region was British. Naturally, Herbert crafted his 'Landsraadt' on the old European social order, especially the colonial mindset which still pervaded thoughts on the Arab world. This preceded Nasser's disastrous expedition against Israel in 1967, preceded the rise of the PLO and the turnover of military stewardship of the Persian Gulf from Britain to the United States in 1973, and even OPEC was only five years old when Dune was first published.

I think you might be over-t... (Below threshold)

I think you might be over-thinking this a little bit. Sure others may try to morph Dune into some social commentary but it is, as you stated, a work of fiction.

Dune is fantastic, in my opinion, because it shows creative genius. The books are filled with so many ideas and they are ideas unlike those found anywhere else. Spaceships flown by computers and hyperdrives? I think not. How about ships flow by guild navigators, which are humans so mutated by spice overdose that they live in huge fish-like-tanks as they see into the future and use force-of-will control engines that fold space.

If you haven't done so, I highly recommend the rest of the series. The next one (Dune Messiah) is just OK. The forth one (God Emperor of Dune) is fantastic. There are even a final two books, written by his son, based on notes found in a safe deposit box after Herbert's death.

The whole series is never to be taken seriously (the science errors are immense and characters possess abilities that almost defy believability at times). But the Dune universe is wonderfully imaginative, IMO, and should be admired for that.

#1: Emperor#2: I a... (Below threshold)

#1: Emperor

#2: I always thought the name "Bene Gesserit" was derived from "Benedictine" and "Jesuit", as if the two orders had merged at some distant point in the future and the pronunciation was fouled.

DJ, it has been a while sin... (Below threshold)

DJ, it has been a while since I read the Dune novels, BUT:
The fremen follow a religion that is based on bhudism and islam, Zensunni. This religion, if I recall, came to be after millenia of humans being spread across the galaxy, forced slavery and a genocidal war forcing different religious and ethnic groups to intermix.
The Orange Catholic Bible, again going on memory, was created as a compromise book to try and unite all of mankinds religions and philosophy. I think Catholic in this usage is literal (universal) rather then a reference to Roman Catholic faith. This compromise faith was shoved down the throats of most of the galaxy. Only a few, including the zensunni, the Telilax and the Hebrews stayed apart. They became second class citizens as a result. The budislamics became slaves, and some of the slaves escaped into the wild of Arakis.

Which brings on the Fremen vs Sardukar issue.
Thousands of generations of Fremen live in the crucible of Arakis, and every thing they eat and drink, even the air they often breathe, is loaded full of the spice. Which among other things, seems to speed up evolution/mutation.
Religious fanatics to boot, waiting for a jihad that would give them control of their world.
Also, the Bene Gesseret (sp) were manipulating the bloodlines of the Fremen (among others) for hundreds of generations. The eugenic undercurrents in Dune always creeped me out...
The Sardukar were orignially prisoners on Salusa Secondus which had become a post atomic wasteland. Some of these prisoners descendants along with recruits from elsewhere, trained as the Emperor's private army of elite troops. Paris Island meets hell.

Anyway, while the Sardukar were a cut above the other noble houses armies, the Fremen were honed to an even sharper edge. Being isolationists and widely ignored meant that nobody really knew just how dangerous they were. And then Atredies gave them atomic bombs...

As for oral histories, I thought it was pretty clear that the changes to religion were mostly intentional, like the Orange Catholic Bible, or more evolutionary, than they were degradation of the signal over time.

Feudalism, given the technological assumptions about space travel, makes some sense. When travel can only be achived by one group because of one rare commodity, it is not common or cheap. People don;t travel because they can (excepting the truly ultra rich) but because they must. This leads to decentralized governments.

Paul gaining the loyalty of the Fremen had more to it that having a ducal signet ring. Before his father died and his house overthrown the Fremen movers and shakers already suspected that Paul was their prophesized savior. The ring, if anything, helped prove he really was Paul and not some Fremen from the desert and it also granted his movement legitimacy to people off of Arakis, such as the other houses of the Landsraad (sp).

Back to religion, and the Bene Gesseret. This group, among others, has admittedly manipulated religion and oral histories to suit their goals. All over the galaxy. I don't think they were the only ones. With the exception of Judaism, I think Herber was pretty clear that none of the current worlds religions survive into "his future".

I have read all of the Dune... (Below threshold)

I have read all of the Dune books written by Herbert, more than once. While I found them a somewhat interesting read, they struck me as pretentious, bloated, and overly wordy. But then I tend to see most authors as just so enamoured with thier own self importance, especially when they compose multiple sequels. All of the rave reviews won't let them close the book, so to speak, on thier creation. Perhaps I should read something written by Herbert other than the Dune books?

I don't think that all of H... (Below threshold)

I don't think that all of Herbert's ideas work, but I think they are thought out in somewhat more detail than the initial critique made it sound like.

The fact that he has something in a novel doesn't mean he thinks it would work that way, or that it has to work that way.

Some of the impact of Dune was historical; it was one of the first SF novels to deal with ecological themes, for instance, and a lot of it really resonated with the 70s that were about to come. It's hard now to recapture that impact.

I hate science fiction but ... (Below threshold)

I hate science fiction but DJ entitled his piece well since science fiction's real value is in its window on contemporaneous issues. Which is its weakness as literature since issues are ensconced in technological disguises and pedantic constructs, but can be charming the more dated the science fiction piece is because it requires less eye-rolling sufferance from the casual reader.

The Poe short story wherein the Visitor's body expands like a balloon or contracts like a raisin depending on altitude and atmospheric pressure of his flying machine is pretty cool.

Bryan reminds me of a short... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Bryan reminds me of a short story I read once by Arthur Conan Doyle, of 'Sherlock Holmes' fame. The story theorized about monster birds which lived at altitudes more than a mile above ground, and which destroyed flying machines which flew too high. I understand that Doyle was writing fantasy at the time, but I found the story laugh-out-loud funny even though it was obviously meant to be a horror story.

@DJ#2:You expect y... (Below threshold)
Captain Ned:


You expect your sci-fi to come with a complete annotation so that you don't have to figure out for yourself what the author meant?!?

Why should Herbert have told his readers how the universe got from its "enlightened" era in the 1970's to the age of the Atreides some 25,000 years later (using the non-canon Dune Encyclopedia chronology)? We can all read the third-string novels put out by his son to get us from AD 1979 [/handwave] to AG 10,191 (and cry at the lack of art in his writings).

As for Dune being barren of "real technology", what part of the Butlerian Jihad are you not grokking?

Finally, I agree with Herbert's premise that the overarching political arrangement of a myriad of self-governed planetary systems will undoubtedly revert to feudal structures, especially when transport between systems is controlled by the monopoly of the Spacing Guild with its once-strict non-interference policies.

The Dune universe appears bereft of any real-time communication links that could foster anything close to republican democracy. Each system must fend for itself and must "choose" the political system best suited for it. Caladan got lucky, because the Atreides were decent rulers who cared about how they were perceived by their subjects and worked in their subjects' best interests. Herbert makes it clear that A: this is a minority view in the Dune universe and B: such concepts are subversive to the authority of the Padishah Emperor.

Ned, go back and read the a... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Ned, go back and read the article and the comments. Not just what you think is there, but what is really written.

I expect the internal logic to support the writr's assumptions, not blow them to itty bitty pieces. Herbert wrote a good storyline, but his system does not work using his own logic. He ignores too much of history, hard science, and economics.


Look, the real issue is <a ... (Below threshold)

Look, the real issue is http://solongthanksforallthefish.files.wordpress.com/2007/10/dune-cat.jpg

See? Now does it all make sense?

"The rulers of the so-calle... (Below threshold)

"The rulers of the so-called Great Houses are supposed to be politically brilliant, yet they constantly blunder into huge mistakes, errors they do not notice and which they make no effective attempt to correct."

Wow! That never happens in the real world, does it??

"Look at human military units; the best do not come, frankly, from remote and desolate areas, where the food is poor and the water meager, where merely surviving is difficult."

Yes they do. They are called the Royal Gurkhas.

Look, complaining that fiction is fake is one thing..but science fiction!!?? You are OK with space folds but carp that they do not quote from the bible!?
Don't you have a paper to write Sponge Bob?

This book is fiction. The M... (Below threshold)

This book is fiction. The Messiah is not coming. No one takes it seriously. Iraqi and Arrakis is just coincidence as is spice and oil.

Paul, Titus, one word to co... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Paul, Titus, one word to consider : context.

Or have I lost you already? Probably.


Dan: You're a bit behind. T... (Below threshold)

Dan: You're a bit behind. There are now two *trilogies* written by his son and they've just launched a third consisting of two books derived from Herbert's notes for a follow-on to "Chapterhouse: Dune" and a third book that takes on Paul's life between between "Dune" and "Dune: Messiah".

Dan: And I just realized yo... (Below threshold)

Dan: And I just realized you're probably just ignoring the trilogies written by the son rather than being behind. I really need to get my reading comprehension gland worked on one of these days.

Clearly Brian Herbert (the son) is set to milk Dune for all it's worth.

Look how much religion has ... (Below threshold)

Look how much religion has changed in the past two thousand years here on Earth. Now times that by ten and multiply it over hundreds and thousands of worlds. While a believer has faith that his religion is eternal, the historian can document how much religions can change over time. Herbert simply took advantage of that fact. The Appendix on the Orange Catholic Bible even notes the various denominations that participated in it's writing. To our current eyes, many seem strange. But it was simply Herbert noting the unpredictability of history on organizations and ideas.

Add in the fact that the Bene Gesserit (and others) have been manipulating religions for their own goals for at least 10,000 years. Toss in the mass enslavement of humans to Thinking Machines before that and the genocidal casualties of the resulting Butlerian Jihad, and there's no way that religions wouldn't change and change and change.

Regarding the Fremen, you're forgetting that they had access to the most valuable substance in their Universe, melange. Building a complex culture hidden away is quite possible when you have access to great wealth and lots of time to grow. Look at what the Saudis have done in a few decades. The Fremen had many centuries and a greater source of wealth.

"Also, the Bene Gesseret (s... (Below threshold)

"Also, the Bene Gesseret (sp) were manipulating the bloodlines of the Fremen (among others) for hundreds of generations."

No. The Bene Gesserit were definitely NOT manipulating the Fremen bloodlines. In fact, they made it clear in Dune Messiah that they did NOT want any "wild Fremen strain" to contaminate their breeding program. That's why Irulan laced Chani's food with contraceptives for 12 years -- so she wouldn't get pregnant with any child of Paul's, and introduce what the Bene Gesserit considered inferior genes into the bloodlines.

DJ Yes, context. Science fi... (Below threshold)

DJ Yes, context. Science fiction context. That must be what is escaping me. Never the less, I look forward to a spirited debate with you over how the Klingons can look different in the tv show & in the movies, and as to whether or not Captain Kirk could beat up Mr. Spock as I am sure must have happened in some science fiction novel somewhere.

D.J. Drummond. Dumb article... (Below threshold)

D.J. Drummond. Dumb article; Dumb discussion. In a word? Geek.

Yet you found it worth enou... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Yet you found it worth enough of your attention to comment, Titus. What does that make you, hmm?

As others have said, and yo... (Below threshold)

As others have said, and you have failed to address. The "Orange Catholic Bible" was a completely new text created by all the major religions of the world coming together in a summit and compromising. So any point you're making about "bad quotations" is absurd. Apparently, in the future, people were tired of bullshit religious fighting and war.

I'm guessing you're a devout Christian since you seem to be offended at the thought that His word would ever change over the millenia. I guess you've never heard of the new testament?

As for the Freemen being the ultimate army. You seem to imply they are malnurished. They most certainly are not. Their bodies have evolved to require less water than a normal person. And the reason that the Freemen (and Sadukar) are the ultimate army is because their culture is built around "the strongest will survive". In fact, social order is determined by someone below killing the opponent above. Over thousands of years this would cause extreme evolution towards physical might and mental intelligence. That is why they're the strongest army.

I think you tried way to hard to come off as "smarter" than the average reader.






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