Books in the Belfry: “Dune” by Frank Herbert

Welcome to the first installment of my new book review series, “Books In The Belfry.” (Clever word play, amiright? No? Ah, okay.) In the spirit of trying to add more to my corner of the web and getting back into the habit of blogging, I’ve decided to start with one of the true loves in my life – reading. I read a lot of books (my Goodreads account is not a good gauge to how much I read as I often forget to add my books – I’m working on it), I talk a lot about those books, I spend a lot of time in the bookstore – why not bring some of that energy here?

The first book that we’re going to scrutinize is a science fiction classic, and honestly a book that I should have read years ago but kept putting it off and putting it off. It is a bit of a long one, and please keep in mind even though the summary is just a brief overview, it will contain spoilers. It goes without saying that these are my own thoughts and opinions. Whether I like a book or not, I encourage everyone to pick up the book themselves if they are interested in reading it, and form their own opinions. If you’ve read the book in question, feel free to share your thoughts/opinions in the comments.

Image source: Goodreads

AUTHOR: Frank Herbert
SERIES: Dune #1
PUBLISHED: First published on August 1, 1965
PURCHASE: Click here.
BACK OF THE BOOK BLURB: “Here is the novel that will be forever considered a triumph of the imagination. Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib. He would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family—and would bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream. A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what it undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.”

Dune follows the life of the young ducal heir, Paul Atreides. House Atreides, which rules over the ocean planet of Caladan, is assigned by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV to oversee the spice mining operation on the planet of Arrakis. Arrakis is a inhospitable desert wasteland, but it is the only planet in the galaxy that produces the spice melange, a highly coveted substance that is required for space travel. Melange is also a drug, which expands the consciousness and give its user extended life. The leader of House Atreides and Paul’s father, Duke Leto, knows that he is walking into a trap but he does not refuse. The Emperor sees Duke Leto as a rival amongst the houses of the Landsraad (the assembly of all the noble families in the galaxy) and fears that House Atreides is assembling troops and popularity to overthrow him. Since he cannot attack Duke Leto directly, as the other houses of Landsraad would rise up against him if he did, the Emperor conspires with the long-standing rivals of House Atreides, House Harkonnen. House Harkonnen is ruled by a morbidly obese, sloppy, ephebophile named Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The Baron has been instructed to eliminate the Atreides once they settle on Arrakis.

Paul’s mother is Lady Jessica, who is the bound concubine of Duke Leto. She is a member of a secretive sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit, who train their minds and bodies through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers. These powers often appear “magical” to those outside the sisterhood. They use their abilities to manipulate behind the scenes, in attempts to push humanity onto, what they consider to be, an enlightened path. One of their methods is through a breeding program, with the ultimate goal of creating a superhuman, referred to as the Kwisatz Haderach. As this program is one generation away from completion, Lady Jessica is ordered to bear only daughters to Duke Leto, so that daughter can be wed to a Harkonnen heir. Out of love for Duke Leto, she bore him a son, Paul. Paul exhibits talent and promise from a young age, and receives instruction in warfare from Duke Leto’s aides, the Mentat assassin Thufir Hawat and elite soldiers Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck. Lady Jessica also trains Paul in the Bene Gesserit disciplines but she is found out by her superior, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. Before leaving for Arrakis, the Reverend Mother goes to Caladan to give Paul the Test of Humanity, using the gom jabbar (a poisonous needle on a thimble). Paul is able to pass this test, and the Reverend Mother gives Lady Jessica the go ahead to continue with Paul’s instruction.

House Atreides lands on Arrakis, settling in the capital city of Arrakeen. Duke Leto learns quickly that mining spice is not an easy job, as the Harkonnens have left the mining equipment in poor order, and the spice is heavily protected by the giant sand worms. Duke Leto seeks to engage with the native population of Arrakis, the Fremen, to make them allies. However, discourse is sewn into the household, when rumors of a traitor begin to circulate. The Mentat assassin, Thufir Hawat, who oversees the security of House Atreides, believes it to be Lady Jessica. The traitor turns out to be Duke Leto’s personal physician, Dr. Wellington Yueh, whose wife was tortured and killed by the Harkonnens.

Dr. Yueh has his own revenge plot to assassinate Baron Harkonnen. On the night of the planned invasion, Dr. Yueh runs into Duke Leto in the hall, and hits him with a poisonous dart. While paralysed, Dr. Yueh replaces on of Duke Leto’s teeth with a poison capsule, instructing him to bite down on it and exhaling the poison into the Baron’s face when he stoops to gloat over Leto’s body. In exchange for this, Dr. Yueh promises the Duke that he will get Paul and Lady Jessica out of the city safely. Dr. Yueh disables the protective shields around the palace, allowing the Harkonnen army (which is enriched with the Emperor’s “terror troops” called Sardukaur – in disguise) to enter the palace and destroy the Atreides family. Dr. Yueh’s assassination attempt on the Baron fails, however; the poisonous gas misses the Baron and hits his Mentat assassin, Piter de Vries. Both Duke Leto and Piter de Vries die. Baron Harkonnen seizes Thufir Hawat in the raid to replace Piter as his Mentat.

Paul and Lady Jessica escape into the deep desert, assisted by the care packages left by Dr. Yueh. While hiding in their tent, it becomes known that Lady Jessica is pregnant with a daughter she names Alia. They join the Fremen community of Sietch Tabr, teaching them the weirding ways of the Bene Gesserit in exchange for learning the ways of the desert. Lady Jessica becomes the Fremen’s new Reverend Mother, taking the Waters of Life, which is a poison derived from the bile of baby sand worms. Because she is pregnant, her daughter Alia experiences all that her mother does from the poison, gaining wisdom prior to her birth. Living on the spice diet of the Fremen, Paul’s omniscience increases dramatically, enabling him to have clear visions of the future. The Fremen begin to regard him as their prophesied Messiah, the Mahdi. As Paul’s influence begins to grow, he begins to plot revenge against the Harkonnen rule of the planet under his new Fremen name, Muad’Dib. Paul leads bands of Fremen in guerilla warfare against the Harkonnens, which nearly halts the spice mining operation on Arrakis.

Rumors about the new Fremen leader Muad’Dib reaches both Baron Harkonnen and the Emperor. The Baron decides that, in order to gain favour with the Fremen, he will replace his brutish nephew Rabban, who had been in charge of Arrakis since the invasion, with his “beautiful” nephew, Feyd-Rautha. The Emperor starts to become suspicious of Baron Harkonnen, and fearing that he is making plans to overthrow him, sends his Imperial spies to monitor activity on Arrakis. Hawat uses the opportunity to sow seeds of doubt in the Baron about the Emperor’s true plans, putting further strain on their alliance. Gurney Halleck, who has been living as a smuggler, reunites with Paul and Jessica in the desert. Believing Jessica to be the Atreides traitor, Gurney attempts to kill her, but Paul arrives in time and is able to diffuse the situation. Upset that he didn’t receive a vision of Gurney’s attack, Paul believes he must increase his consciousness by drinking the Waters of Life. The Waters of Life is poisonous to men, and upon drinking it, Paul falls into a comatose state for three weeks. Concerned for Paul’s life, Lady Jessica hides Paul away and send for Paul’s concubine, Chani. When Chani is able to coax Paul awake, Paul rises as the Kwisatz Haderach, and he is able to see clear visions across time and space. It is also revealed that Jessica is the secret daughter of the Baron Harkonnen, making the Baron Paul’s grandfather.

Paul senses that the Emperor and Baron Harkonnen are gathering their forces around Arrakis to squash the Fremen uprising, and he prepares the Fremen for a major offensive against them. The Emperor arrives with the Baron on Arrakis, and their troops seize a Fremen outpost, killing many, including Paul and Chani’s son, Leto II. Alia is captured and taken to the Baron, to whom she remains defiant, revealing that Muad’Dib is Paul. At that moment, Paul and the Fremen, riding giant sandworms, move on the capital. Alia assassinates the Baron with a gom jabbar and escapes. Paul and the Fremen quickly defeat the Harkonnen and Sardaukar troops. Paul faces off with the Emperor, threatening to destroy spice production completely, unless the Emperor hands over the throne. Feyd-Rautha attempts to stop Paul by challenging him to combat, but Paul is able to quickly best him, resulting in Feyd’s death. The Emperor reluctantly hands over the throne to Paul and promises his daughter, Princess Irulan, for his bride. As Paul takes control of the Empire, he realizes that while he achieved his goal, he is no longer able to stop the Fremen’s jihad, as their belief in him is too powerful to contain.

Let me say, just right up front… this book is a work out. My brain was buzzing around like Christmas. The world that Frank Herbert builds in this novel is absolutely incredible, and there are a lot of intricate pieces. Frank Herbert’s writing style flows very well, is very descriptive, and this was one of those novels where I got sucked in right away from the beginning. One of those “start reading, look away, look back and you’re already on page 400 kind-of-stories,” if you know what I’m talking about. I feel that this book could have been 300 pages longer than it was. That’s pretty big talk, considering this book is over 800 pages long, but I feel like there was so much buildup and so much put on to how Paul built this desert power, and then all of the action of reclaiming Arrakeen and becoming the God Emperor only happened in like… the last 70 pages and I was just like “Whaaaaaaat? Wait a second?”

I went into this novel fresh from watching David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation (watch the trailer here – I know it’s available on Canadian Netflix – I don’t know about anywhere else). After completing the novel… I can see why so many Dune fans take issue with that film. That being said, I really did enjoy some of the visuals from the movie and I think that some of it did translate well from novel to film. What I didn’t realize, though… the film makes it seem like Paul and his mother’s escape into the desert and their triumphant return to claim the galactic empire… there’s a spanse of time in-between those events. Even in the mini-series from 2000 (watch the trailer for that here), it just feels like there is a good chunk of time that passes by. In the novel? Nope. Paul literally does all of this in the spanse of two years. TWO. BLOODY. YEARS. He’s 15 when he arrives on Arrakis, which means he is 17 years old when he transforms into a literal god among sheep. And he has so much insight into those around him, and he is such a wise and brilliant person to basically bring this all about. I admire him so much, but at the same time I feel so sorry for him. Just like I did for Alex is Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. I am not a man, so I can’t speak to what growing up as a man is like, but I would think that the ages of 15 to 17 are essential to social development and here Paul is… plotting to overthrow the emperor and rule the galaxy like it ain’t no thang (which gave me a lot of Anakin Skywalker vibes, let me tell you). I suppose being able to look past time and space would help, but it’s a big feat, for sure.

There are a lot of complex themes in this novel. The rise and fall of an empire, which is historically comparable to the fall of Rome. The emperor becomes ineffective because his ego does not allow him to recognize the problems he has created amongst those he is supposed to lead. He is self-serving and overconfident, whereas the Fremen put their community before all else and are willing to sacrifice themselves for what they see to be the greater good. There is a lot of emphasis put on water. Water is absolutely sacred to the Fremen, so much so that they reclaim it from their dead and their own body fluids/waste via a contraption called a stillsuit. The Fremen wish to terraform Arrakis and make it into a livable paradise, leaving the deep desert for Shai-hulud, the sandworms. They see, and treat, their planet as the living organism it is, instead of something to be harvested and traded away. The religion and customs of the Fremen are interesting ones, and I noticed there are a lot of Islamic terms throughout – like Paul’s taking the name of “Muad’Dib,” which means “the teacher or maker of politeness or literature” in Arabic; Paul receiving visions of the “jihad,” the Fremen holy war against the empire; the Fremen referring to Paul as their “Mahdi,” or messiah, etc. They are also very much in touch with the concept of “survival of the fittest,” having the leaders chosen by combat.

My final thoughts, as this post is mammoth enough and if you’ve made it this far, congratulations… this is just a really great book, and I look forward to taking on the sequels. Also, Baron Harkonnen is a vile, disgusting pig and I love to hate him.

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