Dune: The Book and Its Influences

Earlier in the fall, partly prompted by the then-upcoming Denis Villeneuve film, Jackie at Death by Tsundoku and I decided to embark on a buddy read of the epic science fiction classic, Dune, written by Frank Herbert. It was Jackie’s first time reading the book and the I-don’t-know-how-many-th time through.

We had multiple discussions throughout the reading of it and long after we finished. We condensed it into two parts, one about the book itself and its influences, and the second dealing with our impressions of the story and what we think will carry over into the upcoming film, which was postponed until October 2021, thanks to COVID. We’ll post part two tomorrow.

Jackie: As you know, this will be my first reading of Dune. Dune was published originally in 1965. It’s considered one of, if not the greatest science fiction novel of all time. Obviously, it has influenced many speculative fiction authors since publication. We’ve got a prophecy and a chosen one plus a female-only group of powerful politically manipulating demi-witches who don’t normally expose men to their ways. Oh hai The Wheel of Time. Or, prophecies and the establishment of great houses with heirs and backstabbing. Oh hai A Song of Ice and Fire. And this is just from the first chapter. I’m excited to take this journey. 

Kim: Yup. Dune’s fingerprints are all over science fiction and fantasy. I’ve said for a long time that the Aes Sedai want to be the Bene Gesserit when they grow up. I’ve heard complaints from people reading Dune for the first time in the past few years that there are so many tropes, and I’m thinking ‘this is one of the works that kicked off the tropes!’. 

Jackie: Indeed; all tropes come from somewhere. And if people don’t know the history of a book it can be easy for them to blame the book for its own existence. This is something I’ve learned a lot about as I’ve read the Newbery Winners. They might not all be favorites, but most have done something meaningful for children’s literature. You just wouldn’t know if you didn’t bother to learn about it.

I find it interesting how Herbert will switch narrative perspectives between paragraphs. For example, I just read the first chapter where we meet Dr. Yueh. It’ll be two sentences from Yueh’s perspective, then one from Paul, then one from Yueh, then two from Paul… It forces me to read the text more slowly than usual. I need to focus to follow these changes. I’m about 15% done with the book now, so I should get used to it soon.

Kim: Third person omniscient. It definitely makes for a change compared to the First Person or Third Person Limited perspectives most authors use these days. 

Also, it’s making me super happy that you’re excited about the story at 15%, because it just gets more and more interesting (to me it does, anyway).

Jackie: It’s hard not to be interested! Herbert is dropping so many hints for the future and yet we barely know these characters. And I don’t know what I believe because there are so many potential truths. Everyone seems to think Leto will die and Jessica will succumb to some terribly sad fate, but will they? How can I know if I don’t keep reading?!?!

And Paul. He’s fascinating. Only 15. Quiet. Focused. Intent. And yet, his mentors and parents keep commenting on his lack of focus due to his youth. I cannot even imagine being like that innately. Is this how all children of great Houses are? I’d love to meet others to compare. I don’t know enough to know if Feyd-Rautha counts. I just know he’s a nephew. He could be in his 30’s for all I know! I want to know more about Paul. What motivates him? Why is he this way? Does he appreciate it? So many questions!

Kim: Feyd is not that much older than Paul, if I recall correctly. I think their age difference is only a few years, if that. Assuming I remember correctly. 

I think that’s what drew me to the story so much when I was a teenager– the fact that Paul was so young, but was so inwardly focused and understood things so much. I’ve always been a major introvert, so seeing another teen who was introverted was appealing after seeing so many pop culture characters who were extroverts and (in comparison to me) super chatty and outgoing. I loved that we were able to see Paul’s way of thinking and his through process. And that he wasn’t some tall, brawny, athletic guy was appealing, too. 

Paul reminds me of the children of the Tudor court– particularly Elizabeth, Jane Grey, and Edward VI. They were all extremely intelligent, highly educated children who could hold their own with adults in conversation and debate. Elizabeth, for example, was the victim of a scandal brought down upon her head by the behavior of a much older man. She had to defend herself in a high-pressure situation or else face punishments up to and including possible execution. She did so successfully. She was 14. So I think Paul’s self-possession has more to do with his being the scion of one of the great houses, and less to do with it being futuristic. I don’t think any of the young people in this book are particularly child-like. 

Especially the Fremen.

Jackie: Wow. That story about Elizabeth blows me away. But when I stop to think about it, this makes sense. We’ve thought that our children were just tiny adults for generations. It’s only in the modern era that we’ve started to allow children to focus on play again. It makes sense for the children of royalty to be bred to be tiny little pristine royals. Though, it does make my heart go out to them to have to take on such responsibility at so young an age. This perspective will help me view Paul and his world differently, in a good way. 

Paul’s acceptance of being The Chosen One in this moment of trauma startled me. I know he’s been conditioned for this, both overtly and covertly, his whole life. But that didn’t make it any easier for me to swallow in such a horrifying moment of his life. Herbert has done a great job leaving breadcrumbs to help the reader understand the magnitude of what it means to be Mentat or Bene Gesserit, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the full realization of what such training will manifest as. Particularly if Paul really is The Chosen One. 

All I really understand is that if Paul steps into this role he’s thrown a bunch of other stuff a bit out of whack for the rest of the world. And I like that. This is a twist on The Chosen One I haven’t seen explored before. What happens if the prophecy comes to light but at the “wrong time”? We see a bit of this in The Wheel of Time but mostly as no one knows when the next Dragon will come. And even when he does come, people expect him now anyway. I hope Herbert leaves Paul’s ascension a huge roadblock for everyone else’s scheming. 

Kim: I’m not going to spoil anything for you. 🙂

I don’t know that Paul was conditioned to be a Chosen One all his life, but Leto was getting him training to become the most formidable Duke he could be once it was his time to rule, and Jessica had hoped. But she wouldn’t have told Leto anything about the Bene Gesserit goals or the Kwisatz Haderach. 

Herbert’s take on the Chosen One trope (which has been around for a long time, it just hadn’t been as widespread as it is now) is definitely different from what even a lot of modern authors do. I’ve seen so many Chosen Ones who find out what they are, and then blithely walk down the road of destiny like it’s no big deal, like their actions aren’t going to affect everyone in the world. Few take the time to think, “Wow, what I do now could lead to some amazing things or some terrible ones, so what’s the best thing to do that will lead to the least amount of conflict?” Maybe Rand in The Wheel of Time does it, but it’s been so long since I read it that I don’t remember now.

Jackie: Rand eventually comes to terms with being the Chosen One, but he’s also slowly going mad in the process so… he’s not always the most reliable. In fact, he sometimes makes choices people think are terrible, such as starting massive conflict, because he thinks it will get him to the end of his journey faster. Rand is a complex character. 

Now that I’m done reading the book, Paul Atredies means something totally different to me – and is in many ways an equally complex character as Rand is, even from within a single novel. Where earlier I found his quiet intelligence a bit disconcerting, I can now see the politician, diplomat, and leader he was groomed to be. The resistance he puts up to falling into the Chosen One role drew me closer to him. Like his father, Paul is concerned about the consequences of power. He’s not a self-involved, arrogant 15-year-old. His development throughout Dune is all about seeking another path to his destiny which he knows he cannot escape. 

Paul’s development is what makes Feyd-Rautha’s character so interesting. He isn’t a foil to Paul, but he is instead running headlong into his presumed destiny. Feyd-Rautha, unlike Paul, isn’t afraid to manipulate the world around him to forge the destiny he wants. He doesn’t care what path he takes to reach his destination.

Kim: I think both Paul and Feyd are products of their families and their family’s priorities. The Atreides like to, at the very least, project an aura of bravura and concern for their people. Leto has a genuine desire to take care of the people in his domains, but he’s not beyond manipulating the politics of a region for his ends. Hence the propaganda he distributed when they arrived on Arrakis. Paul’s intense education both prepared him for the Dukedom in the traditional Imperial sense (the way a child like Edward VI or Elizabeth I were educated), and caused him to be concerned for his people. He spends so much thought on trying to avert the worst outcomes of the futures he sees. 

Feyd, on the other hand, is smart and conniving– the way the Baron Harkonnen is– but his education has involved gaining power and wealth at all costs, regardless of who is hurt in the process. Even if it’s his own family he’s turning against. It’s a mindset that leaves all of them open to manipulation by those who can play on their worst impulses. It also puts them on this narrow-minded path that prevents them from seeing alternate solutions to problems. I always wonder if Feyd would have been more like Paul had he grown up with a mindset more like the Atreides.

Jackie: I bet he would have. It was a subtle thing I noticed, when Baron Harkonnen ordered the deaths of certain people in Feyd-Rautha’s life, Feyd did hesitate. I stopped reading there and pondered the idea of nature versus nurture a bit. Particularly knowing Paul’s lineage, could it be that if their upbringing and education were switched they would have turned into each other? 

Complete change of topic. Let’s explore the religions of Dune. I wasn’t expecting religion to be such a looming presence. First, we are introduced to the Bene Gesserit. I love this female-dominated socio-political religious force. They are quite self-serving, but most religious orders are. With titles of Reverend Mother and documents like the Missionaria Protectiva, they are exploiting the power of religion to achieve their own goals. 

While the Fremen don’t seem to have a name for their religion, they are devoutly religious. In many ways, they parallel the Bene Gesserit. They have socio-political forces driving their goals on Arrakis, similar to the interstellar goals of the Bene Gesserit. Only this feels more like a traditional Abrahamic religion. I get that the Fremen are based on Arabic cultures, so perhaps it’s that influence pushing through. They feel like devout believers of the future of Arrakis. This religion is powerful and has a tangible faith. But, are they just a radicalization of religion developed through Bene Gesserit manipulation?

Kim: I think that’s primarily what it is. The Bene Gesserit’s Missionaria Protectiva is a doctrine that is spread across all the worlds to be used by the sisters in dodgy situations, and because the Bene Gesserit’s focus is on politics, they’ve been able to embed it in the philosophy of their society.

But because the Fremen have been persecuted throughout the millennia– and because that persecution is part of their cultural memory– they are basically radicalized, just looking for their Mahdi to lead them to a great future. Someone in the book says that the worst thing that could happen to the Fremen is a messiah, and they weren’t wrong. But I think the Missionaria Protectiva has left them primed for following just the right leader– who just so happens to be the Kwisatz Haderach born a generation earlier than the Bene Gesserit had planned for. 

Jackie: Reflecting on all we’ve discussed, it’s obvious to me why Dune holds such a place of honor in science fiction literature. Not only did Herbert influence many authors who followed him (and continues to do so to this day) but he also took things highly foreign to his intended readership and masterfully connected them to things his readership understands clearly, thereby making a complex world accessible and engaging. 

I don’t know if I want to continue reading this series, honestly. Dune is such a masterpiece to me I worry I’ll corrupt my love of it if I keep reading. But, to your point about the Fremen being radicalized… this isn’t something Herbert explores directly in Dune. And it makes me want to keep reading if only to find out what happens next.

7 thoughts on “Dune: The Book and Its Influences

  1. Great discussion. I loved Dune and while I did enjoy the sequel too, I definitely didn’t think it was as good. I’m excited to see how it’s being adapted in the upcoming film.

  2. Dune Messiah has such a different tone to it, so I can understand why people don’t like it as much. I am so looking forward to the movie. It was the only film of 2020 I wanted to see this year, and then it got moved to next Fall. *sigh* Oh, well. We still have the book!

  3. Pingback: Dune in Discussion: Dune and Its Influences – Death by Tsundoku

  4. I just finished my second reading of the book, this time via the audiobook. I think it’s definitely one of those books rich enough to keep providing something more with each reading. I agree with your talk about having to keep a book’s history in mind when reading it, especially when it was one of the early books providing such an influence on what came later. I’ve never read beyond the first book, but I am increasingly tempted to give the next book a try at some point. I really enjoyed this discussion!

  5. I find something new every time I read Dune, and I’ve read it I don’t know how many times in the past 20-odd years (don’t want to think about exactly how long….). There is always so much to think about and see in a new perspective. I know I’ll be looking at elements of it in a different way next time I read it, just because of what Jackie and I have discussed.

  6. I’m glad you found our discussion valuable, Kim! I know I learned a lot from you – but it was also my first read. I keep thinking about Dune… in fact, I forced David to pack it in his hospital bag (highly recommended for the support person to bring some non-electronic form of entertainment for when I am sleeping or whatnot). I hope he reads it! He read it once as a high schooler and enjoyed it, but I think he would get so much more out of it now.

  7. I think he’d get a lot out of it now, too! Glad you’re having him bring it along!

    You pointed out several things that I’d never thought of before, like Feyd-Rautha and Paul being sort of two sides of the same coin, and that Feyd might have been more like Paul (and vice versa) had he grown up somewhere else. That’s the great thing about well-written stores like Dune. They’re full of so many things you can find and learn from, no matter how many times you read it.

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