Wheels Within Wheels
It seems around high school, people become particularly susceptible to books (it’s almost always a book) that can completely change your life. For some people it’s The Lord of the Rings. For others it might be Atlas Shrugged. For me, it was Dune.
Written in the 1960s by Frank Herbert, Dune was described by Arthur C. Clarke as “The Lord of the Rings of science fiction.” It’s not just a 500-page novel (plus appendices), it is dense. There are wheels-within-wheels of political intrigue, plots within plots, themes within themes.
Back then, SF typically meant that a story was dry and technical (“hard” science fiction), or an escapist adventure that played fast and loose with the laws of physics (“soft”). Dune is somewhere in the middle, and aiming for a larger scope than what you’d find in a pulpy magazine.
The story, loosely summarized, is Hamlet by way of Macbeth in outer space. On acid. Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, moves with his family to Arrakis (Dune), an arid desert planet that is incredibly valuable because it’s the one place to mine spice, a psychotropic substance that makes space travel possible. Arrakis is the kind of place where they write on the map “Here there be sandworms.”
A rival House, the Harkonnens, plots assassination, and Paul and Jessica flee into the arms of the Arrakeen locals, the Fremen. And on top of all of this, a conspiracy of witches has conducted a breeding program among the rich and powerful to produce the next step in human evolution- the kwisatz haderach. But if Paul is the kwisatz haderach, he's has arrived one generation early…
I tried to read the book in middle school and only got a short way in. What convinced me to give it another shot was this web site written by Kristen Brennan, that described Herbert’s inspirations and Dune’s influence on Star Wars (it was considerable.) That was one of the things I loved about the book- there are so many ideas flowing through it that there’s always something to think about. Having a primer on what to expect definitely made the initial plunge more enjoyable.
Another great thing about Dune is that it’s eminantly quotable. The most famous passage is the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, which begins, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. …” Other choice aphorisms include: “Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”[ref]Consider this in the face of the ever-increasing automation of the workforce.[/ref] and “The most persistent principles of the universe [are] accident and error.”[ref]Consider this when mulling over your tangled conspiracy theory.[/ref]
But the biggest idea I took away from Dune was Herbert’s criticism of people turning over authority to superheroes- anyone who promised to solve their problems with extraordinary power. With so much invested in them, their mistakes become magnified, with horrendous consequences. Even if your messiah really is The One, the bureaucracy around them is only Human, prone to mistakes and petty power grabs of their own.
As the kwistaz haderach, Paul is able to see glimpses of the future. He is struck with the awful realization that if he assumes the Fremen persona Muad’Dib and drives away the Harkonnens, he will unleash his fanatical followers upon the rest of the galaxy, starting a holy war that will kill billions.
We flock to superheroes whenever they show up in our movie theaters, but rarely does anyone question their necessity. It takes Superman and General Zod killing hundreds of innocent people in their interpersonal brawl to make people say, “Gee, this is messed up!”
This idea sent me down a rabbit hole for a long time afterward. I was fascinated by examples of people presenting themselves as saviors or superheroes- and exploiting the stories of people who were already seen that way.
More on that next week.