Book Notes: Dune

I finally got around to reading Dune, something I should have done long ago. I’d been put off by the idea that it was kind of a simple story of giant worms that every other science fiction epic has relentlessly pilfered from. There is that, but there’s also a lot more.

Note: no spoilers beyond what you’d get from reading the back cover of the book.

I’ll start by quoting from Wikipedia:

Tim O’Reilly suggests that Herbert also wrote Dune as a counterpoint to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. In his monograph on Frank Herbert, O’Reilly wrote that “Dune is clearly a commentary on the Foundation trilogy. Herbert has taken a look at the same imaginative situation that provoked Asimov’s classic—the decay of a galactic empire—and restated it in a way that draws on different assumptions and suggests radically different conclusions. The twist he has introduced into Dune is that the Mule, not the Foundation, is his hero.” According to O’Reilly, Herbert bases the Bene Gesserit on the scientific shamans of the Foundation, though they use biological rather than statistical science. In contrast to the Foundation series and its praise of science and rationality, Dune proposes that the unconscious and unexpected are actually what are needed for humanity.

However, both works contain a similar theme of the restoration of civilization and seem to make the fundamental assumption that “political maneuvering, the need to control material resources, and friendship or mating bonds will be fundamentally the same in the future as they are now.”

And thus it’s fascinating to see a future where scientism and the strict materialist don’t dominate. Instead ecology and mental development are guiding principles that determine who controls the galaxy.

One quote from the novel that makes this point:

Deep in the human unconsciousness is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.

That which is beyond logic is explored in several strands throughout the novel; the one of psychedelics is arguably the most relatable. Under the influence of spice, Paul can see time fork with many possible futures all dependent on minute decisions in the present. None of it is preordained, with the themes are free will, bravery and leadership dominating.

I’m curious about Hebert’s choices in world building: why leave so many Islamic principles entirely intact? I doubt it was laziness, but at times it also felt kind of hokey. Perhaps the broader theme is that the deeper religious mythos of our contemporary religions hold something far more meaningful and powerful than most scientific materialists can appreciate.

This is what good sci-fi and fantasy is: putting humanity in a strange, unfamiliar setting and looking at that, which is fundamental. It’s easy to lose that in the special effects, battle scenes and fun of world building, but Dune has the good stuff, I definitely wished I had read it sooner.

To sum it up: Dune is a future where the scientific materialists don’t win without becoming a ridiculous dystopia or a kumbaya fest either. As much as it’s a foil to Asimov’s Foundation, some of the themes and conclusions are remarkably similar to The End of Eternity.