Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Science Fiction in Frank Herbert's Dune

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

One of my favorite novels is Frank Herbert's Dune. At the time I was reading it, I was still getting into the science fiction groove. I consider myself more of a fantasy writer and I easily spotted the fantasy elements of the novel. On one hand, Dune is about as science fiction as Star Wars--at least at first glance. As much as Dune is heroic fantasy set in space (with retro-elements such as melee combat using swords, a phobia for "thinking machines", a feudalism of sorts, and a vulnerability to the environment), it does have its own fair share of notable science fiction elements.

Spice in Dune is as McGuffin. It's certainly not based on any presently known substance but is rather more of an analogy of a resource--a precious resource that only a few have real access to yet is indispensable to running society. The first thing that comes to mind, and a friend did point out the Iran/Iraq and desert comparison, is oil. Of course in the novel, I'd like to think that spice is more valuable than oil. It's an amalgam of boons, a power source and a wonder drug at the same time. Yet like many such commodities, it is not without its own costs. Spice is addicting and eventually alters your physiology. But society needs its comforts and to most people, the benefits outweighs the drawbacks. Removing spice from the economy is unthinkable.

Before I move on to the implications of spice---since spice is literally the center of the universe in the novel--I want to talk about religion. For the most part, what unifies the citizens of the Dune universe is a common religion. On one hand, you have the Orange Catholic Bible (O.C. Bible) which for the most part is the religious text the majority is familiar with and also constantly reminds people of their common enemy, the thinking machines. But minor cults and beliefs cannot be totally obliterated despite the assimilation of the O.C. Bible of popular religions we are aware of in the real world. Like the Vorlons in Babylon 5, the Bene Gesserit also manipulate religion to suit their ends. And for the most part, they are successful.

Returning to the topic of spice, this resource affects nearly every important faction or group. First off are the ruling houses. Dune is a feudal-like society, each sector or planet governed by one of the many influential houses. At the top is House Corrino who are virtually emperors in the universe. It is not a democratic system but rather the right of rule passes on to your next of kin. This also governs the politics of the other houses. If one eventually plans to rule, there are two options: one is to outright rebel and the other is to marry into the ruling family. It is for the same reason that Leto Atreides never marries his concubine, so that he might keep the possibilities for an alliance open. Yet as much as House Corrino officially rules all of space, that is not the case. Because other institutions control the flow of spice, House Corrino is not omnipotent or unchallenged. For the most part, House Corrino only has power over the other houses and appoints its favor by determining which house can harvest spice from the planet Arakkis--in which it is assumed corruption and bribery occurs, therefor increasing the wealth of that particular house.

The Spacing Guild is one institution that challenges the authority of the Houses. For the most part, the universe can't live without them for they control transportation, at least the more efficient ones. Without them, trade, communication, and enforcing the edicts of the Houses would not be possible. Yet they are dependent on the resource of spice. Their pilots would not be able to navigate space without the use of such materials. In modern day terms, they are very well like the corporations, exerting a strong influence in how the world works without directly being in a position of rulership.

Then there is the planet Arrakis itself where spice is harvested. For the most part, it is the most harsh and unforgiving habitable planet, barely being livable. Because of that fact, I don't think it's a surprise why religion plays a huge part in Arrakis culture. But that topic is debatable and what is undeniable in the book is how the locals are exploited to harvest spice. Harvesting spice is a dangerous endeavor yet it is the main livelihood of many who are on Arrakis. I live in a third-world country so I can't help but compare it to some of the employment environments here or child labor. Another consequence of such an environment is that it produces the best warriors in the universe, even better than the imperial house's own guards who hail from the prison planet Salusa Secundus. But what's even more interesting for me is how the comfort of an entire universe is paid by a single planet. Is it possible to convert Arrakis into an utopian planet? Yes but it will mean losing their most vital resource: spice.

We also have the Bene Gesserit--femme fatales with mystical powers--who serves as advisors to those who would have them. While many know of the power the Bene Gesserit wields, few suspect the true extent for they are located in every noble house and wield much influence in planets where they make use of the local religion. Of course since the Bene Gesserit possess "magic", they are also the targets of hate and envy, a symbol of people's typical reaction to the unknown. And for the most part the Bene Gesserit are aware of this which leads them into more secrecy so that the common populace might not panic at the extent of their true power (which is explored in the later novels). Unlike the other institutions. the Bene Gesserit also seeks to lead humanity. But instead of directly manipulating them, they do so subtly, usually with long-term plans in mind. What's also interesting about the Bene Gesserit is their heirarchy of values. They place duty as the most important ideal and emotion a weakness. Then there is their breeding program, the culmination of their long term strategy and their sexual prowess.

There are other science fiction elements sprinkled throughout the novel but are only hinted at. The Mentats for example are a product of technophobia, the Suk doctors proof that the incorruptible can be corrupted. CHOAM of course is the body that represents most of the influential forces in the Dune universe, and Herbert spreads the propaganda of the evils of the nuclear bombs as atomics is warily but nonetheless utilized. And at the end of the day, the protagonist Paul Atreides seeks power not for himself but to avert a great disaster he predicts will happen in the future, an ideal I'm sure many leaders have claimed to justify their actions. That's not to say Dune is not without its romantic elements. In fact, its romantic elements are what stands out the most and why more often than not, I'll classify Dune more a fantasy than science fiction (and is perhaps why the sequels weren't so successful: because they was more SF and less fantasy). But the treasure trove of SF elements is there and what makes this book a classic.


Joanna/JP/Pauie said...

hi charles! thanks. And congrats to you, too!

Whoo! I'll look for this title, when I exhaust my craving for the Classics. I feel obligated to read them first. What about you?

And they're cheaper... ^_^ Sci-fi will be in my bookstore basket when I'm earning money, lots. I like my books crisp and fresh, see.

i hope neil gaiman comes to the awarding of PGFA. I'm hoping to win because I'm hoping to meet him!

Charles said...

Lots of books on the shelf that have yet to be read. =)

By the way, you might want to read the following transcripts during Gaiman's last visit:

Ian Sales said...

"In fact, its romantic elements are what stands out the most and why more often than not, I'll classify Dune more a fantasy than science fiction"

Huh? Since when did the presence of romantic elements in a sf novel make it a fantasy? Are love stories not allowed in space? or the future?

Charles said...

romance in the sense of heroic /chivalricprose and medieval narrative, not love story( which is a n evolution of the original word romance).

Ian Sales said...

I stand corrected. Except... I still don't see why the presence of heroic aspects - and Dune was specifically about a superhero / messiah - means it can't be sf. To me, sf is rationalist and figment in a sf text is open is open to explanation (by the inhabitants of the invented setting or by real-world science). In a fantasy, that's not the case - the figments are fantastic, and presented as such with no explanation possible.

Charles said...

If you think I'm saying that Dune isn't SF, you need to re-read my essay.

There are various definitions of what is science fiction and what is fantasy and I don't the comments section is the place to discuss it (it's an essay in itself).

However, romance has typically been the arena of fantasy, heroic fantasy in particular. Many soft science fiction like Star Wars or Burrough's Mars or Venus series has been viewed as more fantasy than science fiction for precisely the same reasons.

Ian Sales said...

You wrote "why more often than not, I'll classify Dune more a fantasy than science fiction". I see the two genres as independent, except in cases where the author has knowingly created a mash-up of the two.

Granted that there are as many definitions of sf as there are readers of sf... but I'm still puzzled by your assertion that because high fantasies are typically heroic quests, and Dune features a protagonist with superhuman powers, that this makes Dune "more a fantasy than science fiction".

Charles said...

I'm saying Dune has heroic fantasy elements--not superhuman powers--hence it being more akin to fantasy than science fiction.

Ian Sales said...

Yes, yes. But what are those elements in Dune? And why do they make it "more akin to fantasy"? Is it merely their presence in the book?

Charles said...

It's mentioned in my first paragraph.

Ian Sales said...

Ah. I was expecting structural elements, not items from the background. But it seems to me you're arguing that Dune is like Star Wars in those aspects, and so Dune must be more like fantasy than sf because Star Wars is fantasy.

Except... fantasy isn't just swords and quests (that's high fantasy), and sf isn't just hard science fiction.

Ian Sales said...

Oh, and the irony of me appearing to stalk* you in your comments hasn't escaped me :-)

(* I'm not, of course.)

Charles said...

Uh, I'm not here to convert you into thinking one genre is another and vice versa. And it's not the first time that one genre overlaps and fans debate whether it belongs to one side or another (i.e. Pern).

Suffice to say, here's my question for you. Is Star Wars scifi for you? If yes, then me explaining how Dune has fantasy elements is moot. If no, then there's some common ground as to why I think Dune is quasi-fantastical.

But as I stated in my essay, Dune is quite science fiction. And I think the appeal of the original Dune novel is that it easily fits both "genres" (I'm not a firm believer in classification of genres as paradoxical as that might sound). There are structural elements that mark it as fantasy as well but uh, I just noted down the elements that mark it as scifi and it's around 2,000 words. Enumerating its fantasy elements will take as long and I'm sorry, if you think I'm copping out, that's fine but I honestly don't have the time nor the energy to tackle that right now.

But I do think the "double genre" application of the original Dune novel is what's responsible for its popularity and why many foresee the sequels as inferior to the original novel.