Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dune: A Socio-Political Critique

I just finished re-reading Frank Herbert’s most famous work, Dune. A bit of a guilty pleasure that, since I am supposed to be working on a case for my International Accounting class, having to due with currency exchange translation causing a profitable enterprise to become a losing one, but I tell myself that the diversion makes my mind fresh for the academic work. Which I will do … later.

Anyway, I am a bit more of a critical reader now than I was in years past, which is to say that when an author does something I think is a mistake I am far more likely to say something about it. In the case of Dune, it became obvious to me the first time I read Dune and its sequels that Mr. Herbert figured to make his name as a “great” writer, by that meaning that he wants his stories to be not just popular but “important”. This is why the man stuck what in these post-Rathergate days I may call “fake but accurate” documents, fictional accounts meant to support the underlying structure of Dune’s plot and social community. The thing is, even a cursory examination proves the façade to be thin indeed.

Dune is most famous as a political novel concerning ecology, politics, religion, and human emotion. Maybe it’s because of the Chrichton novels since then, but it seems to me that Dune is essentially barren of real technology in its plot, even the ecological lessons it tries to teach. Rhetoric, yes, but no real science behind it. Similar contradictions showed up everywhere throughout the novel. The rulers of the so-called Great Houses are supposed to be politically brilliant, yet they constantly blunder into huge mistakes, errors they do not notice and which they make no effective attempt to correct. The same mistakes were apparent with regard to religion. The Fremen of Dune are loosely identified as some sort of Muslim, a variant of Shiites obsessed with finding the Kwitzach Haderach, also known as their Mahdi. Yet these Fremen are never seen in practice of Islam; in the whole book there is only one reference to the muzzein, and while the word ‘sharia’ is used, there is no reference to it in practice. Most of all, the prophet Mohammed is never once mentioned, nor does any of the Fremen quote the Quran! Christianity fares no better with Herbert. The reader is introduced to the “Orange Catholic” Bible, a nonsense word for anyone familiar with William of Orange and the causes of the Reformation. No one claims to be Christian in the story, nor are their any ministers or priests, although the mystic ‘Bene Gesserits’ call their leaders ‘Reverend Mother’ in a way suggestive of nunnery’s Mother Superior. Characters throw out quotes from time to time which suggest badly recalled (or deliberately misquoted) Bible and Quranic verses, apparently suggesting that this world of the future did not care enough of Scripture to keep it true – a common lie we hear today from people who find their own opinion better than the Word from God. Various characters exhibit zenlike meditation and philosophical contemplation, but again there is no mention of the boddhavista. Herbert was clearly atheist in his preferred worldview, or should I say he was more a Humanist-Gnostic with pagan leanings. Just something to keep in mind, that Herbert had not one of his heroes call on a higher power or person; they worshipped themselves unless they were – quite literally – praying to another human as their lord.

Returning to politics, though, it struck as bizarre that a future social structure should be based on the assumption of a monarchy. Paul Atreides, the hero of the story, is scion of the “Great House” Atreides, and he is the son of the “Duke”, Leto. The Atreides are in constant war against the House Harkonnen, which is led by a Baron. The known universe is controlled by a triumvirate of powers consisting of a Guild of space pilots and shippers, a “Landsraad” of essentially feudal noble houses, and the Emporer. One would think that 15-century machinations would be out of place in, say, the 30th century Common Era, but there is not even the pretense of democracy or populism. Even the Fremen in the book defer to Paul Atreides simply because he waves around a ring showing he is the Duke. I could say this comes from too much devotion to tokenism by Herbert, but in actual fact I think Herbert just could not resist trying to work some Macchivellianism into his plot, and herbert fell into the medeival worldview without thinking it through. To see why this is a critical flaw in the story, imagine the many professional positions which held no status at all in Herbert’s world, how little a meritocracy fared with him. Even ancient China and Egypt were marked by a class of professionals, especially in government and the military, where a person’s worth was marked by his work and skill. Herbert made a big mistake there.

And then there is the military scope. Herbert makes it clear that the most feared military force in the known universe is the Emporer’s “Sardaukar”, which are trained on his prison planet at Salusa Secondus. Yet even the Sardaukar are no match for the Fremen, especially Paul Atreides’ “Fedaykin” (a vulgarization of ‘fedayeen’). The explanation given by Herbert, is the notion that extreme deprivation and hardship are effective tools at building a high-performance military force. For the purpose of Herbert’s story, he gets away with it as long as no one thinks that one through, but in the real world the concept is laughable on its face. For example, if you want, say, your pet dog to be fast and strong, would you give him a poor diet and beat him regularly? That would actually be about the worst thing you could do, actually. If you want a strong, agile, fast, devoted dog, you have to make sure of the opposite – feed him well, be clear in your instruction and praise him for success, never abusing him or mistreating him. Discipline must exist, but it must be constructive, not punitive. Look at human military units; the best do not come, frankly, from remote and desolate areas, where the food is poor and the water meager, where merely surviving is difficult. No, the most elite units are well-fed and carefully trained, their medical needs are immediately tended to, and they are constantly made aware of not only standards, but rewards for success. If a people existed like the Fremen on Arrakis, they would be weak, disorganized, chaotic, and ill-equipped. Herbert got that part of his story very, very wrong.

I will be the first to say that Frank Herbert’s story was an enjoyable read, but I have to say that taking it as anything but fiction (as various groups have done over the years) would be a very bad mistake. The image of a thing, the delivery of it and the style of it, does not create one iota of real substance, yet this is a caution some people allow themselves to ignore.


Anonymous said...

Are you forgetting that Dune takes place some 30,000 years in the future? Because pointing out inconsistencies in religions in Dune vs our world is really silly. If you want to compare the worlds look for patterns of basic human behavior, not specific terms, rituals, or even ideoligies. Because in reality they'd be completely different.

Eugene Tham said...

Religion: You do know that in universe, the Bible has been rewritten? Its specifically stated in the appendenix that in an attempt to reform religions, the major religious leaders met together to create a new, unified religious scripture and text. The Orange Catholic Bible is NOT the Bible. Its a Scripture for a new religion based on a monotheistic God, it just happens that Christianity supplied a lot of the quotes in the original novel.

As for the Fremen being Muslim, they're based on Arabic culture. There is no indication that they're muslim. Indeed, its outright stated in the Dune novel, much less the following novels that they're followers of Zensunni, a philosopher sect.

As for the "preferred" worldview, consider that the ONLY religion to survive intact in the Dune universe..... is Judaism. Albeit, persecuted again and in hiding, we see only bits and glimpses of them as they hide Duncan Idaho.

Sociology: The Dune book itself also specifically states that the culture is unstable. Gurney Halleck itself is an aberration of the system, someone who's a freeman and rejects the caste system(Frauleche) but follows the precepts. You also badly abuse Paul tactic of using his Ducal position to seal his political position over the Fremen. By appealing to the fact that he holds a seperate political position outside of the Naib chief system, he consolidates political power. The Fremen accepts this because they yielded to the political and emotional arguments Paul weilded.

Military: You do remember the part where Jessica mentions that the Fremen in sitch were living eons better than the peons in the villages gabben. Indeed, one of the hints that the Fremen society was more advanced than expected was the presence of superior Fremen mechanical industry, namely, their superior suits. Paul introduction to the sietch and other Mentat analysis confirm their agricultural and industry capabilities such as production of chemical explosives, farming implements and machinery to collect moisture. Indeed, their expertise at sustaining such an advanced and large society in secret is the MOST technologically flawed aspect of the Dune series.