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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dune: Part 2: Welcome to Arrakis

(Cross-posted from Daily Kos)

In the first few chapters, we met Paul Atreides, his family, and some of their closest circle, as they prepared to leave their home on Caladan for the desert world Arrakis. His father, Duke Leto, is well aware that he has been manipulated into this situation and the new world he has been given is a planet-sized trap set out by his hereditary enemies the Harkonnens with the blessings and support of the Emperor. Leto hopes that by walking into the trap with his eyes open, he can use the situation to his best advantage; and he suspects that Arrakis holds secrets of which the Harkonnens are unaware.

In the midst of this, Paul must grapple with his discovery that he may be the Kwisatz Haderach, a being with time-spanning powers of perception that the Creepy Space Nuns of the Bene Gesserit have been trying to breed for untold generations.

So now, we arrive on Arrakis.

Chapter seven begins with Jessica supervising the unpacking at their new home in Arrakeen, one of the major cities on Arrakis. The crates she opens contain items of symbolic importance: a portrait of the Old Duke, Leto's father; and the mounted head of the bull that killed him. The Old Duke enjoyed bullfighting as a hobby, presumably because he enjoyed stabbing large dangerous things. Jessica hates the bull's head, and hates her dead father-in-law; but Leto insists that both must be prominently displayed in the dining hall. It's a matter of tradition.

I think the love between Jessica and Leto in this book is emphasized by the quarrels they have. Yes, we'll get emphatic statements of love from each of them; but it's scenes like this, where we see disagreement and friction between the two of them, that makes their relationship more real.

In the next chapter, Jessica tells Yueh:

"...the Duke is really two men. One of them I love very much. He's charming, witty, considerate ... tender -- everything a woman could desire. But the other man is ... cold, callous, demanding, selfish -- as hard and cruel as a winter wind. That's the man shaped by the father." Her face contorted. "If only that old man had died when my Duke was born!"

In our glimpses of Leto in these first few chapters we get to see both sides of his personality.

Jessica meets a servant woman named Shadout Mapes, a woman from a Fremen tribe; and in the interplay between the two we learn a bit more about religion in the world of Dune, most specifically, the Missionaria Protectiva.

Herbert does something here which I think is rather brilliant. He takes the age old theme of the Hero of Prophecy, make it a major theme of the story, and yet from the very beginning tells us that the Prophecy is a fake. The Bene Gesserit, as one of their many galaxy-spanning plots, has as a matter of SOP planted legends on every world regarding their Order, on the off chance that someday a Sister of the Order might find themselves stranded there and needing help. On Arrakis, this legend tells of the "Lisan al-Gaib", the Voice from the Outer World, the offspring of a Reverend Mother who will lead the people to freedom.

"Great Mother! They planted that one here! This must be a hideous place!" Jessica thinks. But in a careful verbal dance, she answers Mapes' questions, playing to the woman's expectations. I doing so, she realizes that she too is cynically manipulating Mapes' beliefs.

The next chapter is another fencing match; this one between Jessica and Yueh. The Doctor struggles to keep her from perceiving his guilt and almost confesses his planned treason. Jessica sees that he is keeping a secret from her and almost compels him to reveal it. "I should place more trust in my friends," she decides, making one of her worst mistakes in the book.

Back in the second chapter, when the Harkonnens were discussing their plans, Piter explained that there would be an assassination attempt on Paul. In the ninth chapter, the attempt occurs: a remotely-controlled drone designed to impale it's victim and burrow deep into the nervous system. Paul is able to recognize the danger and not only evade the attack, but prevent it from killing Mapes, who walks unwittingly into the situation. "You could've let it have me and made your own escape," Mapes observes. These things are important to the Fremen.

While Paul battles the Hunter-Seeker, his mother finds a special room in the palace that had been built by its previous residents, the Count and Lady Fenring. The room is a climate-controlled greenhouse, with the kind of lush plant life and humid atmosphere unknown on the rest of Arrakis. Lady Margot Fenring is, like Jessica, a member of the Bene Gesserit and has left a secret message for Jessica warning of a traitor in the Duke's entourage. Secret messages and meanings buried in meaning are a recurring theme in the book.

The scene shifts to Duke Leto, who is inwardly in turmoil over the attempt on his son's life. But he knows that it is vital to display an outward appearance of confidence for the sake of morale. He permits Paul to sit in on a strategy meeting with several of his top officers in which they discuss the Arrakis situation and what can be done about it.

In the middle of the meeting, Duncan Idaho, one of Leto's most trusted lieutenants, arrives accompanied by some Fremen. Leto has sent Idaho to the Fremen to try cultivating them as potential allies. Things start off badly. Duncan almost unsheathes a Fremen crysknife, a weapon made from the tooth of one of the giant sandworms, in front of the Duke, which violates strong Fremen taboos. No sooner does Leto defuse this situation, than the leader of the Fremen spits on the table in front of the Duke. "Remember how precious water is here, Sire," Duncan explains. "That was a token of respect." Despite the tense beginning, the encounter with the mysterious desert tribesmen ends amicably and both sides agree to let Duncan be admitted into the Fremen tribe and act as an ambassador.

But underneath the plans and stratagems, Paul senses unease in the men and desperation in his father. And he remembers the Reverend Mother's sinister warning: "...for the father, nothing."

NEXT: BIG HONKIN' WORMS!!! And, What a Swell Party This Is!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dune: Part 1: Leaving Caladan

(Cross-posted from Daily Kos)
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad'Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time... And take the most special care that you locate Muad'Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis.

-- from "Manual of Muad'Dib" by the Princess Irulan.

When David Lynch's film version of Dune was released in 1984, many of my friends in the campus science fiction club anticipated it with a mixture of hope and dread. After all, despite the boom in science fiction movies following the success of Star Wars, there hadn't been any really big, serious SF films since 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Let this be our 'War and Peace'," one friend said.

Well, the movie turned out to be disappointing; but I still like to think of the book as "Our War and Peace"; a big, sprawling work about conflict and intrigue, religion and politics and destiny, on a scale the size of Shai-hulud.

The story is set so vastly far in the future that Earth is not even a memory, in a galaxy-spanning empire with a feudal society. Duke Leto Atreides, ruler of the planet Caladan, has been given the planet Arrakis by the Emperor. Arrakis, the planet also known as Dune, is a desert world with exactly one important resource: a substance known as the spice melange. Spice is a drug with life-extending qualities; it neutralizes many popular forms of poison; it's highly-addictive and will turn your eyeballs blue. It probably also mends vinyl and freshens your breath. In high enough doses, it expands the user's consciousness and enhances precognitive abilities. Navigators on starships use melange to calculate routes through hyperspace, and the Creepy Space Nuns of the Bene Gesserit use it to enhance their own mental disciplines. It is the most valuable substance in the galaxy, and Arrakis is its only source; therefore the ruler of Arrakis is sitting on the wealth of the universe.

But Arrakis is also a trap. The planet's former rulers, the Harkonnens, are hereditary enemies of House Atreides, and the Baron Harkonnen has set up an elaborate plot to destroy Duke Leto and his house forever.

Paul Atredies is Duke Leto's son; a boy of fifteen who is just on the verge of manhood. And he has unusual dreams. Yes, this is a story about a Boy Becoming a Man as he discovers that He Is Special. But Paul is more than a Mary Sue, and although he does indulge in angst occasionally, he does not wallow in it.

As the story begins, Duke Leto is preparing to move his family and his court from Caladan to Arrakis; and it is through these preparations that we meet Paul's family and the Atreides' closest retainers. Thufir Hawat is the Duke's mentat; a man trained to be a kind of living computer; skilled at analyzing data. Gurney Halleck is a veteran fighter and something of a bard. Dr. Yueh is the court physician and one of Paul's teachers; he also has a dark secret and a tragic destiny hanging over him.

We also get a chapter introducing the Harkonnens: Baron Vladamir, corpuant and vile; his own mentat Piter, nasty and hedonistic; and his nephew Feyd, who in many ways is Paul's parallel, the way Hal and Hotspur parallel each other in the the Henry IV plays.

The moving plans on Caladan are interrupted by Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, a high-ranking woman of the Bene Gesserit. This quasi-religious order is one of the most powerful groups in the galaxy; and their chief purpose, putting it crudely, is improving the species through selective breeding. Their ultimate goal is to create a genetic super-being called the Kwisatz-Haderach, a male who can utilize the Bene Gesserit's mental disciplines to see backwards and forwards in time. Paul's mother, Jessica, thinks that he might be the one; and the Reverend Mother has arrived to test him.

These opening chapters touch on a lot of things: elements of the culture and religion of the novel's world; foreshadowing hints about Arrakis; and above all, premonitions of doom. From the very beginning, the narrative marks Duke Leto as a man destined for tragedy. Everybody knows it; his wife, his mentat, he himself knows it; but Leto sees Arrakis as an opportunity as well as a trap and intends to take the risk. Yueh also is a tragic figure, and the historical chapter heads direly remind us of his fate, even as we watch him struggle against it.

And also Paul, in his way is something of a tragic figure. His glimpses of the future show him things he cannot avoid and choices to make where every option leads to bad results. This is only hinted at in the early chapters, but Paul's grappling with this aspect of prescience is one of the main themes of the book.

NEXT WEEK: We'll discuss the next six chapters. The Atreides arrive on Arrakis and an assassination attempt is made on Paul.