(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.