Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dune: Part 5: Into the Desert

In last week's reading, the Harkonnens struck; Yueh double-crossed the Baron; Duke Leto died in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the Baron and Paul and Jessica escaped into the desert. Part I of the novel ended with Paul experiencing cascading visions of the future, including the realization that he himself has Harkonnen blood.

Before we go any further in the plot, I wanted to touch a bit on the Baron Harkonnen's ... orientation. He Likes Little Boys. What's more, he has squick-inducing thoughts about Paul Atreides as well. And for that matter, his attitude towards his own nephew Feyd occasionally is not exactly avuncular either. Herbert seems to use the Baron's homosexuality; along with his corpulence, hedonism and dependence on anti-gravity units to even walk; as marks of the Baron's decadent depravity.

So, is Frank Herbert a homophobe? I don't like to think so. I like Dune, and I've enjoyed much of Herbert's writings. The Baron is the only gay character to appear in the novel (unless we count the Count Fenring, but his case is far from explicit); and I can't think of any gay characters in the other Dune novels off-hand; so I can't really say how Herbert portrays homosexuals in general.

He reminds me a little of a bit of conversation from a comic book. Wally West, the Flash, was chatting with a friend of his, the reformed villain Pied Piper. Wally asked him about the Joker: "You used to hang around with a lot of super-villains. Is it true that the Joker's gay?" The Piper explains that he didn't exactly hang around with the Joker -- nobody does -- but that as far as he could tell, the only person the Joker was in love with was himself. I think the Baron is like that too. He is intimate only with slave boys, those whom he has complete dominance and control over. And he hates and is terrified of the B.G.s who could have power over him if he let them. He did once, in his youth, when he unknowingly sired Jessica, and perhaps that frightened him.

Then again, perhaps Herbert is just borrowing the trope of the Decadent Roman, like the Emperor Nero or the Peter Ustinov character from Spartacus and doesn't mean him to be any deeper than that.

But back to the story.

Paul and Jessica are in the desert, waiting for the return of Duncan Idaho. They are still on the run, but Paul's deluge of insight in the previous chapter has changed him. Now he seems to be taking charge of the situation. As they pack up their tent and proceed on, they see signs of Harkonnen pursuit: aircraft strafing the desert with lasguns, bringing to mind the cryptic message Leto received: "A column of smoke by day, a pillar of fire by night."

Thufir Hawat has managed to escape the disaster at Arakeen with a handful of men and have joined up with some Fremen. At least they are trying to. Hawat discovers his logical mentat mind stymied by the fact that he doesn't understand the Fremen and their ways. He and the leader of the Fremen go around and around speaking at cross-purposes until finally he can find common ground where they can communicate. Hawat is startled to learn that the Fremen were able to not only hold their own, but actually kick butt against the Sardaukar, the Emperor's own elite shock troops currently on loan to the Harkonnens. But just as Hawat and the Fremen reach their understanding, the Saudakar make another attack and capture Thufir.

Paul and Jessica meet up with Duncan. Wait, I thought he was dead. I guess he wasn't. Then who was the unnamed Atreides who died under torture by the Harkonnens? I'm confused. The whole chronology of these chapters really could have been better organized.

But Duncan Idaho arrives with Kynes, who takes them to one of the Imperial Ecological Testing Stations that Leto had initially coveted. We discover that Kynes is actually Liet, the mysterious leader whom the Fremen defer to. This is fleshed out considerably in the Appendix: The Ecology of Dune, which describes how Kynes' father first came up with a visionary plan to terraform the planet into something more habitable; how he recruited the Fremen to make the plan work; and how Kynes' plan became a holy mission for the Fremen. Kynes realizes that by aiding the Atreides, he is putting this plan in jeapordy; but when pressed for a decision, he aids them anyway.

Also in this chapter Paul outlines his long-range plan. Immediately, of course, he wants to stay alive, but also to gain evidence of the Sardaukar involvement in his father's fall. If he can prove that the Emperor was personally invovled in destroying a Great House, then the other nobles will band against him. Paul plans to use the threat of this revelation as leverage against the Emperor.

But first he has to stay alive. The Harkonnens attack the station. Duncan is killed; (really, this time) and Jessica and Paul once more have to flee. They take an ornithopter and fly into the deep desert, right into the mother of all sandstorms.

"They are dead, Baron," one of his flunkies tells him. After all, No One Could Possibly Survive That. The Baron is not so sure, and is not happy about the entire situation. Paul is a troublesome loose end, and the death of Piter has forced him to alter his plans. The only good news he receives is the capture of Hawat. He sees that the Atreides mentat can be useful to him. Hawat still blames Jessica for the treason against Leto. The Baron thinks that by controlling the information Hawat has, he can persuade the mentat to work for him. And just to be safe, he orders that Hawat be secretly given a special poison which will kill him unless he takes a special antidote which will be administered in his food. That way, if Hawat becomes dangerous, the Baron can kill him at any time simply by withdrawing the antidote.

The Baron also has a chat with his other nephew, Rabban. Rabban was the former governor of Arrakis, before the Atreides briefly took over. Now the Baron is giving him the planet back. He only requires that Rabban squeeze. The plot against the Atreides has cost the Harkonnen an enormous amount; roughly equivalent to the planet's total spice production for fifty years. He demands that Rabban start paying it back and quickly. Of course, this is part of his greater plan to make the current governor so hated on Arrakis that when the Baron eventually replaces him with Feyd, the younger nephew will be worshipped as a hero.

Rabban is not portrayed as being particularly intelligent. "A muscle-minded tank-brain" is how his uncle describes him. But in his conversation, we do see some glimpses that he may not be as dense as the Baron thinks. He tries to warn his uncle that the Fremen might not be so inconsequential after all. But a glimpse is all we get. Rabban is just a pawn in this game, and a brutal one at that.

The Baron is right to worry about loose ends. Paul and Jessica have indeed survived their flight into he sandstorm; although their aircraft was damaged and they are forced to make an emergency landing in the desert. They continue on foot, taking advantage of rocky outcroppings whenever possible to avoid the sandworms.

While descending a cliff face, Jessica becomes buried in an avalanche of sand. Using B.G. techniques to slow her respiration, she is able to stay alive until Paul can rescue her; but now much of their gear is buried under tons of sand so fine that digging in it is like trying to shovel water. Here we get a very old-school SF touch. Paul uses a nearby patch of spice, combined with the acidic battery pack from a piece of equipment to create a stabilizing foam to hold the sand while he digs down to the gear. This MacGuyver-ish touch used to be common in the old "Hard SF" stories.

Gurney Halleck has also escaped the Harkonnen attack, and along with about seventy men has fallen in with a group of smugglers, led by Esmar Tuek, the son of the smuggler we met at the dinner party. Gurney is itching for vengeance against the Harkonnens, but Tuek is a practical man and counsels patience. Halleck ultimately agrees and throws in his lot with Tuek's smugglers.

In the final chapter of the reading, Paul and Jessica make a desperate trek for the safety of a region of cliffs. They have to cross the sands carefully, trying to avoid making the kinds of regular, artificial sounds that might attract a sandworm's curiousity. They accidentally hit a patch of drum sand, gravel that has been compacted and amplifies the sound of footsteps. Now they must run, and barely reach safety before a worm comes up from the sands after them. They find themselves in a rocky grotto used by the Fremen as a refuge; and soon discover that they are not alone...

NEXT: Paul and Jessica have found the Fremen! But will the Fremen help them, or kill them? Paul sees a knife wound in his future; but will it come to pass? Plus: Kynes goes out with a bang!

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