Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dune: Part 8: Wormrider

In our last Machievellian episode, we got to enjoy some of the intrigues going on among Those Wacky Harkonnens; and Jessica underwent the ritual transforming her into a Reverend Mother. Now we are hurtling towards the end game, the Nexus where possible futures come together. Will Paul be able to prevent the Jihad?

In the past two years, Paul Atreides has undergone many rites of passage: formal tests, like the Gom Jabbar; life thresholds, like the death of his father; deadly challenges, like his duel with Jamis.

Now, he crouches among the sand dunes waiting for another rite of passage. Although he has been accepted into the Fremen tribe, and is respected as a skilled fighter and war leader, and revered by many as the Lisan Al-Gib, the "Voice from Beyond" of prophecy; he cannot be considered a full Fremen until he has Ridden a Worm.

(And no, the gay implications of that line did not occur to me until I typed it just now.)

As he waits, he thinks back on some of his experiences among the Fremen of Stilgar's tribe. He is joined now to Liet's daughter Chani, and have had a son together, Leto II. Jessica still balks at the idea of Chani being her son's wife though; she worries that his being married to a "desert girl" might hurt any future political ambitons. Paul has a sister now too: Alia, concieved shortly before his father's death, and altered into something not quite normal by the Waters of Life ritual their mother partook of while Alia was in her womb. Sometimes Paul has difficulty keeping track which of his memories have actually happened and which are future events. Prescience can be a pain sometimes. Especially when there are things it doesn't show you. Like how this day is going to go.

Meanwhile, back at the stiech, Jessica awaits word of her son's test and deals with more immediate concerns. The women of the Fremen communtiy are becoming more and more freaked out by the unearthly child, Alia. Thanks to her pre-natal exposure to the Waters of Life and her involuntary participation in the mental joining of that ritual, Alia was born with not just the memories of an adult, but the memories of every Reverend Mother of the tribe going back to who-knows-when. Preccocious does not begin to describe her. And some of the Fremen whisper that she is a demon.

Jessica has a talk about this with Alia and Harah, the wife of Jamis who Paul kept as a servant and who has become somthing of a nanny to the infant Alia. They agree that Harah will speak for Alia and explain her to the others. "I will tell them the truth... I will tell them that Alia only pretends to be a little girl, that she has never been a little girl." Alia shares with her mother and with Harah how the experience of her awakening seemed from her point of view.

But Harah and Jessica anticipate another problem as well. As Paul has gained status in the tribe, some of the younger warriors have been wondering when he was going to challenge Stilgar for the tribe's leadership. The traditional way to do this, of course, is with a duel to the death. The leadership question has been postponed so far because until today Paul wasn't a sandrider and a full-fledged Fremen. If Paul survives this test, he won't be able to put off the question any longer.

Paul does pass the test; he successfully calls, catches and mounts a sandworm. The description of how one actually does this to a creature large enough to swallow the Sydney Opera House is neatly and plausibly described. By Fremen tradition, the first time Sandrider always gets to choose where the gang goes that day. Paul wants to go to the southern settlements where the Fremen's secret ecological experiments have been taking place and where the women and children have been moved for safety. Stilgar wants Paul to lead the men on another raid against the Harkonnens. This disagreement threatens to flare into an argument, when a smuggler's aircraft appears on the horizon.

For years, smugglers have been doing illegal hit-and-run mining operations behind the backs of the ruling authorities. With the Harkonnens increasing their patrols, the smugglers have been forced to move into Fremen territory. Paul has the Fremen set up a trap to ambush the smugglers and discovers that they are being led by his old friend Gurney Halleck. The reunion is a happy one, but not without some tensions. For one thing, the Fremen managed to kill half of the smuggler's crew before Paul and Gurney put a stop to the fighting; for another, there are Sadaukar infiltrators in the crew hoping to find and kill Muad'Dib, (they don't); and more imporantly, Stilgar needs convincing that Gurney is reliable.

Paul decides to have things out with Stilgar over the leadership question. "Do you think I wish to cut off my right arm?" he asks; "Do you think I want to deprive myself or the tribe of your wisdom and strength?" The traditional way of transitioning power within the tribe needs to bow to the necessity of the moment. Stilgar accepts the wisdom of this, but now the tribe needs to be convinced as well.

Paul, Stilgar and Jessica arrange for a little political theater to persuade the rest of the tribe. Paul makes his case and formally claims himself the rightful ruler of Arrakis. He accepts Stilgar's fealty, meaning that Stilgar remains leader of the tribe without anybody losing face, and Paul becomes Duke, (something he technically was already; but no one was recognizing it).

It's just when he thinks he has everything taken care of when he comes in on Gurney trying to kill his mother.

Gurney still thinks that Jessica was the one who betrayed Duke Leto and the desire for revenge has been the one thing keeping him going these past couple years among the smugglers. Paul is able to talk him down and persuade him of his mother's innocence; but it is a tense moment. "You speak of pride in my father's friendship! Didn't you learn the difference between Harkonnen and Atreides so that you could smell a Harkonnen trick by the stink they left on it? Didn't you learn that Atreides loyalty is bought with love while the Harkonnen coin is hate? Couldn't you see through to the very nature of this betrayal?"

Overwhlemed by what he has almost done, Gurney begs Paul to kill him. "Must I go through this with every man I need?" Paul grumbles. Jessica makes peace. "You thought you were doing a thing for Leto... and for this I honor you... Let us think of this as a misunderstanding among old friends. It's over and we can be thankful we'll never again have that sort of misunderstanding between us." Later on in the series, we find that Jessica and Gurney have become lovers. Reading this scene, we are not surprised.

Paul has one more rite of passage to undergo. He has forseen none of the crises that have occurred today. He needs a clearer vision of the future. He decides to take the Waters of Life; the Truthsayer's drug that the Reverend Mother spoke of way back in the first chapter, that no male has taken and survived.

NEXT: At Death's Door; the Emperor comes to Arrakis; the Atreides Gom Jabbar; and the title fight we've all been waiting for, Paul vs. Feyd! The Nexus is coming!

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