Sometimes we pick up a book (or download it to our devices) for uncertain reasons. Sometimes for me, because a movie version is coming out. Or it is talked about as a masterpiece. Or I hear podcasters talking about it. All three of these were true of Dune, my latest read.
I do not read much science-fiction, and by much, I mean almost none. That is not because I consider it sub-par—I don’t at all. It just doesn’t occur to me to read very much of it. After reading Dune I see I need to question that habit.
Dune is brilliant. I understand its appeal perfectly and its fandom. I raced through it rather quickly for me, and I was hooked from the beginning. After being hooked, I stayed around for three reasons.
The finely drawn, entirely believable world of Arakis, the desert planet. He made me accept such a world could be beautiful and that humans could actually find a way to live there. Arakis is home to the spice called mélange, which smells and tastes like cinnamon (I’ve taken to calling cinnamon mélange to myself). Melange is made by worms who live in the sand and are football-fields long and dozens of meters wide. The harvesting of the highly addictive spice, which allows humans to travel in space, is dangerous and costly.
The entirely human character of people living millennia in the future. Most sci-fi depends on technology. The wards of technology in this future have eliminated Artificial Intelligence to protect humans from machines. These humans are religious, even if it’s a hybridized version of all the faiths as synthesized in the Orange Catholic Bible (Orange being a code for Protestant?). These humans have reverted to a type of feudalism or at least monarchy/aristocracy. Classes of humans populate the planets; mankind has not evolved into utopian socialism. The sci-fi of Star Trek predicts a world where crime is not necessary because mankind has found a way to solve all problems that would create crime. There is no religion because people are too smart for that. How boring, sterile, and nonhuman. Herbert has seen that human nature is not going to change, and our political achievements aren’t such permanencies after all.
The themes Herbert dares to explore. Again, this not a sci-fi future of scientific perfection. A race of witches has more control over the future of mankind than anyone wants to admit. The people of Arakis have been “seeded” with the story of a Messiah-type figure who will save them. He comes, but he is not perfect; he becomes ruthless even as he fulfills his role. Leaders are not perfect, and the more we expect it, the more we will be used, deluded, exploited, and disillusioned. Religion is part of humanity but apt to be a tool for exploitation as well as for good.
I also stuck around because I really didn't know what would happen and wanted, almost desperately, to find out.
So, from a Christian perspective, what do I conclude? Paul Atreides is not a Messiah, but he is hailed as one, as have many false Messiahs. Paul has power (mystic), authority over men, and victory at the end. But he is not a good man; he cannot be, in the sense that he is no longer capable and that his position doesn't allow goodness, only perhaps some occasional mercy for the sake of honor. He marries a woman only for politics and has no trouble with that decision. He barely mourns his child.
The appendices are quite interesting, especially the one by Herbert's son, who claims his father wanted to write about the failure of leaders. I think leaders betray themselves as well as followers. I'm thinking of a revered Christian speaker about whom horrible truths of a sexual nature are being revealed now. Ultimately they betray God who gives them the ability to lead. The book is about leadership, but so much more, framed in the best world-building I have ever read. And it's remarkably PG-13, not that I judge books that way, but it was and definitely readable for youth.
Next up, War and Peace. That may take me a while, though. It has as many characters as pages.