Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review - Dune

Sometime in the not-too-distant past, people must have used the phrase “smartest guy in the room” as a compliment -- to describe, for instance, a renaissance man. Today, of course, the phrase is used almost exclusively as an insult, and is usually preceded by the words “thinks he’s the…”

Maybe the phrase had its heyday back in the 50s or 60s, when renaissance men actually existed. Now, with Google mainlined directly into most people’s veins, there is no such thing. Information is free, so the possession of gobs and gobs of it is more annoying than impressive.

I’ve meant to read Dune for decades, having often heard about its otherworldly setting and epic political and military struggles. Finally, I picked it up last month and waded in. The further I got, the more I kept wondering to myself, who is this Frank Herbert guy? He’s kept me reading this far, so he’s obviously a reasonable spinner of tales. But, it seems, he’s also something of a physicist, a geologist, a conservationist, an architect and an expert on all major religions of the world. In addition, he’s experienced in civil planning, military hierarchies, common law and tribal customs too numerous to catalogue.

Every time I closed the book, I’d turn to the back cover and stare at the strange picture of the bearded author of our most celebrated science fiction novel. I mused about what it would have been like to run into him at a cocktail party back in 1965, the year he published Dune. Previously, I’d always thought of Herbert as somewhat of a dork: not the cocktail party type at all. But for some reason, as I started to understand Dune, I realized what an extraordinary man he must have been. He was describing ecosystems before anyone even knew what an ecosystem was. The man could talk to anyone about anything. And that’s a pretty good setup for a cocktail party.

Now, most of you know that I like cocktail parties, but that’s not the reason for this windbaggy introduction. This is my way of saying that Dune is a truly remarkable book. I’m not the first person to realize this, of course. Although the book had an inauspicious debut through auto repair publisher Chilton, by the end of the 1970s it had sold something like 10 million copies.

People don’t talk about Dune much anymore. Maybe Star Wars and its progeny were just as adept at capturing people’s imaginations in a more easily digestible format. Maybe time has taken its toll on the entire genre of science fiction itself – something which seemed so fresh and new in the 60s. Popular Mechanics -- with its frequent drawings of the personal flying pod of the future – was a top-selling magazine back then.

But Dune is so much more than just a science fiction tale. Herbert’s rendering of Arrakis, the water-starved planet which is the new home of protagonist Paul Atreides, is nothing short of astonishing. Unlike any other book I’ve known, the human story is driven by, and consistent with, the salient details of life on this harsh planet. It is deeply satisfying. To cut to the chase, if you might take pleasure in simultaneously contemplating natural ecology, the human condition and the butterfly effect, you will delight in Dune.

Now, to be clear, Dune is a difficult book. You will need to bookmark the glossary in back and make frequent forays there, at first. If you are the type who needs to understand everything you read when you read it, Dune is not for you. It is only after an understanding of Arrakis blossoms in your conscience that you will enjoy this book. But by then, the story will be cranked into high gear and you may feel adrenaline coursing through your veins as you turn pages. The story unfolds quickly, but I think Herbert did that on purpose, to shorten the already lengthy tome (500+ pages), and to set up sequels (there are many).

There are so many themes upon which to reflect that I can’t possibly do justice to any of them here. But there is one particular aspect of the book which deserves attention, because of the way that it subtly, and often probably unnoticeably, runs counter to the modern reader’s environmental sensibilities.

As I’ve mentioned, Mother Nature is a leading character in Dune (I’d call her Gaia if Dune were set on Earth). Those who do not both understand and respect her are destined for an ignominious and sometimes violent end. The primary feature of life on Arrakis which gives Mother Nature her domineering power is lack of water. The humans which are able to exist most comfortably in this desiccated landscape have developed sophisticated techniques for collecting, securing and storing water. They plant grasses on the leeward side of huge sand dunes which collect dew in the morning and provide a few drops of water each. They wear suits which trap the evaporation of their own sweat, process out the salts and deliver the remainder back to their mouths via a small tube. And they dig massive underground tunnels to store water in such a way that it cannot evaporate at all.

These methods work sufficiently well for a race of humans (the Fremen) to live on Arrakis without importing goods from other planets. But the Fremen are unsatisfied. Life, for generation after generation, has been an unrelenting struggle. A myth develops, and grows over these generations, that a savior will appear. This savior will be blessed with unprecedented mental powers which give him unmatched political capabilities and a scrappy but domineering military intuition. But more important than politics, might, or even water, is the savior’s plan.

The plan is not for some cataclysmic event, but rather for a slow progression, over millennia, to transform Arrakis from a parched, sand strewn hell hole into an abundant, nurturing Eden. The plan is based on hope: hope that humans, by effecting small, incremental changes over long periods of time, will be able to fundamentally change the ecology of Arrakis. To create water and clouds where none previously existed. Those grasses on the backside of dunes will beget ever larger vegetation, which will trap yet more precipitation, which can then be used to support yet more life and accelerate the cycle of water, and thus life.

The power of Paul Atreides was nothing less than the hope of transforming the ecology of Arrakis into one which would be hospitable to humans. And this hope was to be planned and carried out by humans, not Mother Nature.

And yet Dune is most often touted as an ecological masterpiece. How could a story of human intervention to fundamentally change the nature of existence ever be characterized as an ecological masterpiece? I would argue that Dune is more of a humanist masterpiece than an ecological one.

The short answer, for me, is that in 1965, mankind was just on the cusp of achieving real material prosperity in the United States. There weren’t yet washing machines and Cuisinarts in every household. People had to do such nasty things as wash their own clothes and cook meals from real food that was expensive to acquire and difficult to prepare into something tasty. Nature, in all its forms, was still something which required mastery by men. So it was still natural that mankind, when faced with hardship from Mother Nature, would seek to master her.

And yet today, our inclination is exactly the opposite. We cringe every time we impose a cost on mother earth, even as we do it. The themes for exploration and exposition here are limitless, and there is no way that I can even begin to describe them, much less resolve them on this lowly blog. So I simply leave you with a recommendation:

Read Dune. Then come over to our house, and let’s open a bottle of wine and attempt to figure out all the world’s problems.

PS: As I was about half-way through the drafting of this blog post, I happened to read the Afterword, written by Herbert’s only son Brian. Here is the opening:

“I knew Frank Herbert for more than thirty-eight years. He was a magnificent human being, a man of great honor and distinction, and the most interesting person at any gathering, drawing listeners around him like a magnet…”

Coincidence? Yes, but not really.