Friday, November 27, 2009

Dune, the part two: politics and humanity

The first half of Dune has motored along. It's fast-paced, crisp, action-packed and completely intriguing. The Atreides are having a little trouble settling on their new home, the desert planet Arrakis. Everything is about the new planet: the desert, the weather, the Fremen, the worms. At the behest of the Emperor, they replaced their arch-enemies the Harkonnens as rulers of Arrakis, aka Dune, the source of the most valuable substance, spice, which allows for space-travel.

Betrayed by the Emperor, the Atreides are forced to flee, their forces defeated, the Duke captured by the evil Baron Harkonnen, only Jessica the beloved Bene Gesserit concubine, Paul the prodigy and a few loyal lieutenants surviving. They turn to the Fremen, the people of the desert, for help. Paul has been undergoing some changes with exposure to spice, able to absorb and compute infinite amounts of data and see infinite future possibilities.

The complexity of the later books is only hinted at so far. What is evident right away is the careful observation by the characters, the almost unimaginable ability to read people and situations, and the intrigue that accompanies every action. This is politics at its most intense at every level, from personal interactions between family members to galaxy-spanning plots. And everyone is so good at it. This, probably, is why I love the book so much. I want to be Paul Atreides, with the ability to read and process minutiae and predict actions based on the data. I want to be able to know what my opponents will do before they know it themselves. And I want to ride a sandworm.

The first idea addressed in the book is this: what defines our humanity? What separates us from animals? Paul, at the behest of his mother, undergoes a test administered by a Bene Gesserit, one of the school of specially trained female advisors. (and Jessica's superior and teacher at Bene Gesserit school). Holding a poisoned needle to his neck, she tells him that it is a gom jabbar:
"It kills only animals."
Pride overcame Paul's fear. "You dare to suggest a duke's son is an animal?" he demanded.
"Let us say I suggest that you may be human," she said.

She forces his hand into a box, saying she'll kill him if he removes it, telling him that animals will chew off their legs to escape a trap:
"A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he may kill the trapper and remove the threat to his kind."

His hand tingles, then itches, then burns, so much so that he imagines it crispy and blackened. Overcome with the intensity, the Bene Gesserit halts the test, exclaiming that no woman has ever endured so much (and internally wondering if he might be the Kwisatz Haderach, the chosen one).

Apparently the test sets humans free, to fully think, not reliant on machines as they once were:
"The Great Revolt took away a crutch," she said. "It forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human talents."
"Bene Gesserit schools?"
She nodded. "We have two chief survivors of those ancient schools: the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. The Guild, so we think, emphasizes almost pure mathematics. Bene Gesserit performs another function."
"Politics," he said.

Politics, indeed.

Future post ideas:

Spice as oil, the jihad of the Fremen, and the worms.
David Lynch's movie adaptation.
The Guild and the Bene Gesserit: gendered power-play to the nth degree.

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