Thursday, January 27, 2011

From - To Tame the Sand

To Tame the Sand

by Satyajit Sarna | January 27, 2011

If you must know only one incantation against internal demons, it is hard to beat the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear. Say it with me.

"Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear's path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."

When the lights are out, or the results of that test are forthcoming, or the threat is physical and boorish and near, the difference between a human being and any other animal is the ability to restore the rule of reason. All the Litany does is remind you that the answer to every question lies within.

Dune is, in part, about that unique and supreme potential of the human mind to impose itself on physical reality. Whether through means deductive and rational or mystical and immanent, man has the ability to be sovereign over, if not reality itself, at least his destined path.

At the point in the distant future that Dune is set in, human civilization has three political foci: the Imperial Household and a nominal emperor; the feudal Great Houses, who together form the Landsraad; and the Guild, which controls all transport. It is a delicately balanced tripod; if any of its legs were to grow, it would tip over. Paul Atreides is the teenage scion of the ducal house of Atreides, which rules the lush green planet of Caladan. The Emperor, in conspiracy with age-old rivals of the Atreides, grants the Duke of Atreides a honeyed trap – the fiefdom of the planet of Arrakis to operate for the Imperial corporations, and keep the change.

Arrakis, the desert planet, is unique amongst all settled worlds for one product: the geriatric spice, mélange, which is mined in its deep desert. The Spice allows the Navigators of the Guild to negotiate crowded space at speeds greater than light, and their stranglehold on transport is dependent on a constant supply of it. Arrakis has very little water and an insignificant, seemingly uncivilised, native population, the Fremen, whose every action is a preservation of moisture. Its deserts contain large sandworms that swallow mining factories whole. The reason we need to think of the eccentricities of Arrakis so is because Dune is, to my mind, the pre-eminent book of its genre – the Planetary Romance – a sub-species of science fiction dealing with the relation of people to an imagined world. To use a popular foil, if James Cameron’s Avatar was about lush Amazonian rainforest, Dune takes us into the deepest deserts of Arabia.

Before the Atreides can establish any real foothold on Arrakis, the Harkonnens, their feudal rivals, ambush and crush them. Paul and his mother escape into the inhuman desert, encounter the Fremen,and even become Fremen. They learn to recycle water from their bodies by wearing stillsuits, living by the code of the Fremen, and adapting to their customs and tribal structures. Paul is renamed by his tribe after the little jumping mouse of the sand dunes, and becomes the Muad’dib. Dune is the story of Paul’s adaptation to the desert, the transformation of the Fremen into a military force, and the rise of House Atreides from its fallen glory.

The desert planet of Arrakis (fan art).

Image above and on article thumbnail from Wikimedia Commons here.
Image (but not the remainder of the work) shared under:
Creative Commons License

But this is not a story of free will, nor is it entirely that of a manufactured destiny; it is far more complex than that. Paul is the product of thousands of years of selective breeding by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood; carefully selected for the genetic basis of prescience. When Paul’s prescience is unlocked by the properties of the Spice, he becomes the rarest kind of hero in fiction - the mystic prophet. He can see the thousand possible paths of his future kaleidoscoping into his present as well as his entire genetic past, all of which were so far inaccessible to any male. Every step he takes is one deeper into Time’s terrifying hall of mirrors.

If I could bring myself to criticise this book honestly, I would hit hardest here. The omniscient narrator is as old as fiction, but omniscience in a character is impossible to maintain with the goals of fiction. Thankfully, Paul’s omniscience is limited, and stops just short of being a fatal character defect; it only grates occasionally. In fact, it is a miracle of writing that the Muad’dib can live in his own history, and that miracle operates within the mind of the reader – we are present at the moment of the making of the myth, privy to the deus ex machina. Think upon this: we know every single mystic, godman, or prophet, in history or fiction, through words of their own or those of their followers. The only one whose mind we are permitted to enter is Paul-Muad’dib of House Atreides.

Dune is now widely praised as the first science fiction with an acute sense of ecological change and preservation beyond the basic conception of environments shaping the people who live in them. The Fremen are survivors because their environment demands it. Similarly, the Imperial Sardaukar corps is dominant in battle because the soldiers are hardened on the prison planet of Salusa Secundus. Consciously, Frank Herbert focuses on the possibility that within relatively insignificant spans of time human beings will change and so will their environments. It seems a colourless assumption to us now, but remember, in 1965, Silent Spring was only three years old and the possibility of the world changing in one lifetime was laughable.

Tolkien famously harboured a cordial dislike of allegory. Frank Herbert courts it. He ransacks Arabic and Hebrew for their vocabulary and Zen Buddhism for its concentration tricks. Tempting as it is to conclude that Dune is about the birth of Islam, the politics of oil, or the double-edged sword of ecological control, that is not true. The Fremen are not nomadic Arab tribesmen; they just look a little like them. The Spice is not crude petroleum; it is more rare and far more magical. The process of terraforming a desert planet contains no real lessons for us; our world is not a hostile place where life must fight to survive, even if it does contain extreme environments. The odds in battle may remind us of T.E. Lawrence’s adventures, but nowhere in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom did he claim the ability to see into the future!

There is a philosophical problem in weighing up books like this. If you start with the axiom that any account is, by necessity, inaccurate and incomplete, then fiction is, by necessity, lies, and speculative fiction is a pack of outlandish and unforgivable whoppers. If all these spectres are just shadows in Plato’s cave, then what principle can we use to discriminate between them?

One way of skinning the cat is to abandon the standard of objectivity. If we are only concerned with the friendly shadows, we stand to be tutored by them. Allegorical treatments permit a logical empathy to grow in the reader. History is dead on the page, but narrative allows us to enter into the conversation as it grows. We know Muhammad took Mecca in a certain year, but we cannot really imagine what it may have felt like to be a seventh-century Arab engaged in that venture. By the unhinging of reality that allows us to imagine a Fremen attack on Imperial ships at Arakeen, we come closer to the first experience, enabling the mind to accept and express patterns underlying an inaccessible experience. To put this in shorthand, let me pose a simple question: are you closer to a man on the hundredth rung of a ladder by being on the third rung of the same ladder or by being on the hundredth rung of a different ladder? I don’t think that there’s a right answer to that question; some people benefit from analogy and others simply do not.

When one of the twenty editors to reject the book wrote back to Frank Herbert, he opened with, “I might be making the mistake of the decade, but...” He was. Dune went on to become the best-selling science fiction book of all time and was followed by five sequels, none as good as the first, one excellentIron Maiden song, and a horrendously shitty movie in 1984. In the imaginations of thousands of feverish minds, the universe of Dune grew, took colour and flesh, and became large enough to live in, like Middle Earth. At the heart of it was one small brown planet, with ripples like caramel.