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Dune – Frank Herbert

by Venky

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Every now and then, crops up a piece of literary marvel that unshackles itself from being straitjacketed as belonging to a ‘genre’ and escapes being blasély branded as the undisputed barometer of an oeuvre. Such books bridge the two dimensions of time and space and continue to be undiminished in their relevance. Deceptively representing mere wisps of fantastical dreams when written in the past, the nub encompassed by such books assume the notion of the probable in the present, before finally attaining the attribute of the inevitable in future. The ‘Dune’ saga by Frank Herbert is one such scintillating example. Leagues ahead of its time, this literary science fiction playing out in the 10th millennium in a distant and remote Planet, is not just a paean to a magisterial bent of imagination, but also a frightening prescience of the perils that are currently plaguing our own Planet.

Planet Arrakis, euphemistically called the “Dune” is an acrid, barren and perpetually water deprived Planet inhabited by a tribe known as the Fremen. Possessing a fierce disposition and a degree of ingenuity, the Fremen go about their daily chores clad in ‘still suits’, a small sealable enclosure of micro-sandwich fabric designed to reclaim as potable water the moisture discharged by the wearer of such suits. However, what Arrakis possesses in abundance is a mélange of spices. The very life of the galaxy, these spices are mined for abundant profits to be split amongst warring Kings and Houses, by the Combine Honnete Ober Advance Mercantiles (CHOAM), the Universal development corporation controlled by the Emperor and Great Houses.

The Emperor Padishah Shaddam IV issues an edict for Arrakis to be controlled by Duke Leto of House Atreides. Even when the Duke is making plans for establishing his administration in Arrakis, the ruler of a competing house, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen of House Harkonnen is busy scheming the assassination of the Duke and his family. The concubine of the Duke, Lady Jessica fears for the safety of her prodigious son, Paul. Hailing from the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit – an ancient school of mental & physical training established primarily for female students after an apocalypse termed “Butlerian Jihad” ends up decimating robots and other “thinking machines” – Jessica heretically goes against her Sisterhood by imparting the tenets of Bene Gesserit to her son Paul.

Arrakis threatens to be engulfed in a titanic struggle of intrigue, chaos, and conflict that may ultimately lead to the very destruction of the Planet itself. Only one individual possesses a messianic ability to prevent such a doomsday scenario. Paul, although only fifteen years old, at the time of the initial ferment, is already displaying prodigious signs that point towards the fulfillment of a Freman prophesy. Paul may be the chosen one, the ‘Neo’ in the ‘Matrix’ of his time. He may be the saviour, ‘Muad’Dib (literally translating to kangaroo mouse, an animal linked with the Fremen earth-spirit mythology and boasting exemplary capabilities of survival in the most scorching of deserts). Lady Jessica also has a strong premonition that Paul may indeed be more than just a saviour. Her son is more likely than not, to manifest the powers of a ‘Kwisatz Haderach’ (Badge accorded by the Bene Gesserit to the unknown for which the Sisterhood sought a genetic solution: a male Bene Gesserit whose innate and organic mental powers would bridge both time and space).

What follows is a superlative cohesion of futurism and mysticism that embraces within its fold a dizzying concoction of socio-cultural, anthropological, metaphysical, geological and spiritual elements. From eugenics and gene manipulation to frenzied myths and entrenched dogmas, Frank Herbert wallops his readers with page after page of breathtaking ingenuity and uncanny clairvoyance. ‘Dune’ was penned when the now unfortunately and involuntarily cliched term ‘Anthropocene’ was a mere blimp in the sparse landscape of environmental science (not so dissimilar to Arrakis in more ways than one). In fact, scientists in the erstwhile Soviet Union appear to have used the term “Anthropocene” only in the early 1960s to refer to the Quaternary, the most recent geological period.

Frank Herbert himself may have been the poor man’s Muad’Dib! He even foresees and foretells the pernicious assassination techniques of Vladimir Putin when he holds forth on the dangerous evil of ‘Gom Jabbar’ ( a specific and almost invisible poison needle tipped with meta-cyanide used by the Bene Gesserit Proctors in a test called ‘death alternative’ test employed to check the degree of human awareness)!

Herbert’s ‘Butlerian Jihad’ now finds ubiquity in the eponymous divide that pits the Panglossian advocates of untrammeled Artificial Intelligence advances against the virtual Cassandras of doom. The primary purpose of the Butlerian Jihad is encapsulated in a document called the O.C. Bible, one of whose commandments reads, “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” Wonder what both Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom would have to say about this commandment!

The book, however, can be extra dense at times with the capability of stopping a speeding Shinkansen stone dead on its rails. However, those passages are few and far between in an otherwise enchanting menagerie of odours, oracles, orchestrations and oddities.

If Muad’Dib was to have asked about his creation, he may have dared to venture an opinion on the lines of ‘Dune is more relevant tomorrow than it was when it was written yesterday and read today.’

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