Dune: A world-building review (part 2 of 2)

In the first half of this review, I looked at the physical content of Frank Herbert’s created universe in Dune, but that is really only half the story. The politics and religion of both Arrakis and the rest of the Imperium are the ultimate driving force of the narrative, serving as both setting and plot.

The first Dune book spends more time exploring the Fremen than it does the Landsraad and the Imperium. The Fremen are more unique to Dune and therefore both more interesting and in need of more introduction. Herbert starts with them knowing the reader will take longer to understand them, and doesn’t drop too many details on the Imperium in the first book, saving that discovery for later installments in the series.

Herbert uses the invented Chakobsa language sparingly. There are fewer than a hundred words of it in the first book; only three full phrases are translated. Even among the Fremen, Chakobsa is spoken in full phrases mostly in rituals. Single words are sprinkled throughout in the titles and names given to the characters, like Usul (“the base of the pillar”) and Muad’Dib (“desert mouse”).

In the first Dune book, Chakobsa is used as a sign of either mystical knowledge or allegiance with the Fremen. When the Lady Jessica first meets the Shadout Mapes, she speaks a line of Chakobsa to prove herself a player in the Fremen prophecies, and does the same later, upon first arriving in Sietch Tabr. Being one of the few outlanders who can speak the Fremen tongue helps Jessica to be accepted by Stilgar and his sietch—it’s an access code indicating that she and Paul belong among the Fremen. The only time we see Fremen conversing in Chakobsa is when Stilgar and his people first find Paul and Jessica in the desert, before they realize Jessica can understand what they’re saying; here it is used in its original purpose as a hunter’s language to protect their words from the ears of outsiders.

Chakbosa is laced throughout the Missionaria Protectiva; it’s more the language of the Bene Gesserit than it is that of the Fremen. The Dune wiki entry on Chakobsa says both the Fremen and the Bene Gesserit likely started using it sometime after the first Wars of the Assassins (so sometime in the late 3300s AG; the events of Dune take place in 10191 AG). It’s also not clear whether the language was introduced to the ancestors of the Fremen on Arrakis, back when they were still on Poritrin, or at some point in between.

Herbert likely got the name from the historical secret language Chakobsa (“language of the hunters”) that was used by the Checen people, a Caucasian tribe from the North Caucasus area (what’s now the part of Russia just north of Georgia and Azerbaijan). The language in Dune is a hodgepodge of Romani and Arabic influences, a logical alignment for the reader who’s accustomed to associating the sound and speech patterns of Arabic with the desert landscapes of the Middle East.

The intrigue and scheming between the Great Houses in the Imperium is the direct cause for the events that play out in Dune. House Atreides and House Harkonnen have a long-standing feud that comes to a head on Arrakis. The other houses, jealous of House Atreides, stand back from the conflict; hints at a deeper conspiracy with the Emperor start early and grow to certainty by book’s end. This thread of the plot is approached from both sides in the narrative, something that Herbert’s third omniscient POV makes uniquely possible.

The background politics of Dune are complex, probably the most intricately constructed element of the entire world Herbert built. In another type of book, this would be the primary source of dramatic tension in the narrative—a thriller, for example, might look only through Atreides eyes, letting the reader discover their plots along with the characters. The revelation of Yueh as the traitor would be a major moment in the story. Instead, the reader knows about him from almost the beginning. The story that unfolds is less about the schemes leading to the betrayal than it is about the fall-out from it.

Following Leto’s death, the politics in Dune take on an interesting flavor. Paul certainly has to make some political decisions during his time with the Fremen but these are outside the schemes of the Imperium. We only see the actions of the great houses through chapters centered on the Harkonnens, and since it’s only the bad guys interacting with it, the Imperium takes on a more smarmy character as the book progresses. The reader sees the Harkonnens are just one branch of a bigger enemy even though the first Dune book shows very little detail of how the great houses conduct their business.

Based on the glossary, maps, and multiple appendices, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Herbert knew the politics of his universe in an insane amount of detail while he was writing this first book. That details about the Landsraad are so sparse shows an admirable restraint. The politics are the reason for the Atreides move to Arrakis, and for Duke Leto’s death, and for Paul’s exile among the Fremen; the Imperium is a lurking threat, but Herbert aligns the reader’s journey with Paul’s. When he’s living with the Fremen, his concern is with honing his skills, building his army, and attacking the Harkonnens. The rest of the galaxy is a matter for the future. Paul’s impending marriage to the Princess Irulan at the conclusion of the first book tells the reader he’s about to enter this larger world. By now thoroughly grounded in the story, we’re prepared for the journey.

It doesn’t seem entirely right to call the Bene Gesserit a religious organization, but it is at least responsible for the religion practiced among the Fremen through the Missionaria Protectiva, which Herbert’s “Terminology of the Imperium” describes as “the arm of the Bene Gesserit order charged with sowing infectious superstitions on primitive worlds, thus opening those regions to exploitation by the Bene Gesserit” (Dune, p. 849). The Fremen were one culture infused with these beliefs, a fact Jessica realizes from her first encounter with the Shadout Mapes.

Jessica is aware that the prophecies she’s fulfilling were seeded by the Bene Gesserit; Paul is, too, though he doesn’t exploit this fact as often. Yet there are still moments they fulfill some part of the prophecy they didn’t even know about. Paul’s prescience lends credence to the idea of future sight. The prophecies may have been planted here by the Bene Gesserit, but even so they seem to be coming true.

As of the First Dune book, the main goal of the Bene Gesserit is said to be the creation of the Kwisatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit “whose organic mental powers would bridge space and time” (Dune, p. 847). To accomplish this, Bene Gesserit women have spent generaitons as concubines to major bloodlines, using their political influence to arrange the inter-breeding of houses. To play her proper role in this program, the Lady Jessica was supposed to give birth to a girl (Bene Gesserit can control these things). Instead, she had Paul. Thanks to this act of defiance, the Kwisatz Haderach arrives a generation too early.

The eugenics program of the Bene Gesserit is scientific in that they have studied genetics  to find the perfect combinations. It is obviously political; in the process of arranging these bloodlines the Bene Gesserit have eyes and influence in every great house of the Imperium. The ultimate goal has a religious flavor: to create a Messiah who will grant them access to the male lines of the Other Memory. The Bene Gesserit aims for this Messiah, though, are political more than spiritual—they hope to use the Kwisatz Haderach to cement their control over the entire galaxy (from a plan 10,000 years in the making, I’d honestly expect nothing less).

Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, if not the one the Bene Gesserit hoped for. His visions of the future show him and the Fremen on the path toward Jihad (a loaded term in our modern culture, but one that in this context means holy war). Paul doesn’t want the Jihad but it looms on his potential timelines regardless of what choices he makes. He finally realizes even his death won’t stop it; he would become a martyr, and the war would go on in his name.

Paul can see the future, but has limited control over it. The Bene Gesserit controlled the course of history, but their foresight was clouded when it came to the outcome. Though it may have started as a construct, the religion the Bene Gesserit established through the Missionaria Protectiva has a power all its own. The politics in Dune serve as the catalyst of the action, but this interplay of prophecy and destiny is ultimately its driving force.

Looking at the first Dune book in a big picture sense, it is clear that this is only the reader’s first glimpse in a broad and complex world. The epigraphs staring each chapter, the past as viewed through Jessica’s journey in the spice agony, and Paul’s visions of the future all combine to give us a sense of the vastness of this universe, a vastness of time as well as space. This is a universe that existed long before the first chapter of Dune, and one that will continue long after. The details of both Arrakis and the rest of the Imperium feel as though they’ve grown organically through time, not as if they were assembled by an author to tell a story. Nothing in the Dune books exists without a purpose and a rationale. By taking care all the pieces fit together smoothly, Herbert created as flawless a universe as can exist in science fiction, one that remains relevant to both writers and readers over 50 years after its release.


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