The text of Dune is divided into three books of unnumbered chapters. Each chapter is headed by an epigraph that is a quotation, not from an existing literary work but from a pseudo-scholarly work attributed to Princess Irulan, whom the reader learns only at the very end of the novel becomes Paul’s wife. The various works named are supposedly historical treatises concerning her husband’s early career that she wrote some time after the conclusion of the novel. Read retrospectively, these pseudo-quotations reveal important points of the story that occur either in the chapter they head or in a later chapter. This violates a basic principle of ordinary storytelling: it gives away key elements of the plot. In a way, Irulan allows the reader to share in Paul’s prophetic ability and see glimpses of what will happen later in the narrative.
The first several chapters are devoted as much to the exposition of the story’s world as to traditional plot elements. The civilization of Dune spans the galaxy and is approximately ten thousand years old (how far in the future it might be from the present is never revealed). This Imperium took on its present form in response to the ‘‘Butlerian Jihad.’’ This conflict is never clearly discussed, but it is hinted that it was a crisis in which intelligent computers attempted to exterminate or enslave the human race. Since that time, all computers have been forbidden. Perhaps as a result, there has been little technological advance since that time. Instead, various human potentials have been developed to ever greater heights of perfection. Several institutions based on human abilities rule the galaxy in concert with more traditional power structures. The central source of political power is the Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles (CHOAM), a joint-stock corporation whose stockholders are granted absolute rule over entire planets in proportion to their stock. The expression of this rule is feudal: the chairman calls himself emperor, the other stockholders dukes and barons. Each member maintains a large military establishment that is used for protection in feuds with other magnates (under the code of kanly, or vendetta) and protection from the power of the emperor. The Great Houses are organized into the Landsraat, or parliament. Together their military power is only about equal to the emperor’s since he controls the Sardaukar, a large force of soldiers whose superhuman military skill make them nearly invincible. Each Great House also has a cache of nuclear weapons (the ‘‘family atomics’’) that may only be used if the legal functioning of the power structure is violated. Another vital component of civilization is the mentats, men whose minds are trained to function as computers. Without their aid, controlling civilization on a galactic scale would be impossible, although as a class they have no independent access to power apart from the nobles they serve.
The rule of the Great Houses, however, extends only across the surface of planets. The Spacing Guild has complete control of all spacecraft (even weather and communications satellites can be put into orbit only with their approval). Beyond this, they have a monopoly on travel between star systems (and their final authority is to withhold this service from a Great House that might pose a challenge to them). In the absence of computers, Guild ships are guided though hyperspace by navigators who can see into the future because they take massive doses of a drug known as spice. This spice (the source of wealth of the CHOAM) is a natural product of a single planet, Arrakis (Arabic for ‘‘the dancer’’). It is generally referred to as the ‘‘geriatric spice,’’ since it is taken in lower doses by all aristocrats who can afford it for the purpose of extending life. Another powerful group is the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood (Latin for ‘‘she will have performed well’’). Just as mentats and navigators are only males, the Bene Gesserit is a purely female institution. Disciplined according to a system of physical and psychological training derived from the martial arts, Zen, and yoga, the Bene Gesserits use the water of life, a spice-poison that uses the biochemistry of their own bodies to metabolize into a drug that induces a higher state of consciousness. The Reverend Mothers who have performed this rite are able to perceive the world around them absolutely (for instance, they are called truthsayers, since they can detect from the smallest telltale sign whether someone is lying) and can also see into human consciousness as a whole. The role of the Bene Gesserit in society seems to be to provide wives and concubines to the Great Houses, and they often educate daughters of the nobility. In short, Herbert presents the human civilization of the future as a finely balanced system in a state of homeostasis (constantly staying the same). However, it is a frozen system, not a dynamic one in constantly rebalanced change, and therefore it will tend to break if pressure is applied.
Dune opens with a scene in which Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto and his Bene Gesserit concubine Jessica, is being tested by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim. The test consists of having a poison dart (the gom jabar) held to his throat with the threat that it will instantly kill him if he removes his hand from a box that seems to be destroying his appendage in an excruciatingly painful way. When he passes the test and realizes that the pain was an illusion, Paul is told that his experience reveals that he is a human being, able to govern his response to pain and fear with reason, rather than an animal. Over the course of the first book of Dune, Herbert reveals that in accordance with the Bene Gesserit breeding program, Paul was meant to have been a girl (Bene Gesserits can control the sex of their children), but out of love for the Duke, his mother Jessica bore a son in defiance of the orders of her superiors. Paul, in addition to being the heir of a duke, has been trained as a mentat by his father’s mentat Thifur Hawat. He was also trained by his mother as a Bene Gesserit, although training a man in this fashion is forbidden. Paul has also been taught fencing by Gurney Halleck, the most loyal of his father’s military retainers.
Paul’s family is being led into a trap. Arrakis, the planet that is the sole source of geriatric spice, has been controlled for many decades by the Baron Harkonnen, an ancestral rival to the house of Atreides. Supposedly, the Emperor has removed him from control of this huge source of income on the grounds of mismanagement. The planet will instead be given to Duke Leto, who is universally admired by members of the Landsraat for his uprightness and honor. The duke is well aware, however, that this is most likely a plot to destroy him. The second chapter reveals every detail of this scheme in a staff meeting between the Baron Harkonnen, his nephew and chosen heir Feyd-Rautha, and his sadistic mentat Piter de Vries. Once the duke is established in his new holding, the baron will invade the planet in a surprise attack. Although his forces could probably be defeated by the superior training and valor of the Atreides military, the Harkonnens will be supported by sixty thousand Sardaukar from the Emperor’s guard, the greatest soldiers in the galaxy.
The plot is duly carried out within a few days of Duke Leto taking possession of Arrakis, and although the matter might seem quite straightforward given the element of surprise and the overwhelming military force used, the nearly two hundred pages of the first book are used to spin out the elaborately Byzantine plot of the Harkonnens. Ruses and deceptions are used at every turn to feed the suspicions of the leaders of the House Atreides about each other. The Harkonnen plot succeeds in effecting the military defeat of the Atreides forces (they are virtually annihilated) and in killing the Duke. Baron Harkonnen believes that he has also killed Paul, the heir, and his mother Jessica, by forcing them to fly an ornithopter into a sandstorm, but in fact they survive, aided by the Imperial planetologist Pardot Keynes, whose mother was a Fremen, a member of the mysterious native population of Arrakis. Kynes is secretly Liet, the leader of the Fremen. He guarantees that the Fremen will protect the fugitive nobles.
During their escape, Paul reveals to his mother a prophetic vision of the future that he has had. He authenticates this vision by telling her that she is pregnant with a daughter, Alia (which only she knew), and with the revelation that she is the Baron Harkonnen’s daughter, a fact that she has denied as unthinkable but that she now must accept based on family resemblance. She suggests that he is the Kwisatz Haderach, the male Bene Gesserit bred from thousands of years of eugenics experiments by the sisterhood; if Jessica had obeyed her Bene Gesserit orders and borne a girl, that girl would later have been the Kwisatz Haderach’s mother. However, Paul tells his mother, ‘‘Put that out of your mind. I’m something unexpected.’’ Paul does not precisely have the power to see into the future but rather to see all of the possible futures and take actions that make certain possibilities more likely. He sees two main pathways to the future, one in which he enigmatically confronts Baron Harkonnen, and another in which he unleashes a jihad, a holy war, across the galaxy to serve the purpose of remixing isolated human gene pools, but at the cost of billions of deaths. He fears pursuing either possibility.
Liet-Kynes also escapes from the Harkonnen forces, but he dies in the open desert. During his death agony he has a vision in which he obliquely reviews the ecology of Arrakis with the ghost of his father. The elder Kynes gained control of the Fremen by promising to turn Arrakis into a fertile paradise. Alluding to information that is scattered throughout the novel, Kynes realized that there was no shortage of water on Arrakis. The whole planet was a desert because its water had been trapped by an alien life form that had long ago been introduced there. This is the sandworm, referred to as the Maker or Shai-hulud by the Fremen. It is an enormous creature hundreds of meters long that swims through sand. Kynes discovered that it has a complicated natural history. The first stage of its existence is as a ‘‘little maker,’’ a microscopic creature with both plantlike and animal-like properties that lives in the sand and sequesters any available water in cysts. Because this life was alien, it had no natural predator and so ran wild, trapping nearly all the water on the planet. The spice is a by-product of its life cycle in the desert sands. The next stage is the larva or sand-trout, a small animal that lives in the sand, feeding on the microbial form. These eventually pupate into full sandworms. Kynes devised a plan to build up green areas in the desert with water taken from the atmosphere and protected from the little makers by plants that are poisonous to them. Of course, only selected areas could be reforested or else the spice-making ecology would die out. The Fremen have been secretly carrying out this plan for several decades.
Among the Fremen, Paul and Jessica are protected by their assimilation to roles in religious mythology that the Bene Gesserit sowed among the Fremen thousands of years before through the Missonaria Protectiva. Paul is recognized as Lisan al-Gaib, the promised messiah. He uses his authority over the Fremen to lead them in a guerilla war against the Harkonnen occupying forces. He utilizes the potential of what his father called ‘‘desert power.’’ Not only are the Fremen the greatest warriors in the galaxy thanks to the harshness of their living conditions and able to utilize the resources of the desert (such as the sandworms) for warfare, but their ultimate power is the control of the spice. Using the logical insight of his mentat training, Paul quickly deduces, ‘‘The Fremen [are] paying the Guild for privacy, paying in a coin that’s freely available to anyone with desert power—spice.’’ With their unlimited access to spice, the Fremen are able to bribe the Spacing Guild into ignoring their ecological work in the deep desert and also into denying intelligence to the Harkonnen military forces. The baron, however, cannot see the potential of the Fremen and discounts them as ‘‘rabble’’ He blinds himself to his greatest danger because of his arrogant, prejudiced assumptions. He pursues a course of harshly oppressing Arrakis using his nephew Glossu, so that he can later put his favored nephew Feyd-Rautha in power as a beloved savior. His ultimate aim is to position Feyd-Rautha as successor to the emperor. The baron attempts to build his nephew Feyd up to superhuman stature by making him a popular gladiator. The Bene Gesserit nevertheless do not wish to lose his lineage from their breeding program and so arrange for one of their agents, the Countess Fenring, to seduce Feyd-Rautha.
Paul and Jessica are taken in by Stilgar, the Fremen leader of Sietch Tabr. There Paul meets Chani, the daughter of Liet-Kynes and takes her as his concubine. During the fighting, Paul and the Fremen adopt many terrorist tactics, such as kamikaze attacks on troop transports that exchange the life of one pilot for the lives of hundreds of the enemy. His followers become known as Death Commandos. Jessica becomes the Reverend Mother (high priestess) of the Sietch in a ceremony in which she drinks a poison created by drowning a young sandworm. She is able to consciously control the biochemistry of her body to metabolize it into an intoxicant that is shared out among the community as a sacrament. This process calls her unborn daughter Alia to consciousness, with the result that she is able to think and speak in an adult fashion shortly after birth. Jessica also gains access to the memories of all the Fremen Reverend Mothers in the chain of succession before her.
Thifur Hawat has agreed to work for the Baron Harkonnen as his mentat chief of staff because he realizes that the Atreides’s main enemy has been the emperor, and serving the Harkonnens puts him in the best position to directly attack the throne. Hawat reveals to the baron what the Atreides learned about the Fremen and convinces him that they should be cultivated as allies to produce a fighting force superior to the Sardaukar. He has also deduced that the reason the emperor destroyed Duke Leto was that the military proficiency of the Atreides armed forces was approaching that of the Sardaukar. The baron imagines that this new scheme of cultivating the Fremen can be effected by his original plan of replacing Glossu as governor of Arrakis, with Feyd-Rautha in the role of a liberating hero.
As commander of the Fremen resistance to Harkonnen occupation, Paul, despite his unparalleled military success, must prove himself by the conventional measures of Fremen manhood: for instance, by riding a sandworm. In the traditional Fremen order, Paul would have been forced to call out and kill Stilgar to succeed him as leader of Sietch Tabr, but he manages to convince his followers that such a waste is unnecessary since his claims to power as the duke extend over the whole planet, not a single community. Paul also tests himself by transforming the sacramental poison in the same manner as a Reverend Mother, something no male has ever done. During one of his military actions, Paul is reunited with Gureny Halleck, who has been living since the coup as a spice smuggler, plotting for the day he can assassinate Glossu Harkonnen. Once it becomes clear that the Fremen are on the verge of winning their war against the Harkonnen, the Spacing Guild transports to Arrakis Emperor Shaddam IV, together with five legions of Sardaukar and military contingents from all the Great Houses of the galaxy. However, Paul has foreseen this day and developed a plan to overcome this vast military expedition and to secure his own position not only as duke but as emperor. Before his plan goes into action, however, the Sardaukar raid Sietch Tabr, kill Paul’s son Leto, and take Alia captive. While Alia is being interviewed by the emperor, she kills Baron Harkonnen. Paul defeats the invading Sardaukar by using his arsenal of nuclear weapons to blow a hole in the shield wall, the mountains that surround the north pole of Arrakis. This allows a devastating desert storm to roll through the imperial encampment. This is followed by the Fremen army, riding sandworms that make short work of the imperial spacecraft and the Sardaukar they shelter. Paul takes a group of nobles captive, including the emperor and representatives of the Spacing Guild. He explains to them that if the Guild does not disperse the main elements of the invasion fleet still in orbit, and if the emperor does not abdicate in his favor (giving Paul his daughter Irulan in an official marriage that would legalize the succession), he will destroy the spice, which can be easily done by interrupting the life cycle of the sandworms. Faced with this terrorist threat that would end interstellar travel in the Imperium, Paul’s adversaries must accept his conditions. The climax of the novel comes in a duel fought between Paul and Feyd-Rautha in satisfaction of the vendetta between their families. Paul’s virtue easily overcomes Harkonnen treachery. Although it does not begin within the scope of the novel, the Fremen jihad across the galaxy will shortly take place because it is an imperative of human evolution.
Four appendices contain pseudo-documents supposedly produced within the Dune universe, similar to the chapter epigraphs. They explain in a more systematic fashion material already presented in the novel concerning the ecology of Arrakis, the Bene Gesserit, and the religious history of the Imperium, and they supply brief biographies of the main characters holding ranks of nobility.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Frank Herbert, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.