I haven't been reading much. Voltaire's "Candide et autres contes" have occupied my mind, as has Saramago's "The Duplicate Man". When I wish for a break, I turn to the light Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. I have always had a soft spot for Arthurian drama.
Originally Posted by idiotic
Anybody read the Dune series? What did you think of them as a whole, and what is Herbert trying to say or do with them?
It's been a few years since I have read the six Dune books and I seemed to have enjoyed each of them differently. They may not be great masterpieces of literary narrative and style, but they are justly hailed for their imaginative scope and broad range of political, philosophical and religious questions raised. Ultimately, I can't venture a guess as to what the author's true intention was, nor can I ascribe to that particular intentional fallacy. I can leave you with some thoughts though. There be spoilers (evidently).
Dune is obviously constructed to serve as a commentary parallel to our own times. Most commentators do not miss the opportunity to point out that both water and melange take the place of today's world dependency on oil. The transports, religions, cults, they all desperately hinge on this precious spicy substance originating from a planet with no internal resources to harvest it. A planet so barren and intolerable that it values water as a commodity above everything else. And, like in today's geopolitical panorama, the tenants of these deceptively rich lands are in turn colonized, exploited, disregarded and eradicated.
This much is clear, but then Dune is also adorned and riddled with remarkable and striking personalities, great men, witches and aliens who accomplish deeds and villainies of differing importance. A common undercurrent may be found in their motivations, as they all believe their motions dictated by a superior motive, more often than not of a religious nature. Yet for all this religious protagonism, the gods are surprisingly absent in Dune.
The banishment of computers, an event not directly narrated in the books, serves as the departing point to the glorification and perfection of the earthly man. Just as the Roman Empire met a curious period during the waning ages of paganism but before Christianity, so does Dune and our days take place in an age where men exists only for himself, even if they believe their nature to be of relative divine origin. As would be expected, rulers and leaders wield this as a weapon, commanding masses in its name and building empires upon empty beliefs. The struggle for the spice, or the oil, cannot be undertaken based upon simple economical considerations; the Fremen eventually only march to war once they consider their actions a commandment of their faith.
In the heritage of western Christianity, the gods bestow the power of free will upon their lesser creations. Dune's protagonists may deem themselves divine, or the servants of supreme designs, yet they appear oddly oblivious to this dogma. Control is sought at all costs, either through enslavement (Gesserit and the Voice), genetic conditioning (Tleilaxu), religious fanaticism (Leto and the Fish Speakers) or sheer know-how dependence (Ixians). Spice itself is the central metaphor for this, as the Baron Harkonnen famously asserts.
The farce must be maintained, and thus all races, sects and creeds await a prophet or a messiah, one whom they wish can lead them to ages of untold prosperity and prod them from their apathetic slumber. The Bene Gesserit seek their Kwisatz Haderach through intensive breeding programs, the Fremen follow Muad'dib, even the Tleilaxu claim they have already met their messiah. But a prophet to which god or faith? It rarely seems to matter, for the protagonists aren't shy to invoke divine prerogatives or command their followers by means of otherworldly promises. This already blurred line becomes indistinct when Leto II proclaims himself the God Emperor of Dune. "I am the religion", he roars, but he might as well have claimed to be the State or the Sun as he plummeted to his death.
In fact, the only conclusive allusion to a definite higher power seems to come from the Arrakeen inhabitants, the Fremen, who vaguely worship a worm entity whom they call Shai-Hulud. A thin belief by which Leto secretly cannot abide. He fuses with the worm, and becomes the worm himself. Gifted with a life spanning millennia, he sees all. Decrying the internal focus on scarce resources, he announces the extinction of mankind at the same time he robes himself as the herald of its renewal. He trains fanatical followers, scatters them in space, and knows that one day they will wage terrible wars and spur the survival of the fittest.
So far this is all awfully descriptive. What's most striking about the series is the definition of Leto and the balance between power and religion. He isn't constructed as a divine messiah, but as a thoroughly human one. As he died, no sacrifice was taken for anyone's sins, but rather for the simple survival and progress of a species he renounced. His solution unravels a paradox of selfishness, manipulation and cruelty by which mankind's oldest dream is brought to fruition and a Tyrant and a Messiah exist as one. I suppose, in the end, Dune is the contrived story of a human that, considering himself divine, embarked upon a long journey to ensure no other supreme being could follow him. It's again the death of God at man's hands, but also what a man would desire should be be allowed to evolve to divinity.
His offspring then survive in all planets and produce the precious spice for all. Mankind ceases to depend upon a rarity and development may once again be resumed. Peace and unity by means of blind economical stability is not a novel concept. Dune ends with a hope: that it will be enough. Like us, not even Leto, the self-proclaimed god, could do more than to hope for it.
This is an interpretation. It's been years after all. I have no doubts that someone with your academic background could extract a more concrete meaning from the books, as well as contextualize the many references Herbert adores to dart around (should you be willing to concede the time investment). Like many others, I can't vouch for the quality of his writing, especially since his latter books quickly become a difficult mesh of his manneirisms and ramblings concerning primal sexual urges.