Machiavelli Among The Stars: A Re-Reading of Frank Herbert’s Dune

“How would you like to live billions upon billions of lives?” Paul asked. “There’s a fabric of legends for you! Think of all those experiences, the wisdom they’d bring. But wisdom tempers love, doesn’t it? And it puts a new shape on hate. Now can you tell what’s ruthless unless you’ve plumbed the depths of both cruelty and kindness? You should fear me, Mother. I am the Kwisatz Haderach.”

If someone asked me what my favorite science fiction book was, my immediate instinct would be to shout: “easy, Frank Herbert’s, Dune!” However, my actual memories of the book were hazy, colored largely by David Lynch’s eccentric adaptation of the book (which I still adore). So which Dune was I responding to, book or film? To answer this question, I decided to re-read the first book (at least) to separate fact from fiction, myth from matter. The results surprised me, but largely in the way I expected. For one, the book is much better than I remembered, and certainly a far more complete work of art than the film. In many ways, Dune is the work Machiavelli would write if he was born in the early 20th century rather than the 15th. Indeed, it bears the unmistakable stamp of the Italian Renaissance in its philosophy, political intrigue, and bizarre characters, any one of which might have existed in the courts of Lorenzo di Medici. When I read Dune, I was haunted by memories of not only The Prince, but works such as Castiglione’s The Courtier and More’s Utopia—as well as a subtle perfume of Shakespeare’s darker works such as Measure for Measure or King Lear. I say this not only because of the work’s literary merit, but because it shares age-old themes about power and the sacrifices required to maintain it. 

Dune is among those rare breed of science fiction novels that have very little to do with space or speculative science (though folding space, the weirding way, and other novelties are briefly explored) or grand battles of good vs. evil among the stars. As the book rolls along, the line between good and evil becomes blurred to the point that even Paul Atredies, our hero, questions his own heroism. If the essence of this book could be reduced to a single sentence, that sentence might be, “everything we believe is a pawn in a game whose goals and rules we’ve long since forgotten.” This comes into focus as we learn about the true decision-makers in this universe, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, who have spent thousands of years tracing bloodlines from this and that royal family to produce the supreme human, the so-called Kwisatz Haderach, the man who can be in two places at once. Their experiment is nearing an end when Jessica, the royal concubine of Duke Leto Atredies, decides to bear a son instead of the daughter the Bene Gesserits demanded (so this daughter could marry the heir of the Harkonnens, Feyd-Reutha). However, by the time this boy reaches his fourteenth year, he demonstrates remarkable abilities, and draws the interest of the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam herself.  She confirms through a test that he may be the one, though remains angry that Jessica (her prize pupil) took it upon herself to ‘make’ him. She begins laying her own plots to control him if he becomes ‘dangerous.’

Meanwhile, House Atredies is being manuevered to take control of the most important planet in the universe: Arakkis, the home of the spice melange, a drug-like substance which allows trained practitioners to see the future. The famous Guild Navigators use it to pilot ships across the cosmos, seeing the “future” of the ships’ path so as to lead them from harm.  However, running Arakkis is a dangerous proposition, since House Atredies’ bitterest rivals, House Harkkonen, previous ruled there and bitterly oppressed the native population. Among this population are the fabled Fremen, fierce nomadic warriors who can live in the deepest deserts and have blue-within-blue eyes from their association with the spice. The planet, too, is riddled with giant sand worms which attack the planet’s most lucrative business—spice production. The Emperor has cannily arranged House Atredies to take over this business and leave them vulnerable from an attack by House Harkkonen using the Emperor’s own elite Sardukar troops, which have never been defeated in battle. And in true Machiavellian fashion, the Harkkonens have placed a traitor in the Duke’s midst, to deliver up the Duke, his concubine, and his son on a silver platter. 

While the predictable happens—Atredies falls and the Duke is killed—the rest of the book is unlike anything else you’ve read before, unless you’ve read books trying to write like Dune. What makes Dune such an enthralling read is because it doesn’t sound like a science fiction book: it sounds like a book about Renaissance Italy that just happens to be set in the far-flung future among disparate people and planets. In short, it doesn’t read ‘made up,’ and Herbert teases out one layer of detail after another, showing us how rich and deep this world truly is. Each chapter has a preface from the various books written by Princess Irulan (the Emperor’s daughter) in the future about the man Paul Atredies is to become—Paul Muad’Dib. We start getting this history long before we know who Irulan or Muad’Dib or even the Fremen are. That’s another strength of this book: time falls away in a book that seems to be taking place forever: that is, past, present, and future all exist as one, much as Paul, himself, comes to see the world. While this is initially jarring (and for some time, a bit confusing), so, too is reading any book about history.  It doesn’t start here and end there: history exists then and now, and reading about Machiavelli, for example, means reading his books, reading what people think about his books, reading the history around his books, and reading others’ interpretations of the history around his books. It’s never-ending, and Dune reads like this—a world that is taking place even as it’s being discussed and examined in the future. 

What I enjoy most about this book is Herbert’s refusal to write a Star Wars-type narrative with Paul as Luke Skywalker. Granted, I love Star Wars, but the story is a basic myth with an inevitable conclusion. Dune takes mythical ideas and places them in the ‘real world’ of power politics, where everyone is plotting for a higher run on the ladder of power, and are being plotted against and betrayed in turn. The strategems of Baron Vladimir Harkkonen are awesome to behold, as he both tries to secure his nephew, Feyd-Reutha’s succession, while also trying to plot against him lest he use his power to kill his uncle. Feyd-Reutha emerges as the anti-Paul, a talented young man who grows up surrounded by sordid politics and petty power-brokering. His entire life becomes that of Machiavelli’s Prince, a man who oozes sprezattura—cool calculation, nonchalance, and charm—but hides beneath it a ruthlessly single-minded purpose. Paul, on the other hand, is given the benefit of culture and compassion, though even is destined to become a political animal. His own mother uses him as a weapon throughout, protecting him, but also sharpening him for their revenge against the Harkkonens and her own Sisterhood. As Paul escapes the Harkkonen plot and becomes accepted by the Fremen tribe, he realizes that his destiny is far from heroic. Though he can use the Fremen and the planet Dune itself to destroy the Emperor, it will be at the cost of civilization. The Fremen see him as the Lisan-al-Gaib, the one who will lead them according to the ancient prophecies (which, ironically, were planted among them eons ago by the Bene Gesserits themselves). If he fulfills the prophecy, he will unleash a jihad across the universe in his name, until he becomes the tyrant he despises in the Emperor. The more he looks through time and becomes one with the millions of lives before him, the less hope he has for becoming anything less than a savage messiah. As the chapters progress, the young, idealistic Paul is replaced by yet another Prince, as cold and methodical as Feyd-Reutha, though he remains on the “good” side. 

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that “all science fiction is metaphor,” and Dune fulfills this function beautifully, nowhere more so than in its meditation on religion and “holy war.” The Fremen speak of jihad and mahdis, language that has been transported through the ages from its forgotten Islamic beginnings. The Fremen are to be admired, clearly, but they still retain a pitiless view of human life, seeing all unbelievers as merely so much water to be harvested for the tribe. Paul realizes that leading a people to truth is not enough; truth must win, must conquer, much enslave the doubters. Even the Bene Gesserit, with their wisdom culled from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Catholicism, remain enlightened power-brokers, having long since abandoned any hope for an enlightened peace. They merely seek to create gardens in the slime, where the “humans” can live apart from the “animals.” The book ends on a dark note, with Paul shedding the last traces of his humanity and demanding a royal alliance with the Emperor’s daughter, despite his marriage to Chani, the Fremen who bore him a son killed in a Harkkonen raid. Though he promises that “My Sihaya need fear nothing, ever,” the promise is shallow, as she, too, is being maneuvered into position, much as his mother was kept as a concubine so the Duke could retain the possibility of an advantageous match. By way of conciliation, Jessica tells Chani at the very end of the book, “we who carry the name of concubine—history will call us wives.” True, history makes no distinction between mistress and wife, merely those who wield power. Now Chani, like Jessica, will learn to control Paul from behind the scenes, while fighting a secret war against his real wife and the politics of the outside world.

Despite Paul’s “failure,” it’s impossible not to admire him and want him to win; Herbert is too skilful a novelist to make us forget this. And isn’t this how politics works? We forget the true motives of the ruler and believe his propaganda—his story—his legend. Dune is a remarkable legend that uses the world of science and fantasy to abstract our own, reminding us that behind every hero is a tyrant, and that the difference between good and evil is merely one’s position on the board.