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Dune, named after the desert planet Arrakis where the main events of the novel unfold, is set 20,000 years in the future. Arrakis is the world's only source of the 'melange' - an addictive spice, most commonly known to enhance mental capabilities and extend life. It can also unlock precognition. Melange reserves on Arrakis are protected by giant territorial sandworms. The properties of Melange have given it wide application in commerce, politics, technology and recreation, and made it the most valuable commodity in the universe. An example of Melanges' application is its use by interstellar pilots who safely navigate space without air traffic controllers.
The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV of the house Corrino presides over feudal families (houses) like the Harkonnens - current stewards of Arrakis, and their distant cousins the Atreides, stewards of the ocean planet Caladan. The events of the book start with the Emperor allotting stewardship of Arrakis to Duke Leto Atreides as a ploy to ultimately end the Atreides. Leto is aware of some danger to his family but is constrained to accept the stewardship and begins the transition.
The protagonist is Paul - scion of the Atreides family, son of Leto and his concubine Jessica. The Lady Jessica is a member of the shadowy Bene Gesserit sisterhood who wield wide and subtle political influence and have superhuman powers. Accused of being witches, the Bene Gesserit have mysterious and long terms goals of stabilizing civilization, and have infiltrated many houses, fiefs, guilds, planets and peoples. As part of the Bene Gesserit breeding program (eugenics) they have directed the Lady Jessica to bear only girl children to Duke Leto, but she disobeys and bear him a son - Paul.
Paul Atreides upbringing is entrusted to Leto's aides. Thufir Hawat is Leto's Master of Assassins and a 'mentat' - humans with cognitive and analytical capabilities of computers (artificial intelligence, computers, robots and other such technology has been prohibited since the time of the Butlerian Jihad). Mentat training includes a moral angle but not all mentats are bound by ethics. Paul is trained in the physical martial arts by Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck - proven fighters and part of Leto's war council.
Jessica for her part also trains Paul in the ways of the Bene Gesserit. At the beginning of Dune Jessica is confronted by Helen Mohiam (revered mother of the Bene Gesserit) over her decision to bear a son against her instructions; she also puts Paul through the painful 'gom jabbar' test. The reverend mother is intrigued by Paul who not only passes the test but has become adept in some of the ways of the Bene Gesserit.
On Arrakis Leto sends Duncan Idaho as a emissary to the Fremen - indigenous people of the planet, and befriends them; he quickly gets a feel of how the spice is harvested and the dangers involved to those in the trade. However shortly after their arrival on Arrakis Duke Leto is betrayed by his physician Dr. Yueh, who fools Leto's mentat Thufir Hawat and also his Bene Gesserit concubine. Dr. Yueh's wife is held prisoner by the Harkonnen and threatened with torture unless he betrays the Atreides by disabling their shields. The Atreides are then attacked by the fearsome imperial Sadaukar in disguise; Duke Leto is taken prisoner and handed over to the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and his 'twisted' mentat De Vries.
Dr. Yueh places a capsule of poisonous gas in Leto's teeth which is intended to kill the Baron Harkonnen and Duke Leto as collateral damage, however once Leto is in Harkonnen's custody Yueh is killed just after learning that his wife has been murdered. The poison capsule in Leto's teeth manages to kill the mental De Vries and Leto, but Baron Harkonnen survives, and takes control of the Atreides mentat Thufir Hawat. Thufir Hawat serves the Baron, but secretly works to undermine him.
Dr. Yueh's actions are complex; while betraying his duke, he also arranges for Lady Jessica's and Paul's escape in the deserts of Arrakis where they are sure to be presumed dead and not pursued further by Baron Harkonnen. Mother and son are aided in the escape from the imperial Sadaukar by Duncan Idaho who kills an unheard number of them before being killed himself.
In the desert we see a change in Paul. There is a virtual role reversal between him and his mother as his latent mental acumen on account of his training comes to the fore. The harsher side of his personality shows up as he deals with his recently surfaced abilities. Paul realises his abilities of prescience and sees his future among the Fremen of Arrakis, and learns that the Baron Harkonnen is his maternal grandfather.
In time Paul and the Lady Jessica encounter the Sietch Tabr - a Fremen tribe in the desert under the leadership of Stilgar, and they are put under the protection of Chani - a Fremen woman who becomes Paul's lover, mother to his children and later his offical concubine. In time Paul imbibes his Bene Gesserit training in the tribes desert warcraft and he rises in the tribe's esteem to the point where he is expected to challenge Stilgar for leadership. Paul adopts the Fremen name of Muad' Dib and the tribe begins to consider him a messiah. The Lady Jessica chooses to become a Reverend Mother and drinks the 'water of life', which gives her unborn daughter Alia the same powers.
Paul's prescience channels the Fremen tribes and they tighten the supply of Melange (which has once again fallen into the hands of the Harkonnen) with regular raids. During this time Paul reunites with his father's counselor Gurney Halleck who has spent the intervening years as a smuggler, and under the impression that Duke Leto was betrayed by Lady Jessica. Paul thwarts Gurney's attack on his mother and explains the true events to Gurney; in the same way Paul makes peace with Stilgar whose position as leader becomes increasingly tenuous as Paul's powers and influence in the tribe grows.
In an attempt to increase his powers Paul drinks the 'water of life' and falls unconscious for several weeks, and is only brought back to consciousness by Chani. His consciousness spreads through the dimensions of time and space and he manifests as the final goal of the Bene Gesserit breeding program that was supposed to culminate a generation later with the union of a Harkonnen male and the intended daughter of the Duke Paul and Lady Jessica.
Meanwhile the Baron Harkonnen replaces his blunt nephew and heir Rabban with his more cunning nephew Feyd-Rautha; Thufir Hawat continues to serve the Baron sows but doubts about the emperors intent in the baron's. The Emperor and the Baron gather their troops to end the Fremen raids and restore the flow of Melange. The imperial attack on the Fremen delivers a devastating blow to the Fremen and kills Paul and Chani's son Leto II, and Paul's sister Alia is captured by the Baron. Paul and the Fremen launch a successful counter attack on the backs of giant sandworms defeating the imperial Sadaukar and Harkonnen troops, while Alia kills the Baron Harkonnen.
The Emperor has no choice but to abdicate the throne in favour of Paul, who takes his daughter Princess Irulan as his wife; but not before confronting and killing the Harkonnen heir Feyd-Rautha in ritual combat.
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
To those people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of 'real materials' - to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.
As a journalist in 1957 FH covered a federal government project concerning sand dunes, their impact on human life and how ecologists controlled their disastrous effects on the railways, highways and forests. The unrestrained force of the dunes were brought under control by planting non-native plants, to create barriers and control the spread. The idea and environment gripped FH, who not only became interested in ecological systems and dunes but also the desert and how it is a fountainhead of religion (Judaism, Islam) and idiosyncratic ways of life and cultures of honour.
1st edition cover
In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
This sentence sums up much of Dune. The catastrophe that set off the events of Dune begin with the Atreides moving from their home planet Caladan to the take over the Harkonnen's fief plant Arrakis, and it is in the chaos of settling into a new home that the Baron Harkonnen decides to strike his cousins. The old crone is the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood - the most pervading, sometimes reviled, sometimes feared association of persons in the Dune universe. They are almost directly responsible for the creation of Paul 'Muad'dib' with their eugenics program towards the development of the Kwisatz Haderach. Mother of the boy the Lady Jessica is of the sisterhood herself, and bears the Duke Leto a son against the Bene Gesserit instructions to have only daughters. The boy Paul is central to the larger saga of Dune and the message about hero-worship that FH intends.
The stillsuit of the Fremen of Arrakis on the SF Masterworks cover of Dune.