Sunday, July 23, 2017

Every Experience Carries Its Lesson: Dune Club, Session 3

Week three of Comic Book Girl 19's Dune Club has come and gone, and here are my thoughts on this week's reading:
As before, I'll be going chapter by chapter, with each one separated by asterisks and the first line of the epigraph serving to place us.
In the case of our first chapter for this week, though, we'll have a look at the entire epigraph, because it is terrific:
Many have remarked the speed with which Muad'Dib learned the necessities of Arrakis.  The Bene Gesserit, of course, know the basis of this speed.  For the others, we can say that Muad'Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn.  And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn.  It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult.  Muad'Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson. 
I mean, seriously, how great is that?  I was worried when I began this series of posts that I was going to end up basically just repeating variants on "this is great" and "Frank Herbert seems really smart" and "I wish I had good ideas and knew stuff 'n' shit like Frank Herbert did."  And I'm still worried that's all this is amounting to.

But if so, I guess there are worse ways to fail.
Unlike many of the philosophical musings Herbert delivers (many of them via the not-yet-introduced-into-the-narrative Irulan, via her epigraphs), this particular one doesn't seem to have stuck in my brain when I was a child.  It jumped off the page this time, though, partially because it lines up with a conversation I had not that long ago with a couple of friends.  In that conversation, I proclaimed it to be my belief that whatever America's problems are right now -- and they are numerous, resilient, and energetic -- they are not going to go away until our educational system(s) are fixed.
I bring this up not to get political, or social, but to suggest that that is likely some of what was on Herbert's mind when he wrote that it was "shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn."  That's not science-fiction; that's as real as real gets.  I suspect that early on in life, many people hit a wall of some sort, finding that they are not learning __________ the way they are supposed to, and they recoil from the experience.  Because schools are mostly incapable of taking the time to correct this, those students remain trapped in that spot mentally.  If they are lucky, they might have an aptitude for some other subject, and therefore find themselves capable of maintaining enough forward momentum that they don't stall out altogether.
But a great many people are not lucky in that way, and essentially give up on academics before they are even out of elementary school; in some cases, they may have given up up school before their first day of it ever begins.  Certainly that's a strong possibility if they have parents who had negative learning experiences.  You'll never be able to convince me that the impact that has on society is not profound, and exponentially growing.  Don't even try; you'll be wasting your digital breath.
Anyways, I was struck by that when reading this epigraph about Paul.  Paul is a young man of varied prowess, and among those qualities, Irulan here tells us, is that he was, before anything else, taught to be aware that he was capable of learning.  What confidence that must give a person!  In his case, it seems to have led directly to his being classified a "human" by Mohiam; it was this that helped him to be aware that even the test of the gom jabbar must present an opportunity for knowledge.  So he remained in that trap, keeping his burning hand inside the box until such time as it could learn its mystery.
This is a comparatively brief chapter, most of which is taken up by Paul being thretened by the hunter-seeker and then saving Mapes from it.  A good, tense scene. 
What had the Lady Jessica to sustain her in her time of trial?

This chapter takes place entirely inside the wet-planet conservatory that some previous tenant -- possibly Lady Fenring -- established in the palace.  Jessica is shocked by what she finds there.

illustration by John Schoenherr (The Illustrated Dune p. 74)

And well she should be: it is indeed shocking.  Jessica estimates that the conservatory uses an amount of water that would sustain a thousand people, if not more.  Put another way, a thousand people have died so that this room may exist.

There are two possibilities here.  One is that the room is relatively old, and was put in place by some water-rich royal long ago as a reminder of the power they held over the local populace.  The other is that the room is relatively recent.

I think this is the likely scenario.  Jessica sees evidence that it has been built onto the roof (and was therefore an add-on, not a part of the original plan).  It seems likely to me that Lady Fenring was responsible; or, if not her, then the Count Fenring as a gift to her.

Regardless, it strongly suggests that the Fremen -- as well as the non-Fremen locals -- would have every reason to despise the people who lived here prior to the Atreides arrival.  It implies that they are very right to do so; it is one thing to govern (and hold power) over a native populace, but it is another thing entirely to do so in a manner that intimates that their lives mean nothing.

This is good news for House Atreides, however, because it means that via the simple act of decommissioning the conservatory, they can win favor with the natives of Arrakis.  This would, in effect, be a plan of becoming one with the local environment, rather than persisting in remaining above it at all times.  Herbert's ecological philosophy is on full display here, if only by intimation.

Other noteworthy things in this chapter:

  • I like its structure.  It takes place partially before and partially after the previous chapter.  Initially, one might wonder why Herbert had not placed part of the scene prior to Paul's encounter with the hunter-seeker.  I think it's because he is much more interested in the character dynamics -- and the philosophies revealed by them -- than in the plot dynamics.  Here, he wants to stay within Jessica's point of view for an unbroken amount of time.  I think it works quite well.
  • It works considerably less well for Jessica to have been left a note about Paul's room being dangerous, and for her to be reading it literally while Paul is on his way to tell her about it.  It's a little too convenient; a little too tidy.  Better for Lady Fenring's note to have contained no mention of the room or the threat to Paul.
  • Jessica has already begun to distrust Hawat.  When she hears something in Paul's voice that makes her wonder if he has also begun to distrust the Mentat, she questions him about it.  She knows that not only has Paul got the benefit of her Bene Gesserit training, but also that he has some truthsense, as well as nascent Mentat abilities.  So if he did distrust Hawat, it would almost certainly carry huge weight with her; and she would likely take immediate action based upon it.  Paul -- correctly -- does not distrust Hawat.


It is said that the Duke Leto blinded himself to the perils of Arrakis, that he walked heedlessly into the pit.  Would it not be more likely to suggest he had lived so long in the presence of extreme danger he misjudged a change in its intensity?  Or is it possible he deliberately sacrificed himself that his son might find a better life?  All evidence indicates the Duke was a man not easily hoodwinked.

I have once again replicated the entirety of this chapter epigraph, because I want to dwell on it for a bit.  It comes from the Princess Irulan's Muad'Dib: Family Commentaries, which we can assume to be a sort of family-history-of-notable-Atreides tome.  Clearly, Irulan has no actual idea what motivated Leto Atreides in his decisions to take up fiefdom of Arrakis; and this likely implies that Paul himself has no idea, or if he does, that he does not tell her.

I'm not sure Herbert gives us any more ammunition with which to go hunting an answer to that question than Irulan herself possesses.  As we have seen elsewhere in the novel already, Leto remains a somewhat distant and unreadable figure.  In many cases, I'd be tempted to think of this as a deficiency in the writing; but in Herbert's hands, I think it has managed to become a strength.  To some degree, I think it's true to suggest that the ambiguous nature of Leto's motivations have helped him to remain an interesting and compelling character.  I feel confident that if I sat in a room with a dozen people who'd read the first third or so of this novel, we'd be able to talk volubly and passionately for hours on the subject of why Leto does some of the things he does.  We wouldn't come to a consensus, either, I'd bet.

I don't think it's because Leto's motivations are poorly-thought-out, though; I think it's because Leto keeps them to himself.  (Meaning that Herbert keeps them to himself, perhaps to such an extent that he would have been no more able to give a definitive answer than you or I could.)  This is not a case where the reader senses that the author has taken a chickenshit route and simply refused to spell things out; it is, instead, a case where it feels as if the mystery is a big deal even to those around Leto.

Herbert gives us some insights into Leto's inner life here.  He is enraged by the assassination attempt upon Paul, and the rage continually boils up within him despite his best efforts to lock it away.  Herbert expresses this by having Leto think They have tried to take the life of my son! not once or twice, but five times.  It's an easily lampoonable stylistic device -- as I suspect Doon will illustrate for us -- and I will forgive anyone who finds it to be unforgivably cheesy.  But Herbert uses it with purpose: not merely the interjection itself, but the repetition of it.  It is this thought which is dominant in his mind.  Can we therefore assume that Paul means more to him than anything else?

If so, we may have gained a vital clue in our attempt to unravel Leto's motivations.

Another interesting nugget comes when Herbert writes, "The Duke felt in this moment that his own dearest dream was to end all class distinctions and never again think of deadly order."  One could argue that that is what ends up happening, not so much via Paul himself, but via the Emperor Leto yet to come.  Is there any chance that the Duke Leto has had some sort of inkling that a fate of that nature is possible?  I don't think there is a chance in any literal sense; this is not my pitch for a fan-theory about how Leto himself had limited prescience and was able to see what was coming.  That would be stupid; I almost expect Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson to have done it.  No, I don't mean that; I just mean some sense that given Paul's talents, the vast potential army of powerful (and non-Imperial) allies in the Fremen, and the great importance of Arrakis, this new fiefdom could serve as a means of subverting and crushing the corrupt system of the Landsraad and CHOAM from within.

Tempting, isn't it?


Over the exit of the Arrakeen landing field, crudely carved as though with a poor instrument, there was an inscription that Muad'Dib was to repeat many times.

This fairly lengthy chapter begins with a conversation between Paul and Leto and then transitions into a staff meeting they have immediately thereafter.  It's a terrific chapter, including our first meetings with both Duncan Idaho and Stilgar.  I've always loved the moment when Stilgar spits onto the conference table, nearly provoking violent objection.  It's such a wonderfully alien moment.  I can't speak for all cultures, but certainly within American culture, spitting carries a connotation of intended insult and offense.  It is fascinating here to consider that a culture like this one would absolutely view it in a very different light.

But without Duncan Idaho present in the scene to spell that out for the Atreides men, and to draw a line under it, things would certainly have gone south quickly.

I think many authors would have been tempted to have Paul himself be the one to serve this function.  He's the ostensible hero of the story, and yet, in this chapter he is merely sitting and observing and making an occasional comment (inwardly or outwardly).  It takes a novelist of Frank Herbert's skill to resist the temptation to use this scene to showcase just how wily Paul is.

illustration by John Schoenherr (The Illustrated Dune, p. 94)

I don't have a huge amount to say about the chapter beyond this, sadly.  (Sorry, guys; I've got to confess that I currently have more interest in sleeping than in blogging.  The waker must a-sleepen!)
I'll close with this: some interesting moments come toward the end, when Paul realizes that a meeting that had been going quite well has somehow turned into uncomfortable confusion.  Herbert hasn't leaned too heavily on the notion that Paul is sitting there, using his various abilities to weigh the information he's been given; but he implies it here and there, sufficiently that when he gives us Paul's ending summation -- "My father is desperate, he thought.  Things aren't going well for us at all." -- it carries real weight.

Then, right at the end of the chapter, Herbert hits us with a gut-punch: "Paul stared at the place where his father had stood.  The space had been empty even before the Duke left the room.  And he recalled the old woman's warning: '. . . for the father, nothing.' "

Damn.  I think I'd like it better without that final sentence, but still: damn.


On that first day when Muad'Dib rode through the streets of Arrakeen with his family, some of the people along the way recalled the legends and the prophecy and they ventured to shout: "Mahdi!"

We stay with Leto for this chapter, wherein Hawat reveals to him that Jessica is under suspicion.  Another very good chapter, but one I have little to say about.

The best bit comes toward the end, when Herbert unfurls some lovely writing in describing Leto watching dawn break on the horizon of his new planet.

"At ease," The Duke murmured.  He leaned against the cold metal of the balcony rail.
     A predawn hush had come over the desert basin.  He looked up.  Straight overhead, the stars were a sequin shawl flung over blue-black.  Low on the southern horizon, the night's second moon peered through a thin dust haze -- an unbelieving moon that looked at him with a cynical light.
     As the Duke watched, the moon dipped beneath the Shield Wall cliffs, frosting them, and in the sudden intensity of darkness, he experienced a chill.

Jumping forward a few sentences:

To the east, the night grew a faggot of luminous gray, then seashell opalescence that dimmed the stars.  There came the long, bell-tolling movement of dawn striking across a broken horizon.
     It was a scene of such beauty it caught all his attention.
     Some things beggar likeness, he thought.
    He had never imagined anything here could be as beautiful as that shattered red horizon and the purple and ochre cliffs.  Beyond the landing field where the night's faint dew had touched life into the hurried seeds of Arrakis, he saw great puddles of red blooms and, running, through them, an articulate tread of violet . . . like giant footsteps.

Leto then finds himself reflecting on whether Arrakis will be a good home for his son, or a hideous one.  In these paragraphs, I think Herbert is giving us a picture of a man who has accepted the reality of his impending death.  Perhaps not in conscious terms; perhaps not intending to go quietly.  But Leto does seem resigned to his fate, and Herbert's language seems pitched so as to subtly emphasize that violence is the only place this can end for Leto.  "A sequin shawl" puts me in mind of burial shawls; the "bell-tolling" has obvious connotations; there are "great puddles of red" something, a phrase which makes me think of blood.

On top of that, it's just a set of lovely descriptions of this fascinating planet.  Herbert probably doesn't get enough credit for his They have tried to take the life of my son! prose, but when he's on his game, he's really quite good.

This chapter ends our reading for the week.  Good stuff; the drama is deepening, and we got to spend some quality time with Leto here.

Up next:

Which, I'll allow, may not constitute quality time.  It's making me laugh, though, so let's not undervalue it.

We left off on a cliffhanger last time, with Dr. Oyeah in the midst of a sort of informal stand-up routine in which he was shit-talking the local cuisine.  But suddenly, a voice interrupts...

"You have come to mock the planet of Arruckus."
     It was said as a statement, not a question, and with such a force that both Jazzica and Oyeah looked up, startled.  In the center of the entrance foyer stood a man.  He was short, rather plump, and clad head to toe in a dinstinctive white fibrous suit consisting of a loose, baggy, shirt-like garment and equally loose pants, with a ring of elastic around each ankle cuff.  A loose hood, part of the shirt, enveloped his head.  He strode toward them.
     "May not a word be said in jest, when God himself betimes enjoys a good laugh?" Jazzica murmured by way of apology.
     "God does not laugh when the faithful are insulted," the man said sternly.
     "My apologies," Oyeah said.  "I was merely trying out some new material.  If I have offended--"
     "You are the boy's mother," the man said suddenly, turning his piercing gaze on Lazzica.  "Word has reached every hootch that you have come.  You are the woman who brings the Laserium al-Dilah', the Bright Light of the Italian Love Song."  In a single swift motion he swept off the hood, revealing a pudy face, plump cheeks -- and the red-on-red eyes of the Freedmenmen.  "I am Spilgard, Nabe of Hootch Grabr."  He held out his hand.  "May we join our meat."
     Jazzica met his gaze steadily.  A Freedmenmen nabe, she thought.  A tribal chieftain.  These people could be powerful allies.  I must cultivate him carefully.
     Taking his hand in hers, she said, "I join meat with Spilgard. " Then, in a dialect of Varietese she knew to be the native tongue of the sugar tribes of Arruckus, she said, "Sked chitown cinefest preem for fox/indie sci-fi pic."
     He started, his eyes narrowing in suspicion, yet revealing impressment.  "O'seas b.o. off for yank kid pix, rock flix."  He allowed a smile to crease his features.  "The legend is fulfilled," he said softly.

And that's all I got on that this week, guys.  It's a much shorter novel than Dune, so keeping on relatively parallel tracks, you gotta figure some weeks here are going to be pretty slim.

Regarding Dune Club itself...


The live stream on Twitch was super glitchy this week, which is kind of a bummer.  But our redoubtable host handled it very gracefully, whereas I would have been hollering and resisting the urge to toss my chair out of the nearest window.

Them's the perils of live entertainment, however.  And it's still entertaining, and illuminating, so it's still a win in my book.

See you in seven!


  1. Dune is definitely that rare novel where the quality of the prose is equal to the quality of organization and clarity and originality of ideas and worldmaking and future-projecting. Everything just resonates.

    Not so much with Ellis Weiner's prose. But can't have everything.

    1. As I've been working on this I have found myself really wondering why I haven't read any of Herbert's non-Dune-series novels. How does a guy like me make that kind of tactical error?

      Sadly, I'd probably want to read Ellis Weiner parodies of them, too.

    2. I'm still cracking up at the idea of Ellis Weiner being Matt Weiner's brother. And imagining there's a Fredo "Corleone" Weiner lurking at home, stewing with resentment, ready to betray.

    3. That makes me laugh, too. SO much more satisfying than making, like, a dick/sandworm joke. Imagine the family reunions! Matthew would be droning on about how handsome John Slattery is in person, and about how he had to talk AMC into casting Jon Hamm, etc. "You know, the funny thing about winning four straight Emmy Awards is..."

      Meanwhile, Ellis is over at a different table, sulking.

  2. Loving these summaries.

    It always bothered me exactly how the Shadout Mapes knew (or suspected) a traitor amongst the Atreides. After all, they'd only just arrived! Liet-Kynes, to my knowledge, had no awareness of the Harkonnen plot, although he has received instructions from the Emperor to undermine the Atreides (see the reference at the upcoming dinner). So where did Mapes get this closely guarded secret from?

    1. Good question! Maybe the Harkonnens have been sort of waging a quiet propaganda war, spreading information like this in a way that makes it seem hard-won by whoever ends up with it. I don't think it is a bad thing, from their point of view, for the Fremen or whoever else to spread the word; they would see it as a destabilizing effort. And since Mapes knows nothing about who, specifically, the traitor is, all that her sharing that info can do is make the key Atreides personnel paranoid and suspicious. All the better to weaken them!

      But as for how Mapes herself found out, I don't know!